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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The Importance of Sabbath

Sundays are very busy days for monks, nuns and clergy. That doesn’t mean that they lose everything we mean by ‘sabbath’: sacred leisure, silence, joy in the Lord. We have the custom of saving the best of what we have for Sundays, so even the food we eat marks out this day as special; and because Benedictines often work in solitude at their appointed tasks, we try to make this day one on which we share something as a community — a walk, perhaps, or that most British of institutions, tea at four o’clock.

I wonder whether many Christians have lost the sense of the importance of sabbath. We are so busy with all the multitudinous activities that fill the week-end that Sunday can end up being just another day with church on top. If so, it would be a good idea to think again about how we keep the Lord’s day holy. ‘The sabbath was made for man’: we are meant to have time to enjoy it.

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Abortion, Rape and the Catholic Church

A thoughtful question posed in a comment to yesterday’s post (Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility) is my reason for writing about this subject. I hope that what I say will stimulate reflection and debate, and that the debate will be conducted with sensitivity. The last thing I should wish to do is cause pain to those who have been raped or who have suffered an abortion.

First, a few words about myself. Long ago, before I became a nun, I used to play an active part in Life which, at that time, had a very clear and simple response to abortion. Essentially, we said that people had to have a choice and the only way that a real choice could be offered was by ensuring that anyone who was pregnant had somewhere to live and all the support needed to bring her child safely into the world. Many of the people we tried to help were deeply afraid: of violent partners, hostile parents, their own inadequacy to cope with parenthood. We provided ‘safe houses’ and on-going help.  I can recall only one woman who said she had become pregnant because of rape, but I’m sure there were others, and probably instances of incest also. I state this because one very good question is, ‘how much do you know about the subject?’ and in my case the answer is ‘very little, but possibly slightly more than some others’.

Next, we need to consider what the Catholic Church actually teaches. It starts, not with a negative, but a huge positive: all life is sacred, and in the case of human life, that life begins at conception. This teaching is based on scripture and natural law. The problem with natural law is that not everyone believes there is such a thing, i.e. a self-evident truth which is accessible by reason and is not dependent on religious belief. If you are prepared to give the time, one of the best accounts of what Catholics believe is in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (The Gospel of Life). In section 60 the pope says, ‘From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth…[M]odern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be.’ Read that, and then read what obstetric textbooks say about the beginning of human life. The fact that the viability of life outside the womb is being pushed further and further back seems to me to underline the fact that the answer to the question ‘when does life begin’ is susceptible of only one answer: at conception.

The Catholic Church is entirely consistent in its attitude to the sanctity of life. As Donum Vitae puts it, ‘It is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.’ (That’s also a reason why the Church is unhappy with capital punishment: there have been so many instances of innocent lives being taken.) We simply don’t have the right to take innocent human life; and that’s something that allows of no exceptions or we get into the business of valuing one life more than another. A child conceived by rape is still a child and has as much right to life as a child conceived by loving parents; so too does a child who has some physical or mental deformity. Our value as human beings does not depend upon our being perfect according to some arbitrary standard imposed by other human beings.

So, we come to the distressing case of someone, woman or child, who has conceived because of rape. Do we say, ‘The circumstances are so awful and the suffering will be so great that abortion is allowable’? or do we say, ‘This is terrible. We must do all we can to help the woman and her child, and go on helping, because there are two lives here and both are sacred’? The Catholic response is the second. Please note that it has two parts.

It says first of all that rape is a terrible wrong inflicted on another. One of the problems we face in western society is that rape has somehow been trivialised. No one I have ever spoken to who has been raped would agree that rape is trivial. That is a message we need to get across loud and clear, and I’m not convinced that the Church has done a very good job on that. Secondly, it says that there are two lives to be considered and we do not have the right to choose between them. On the whole, the Church has done better with that, but it has not always stressed sufficiently that its teaching makes other demands on the Catholic community. If we are to uphold the Church’s teaching about abortion we must also uphold her teaching about the duty to help and support those in need.

I am sure that this post will seem harsh to many. I have not been in the situation I describe and do not know, from the inside, what it is like, but I still believe that what I have written is true. Sometimes when Catholics talk about abortion they give me the shivers. What comes across is the moral absolute, not the reverence or compassion which should be an integral part of it. There are no easy answers to hard questions like those posed yesterday. We have to live with that and do the best we can. Pray today for all who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy — and dig deep in your pockets and your compassion.

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Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility

The BBC has highlighted the fact that our Cro-Magnon ancestors were not only opportunistic cannibals but apparently dab hands at turning left-over skulls into carefully crafted drinking vessels (see http://bbc.in/idMRaK). Skull cups are found in many traditions but, by and large, we thoroughly modern people find the idea of drinking from a dead person’s cranium rather repellant.

Our squeamishness does not extend to some aspects of contemporary life which, if we could think about them with the kind of distance time lends, might not be so acceptable: abortion, napalm bombs, land-mines, to name but a few. The one thing these have in common is a very ambivalent attitude to human life, with some lives being valued above others. Once we let go of the idea that all life is sacred, that my life is worth neither more nor less than yours, then I think we get into a moral quagmire with no firm footing.

Looking at those Cro-Magnon drinking cups, I can’t help feeling that there was a strange kind of reverence involved in their fashioning. Maybe our problem is that our power to kill and destroy is so great that we dare not consider what we are doing. Our squeamish sensibility protects us from facing up to the consequences of what we do. Sadly, it also deadens our sense of reverence.

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