Condemning and Condoning

Have you noticed how often there is a call to condemn something or other — the actions of an individual or an institution, or some historical event or behaviour that we now regard as wrong? Any failure to condemn is regarded as tantamount to condoning whatever is to be reprobated. That often leads to some very awkward apologies that appear intended merely to placate those with a sense of grievance rather than put right any real wrong.

For instance, if one is white British, one is sometimes asked to condemn and apologize for Britain’s part in the Black Slave trade. I can’t imagine that anyone approves of it or would want to try to justify it nowadays, but can one realistically be held to account for a wrong occurring in the past with which one may have no direct connection? Given many families’ lowly social and economic status during the years in question, it is difficult to say how many were actively involved. If one accepts that, simply because one is British, one shares in some sort of collective guilt for the suffering the trade inflicted, can one also claim credit for the work of the abolitionists? It’s difficult, isn’t it? Failure to speak out on the matter is regarded by some as evidence of complicity and has led to some ugly confrontations. I am sure you can think of other examples, but I use this because it will be familiar to many and concerns a genuine injustice and evil.

The advent of social media and the ease with which opinion can be expressed and shared has tended to make the urge to condemn much more prevalent. Look at Twitter, for example, and you will see rant after rant, accusation after accusation, often coming from those with more anger than information. The speed with which the Covington Boys were condemned online was astonishing. Even their home diocese did not wait to examine the facts of the case more carefully. The result has been unhappy all round. Today’s subject for condemnation will doubtless be different, because the world moves on, and the wreckage left behind by reckless accusations is of no consequence to those fuelled by a (misplaced) sense of righteous purpose.

Thus far, most of you will probably be in general agreement, but here’s the rub. Christians are just as bad at condemning others as anyone else. True, we may not use the profanity-littered language of the angry tweeter nor make the rash accusations of the furious Facebook-er, but we jump to conclusions just as readily and answer back equally curtly. We may not demand apologies as such, but we can make it plain we expect submission to our views rather than respectful debate. I have often argued that if we pray before we go online, we can avoid many of these things. We are not called to solve all the world’s problems, only those we can actually do something about. Raving and ranting about injustice achieves very little; working to put right what we see to be wrong is less dramatic and much harder, but it is also much more in line with the gospel’s teaching. Today, if you are tempted to say something harsh or make an accusation based on hearsay, please think twice. One day we shall answer for every word we have spoken. Every word.

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When and How Should We Express Moral Outrage?

I wasn’t going to blog today because I have often written about St Thomas of Canterbury, and I am very keen to catch up on my ‘thank-yous’ to our Christmas benefactors. Three things have made me change my mind. The first was hearing a friend waxing indignant about the story behind Philomena, the second was finding a tweet in which the tweeter asked me, rather aggressively I thought, what I was doing about the two migrant children who have died in U.S. custody recently. In the latter case, I think either the tweeter assumed I must be a U.S. citizen or was hoping that by tweeting me she would capture my Twitter ‘audience’. In both cases, however, the moral indignation was plain, and I felt there was little I could do to assuage either person. I turned to Facebook and there found one of my online friends, whom I don’t know very well, complaining that if he expressed his horror of abortion most people tolerated his views because he is known to be a Catholic, and being pro-life is expected of Catholics. If, however, he expressed other views in line with Church teaching, especially some that are less well known, he seemed to attract a great deal of moral outrage, often expressed in very personal terms.

Now, it’s easy for me to say I agree that the treatment of many young Irish girls in the mother-and-baby homes of the past was appalling and that I am troubled by what we know of the treatment of young migrants detained by U.S. authorities, because that is no more than the truth. I don’t regard myself as personally responsible nor, crucially, do I see any way of helping other than through prayer and the financial aid the community provides refugees and migrants. I’m a Benedictine nun, not a religious sister belonging to any of the Orders or Congregations that ran the mother-and-baby homes, and I’m British not a U.S. citizen. But none of that will help either of my interlocutors, nor, I suspect, would anything similar help my FB friend to deal with his critics. We are facing the phenomenon of moral outrage seeking a target and not being sure where to find it. It is akin to the frequent demands, ‘Someone must pay for this’ and ‘heads must roll’ whenever incompetence or worse is discovered in politics, business or any public service. Just think of the comments on the police that followed the Gatwick Airport drone chaos!

Some of us probably try to channel our sense of outrage through letters and emails to those we think are in a position to change things, or we may use social media to try to draw attention to the wrong we believe needs righting. The difficulty, in most cases, is not letting our sense of outrage run away with us, so that we waste our fire, as it were, in a scatter-gun attack that simply annoys those caught in it. St Thomas of Canterbury (yes, I got him in!) was very astute in the quarrel he picked with Henry II and in his manner of conducting it. He tried to remain Henry’s friend while clearly demonstrating that some of their old shared behaviours were no longer acceptable now that he was a bishop. Henry, alas, felt a deep sense of personal betrayal as well as fury at the idea that the Church had liberties not under his control. We know how the story ends, and how a few years later a compromise with Rome made the quarrel between king and archbishop seem irrelevant. But we are left with the memory of a brave man, who stood up for what he believed and gave his life for it without calling down imprecations on the heads of his murderers. In that, I think he showed that there is more than one way of working to achieve what is right, that moral outrage can be expressed quietly and with consideration for others. It is easy to dash off an angry tweet or Facebook status. It relieves our feelings. But if we really want to do good, we might take a leaf from St Thomas’s book.

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That Sinking Feeling

It’s very foggy outside this morning, but that is as nothing to the gloom inside. The turmoil over Brexit, the divisions in the Church, even the fact that I failed to bake some promised brownies yesterday, all contribute to a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. I can solve the problem of the uncooked brownies, but what about the others? Can you or I do anything about them?

The trouble with Brexit is that we all have our own ideas, and because the Referendum from which the present turmoil stems required simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response and the Government of the day failed to make clear whether the referendum was to be merely advisory or legislatively binding, we have had two years of acrimonious bickering, with everyone claiming that their interpretation of the result and what they would like to see represents the will of the people. Rarely has the ‘will of the people’ been invoked so often in British politics, and with so little regard for consequences. I have made no secret of the fact that I think the decision to end our membership of the E.U. is bad for Britain, for Europe as a whole, and for the world in general; and I have based my arguments on exactly the same facts and figures as many of those advocating leaving, but with this difference. I am distrustful of ‘economic’ arguments deployed by people with little or no understanding of economics (don’t start me on the misuse of the ranking of world economies, for example) or of assumptions that have no basis in fact (£350 million a week extra for the NHS, for instance, promised by the Leave campaign). The problem for me is that my irritation with those kinds of argument may detract from what I consider to be the most important. I see the unity of Europe as the best protection we have against war and civil unrest, the best guarantee of mutual flourishing and benefit. I can keep saying that, to anyone who will listen, but can I actually do anything about it? The answer, alas, is ‘no’. You and I, unless we are politicians or civil servants, can only watch what is unfolding, pray, and wonder how it will end.

So, what about the divisions in the Church? There again, I have no desire to add to the cacophony of voices screaming for attention and claiming to represent true Catholicism, but I admit to being very, very concerned. The Hierarchy has mishandled the abuse crisis: I think we can all admit that; but there are many other matters which have not been dealt with in the way we might have expected. Hopes have been dashed; areas of doubt have been opened up, and there is a kind of free-for-all that ignores one of the fundamental tenets of Catholicism — the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, the Body of Christ, not some merely human institution. We cling to the Church, believing her to be what she always has been, but a niggle remains. Can we do anything? Again, we can protest about this or that, we can visit the Dicasteries in Rome to make our point, but we end up recognizing that we are just one among more than a billion, ultimately no more likely to have heard the Holy Spirit aright than anyone else.

The two examples I have cited, the dilemma over Brexit and the divisions in the Church, are examples of the kind of helplessness we may feel in the face of something that matters enormously to us but which appears to be entirely beyond our control. It isn’t easy to live with that kind of helplessness, but there are a couple of points to note.

First, we live in a democracy, an imperfect democracy, but thankfully one in which the rule of law still functions. We cannot take our freedom to express our opinions for granted, however. Already the law circumscribes what we may say or do (think, ‘hate’ crime, etc), and Social Media effectively circumscribe it yet further (think trolling, etc). We need to be on guard against the whittling away of such freedoms, especially at the present time. It has occasionally crossed my mind that the kind of debacle I foresee over Brexit could lead to major civil unrest and something like dictatorship — which nobody wants and nobody believes will happen, until it does. Gloomy? Yes. But it has reminded me to weigh my words, to listen carefully to those with whom I disagree, and to resolve that, insofar as in me lies, I will do my best to make whatever the outcome is workable. In other words, the current political impasse has reinforced my sense of being a citizen and of being engaged with society.

Second, with regard to the Church, I can only urge patience and prayer. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s prophecy that the Church of the future is likely to be very small strikes me as being accurate — but I do not share the certainty of those who believe that they, and they alone, will be that Church. The Holy Spirit has a way of surprising us all. Our job, if I may put it like that, is to wait patiently on the Lord, living virtuously, trusting him. That is to reaffirm our membership of the Church, our faith and our determination to do what is right, whatever it costs. In  other words, it is to renew the promises we made at our baptism and refuse to allow the powers of darkness to overwhelm us.

So, you see, my interior fog has one or two rays of light and warmth to pierce it. They may not be rays of light or warmth to you. We must each find our own but always, I would suggest, aware that we can never fall lower than God’s mercy. We are graven on the palms of his hands, we are the apple of his eye, and his are the everlasting arms beneath us.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Insisting on Having One’s Own Way: the PDHOW

Most bloggers will have encountered Persons Determined to Have their Own Way, or PDHOW* for short. In vain do we protest that a post is not about the subject they wish to ‘discuss’. The PDHOW sees everything as grist to their mill, an opportunity not to be missed; and if, at first, they don’t succeed in making us listen (and publish their views), they will go on and on until we are worn out with the effort of trying to reason with them. Gentle reminders that certain comments may be actionable in law are brushed away. Polite attempts to moderate the language in which their comments are expressed are angrily rejected. Even pointing out that that the platform they want to use is, er, financed by the blogger is dismissed as inconsequential. It can be even worse in Social Media where the PDHOW is ever on the look-out for an opportunity to ‘kidnap’ a tweet or Facebook status for their own ends, but at least there one can mute or hide the comments if they become too numerous or aggressive, or block the user completely if they are taking up too much time and energy.

It is all very well thinking of the PDHOW as a kind of human mosquito, a minor irritant, but the fact is that, like mosquitoes, they can sometimes do serious harm. The kinds of harm I come across most often are the imputation of base motives to others and defamation of character. It makes me uneasy because I sometimes feel pressured into defending those I have doubts about myself. Truth and justice, however, demand that one should point out that an allegation has not been proved or that there can be more than one explanation for what has happened. I daren’t give examples that occur to me because I know, perfectly well, that though I give them as illustrations they will be taken by some to be arguments — and I just don’t have time today for every PDHOW who may light upon this post.

I am encouraged in my thinking by today’s section of the Rule which is about not doing one’s own will (RB 7. 19–23). Benedict is writing about humility and the ways in which we go astray, but he reminds us all that thinking we are right does not necessarily mean we are. He ends the section with a sentence from the psalms that I use for my examination of conscience: My every desire is before you (Ps 37. 10). That neatly disposes of the idea that we always act from the purest of motives and have no hidden or even semi-hidden agenda. Dare we ask every PDHOW to think about that? And just in case you are congratulating yourself that the PDHOW is always someone other, allow me to let you into a little secret. We are all PDHOW at times.

*pronounced ‘peedeeHOW’ with the emphasis on the HOW.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Facebook Experiment

Yesterday I conducted a small experiment on Facebook. I had been reading what various people had to say in response to the change in the Catechism’s stance on the death penalty and had become more and more interested in the underlying assumptions being made. So I asked my Facebook friends whether they automatically identified with law-abiding citizens when thinking about the death penalty, rather than what they thought about the death penalty itself or the change in the Catechism’s wording. People took my question seriously and answered frankly. I was particularly struck by the responses of those who had worked in the criminal justice system here in the U.K.. Inevitably, one or two wanted to address questions I wasn’t asking, but the majority simply stated what they thought and why, which I found very powerful. I hope those who responded also found it helpful because the answers threw light on why people react as they do to the idea of a death-penalty or changes in the Church’s view of it.

Most of my Facebook friends are thoughtful people and many are religious; so I ought not to have been surprised by the calm and generous way they responded to my question, but I was. The overwhelming impression I took from the discussion was of compassion and humility. We (I) have become so accustomed to thinking of Social Media and the internet generally as being disputatious and shallow that to see the good side was something of a revelation. People are kinder and less dogmatic than we often allow, but if we want to know what people really think about something we need to try to find a way of asking that does not predetermine the answer. If I got it right yesterday, it was by grace alone. It has certainly made me think about how I phrase questions in the future — and much more.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Boring, Boring, Boring: Swear Words

When I was younger, linguistic ‘tics’ used to irritate me profoundly. Time was when every sentence I heard in France seemed to have a meaningless ‘si vous voulez’ tacked on to it. In Britain there was, and still is, the endless repetition of ‘like’ and its cousin ‘innit’. These, however, do not bore me in the way that profanity does. It seems that many people are now incapable of framing a sentence that does not contain a swear-word, most often the one that begins with ‘f’ and ends with ‘k’. It is used as a descriptive, as punctuation, as mere sound, but it is tedious in the extreme. Some people use it in the hope that we in the monastery will be shocked, not realising that it would take a lot more to shock nuns. More often, people use it unthinkingly, not realising how it weakens their argument precisely because it is obvious that it is used unthinkingly. Twitter is spattered with it; and one has only to walk down the nearest street to hear it spoken, sometimes by very young children.

Couldn’t we think a little more about the words we use, and try to find those that will express what we really want to say? There are many words we can no longer use without giving offence and most of us take care to avoid them. Why not take as much care to avoid those that are simply boring and ultimately devoid of meaning?Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Nuns and Social Media

After another sleepless night, I can report a little black humour to mark my emergence from under the chemo cosh. Cor Orans, the document which establishes the norms for implementing the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere, assures us, with dreadful earnestness, that nuns may now use Social Media ‘with sobriety and discretion.’ Of course I agree with the need for discretion, but having been using Social Media for about ten years — probably longer than many of the clergy and others who felt it necessary to give nuns guidance on the matter — my main reaction is a mixture of despair and irritation. Despair, because yet again the Vatican shows itself to be out of touch with the reality of women’s (i.e. not just nuns’) lives, and in seeking to control is in danger of losing whatever moral authority it still commands; irritation, because with all the world’s problems, to devote time and energy to  something that I think most nuns have already thought and prayed about sufficiently to have arrived at a sensible decision regarding its appropriate use, is embarrassing.

It hurts to say I am embarrassed by the Church to which I belong and her heavy-handed approach to facets of modern life that she should be embracing, not condemning or viewing with suspicion. It seems to be only a few years ago that we nuns laughed about being given permission to use fax machines, with due discretion and limitations, naturally, and were tempted to email our response, only the Vatican wasn’t using email at the time!

I do have a serious point to make, and it isn’t a grumble. The text of Cor Orans raises many concerns for us as a small contemplative community*, but I think it raises even bigger ones for women in the Church as a whole. I have never been entirely convinced that there are two differing forms of spirituality, one masculine and the other feminine, with the masculine needing comparatively few rules and the feminine needing very close regulation. If Pope Francis is serious about using the gifts of all the Church’s members, then I genuinely believe that he and all the other senior clergy must take seriously the fact that women are not second-class beings. We can be as intelligent, well-educated, fervent and disciplined as any man. To presume that we are somehow lacking in any of those qualities is deeply insulting. True, some women have not had the educational opportunities given to men; true, there are still parts of the world where cultural constraints mean that women are condemned to secondary roles; but, if we have heeded the gospels of Easter Week, how can we assert that this is divinely ordained?

I became a nun in response to what I believe to be my vocation. I have never wavered in my desire to live that vocation as whole-heartedly and generously as possible but I am dismayed to discover that there is doubt whether I and other nuns can really be trusted with it, online or off. And what is true of nuns in that respect is, I fear, true of all women — though, happily, women who are not nuns may apparently use Social Media without the limitation of ‘sobriety and discretion’. I’m tempted to say, ‘Go for it!’

* See, for example, the concluding paragraphs of Cor Orans, Final Dispositions.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A World on the Brink?

One might be forgiven for thinking that the situation in Syria is about to explode into another world war. Whether the West takes military action or not, there are too many nations using Syria to further their own ambitions and fight their own proxy wars. The stand-off between Russia and the U.S.A. is but one element, but it is potentially deadly, and if one looks at what is happening elsewhere, the build-up of warships in the South China Sea, for example, one can feel thoroughly unsettled. So, what do we do? Do we take refuge in distractions of one kind or another, build ourselves bunkers or otherwise close our eyes to the reality of what is happening and our own part in it? Or do we indulge in a kind of gloomy fatalism, Que será, será, and leave all the worrying to others?

Our celebration of Holy Week and Easter should have reminded us that we cannot dismiss either the suffering of others or our own possible complicity in evil. We may feel powerless, but each of has a real responsibility towards the Syrian people and towards what happens in Syria. How we exercise it is the difficult point. For most of us, I suppose, the means most available to us are prayer and the forming of conscience.

When we pray for Syria, we are asking God to come into the situation and transform it as he knows best, but we are also asking him to transform us and guide our response. We are saying, in effect, that we don’t have the answers, that we know we need help, and that we trust him to act. The forming of conscience is rather trickier because many of us forget that our own opinions are not always wise or just, and though we may be very ready to share them with others, we do not always do so with discretion or judgement. The power of Social Media to shape opinion must be taken seriously, for example, but I wonder how many of us consider whether our use of it is ever sinful. We can add to the store of good or evil by our use of Social Media, almost without thinking.

This morning perhaps we could spend a few moments praying for Syria and reflecting on what we can do or not do that will be constructive of peace rather than war. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that this goes further than Syria. It goes to the heart of the existence of each and every one of us, doesn’t it?Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Benedict and Data Protection

Today is the Transitus of St Benedict, the day when we commemorate his entry into heaven. For us, it is the great feast of the saint, infinitely more important than the Translatio or Translation of his relics, which we celebrate in July. You might therefore expect a paeon of praise in iBenedictines, but that is not what you are going to get, or only incidentally.

St Benedict was a practical man and I think he would have had something useful to say about one of today’s hot topics, data protection, especially as it affects millions of Facebook users. Contrary to the belief of many, I don’t think St Benedict was particularly reclusive in his mature age. The monastery at Monte Cassino is high up, certainly, but it commands an important crossing-point, and I think what the Rule has to say about guests and visitors is a clue to the sheer numbers the community had to deal with in the course of a year. Benedict expected to have to engage with others but the way in which that engagement is surrounded with prayer and common-sensical safeguards for the peace and unity of the community is striking (see, for example, RB 53, 61). Within community Benedict had some tricky situations to deal with also, but he was always discreet and urged that the senpectae, for instance, should be such that they could support the weak and wobbly without publicising their difficulties (RB 46.6). Throughout the Rule, we find references to the need to be considerate, circumspect, and careful about what we say and how we say it. In short, Benedict expects everyone in the monastery to keep the good of others in mind and do nothing that would hurt or harm them.

How does that apply to today’s world, where the buying and selling of information is at the basis of so much commercial activity? You may question that reference to ‘buying and selling’ , but if you use any ‘free’ service on the internet, you are trading some information about yourself in return for what is offered. A problem arises when the amount of information demanded is excessive or put to uses that go far beyond what we could reasonably expect. Who would have thought, for example, that doing quizzes on Facebook could have led to the current debacle with Cambridge Analytica? I myself have always steered clear of such quizzes and limited the amount of information I allow Facebook to have access to (plus I download my Facebook data from time to time) but is it enough? Am I at risk? The answer must surely be, yes, to some extent; but on the other hand, being on Facebook allows me to have a page for the monastery which many people find useful, and a group for our oblates which makes contact between us very easy. The trade-off is thus clear, isn’t it? Well, not quite, because what we have learned about the uses to which Cambridge Analytica allegedly put the information it gathered is worrying.

Here in the West we place great store by democracy, freedom of speech and our reliance on a justice system we believe to be essentially fair, no matter how much we may dispute individual instances of its workings. However, it must be clear to everyone that these things do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they ‘eternal verities’. They are vulnerable to change and even destruction. They can only continue because we support them, i.e. we as individuals hold precious the values that underlie their existence. That is where I think St Benedict still has much to teach us. His insistence on the right of everyone in the monastery to be treated with love and respect, and the duty of everyone to exercise what we today might call a duty of care towards others, is a very sound basis on which to consider how we use the information we hold. That isn’t ‘pi in the sky’ thinking. It is something that affects all of us and is part of the nitty-gritty of creating and sustaining a just and humane society.

I said I wouldn’t be praising St Benedict today, but perhaps awareness of how much we owe him, his Rule, and the influence of his disciples is reason enough to celebrate. Much that we value in Western society is attributable to his wise and kindly emphasis on human as well as divine values. He never used the term ‘data protection’ but he certainly understood the need for privacy and its importance in protecting everyone, especially the most vulnerable. May we do the same.

A Little Bit of Data Protection of Our Own:
If you wish to receive our occasional email newsletters, please don’t forget to sign up here: http://eepurl.com/dlQ7x5. This is to make sure we conform to the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect in May 2018.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Welcome We Give

Re-reading St Benedict’s chapter on the doorkeepers of the monastery this morning made me think again about the way in which we welcome others (see RB 66). We have had some spectacular failures in the past when people have turned up without warning late at night or been aggressive or rowdy. If we were a bigger community, or if we had more confidence in our ability to restrain someone who is out of control, I daresay we wouldn’t be troubled by the remembrance. Partly, I know, it is because of the expectations others have of us and our awareness that we can never meet them fully. Our less thoughtful visitors do not expect us to be tired or ill or have anything happening in our lives that would lessen our availability or our readiness to give them a meal or a bed for the night. Part of me wishes that we could be, as it were, reckless in our charity; but prudence is a virtue, and to act imprudently is folly — one of those sins that choke the life of the believer. So, we go on as well as we can, being welcoming at the door and welcoming online, but with some limits.

The welcome we give online is something we all need to think about if we are internet users, not just nuns. We all know the importance of being kind and truthful, but there are two phrases of St Benedict I think are worth pondering carefully. He says whenever anyone knocks at the door, the doorkeeper should respond immediately with ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘God bless you’.(RB 6.3)  Now, I know many of my readers pray before they go online, but I wonder how many utter those words or their equivalent when they receive an email/message or surf a web site which seeks to engage them personally — especially if the engagement is critical of them or their views. To go online with a spirit of gratitude and blessing is very different from what most of us do most of the time: we go online to inform ourselves or others, and it is a short step from apparent neutrality to picking fault, to being fundamentally unwelcoming.

A second phrase caught my eye, too, the sentence about not wandering around outside the monastery because that is not good for our souls: instead, we should find everything necessary inside the enclosure. (RB 66.6) I myself rarely surf the net as such. I haven’t time, but I know it can be a temptation, especially if one is feeling bored or vaguely fractious: an hour or two of aimless pottering about online would be a good distraction, wouldn’t it? What I had never really considered was how such lack of focus can affect the way in which we welcome others. If our minds and heart are all over the place, so to say, how can we be truly present to another? How can we find the space in which to welcome God? The monastic practice of enclosure, which in our community includes some strict rules about use of the internet, is intended to guard against any such dissipation of energy. I suppose a secular equivalent would be to say, ‘switch off the ‘phone, live wholly in the present for a while, not the virtual reality we find so attractive.’

Simple thoughts, but gratitude and blessing are so much more welcoming than confrontation and condemnation or endless self-indulgence. I intend to try harder and hope you will also.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail