Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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Statistics

I love statistics. Like work, I can sit and look at them for hours. I am not clever enough to know how some are calculated, but I do tend to challenge a few (usually the financial ones) and, even more, the conclusions drawn from them. This morning, for example, I was thrilled to read that the number of murders, manslaughters and cases of infanticide in the U.K. fell in 2019 to 650, the lowest level for five years. For a population assessed to be 66.87 million, that may look impressive. But part of me wants to say, add in the number of abortions or people taking their own lives, and the figure rockets up; drill into the number of deaths by sex and age and the terrible toll wreaked on young men in particular becomes clear. There is still a lot of explaining to do before the statistics become helpful in terms of planning or working out how to reduce the number of deaths. It is so easy to forget that behind every statistic is a human face, a suffering face, and just look at the numbers.

Another statistic that took my eye this morning relates to the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo: 310,000 are apparently infected, and 6,000 are said to have died already. Given the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures from the Congo, one wonders whether the actual number of people involved is much higher. The solutions being proposed look inadequate and probably are inadequate, but only when the numbers reach a certain level will there be pressure to act — or so it seems.

What started me on this trail of thought was re-reading a comment I had made nearly seven years ago on an article written by a priest in a well-regarded Catholic journal (I was renewing my credentials with a commenting platform and my comment popped up before me). The article had contained unflattering observations on ‘the traditional orders’ and proposed some radical solutions based almost entirely on numbers. I had taken issue with this, little realising that some of the observations I was making in jest would reappear in Cor Orans as completely serious. Looking back, one of the things I noticed was that no-one appeared to have engaged with what I myself had written about the future of monastic life for women. Instead, many had used the opportunity to say what they thought about the habit, the liturgy and so on. There was no reason anyone should engage with me, of course, but in nearly two hundred comments, I had hoped someone other than myself might have been interested in the future of monastic life for women. Apparently not. The argument went down a different line from the one I had expected and ended up in a morass of contradictory figures and opinions, plus some fascinating insights into what really interests some American Catholics.

One should not conclude too much from that, but it illustrates a problem many of us have with statistics. First, we tend to believe them, if they fit our narrative. Second, we then use them rather crudely, citing them as ‘scientific proof’ of whatever it is we want to argue. (I am not referring to professional statisticians, who will be horrified by the suggestion that they could ever misuse their skill in such a way. I am referring to us amateurs.) Recently, I smiled over a friend’s evident sense of grievance at the amount of money the UK had contributed to the EU budget over the years of our membership. He correctly gave the figure in terms of umpteen millions. Re-worked as a contribution per capita per annum, it came to a pitifully small sum. Both figures were correct, but could be used in different ways to argue a case according to the individual’s preference.

Is there such a thing as a Christian approach to statistics? I don’t think so. But there is a Christian approach to truthfulness and fairness. A frequent theme in the Rule of St Benedict is his concern for fairness. From everyone being treated compassionately, according to need rather than status, to the constant exhortation to avoid favouritism in the monastery, Benedict wants everyone to know that there are no second-rank individuals in community. Nothing will be used to ‘do them down’. I wonder if there is something there for us all to ponder about the assumptions we make and the way in which we try to justify them, using, of course, irreproachably objective things like statistics.

Over to you.

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The Antidote to Hate Crimes

The stabbing of five people at an orthodox Jewish rabbi’s home in New York state during Hanukkah celebrations on Saturday added one more dreadful statistic to the wave of hate crimes associated with the resurgence of antiSemitism in the West. Then came news of a gun attack in a Texas church during service-time on Sunday. No doubt we shall be told in due course who the attackers were and what their motivation was thought to be. We in the U.K. will probably allow ourselves to wonder whether the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S.A. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-50936575) has created a culture of indifference towards such violence, but we have nothing to be proud of when we consider the rise in knife crime in our own city streets. The fact is that the expression of hatred is becoming harder and harder to contain or neutralise. The kind of anger and abuse we find in social media easily translates into violent action, only we tend not to see or want to acknowledge the way in which it can affect both ourselves and others. There are no boundaries, it seems — except for some fashionable hate crimes which seem to draw a disproportionate amount of attention because endorsed by the celebrities of our day.

I was struck by the response of Mayor de Blasio to what happened in Monsey: he promised more security in Jewish areas, by which I presume he means more armed guards, and a programme of education in schools. As Rabbi Sacks sadly remarked, in a tweet published yesterday,

Antisemitism has returned within living memory of the Holocaust, and after more than half a century of programs of legislation, and education designed to ensure that it could never happen again.

Legislation and education don’t appear to have changed things, and while there are those who will say it was because a churchgoer had a gun on him that the attack in Texas was no worse than it was, some of us still find the thought of taking weapons into a place of worship highly questionable. Two thousand years since the birth of the Prince of Peace and we still have not learned that violence too often begets violence!

As 2019 races towards its close, we are faced with an ever starker choice. Do we want to be people of violence or of peace? Are we going to pass the poison on, or are we going to say, ‘No. I refuse to be part of that violence’? If our answer is ‘no’ we must be prepared for huge sacrifices. It will mean being extremely careful about how we speak or act, not in the sense of being cowardly but in the sense of being mindful how our words and deeds increase or decrease the stock of tension in the world. It may be ‘fun’ to denigrate others with our witty put-downs; it may be a relief to our feelings to disparage those with whom we disagree; it may even be a source of inner congratulation to have pointed out the wrongness of a policy or an individual’s behaviour, but we do need to think about possible consequences. It is no good lighting a touch-paper and then lamenting the fact that the building burned down. The only real antidote to hate-crimes comes from those who are not prepared to hate. Which will we choose?

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Indifference and Advent

Yesterday Sarcoma UK published its report on the current state of this cancer in the UK. You can read it for yourself here: https://sarcoma.org.uk/news-events/loneliest-cancer. It is not sensationalist, nor does it whinge about lack of interest or funding, but it does explain why the charity has chosen to call sarcoma ‘The Loneliest Cancer’. I have a personal interest because I myself have metastatic leiomyosarcoma and know, from the inside as it were, what it feels like and how it affects one. This is not, however, a post about sarcoma as such, nor is it yet another contribution to the ‘my cancer and me’ genre. It is about indifference, and I am using the Sarcoma UK report as an illustration because I think it touches on a bigger question: what we do during Advent.

My Facebook followers have responded to my post about the charity’s report with their usual generosity and kindness, so have many of those who follow me on Twitter; but when, yesterday evening, I looked at the number of people who had noticed Sarcoma UK’s original twitter announcement or its subsequent repeats, I realised what an uphill struggle it will be to engage people’s interest. Can you imagine any other cancer charity’s ‘likes’ and retweets’ being for the most part in single figures/low twenties regarding such an important announcement ? True, we have an election coming on, and Black Friday deals always seem to appeal to the acquisitive in us, and there are a thousand and one other things clamouring for attention, but even those who proclaim a burning interest in health matters and the future of the NHS seem disinclined to press the ‘retweet’ button. Perhaps it will gain momentum as days pass. It certainly won’t be for any want of effort on the part of Sarcoma UK, nor for any lack of professionalism.

What does this apparent indifference say about the way in which we react to situations that do not make an impact on us personally? I’m confident that anyone affected by sarcoma, even at one remove by way of a family member or friend, will have some interest in the subject. I am equally sure that no one, confronted by a sick person in the flesh, would want to do anything other than be as considerate as possible. But some causes make no appeal to the imagination, do they, and perhaps this is one of them, or maybe it is just a case of sheer ignorance. Many years ago, when my sister organized special events for the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital Appeal, she remarked that sick children were probably the easiest of all causes for which to raise money. Others were much harder to win support for and had fewer ‘feel good’ factors, especially if they ran contrary to society’s current obsessions or were beyond the ken of most folk. 

During Advent, most of us will be thinking about almsgiving and giving time or money to good causes. We all have our favourites, but perhaps this year we could do a little more exploring. Instead of automatically supporting X or Y, we might think who really needs help urgently. There are literally hundreds of charities run on a shoe-string that support causes we may never have heard of, or that supply a need we did not know existed. It would be good if we could each find one that we judge worthy of support and do what we can to show we are not indifferent, and never can be, because of love for our Saviour. That would make our Advent special, and perhaps transform the lives of others. It would assuredly transform our own.

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Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Death, Be Not Proud

Yesterday thirty-nine people — thirty-eight adults and one teenager — were discovered dead in a refrigerated trailer in Essex. We do not yet know who they were nor where they came from, though the Essex Police and their colleagues from other Forces have moved quickly to begin investigations. The media have reacted as we would expect, expressing horror and revulsion, then turning to other topics. This morning Twitter, for example, is replete with squabbles about politics, ‘inspirational quotes’ and the usual rag-bag of opinions, ranging from the thoughtful to the whacky. For some of us, however, those deaths in the trailer are not so easily forgotten, nor should they be. Our common humanity demands that we remember.

At the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal, we pray for the dead. Some outside the community would like to limit such prayer to the ‘faithful departed’ in the strictest sense (i.e. those baptized as Catholics), but we have never done that, preferring to pray for all who have died, especially those who have no-one else to pray for them or who have died in terrible circumstances. The thought of those desperate people dying in an airless, frozen darkness is horrible. Not for them the beautiful rituals with which we surround death in the monastery — the prayers by the bedside, the anointing, the candles, the holy water, the accompaniment of the sacraments. A prayer, a kind thought, a remembrance, is little enough, surely?

Too little perhaps, because behind the horror and tragedy of those deaths is the scandal of people smuggling and trafficking. We need to do more than lament the circumstances, we need to eradicate the evil. That will take courage and vigilance and the kind of activism many of us baulk at. It will also mean sacrifice, because unless we tackle the causes of migration to the West people will continue to take huge risks — and there will always be others ready to exploit them. There will be more deaths, more tragedies.

We do what we can, of course. Here in the monastery we pray, and we do not lose hope. Donne’s sonnet ends with the lines

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Amen to that.

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Accepting Responsibility or Wriggling Out of It?

Following the defeat of his attempt to secure the House of Commons’ agreement to his Brexit deal, Mr Johnson sent three letters to the European Union: an unsigned photocopy of the request for a delay as outlined by the Benn Act; an explanatory note from the U.K.s ambassador to the E.U.; and a personal, signed, letter saying why he does not want a delay. Whatever one thinks of Brexit, the failure to sign the first letter struck me as childish — a moment of shame for all of us in the U.K. as the Prime Minister made it plain that he refused to accept responsibility for what he was obliged by law to do. There have been many similar instances during the past few years of prominent people — not just politicians — wriggling out of responsibility. At one level, their actions can be dismissed as mere posturing. At another, I think they suggest something much more troubling: unwillingness to accept that there are limits on our personal freedom by virtue of the obligations we have assumed. ‘Falling on one’s sword’ may sound a quaint idea to some, but behind it lies a long tradition of accepting responsibility, of being someone on whom others can rely — and that is the crux. Shrugging off responsibility makes one unreliable.

How often do we hear people caught up in the scandals of the moment declare they they have done nothing wrong? They cling to their positions even after it has become clear that they have failed to act when they should or have been complicit in dubious transactions. One aspect of the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that has rocked the trust of many has been the failure of some bishops to accept responsibility for what has happened in their dioceses. But, lest we think this shrugging off of responsibility is something that affects others not us, let’s pause a moment and examine our own conscience. When did we last drive too fast, putting others at risk, and justified ourselves to ourselves with the thought that nothing untoward was likely to happen; when did we turn away when someone needed our help because we were busy and preoccupied with our own needs or wishes; when did we ignore the beggar in the street on the grounds that she was a drug-abuser and any money we gave would have been used to feed a destructive addiction; when did we make a promise we didn’t keep or fulfilled only minimally and legalistically? In other words, just how reliable are we? Always, or only when it suits us? It is no accident that St Benedict describes the watchful brother who is conscious of his duty to God and others as a utilis frater, a reliable brother, one on whom we — and He — can depend. (cf RB 7.18). Something for us all to ponder, I would suggest.

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Saying Thank You

In days of yore, i.e. when I was younger and lived in a big community, we did not use alarm clocks. Instead, a nun was deputed to go along the corridor, open the door of each monastic cell, and say to the sleepy-head within, Benedicite. To which the correct response was Deo Gratias. Thus, the first word to pass our lips was always ‘Thank you, God.’ (There were longer and more complicated formulae for certain feasts, but we can ignore them.)

For what were we saying ‘thank you’? For the gift of sleep now rudely ended? For the possibilities of the new day? Or were we simply acknowledging God as God, and thanking Him for being? I like to think the latter, because to thank God for being God implies much more than gratitude. It is an expression of love and delight, wonder and praise; and is there any better way to start a new day?

Today I hope to thank several people for gifts of books sent to mark Buy a Nun a Book Day and various kindnesses received in recent weeks. I have had to do some delving to find addresses for some; others preferred to give anonymously; but all are included in the community’s thanksgiving. It may sound a little trite — sentimental even — but I hope that our thankfulness is more than recognition of what we owe others, a kind of arithmetical gratitude without much heart. Horrible thought! I hope it is, rather, an expression of wonder and delight, an affirmation of the value of individuals and of their importance to us as the people they are.

I am sure you can guess the question with which I shall end. Whom will you thank today?

(Note: I have written quite often about St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast is today. A search in the sidebar search box will provide some entries for those who are interested.)

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Why I am Always Behind and the Loneliness of People Today

Some of my more direct friends occasionally ask me why I haven’t got round to doing such and such yet. The answer I give tends to vary. There is always the honest ‘laziness, sheer laziness’ or the intellectually more respectable ‘lack of inspiration’; but I think I am more likely to try to steer the conversation away from the question, especially if it is something both the questioner and I want me to do. That isn’t as deliberately evasive as it may seem. My not being well can be used as a valid excuse for some of my dilatoriness. Even ordinary tasks take much longer than they used to, as anyone seeing me doing odd jobs in the house or garden will testify. But that is not the point. There is a sadder reason, which has nothing to do with me at all: loneliness and its impact on people who may not seem lonely to others but are, often desperately so.

Much of my day is taken up with the routine of monastic life: prayer, lectio divina, household tasks, and the administrative duties associated with running any organization, to which should be added the community’s online ministry. But most days we also receive a lot of emails/letters and, increasingly, telephone calls, that don’t fall into any special category and can’t be dealt with in a few minutes. They are the cries of lonely people, often not asking for anything in particular but just to be heard. They pose a challenge to us as nuns, but also to society in general.

I am not sure why people contact us, but I think it has something to do with trust. Without knowing us, people trust us to take them and their difficulties seriously — and to be kind. We try, but we often fail, too. The man who telephoned late one evening when I was in the middle of chemotherapy and ‘just wanted to talk’ wasn’t very happy when I explained that I wasn’t up to a long conversation just then. He ‘phoned again ten minutes later and was rather put out to get the same nun on the line, as I would have been in his position; but we are not counsellors or therapists and it is no good trying to be or do what we cannot, especially when feeling drained.

Taking people seriously and being kind: not rocket science, as they say, but it does demand time and effort because, inevitably, need arises according to its own timetable not ours; and truly listening to people is hard work. I think we are immensely privileged as a community because those who turn to us do trust us, and very often they have had bad experiences in the past. What worries me, if that is the right word, is the loneliness behind the calls we receive. I always feel chastened when someone ends a conversation or message with the words, ‘Thank you. I haven’t been able to speak about this to anyone else.’ I can understand that there might be things one would be reluctant to discuss with family or friends, but the matters I am referring to do not, by and large, fall into the category of embarrassing or awkward. It is simply loneliness and the feeling of isolation that makes them difficult to talk about.

So, here is your challenge from the cloister for today: switch off your smartphone, take your eyes off that screen and pay attention to the person nearest you. Don’t be so anxious to pour out your own thoughts and feelings that you fail to notice theirs. Learn to be a friend, to be kind. Not only will you be helping to make the world a better place, you may even, indirectly, be helping a procrastinating nun get something done. Or maybe not.

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