On Being Tired of Contention

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

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

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

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Ethical Questions

One of the disadvantages of being a nun is that many people think there are a number of questions on which one should not express any opinion. It is acceptable to be against injustice, poverty, war and disease, of course — and to say so quite vigorously to anyone who will listen. Among Catholics it is acceptable to be pro-life, though not all would agree that to be pro-life means being against the death penalty or having reservations about the use of military force in certain situations. But to have opinions about politics or economics or the ethics and purposes of business or science, that is a much more questionable proposition. Why should that be so? I agree, for example, that it would be wrong for me to engage in party politics, but does my being a nun mean I should forget everything I ever learned about the world beyond the cloister or forfeit any right to have an opinion because I’m no longer actively involved in business and am definitely not a scientist? I certainly can’t say I’m no longer involved in politics. I have a vote, and I use it. Similarly, the monastery needs goods and services to function, and that involves us in making decisions about the use of resources and the ethics of the decisions we make. And as readers will know, I take a close interest in some scientific questions because they have a direct bearing on my own health.

How far is a politician’s personal morality to be taken into account when assessing his/her fitness for office? Does it matter if a politician lies or makes promises that cannot be fulfilled? If I say, for example, that I find both Mr Trump’s and Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth somewhat curious, am I overstepping a limit or simply voicing what many others think? Either way, I am expressing an opinion. I ought not to do so lightly or without taking into account the possible consequences, knowing that it would be wrong to harm someone’s reputation. If I argue that making money is not the sole objective of business, am I saying anything very extraordinary? I don’t think so, because I believe that ethical questions are not abstract but affect us all very deeply. In the same way, scientific advances often run ahead of our ability to think about them critically. It is easy to tie ourselves up in knots, especially if we know that we have an imperfect grasp of facts or that the conclusions we come to may be unwelcome.

Take, for example, my question about the ethics and purposes of business. Most people would say that it is wrong to mislead or make false claims while recognizing that a whole industry (advertising) has been built up on the premiss that one can enhance the value of a product by presenting it to the public in the most flattering light. Unfortunately, that may mean ‘massaging the truth’, which is where it becomes a little more complicated. What about a business’s end purpose? Isn’t that to make money for its owners, the shareholders, and those who participate in its activities, the workers? Yes and no. If that were the sole purpose of business, it surely would not matter what a business did. Oughtn’t business in some way to contribute to the common good, and the way in which it does so ought to be consistent with that good? Given the number of companies scrambling to ensure that they have a greener footprint than they did ten years ago, that seems to be a message that has got through. But who decides these things or enables businesses to make ethical decisions?

With that question, I think we come to the heart of the matter. Ethics committees are only as effective as the people who constitute them. In recent years we have encountered a number of difficult cases in the world of science, where individuals have undertaken experiments because they could, not because there was an ethical argument for doing so. Many of us haven’t even begun to think about the kind of questions that the advance of A.I. will pose, but we can’t close our eyes to the fact that we do need to think about them. Whether we are Aristotelians, Kantians, Utilitarians or whatever, both as individuals and as a society, we need to consider how our personal values affect our existence, how we arrive at ethical decisions and the part those decisions play in both our present and future. I don’t think anyone should be excluded from that process — not even annoying nuns like me.

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The Language We Use

I am sometimes tempted to think that the reputation of today’s saint, St Peter Chrysologus (‘Golden-Tongued’), is helped by the fact that much of his writing has been lost. We have only a few of his sermons, none of which demonstrates his fabled eloquence — or at least not to me, who once had to translate a few of them.

I was thinking about this as I did my usual swift survey of social media and came up against something I have noticed many times before but never thought of mentioning on this blog: the carelessness with which we write and, in particular, the way in which it is thought acceptable to denigrate women and girls. Kind and educated people seem to think it unobjectionable to use swear words as adjectives and regularly refer to women and girls whose views they disagree with as bitches or worse. Why is that? Have we really all undergone a collective impoverishment of vocabulary, or has aggression become our normal response to anything or anyone we dislike, especially, but certainly not exclusively, if female?*

Some of us smiled at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide, with its masculine focus, its determined refusal to acknowledge that language changes over time, and its misunderstanding of some punctuation practices; but no-one, I think, would ever accuse him of being deliberately rude. I find it hard to imagine him referring to an opponent as a bitch, for example, or using a derogatory term about those of a different ethnicity; and that, I think, matters.

The language we use says a great deal about us as individuals but it also affects those who hear us. If we have got into the habit of using profanities or referring to other people with the language of the farmyard, we have done more than merely coarsened our speech. We have coarsened our thought, too. In a world where violence is becoming more and more widespread, we cannot shrug off responsibility for the effect our own words and attitudes have on others. St Benedict was acutely aware of this and again and again urges restraint, thoughtfulness, and consideration for others. I think he was on to something.

*I’ve singled this out because I’m probably more aware of it, being a woman myself, and because there is no male equivalent. Calling someone a dog or a cur doesn’t have the same derogatory overtones.

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Hospitality

Here in the monastery we keep the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus as a feast of hospitality and friendship — exactly what one would expect given the emphasis St Benedict places on hospitality in the Rule. Western society, however, is becoming less and less enthusiastic about welcoming the stranger or honouring the guest while friendship is often devalued to mean little more than social media ‘likes’. Our ‘hospitality suites’ are commercial enterprises, where every canapé or cup of coffee is minutely costed; our governments are more interested in immigration quotas and building barriers of one kind or another than in sharing what we have with the less fortunate.

In the British Isles we have a long history of welcoming others. We have been called a mongrel race because of all the different nationalities and ethnicities that go into our make-up. But I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that among many the idea of welcoming others is under renewed strain. Where jobs and housing are at stake, a narrower view sometimes prevails: keep the others out! Those who oppose such a view are dismissed as namby-pamby liberals whose comfortable existences are untouched by the hardships and uncertainties of the rest. The rise of the EDL and other far-right groups adds fuel to the fire, for they depend on exaggerating differences, on creating a sense of tension and hostility, of grievance.

I’d like to suggest that it is time we all thought again about the hospitality shown by the family of Bethany. There was Martha, determined to give as good a dinner to everyone as she could — which meant hard work to supply an obvious material need. There was Mary, listening to Jesus and learning from him — paying attention to what the guest considered important, not seeking to impose her own ideas. There, too, was Lazarus, who was Jesus’ friend — so dear a friend that when he died, Jesus wept. All three elements are important in the welcome we give others but the most important is surely friendship. Unless and until we have learned to be friends with one another, we have not begun to be truly hospitable. Learning to be friends takes effort and sacrifice as well as delight in the discovery of what each brings to the friendship. It does not often happen all at once or without an openness that risks being abused. Something to ponder there, perhaps.

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Minor Irritations

During the hot weather I have done my best to be circumspect. Unlike Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, I haven’t been able to take myself off to a cool corner and ‘aestivate’, but I have tried to avoid obvious conflict zones like Twitter or Facebook. In this I have been enormously helped by some hackers who decided to try to bring down this site. Two lost days when my attention had to be focused on making sure that nothing had slipped through the net (all our sites are professionally monitored 24/7 to make sure they are safe for you to use, but accidents do happen); two lost days when I was unable to get done any of the things I had hoped to do — a minor irritation, if ever there was one!

What do we do about these minor irritations? If some of those who comment on social media are to be believed, we should adopt an attitude of perfect acceptance, allowing nothing to ruffle the surface of our thoughts and feelings. I call that the Teflon Response and am very glad it isn’t a particularly Christian or Benedictine response. Benedict, you may recall, allowed for ‘justifiable grumbling’ in certain cases, and even Jesus cursed the fig tree that bore no fruit (cf Mark 11.12). The point is, being human doesn’t mean pretending to be an angel; it means being honest but also recognizing that there must be proportion and restraint in the way we express our negative feelings. Just because we are hot and bothered doesn’t mean we have the right to bother others with our hot tempers or treat them with contempt.

The heatwave may be over for now, but minor irritations are sure to come thick and fast as summer wears on. Most of us will have one or two little tricks we use to try to stem an immediate angry response, such as counting to ten or walking from one side of a room to another or uttering a short silent prayer. Failures, alas, are bound to occur. If they do, the best course is to turn matters over to God. Choose the right time to apologize if you can but beware of self-justification or going over what caused the misunderstanding in the first place. That will only stoke up the fire, so to say. God knows how to bring about peace better than we do. We have only to ask and to wait. After all, so many of our minor irritations stem from the fact that we want to be in control and dictate the timetable for, or the unfolding of, events or other people’s behaviour— but aren’t and can’t.

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Priorities

One of the maddening things about other people is that they often have different priorities from us. Not only that, they have different tastes, different values, different habits. In a monastery, of course, there is the advantage of having the same goal in view, though how we achieve it is frequently a matter of dispute (also known as ‘chapter discussion’). Today in the U.K. we shall learn who is to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and so our next Prime Minister. Not everyone will be delighted with the result, nor will everyone share his priorities or agree with his decisions. With both national and international tensions bubbling over, we may be thinking that the situation in which we find ourselves is dire. Perhaps we need a reminder that prayer isn’t a matter of last resort, something we do when we can’t think of anything else. It is what we do first, a genuine priority. On days like this it is a necessity, pure and simple.

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Nothing New Under the Sun: Silence

In recent months, as my eyesight decreased and I went around in a frustrating blur of light and shade, I became more and more aware of sound. Listening to the Italian Quartet playing Mozart or the clear fluting of a local blackbird could almost reduce me to tears. Almost, but not quite. What did cause a moist eye was hearing hate-filled speech on the radio: cruel voices clamouring for vengeance and calling it ‘justice’ instead; others making rash accusations and false promises, denigrating, stirring up hatred, doing the devil’s work with unholy glee. Being unable to see made it so much worse. There was no opportunity to register facial expressions or those little details that sometimes make the actual words less ugly — the pinched face, the obvious poverty of the surroundings, even the politician’s crumpled suit or ashen countenance. The problem was, how to deal with it all without being drawn into a reactive anger myself.

The conventional, pious answer would no doubt be to pray and do what one can to present an alternative view — the prayerful activism of the committed Christian. I have no problem with that, but it wasn’t the way that suggested itself to me. As a Benedictine, my way was to go deeper and deeper into silence, letting the anger and turmoil ebb away until it was, practically speaking, noiseless and unable to do harm.

To choose silence and stick to it isn’t easy. It means checking one’s own first angry response, the desire to give a smart answer or argue a case one is convinced one will win because, of course, one is right. It means acknowledging one’s own helplessness in the face of something that seems very powerful and hostile. Silence does not immediately soothe. In fact, initially it makes everything much more painful. One feels more, not less. Only with time does one begin to see why silence is important. It allows God into a situation which otherwise is full of human noise and discord. More than that, it allows God to be God in that situation, not our idea of God, which can be misleading and dangerous.

At present there is a lot of violence and anger informing our political discourse, our online activities, even, alas, our social relations. Some will respond with the kind of activism I mentioned above. Others may find more helpful the practice of silence — not the easy, empty silence of the cowardly but the more challenging silence that finds its origin and fulfilment in God.

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Climb Every Mountain?

In the past nine days, ten climbers have died on the crowded slopes of Mount Everest. By and large, the media have treated the personal tragedies each of those deaths represent as a matter for regret and censure for the Nepalese government. The subtext is a chaotic lack of organization, greed and an unpreparedness among some that amounts to folly. That narrative is one that fits the West’s competitive and commercial spirit. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Everest, you will scroll through paragraph after paragraph about expeditions to ‘conquer’ the mountain, routes to the summit and so on, until you come to a few short lines about the religious significance of the mountain for the majority of Nepalese and Tibetans. It is a holy place, a living goddess, not just a challenge, another peak to scale. Perhaps, like me, you will recall photos of the litter left by climbers and note, with some shame, that in April this year attempts began to clear another 10,000 Kg of waste. Is that how we treat the holy places of others?

Listening to today’s second Mass reading (Apocalypse 21. 10-14,22-23), which recounts John’s vision of ‘an enormous high mountain’ and the city of God descending from heaven, ought to make us think. Mountains have always been special places where the divine touches us. Sinai, Tabor, the ‘high places’ of Western Christianity, all have a story to tell that goes beyond rock and clay. 

I wonder whether, in our obsession with winning and proving our physical stamina, we have lost sight of something more important. ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,’ sings the Psalmist. Until we recover that reverence, that sense of the holiness of the planet we inhabit, we shall never quite understand why we must forego some pleasures. Conservation isn’t just about cutting our carbon footprint or reducing our use of plastic — all things we or our governments essentially decide for ourselves — it is about realising that our very humanity obliges us to restraint, to a kind of humility that will never be popular and which most of us prefer to ignore. Hillary famously observed that he climbed Everest because it was there. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to, does it?

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Measuring Success and Failure

Today,  when Theresa May is widely expected to announce that she is stepping down as Leader of the Conservative Party and setting out a timetable for her resignation as Prime Minister, there will be a renewed rush to assess her time in office by the criteria of success and failure. I often wonder what we mean by that. Is it as simple as saying, she said she would do something but didn’t (failure) or she did something she said she would (success)? What happens when someone does something we were not expecting? Does our attitude change, according to whether what is done or not done corresponds to our own ideas?

I began with the example of Theresa May because it is topical, but this post is not about politics but the subjectivity we bring to our judgements. Long, long ago, before I became a nun, my banking colleagues would often mutter the phrase, ‘Now we must be objective about this’ before proceeding to act on some apparently irrational basis. Though no-one would ever admit it, the decisions they made often turned out to be just as effective as those where the number-crunchers had sweated days and nights trying to provide rational, and hence demonstrable, grounds for doing something. All this is rather unsettling to those who like to believe that their way of thinking and decision-making is unarguable. Take, for example, the invocation of science by those who are not themselves scientists. Quietnun can become quite impassioned about those who think that science ‘proves’ an assertion is ‘right’. Her background in biochemistry means she lives in what might be called an ever-expanding intellectual universe, where she is constantly being encouraged to consider possibilities she had not previously imagined. Success and failure don’t come into it: the search is all in all.

Can we apply any of that to our own lives? Here at the monastery we quite often hear from people who think their lives are a failure because they haven’t managed to do something or other, and it would be foolish and fundamentally dishonest to pretend that the choices we make have no part to play in what happens to us. But many things are beyond our control. We didn’t decide our genetic inheritance, or the time and circumstances of our birth and upbringing. We do the best we can, but it must be the best. I do think, however, that we should be cautious about accepting the values we see in the society in which we live and judging our ‘best’ by them. Success in the West tends to be seen in material terms, even among those who would describe themselves as religious. The more we have, the more successful we are. Owning a big house and driving a fast car is a mark of our success. Even religious communities/clergy can play that game, boasting of the number of vocations they have received or the number of people who attended services. Failure is identified with loss.

As soon as I say that, you can see where I am going. When the Son of God became man, he stripped himself of the glory that was his. He accepted rejection and endured a painful death on the Cross. But he was no failure. Nor are we in God’s eyes if we seek to be true to Him.

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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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