Fanaticism

Yesterday’s events in Norway will have sickened everyone. We have become almost accustomed to bomb attacks, but the mass shooting of young people, that still has power to shock in a way that nothing else can. As we pray for those who died, those who survived and those who must cope with the aftermath, we naturally ask questions about the perpetrator. What kind of mind could conceive of such horrors, let alone carry them out? Our first thought is usually to say, he must be deranged or a fanatic. If he is mentally ill, unable to judge between right and wrong or unaware of the link between action and consequence, what can we do but grieve, for him as for the dead? But if he is a ‘fanatic’? What do we do then?

Fanaticism is zeal gone wrong. Indeed, the origins of the word, from the Latin fanaticus, meaning ‘of a temple, inspired by a god’, show very clearly both the energy and the essential unreasonableness of the fanatic. You cannot argue with someone who does not admit the constraints of being human, of living in society, who does not consider himself bound by the rules. The irony is that Norway has been, until now, one of the most open and tolerant societies in the world. Will it remain so?

Some will no doubt speak of a loss of innocence but there is something darker still: a loss of freedom, of confidence, of humanity itself. Global terrorism has made us suspicious of one another but it takes time to recognize the threat from within. ‘Security’ is now the watchword at our airports and public buildings. We must expect as much in Norway henceforth. Something else died yesterday in Oslo and Utoeya: trust in one another.

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Enda Kenny and the Catholic Church

Most people will have sympathized with Enda Kenny and his denunciation of the apparent slowness with which the  Catholic Church as an institution has got to grips with the implications of, first, the Murphy report and now the Cloyne report. I think I have written enough on this subject for everyone to know the position of the community here. I am troubled, however, by two things: the fact that so many of the clergy still don’t ‘get’ what it is all about, and the fact that it is primarily the laity of today who must pay for the sins of the clergy of the past.

Clergy who are innocent of any kind of abuse (the vast majority) are often bemused by the distrust and hostility directed at them. We find that as nuns we get a small amount of ‘hatemail’ on the subject and sometimes have a few gibes made at us; it must be much worse for the clergy. The point is, our understanding of the Church means that we are all affected by what a few do or have done. There is such a thing as collective responsibility, though I am not sure how far it goes in this case. What I am sure is that adopting a public stance of condemnation and privately playing down the significance of abuse is completely unacceptable. Despite all the talk of safeguarding and putting in place statutory measures to ensure the proper reporting of abuse, etc, there still seems to be comparatively little being done to enable the clergy and those in training to understand, identify and combat paedophilia in their ranks. If I am wrong about this, someone please put me right. I can only speak as I have heard.

My other worry is that when the victims of abuse bring lawsuits against the Church, it is principally the laity of today, especially the poor, who suffer. We have seen what happened in the Boston diocese. No one denies the awfulness of what was done to those who were abused, but the closure of schools and hospitals (and even the making homeless of some of the sisters who served in the diocese) has hurt the poor of today in ways that few are prepared to acknowledge. Other dioceses face similar sorts of closures. Those who are hostile to all forms of religion may rejoice, but those who know only the kindness of Christians will not. During my recent visit to the U.S.A. I was struck by the trust shown to nuns by those at the bottom end of the economic scale: African Americans and Hispanics doing ‘menial’ jobs or out of work altogether  seemed to find it easy to approach and ask for prayer or a blessing or just talk about their concerns. When trust is destroyed, what is left in its place?

Personally, I think we are only just beginning to understand the extent of abuse in the Church. Paedophilia has, quite rightly, come under scrutiny; but there is abuse of authority which affects not just children but adults, too. For all that, the Church remains a divine institution: one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. No matter how flawed, she remains the Bride of Christ, guardian of sacred scripture and of the sacraments, the nexus of our salvation in this world and the next. We must pray for her, love her, serve her, no matter how difficult at times that may be.

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Ascension Sunday and World Communications Day

With luck, I’ll not have to write the words ‘Ascension Sunday’ next year as we live in hope that the feast will be restored to its proper day, but World Communications Day is likely to be with us for some time to come. Is there any link between the two? Does celebration of the Ascension enrich our understanding of world communications?

The theme for this year’s World Communications Day is Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age. It isn’t difficult to make a case for a link between the two with truth and proclamation. When the Lord Jesus ascended, the disciples were scarcely allowed to gaze into heaven before they were sent on their way to proclaim the Good News of salvation. Similarly, we are urged to use every means open to us to proclaim Christ and champion truth in our everyday lives. So far so good, but what are we to do about ‘authenticity of life in the digital age’? Is that just another empty phrase that falls from the lips of clergy trying very hard to sound ‘relevant’ in a world that has largely given up listening to them?

I have to admit that I have difficulty with the word ‘authentic’. Generally, I use it to mean ‘genuine’ but ‘genuineness of life in the digital age’ doesn’t convey very much to me. ‘Authentic’ can mean ‘faithfully resembling an original’ but with the original in question not spelled out, that doesn’t really help, either. A third meaning of ‘authentic’ is ‘based on facts, reliable’ which is certainly helpful as regards how one would wish to communicate, but I’m not sure it really fits the idea of living as such. Could it be that this phrase, so often used in religious documents, is reflecting the Existentialists’ ’emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life’? Well, that’s all right as far as it goes, but doesn’t it leave out something rather important? One of the gifts with which God graces human beings is humour, fun, a delight in the world he has created.

There are many places in the gospels where we see the Lord Jesus teasing people or playfully responding to the quips of others. Worried disciples had to be reassured that every hair on their head had been numbered or that taxes would be paid even if their purse was empty (surely there was a chuckle as Peter went off to fish in the lake for his half-shekel); the Syro-Phoenician woman won Jesus over with her repartee; the Samaritan Woman almost bantered her way into salvation. Even the excess of that first miracle at Cana has more than a hint of joyful exuberance about it. Shouldn’t our lives have something of the same?

To me ‘authenticity of life in the digital age’ shouldn’t be all grim purposefulness but should include an element of light-heartedness. So, whether we tweet or blog or FB, let it be as whole people, able to laugh as well as mourn, to joke as well as preach. I can’t help feeling that the Ascension had some divine humour in it. As the Lord Jesus ascended, the disciples were left gazing skywards and had to be prodded into action by a vision of angels. Even now, they did not fully understand. Surely, a huge smile spread over heaven.

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The End of the World

Apparently, some people think the end of the world will come this week-end (21 May, to be precise). I cannot say that it would be a great surprise if it did. We have had more than enough of ‘wars and rumours of wars’, earthquakes, fires and tsunamis, deadly plagues and all manner of human wickedness envisioned by the writer of the Apocalypse and every other religious visionary. I daresay some people are running to their bunkers in the hope of surviving a little while, rather hopeless if you think about it. What shall we be doing here at the monastery? What we always do, I suppose. Part of me thinks that if the world should end I’d like to be kneeling in prayer, giving glory to God; but if I’m meant to be cleaning out the recycling bins or casting up figures for accounts that will never be audited, that’s what I’ll do. It is where I’ll be looked for, after all.

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Managing Expectations 2

I’ve already blogged on this subject but yesterday’s little dip into the world of TV and radio highlighted another area that is worth considering: the relationship between religion and money. (For those of you who haven’t a clue what I am talking about, one of us appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ here while BBC TV showed a short video here and issued a written summary here about our newly-launched Online Retreats.) The BBC presenter ended his piece with a short to-camera  reflection: “This begs the question of the relationship between religion and money” or some such wording.

It’s interesting that many people, whether they would describe themselves as believers or not, expect “religion” and all its works to be free. To some extent, that is entirely reasonable. We have come to expect that our churches and chapels will be free to enter when we wish to pray. When we visit them as tourists we stump up our entrance fees a little reluctantly. We are still not used to the idea that buildings have to be maintained and the congregation cannot necessarily do so without help. It somehow goes against the grain: we expect things to be otherwise. We don’t expect to have to pay to listen to homilies or sermons, on the grounds that the priest or clergyperson receives a stipend for performing clerical duties, one of which is preaching; so sometimes we get confused about what we may reasonably expect. Ask the parish priests who are telephoned every time they sit down to a meal and you will get some pretty plain speaking!

When we visit monasteries we expect to be received hospitably. The monks and nuns will drop their work and ply us with food and drink as a matter of course. After all, St Benedict says that every guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ. If we attend a day of recollection on monastic premises, we usually make a donation or pay a fee in recognition of the time and effort that has been devoted to us. Monks and nuns don’t receive salaries for what they do because we stand outside the clerical structures of the Church (I’m not talking of monk priests who have charge of parishes, obviously) yet there is still a common perception, shared maybe by our BBC presenter, that we ought not to charge for anything we do or provide. (How it is all to be financed is a question never addressed, but that is not what interests me here.)

I think this assumption that religion should be “free”, like the assumption that nuns, for example, should never be tired or angry, is actually a tribute to generations of good people who have been remarkably generous and remarkably virtuous. It is difficult, often impossible, for those of us who would describe ourselves as believers to meet the expectations of others in this regard; but when people senselessly knock religion and parrot out the view that all the bad things that happen in the world are the fault of religion, I think we can point to these assumptions and say, “If religion were as bad as you are claiming, you wouldn’t have these expectations.” The fact that we expect the clergy to be gentle with us and monks and nuns to be welcoming (and are rather put out if they aren’t) says something important about Christianity.

What, however, are the expectations that can reasonably be had of us as Christians, pure and simple? I am always immensely impressed by the way in which Christians in this country respond to any call for help. Disaster funds raise much of their money from those who have least. The tradition of tithing is well-established. We give our time, our talents, whatever we have; but how do we manage the expectations others have of us as people who should be endlessly giving? I’m not sure; but I am amazed and humbled into gratitude for all those from whom I learn so much, who somehow manage to be what I cannot.

 

 

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Care of the Sick

If you don’t know chapter 36 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Care of the Sick, I recommend it as a corrective to sloppy thinking about those who are unwell or who have become infirm because of age. Benedict maintains a balance between meeting the genuine needs of the sick and preventing their carers from being exploited or becoming exhausted. It is Christ who serves through us and Christ who is served in us. That thought may not be enough to stop us being irritable or demanding or whatever, but it may help in stressful situations where it is ‘the other person’ who is the cause of all our woe (or so we believe). If you would like to listen to RB as it is read in the monastery, please go here and click on the ‘RB Box’ in the sidebar.

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Equality is not Fairness

Yesterday Eunice and Owen Johns lost their appeal in the High Court. They had wanted to become respite foster carers but a social worker at Derby City Council had expressed concern at the couple’s opinions about homosexuality. In the words of Mr Johns, “We are prepared to love and accept any child. All we were not willing to do was to tell a small child that the practice of homosexuality was a good thing.”

In giving their verdict, Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beaton said that while Christians in general might well make good foster parents, people with traditionalist views like Mr and Mrs Johns might well not. (I suppose we should ask the fifteen children the Johns fostered back in the 90s about that, but it could be a bit radical, to look at the evidence.) Anyway, breathtaking though the judges’ assessment of Christianity may be, what is really significant is what followed. The court said that while there was a right not to face discrimination on the basis of either religion or sexual orientation, equality of sexual orientation took precedence. In other words, the law is to be interpreted according to secular values. In part, that seems absolutely right; in part, it seems very dangerous, for it will mean that Christian opposition to euthanasia, for example, will have no value in law. Conscience will count for nothing.

Today we expect to hear that charging lower insurance premiums for women drivers (who cause fewer accidents and are therefore a lower risk than men) is discriminatory and contrary to our laws about sex equality. In the name of equality, therefore, premiums for women will go up, and premiums for men will go down; but the nature of the risk will not change.

Both these cases concern equality, and nothing could demonstrate more clearly that equality is not the same as fairness. I don’t know the Johns, but I have a feeling that there may be questions that are not being addressed or which have not come out in reporting of the case. Respite care is not the same as long-term fostering or adoption. It is a valuable service that comparatively few are able or willing to offer. While one applauds Derby City Council’s determination to find the best possible foster carers, one wonders whether in this instance it has not sacrificed children’s interests to a theoretical position on equality. Similarly, in the case of car insurance premiums, equality in one area must mean arbitrariness in the assessment of risk in others. Certainly, I shall be challenging our insurers to explain how they assess the risk I pose (not many male nuns around, I think).

Sometimes we work hard to achieve equality and forget that fairness is also important. I may not be alone in wondering whether our copious equality legislation isn’t producing a society that is harsher and less fair than it ought to be. What can we as Christians do about it?

Update
Since writing the above I’ve realised that many will think I am criticizing the High Court opinion about the Johns or taking issue over the suitablity of the Johns to be foster parents. I am not. I am using their case to discuss our assumptions about equality. I don’t think the Johns should have taken their case to court in the first place, but that is just my opinion and does not affect what I am trying to say about equality and fairness.

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Gaddafi and the Problem of Tyranny

Watching the very public agonizing of President Obama and others over what to do about Libya set me thinking about the way in which Christian writers have attempted to deal with the problem of tyranny. That it is a problem is obvious. You have only to read Romans 13. 1-7, which seems to recommend absolute submission to earthly rulers (and has often been quoted by earthly rulers as justification for whatever they want to do) to see the dimension of the problem. People must put up with anything and everything, right?

Some Christians would certainly agree. Indeed, those of us who have vowed obedience to a religious superior know that our vow obliges us to obedience in all that is not sin. The problem comes when we and our superior disagree on what constitutes sin (folly is a sin, dear Mother) or we venture into that grey area which St Thomas Aquinas describes as “not sin, but sharing in the nature of sin.”

St Thomas gave a lot of thought to that passage from Romans. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Bk2, dist.44, quest. 2, art 2), he makes a distinction between authority derived from God and authority that isn’t. In other words, rulers must fulfil certain conditions if they are to be obeyed. He provides this helpful little guide to identifying rulers whose authority is not God-given:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

Thomas goes on to argue that both passive and active resistance to tyranny are allowable. He also considers whether and under what conditions it is legitimate to kill a tyrant. With regard to the tyranny of Julius Caesar he concludes that “in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded.” That is strong stuff and is the natural consequence of what he has to say about the nature of legitimate authority, how it is conferred and how it should operate. Thomas’s principal concern is for the good of the community (which reminds us he was a medieval, not a modern, man) but he was aware of what Walter Ullmann called the “ascending theme of government”, the need for the people’s consent. Only those who protect the good of the people are legitimate rulers in St Thomas’s eyes.

I find it interesting that St Thomas should write so clearly about a problem that exercises our minds today. At what point does someone cease to be a legitimate ruler, what are the limits of obedience and what is the scope of legitimate disobedience? The answer might have surprised my novice mistress.

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The Problem of the Week-End

A chance remark by a friend made me think about what we mean by a week-end. In monasteries week-ends tend to be busy. There are often visitors, both individuals and groups, and Sunday, of course, is liturgically the high-spot of the week, a day we try to mark with special joy. By Monday we can be feeling a little limp, but that is when the working week begins again so we must move into another gear. Yet I still look forward to the week-end. Despite the busyness, there is a sense of winding-down, of a different quality to the days. I am not sure what it consists in but it is not a figment of my imagination. Time is a human construct, so maybe it is at base a philosophical problem. That’s too much like hard work. Just enjoy your week-end.

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Work and Vocation

It is easy to assume that what one does equates to what one is, that one’s work is the same as one’s vocation. That is especially true if one’s work is of a particular kind: medicine, say, or teaching. I suspect that there would be much less unhappiness, and certainly much less frustration, if we could accept that what we are is not just the sum total of what we do. Each one of us is a vocation; each one of us is chosen and precious in the sight of God, irrespective of what we do.

Usually that works in our favour. God is infinitely forgiving of the ways in which we attempt to spoil or ruin his creation (and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to finding new ways of doing so). It is a bit more problematic when we realise that we stand before God eternally empty-handed. We don’t really like that. Just as we spend many years of our life cheerfully defining ourselves as X, where X stands for whatever work we take up or whatever organization we work for, and go into a decline when we become unemployed or reach retirement age, so we like to point to numerous good acts or attempts at virtuous living which we hope will assure our belonging to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Salvation comes to all of us as a gift. The good deeds are important, but however much we try, we’ll never work our way into heaven. We are caught in a kind of spiritual dilemma, which is really no dilemma at all: to rely utterly on God yet work as though we depended on none but ourselves. As so often, we must live with a paradox. There is no greater vocation than to be a child of God and no harder work than to try to live up to the demands that makes.

First Bricks
Yesterday we sold our first Charitable Bond, which represents the first bricks of our ‘new’ monastery. Deo Gratias.

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