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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
One of the subjects I find myself thinking about quite often is how intolerant society seems to have become. When I say ‘society’, I don’t specifically mean English or British society, nor even Western society, but society in general, the whole mass of us as we encounter one another via modern means of communication, from broadcasting to social media. Inevitably, that produces some distortion, e.g. only those with access to the internet are able to engage with social media, but the world most of my readers know and interact with is the one I am writing about, and it is there that I note with mounting unease a hardening of opinion and an unwillingness to engage in open discussion, much less informed debate, that strikes me as potentially dangerous. Do we want a world in which we cannot say what we think or believe?
Certain views are, of course, acceptable, especially if they happen to be endorsed by a celebrity. But questioning those views, or suggesting that they might need to be nuanced is not. So, for example, my view that abortion is wrong not only marks me out as a bigot in many people’s eyes but also means, apparently, I should not have the right to say why I believe abortion is wrong. I have never been clear why that should be so. Sometimes a little bit of truth is suppressed or conveniently glossed over. For instance, when the Sultan of Brunei announced that the death penalty would not be enforced against homosexuality, there was a collective sigh of relief, and rightly so in my view, but is the death penalty still in force for those who convert from Islam to Christianity? I do not know and have been unable to find out. Is that because religion is perceived to be of less importance or because it isn’t a fashionable cause?
Occasionally, one can have a little fun with the current orthodoxies. A few days ago I was cross-examined by someone who wanted to know our green credentials as a monastery. By the time I had answered her questions — none of us has flown since 2011; we grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible; our heating thermostat is set at 15 degrees C; car journeys are planned to occur when strictly necessary; we re-cycle everything we can; our habits are at least 20 years old and made of natural fibres; and so on and so forth — she had grudgingly conceded that we were actually rather greener than she was. Now, the point is not greenness or its opposite but the fact that the person who questioned me was much more tolerant than her opening aggressiveness had suggested. She had started with the idea that nuns are rather selfish and probably supid, too. By the time we finished, I think we had both learned a lot about each other. I respected her enthusiasm and her evident care for the environment; I hope she had learned that it is possible to have an argument with a nun in the old-fashioned sense. I like to think we both gained; and isn’t that the point of tolerance?
Tolerance isn’t meant to be a wishy-washy kind of refusal to engage with difficult questions — or difficult people. On the contrary, it is a process of engagement that is meant to enrich everyone concerned. It means saying in effect, ‘I may disagree, but I am happy to discuss, to be challenged and to challenge in my turn. It may be painful at times, but that is part of what being a member of society entails.’ I don’t think I would go so far as to say tolerance is a virtue in the religious sense, but accepting differences, refusing to hate because of them and being prepared to go on working for a resolution of the divisions between us, no matter how hopeless that may seem at times, does matter and is a source of strength rather than weakness — virtue in the classical sense, so to say, and much needed nowadays.
The bishop of Truro’s report on the persecution of Christians contained no surprises for those who keep au fait with such matters. Unless memory plays me false, I seem to remember someone remarking forty years ago that a couple of lartge jets would be all that would be needed to remove the entire Christian population of Israel. The situation today in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, India, China and many other places, however, is not merely one of petty persecution and decline but of ruthless violence intended to exterminate every Christian. Church leaders can say all they like about how wrong it is, but unless and until politicians recognize both the injustice and the danger it poses to many of the values we hold dear as a free society, it is difficult to see how matters can improve.
To some, Christians are merely reaping the consequences of colonialism and whatever they suffer is justified by reference to that. Identifying Christianity with colonialism has always seemed to me slightly questionable, but I accept that many have shied away from a defence of modern-day Christians because of what happened in the past. The trouble is, our historical perspective is often faulty or, at the very least, partial. We rightly condemn the evil of slavery, for example, while being remarkably ambivalent about the kinds of exploitation that exist today. It is easy to condemn the people of the past, but making those of the present pay is morally dubious. Where does responsibility lie? Can we really judge the past by the standards of the present?
The University of Cambridge is just embarking on a two-year investigation into its connection with slavery and the slave trade. It will be interesting to see what conclusions are drawn. My first reaction was that it was one of those politically correct exercises that fosters guilt but achieves little of substance. It is clearly not meant to be a historical investigation as such, and from what I have read it is not concerned with the modern forms of exploitation many of us find troubling. The nearest parallel I can find is with those public enquiries into the perceived failures of the army, police, medical profession, social workers and others that centre on the sadness and distress suffered by individuals or groups of people whose lives have been turned upside down by what they have experienced, but with this difference — we can’t change the past; we can’t ‘make it better’ for those who were enslaved or who were cruelly mistreated.
In the case of modern-day Christians, I think we face a particular difficulty. There are those who wish to eradicate Christianity and deliberately target Christians. Frequently, and especially if they are Westerners, they have very sketchy ideas about what Christians actually believe, but the one thing they all know is that Christians are meant to be forgiving. No matter how harsh the treatment meted out, no matter what suffering is inflicted, even to the loss of life in the most brutal and painful circumstances, the Christian must forgive. I am, as you may imagine, far from being impartial, but I believe that the forgiveness of Christians enduring persecution — at this very minute, remember — is not only worthy of record but a witness the whole world needs. We pray for them, of course, but perhaps we should glory in them even more for they show Christ to the world in a way that we more lily-livered types never can. They demonstrate by their fidelity and their refusal to hate that there is a better way; that the world can be transformed by grace.
Who does not love today’s gospel in which Mary of Magdala meets the Risen Christ? There is something very moving about that encounter in the early morning, the dew still fresh upon the ground and Mary seeing him through a mist of tears. Are those tears the reason she does not recognize him at first but thinks he might be the gardener ‘in his stained and dirty kirtle,’ as Julian of Norwich describes him? Or do the tears allow her to see him clearly for the first time, as the New Adam — not so much a tiller of soil but as the giver of life itself? It is said that the Cross on Golgotha was planted where Adam’s skull lay buried. The Fruit it bore surpassed any known in Paradise.
This morning many tears are being shed throughout the world: in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, wherever death holds sway. But the Risen Lord still comes to meet us in our pain. His body bears the wounds of suffering and death for all eternity but they are transformed now into channels of life and peace for us. Let us cling to the hope they bring, not just to us but to the whole world.
A quick search in the sidebar of this blog reveals that I have often written about St Joseph on his feastday. In a way, that is odd. For far too long I subscribed to the view that Joseph was an almost disposable element in the Infancy narrative, and his early disappearance from the gospels and the absence of patristic commentary confirmed me in my opinion. It took Bossuet to make me realise what a great man he was, and that his greatness was precisely that of a father.
If, like me, you have happy memories of your own father, it does not require much of an imaginative leap to recognize how important Joseph was in the life of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But if you don’t, if your father has been absent or in some way inadequate, it must be much harder. So many of the qualities we admire in Jesus must have come from Joseph. In the same way, family members will often remark that we are ‘a chip off the old block’ and recognize in us traits that we had no idea once existed in another. When they are perceived as negative or in some way damaging, there is a double handicap to overcome. It is not just our own flaws but those we have inherited that we must deal with. Yet none of us is defined by our father or limited by his flaws. Fathers give us life, they help to form us, but their role changes over time. The one constant is that they go on loving us, as Joseph went on loving Jesus.
It seems to me that fatherhood is a tough call. To combine both strength and tenderness is not easy. To love one’s family, to be like Joseph a man of integrity and courage, is to give a wonderful example to others. More than that, it is to ensure the flourishing of those we are closest to, to give and sustain life. That is a great vocation. Today, let us pray for all fathers and the families they care for.
As news of the terrible events in Christchurch, New Zealand, spread yesterday we noticed a huge increase in the use of our email prayerline. Many emails were simply requests for prayer for all who had been affected, but a considerable number expressed other concerns. There were those who demanded to know how God could permit such a thing; others who wanted to proclaim that they had given up on God since God had clearly given up on them; and a few who used the opportunity to ridicule our beliefs with a spattering of swear-words and wholly unoriginal gibes.
When people are hurting they need a hug, not an argument; and it is my belief that everyone who wrote in was indeed hurting. Some just didn’t know what to do with their hurt. The questions they asked deserve an answer, however, though I know the answers I’ll give will not be acceptable to everyone.
Why did God not prevent the massacre in Christchurch? That is a perfectly legitimate question but it takes us into territory many find uncomfortable. We can say all we like about God having dignified us with the gift of free will and of his permitting us to use or abuse that freedom as we choose. It doesn’t mean much to someone mourning the death of someone they love. The fact that it happens to be true is difficult to grasp, but we must try because it confirms the truly loving nature of God. He respects us; he doesn’t treat us as mere robots he can control at will. In fact, God isn’t interested in controlling us. He has given us all the guidance we need to live happy and fulfilled lives, but he respects the choices we make. If we choose evil, so be it. I call that one of the hard truths of Christianity: the realisation that God is a God of free people, not slaves. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of that truth. God gave his only Son into our hands, and that is how we treated him, by inflicting death on him.
So, what about those who feel they want to give up on God because they believe he has given up on them? Don’t we all feel like that at times? Didn’t Jesus feel the same on the Cross when he cried out with the psalmist, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. We have to be honest about our anger and despair and let God handle the pain we can’t. Because, of course, it is pain that makes us think and feel that way. If we didn’t care, if we were completely indifferent, we wouldn’t bother, would we?
In this blank, bleak universe I am describing, is there anywhere we can find help or comfort? I think there is. The Communion of Saints is not confined to those already in heaven and who we may safely assume are praying for those of us on earth. It includes the Church Militant, our ‘even Chrstians’ as Julian of Norwich loved to describe them. No matter how dark the events that take place in the world, no matter the depths of evil and depravity that deform the human heart, someone, somewhere is praying to let the light of Christ into the situation. Monks and nuns typically devote their lives to this prayer. We do not claim to be experts; we do not claim to achieve anything; but I believe that God does use our efforts in some way because ultimately it is not we who pray but the Holy Spirit who prays in us.
This morning many are feeling drained and unhappy. There are several people on life-support as a result of yesterday’s shootings; others are mourning the sudden loss of someone they love. We pray for them as we pray for all — for a chink of light to come into the darkness, for hope to take the place of despair. Our ideas of God are frequently too little. May we know how great he is, how involved he is even though he does not act as we would want him to act. In short, may we know how much he loves us.