Poor Worms and Tiny Mites

I, the Lord, your God, I am holding you by the right hand; I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, I will help you.’ Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite. I will help you — it is the Lord who speaks  — the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.

The opening words of today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 41. 13–20

As General Election Day dawns in the U.K., these are potentially encouraging words. I say ‘potentially’, because they presuppose our willingness to accept the Lord’s help. Most of us know that we can and do resist grace, that we make selfish choices. A few of us (me, for instance) will also admit that we can be plain stupid at times. To acknowledge weakness, however, goes against one of the popular memes of society today, that of empowerment and entitlement. From being told that we can become whatever we like to attacking any awareness of difference as discrimination, it can be confusing to try to work out what we are or where we stand without incurring misunderstanding, disapproval or alienation. Today, as the U.K. goes to the polls, there must be many agonizing about how to vote, conscious that they are but a small drop in an ocean of electors. The values we hold dear, the desires we cherish for a better, kinder world and the way in which we see them being achieved, are not necessarily the same for everyone. And being but one among millions of voters, there is a temptation to abandon the whole process, to say we cannot make a difference. Without actually saying so, we acknowledge our own weakness and give up.

I think we are thrown back on 2 Corinthians 12.10. Like Paul, we confess the paradox that when we are weak, then we are strong. It is not the strength of the human strongman, not the strength of the victor, but the strength that comes from a willingness to put the needs of others before our own, relying on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how weak we may feel, we have the assurance that He is always with us and that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid. One of the great themes of our Advent liturgy is integrity and trust. Today, all over the U.K., whether believers or not, we must act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be, or can become, one that serves the common good. Poor worms and tiny mites that we are, let us pray it may be so.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Word for the Weary

Weariness is something we all experience from time to time. For some, it is a more or less chronic condition that goes along with being the parents of small children, illness, or caring for someone who makes huge demands on our energy and patience. Today, in the U.K., I sense a kind of collective weariness about our forthcoming General Election. People are beginning to tire of the debate, the endless accusations, the promises that don’t quite add up, the gimmicks, the shoutiness of social media. For those of us observing Advent, there is also a kind of mid-season weariness to be factored in as well. Can we really be so close to the third Sunday of Advent when we don’t seem, to ourselves at least, to have even begun? Is there a word for the weary we can all take to heart, that will provide balm for our souls and encouragement for what lies ahead?

What a gift today’s Mass readings prove to be! Isaiah 40. 25–31 comforts us with the reassurance that even the young may stumble and tire but the Lord will bear us up as on eagle’s wings. Then in Matthew 11. 28–30 we have those comforting words of Jesus himself, inviting those who labour and are overburdened to come to him and share his yoke. But there is a snag. There always is a snag. Most of us don’t recognize that we are weary or overburdened. Those who go around proclaiming how tired they are or how much they need a holiday are not usually exhausted. They are still able to register what they think and feel. Their judgement is still at work. The truly exhausted are no longer able to judge their own exhaustion but tend to go on, becoming wearier and wearier, often more and more silent or sending out cries for help that go unnoticed by others. In my experience, it is not those who can articulate their distress who tend to have the break-downs but those who can’t. Can anything or anyone reach such depths of weariness?

The conventional answer to that question is that grace can touch and transform anyone at any time. Weariness is no obstacle to God. I agree with that, of course, but I think I would want to add a small nuance. St Benedict is very eloquent about the mutual support community members are to give one another. Much of it is unspoken, rather understated, but it relies on being aware of others and their needs. To give a simple illustration, last night was wet and windy and I admit to shivering a bit. When I went to bed I discovered that someone had put a hot water bottle between my sheets — unasked, just because she noticed. Hot water bottles are a very practical response to a perceived need, but it isn’t only, or even especially, practical needs we can help with. A smile, a prayer, a little patience may be all it takes to give someone else the courage to face another day — and in helping others, we may find that we have been helped, too. Those eagle’s wings take many forms.

General Election 2019
Whenever we have an important decision to make in the monastery, we stop discussing it for twenty-four hours before voting on it in chapter. That gives us time to think and pray without being distracted. Accordingly, apart from posting our prayer intentions, we shall be abandoning social media until tomorrow so that we can reflect more deeply on the choices we and the rest of the country have to make in the Election.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Advent Fire and the Ballot-Box

fire

The second Sunday of Advent’s Mass readings are anything but cosy. We are confronted with fire — the fire of the prophet Isaiah with his yearning for integrity and justice, and the fire of John the Baptist with his passionate call for repentance and conversion of heart (cf Isaiah 11. 1–10; Matthew 3. 1–12). As the U.K. General Election draws near, it is impossible not to reflect whether/how that fire informs our own decision about voting.

There are those who have told me in no uncertain terms that I should avoid all mention of politics in my blog. If, by that, they mean that I should never voice an opinion with which they disagree, they will be sorely disappointed. I regularly disagree with myself! If, however, they mean that some subjects are not suitable material for reflection, I can only urge them to read the scriptures more thoroughly and consider whether our conduct is meant to be influenced by what we read. For the truth is, the texts put before us today are an unmistakable call to action. They demand a response, just as the person of Jesus Christ demands a response. Are we going to seek justice and integrity or not? Are we going to try to produce good fruit or are we not? When we vote, will we vote in what we think are our own interests or will we heed the warnings of John the Baptist and of the prophet?

This Sunday may be the last day many of us have leisure to think through and pray about the choice we must make on Thursday. For some there is the temptation to opt out of voting, on the grounds that no candidate or party seems to measure up to the situation facing us. While that is understandable it has the effect of placing a heavier burden on those who do vote. What no one can deny is that the outcome of Thursday’s vote is going to have long-lasting consequences.

Fire destroys, but it also cleanses. Perhaps this Sunday we each need to allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn away whatever is selfish or self-serving in ourselves that we may play our part in bringing about the age of peace and goodwill we shall sing about at Christmas. The ballot-box, too, can be a vehicle of grace — if we consent to make it so.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Deciding How To Vote

In just over a fortnight, the people of the U.K. will be heading to the polls to cast their vote in a General Election. I suspect I speak for many when I say that we have had more than enough of promises, gimmicks, half-truths and evasions from party leaders and candidates. How we respond to them matters. There will always be those who vote according to long-cherished party loyalties; others who take a single issue and make it the substance of their evaluation of what is on offer; as well as those who dutifully wade through the party manifestos and try to work out which candidate best represents what they would like to see at Westminster. In the end, we all have to make a decision and accept responsibility for what we decide, bearing in mind that our decision will affect others, not just ourselves.

The social teaching of the Catholic Church is a help in setting the principles by which to measure the rightness or wrongness of the policies being considered, but applying them is rarely easy. I was thinking about this when I recalled the words of St Benedict about the election of an abbot, the consequences of a choice based on self-interest and the role of outsiders in scrutinizing and correcting whatever is amiss (cf RB 64. 3–6). It can be difficult to free ourselves from self-interest. A promise to improve healthcare is immensely attractive to the sick. A promise to improve eduction or do away with fees is very attractive to those in a certain age group. And when all this can apparently be done without raising tax or N.I contributions, it is more attractive still. The trouble is, we all know that it doesn’t work like that. Most of us are going to have to think long and hard, pray and make the most informed decision we can, knowing it won’t be perfect. We are fortunate that the election will take place during Advent, when the Church calls us to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s coming — when we are asked to be more just, more peaceful, more concerned about the welfare of others because we are preparing to welcome our Saviour afresh.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times

November is the month for remembering. We pray for the dead with special zeal, but as the days go on and the anniversaries increase in number, the parallels and ironies become ever more troubling. Today, for example, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, is described as a feast of unity and peace under the see of Peter — a celebration of the ‘whole assembly of charity’ which is, or should be, the Church. But no -one, looking at the Church as portrayed in the press and social media, could describe her as being united or at peace while different factions snipe at one another in the name of orthodoxy. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, further back, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Yesterday Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech which seemed capable of ushering in another cold war with its brusque condemnation of China and Russia. This morning there is blood on the doors of a synagogue in Brighton and Liliana Segre, an 89 year old Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is under guard because of the death threats she has been receiving. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s candidates for election to Parliament make huge promises to the electorate and hurl accusations at one another. Tomorrow there will be a kind of truce as we observe Remembrance Sunday, but some may suspect that all the talk of sacrifice and the heroism of those who fought in World War I has been assimilated to another agenda. We are caught up in a troubling war of words and ideas that we instinctively feel matter but which we can’t quite get ahold of. Where is all this rhetoric leading?

When I was a child, the very idea of abusing a Holocaust survivor or desecrating a synagogue or Jewish cemetery would have been unthinkable. Yet, year by year, The Jewish Chronicle has noted a rising number of attacks and the row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party refuses to subside. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall I attended a Regulae Benedicti Studia conference in Kassel where I was practically the only non-German or non-Austrian in attendance. We listened to a nun of Alexanderdorf describing what life had been like for her community under the G.D.R. and then argued late into the night (and most subsequent nights) about the way in which Germany was trying to come to terms with her past and build a good future for all her citizens — including the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ and Albanian refugees who were then a source of anxiety for many. It was honest and open and hopeful. Today Europe appears to be fragmenting again; Hungary and Poland have adopted policies that are stamped with the ideology of the Far Right; and no one seems sure whom or what to believe any more, least of all when politicians campaign for our votes.

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Whom or what are we to believe? It would be easy for me as a Catholic to say, we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is true. But we have to work out how we are to apply that belief in Christ to any and every situation. May I make three suggestions, none of them novel, which I think could prove helpful?

First, we have to pray; and prayer is not telling God what we want him to do or comforting ourselves with the thought that God approves of what we have decided is right. Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.

Second, we have to learn to read both texts and other people carefully. Many disputes are caused because we haven’t taken the time to register exactly what is being said but made assumptions. I find that people often react to a blog post title without reading the post itself and are somewhat discountenanced when it is pointed out that the argument they thought was being made wasn’t. It is the same with other matters, such as the political and economic arguments that are the staple fare of Brexit Britain. We have to learn to slow down, think, consider nuance. Too often we are busy with our response before we have allowed the other’s argument to sink in — and sometimes we are too lazy to check facts!

Third, I think we need to grant to those with whom we disagree the courtesy to which they are entitled simply because they are human beings. We may not think much of their arguments; we may find them tiresome or silly or anything else you care to name; but not to treat others with respect is to fail to treat Christ with respect; and that, surely, is unacceptable to any Christian. Learning to be firm and clear in argument while remaining courteous is a difficult art, one that requires goodwill and generosity. We all make mistakes, but sometimes we take refuge in obstinacy when it would be better just to admit we are wrong. Are we big enough to do that or not?

I said at the beginning that November is the month for remembering. The Latin origins of the verb are linked to a conscious effort of mind. No one is suggesting that the problems and challenges we face as a Church, as a society or as individuals can be solved without effort, but the way in which we approach finding a solution is important. One question we could all ask ourselves today is, are we ready to make the effort? Do we really want to make a difference, or do we want to offload the responsibility onto others? In other words, if, as I believe, we live in troubled times, are we prepared to try to make them better?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Political Humility

The ugly scenes in the Commons yesterday may have left many wondering whether we can sink any lower. The terrible truth is, yes we can. Violent language too easily turns to violent deeds. We have only to think of the murder of Jo Cox to recognize how quickly whipping up hatred can lead to death and destruction. The only word I can find to describe the current situation in the U.K. is ‘chaos,’ and it doesn’t look a very creative chaos to me. It is, literally, shocking — shocking us out of our absurd beliefs about ourselves (decent, moderate people) our democracy (Parliamentary democracy, the best in the world) and our future, whether in or out of the E.U. (jam tomorrow, either way). The attempt to pitch Parliament against the people may succeed; we may end up with a country, or should I say countries, given that the Union itself must be at risk, more divided than ever before.

Where do the Churches stand in all this? Has any of them anything to say that is worth hearing? One may be forgiven for thinking that the Catholic Church is so involved with her own interior problems that she has scarcely registered what is happening to the nation as a whole. Here in the monastery we pray diligently and try to keep abreast of events, but we would be the first to admit that our engagement with politics is necessarily at one remove since we do not adhere to any party line nor take any part in any party political debate. I think our role must be to encourage others; to remind people of good will that not only does what is said or done matter, but also the way in which it is said or done; that actions have consequences; and that the common good is not ‘what’s best for me’ but something larger and more demanding. The section of the Rule of St Benedict that we read today is very pertinent, especially these words:

We descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder erected is our life in this world. (RB 7.7–8)

Humility may not be an obvious quality to associate with politicians but that is not to say it is unnecessary. Dare we hope that our M.P.s will take note? Will we pray that they do?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Greta Thunberg and Climate Change

One would have to have been living on another planet not to be aware of Greta Thunberg and her campaign to make us all more aware of climate change and the urgent need to change our behaviour. So far, so good. As Benedictines, we are very conscious of the obligation to treat everything on earth with reverence. As individuals, we are convinced of the reality of climate change (Quietnun, being a scientist by training, is particularly eloquent on the subject) and try to ensure that everything we do as a community is consistent with that. But that does not mean that we endorse any one approach to the matter, or that we are entirely comfortable with the way in which some people argue their case. For instance, the exhortations of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, measured against their jet-setting lifestyle, are hardly compelling. The case of Greta Thunberg is much more complex.

Let me say at once that I myself am a little uneasy. What she says strikes me as being true and necessary, and there is a consistency about her conduct that speaks volumes not only about her but also about her family. I am not so sure that I agree with some of her methods, the school strikes being a particular worry of mine. Two things really trouble me, however. First, there is the question of manipulation. How far is she being used by others? At sixteen, she is having to deal with situations most of us would find difficult even at a much older age; and knowing that she has Asperger’s makes me wonder whether undue pressure is being put on her. Second, the amount of vicious scorn poured on her by older adults is completely indefensible. Sometimes it takes the form of outright attacks which betray the envy and hostility of the perpetrators; sometimes it takes the form of seeming concern for her well-being that fools no-one. What nobody can dispute is that Greta Thunberg has done more in a year to highlight the urgency and potential disaster of climate change issues than the rest of us have in over forty years.

So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with two very real concerns. Whenever a young person challenges the complacency of an older generation, there will be sparks. We all admire the fervour and courage of young people, but we do not always take them seriously or we find reasons to play down their importance. In the case of Greta Thunberg there is a danger that the message will be lost because of hostile reactions to the messenger. There is also the danger that she herself will be damaged by the experience she is currently undergoing. The media have a habit of fêting the latest novelty, be it person or idea, then dropping it equally quickly. Just as I think we have a duty to pray for wisdom and decisive action in the matter of climate change, so I would argue that we have a duty to pray for Greta Thunberg herself. We should be grateful to her; and we should care for her as we would for any other young person — more so, perhaps, because she is being exposed to demands and pressures that go far beyond the ordinary. Whether we agree with her is not the point: she is an exceptional person and our response should be akin to the challenge she presents.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Corrosion of Trust

Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.

I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.

In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

On Being Tired of Contention

The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.

For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.

In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

What Price Integrity?

Yesterday two events occurred that, in their different ways, have set people talking, not always kindly. In Inner Mongolia Antonio Yao Shun was ordained bishop, the first to be recognized simultaneously by both the Vatican and the Chinese State under the controversial Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the prorogation of Parliament for a record five weeks, sparking fears that he intends to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny between 14 October, when the new session will begin, and 31 October. To some, what is at present a political crisis could become a constitutional crisis. On the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, it is worth reflecting how these two events say something about our understanding of integrity and what we used to refer to as realpolitik.

Let’s take the ‘easy’ one first. China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, forcing Chinese Catholics to go underground until religious practice was tolerated again in the 1980s. By then, however, Catholics faced the choice of either continuing to worship in churches loyal to the pope but subject to state persecution or in churches forming part of the state system, with bishops and priests appointed by the state and disowning papal authority.

Over time, many accommodations were made, with the Provisional Agreement being seen by many as the logical outcome. Some, however, thought the Provisional Agreement a sell-out. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong took to Facebook in January 2018 to say that he thought the pope had betrayed Chinese Catholics. According to those who had suffered under the Communist regime, the sacrifices they had made were now regarded as being of little consequence. It was a poor reward for years of trying to be faithful and living lives of integrity. From the other side, it was the old, old story: how do we best serve the needs of the present, and does that mean that we abandon the positions held in the past, regardless of the human cost?

The prorogation of Parliament is more complicated because, at one level, it is a perfectly legal measure for which there is ample precedent. The problem is its timing, its length, the involvement of the Queen (who has to agree to the Prime Minister’s request but is already attracting hostility in some quarters for doing so) and the suspicions of many as to the government’s motivation and intention. It does not help that Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth is sometimes perceived to be a little flexible, saying one thing one day and another the next. No doubt the ‘will of the people’ will be invoked as a sacred mantra by some while others will urge that a representative democracy requires exhaustive Parliamentary scrutiny of all proposed legislation and agreements; and never the twain shall agree. The problem then is: what is the right and honourable course to follow? Where does personal or institutional integrity come into the mix? Are they one and the same, or can they be at odds with one another?

I think the life and death of St John the Baptist do shed a little light on both these questions, the Church in China and the role of Parliament in Britain.

St John was prepared to pay the price for speaking what he believed to be the truth to Herod and anyone else who would listen. Note I say what he believed to be the truth. I happen to believe that what St John said was true — that it was consistent with everything we know of Jewish and subsequently Christian ideas of God and morality — but we have to allow for the fact that the emphases he gave, and the way in which he spoke, were individual. That partly explains Herod’s fascination with him, despite St John’s condemnation of his behaviour. But it also explains why not everyone was convinced, even though they were persons of goodwill. I think we can apply that to the Vatican’s agreement with the Republic of China and the row over the suspension of Parliament.

How we ourselves view the ordination of Bishop Yao Shun or the prorogation of Parliament will vary according to our knowledge, experience, hopes for the future and our role. What I suggest we need to take on board is that opinion or preference are not necessarily the best guide to acting with integrity. This morning let us pray for Chinese Catholics and the members of the House of Commons who must actually live the integrity this post can merely talk about — and perhaps pay the price for it.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail