Inequalities | St Matthias

I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.

During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.

Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.

Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?

Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.

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Is Tolerance a Virtue?

One of the subjects I find myself thinking about quite often is how intolerant society seems to have become. When I say ‘society’, I don’t specifically mean English or British society, nor even Western society, but society in general, the whole mass of us as we encounter one another via modern means of communication, from broadcasting to social media. Inevitably, that produces some distortion, e.g. only those with access to the internet are able to engage with social media, but the world most of my readers know and interact with is the one I am writing about, and it is there that I note with mounting unease a hardening of opinion and an unwillingness to engage in open discussion, much less informed debate, that strikes me as potentially dangerous. Do we want a world in which we cannot say what we think or believe?

Certain views are, of course, acceptable, especially if they happen to be endorsed by a celebrity. But questioning those views, or suggesting that they might need to be nuanced is not. So, for example, my view that abortion is wrong not only marks me out as a bigot in many people’s eyes but also means, apparently, I should not have the right to say why I believe abortion is wrong. I have never been clear why that should be so. Sometimes a little bit of truth is suppressed or conveniently glossed over. For instance, when the Sultan of Brunei announced that the death penalty would not be enforced against homosexuality, there was a collective sigh of relief, and rightly so in my view, but is the death penalty still in force for those who convert from Islam to Christianity? I do not know and have been unable to find out. Is that because religion is perceived to be of less importance or because it isn’t a fashionable cause?

Occasionally, one can have a little fun with the current orthodoxies. A few days ago I was cross-examined by someone who wanted to know our green credentials as a monastery. By the time I had answered her questions — none of us has flown since 2011; we grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible; our heating thermostat is set at 15 degrees C; car journeys are planned to occur when strictly necessary; we re-cycle everything we can; our habits are at least 20 years old and made of natural fibres; and so on and so forth — she had grudgingly conceded that we were actually rather greener than she was. Now, the point is not greenness or its opposite but the fact that the person who questioned me was much more tolerant than her opening aggressiveness had suggested. She had started with the idea that nuns are rather selfish and probably supid, too. By the time we finished, I think we had both learned a lot about each other. I respected her enthusiasm and her evident care for the environment; I hope she had learned that it is possible to have an argument with a nun in the old-fashioned sense. I like to think we both gained; and isn’t that the point of tolerance?

Tolerance isn’t meant to be a wishy-washy kind of refusal to engage with difficult questions — or difficult people. On the contrary, it is a process of engagement that is meant to enrich everyone concerned. It means saying in effect, ‘I may disagree, but I am happy to discuss, to be challenged and to challenge in my turn. It may be painful at times, but that is part of what being a member of society entails.’ I don’t think I would go so far as to say tolerance is a virtue in the religious sense, but accepting differences, refusing to hate because of them and being prepared to go on working for a resolution of the divisions between us, no matter how hopeless that may seem at times, does matter and is a source of strength rather than weakness — virtue in the classical sense, so to say, and much needed nowadays.

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The Persecution of Christians

The bishop of Truro’s report on the persecution of Christians contained no surprises for those who keep au fait with such matters. Unless memory plays me false, I seem to remember someone remarking forty years ago that a couple of lartge jets would be all that would be needed to remove the entire Christian population of Israel. The situation today in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, India, China and many other places, however, is not merely one of petty persecution and decline but of ruthless violence intended to exterminate every Christian. Church leaders can say all they like about how wrong it is, but unless and until politicians recognize both the injustice and the danger it poses to many of the values we hold dear as a free society, it is difficult to see how matters can improve.

To some, Christians are merely reaping the consequences of colonialism and whatever they suffer is justified by reference to that. Identifying Christianity with colonialism has always seemed to me slightly questionable, but I accept that many have shied away from a defence of modern-day Christians because of what happened in the past. The trouble is, our historical perspective is often faulty or, at the very least, partial. We rightly condemn the evil of slavery, for example, while being remarkably ambivalent about the kinds of exploitation that exist today. It is easy to condemn the people of the past, but making those of the present pay is morally dubious. Where does responsibility lie? Can we really judge the past by the standards of the present?

The University of Cambridge is just embarking on a two-year investigation into its connection with slavery and the slave trade. It will be interesting to see what conclusions are drawn. My first reaction was that it was one of those politically correct exercises that fosters guilt but achieves little of substance. It is clearly not meant to be a historical investigation as such, and from what I have read it is not concerned with the modern forms of exploitation many of us find troubling. The nearest parallel I can find is with those public enquiries into the perceived failures of the army, police, medical profession, social workers and others that centre on the sadness and distress suffered by individuals or groups of people whose lives have been turned upside down by what they have experienced, but with this difference — we can’t change the past; we can’t ‘make it better’ for those who were enslaved or who were cruelly mistreated.

In the case of modern-day Christians, I think we face a particular difficulty. There are those who wish to eradicate Christianity and deliberately target Christians. Frequently, and especially if they are Westerners, they have very sketchy ideas about what Christians actually believe, but the one thing they all know is that Christians are meant to be forgiving. No matter how harsh the treatment meted out, no matter what suffering is inflicted, even to the loss of life in the most brutal and painful circumstances, the Christian must forgive. I am, as you may imagine, far from being impartial, but I believe that the forgiveness of Christians enduring persecution — at this very minute, remember — is not only worthy of record but a witness the whole world needs. We pray for them, of course, but perhaps we should glory in them even more for they show Christ to the world in a way that we more lily-livered types never can. They demonstrate by their fidelity and their refusal to hate that there is a better way; that the world can be transformed by grace.

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Seeing Through Tears: Easter Tuesday 2019

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Who does not love today’s gospel in which Mary of Magdala meets the Risen Christ? There is something very moving about that encounter in the early morning, the dew still fresh upon the ground and Mary seeing him through a mist of tears. Are those tears the reason she does not recognize him at first but thinks he might be the gardener ‘in his stained and dirty kirtle,’ as Julian of Norwich describes him? Or do the tears allow her to see him clearly for the first time, as the New Adam — not so much a tiller of soil but as the giver of life itself? It is said that the Cross on Golgotha was planted where Adam’s skull lay buried. The Fruit it bore surpassed any known in Paradise.

This morning many tears are being shed throughout the world: in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, wherever death holds sway. But the Risen Lord still comes to meet us in our pain. His body bears the wounds of suffering and death for all eternity but they are transformed now into channels of life and peace for us. Let us cling to the hope they bring, not just to us but to the whole world.

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The Importance of Fathers

A quick search in the sidebar of this blog reveals that I have often written about St Joseph on his feastday. In a way, that is odd. For far too long I subscribed to the view that Joseph was an almost disposable element in the Infancy narrative, and his early disappearance from the gospels and the absence of patristic commentary confirmed me in my opinion. It took Bossuet to make me realise what a great man he was, and that his greatness was precisely that of a father.

If, like me, you have happy memories of your own father, it does not require much of an imaginative leap to recognize how important Joseph was in the life of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But if you don’t, if your father has been absent or in some way inadequate, it must be much harder. So many of the qualities we admire in Jesus must have come from Joseph. In the same way, family members will often remark that we are ‘a chip off the old block’ and recognize in us traits that we had no idea once existed in another. When they are perceived as negative or in some way damaging, there is a double handicap to overcome. It is not just our own flaws but those we have inherited that we must deal with. Yet none of us is defined by our father or limited by his flaws. Fathers give us life, they help to form us, but their role changes over time. The one constant is that they go on loving us, as Joseph went on loving Jesus.

It seems to me that fatherhood is a tough call. To combine both strength and tenderness is not easy. To love one’s family, to be like Joseph a man of integrity and courage, is to give a wonderful example to others. More than that, it is to ensure the flourishing of those we are closest to, to give and sustain life. That is a great vocation. Today, let us pray for all fathers and the families they care for.

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Is God to Blame?

As news of the terrible events in Christchurch, New Zealand, spread yesterday we noticed a huge increase in the use of our email prayerline. Many emails were simply requests for prayer for all who had been affected, but a considerable number expressed other concerns. There were those who demanded to know how God could permit such a thing; others who wanted to proclaim that they had given up on God since God had clearly given up on them; and a few who used the opportunity to ridicule our beliefs with a spattering of swear-words and wholly unoriginal gibes.

When people are hurting they need a hug, not an argument; and it is my belief that everyone who wrote in was indeed hurting. Some just didn’t know what to do with their hurt. The questions they asked deserve an answer, however, though I know the answers I’ll give will not be acceptable to everyone.

Why did God not prevent the massacre in Christchurch? That is a perfectly legitimate question but it takes us into territory many find uncomfortable. We can say all we like about God having dignified us with the gift of free will and of his permitting us to use or abuse that freedom as we choose. It doesn’t mean much to someone mourning the death of someone they love. The fact that it happens to be true is difficult to grasp, but we must try because it confirms the truly loving nature of God. He respects us; he doesn’t treat us as mere robots he can control at will. In fact, God isn’t interested in controlling us. He has given us all the guidance we need to live happy and fulfilled lives, but he respects the choices we make. If we choose evil, so be it. I call that one of the hard truths of Christianity: the realisation that God is a God of free people, not slaves. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of that truth. God gave his only Son into our hands, and that is how we treated him, by inflicting death on him.

So, what about those who feel they want to give up on God because they believe he has given up on them? Don’t we all feel like that at times? Didn’t Jesus feel the same on the Cross when he cried out with the psalmist, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. We have to be honest about our anger and despair and let God handle the pain we can’t. Because, of course, it is pain that makes us think and feel that way. If we didn’t care, if we were completely indifferent, we wouldn’t bother, would we?

In this blank, bleak universe I am describing, is there anywhere we can find help or comfort? I think there is. The Communion of Saints is not confined to those already in heaven and who we may safely assume are praying for those of us on earth. It includes the Church Militant, our ‘even Chrstians’ as Julian of Norwich loved to describe them. No matter how dark the events that take place in the world, no matter the depths of evil and depravity that deform the human heart, someone, somewhere is praying to let the light of Christ into the situation. Monks and nuns typically devote their lives to this prayer. We do not claim to be experts; we do not claim to achieve anything; but I believe that God does use our efforts in some way because ultimately it is not we who pray but the Holy Spirit who prays in us.

This morning many are feeling drained and unhappy. There are several people on life-support as a result of yesterday’s shootings; others are mourning the sudden loss of someone they love. We pray for them as we pray for all — for a chink of light to come into the darkness, for hope to take the place of despair. Our ideas of God are frequently too little. May we know how great he is, how involved he is even though he does not act as we would want him to act. In short, may we know how much he loves us.

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Murder in Christchurch, New Zealand

News of the murderous attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, began to come in as I was listening to the World Service.* Even now, the details are not clear but what we do know is sickening. The sheer brutality of the attackers with their live-streaming of their actions recalls some of the worst horrors of IS, but at least one of the attackers appears to be an Australian citizen with hard-right views on immigration. No one has a monopoly on hatred. We struggle to find words adequate to the shock and disgust we feel, but there are none that can really express our revulsion or sadness. Feelings of anger and rage bubble to the surface, but what are we to do with them?

As it happens, today’s Mass readings provide us with a kind of commentary on our own reactions. Ezekiel 18. 21–28 reminds us that God does not see or judge as we see and judge. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but desires their conversion. While we thirst for vengeance and call it ‘justice’, God yearns for the sinner’s reconciliation. Similarly, the gospel, Matthew 5.20–26, contains a hard teaching about being reconciled with our brother if he has something against us — not, please note, if we have something against him. In other words, God sets the bar of compassion and forgiveness very high. On the Cross his Son showed how very costly it would prove.

Today many of us will have difficulty reconciling our desire to follow Christ’s lead with our feelings of anger and horror. The trouble is, we have no choice. We must forgive; we must not thirst for vengeance. Part of our problem is that we tend to usurp God’s role when it comes to judging, but forget him entirely when it comes to forgiving. Forgiveness, we must remember, is never a once-for-all act. It is a repeated act, a constant dashing against Christ of every negative thought and feeling. The New Zealand authorities will have to investigate, prosecute and meet out punishment for the vile crime committed in Christchurch, but all of us have the duty to do what we can to show compassion and bring about reconciliation. Just now there are many grieving hearts we cannot comfort save though prayer, but let us make sure that we do that at least.

*A side effect of cancer is that sleep patterns are disturbed. The World Service can be a great help to the insomniac.

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Silver Surfers and the Church

Many years ago, when our community was something of a pioneer in its use of internet technologies — everything from videos to online conferences — we tended to assume that ‘the net’ was where we’d encounter young people; and, by and large, it was. As time has gone on, however, we have come to appreciate that there is another group the Church sometimes forgets: the so-called Silver Surfers. Although some older people still feel a little awkward when it comes to contemporary technology, there are many more who don’t; and they have both the money and the leisure to make the most of what the Church offers online. So what does the Church offer?

I think the only honest answer must be: a mixed bag. There are lots of blogs (of unequal value) and resource sites (likewise), plus livestreams of worship and news outlets. But is there anything of particular value to the older person, that speaks to the concerns we tend to have as we grow older? What would be helpful? I ask because we have a couple of new web sites waiting to be launched once our position vis-à-vis Cor Orans is clearer, but I realised yesterday that they need some re-writing precisely because we haven’t done a very good job of thinking about older users. I would welcome any thoughts you have on the subject, bearing in mind that ours are monastic sites rather than general purpose ones.

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The Abuse of Nuns and Sisters in the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’s recent acknowledgement of the sexual abuse of female religious by Catholic clergy should have surprised no-one (see, for example, the account given here: https://is.gd/FoGNnU). I can remember our own D. Teresa Rodrigues, who was Secretary of Aide Inter-Monastique for many years, waxing wroth on the subject. It is one of those scandals everyone is aware of, professes to abhor but doesn’t actually do anything about because there is no reward for doing so. If male, it doesn’t advance one up the clerical career ladder; if female, it doesn’t endear one to one’s religious superiors and lays one open to all kinds of sanctions; if lay, one has more than enough to worry about with the terrible scandal of the sexual abuse of children. I think it’s worth pointing out, however, that although the pope directed our attention to sexual abuse, that is only one aspect of the matter — a manifestation of another and more general abuse. At the heart of it all is the low opinion the institutional Church has of nuns and sisters and women generally.

The patristic tradition and modern versions of it: motherhood
As soon as I say that, I know many will protest that the Church holds women in high honour. Some will point to the long patristic tradition honouring Mary, the greatest of all women. Others will quote more or less sugary texts telling us what wonderful beings we are and how privileged we are to serve in our maternal roles. There is my first problem: not the patristic tradition itself, but the shrunken version of it that we are often given, which sees all women through a single lens, that of mother. Not all women are mothers, just as not all men are fathers; but the Church has never sought to define all men in terms of fatherhood in the way she has often seemed to define all women in terms of motherhood.

Motherhood is a great vocation, make no mistake, but it can be reduced to a caricature of itself, to a kind of ‘flower-pot’ role in the life of others. My own mother summed this up rather crisply when she said, ‘Blame Mummy for everything that goes wrong, but don’t give her credit for anything that goes right!’ Fifty years on, and I feel the truth of her words more and more. It is (comparatively) easy to dismiss women as being somehow of less account, especially in a Church where priesthood and rulership are reserved to men. Most of the women who read this blog will have their own stories to tell of occasions when they encountered attempted put-downs or were dismissed unheard. A shrug and a smile and choosing which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t is probably the response most of us make most of the time. But I wonder whether we should be addressing another question that is becoming more and more urgent. Are the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church properly understood?

The rights and responsibilities of women: the exercise of power and authority
There was a time when arguments about the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church, whether religious or lay, were glossed over by reference to ‘cultural circumstances’. We were told that the future growth of the Church lay in Africa and Asia, where women were culturally subservient, and it would be wrong for the Church as a whole to upset this order of things. So, please would Western women shut up, say their prayers and do as the men said. I exaggerate, of course, but even the furthest regions of the Vatican must now be aware that society is changing fast, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa and Asia. With better education comes greater autonomy, which may be one reason why many absolutist regimes try to restrict access to education, especially for women and girls. Where women have a better grasp of their rights and responsibilities, it is impossible for the institutional Church to go on behaving as it always has. It must actually engage with women; and that can be very difficult for those who grew up in a different world or who have had no contact with women, other than as secretaries or servants, for most of their lives.

Of course, where the Church does not promote or even protect the rights and responsibilities of women, we end up with a paternalistic system which works well enough until it is placed under scrutiny, when it shows how very flawed it is. The exercise of power and authority will always be viewed with some suspicion by those who have no power themselves, but one must ask whether women in the Church need to be quite as invisible as they have become. Following the publication of Cor Orans, I have had to do quite a lot of work on canon law and I have found sobering the way in which female religious are regarded as being ‘disposable’ — their persons, their property, even their mission being subject to control by those who may have no first-hand experience of what they are dealing with. They are in some ways infantilized. This is very far from religious obedience, which should lead to a growing maturity in Christ. What has gone wrong? Do we take the easy way out, and blame the women themselves, or do we ask ourselves what in the structures of the Church could be responsible for bringing about such a situation?

A personal and tentative conclusion
I think myself that a reluctance to engage with women except on a top-down basis has led to a kind of blindness in the Church that is now disabling her more than ever. I don’t believe, for one moment, that popes, bishops and clergy set out to do women down or treat them with contempt; but I do think that unexamined attitudes have led to us getting further and further away from the gospel. The authoritarian exercise of power makes people concentrate on the power, not on what it is intended to bring about. I am not alone in thinking that the institutional Church has not yet really taken on board how serious is the sexual abuse scandal, and how inadequate appear the various measures suggested for its resolution. The reluctance to include women in the processes for examination of the problem is telling. It is a kind of ‘own goal’ for the Church.

We have to have law; we have to have regulations for large and complex organisations like the Catholic Church; but I am not convinced that we have to have the kind of laws and regulations we currently have. If one part of the Church has no voice — if it is always the part to which things are done, rather than engaged and participant — then there is bound to be a problem with how it is viewed. If female religious are basically of no account, then of course they can be treated as children. And the horror of it is, that we see exactly where failing to treat children as we should has led us all.

Postscript
I have deliberately distinguished between the institutional Church, for which I use the neutral ‘it’, and the Church as a whole for which I use the feminine ‘she’. It’s a crude distinction, but it is useful. As always, I don’t want my male readers, especially the clerical ones, to feel they are being blamed for the difficulties I discuss. They know how much they are loved and valued, and many share my sense of frustration with the way in which the Church appears to be failing to address important questions. I’ve tried to write for those who don’t have much history or canon law but who believe in the gospel and want to right the wrongs they see. As a Church, we preach peace and justice but without real justice within the Church, can there be genuine peace? Although I am writing about the exercise of power and authority, I am not writing about ordination which is theologically a much more nuanced question than many are prepared to admit. So, please, no ‘If only the Catholic Church would ordain women’ responses. That is not what is at issue here.

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What Constitutes a Civilized Society?

Over the past few days I have read several comments both for and against the recently-enacted legislation regarding abortion in New York state. To me, the idea of abortion is abhorrent; the idea of permitting abortion at any stage up to birth is mind-boggling. Having said that, I quite see why many of those who are in favour of the legislation argue that such cases would be exceptional and rare. Hard cases, however, do not usually make for good law, nor do they make for good argument. One troubling side to the comments I have read is their sheer viciousness — and that goes for those who are opposed to the legislation as much as for those who are in favour. It seems we cannot agree on our core values, nor can we agree how to conduct ourselves when those values have to be examined and debated. U.K. readers may find an uncomfortable parallel in our current discussion of Brexit. It is as though we have forgotten what it means to be civilized.

crucifix

How does this apply in the context of today’s feast, that of the Conversion of St Paul? I think we sometimes forget that Saul of Tarsus was a good man but became a better one when he was captured by the love of Christ. As an observant Jew, Saul must have been upright, generous, supremely moral, loving God and the traditions of his forefathers. But that experience on the road to Damascus changed him. Everything the Christian Paul writes is filled with the love of Christ. It transforms what we would call his ‘world view’. His zeal remains, but it is tempered with a humility and sympathy that was not so noticeable before. Would it be very wrong to say that the Risen Christ had a civilizing influence on him? I don’t mean by that to belittle Paul’s conversion or to suggest that he was not, in the conventional sense, a civilized man before his conversion. I mean that after his conversion Paul was much more aware of the value and need of every human being, Jew or gentile, so much so that he was ready to give up all that he held most dear for their sake. The proud citizen of Rome suddenly understood that to be a Christian civis was to accept responsibility for the good of others, to place the good of others before one’s own.

I wonder whether that sheds any light on what we mean by a civilized society. In the West, the role of religion, especially Christianity, is more and more downplayed. There are times, indeed, when being deliberately hostile or offensive towards the most cherished beliefs of others is regarded as being not merely acceptable but a mark of ‘freedom’ or ‘maturity’. Views with which one disagrees are simply dismissed. To argue that abortion and euthanasia are wrong is to invite the charge of being lacking in compassion, yet how compassionate are we really if we do not care for the young, the old and the sick? We may have similar qualms about the morality of capital punishment, the inequalities that mean many go hungry while the West suffers an epidemic of obesity, and so on. Sometimes I have the uneasy feeling that much contemporary morality is based on nothing more than ‘what’s best for me’ — the law of the jungle rather than of civilsation as traditionally understood.

We were discussing this in chapter this morning and asking ourselves what we could do about it. One person mentioned the decline in the use of Christian symbolism and suggested that it had a greater significance than many were prepared to admit. It is comparatively rare nowadays to go into a house where a crucifix or cross is on display. Our custom in the monastery is to have a crucifix in every room — a small, silent reminder of our purpose and of what our duty is. Perhaps those of us who are Christian could think about that. Showy displays of fervour are definitely not what are needed, but in my experience most people find it difficult to be deliberately rude or unkind or selfish when facing a crucifix. It is when we remove our gaze that the trouble starts and the old Adam reasserts himself. Perhaps that was Paul’s secret. He kept his eyes fixed on the cross of Christ. We should do the same.

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