Nought for Your Comfort?

The relentlessly cheerful and optimistic can be rather trying to the rest of us, who would probably say we are ‘realists’ or claim to be cool and rational in the face of the world’s ills. (Personally, I think ‘cool and rational’ is rather overdone since it tends to be the attitude of those who like to give others the benefit of their opinion unasked, but let’s leave that for the moment.) There is certainly a great deal to be exercised about at present. In Britain we face never-ending scraps about statistics, lockdown restrictions and the economy, not helped by silly headlines such as ‘Worship Banned’ or ‘Christmas Likely To be Cancelled’ and the ramping up of the perceived likelihood of another terrorist attack. Across the Atlantic there is the disedifying spectacle of the President questioning (that’s the most neutral word I can find) the validity of his country’s democratic processes, to the great delight of Russia and China and totalitarian regimes everywhere. Meanwhile, people are dying in the mud of landslides in Guatemala or lonely and afraid in Cameroon and Mozambique, while the starving children of Yemen are largely ignored and the abuse of human rights elsewhere is mainly remembered only when it serves another purpose.

Those who forecast the end of the world as we have known it may well be right. The tradition of liberal Western democracy most of us have grown up with may not survive. The economic systems with which we are familiar may be lost as the East comes to dominate both manufacturing and finance. As for the Church, there must be a question-mark over whether she can continue to ignore so many of the intellectual and cultural changes that affect our lives or even sustain the huge investment in personnel and plant (churches, schools, seminaries, etc.) that has characterised previous centuries. Bombs, beheadings, the sheer inhumanity and selfishness we see daily must give us pause. ‘What is the world coming to?’ we cry, but answer comes there none.

And yet. And yet, God is still there, endlessly creative, and the human spirit is there, too, graced with compassion and fellow-feeling. If we are being called to a new situation, a new way of being, as I think we are, surely we can take heart from those two elementary truths. That is where real comfort (in the sense of strength) is to be found. Over the next few weeks, I hope to be able to share with you a few ideas on the subject. In the meantime, let’s pray for one another, and especially for those who feel daunted by the prospect before them.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Tell My Children I Love Them

Who could fail to have been moved by those words of a dying woman, uttered after being attacked in Nice yesterday? They express all that is best and most loving about mothers, about human beings. For a Christian, looking at a Crucifix, they express God’s love for us, his errant children, and they give us hope. We are loved, and we can choose to love in return.

As news of the attacks in France came in yesterday, I admit to feeling more than usual sadness. Something has changed. Those targeted attacks on the eve of lockdown, like the murder of Samuel Paty, do more than challenge the secular values of the French State. They challenge our faith. Either we believe the gospel, or we don’t. Either we will continue to love, or we won’t. Either we allow God to forgive in and through us, or we don’t. How we manage that, I don’t know. May God give us the grace. And may he comfort those bereaved children and all who mourn.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Are We All Becoming Bullies?

Before you respond with an indignant ’no,’ please bear with me for a moment. The word ‘bully’ has undergone a sea-change over the centuries. It was originally a term of endearment. Only since the seventeenth century has it come to mean someone who tries to force another person to do their bidding. Thinking about the bullies I have known and the way in which they acted, I have frequently wondered whether there isn’t a strange mixture of attraction and repulsion about bullying behaviour. The worst bully I ever encountered was, I suspect, a psychopath, with all the deadly charm of such. On the whole, however, I think we are apt to downplay the bully and the harm they do. Why is that?

Our attitude to bullying
One reason is probably our distanced attitude to bullying. If it does not directly affect us or someone we love, especially a child, it remains an abstraction. How many of us think of bullies in terms of the school playground — the bigger boy or girl who uses greater physical strength to humiliate someone who is ‘different’ or can’t fight back? Yet we’ve all met the bully who uses a constant drip of withering words to undermine another’s confidence. To an outsider, some marriages seem to be based on a bullying/bullied relationship which may not involve physical violence but is psychologically damaging. Bullying in the workplace is, if not a commonplace, certainly not rare, but comparatively few are ready to challenge it. Even in religious communities, I’m sorry to say, we can see bullying in operation, often thinly veiled by admiration of a ‘charismatic leader’ or the misapplication of a religious value such as obedience. We are aware of online bullying and dutifully express our horror when someone is trolled or receives rape or death threats, but I wonder how many of us stop to ask ourselves whether we contribute to a bullying culture, not by our silence or timidity as many might think, but by what we actually do and say?

Dissent from popular opinions
You must have noticed, as I have, that any questioning of a current orthodoxy or popular opinion tends to be dealt with scathingly. There is no argument, simply a howl of outrage or dismissal. I almost fear to name some of the matters where expression of another point of view is effectively prevented, but try this list. It has no particular order but deliberately includes a few subjects currently generating more heat than light:

Pope Francis
Donald Trump
Joe Biden
abortion
transgender persons
homosexuality
Brexit
COVID-19 lockdowns
mask-wearing
feminism
Black slavery and statues
gender-free and inclusive language, especially in the liturgy
Christianity
Islam
party politics
nuns’ habits
conservatism
socialism.

Unless you have never expressed an opinion of any of them, can you honestly say you have always entertained contrary opinions with courtesy and open-mindedness? It has been made clear to me, occasionally, that I can only state my own view of some subjects if I am prepared to receive the equivalent of a tongue-lashing and, in some cases, the threat of delation to Rome. Usually, neither bothers me, but recently I have begun to find it depressing, partly because of the amount of time and energy it takes to try to clear up misunderstandings (especially when one can’t respond as directly as one would wish), partly because of what it says about the society we have become. I don’t mean I think we have become less tolerant as such, though we may have. I’m more inclined to think we have become lazier and more aggressive than I think we were, and I’d like to know why.

Are we lazier and more aggressive than we used to be?
One reason may be that we have confused equality with egalitarianism and in striving to achieve the former have ended up with the latter. If I’m right, everyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how ill-informed (though I’m not sure even I would dare to lecture parents on how to bring up their children). Remember how we all became experts in virology and associated sciences overnight once COVID-19 stalked the world? Or, for Catholics, how we all became experts in ecclesiology and infallible sniffers out of heresy once we discovered we could broadcast our opinions to the world? Many of us have become accustomed to seeing ourselves as victims, appropriating to ourselves the wrongs suffered by our ancestors or anyone with whom we can identify. People laugh when I say the Norman Conquest remains a bone of contention, but what’s a good Jutish girl like me supposed to say? That it was a Good Thing, with the advantages outweighing the disadvantages? My mention of the Norman Conquest may make you smile, but it is a useful example of how we can cling to our own version of history and refuse to accept that there may be another view worth considering. If we look further afield, we can see that the memory of colonialism and lots of other -isms continues to cause fury, heartache and division. 

Technological change: lazy reading, lazy listening
What I think most telling, however, I’d call an unintended consequence of the technological changes that have affected us all. Thanks to the internet and the web, we are always connected, always able to share information and opinions but, at the same time, the sheer quantity of information, both real and false, available to us has made us lazy readers and listeners. Our online experience and manner of being increasingly carries over into our ordinary, everyday face-to face encounters. We react more than we reflect. Because we don’t take the trouble to read/listen closely, because we skim read and are anxious to give an instant response, we don’t necessarily absorb what anyone else is saying, much less take time to weigh it. In other words, as communication has become easier, we have actually become less inclined to communicate. As a result, we often don’t genuinely engage — and I plead guilty to that as much as the next person. That, I think, is where the desire to control comes in. To keep our own world safe, we create echo-chambers for those who think as we do and exclude those who threaten our security by thinking differently. We are often more aggressive than we intend to be. Perhaps you begin to see why I question whether we are becoming bullies. If we can’t be bothered to marshall arguments, to think as well as speak, why not just batter the other person over the head — not physically, of course, but with the kind of scornful put-down that makes anyone reluctant to engage further?

A pointer from the Rule of St Benedict
Today, in the monastery, we re-read chapter 20 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Reverence in Prayer. Every time we hear it, I find new depths of wisdom and insight. This morning I was struck by what Benedict says about how we should approach someone from whom we want to ask a favour, with humility and respect (RB 20.1). That brought me up short. I haven’t noticed much humility and respect in recent political debates, nor in many sections of social media, though often enough a favour was being sought, whether it be a vote, funding for a project or help of another kind. Maybe we should do a little re-thinking. Humility doesn’t mean pretending we are of no value, on the contrary, it means being honest about our real value; respect doesn’t mean fawning, it literally means taking a second look, i.e. giving enough time to the other to register their true worth. Humility and respect are, so to say, two sides of the same coin and both are necessary for genuine human — and consequently humane — engagement. If our interactions are characterised by humility and respect, there can be no bullying. On the contrary, there is much more chance of a meeting of minds, of co-operation and the creation of lasting peace and goodwill. Something worth aiming for, wouldn’t you say?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Anchored in Reality: RB 68

One aspect of the Rule of St Benedict I have come to appreciate more and more is the way in which it anchors us in reality. One might think that a community sharing a common purpose, living under a Rule exhorting everyone to show consideration towards others and expressly enjoining moderation in the commands given by those in authority, would have no problems with impossible demands, except, perhaps, from those who are sick (cf RB 36.4). Then we read RB 68, which is about how to respond if asked to do the impossible, and realise that Benedict is well aware that theory and practice don’t always meet. In an age when it has become fashionable to protest, loudly and vigorously, about anything with which we disagree or regard as unfair, his approach to finding a solution to disputes, as distinct from merely making a noise about things, can be helpful.

First, he says the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when we see its impossibility (RB 68.1). So, no immediate escalation of difficulty by making a song and dance about it. We must allow time for the demand to be reflected upon and, if necessary, investigated. Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can we raise an objection, and even then, we can’t just blurt out the objection, we are to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to our superior/the person making the demand (RB 68.3). There’s some good understanding of human nature in that. We talk about ‘going off the deep end’, forcing someone to listen to us because we are het up about something and don’t care what effect we have on others. So often anger is like waves crashing around, upsetting everything in sight, not just the individual who is lashing out. As far as Benedict is concerned, any form of argumentativeness is ruled out (not argument, please note, but argumentativeness), and if the superior/person making the demand declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

Now, of course, not all commands can, or necessarily should, be obeyed or complied with. The fact that we are asked or even commanded to do something does not free us from our moral obligations, nor are we meant to put our brains to sleep. What I think Benedict is aiming at in this short chapter is a wisdom that goes beyond that of this present age. He wants the community to be at peace, and that inevitably means being realistic about conflicts. Ultimately, he can appeal to love and grace. In a secular situation we cannot make the same appeal, but I think we can allow the dynamic of love and grace to work within us. That is why I call this chapter an anchor for the storms of life. It goes beyond the material. We can apply it to the emotional shipwrecks we sometimes find ourselves in, to lack of forgiveness and the perpetuation of old feuds. It makes us confront reality, not run away from it. Something, I suggest, we all need to do, not just Benedictines.

RB 68
You can listen to the Rule of St Benedict chapter 68 being read aloud here:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Slavery, the Slave Trade and Flannery O’Connor

I know I said I wouldn’t write about slavery or the slave trade because I’m aware of its complexities, but this morning two events conspired to set me thinking. The first was the reminder that on this day in 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force, abolishing slavery throughout most of the British Empire over a period of six years. The second was reading that Loyola University in the USA is thinking of re-naming one of its dormitories currently named after Flannery O’Connor.

Slavery and the Black Lives Matter campaign have become intertwined, and I’m not sure it is to the advantage of either. For instance, one of the things I find most difficult about the current debate is the narrowness of its perspective and its almost total focus on Black Slavery in the modern era as the source of racism. No one in their right mind could defend any form of slavery nowadays, nor could anyone deny that there has been an enormous amount of suffering and injustice flowing from slavery that continues to the present; but I’m not sure that the history of Black Slavery explains racism. Ask any Jew, ask any older Irishman, anyone whose skin colour differs from that of the majority of those around them, whether they have encountered the kind of prejudice we could label racist, and the answer will probably be ‘yes’. When I was growing up, being a Catholic wasn’t de bon ton either, unless one belonged to a certain social class. My father refused to join a golf club which excluded Catholics and Jews and I daresay there were other little prejudices he encountered that he didn’t bother to mention.

We cannot ignore the fact that slavery still exists today, here in the UK and other parts of the world, wherever human beings are trafficked, exploited, or denied their essential dignity and freedom. I know I am not alone in thinking that we should be working to end modern slavery, as well as rooting out the prejudice we call ‘racist’, but I think it helps to know a little history when considering the memorials we have inherited from the past. I found quite a useful timeline for the abolition of slavery and serfdom on Wikipedia that some of you may be interested to read. Where I could test it, e.g. on the medieval Church’s attempts to end slavery and the slave trade, it proved accurate. It just isn’t possible to divide the world into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, especially not those who lived before us and were subject to different ideas and experiences. Which brings me to Flannery O’Connor.

In the rush to topple statues and distance institutions from any taint of association with slavery, we seem to have become a little confused. Cecil Rhodes, as far as I am concerned, was deeply unpleasant and the statue at Oriel is not one of the nation’s finest, so I don’t much care what happens to it, but the Rhodes Scholarships are another matter. I think we have to find a way of living with our past, not trying to do away with it or glorifying it but learning from it. Difficult, but not beyond the wit of men and women to resolve. But now, Flannery O’Connor a racist? She who identified the sufferings of what were then called negroes* with the sufferings of Christ, a racist? I can’t think of anything I’ve read of hers that would justify such a claim, which makes me wonder what the real motivation for the name-change is. She was a witty, spunky woman, with a strong Catholic faith, as well as as superb writer. Is the fact that she lived in the South to be counted against her or taken as evidence of views I certainly did not know she held (enlighten me, please, if you know more than I do).

The problem for me is that when we become a little silly about serious matters, when we overstate the case for a necessary change in attitude or practice, we can weaken our argument. Neither racism nor slavery has any place in civilized society, but perhaps we need to think more deeply about how to counter them. This is one of those areas where the religious and social intersect most clearly. We cannot be indifferent, but we should not be foolish, either.

* not a term we would use today but commonly used by both black and white citizens of the USA at the time she wrote.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Learning from Lockdown

Introduction
I’ve hesitated to publish this post although it has been among my drafts for some time. I’m not very happy about the parallels sometimes drawn between lockdown and enclosure (cloister), but I’m even less happy about the rush to return to ‘normal’ as though the pandemic were over and we can just forget everything that has happened. The number of infections across the globe is still increasing, and in the absence of an effective vaccine, it is likely that we shall be affected by lockdown measures again and again. May I share with you what I have learned thus far and invite you to share with me what you have learned?

I begin with a word of caution. The experience of lockdown has much to teach us, I believe, but it is a process, not something done-and-dusted. It needs more thought, more discussion, more prayer before we can fully assimilate what we have learned about ourselves and others, and before we can realistically assess the consequences. That over-worked word ‘discernment’ is part of the process, and I think we need to acknowledge that we are still too close to the experience, still too deeply affected by it, to achieve the clarity of focus we ideally need. What follows should be read with that in mind.

For some people, of course, it has been the merest blip in their existence. Lockdown does not seem to have affected them very much. In their eagerness to get back to ‘normal’, they barely register a passing regret for the time they have been able to spend in the garden or on the beach, ‘phones off, acquiring new skills perhaps, with an occasional foray into social media or Zoom to chart their progress in baking or learning a new language. I exaggerate, but there is truth in the exaggeration. For those with secure jobs, a decent amount of space to live in, and no particular worries about themselves or their families, it hasn’t been too terrible. They may even have been able to save money and get a trimmer waistline at the same time. It’s been inconvenient rather than anything more soul-searching.

Analogies between Lockdown and Cloister
For monks, but more especially nuns, there are some analogies between lockdown and the cloister. Restrictions on movement, reliance on the skill-pool within the community, and a routine which doesn’t vary much from day to day are some obvious points of similarity. But many of the experiences others take for granted don’t really affect us. We don’t have regular visits from our families. Attending concerts, plays or films or having meals out with friends isn’t part of our way of life. We haven’t felt the constraints some have because we don’t have, or don’t exercise, the freedoms they presuppose.

The more generous will wax lyrical about the greater silence they have experienced and how much they have valued not being called away from prayer or reading to attend to the needs of unexpected guests. A few will be honest enough to admit that this stripping away of what is ‘normal’ in their monastic lives has made them confront a more shadowy side of their being. They have realised, probably painfully, how dependent they are on others; how much of their selves they have invested in work or outreach; how much they need to be needed by their community or others. 

In short, I don’t think we can press the analogies too far. The differences are more telling. Monastic life is chosen; lockdown was, and is, imposed; the motive for each is different, and the kind of authority and obedience/compliance involved in each is different again.

Lockdown here in the monastery
I cannot truthfully say that our experience of lockdown here has been idyllic or anything like it. We have actually been shielding because of my illness and have had no difficulty identifying with those who have found the practical challenges of lockdown existence quite hard at times — getting up in the middle of the night to secure online food deliveries (we live in a very rural area), having to ‘bend the rules’ to obtain medical prescriptions, dealing with repairs to the house at one remove, so to say, and convincing those who do call that keeping a distance is wise: we don’t have immunity to disease just because we are nuns. Such things are minor in themselves but baulk larger when one has no choice but must add them to the daily round or try to explain without giving offence why we can’t do certain things.

I don’t want to paint too dark a picture, however. We enjoyed several weeks of greater physical silence from the A465, but I think it would be fair to say that we carry our silence inside and exterior noise doesn’t make as big an impact on us as one might think. It was certainly useful, while our floors were being repaired, to know that we could legitimately say to unexpected visitors that we were unable to receive them because we were shielding rather than have to go through the complications of welcoming them into a garden area and conversing at a distance. But as time has gone on, we have found more and more people looking to us for support in their loneliness and anxiety. Telephone calls and emails have multiplied. We have even introduced a dedicated ‘phone prayerline to help cope with the demand since our online forms are not enough and are not available to those without internet access.

For Catholics, of course, the sacraments are an essential part of our life in Christ. As a community, we have shared in the sense of abandonment and exclusion so many lay people have experienced. We are fortunate to have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our chapel,* but we have not had Mass or any of the other sacraments. For reasons I need not go into here, live-streamed Masses are not for us; and in any case, rural broadband does not always allow easy access to what is available online. For us, the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) shapes our day and along with ‘private’ prayer, work and reading anchors us in reality. The whole house is dedicated to the search for God, and we feel that keenly. However, the absence of the sacraments from our lives must be taken seriously. In my own case, it has lasted much longer than lockdown has. It affects how I understand the Church and her mission and why I question some of the platitudes about pastoral care that are trotted out without, it seems to me, much thought or awareness of what it means for those who don’t feel anyone has much pastoral care or concern for them. This has implications for religious communities of women and for the Church as a whole.

Perhaps I could try to summarise my tentative conclusions as four short questions/lessons from lockdown. We cannot separate the human/social from the spiritual, the individual from the communal, but, as I said earlier, it is a process, work in progress, so not susceptible of clear or easy answers to each point.

The first question/lesson of lockdown
My first point would be that lockdown has highlighted the inequalities in society and in some religious communities. In the rush to take meetings and celebrations online, the poor, the technically disadvantaged, those living in the country, women, fall behind. I don’t know many single parents living in tower blocks but one recently expressed worry that their children’s education has been massively disrupted. There has been nothing to take the place of school that they could afford, and because the jobs they do are regarded as low-skilled, they know only too well that their employment is insecure. Their economic and social security is fragile at the best of times, and lockdown has not been for them the best of times. 

Older people, and sick people of all ages, have talked about their experience of isolation and their feeling of being pastorally abandoned because they can’t take part in their parish’s Zoom services (some of which are now ending, despite the less fit having to continue to stay away because they are shielding). There is often a sadness, an increasing reluctance to engage with others, that shows the distress within. We can only listen, and then just for such time as we can manage.

As a community of women, without a chaplain, we can identify with the pastoral concerns of the elderly and the sick but must admit that loneliness isn’t the same for us. We have chosen solitude, albeit lived with others. Although our lifestyle is frugal, we are not poor in the way many are poor. We have choices the truly poor do not. We have community, and although that is not always an easy blessing, it is a blessing. We have not had to face the difficulties of lockdown alone. We are privileged, and it is nonsense to suggest we are anything but privileged. How we use our privilege is another matter, requiring further reflection.

The second question/lesson of lockdown
The second lesson to be learned is more challenging for the Church as a whole. In fact, it is more of a question than a lesson. Lockdown has demonstrated that the familiar model of the parish as a territorial entity, run by the priest with the assistance of lay people in clearly-defined secondary roles, is in terminal decline. I have read the latest pastoral Instruction several times and am no more convinced than I was before that the Vatican really sees either the problem or the opportunities. If that is arrogant, I apologize: I write as a daughter of the Church, not as someone who has neither love nor respect for her.

The old ‘normal’ is never going to return, but there seems a reluctance to admit it. Why? Don’t we believe in the Holy Spirit any more? Has lockdown shown us the fragility of our faith and hope, made us more selfish perhaps? Have we become afraid of one another, as though everyone carries some deadly virus and the only safe option is to ignore, retreat, avoid? I may be overstating my case, but I have a hunch that the Church is going to haemorrhage members unless or until we can stop acting as though she were composed of various clubs, all rather suspicious of one another and convinced that they alone possess the truth. The Truth should possess us, but that can be scary. Better to keep God in a nicely gilded tabernacle than allow Him to change us.

I admit there is potential for disaster here, but isn’t there also potential for grace? Of course, it means throwing ourselves upon God in a way we may never have done in the past. In my own community I have seen an intensification of prayer that only a searing experience such as that of a pandemic could have brought about. What it may lead to, I don’t know. After World War II there was a huge increase in the number of vocations to monastic life. Many of those who had gone through the horrors of war were led to question the purpose of their existence and embraced monasticism with fervour. It could happen again, but if it does, it will not be in the same way. Society has changed enormously and with it the expectations of those who are drawn to the cloister.

What we must avoid at all costs is a kind of two-tier Church, in which some have access to the sacraments and others don’t; in which some are able to enjoy the fellowship of others in their worship but many can’t. To exclude from active, conscious participation the old, the sick and the poor would be contrary to the gospel, but I have been amazed at the coolness with which a few seem to contemplate that prospect.

The third question/lesson of lockdown
My third lockdown lesson is more personal, but I suspect others will nod in agreement. I have learned how impossible I am to live with. No one has complained; no one has been nasty; but for sheer cantankerousness, impatience and organized selfishness, I take the biscuit. When there are more demands than usual, especially from people, tempers can fray. Mine certainly has. When we have to rely on ourselves for fixing equipment we are not sure about or are thwarted in our desire to obtain necessary items for the community, anxiety levels shoot up. Mine have. I could go on, but you get my drift. Lockdown has revealed much I would have preferred to have kept hidden from myself.

Questions raised by an increase in self-knowledge are never comfortable, but they are necessary, however reluctant we may be to admit as much. I imagine that for most of us lockdown has been a mixture of the welcome and unwelcome. Some have learned they have strengths they never knew existed; others, like me, have discovered weaknesses they never dreamed they had. We have discovered who our friends are, and perhaps been disappointed in some we thought were our friends but who have proved otherwise. Many of our fixed ideas have been toppled, and we are still digesting the implications. At both the individual and the communal level, we have some hard thinking to do and some difficult choices to make.

The fourth question/lesson of lockdown
For some lockdown has been a time of loss and grief. Unlike many communities and families, we have been spared thus far the death of anyone in our immediate circle, thank God. We have not had to grieve without the customary rites of passing and death. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face is how to die with dignity in a world of PPE and lockdown restrictions, where simple gestures such as holding the hand of a dying person can no longer to be taken for granted, where the Last Rites are not always possible, and funerals are bleak and lonely exercises that bring scant comfort to those who mourn. Recently, in conversation with someone whose husband had died of the virus and who was lonely and desolate, I was prompted to mention something I take for granted but she didn’t know about. At the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal, it is our custom to pray for the dead. She found comfort in that, in the knowledge that all over the world, monks and nuns would be praying day in, day out, for those who have died, including her husband. It reminded me that small things can make a difference.

There are times when it has seemed as though COVID-19 and lockdown were combining to rob us of our humanity, making us selfish and cruel. Heartening stories of the kindness of medical and nursing staff, the diligence of hospital chaplains and the like and the generosity of thousands of volunteers give the lie to that; but we all need to know that there is something we ourselves can contribute, something we can do, no matter how old, sick, poor or isolated we may be.

Conclusion
Lockdown, like most things in life, leaves me with more questions than answers. If we are to learn from our lockdown experience, we must reflect on it and be prepared to change. Perhaps in the end lockdown will lead to greater freedom, greater humanity and greater holiness. I hope so. The only thing I am really sure about is that it isn’t over yet.

*Thanks to Dom Andrew of Belmont, we have been able to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. We’re very grateful to him.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.

We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.

So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.

I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.

The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.

Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?

I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Collective Obsessions and Seeking to Understand

Despite what I said in my previous post, or perhaps because of it, I have been trying to articulate and therefore understand my feelings of unease about some of the matters currently affecting us all, for example COVID-19, the protests following the death of George Floyd, the public arguments about transgenderism and so on. Perhaps you can help me?

I am not talking about having a particular stance, nor am I asking for your opinions on these matters as such. We all have our own views, and this is probably not the best place to debate those I have mentioned. My question has more to do with the dynamics of debate, the way we go from one subject to another and how we are to understand our collective obsessions and the way they affect us.

A little while ago everyone was talking about COVID-19 and giving the world the benefit of their opinion on the nature of the virus and its origins, the effectiveness of lockdown measures and, in the UK at least, the competence or otherwise of the Government’s response to the crisis. As someone said, overnight we all became epidemological experts, and if we had celebrity status, we expected our adoring public to hang on our suitably woke words and whacky medical recommendations.

Next came the brutal death of George Floyd, which ignited a series of riots and protests that is still going on. The way he was treated was wrong, unambiguously wrong, no matter that some want to argue that he had a criminal record as though that somehow ‘justified’ what was done to him. Some of what has followed, however, — further deaths, looting, statue toppling and so on — strikes me as being troubling, though not all equally serious. Death and injury will always be more serious than daubing a wall with graffiti or tumbling a bad statue into a river. Politicians and others have rushed to issue suitably contrite statements and take actions which, to an outsider, look to be panic-driven rather than a considered response to a complex and many-faceted situation.

At the same time, some comments of J.K. Rowling have added further fuel to a fire that has been raging for some time over transgenderism. I hope my transgender friends will allow me to say that casting accusations of transphobia at people doesn’t really meet the case. One can believe that biological sex cannot be changed without disliking or having a prejudice against those who have had gender reassignment or identify as being a different sex from the one they were assumed to be at birth. It is always going to be difficult to talk about deeply held beliefs without causing hurt, but should the fact that it is difficult mean we simply dismiss views we ourselves don’t hold by condemning the person who holds them? If I may use an analogy. My being a Catholic is central to my existence, but that has never stopped my being friends with those who don’t share my beliefs or are even hostile to them.

My problem with what I have called collective obsessions is this. First, we tend to deal with them sequentially. One minute we are flooded with comment on COVID-19; the next it is racism; then transgenderism. But when the shouting dies down, what have we done to effect any change? My second is more personal: how do these matters affect us at a deeper level of consciousness and our Weltanschauung?

We may have clapped and cheered the NHS for ten weeks, but what have we done to limit the spread of COVID-19 or help those whose lives have been most affected by it? There is an emotional response to the work being done by healthcare professionals, but can we go beyond that? We may have denounced racism and slavery, but how aware are we of the slavery that exists in Britain today or that brutalises the lives of people living in other countries? Only this morning I read on the BBC news web site of a little girl of 7 who had been working as a maid in Pakistan and was tortured to death by her ’employers’ (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53008093). If I say that worries me more than any statue, am I to be immediately condemned for not being alert to the discrimination and injustice suffered as a result of present-day racism in this country or the role of historical remembrance in perpetuating racist attitudes? Are they mutually exclusive? And with regard to transgenderism, what effort have we personally made to understand? If one does not condemn a particular view, is one complicit with it? Or is one simply saying, I don’t know enough, haven’t thought enough, to express an opinion — and do I need to have an opinion on everything, anyway?

I suspect my questions don’t really have answers, and I must be prepared for comment from those who don’t want to engage with the questions but merely want a platform to express their views. So be it. I must go on asking, however, because otherwise I know that I shall not be trying to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in many and various ways, not least through events and the perplexity we experience in the face of them. Our collective obsessions may be fleeting, but they can have a huge effect on our lives and the lives of other people. Ultimately, they matter. We must take them seriously.

Audio Version

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

How to Cope with Life’s Injustices

Where do we start? I’ve been very quiet recently, not for any sinister reason but because I felt I must either say a great deal about some subjects or keep very quiet. On the subject of racism, for example, I can say very little. I don’t understand it and never have. It simply baffles me that skin colour could ever be used as a marker of supposed inferiority/superiority. On the subject of slavery and the slave trade, however, I would have to say a great deal because the subject is historically much more complex than many who see it solely in terms of Black Slavery from the sixteenth century onwards seem to realise — and the tragedy is that it still continues today. I prefer to leave these questions to others, so it is probably just as well that I have been busy with many of those things that keep a monastery going but which are neither romantic nor particularly interesting to outsiders.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that one fails to register what is going on in the world outside the cloister or the injustices that are perpetrated. There are the big injustices: the corruption that bedevils political decision-making, often without our being fully aware of it; the economic exploitation that enriches some but impoverishes others; the suppression of freedoms and the manipulation of opinion that makes us all doubt whom we can really trust or what we can believe. Then there are the smaller injustices, those we experience personally and acutely: the failure to recognize our goodwill; the attack on our good name or the belittling of our attempts to be kind or generous; even the breakdown of relationships or our own health can come into this category. It isn’t always easy to respond with courage or the kind of bright-eyed determination we are taught to admire. Sometimes we just want to go into a corner, curl up in a heap and howl.

Cue the entrance of St Barnabas, whose feast-day this is. We might think he would have something of a chip on his shoulder for being the perpetual ‘second fiddle,’ first to Paul, then to John Mark. Even today his liturgical commemoration is ranked not as a full feast (festum) but as a memorial (memoria). In Acts 11.24 he is described as ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. I think that explains why we can derive so much encouragement from Barnabas. He is not one of those on whom the spotlight naturally falls. He’s more of a peace-maker than an agitator or protestor. He introduced Paul to the apostles after his conversion and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys, which speaks volumes about his tact and patience. He defended gentile converts against the Judaizers, and when the break with Paul finally came, Barnabas seems to have gone on quietly preaching and teaching, happy to leave the first place to his more brilliant colleague. We might say that Barnabas’s life is an essay in living creatively with injustice, not condoning it nor grumbling about it but generously accepting it and not letting it get in the way of what really mattered.

Thinking about St Barnabas makes me question how I cope with the small injustices I encounter in my own life. It is an uncomfortable question but one I feel the need to address before I can properly think about some of the larger ones mentioned above. Sometimes we try to avoid dealing with our own shortcomings by concentrating on those of others or society in general. We forget that, like Barnabas, we have to work at becoming good ourselves before we can hope to encourage others to become good in their turn. The trouble is, we’ll never see the good in ourselves but we must hope that others will. That, surely, is the way to change the world — but it will never be easy.

Audio Version

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Reaching Zero-Point

Figure on cliffside walkway holding head with hands
By Edvard MunchNational Gallery of Norway, Public Domain, Link

From time to time, I think we all reach zero-point. We have no energy left; we’re emotionally drained; everything seems to be going wrong or, if not wrong, too much is being asked of us; and, of course, we feel guilty as well for what we (and sometimes others, also) perceive as failure or a shortcoming. That is when St Benedict’s sixth step of humility takes on fresh significance, but not necessarily the one we assume.

The sixth step of humility is for a monk to be content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything, and in respect of whatever tasks are laid upon him, to regard himself as a bad and worthless worker, saying to himself with the prophet, ‘I am reduced to nothing and am all ignorance; I have become like a dumb beast before you, yet I am always with you.’

R.B. 7. 49–50, quoting Ps. 72 (73): 22–23; cf Cassian, Institutes IV, 39.

Being content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything sounds dull and unattractive, especially when we feel worn out. I regret to say it can be used as a weapon or, more revealingly, provide evidence of envy or even ill-will when applied to other people. Why should X need that? Why should Y want such and such? Surely this is good enough for them — ‘good enough’ being determined by the speaker, not the one in need. Nuns are usually treated very kindly and generously by others but there have been a few hilarious instances of wondering whether someone’s intention was to send us to an early grave (giving dodgy electrical equipment, for example) or otherwise ‘keep us in our place’ by suggesting we are stupid or gullible. Benedict, of course, is not talking about material things only, nor is he encouraging a false humility which is no humility at all. He is asking for honesty and truthfulness and a recognition that we are not necessarily the best judges of self or conduct. We must resist the temptation to think better or worse of ourselves than we are. Both are forms of vanity, and that has no place in a monastery. Vanity is, quite literally, an emptiness which should be filled with the Spirit.

The sixth step of humility therefore invites us to reflect on our own conduct and treatment of others rather than wasting time thinking how badly they treat us, wishing we had what they do, or congratulating ourselves on how mortified we are in our acceptance of everything humble and horrible in our lives. We can be content without becoming complacent, with our focus on others rather than ourselves. As Benedict says again and again in different ways, we are to put others and their good first. I wonder how often we do?

When applied to a whole people, or even to a significant proportion of a people, the argument that ‘they’ should be content with what we decide for them can become deadly. We see it today in Yemen, in the race riots in the U.S.A., in many of the attitudes underlying the social unrest in Britain. But do we see it in our own treatment of those nearest (and hopefully, dearest) to us? The sad truth is that we cannot hope to change society for the better if we do not start with ourselves. If we want others to be kind, truthful, considerate, peaceful, we must try to become so ourselves. It would be wonderful if we could leave that to times when we feel brimful of energy and zeal. Unfortunately, it is usually when we have reached zero-point that we have to act. As Benedict’s quotation from the psalms reminds us, however, when we cease to rely on ourselves and rely instead on God, miracles can happen. It is when we leave God out of the equation that we end up not merely at zero-point but in wholly negative territory.

Audio version

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail