Unlikely Friendship? The Case of St Mary Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent by Pedro de Mena
By Nicolás Pérez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10226663

St Mary Magdalene and Some Women of Our Own Day who Attract a Negative Press

During one of our recent long, hot, sticky nights I found myself thinking about the hostility of the Taliban to the education of women and girls, and what that might mean for the people of Afghanistan and wherever the Taliban hold influence. From there it was a short step to considering the antipathy many in the West have shown towards Malala, Greta Thunberg or, in a completely different sphere, Emma Raducano. It would be wrong to say the aggressive and belittling remarks they have had to endure are the monopoly of a few middle-aged men (I can certainly point to some really nasty comments by women), but middle-aged men do seem to have been peculiarly irritated by them. For me, that helps to explain the Church’s long-standing awkwardness about Mary Magdalene and the ambivalence in some circles about her being officially proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and her liturgical commemoration being raised to the dignity of a feast. As to her friendship with Jesus, I quite see why, for some, that is beyond the pale. She is too clingy, too feminine — despite being as tough as they come.

How We Like Our Saints To Be

Is it as simple as saying most men (and many women) don’t like smart women, and clerical men feel happier if female saints are either on a pedestal of unassailable purity (e.g. Our Lady, St Thérèse of Lisieux) or can be dismissed as ‘no better than they should be’ and classed either as prostitutes (which St Mary Magdalene was not) or penitents, suggesting that there is something murky in the background? For every dozen men who have waxed lyrical about St Thérèse, for example, I doubt I have heard even one express warm, personal admiration for St Mary Magdalene. Is that why the thought of Jesus and Mary being such good friends as the gospels suggest has led some to speculate that there was a sexual relationship between them (for which there is no evidence) while others dismiss her as being somehow a fringe figure in Christian history (which is absurd). Then there are those who think that Mary Magdalene was more significant than Peter, and there is a huge conspiracy behind the hierarchy of the Church today — an attitude I find equally absurd on the same grounds as those who propose it: the evidence. The plain truth is that Jesus Christ saw in Mary something he did not see in Peter, James or John, something loving enough and steely enough to be entrusted with news of the resurrection — and he clearly enjoyed her company, as he enjoyed the company of his other disciples.

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my choice of Pedro de Mena’s sculpture to illustrate this post rather than the Fra Angelico or D. Werburg you might have been expecting. It shows Mary as penitent, the way she was viewed for so many centuries in the Church. I have always found it an arresting image and on every visit to Valladolid have always tried to make sure I see it. It proclaims a very important theological truth we are sometimes in danger of forgetting. None of us is without sin. We are all redeemed through God’s gracious action in Christ Jesus. We can concentrate on this aspect or that of a saint’s life, we can be inspired or sometimes the reverse, but we cannot escape the fact of sin. Mary of Magdalene is one of those saints who makes us confront this in ourselves and in others. We are seeing this sin, this sinfulness, in the way in which Traditionis Custodes is being discussed right now: sin has coiled itself round the holiest element of Catholic faith and practice, the celebration of the Eucharist.

We all know that the word eucharist means to give thanks. During two of my most recent hospitalisations, I came very close to dying. As I lay there, wondering if this was indeed to be the end of my earthly life, I found myself reflecting on the efforts people go to for the sake of their ‘legacy’. It didn’t take me long to decide that what I would like for my own legacy is fidelity to the Truth, kindness to others, and gratitude— above all, gratitude, because grace can only grow in a spirit of thanksgiving, and neither fidelity nor kindness is possible without grace. In the gospels St Mary Magdalene exemplifies all these qualities, with a richness of humanity I find immensely attractive. I think she makes a good patron for us still in via, don’t you?

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A Sick Society and RB 36?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

St Benedict’s View of Sickness

Blue gloves and face coverings are now so familiar in the West, we have almost forgotten what they symbolize. They say we are sick, as indeed we probably are, but with a sickness that goes beyond the physical. All I have written in the past about RB 36 and Care of the Sick (and I have written a great deal as a quick search of this blog will reveal) has tended to concentrate on an analysis of the text and our movement from giving care to receiving care. This morning, however, as we re-read the chapter, I was struck by how clear and uncompromising Benedict is about what we owe each other.

Care of the sick comes above and before everything else, ante omnia et super omnia, no matter how good, holy, apparently necessary or advantageous anything else may be. In the light of the very mixed signals coming from the U.K. government, that is worth thinking about. Politicians and civil servants may be confused; economists may be reluctant to concede that striving for growth is not always appropriate; and scientists will continue to argue, as scientists should, about the best way to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of respiratory and other viruses following in its wake. For the majority of us, the response will be more personal and individual.

Concerns about Current Attitudes

I am not alone in feeling uneasy about the ‘dog-in-the-manger’ attitude many Western countries have shown regarding sharing anti-COVID vaccines with poorer nations. In the same way, I find quite alarming the readiness of some heads of state to sacrifice the health and lives of the people they were elected to serve to frankly loopy ideas of their own that lead to much suffering and loss. But it is not an easy question to solve at national/international level.

At a personal level, it is much simpler. Like it or not, we have a duty of care towards others and that includes being prepared to sacrifice a personal good for a greater social good. As you might expect, given my respiratory vulnerability, the prospect of ‘Freedom Day’ does not fill me with unalloyed joy. Until now, I have regularly worn a mask to protect others and have been irritated by workmen and others who refuse to wear one inside our house — only a few, but enough to remark upon. I suspect even more will refuse after 19 July, especially those who take their ideas of right and wrong from what is allowed by the law, i.e. if it is not a criminal or civil offence, it is alright.

Serving Christ

A Benedictine would say we serve Christ in the person of the sick. What is often overlooked is that the sick serve Christ in the person of the well. For the one doing the caring, it is a case of being alert to the needs of the sick person and being patient with them; for the sick it is a case of not being over-demanding, of allowing the carer to serve — hard as that may seem at times! Where, I think, both come together, is in their response to the moral dimension of sickness. There is a lot going on about healthcare in the UK, a lot that tugs at our understanding. I don’t pretend to have any answers, only questions gradually taking shape. It would be good if you would share yours — without blaming or party-political ranting, please.

The Rule of St Benedict in English for 15 July, RB 36, On Sick Brethren

RB36
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Owning the Ugliness and Imperfection of Life

During my most recent hospital stay (yes, there have been rather a lot lately), I found myself devoid of energy, tethered to a 24/7 drip, with an oxygen supply on a short cord and, ultimate indignity, catheterized. My eyes blurred and, despite having access to hundreds of books on my ‘phone, it was several days before my joy in reading returned. People could not have been kinder or more considerate. Despite being under enormous pressure, the hospital staff sorted me out (take another bow, Hereford County Hospital), fed me, helped me wash, and were endlessly patient, while the hospital chaplain anointed me and gave me Holy Communion for a journey I was destined not to make just then.

I’ve been home for almost a week now. You might think that my being a nun obliges me to relentless optimism, to being upbeat in every situation. If you do, you know nothing about being a nun! While I was being looked after in every sense of the word, others were experiencing a whole gamut of negative emotions and events. Even I, in my fortunate situation, found things to criticize or grumble at, and it is fundamentally dishonest to pretend otherwise.

For instance, while I sat back and thought about the next meal (salad. Ed), Anglican friends were sharing openly their feelings about Vision and Strategy and some ill-considered comments seeming to misprize the value of a professional clergy; others were beating their breasts as revelation followed revelation of corruption and deliberate attempts to deceive. Friends confided concerns about attacks on their families or on themselves personally, and more than one admitted to serious money worries or strains on their marriage/partnership. We don’t smile bravely through these things. There are times when sharing the pain, acknowledging our own helplessness, being floored by it all, is the only human response and none of us should be ashamed of that. There is just one little caveat I think worth mentioning because I have caught myself indulging in the behaviour involved: moral distancing of a self-serving nature.

We talk disparagingly about ‘this government’ as though we had no part in its election or shaping the climate of opinion in which a political party can be elected. We declare so-and-so cannot be Catholic because he/she does not conform to our idea of what a Catholic should be, as though we were the arbiter of all things and could speak for God. So it goes on. We heap derision on those whose minds are slower or whose values differ from our own. In other words, we wrap ourselves round with a false but comforting sense of superiority which we wouldn’t if we recognized it for what it truly is: a refusal to own the ugliness and imperfection of life in which we share as much as we do in its beauty and holiness.

I don’t like leaving a post with a negative thought, so may I suggest a good exercise for today would be to give thanks for the blessings we enjoy and asking the grace of humility, of being grounded in truth and holiness? We cannot and should not be upbeat all the time. We are called to be human, and that means allowing the reality of our own experience and that of other people to register with us. As the late Bro Duncan PBGV used to say in his simple way, ‘Be more dog.’ Don’t complicate things with ideas that get in the way of truth; don’t pretend, but do your best to follow the Lord, who knew what it was to be tired, misunderstood, at odds with those he loved. We surely cannot be better than he was and is.

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What a Difficult Day Can Teach Us

Photo by Chitto Cancio on Unsplash 

A Difficult Day

Yesterday was a difficult day for many people. Unless there is some on-going horror to be worked through, the dawning of another day changes the mood and gives perspective. In the West, a decent night’s sleep or an unexpected kindness can prove transformative. They remind us what whimsical creatures we are and how apt to let the enemy of the moment, be it pain or muggy weather or some disappointment, dominate our lives.

Yesterday I stayed off social media because I was feeling a little below par myself and was surprised this morning to see how many people had not only been having a bad day themselves but had been busy sharing their irritation with others. Sometimes the way that irritation is expressed speaks volumes, especially when listened to with the ear of love and attention. Of course, it is quite a big ask to listen to a ‘moaner’ lovingly and attentively! (Please note the use of quotation marks.) Sometimes, with the best will in the world, we can only conclude that they are out of sorts; sometimes we can glimpse a deeper pain within — and it does nothing to assuage that pain to talk about how much worse must be the experience of those in less affluent parts of the world. Pain is pain.

Monastic Prayer

One aspect of monasticism that is not always sufficiently recognized is that monks and nuns withdraw from the world, so to say, in order to be closer to it. Many people ask us for prayers, often specifying a particular outcome they desire. There is no harm in that and much that is good; but monastic prayer has to go beyond such specifics. It has to embrace all the pain and hurt, sin and failure, difficult days and disappointments, that we experience as human beings. I do not know what it is like to be a parent in Ethiopia watching my child die of starvation; I do not know the despair of someone locked into an over-crowded prison cell in South America; I do not know the agony of decision-making of someone who feels they must choose this minute between two evils. I do not know, but my own experience of difficulty and of a gracious God whose love and mercy are beyond anything I could ever dream or imagine, mean that these unknowns can be brought into prayer. 

Giving a Difficult Day Time

If a difficult day merely turns us in on ourselves or makes us snappy with others, we need to give it more time. Not everything is made plain all at once. Just as we grow physically and mentally over the years (or, at least, I hope we do), so does our understanding and our ability to use that understanding for good. We learn to reflect as well as react. We can turn a difficult day into a learning day. That may sound trite and obvious but with the challenges the world faces, it is not to be despised. Let us continue to pray for the G7 Summit, for those whose decisions affect us most personally, for ourselves and our impact on others. And as for those seemingly intractable problems, those we personally can do nothing about, let us entrust them to the mercy of God. God knows, and God will.

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Too Woke for our Own Good?

Every time I read of the latest manifestation of ‘wokeness’, I am inclined to groan and pass on to something more interesting. It seems but a short step from ‘wokeness’ to ‘cancelling’, and both strike me as being absurd. Should we spend time even thinking about them?

If an American citizen wants to remove a portrait of the Queen from an M.C.R., I merely ask myself if she will achieve as much in her lifetime as Elizabeth II. If 150 dons decide that they will not teach anyone from Oriel unless the Fellows remove a statue of Rhodes, I simply lament the intellectual and moral cowardice, as I see it, of those who believe in silencing others rather than engaging in proper debate. In such cases, I might even go so far as to sing the merits of the Little Place in the Fens, although it certainly doesn’t have a faultless record.

What, however, I’m forced to acknowledge is the power of sign and symbol, and the ambiguity of many of those in current use. For example, ‘taking the knee’ as a protest against racism causes me no difficulty, even if some of those using it are doing so without any great depth of conviction (who can tell?). It is a beautiful gesture, taken from Byzantine court ritual and subsequently incorporated into Christian worship. If, however, it is used to identify with the political aims of the BLM movement, I find that much more troubling.

There is no need to multiply examples. When the G7 summit opens tomorrow, one of the challenges the leaders will face is the different way in which they express and interpret values and motivation. Let us pray they are not too woke for their own (and our) good but achieve something of substance for us all.

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On Being Unable to Breathe

Breathlessness is something I know a little about, having lived several years with advanced sarcoidosis and metastatic leiomyosarcoma in my lungs, but even so, the horror of what COVID-19 sufferers without access to oxygen are going through is beyond me. Every photo of someone in India or Brazil struggling to breathe makes me think how scared they must be, how helpless their family, friends and medical team (if they are lucky enough to have one) must feel, and how outrageous it is that we were all so unprepared.

Breathlessness of the kind experienced by those with bad COVID-19 is not some transient feeling of being puffed. It is more like an inner suffocation that makes movement, speech, all the things we take for granted, well nigh impossible. It is exhausting and relentless.* We read that Western countries are sending various kinds of aid, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators. I regularly use the one and pray I am never put on the other (if you know anything about ventilators, you will know why). What troubles me this morning, however, is the thought that the oxygen concentrators are unlikely to produce enough flow to be of any substantive help. Those with COVID-19 will go on suffering, their symptoms barely alleviated. Unless we have had COVID-19 ourselves or have had an analogous experience, e.g. a bad asthma attack, we won’t really understand, no matter how hard we try.

I do not know what we as individuals can do other than speak to our governments and donate to aid agencies, but both the situation in India and the rows about vaccines have highlighted the simple truth that we are one world, dependent on one another. Selfishness and generosity seem to go hand in hand among us, and no one has a monopoly on folly, but perhaps we need to reflect on what it means not to be able to breathe — not only in the obvious, physical sense, but also in the less obvious moral and ethical sense. Are we suffocating ourselves by shrugging off the sense of interconnectedness we ought to have? ‘Gesture aid’ is very like virtue-signalling: well-meant, but inadequate except as a way of easing our own conscience. It may sound over-dramatic but today the suffering Christ is to be found in a thousand places, in streets where people are dying for lack of air and an inability to breathe. That matters; so does our response.

* I have relied on the description given by someone who had COVID-19 badly. It sounds very like what those with serious lung disease experience, but worse.

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The Blessing of Good Government

There is an unpleasant sense that the U.K. government is becoming steeped in equivocation and sleaze. We expect better of our politicians yet, at the same time, are not in the least surprised whenever we come across evidence of failure or corruption. Sometimes, alas, it is a case of pots and kettles. We cannot expect integrity from others if we are not prepared to live lives of integrity ourselves. Disgust at what is being widely reported/alleged regarding donations, cover-ups, underhand deals, self-serving contracts and the like may prompt us to a little scrutiny of our own conduct. Are we as sea-green incorruptible as we would like to believe? Good government is a blessing but it is not an abstract one. Learning how to govern ourselves is a necessary step in learning how to govern others.

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Living with Insecurity

Some people like to live dangerously but, after a certain age, the majority seem to want some kind of security. The trouble is, whatever we think will provide security may not do so. Health may give way; house and home may be lost along with the job that we imagined would provide a livelihood; the person most dear to us may depart or die or perhaps never come into our lives at all. If we live long enough, old age will strip us of the strength and certainties of our youth. The conventional religious answer is to place our trust in God, to rely on him alone. That is fine in theory but extremely hard to do when feeling weak or helpless.

This morning there are many anxious people struggling with COVID-19. A report I read stated that most of those in Brazil requiring intubation are having to undergo the procedure without sedatives because the country has only 6% of the medication it needs. Intubation is ghastly enough without that! There are people in Ukraine waiting to see whether Russian tanks are going to cross over the border and invade their country. In Hong Kong, Myanmar, much of Africa, there is political uncertainty and fear of repression. Add to that what we now call ‘food insecurity’ and the threat of ethnic violence, and our own troubles seem small enough.

We express our solidarity with those who suffer through our prayer and by doing whatever we can to alleviate the distress of others. It is our privilege to provide the human response to the prayer of those placing their trust in God. Let’s think about that for a moment. Then be humbled and give thanks that God should place such trust in us.

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‘In Mourning and Tears’: Easter Saturday 2021

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Trooping of the Colours.

The title of this post is taken from today’s gospel, Mark 16:9-15, and refers to the disciples when Mary Magdalene went to tell them that the Lord had risen. But as the evangelist remarks, ‘They did not believe her’. It was only when Jesus himself stood among them that they believed. Only the Lord himself can convince us of the joy of the resurrection and our sharing in it.

This morning I had intended to say something about the terrible toll of death and suffering COVID-19 has wreaked throughout the world. So many people are struggling with loss and grief, but the death of Prince Philip yesterday has sharpened my focus, so to say. I went to bed last night thinking of the loneliness of the Queen and the horror public figures must undergo when mourning. Seventy-three years of marriage is not easily forgotten, and one can only hope that the sheer nastiness and deliberate cruelty of some responses to news of his death has not reached her.

I am not, in any meaningful sense, a Royalist (I do not, for example, get excited about titles), but I found much to admire in Prince Philip: he was brave, intelligent, a bookworm (lots of theology on his personal bookshelves), spoke four languages fluently and was an innovator. I can forgive him for eating muesli twenty years before the rest of us, while I applaud his enthusiasm for conservation and his work for young people with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Above all, I find his devotion to the Queen, to doing his duty and his capacity for hard work, rather more attractive than the posturing of some younger members of his family. So how do I link his death, the reaction to it and today’s gospel?

We all have in us a capacity to disbelieve, to destroy and to inflict pain on others. Most of the time it is restrained: by grace, by humanity, by sheer pride. The Eleven could not quite bring themselves to let go of their intellectual assurance that the dead could not rise — and as for accepting the testimony of a woman or two disciples who claimed to have met him on an evening walk, well! But when Jesus came to them, then they knew, then they believed.

I think part of the hostility towards Prince Philip shown yesterday stems from a reluctance to accept that we share a common humanity, that no matter how privileged we may be in material terms, we are still creatures of flesh and blood, with feelings. Prince Philip’s childhood was ghastly, but instead of making that an excuse for all kinds of self-indulgence and moral ambivalence, he turned it into the pursuit of integrity and service. Isn’t there a lesson for all of us, especially during this Easter season? We believe in the resurrection, we believe in Easter joy. However negative some of our personal experiences, shouldn’t we be trying to share our faith, our joy, with others — kindly, sensitively, compassionately?

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What Can I Do?

How often do we respond to a crisis or emergency with those words? In a monastery, where we own nothing and neither our time nor ‘our bodies and wills’ are at our own disposal, as St Benedict says, it can be particularly hard. Of course, sometimes the desire to help is more a reflection of the desire to quieten our own conscience than anything nobler, but, by and large, the will to do good to others is there. We pray, we give whatever we can, and we hope for the best. What we actually do may seem little enough: a kind word, a smile, picking a few items of litter from the verge, restraining ourselves from replying to an angry tweet. The point is, life is made up of little things. Most of us are not in a position to do much about the world’s gravest problems, but there are plenty nearer home that we can tackle. So, if I have any message at all for this morning, as we come to the end of the fourth week of Lent, it is a simple one. Be encouraged. Be a prophet for our times, leading by the example of doing what you can, when you can, as you can, and placing everything in the hands of God to bring to fruition.

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