Moral Health in Time of COVID

Sixteenth-century Korean Tea Bowl, showing Kitsugi repair using gold. Ethnological Museum, Berlin. Photo by Daderot

Physical and Mental Health in Time of COVID

A lot has been written about physical and mental health and the impact COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have had, and continue to have, on both. We are too deeply involved in the present crisis to be able to see with any real clarity the long-term consequences, but there is a general awareness that the prospects for many people have worsened. That is not just because delayed or cancelled treatment leads to poorer health outcomes but because lockdown, for example, has also meant poorer living conditions, loneliness and emotional stress, not to mention the mounting evidence of increased domestic violence and abuse. Add to that concerns over the impact on children and young people of the effect on their education and it is easy to see why many are worried about the future physical and mental health of the nation.

Spiritual Health in Time of COVID

Churches and other religious organizations have done their best to minister to the spiritual needs of their members. Some, like the Irish priest who devised an imaginative and truly pastoral response to the question of First Holy Communion, or the lay groups that have maintained a sense of community by keeping in touch via online and telephone meetings, have shown real creativity in their response to a complex situation. Others have settled for live-streamed worship, podcasts, vodcasts and experimented with other ways of reaching out to people as time, energy and resources permitted.

Moral Health in Time of COVID

What I am not sure many people, other than a few philosophers, have been thinking about is what I call our moral health. By that I mean how we, both as individuals and as a society, act ethically and with moral purpose in a confused and confusing situation such as a pandemic, and the consequences for us and our sense of right or wrong conduct. We have all read of instances of people behaving with courage and generosity, looking out for others and performing acts of unexpected kindness. We have also read of people behaving selfishly and putting others at risk. What are the principles at work here, and how far is the Government, the Churches or any other body responsible for setting the tone? Is the moral health of the nation to be identified with that of individuals, or does it have a larger existence?

Those familiar with Catholic Social Teaching will be able to guess to which side of that last question I myself lean. It does concern me when people say, ‘When everything gets back to normal, then I’ll do so and so.’ The situation we find ourselves in may not be familiar, but it is the current ‘normal’ and therefore precisely the one in which we must act as moral beings. How we apply injunctions to be truthful, charitable, generous, is therefore a matter of moment. I have a hunch that the privatisation of our lives — working from home, not travelling so much and having far less social contact with others outside our chosen spheres — has meant that most of us are living in a moral space less challenged by difference than it used to be. Here in this part of Herefordshire, for example, we rarely meet anyone who isn’t white or from a rural, probably local, background. I don’t think I’ve met anyone here who isn’t either a Christian of some sort or an agnostic or atheist. Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs belong to the wider world I used to know — they are not on my doorstep. Social media used to provide another window on the world, so to say, but recent changes in content moderation make one question whether that, too, is going to become even more of an ‘echo chamber’ for those of similar mind than it was. All this affects us, often more than we realise.

To take a concrete example. The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins on Monday, will present us with unique challenges this year. There can be no dutiful ‘shared worship’ of the type we held in the past, which let us off the hook of really engaging with one another. Our prayer and work for unity must be real, and working out how to do that is going to test all of us. We shall have to make choices, some of which will be hard; but they must be moral choices, that is to say, proceeding from principle and conviction. Some look to technology to provide a solution, perhaps forgetting that technology is a means to an end. How we use it matters. Why we use it matters. But it is what we actually do with it that matters most of all.

Hope for our Moral Health

I am hopeful that our experience of pandemic will enable us to reflect on what we really value. I have said before that I hope it will lead to a deeper experience of God in prayer, to a fresh appreciation of family, friends and community and the many good things we encounter in our daily lives, plus a more profound sense of the interconnectedness of the world in which we live. I hope it will also lead to a strengthening of our moral health, our concern for one another, and our delight in trying to make things better for everyone. The world is not broken as it once was, but we may have failed to see how beautifully it has been repaired by the coming of Christ and the part we have to play in keeping its bonds strong. We tend to think of ourselves as clay, being moulded by the Potter. Maybe, just this once, we could identify with Christ himself, with that little line of gold purified in the furnace of experience and suffering but helping to hold together the vessel God has created, the world and everyone in it.

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Leadership and Authority

Photo by Evan Davis

Introduction
People readily invoke the need for leadership, especially when things are going wrong or they feel the need to apportion blame; authority has a harder time making a case for itself. Leadership implies some sort of involvement in the choice of leader, so there has to be a measure of consent to being led, even if our personal choice fell on another. That is one of the basic principles of democracy: we agree that whoever won the majority of the electors’ votes forms the government. Authority, on the other hand, is conferred rather than chosen and the degree of consent to its working can be minimal. The hereditary monarch and the bishop are alike in this. We can leave the country or the Church, but we cannot alter the scope of the monarch’s or bishop’s authority. It is beyond our power.

The savvy reader may notice the influence of Walter Ullmann in this brief analysis. In my undergraduate days I sat at his feet and have always been fascinated by his ascending and descending themes of law and government. Francis Oakley’s subsequent attack on him has not lessened my enthusiasm for using Ullmann’s theses as an interpretative tool for the events of our own day.

Ullmann’s Ascending and Descending Themes
Many of the medieval disputes Ullmann wrote about, and the rise of Fascism in the mid- twentieth century which sent millions to their death, had to do with questions of leadership and authority. Were medieval popes and emperors equal, or did they have distinct but complementary roles; and in any case, who decided the scope of each? Was Hitler’s popular mandate sufficient warrant for the crimes he subsequently committed — or were they not crimes at all, because he held a popular mandate? In Church and State today different models of leadership and authority are operative, but how do they interact? A democratically elected government derives its power and authority from the electorate, so the man or woman at the top is said to be actualising the will of the people — Ullmann’s ascending theme; but what happens when a government ceases to act within the confines of the law? Does Boris Johnson’s side-stepping of Parliament on some issues mean he has forfeited the right to be seen as a legitimate democratic authority and become a dictator?

The extraordinary events in Washington D.C. last week raise serious questions about the nature of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of President, Congress, Senate, and Judiciary. Access to social media and smartphones has transformed not only our awareness of what is happening but also our assessment of it. Each individual, by virtue of his/her choice of what to read or view, can now claim the ability to judge the rights and wrongs of highly complex situations we might never have known about in previous times. If this is a right, a freedom we claim, then it also comes with the responsibility to judge fairly and to take care how and when we exercise our right.

Religious authority, being derived from God, tends to fan out top/down, as in Ullmann’s descending theme, but very few, in the West at least, would say such authority was absolute, certainly not where Christianity is concerned. We recognize the power and (hopefully) respect the person we consider to have authority over us, but we prefer to talk about ‘leadership’ rather than give a blanket allegiance which may oblige us to an obedience we do not relish. The challenges to the authority of the pope and bishops (sometimes coming from the bishops themselves) are startling to those brought up in an older era of automatic deference. (The historian in me is not convinced the deference was ever quite as complete or automatic as some maintain, but let that pass.) There is definitely an air of ‘we the people’ when the discussion of some subjects comes up, and it has to be admitted that the official response of the Vatican or local hierarchy is often lacklustre. The abuse scandal would not be such a festering wound if the bishops, and a succession of popes, including Pope Francis, had been able to confront the reality of abuse honestly, humbly and compassionately from the beginning. 

It is the same with questions of participation in the life of the Church. Many simply do not see that some of the provisions of Cor Orans, for instance, are insulting to women leading the monastic life, or that allowing religious brothers to vote at the Synod on the Family while initially refusing any like participation to women religious made nonsense of the argument that ‘rulership’ is the preserve of the priesthood. The latest change to canon law, admitting women to the ministries of acolyte and lector while denying the possibility of admission to the ordained orders of priest and deacon, probably also caused a few historians to raise their eyebrows. I shall discuss this in more detail below.

The point is, this is the situation we have and we must make the best of it. It helps, I think, that we are currently re-reading St Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot, (RB 2), and can trace there a nuanced and ultimately compelling account of what leadership can and should be, and what real authority looks like when it is placed at the service of others rather than used for personal gain. It also helps that we have four very different monastic saints to commemorate this week, and each of them can cast some light on the subject of leadership and authority. I am referring to Aelred (11 January), Benet Biscop (12 January) and Maurus and Placid (15 January). Anthony (17 January) is superseded by Sunday but would add another interesting dynamic if he were included.

Aelred of Rievaulx: the importance of example
I haven’t been able to join in the ‘Our Aelred’ webinar organized under the auspices of English Heritage and others, so it may be that the participants will come away with a much keener appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses than is common. Aelred was undoubtedly a very charismatic figure, who inspired love and devotion in others. He could write like an angel, and the themes he was particularly drawn to — love and friendship — are attractive in every age. Under him, Rievaulx became home to a very large and disparate community which numbered some quite rough characters among them. Despite his suffering considerable ill-health, community numbers steadily increased during his lifetime. His beautiful Pastoral Prayer, part of which I myself say daily, is one that anyone with responsibility for others would do well to pray. 

After Aelred’s death, cracks began to show. The community was never again quite as flourishing. It is not difficult to comprehend why. Personal magnetism, like grace, is not easily ‘institutionalised’. Initial fervour is rarely sustained indefinitely and Rievaulx was no exception.

I think that Aelred’s life is not easily understood by anyone who has not lived as a Cistercian him/herself. Asceticism and self-renunciation, not self-indulgence, were part of his routine, but they are alien concepts for many of us today. Many have forgotten — if they ever knew — how disciplined his life must have been, or they have speculated about his friendships or his sexuality without recognizing that such evidence as we have is ambiguous. Aelred himself was a monk first and foremost and might have thought our concerns irrelevant to his own purpose as abbot: bringing a community of monks and conversi to holiness. The Rule of St Benedict provided a model, as did the evolving interpretations of the Cistercians themselves, but his abbacy has his own individual stamp upon it and was by no means ‘text-book’ in every respect. His authority was not absolute, either. He was subject to the scrutiny of others and the decisions of General Chapter, but there was also the daily living in community, the accommodations to individual temperaments and circumstances about which St Benedict writes so eloquently. It was his business to rule by example — and what an example he must have set!

My first set of questions
So, my first set of questions about leadership and authority is: where there is no example given, can there be leadership; and if there is no leadership, can there be authority? How would that apply to recent events in the UK or the USA?

Benet Biscop: the importance of taking advice
Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He is sometimes dismissed as a seventh-century aesthete, but that is to ignore his physical and mental toughness. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, deemed the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible, is a product of the Jarrow scriptorium (it lacks the Book of Baruch, but that we may regard as a minor detail compared with what it does contain).

Contemporaries remarked on Benet’s patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united, and the attainment of unity requires much patient listening to others. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is recognized as someone who appreciated the wisdom of St Benedict. None of this would have been possible had he not had a gift for seeking out and taking advice. That suggests a humility leaders do not always show. He was certainly not wishy-washy. Bede describes him as being ‘full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.’ That kind of enthusiasm demands clear thinking and a readiness to sift the evidence, taking nothing for granted.  I suppose a secular equivalent would be a government minister dutifully working through his despatch boxes or attending briefings, or an employer consulting employees about proposed changes to work schedules or company activities. An ecclesiastical equivalent might be consultation of the laity or any group particularly affected by a proposed decision.

My second set of questions
So, my second set of questions about leadership and authority is: how far does the one who leads have a duty to inform him/herself before taking a decision? Is authority compromised when it is based on whim or personal preference rather than the greater good of the whole? How relevant is Catholic Social Teaching to the exercise of authority?

Maurus and Placid: the place of obedience
I’ve included Maurus and Placid because they show us another side of the leadership/authority question: that of obedience. Many a Benedictine novice has chafed at the presentation of these two saints as exemplary disciples of St Benedict. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is quickly told. Placid, the youthful disciple, runs to the lake to fetch water and falls in. Benedict, aware of what has happened, orders the older Maurus to go and rescue him, so he sets out and walks on the water in obedience to his abbot’s command. There is a little subsequent disagreement about whether it is the obedience of Maurus or the prayers of the abbot that are responsible for saving the boy’s life, but the unhesitating obedience of Maurus is a model of obedience popular in the Church, even today, when we are assured many things have changed for the better. But have they? I’d argue that the role of the laity, women especially, is still ‘problematic’. 

The announcement on Monday that women may now be admitted to the ministries of acolyte and lector was greeted by some as a wonderful advance. Women may now do canonically what they have been doing informally for some time: serve at the altar and read at the ambo. The trouble is, the historical memory involved in this view of things is rather truncated. Women were serving at the altar and reading at the ambo even before these were reserved to men as minor orders, and they have been doing so for some years since Vatican II and the greater use of the vernacular. In 1972 Paul VI designated them ministries, thus freeing them from identification with clerical status. Opening them to both men and women as a function of our common baptismal consecration can therefore be seen as an advance while at the same time firmly closing the door on the (re)admission of women to the diaconate — as Pope Francis did last year. But I think many women will see the change as too little too late, because it has to be viewed alongside some recent decisions quite at odds with it. I have already drawn attention to some of the provisions of Cor Orans which make it clear that nuns are not regarded as having the capacity to make decisions for themselves and are to be closely supervised. Perhaps that helps explain why men seem to be keener on this change in canon law than many women. It formalises and limits without necessarily changing anything more than the text of canon 230 § 1. Law is important, of course, but what is lawful does not always lead to action. In this case, it has directive but not compulsive force. What woman is going be an altar server or read at Mass if the priest objects? Isn’t that the rub?

Some object that in a global Church, cultural norms are challenged by the change. I think that is to disregard the fact that many effectively priestless communities have been kept going for years by lay men and women acting as catechists and adult formators. If I may use an analogy, the excitement expressed over the election of Kamala Harris as Vice President elect of the U.S.A. must have been greeted with a sense of déja-vu in India, Pakistan, Liberia, etc. and many other countries in the so-called ‘developing world’ that have already had a woman as Prime Minister or President. My own feeling is that the change in canon law will be used as a pretext to avoid bigger questions about the role of the laity, women especially. It will be interesting to see how the laity have worked to keep faith communities alive and flourishing during this time of pandemic through the way in which many have addressed the need for fellowship and service, not just worship.

My third set of questions
So my third set of questions is this: how do leadership and authority in the Church combine, and are they reserved to men only (not necessarily priests: think about those religious brothers I mentioned earlier)? Is the obedience to be given by women fundamentally different from that to be given by men? Does this reflect the fullness of the Incarnation?  Have the laity acted as leaders during the pandemic, not just supporting the clergy but acting to keep communities alive? What can we learn from this?

Conclusion
I am conscious of not having dealt in detail with the historical arguments for some of the views I hold but that would require a much longer post, and this is already longer than many of my readers will bear. I think it important to stress that, while recognizing the imperfect nature of the present situation in both Church and State, the alternatives do not appeal. I remain, in the non-party-political sense, a liberal and a democrat and a loyal, if sometimes sorely tried — and doubtless, trying —, Catholic. What the future holds, who can say?

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Lockdown 2.0

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

As we enter another COVID-19 lockdown in England and Scotland, we can feel the anguish and despair many are experiencing. In vain do we tell ourselves that there is hope on the horizon — if vaccines prove effective against the new strains of the virus now circulating. There is still that underlying fear of the unknown, that sense of the familiar being gone for ever. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that this is Lockdown 2.0. We learned a lot from our previous experience that we can now put into practice. We shall cope better. That is not just ‘pi in the sky’ assurance. It is a fact. We have learned a great deal about ourselves, our communities, our strengths and weaknesses, and have discovered a resilience and creativity we probably never knew we had.

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. By this stage of their journey the Magi must have been tired, dusty, wondering whether they should give up; but they didn’t. They went on, following the star. God was with them, as he is with us. God is with us. That is the message of Christmas — and of lockdown — for today and always.

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Kindness and Compassion


Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

The popular slogan of our time ‘Be kind’ tends to irritate me, partly, I suspect, because those who utter it are sometimes anything but kind themselves or use it as a defence against any criticism of their own opinions or actions. Yet we all need kindness, perhaps never more so than as the New Year 2021 advances on its way with a pandemic still uncontrolled, wars, poverty and injustice still rife, and human hearts still unconverted. And perhaps the only way to real kindness is via an experience of compassion.

The meaning of kindness and compassion
It helps, I think, to reflect on the origin of the words we use. To be kind is to recognize kinship with another — Old English cynd(e) gecynd(e) — and is closely linked to nature. We are naturally kind to those with whom we are united by blood — only, let’s be honest, sometimes we aren’t. That’s where compassion comes in. To feel with, to suffer with another — Latin compati — requires imagination and is a work of grace. That has nothing to do with natural relationships as such, but allows us to be kind to those with whom we have no natural affinity.

Being truly kind, being compassionate, requires more than vague feelings of benevolence or a few well-meaning words. It requires effort, a change of stance. Matt Collamer’s photo reminds me of the top-down attitude we often adopt towards those we try to help or ‘be kind to’. The photographer has come down to the level of the man holding the sign, and how different everything looks! The figures in the background are higher, distant, and, whether by accident or design, walking away from the subject. There is no connection between them and him. It is almost as if man with the sign has become an object rather than a person. Does that make you examine your conscience? It does me.

The challenge for us
People often speak of our living in a broken world or one in need of healing. We tend to forget that it is up to us to mend the pieces and bind up the wounds. The fact that we feel we can do very little doesn’t mean that we can do nothing. We can be kind; we can be compassionate; and doing so will bring us closer to God than many of the other activities in which we engage. Ultimately, it is not how rich, powerful, learned, beautiful, admired, ‘right’ or anything else we are that matters, but how much we love God and others for his sake, who is all mercy and compassion.

May 2021 bring you many blessings!

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Quoting Out of Context

We all love to quote, especially if by doing so we can suggest a whole chain of allusions and dress ourselves in borrowed plumes of learning and wit. Unfortunately, it can also be a little dangerous. Quoting out of context can sometimes lead to serious misunderstandings or a complete perversion of what the original author intended. I’ve been guilty of that myself, and suffered from it happening to me at times. I’m sure it’s also true of anyone reading this. We register the fact, but do we always register its significance?

Take the liturgy, for example. Advent presents us with a carefully-crafted thematic series of readings from which we can derive a much deeper understanding of what salvation means, but if we don’t read round the texts, so to say, we can miss much more. When people ask how to read the psalter, for instance, I often give them the psalm scheme we use in the Divine Office (150 psalms in the course of a week), then urge then to realise that the psalter is already an arranged book. To understand one particular psalm it helps to read those that precede and follow. It is the same with the Mass readings. Gospel passages read in context often have a sightly different emphasis from the one we assume when we hear them proclaimed at the ambo.

Of course, my point about quoting out of context has a much wider application than the liturgy. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all how easy it is for those of us who are not medically qualified or trained in the use of statistics to misinterpret the arguments of others and advance as fact what is actually a matter of opinion. In my view, the UK Government hasn’t helped with its frequent claims to be ‘following the science’ when it clearly has not recognized that ‘science’ doesn’t usually achieve a consensus all at once, nor is it necessarily infallible. Those of us who are not constitutional lawyers may have unintentionally taken sides in the dispute about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election without realising that opinion, by itself, is not sufficient justification for a course of action with definite, legal consequences. Those of us brave enough — or should I say bold enough — to plunge again into the muddy waters of the Brexit debate may rue the day when arguments were reduced to slogans and some very dodgy claims made about predictable/unpredictable outcomes.

Does this matter? Surely we all have a right to our opinions and their free expression? Yes, we do; but, as with any right, there is a responsibility attached, too. We may think of ourselves as insignificant but each of us has a role to play in forming public opinion, especially if we are users of social media and the like. We have a duty to ensure that our opinions are based on as thorough an appraisal of the arguments as we can make. That means careful listening, careful reading and careful expression in contexts where we may influence others. I can cheerfully go on proclaiming that the PBGV is the best breed of dog in the world (a highly subjective opinion, not to be uttered in the presence of Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, and one that only other PBGV devotees will take seriously) but I would do well to be more cautious in expressing my views on racial injustice or the ethics of using certain technologies. That is not because my opinion does not matter, but because these are matters of great importance and should be treated with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

Already some are arguing that any COVID-19 vaccine which incorporates matter derived from aborted embryos cannot be used, citing as proof the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. That is to disregard or ignore an important clarification issued some years ago which states that, while it is preferable not to incorporate such tissue, it is permissible to use such vaccines where there is a grave risk to health. (For a summary of some of the arguments and relevant documents, see this article by Deacon Greg Kandra: https://is.gd/AwgY7T). Even as we try to be quieter during Advent, it seems we may need to speak out, providing context as well as memorable quotes. We await the coming of the Word at Christmas, so how could we be indifferent to the way we use words every day?

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Muddled Thinking and Muddled Morals

In the last forty-eight hours we have been treated to some very diverse interpretations of what constitutes the common good. In the Netherlands, for example, it is now legal for doctors to sedate patients with dementia before administering euthanasia (so they do not resist). At the same time, Angela Merkel, long the guardian of the European conscience, has urged that COVID-19 vaccines should be available to poor countries as well as rich ones — on grounds of fairness (and possibly, self-interest). Matt Hancock has helpfully informed us that ‘Christmas is a special time of year’ while not, apparently, going as far as one scientific adviser who thinks Christmas should be ‘postponed’ for six months because the new programme of restraints the government has devised for us does not go far enough to protect public health. Religious illiteracy is clearly even more widespread than we thought. Public sector pay is to be held at current levels but the increases for M.P.s are, at the time of writing, still to go ahead. As to what is happening in Hong Kong or the U.S.A., I dare not comment for fear that I should have to go into hiding from all sides. Meanwhile the barque of Peter sails serenely on, according to its own timetable (the liturgical calendar) and its own preoccupations, which are rarely those of politicians or secular society.

In his homily for the solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis admonished us not to give up on great dreams. It is easy to be dismissive of the pope. The subjects on which he chooses to speak or write, the language he uses, and the sometimes interminable length of the addresses themselves, can be difficult for English-speakers. But the great dreams to which he alludes are not to be summarily dismissed. We can get bogged down in the minutiae of daily life and mistake the seemingly urgent for the genuinely important, limiting both ourselves and others unnecessarily. The headlines dominating our news or engaging our social media streams are sometimes petty and leave us making bad or selfish choices. Our thinking can become muddled, and when that happens, so, frequently, does our conduct.

Advent is still a few days away but it provides an excellent opportunity to simplify, reassess what truly matters and act accordingly. That is why I always think these days between Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent are a precious time of preparation. We may be choosing an Advent book to provide a fresh perspective on what we are celebrating or drawing up a routine which will ensure we read the Mass readings every day and make time for prayer. Here in the monastery we like to begin with three days of almost perfect silence. Apart from the Divine Office and necessary conversation with the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker, so to say, we try to keep quiet and allow the silence to lead us. That isn’t possible for everyone, nor would it be advisable in all cases. We have to use common sense as well as spiritual sense in our decision-making. Whatever we decide to do, I have a hunch that if we use this time imaginatively and ask the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall discover that the common good and our own personal good are more closely aligned than we may have thought. But it may take some hard thinking and hard praying to work that out.

Audio version

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House of Prayer or Robbers’ Den? The Case for Spiritual Distancing.

Today’s gospel, Luke 19. 45–48, neatly encapsulates many people’s attitude to the Church, though I suspect those most hostile to her would not necessarily pick up the scriptural references but simply condemn her as ‘rich and corrupt’. Try applying the gospel text to ourselves as believers, and the words begin to sizzle uncomfortably. Is my heart a place where the Lord can pray unceasingly, or is it full of contradictory desires and selfish wants that not only block prayer but make me hypocritical — always a charge against Christians, but sometimes justified.

In a monastery you might think we have it all under control, but alas, that is not so. We have to learn, day by day, how to make the heart open to the Lord. Liturgy, the practice of lectio divina and, above all, living in community are great helps but none of them can take the place of the daily, personal conversion of heart expected of us. We vow it, so it must be possible; but it is a never-ending work in progress. One important aspect of conversion is the readiness to listen to people and opinions we don’t immediately find attractive; and by listening I mean more than waiting just long enough to hear the words but only in order to reject them. I mean really trying to understand what is meant and weighing it carefully to see whether it applies to us or not.

We are exhorted to be always on the alert for the voice of God, but it can be difficult to sift out other voices that do not come from him. I think that is why Benedict is so keen on humility, mercy and restraint of speech. He knows we are apt to assume we’re right about everything and be harsh on those who disagree with us. I know I am! But if we are truly to turn to the Lord and make our hearts a house of prayer, we need to practise what I’m tempted to call ‘spiritual distancing’. Older writers called it ‘detachment,’ and it means more than being indifferent to wealth or ease or avoiding sin. It means a wholly different ‘take’ on life which places God at the centre. Part of that involves cultivating freedom from our own opinions and preferences, and that can be more difficult than overcoming other, more material, forms of self-indulgence.

May I make a suggestion? Today, when tempted to react negatively, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether there is something you need to think about before you reply. It won’t necessarily stop you screaming at the radio or sending off that angry tweet, but it may open an unexpected pathway to grace in your life — and that can never be a bad thing, can it?

Audio version

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COVID-19, Restrictions on Public Worship and the Challenge to the Church

I’ll probably lose a few friends and several readers with this post, but I think we need to stop grumbling about how much we are suffering because of COVID-19 restrictions, especially the restrictions on public communal worship. At one level, we can argue that observing lockdown restrictions is merely a way in which we can put the common good before our own. That is what I call the functional approach. At another, I think we have to consider where the Church’s true good lies and what is being asked of us both as individuals and as an institution. Increasingly, I have come to believe that lockdown represents a opportunity to recover a faith and holiness the Church currently lacks; but let’s take the COVID situation first.

The impact of COVID-19 on worship
Those who have or have had COVID, those who have lost people dear to them or their homes and livelihoods, those battling the pandemic right now, they have something to complain about; but do the rest of us? We can see that for those most at risk, the virus is scary; for those who are lonely or depressed or anxious, it is a daily struggle; but for the majority of us, it is more of an inconvenience than anything else. We have to take more care about hygiene, think before we go anywhere, keep our distance from family and friends for fear of spreading a disease we may not even know we have, abandon, at least for a while, much that is familiar or pleasurable, but our essential freedom to worship God has not altered. In saying that, I am aware that opinion is divided about the risk to public health that meeting together in church constitutes. I’m also aware of the statement issued by Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop McMahon in response to the government’s proposals. However, if we concentrate too much on the negative, we may miss an opportunity — a moment of grace, if you like, that could potentially transform our lives and the lives of those with whom we come into contact.

Deepening our life of prayer
If the bedrock of our religious practice is daily or weekly Mass, lockdown provides us with opportunities to see how the Eucharist fits into a much wider context of scripture and ‘private’ prayer. Praying the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours not only joins us with the whole Church in every age, it provides a sacred rhythm for the present. It extends the celebration of the Eucharist and hallows time. We can forget that it is possible to become very individualistic, even selfish, in our approach to worship and the sacraments, allowing our routines to provide an assurance more apparent than real. I go to Mass, so I’m alright spiritually, am I not? If I can’t go to Mass, for whatever reason, life suddenly becomes much more alarming, doesn’t it? I’m not so confident any more. My faith doesn’t stretch that far. Once we recall that it is Christ who prays in us and that the words of scripture, the psalms especially, are his prayer, a temporary restriction on meeting together and celebrating the sacraments looks less like a loss and more like an encouragement to re-think some of our old ideas. How many of us have asked ourselves whether lockdown is an invitation to deepen our knowledge and love of scripture, grow in prayer, and become closer to Christ in a new way?

Being aware of God’s presence
Most of you know I am not a fan of live-streamed worship. Many are, but I have never found it necessary or helpful. I’m also unenthusiastic about many devotions from which others derive great comfort and support. That isn’t because I don’t value them or see the good in them but because I am aware of God’s presence here, in my monastic cell, in the chapel, wherever I happen to be and whatever I happen to be doing. It is all-embracing, and I attribute that to my formation as a Benedictine and long years of trying to practise lectio divina. I’m not suggesting that everyone should become a monk or nun — heaven forbid! — but I do wonder whether key elements of the monastic tradition of reading and prayer could helpfully be rediscovered by the Church at this time.

What is normal?
Many priests and pastors are doing their imaginative best to support those who feel bereft, but some talk only of ‘when things return to normal’ and, to be honest, I question whether that will ever come about. It is not just that, however successful vaccines prove to be in controlling the spread and severity of the virus, there are many other changes that will take much longer to work through. The shift in work patterns, the economic consequences of actions taken by government, the effects of delayed healthcare interventions, the disruption to education, to say nothing of climate change and political re-alignments, they are all going to have an effect on our future lives. Add to that the loss of trust that the IICSA reports and the McCarrick report have produced, and I question whether anyone in the Church can honestly go on talking about a return to normality. What normality are we talking about? The tired, rather inward-looking normality that seems to have become characteristic of the Church in Europe and North America in recent years?

Worshiping together is only one aspect of what church-going means. Fellowship and service of others are also important. However, I’d like to stay with worship a little longer because I think it is there that we can identify a lack we need to address. Here in the West we are not accustomed to being unable to receive the sacraments. The fact that such has been the experience of the Church at many times in her history and still is her experience in many places outside Europe and North America is one of those uncomfortable truths we prefer not to acknowledge. Could it be that the Lord is allowing us to experience something of the same because we have become too complacent? Do we ever ask ourselves why spiritual riches are lavished upon us and whether we have responded to them as we ought?

A changing Church
I’ve said often enough that I think the territorial parish is no longer central or necessary to most people’s experience of church, and I think that trend will continue. But if the traditional parish goes, and with it the economic and financial basis of much church organization and activity, there will be a knock-on effect on how we understand priesthood, both of the ordained presbyterate and the priesthood of all the baptized. If the buildings are closed, we go on being the Church but we can no longer make the same assumptions about what that means or how it is expressed. Are we ready for that? Can lockdown restrictions help us?

Recovering faith and holiness
I think our most urgent need is to recover what I think we have sometimes lost: a sense of God’s transcendence. So much of our church activity, our thinking and planning, concentrates on being of service to others, perhaps to the point where it has all gone slightly out of balance. Faith and holiness are not just ‘nice extras’ for some: they are for all. Where faith is lacking, we find the most appalling sin and corruption. Where there is no striving for holiness, there is only emptiness and routine. The emptiness may look glorious, the routine may be attractive, but we have forgotten the jar of nard, the call into the desert, the being alone with the Alone.

Romantic rubbish? I daresay some will think it so. Parish priests mesmerised by new technologies but grieving the loss of the physical presence of their parishioners will be scratching their heads and asking themselves what more can they do to keep their congregations together. A return to what is familiar will be their top priority. Parish treasurers, faced with a big drop in income, will be wondering how to make up the shortfall. What can we keep, what will have to go? And those who lovingly place their talents at the service of the liturgy in a thousand different ways, from making music to mopping the floors, will be torn by the desire to go on doing exactly that. For the less obviously talented, the mythical ‘person in the pew,’ there may be fewer conflicts but still there will be hard choices to make. 

We are dealing with what, for most of us, is a new situation, for which there isn’t really any precedent. We can read about martyrs and those who kept the faith in times past; we can reflect on Israel’s forty years of wandering in the desert; but that was then and now is now. There aren’t easy solutions to the challenges we face. The danger is that we may rush to decide how we should meet them before we have really formulated the questions or examined them in any detail — still less given God a chance to have his say.

Grumbling about not being able to go to church in the way we’re used to is understandable, but it would be a tragedy if our own noise blocked out the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.19). What is he doing now? Are we sure we know? To put it bluntly, should we be asking ourselves anew how we are to be the Church, how we are to cultivate faith and holiness ? Perhaps this Advent we shall begin to find out.

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Remembrance Sunday 2020

The Mother of Jesus embracing the Mother of Judas. By Nicholas Mynheer. In a private collection and used by permission.
The Mother of Jesus embracing the Mother of Judas. By Nicholas Mynheer. In a private collection and used by permission.

Not the expected drift of blood-red poppies or the silhouette of a lonely cross with a World War I helmet dangling from it but a much more challenging image to illustrate this Remembrance Sunday post. We remember those who fought and died best when we strive to achieve what they fought for: a kinder, more peaceful, more forgiving world. The embrace of these two mothers grieving the loss of their children is a stark reminder that we do not have to hate; we do not have to be divided. Reconciliation is always possible, if we are willing to allow it. Let us pray that it may be so, whatever kind of war or conflict may confront us.

Note: I also wrote about this image during Holy Week this year.

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