The Very Young and Very Old (Again)

Yesterday we re-read St Benedict’s challenging chapter on the care of the sick; today he gives us just a few sentences about the very young and the very old, most of which concern food and the times of meals (RB 37). I think that demonstrates his first-hand experience of community life and his sympathy with those who might easily be overlooked as ‘too demanding’. Most of us can remember what it was like to be really, really hungry as youngsters, when we could devour huge plates of food and remain whiplash thin. Some of us may have reached the age when the appetite has to be tempted, or when a delay in regular meal-times causes all kinds of discomfort. Either way, we know that something as basic as food profoundly affects our sense of well-being.

I think RB 37 is a good reminder that we can be too focused on our own agenda to be truly mindful of the needs of others who may be less able than we are to express their views or ask for help. Benedict is ever the realist. Human nature inclines us to be sympathetic to both old and young, he says, but the Rule must still make provision for them (RB 37.1). He knows we can fail those who are weak and defenceless because we don’t really ‘see’ them. This morning I re-read an oldish (July 2018) article in the Independent about the numbers of terminally ill people who are homeless and dying on our streets. We don’t ‘see’ them, either. As our M.P.s and others debate the proposed Brexit exit deal Theresa May has announced, we need to recall that, in the end, abstractions like sovereignty must be enfleshed in the lives of real people; that, whatever decisions are ultimately made, serving the common good may require sacrifice as well as gain. Both young and old have their own special vulnerabilities. A civilized society will not ignore them

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Armistice Day 2018

Today
we pray for all who have died in
or as a consequence of war,
whether as combatants or civilians;
we pray for
those maimed in body or mind,
those still subject to armed conflict,
and those who grieve.
We ask the Lord’s forgiveness,
a firm purpose of amendment,
and the grace to seek peace and pursue it.
Amen.

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Remembering and Praying

Throughout the year a vast tide of blood-red poppies has been sweeping over the land. They cascade from church pulpits and castle battlements, flow down lamp posts and spill out into municipal parks and private gardens. Poppies are tied to radiator grilles, pinned to buttonholes, printed on scarves and dangle from pet collars. Silhouettes of World War I Tommies stand in graveyards, surprise us on street corners, burst out of hedges and break the skyline as no real soldier ever would. On Sunday, in a huge act of collective remembrance, Britain will mark the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day with memorial services and parades, a two-minute silence and the plangent tones of a bugler sounding the Last Post. It will not be without controversy, however; for, as each year passes, and the personal connection some of us have with those who died in World War I or II begins to fade, the whole idea of remembering becomes more problematic, particularly as we do not seem to agree about what we are remembering or why.

Problems with the idea of remembrance
For me, as a Catholic, the act of remembering is relatively uncomplicated because it is always associated with prayer. During the two-minute silence, I pray for the dead — all the dead who have died in war, whatever side they were on — and I ask God to teach us how to live at peace with one another. A friend once challenged me on this, asking how I could pray for those who have been guilty of war crimes. My reply was simple: prayer isn’t a reward for being good (i.e. being on the ‘right’ or winning side); it isn’t some kind of Good Conduct medal we bestow on those we deem worthy of it; it is an acknowledgement that sin and suffering have scarred the face of humanity and we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. This kind of prayer is a prayer of repentance, a plea for help in which gratitude and regret are equally mixed; and it is our privilege to offer it for the dead and for ourselves.

But what of those who don’t or can’t pray, for whom Remembrance Sunday has nationalistic, even jingoistic, overtones, or who see the commemoration as an exercise in collective nostalgia, shot through with sentimentality? Is there a point at which we should stop remembering, or is the problem more to do with how we remember? There is something to be said for both. To my mind, a centenary marks a natural division. Those who fought in the First World War are now all dead, as are those who took part in the earlier conflicts we now forget or leave to the historians to recall. How we remember is more complicated. We do not simply pray for the dead on Remembrance Sunday, we surround the day with the trappings of Establishment and nationalism or kidnap it to advance an agenda of our own about Brexit, race or empire, to name just a few. I question whether that is what those who took part in World War I or World War II would wish us to do — or even understand.

How older generations looked at war
For instance, I have been pondering how my parents and grandparents thought about war. The men went off to fight because it was their duty, so they said, but they had no personal animosity or grievance against those with whom they fought. They did not hate; they did not think themselves superior; they believed, most of the time, in the cause for which they fought, but they weren’t blind to the contradictions inherent in it. One of my grandfathers was blown up in an early British tank, survived that, then spent the rest of the war as a P.o.W. in a Silesian salt mine. He considered himself lucky, despite what it did to his health. My other grandfather served in what later became the Fleet Air Arm, saw some terrible action but also survived, then lost two of his sons in World War II. Yet he bore his losses silently. I never heard him speak a single word against anyone. War wasn’t glorious, it was brutal; building the peace was what mattered, and that was the task he and others of his generation took to heart.

I can remember my father talking about his experience at El Alamein and other battlefronts, always hoping the world would never again be plunged into total war, always sad that there had been so much loss of life on both sides, so many civilians killed, so much beauty and history destroyed. I also remember the father of a friend, who had himself been imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, rapping on the dinner table and saying that the lesson we had to learn from history was not what Nazis could do to Jews but what human beings can do to one another. I don’t think they were unique, but how I wish we heard their voices now rather than the highly selective voices of the media and popular historians!

Has our focus changed?
Are we in danger of losing the kind of historical perspective I have tried to sketch and substituting something less truthful, precisely because those voices have fallen silent? During the course of this year I have begun to feel that we are. The poppies and the silhouettes and other artworks are fine, but perhaps they change the focus of what we are supposedly commemorating and allow other elements to creep in. War as spectacle, war as the voicing of views and attitudes that have more to do with us than with the fallen, makes me uneasy. As a corollary, I would argue that this year’s commemoration of the Armistice should be the last. That does not mean that we should cease to pray or reflect on what war is and does — far from it. Nor do I think that we should abandon those who suffer even now from war and the effects of war. On the contrary, I should like to see much more help and understanding for those who suffer PTSD, whose limbs and lives have been shattered, for example. But I think we need to question more rigorously what our acts of remembrance are meant to achieve and why we surround them with so much that is alien, if that is the right word, to those who actually did the fighting and dying we commemorate.

A commentator said recently that in politics people are driven by four things, love, hope, hate and fear, and the two most powerful are hate and fear. It is true that society has a way of creating objects of hatred and fear, and I have asked myself several times whether we are simply prolonging the quarrels and tragedies of the past as a way of avoiding some unpalatable truths in the present. The British obsession with Germany and with Hitler is a case in point. We refuse to let it go and thereby show ourselves still bound, and, what is worse, perpetrate a new injustice. We do not need the memory of war to validate what we are now.We gain nothing by picking away at old wrongs; we need to learn from them instead. Perhaps we forget that we are not the heroes we celebrate, nor do we become heroes by association or by demonising some enemy, old or new. Do we use the past as a way of avoiding commitment to what the present and future ask of us?

A recommitment to service
To an earlier generation concepts like duty and service meant something. They were the motivation for conduct that might otherwise seem unfathomable. I daresay there are some who regard the stoicism with which our parents and grandparents endured privation and loss as silly, but we can think and say such things because of the sacrifices they made. Wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to the dead to reflect more deeply on the values of duty and public service and how we measure up to them today? Quite how we do that I’m not sure because the language of public discourse seems to have lost that important element of civility. We talk of deals and our own best interest, what’s good for us in the narrowest sense, not what would make the world a better place. But it does not have to be so. We can think anew about how to serve, how to do our duty, what our duty consists in, and surely everyone would benefit.

If this should be the last Armistice Day we mark in a public way, renewing our commitment to service would be a sign that the poppies and the bugle calls were not mere sentimentality or self-indulgence but tokens of our having learned the lessons of the past, of our being ready to forge a new and better future. It would be proof that the Great War for Civilisation was not fought in vain. I pray it may be so.

Two earlier posts on Remembrance Sunday

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/11/08/remembrance-sunday-2015/

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/11/10/remembrance-sunday-2013/

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That Sinking Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting a Grip the Benedictine Way

I like the fact that we finish reading St Benedict’s fourth step of humility on the feastday of Blessed Columba Marmion (if you don’t know about him, look him up; better still, try reading him). Marmion was one of the greatest Benedictines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but he was far from being a universal favourite. Indeed, on his profession day, his abbot allegedly dismissed him saying, ‘I am very sorry you have been professed.’ I can’t imagine anything more cruel on such an occasion, but Marmion bore it humbly and gently; and that is the point.

All of us have to deal with contradiction in our lives, if not downright injustice. Most of us usually manage to do so without resorting to fisticuffs, though we may have to admit to a yelp of pain or cry of fury. At national or international level, the resort to fisticuffs sometimes comes quite early, but it is usually preceded by some name-calling and self-conscious parading of innocence. You do not need me to cite instances in the news at present. The trouble is, unresolved disputes, attempts to make others pay, inflicting humiliation all leave a toxic legacy. It is a truism to assert that the seeds of World War II were sown in the humiliation inflicted on Germany after World War I. We can look at what is happening in Europe today, or across the Atlantic to the pronouncements emanating from the White House, and shiver. The world as we know it is changing faster than ever: the promotion of ‘me first’ ideologies and the stifling of dissent and the free expression of opinion that does not correspond to current norms (e.g. the exclusion of Life and similar pro-life agencies from U.K. Freshers’ fairs. while allowing pro-abortion societies) should give even the most ostrich-like of us a moment’s pause.

So, what has Benedict to say? I don’t want to repeat all I’ve said in earlier posts on the subject (e.g. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/10/03/costing-not-less-than-everything-the-fourth-step-of-humility/), but I think the final sentence of the fourth step of humility is worth repeating. ‘With the apostle Paul they bear with false brethren and bless those that curse them.’ RB 7.43) That is not humility of the Uriah Heep kind; it is not opting out of conflict or confrontation by downplaying our own values or principles. Rather, it is to engage at the deepest possible level but to do so with restraint and courtesy, refusing to demonise our opponent or make negative assumptions about them. It is quite incredibly hard to do when our temper is roused or we feel an injustice keenly. That reminder about blessing, however, is very much to the point. If we can bless someone; if we can ask God for nothing but good for them and do so without half an eye on ourselves and how good we are being, we are allowing grace an opportunity to transform the situation.

Benedict’s fourth step of humility leaves no room for complacency or self-congratulation. It is searing in its demands. His way of getting a grip on ourselves and on situations that could easily get out of hand is definitely not for wimps. Perhaps that is why it is not popular. The easy way out, the ‘might is right’ formula, will always be seductive; but it may not lead to happiness or well-being.

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Prisoners of the Past?

The debate about Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for appointment to the U.S.A. Supreme Court has raised questions of wider application, i.e. this post is not about Mr Kavanaugh or his fitness or otherwise for the office for which he is under consideration, it is about how far ‘the child is father of the man.’ In other words, how far back do we go in anyone’s past to assure ourselves of their fitness for office now, and what are the crimes/sins/offences that we judge to be inadmissible?

For example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received a lot of criticism in some quarters because at the age of sixteen he belonged to a Nazi youth organisation. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history would know that it would have been very difficult for him not to belong, and nothing in his subsequent life suggests that he subscribed to Nazi ideology, yet that has not stopped the criticisms. I daresay most of us can look back on the things we said or did when we were teenagers and shudder, without taking into account the political or economic circumstances of the day. But what about when we are older, when we are in our twenties, say? It begins to be less easy to dismiss criticisms of our beliefs or behaviour, and of course, the media have their favourite forms of wrongdoing to castigate. The politicians who smoked pot in their youth, the philanderers, the British Nationalist/Communist Party activists, those who joined weird and whacky cults, we have our suspicions of them all, and the media delight in feeding our suspicions.

Christians believe in the possibility of conversion and the reality of forgiveness, but that does not stop us being hard-headed about the risks associated with certain kinds of behaviour. Someone who takes drugs, for example, or regularly drinks him- or her-self into a stupour is not the person most of us would want to have a finger on the nuclear button. Nor would we want someone with a sense of sexual entitlement to have the power to force himself on another. The trouble is, we have to weigh up what we know of the person we see now with what is disclosed about his/her past and exercise some very delicate judgement.

One of the good things to have come out of the #MeToo movement is the increased openness with which people are acknowledging abuse suffered in the past. One of the not so good things has been a noticeable tendency to vilify those coming forward with their stories. There is a parallel with what is happening in the Catholic Church. The sheer awfulness of the suffering endured by so many is finally being admitted yet, at the same time, there has been a kind of counter-movement by some to minimize the suffering inflicted or apportion blame in such a way that ‘it touches us not. Our withers are unwrung.’ It leaves the rest of us wondering where truth and justice lie.

I myself have a divided mind about how far back in anyone’s past we should go for evidence of unfitness for office, but it is not a question I can ignore any more than you can. In the end, I suppose we have to be pragmatic. If X was a virulent anti-Semite in their youth, have we evidence of a change of heart? If Y was a sexual predator, has their behaviour changed with marriage and family? The one exception I think I would make is that paedophiles and psychopaths do not seem able to change, so I would be very wary indeed of knowingly placing them in situations where they could do harm. None of us wishes anyone to be a prisoner of their past. Equally, none of us wants to have on our conscience suffering we could have prevented.

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September in the Marches

Concorde Pears in Bro Duncan's Memorial Orchard
Concorde Pears in Bro Duncan’s Memorial Orchard

Living in the country as we do, the changing seasons are a perpetual source of delight, though I must admit to modified rapture when muck-spreading is on the agenda and the wind is in the wrong direction! Here in the Marches we do not suffer much light pollution, so the night skies are dark and brilliant with stars when not clouded over. During the day, the same skies are filled with a piercing blue, broken here and there by a drift of cloud. Even the Black Mountains seem to lose their severity in the September sunshine. The monastery garden has its own complement of wonders. Just now the apple and pear trees are thick with fruit. Even the young trees in Bro Duncan PBGV’s Memorial Orchard are laden, their young boughs bending under the weight they bear, making me wonder whether I rubbed off enough fruitlets earlier in the year.

It is a privilege to live close to nature, but as those exposed to Typhoon Mangkhut or Hurricane Florence know only too well, nature is not tame or predictable in the way we should like. So today, as we glory in the September sunshine spilling its radiance over a quiet corner of the English countryside, our prayers are with those experiencing a very different kind of day, for their protection and comfort.

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Sportsmanship and Beyond

No one could accuse me of being ‘sporty’. I can enjoy watching cricket or tennis, but the only games I have taken part in with any real pleasure are croquet, which requires low cunning and dogged persistence, and badminton, which, being fast and furious, usually ended fairly quickly in my defeat. I was, however, brought up in the tradition of being ‘sporting’. With the possible exception of croquet, therefore, (see above), it was impressed upon me at an early age that one must always play fair, accept the umpire’s decision, and applaud one’s victorious opponent as one quit the field. I wonder where some of those old courtesies and rituals have gone. I have no opinion on the Serena Williams v. Naomi Osaka match, for example, other than being horrified by the crowd’s booing of Osaka and Williams’ coldness towards her. The infighting tearing the Conservative party apart has much the same effect on me, as do the Labour party’s endless shiftings on the subject of anti-semitism. It seems our politicians are only interested in securing personal advantage — and don’t mind how they achieve it. The Church is no better and often, in fact, far worse. It all looks rather gloomy. With the decline of sportsmanship has gone a decline in general standards of behaviour. All too often it’s ‘me, me, me’.

There is, however, a ray of light piercing the gloom. The media may concentrate on the unsportsmanlike shenanigans of politicians and celebrities, but we all know lots of ordinary, decent people whose kindness and care for others is manifested daily. Their deeds will never make the headlines, but theirs are the cups of cold water given in Christ’s name or out of sheer human concern that transform life for so many and, goodness, don’t we need them! The Save the Children Fund has estimated that extreme hunger could kill 600,000 children in war zones this year. There have been over a thousand instances of humanitarian aid being blocked by those fighting one another in Syria, Yemen, etc. But I suspect that ordinary, decent people will go on trying to alleviate such situations. They will give aid, brave dangerous areas and refuse to give in. They are not being sporting, they are going far beyond that. If only our politicians and celebrities would take note!

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‘Ordinary’ People Doing Extraordinary Things

This morning we were thrilled to learn that one of our oblates is to receive a City of Sanctuary award for her work with refugees. I don’t (yet) have permission to name her, and as she is very modest and self-deprecating I shall not presume, but she is a wonderful example of how ‘ordinary’ people — ordinary in their own estimation, that is — can do extraordinary things. We tend to think of the extraordinary in terms of Guinness-Book-of-Records-style achievements The kind of work being celebrated by the City of Sanctuary organization is less spectacular but requires no less patience and perseverance than performing daredevil feats. To be truly concerned for one’s neighbour, to battle officialdom and bureaucracy on behalf of another, to be a friend to the stranger and alien, and to do so without losing heart or giving up, these are great qualities. More than that, they are inspiring qualities. This morning we rejoice in the knowledge that one of our oblates has taught us all something invaluable and in doing so has made the world a better place. Thank you, and thank God.

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The Poor and Needy

Historically, the feast of St Laurence (or Lawrence) which we celebrate today poses a number of questions. He is thought to have come from Toledo and was one of the seven deacons of Rome, martyred on 10 August 258, just a few days after Pope St Sixtus II and his companions. Within a very short time, celebration of his martyrdom had become much more popular than that of Pope Sixtus, and by the fourth century he was clearly among the Church’s favourite saints. We remember him today chiefly for the antiphons of Vespers of his feast, with their touch of black humour as the saint, lying on the grid-iron, tells his torturers to turn him over, as he is done on this side now, his being named alongside Sixtus in the Roman canon, and for the story that, when asked to produce the treasures of the Church, he brought forward the poor. Perhaps that is why he is so popular: he is the archetypal deacon, concerned with serving the poor, one who sees them not as objects of pity but as individuals who bestow riches on others.

Sometimes in Britain today the language we use about the poor and needy is the language of ‘otherness’. We give help, but the way in which we do so is tinged with awkwardness. The State is failing in its duty, we say, as we note that children are going to school without breakfast or those in employment are having to make use of Food Banks to ensure that their families are fed adequately. We become angry, but the rhetoric of indignation often betrays us. No one likes being done good to; no one likes being thought of as different. Do we actually recognize that while the poor need help, we who try to give it are ourselves the needy?

When Jesus tells his disciples, ‘The poor you have always with you,’ (Matt. 26.11)  I don’t think he was necessarily making a comment about the ineradicable nature of poverty and inequality, although it is frequently interpreted as such. I think it more likely he was emphasizing two modes of presence among us: uniquely in his flesh, and now among those who are open to receive him, who put up no barriers, the poor. We who are rich enough in this world’s gifts can only echo the Beatitudes and try to be poor in spirit. I suspect the really poor may have their own views on that, but it is a starting-point.

Today, when there are so many forms of poverty in the world, let us try to be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and share what we have with others. If it makes us uncomfortable to reflect that they have a right to what we share, well and good. We shall have begin to think as St Laurence thought and seen where true treasure lies, where we may find Christ our Lord.

Community Retreat 2018
The community’s annual retreat begins tonight and ends on the morning of Saturday, 18 August. Please keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.

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