Food, Drink, Love and Hate

A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?

Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.

Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.

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Gracious Living

While shopping yesterday I noticed, almost subliminally, how many magazine covers deal with ‘gracious living’. Judging by the accompanying illustrations, gracious living could be summed up as a large house, swimming pool, fast car and plenty of alcohol. Add in permatan, perfect dentition and expensive clothes, and there you have it. Or rather, you don’t.

Gracious living surely has to do with grace, from the Latin gratia, and has its origins in what is pleasing and thankful. You will notice how many of the comments on yesterday’s post about living with uncertainty mention, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of gratitude. For a Christian, there is the further sense of grace as a divine gift, the free and unmerited favour of God. St Benedict is very keen on mindfulness of God, the sense that at every moment we are upheld by God’s mercy and love which inspire an answering response of gratitude and delight.

There is another meaning of grace often overlooked but rich in meaning: the short prayer of blessing and gratitude said before and after eating. A tiny, almost insignificant act in itself, it reminds us of God’s presence and action in our lives. Saying grace before we eat our baked beans won’t turn them into a gourmet delight, but it will make their consumption an act of gracious living.

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Living with Uncertainty

We crave certainty. We may like to think of ourselves as free spirits, ready to set off for outer Mongolia at the drop of a hat, but most of us, most of the time, prefer to know where we’ll sleep at night, where our next meal is coming from, that our legs and lungs will work predictably. Living with uncertainty is not, for most of us, a choice we would wish to make, yet most of our ‘certainties’ are nothing of the sort. We are, all of us, only a heartbeat away from eternity.

I think that is why Benedict urges us to ‘keep death daily before our eyes’. He is not being morbid or encouraging glumness. On the contrary, he wants us to recognize that every moment of life is a gift, even when hard or difficult. We are not in control, however much we like to think we are or want to be, so what is the point of worrying ourselves (literally) sick about things? It is not only riches but anxiety that chokes the growth of the Kingdom within us. With Lent just a few days away, perhaps we could start thinking about our Lenten resolutions as a way to recapture awareness of living daily by the mercy of God. That will involve more than giving up marmalade or some other delicacy. It will mean living with uncertainty.

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Is Dr Oddie Unfair?

A number of articles have appeared recently commenting on the sale by the monks of Ramsgate (now Chilworth) of several of their treasures. Yesterday William Oddie addressed the same story in the online edition of the Catholic Herald here. I do not wish to comment on the internal affairs of another community, although my views on conservation are well-known and regular readers of this blog will know something of the struggle we ourselves are having to obtain even the most basic permanent accommodation. That is not the point I wish to take up. Dr Oddie enlarges his argument to embrace some more general censures of contemporary religious and these, I think, need challenging.

He refers to the monks’ sale then says

How typical of today’s religious is this, in my view, astonishing example of secularity? How is one to know? In the nature of things, lay Catholics know little of what goes on behind the closed doors of a religious community. And yet, there are visible signs that must mean something. In the same edition of the paper, we see (p11) a photograph of Archbishop Vincent Nichols with a group of Sisters representing female religious communities of the Diocese of Westminster. Of 14 sisters, only five (possibly six) are wearing habits: the rest just look like ordinary lay women with handbags (what could be more unambiguously secular than a handbag?) and one is actually wearing trousers and a polo neck sweater.

Ah, so the real subject of his article is not the sale of pretiosa by Ramsgate but the dress of female religious? You notice Dr Oddie has nothing to say about male religious, who frequently wear lay clothes. What is particularly ‘secular’ about ‘handbags’ or ‘trousers and a polo neck sweater’, I wonder?  Could prejudice be masquerading as an argument? Please don’t get me wrong: I enjoy Dr Oddie’s columns but I think he has allowed one of his King Charles’s heads to get in the way here. Although he mentions that the Holy See recognizes that ‘for valid reasons of their apostolate’, religious may dress otherwise than in a habit, he continues in negative vein and concludes:

It is a question of the unambiguous witness which consecration to the religious life should present to the world. I ask simply, are we necessarily always getting that witness from our religious today? Perhaps there are occasions when they should ask that of themselves.

Perhaps Dr Oddie and those who agree with him should ask themselves what witness they give religious. It is easy to criticize others for not being what we should like them to be, but I wonder whether Dr Oddie actually knows anything of the lives of the people he writes of so slightingly. Even allowing for journalistic exaggeration, I was left feeling that the article overlooked the generosity and fidelity with which most religious live their vocation. I know none of the religious sisters to whom Dr Oddie takes such exception, but I would dare to say that their fidelity to prayer and observance, the austerity of their lifestyle, and the renunciation of self that each of them represents counts for something in the eyes of God. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters?

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Greece in Flames

Anyone who doubts the impact of Europe’s financial crisis on the lives of ordinary people has only to look at the images and stories coming from Greece. Soup kitchens, abandoned children, street violence, these are not what we expect from a European country in the twenty-first century. We have all grown up with the notion of social and economic progress. Life is supposed to get better and better, but the last few years have shown that life does not get better for everyone. There is fear of a general economic meltdown and all the social evils which flow from that.

What is the Church’s response? By and large, what it has always been: practical help, prayer, and lobbying of political interests. The Orthodox Church in Greece is apparently feeding 250,000 people a day and its orphanages are struggling to cope with the number of abandoned children. That is humane, but everyone knows that something more is needed to address the roots of the problem. Suddenly Germany is the object of hatred. Berlin is blamed for the Euro crisis and for the suffering of the Greek people. It seems the European economic union is fragmenting before our eyes. Can it be long before the political union also is under strain?

Exaggerated? Perhaps, but it is high time we started to think about the future in more than narrowly personal terms. A ‘devaluation’ in our standard of living is inevitable and it challenges us to think through the implications of being Christian and the values by which we live. Selflessness and a sense of common purpose are essential. I think John Donne’s Meditation XVII is as apt here, as we watch the death throes of our accustomed order, as when we lament the death of an individual:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee . . .

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Queen Elizabeth II

Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the accession of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. The words with which she dedicated herself to the service of the Commonwealth on that day in 1952 have been amply fulfilled. In a message released for today, she dedicates herself anew to public service. That should make all of us, whatever our political opinions, think about our own service of others. Personally, I am grateful for the quintessentially British and rather understated way in which her Christian faith suffuses all she says and does. We are fortunate to have a genuinely Christian monarch as Head of State. Let us pray for her today with thanksgiving.

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Contemplative Computing

From time to time, someone asks how long I spend online. It is the wrong question. A better question would be, how am I online. My questioners often assume that the way in which they relate to technology, the way in which they use blogging and social media, must necessarily be the same for me, but I don’t think it is. The idea of  contemplative computing has been around for a while, but it is one that appeals to me because it complements my sense of the internet as a sacred space. I suspect that, like M. Jourdain babbling prose, I have been practising it all my computing life but it may be worth trying to tease out some of its characteristics.

A few years ago I noticed that when I checked my email, I found it quite stressful. I was reluctant to deal with the ‘difficult’ emails and so became tense. Yet that isn’t how I usually am with people or when I go to prayer — I am much more relaxed and ‘open’. Once I realised that and deliberately slowed down, the ‘difficult’ emails became much less troublesome. They were no more demanding than anything else. The problem arose from the fact that I saw checking email as something that should be done quickly. Our culture values speed, places a premium on ‘getting things done’, but monastic life works on different principles. Time is a gift to be lavished on whatever is necessary; and what is necessary may be as ‘unproductive’ as gazing at a cloud or focusing attention on a single word or sound. In other words, a more contemplative approach to the use of technology gradually transforms the experience of using that technology.

At #cnmac11 and subsequently, the idea of the digital sabbath came up again and again. Some people clearly felt that a regular break from using technology is necessary and beneficial, citing such positive goods as being more involved with family and friends, more attentive to what is going on around them and so on and so forth. One or two were frank enough to admit that they thought they had become addicted to their smartphone and having a ‘dry day’ from time to time helped them feel more in control.

There are two different issues here: [fear of] losing control and [fear of] losing focus. The connection is fear. If you are over 40, can you remember what it was like to use a smartphone for the first time? How anxious you probably were about pushing the right buttons, getting your text abbreviations correct, learning how to do smileys? It was a mildly alarming business and only when you felt master of the process could you forget yourself and actually enjoy using your phone to text, video or whatever. Then when your phone became like a fifth limb, a different anxiety came into play. What happens if the battery gives out or I misplace the phone, can I continue to function as normal? Am I too dependent? There we have fear again, which can only be allayed by a sense of control.

As any novice will tell you, the first lesson anyone learns in a monastery is that we are not in control. It is all right not to be in control. In fact, that is how we are most of the time, only we try not to acknowledge as much. Being in control is something our society admires, but it doesn’t take much to prove how illusory our control is. A break in the power supply, a failure of wi-fi access, and our wired world ceases to exist.

Lack of focus is another fear, but again, I think our problem arises from the fact that we have a very restricted way of looking at things. Much of my work is done at the computer and at various times during the day I respond to, or initiate, tweets on Twitter. It is not a distraction. If something requires concentrated energy, e.g. writing a letter, I switch Twitter off. At other times, my twitterstream is part of my work — as a community we are committed to using contemporary technology to try to reach out to others and are constantly exploring new ways of doing so: it’s a new twist on the old contemplata aliis tradere. The nearest analogy I can find to express this kind of multi-focus is that of playing in a string quartet. Every player must listen even when not playing himself, but the ebb and flow of sound doesn’t produce strain or a feeling of divided attention, rather it contributes to a sense of the quartet as a whole: the individual is taken up into the music created by all four. Silence, observing rests, is as much a part of this whole as actually playing.

Of course, I have a purpose in being online. I am not there simply to gratify curiosity or assuage boredom, so the question of focus may be easier for me, but I suspect many will be able to resonate with what I am saying. Just as lectio divina can be likened to Slow Reading, so a more contemplative approach to computing can be likened to Slow Living; and the amazing thing is, it doesn’t mean that we get less done (that concern with productivity again!) but that what we do is done better and more pleasurably. It may take a while, but I think contemplative computing may become more and more important to ensure that technology remains at the service of humanity rather than the other way round.

I should love to know what you think.

Update:
There must be something in the airwaves. I found this link this morning about a contemplative computing project: http://bit.ly/gtncVH

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In Tune or Out of Step?

On several occasions recently I have found myself wondering whether I am in a minority of one. For example, I did not think Carol Ann Duffy’s poem on Stephen Lawrence, published in the 9 January edition of The Guardian, very good. That is not to question her sincerity or the topicality of her subject. It was the treatment of her theme that I found weak and pedestrian. As far as I am concerned, it wasn’t poetry, so it was a relief to find Ian Patterson saying as much in the London Review of Books. You can read his comment here. We all have our own ideas about poetry, I suppose, but when everyone else seems to be hailing something as ‘great’ or ‘moving’, one can question one’s own sanity as well as judgement.

Earlier in the week The Guardian printed an article by Mehdi Hasan entitled ‘Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Rick Santorum’. Point 8 stated, When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home, where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.

Mehdi Hasan seems to have found this macabre at best and in a subsequent piece argued that those who thought he was wrong to criticize the Santorums were themselves wrong. Clearly, he has had no experience of the grief felt by the parents of stillborn children nor thought about the variety of mourning customs that exist. To me, it did not seem strange that the Santorums should wish to spend some time with their dead child, pray for him, welcome him into their family as a person. It is a very Catholic thing to do. You would not have got that impression reading some of the comments! Again, it was a relief to find this thoughtful piece on the web which not only deals with the need to mourn a stillborn child but the way in which responsible journalism needs to address such difficult subjects.

Finally, an article about the manufacture of altar-breads in the U.S.A. (which you can read here) raised interesting questions for me about the Eucharistic nature of work and the economics of cloistered communities. I shared the link on Facebook and was interested to see that many people jested where I myself was made thoughtful, probably because some of the difficulties mentioned in the article were close to home.

These three instances highlight the fact that we always bring our own perceptions (and sometimes our prejudices) to what we read. We interpret. We are, of necessity, subjective. We sometimes miss words and phrases as we skim through articles. I think, on the whole, monks and nuns tend to read very carefully. We are, after all, proponents of Slow Reading (lectio divina). That doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand any better or misinterpret less frequently, but I think it does make us more cautious about asserting that we have fully understood, less anxious, I hope, to ‘put others right.’ Maybe there is room for more  humility in how we read. That is something I hope to practise this coming year.

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Law and Life

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying both highlight, in different ways, the difficulty many of us have in thinking through the relationship between law and life. We no longer agree on the ethical basis of society, which makes it more difficult still.

I was revolted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder but I must confess to uneasiness about some reactions to the Dobson/Norris trial. It is partly that I have difficulty with the dropping of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle which allowed the trial to take place in the first place and the outpouring of visceral hatred in the name of justice which followed*. I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same — and that holds whether the skin colour we are talking about is black, brown, or white.

Are we in danger of saying, for example, black equals good, white equals bad, or seeing racism where we should perhaps see rather brutality and lawlessness? Have we lost our sense of society being greater than the sum of its parts? Or are we taking the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ to its logical conclusion and favouring some more than others, instead of maintaining that we are all equal under the law? Perhaps a lawyer would comment on this point.

I don’t believe, however, that law is something we can leave to lawyers alone. The laws a society makes for itself, the way in which it applies them, the penalties it exacts for breaking them, are all shapers of that society. They have a directive force even when they don’t affect us individually with compulsive force. What happens when emotion comes into play? Is there a danger that we react to the emotion rather than to the law? It will be interesting to see how the Dobson/Norris trial affects the way in which the Metropolitan Police deals with future murder cases. It will also be interesting to see how the various groups and action bodies that work to eliminate racism deal with future incidents.

What of the Commission on Assisted Dying? It is being reported in the media as a panel of experts which has concluded there is a ‘strong case’ for legislation to allow assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. It was apparently funded by those who are working for a change in the law, which, if true, calls in question its claim to being objective. Less contentious because demonstrable may be the fact that Canon James Woodward has dissented from the Commission’s conclusions, and the BMA refused to take part at all.

How we think about life will inevitably be translated into law. Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have. Can we condemn murder but permit ‘assisted dying’ without getting into a strange moral quagmire where law no longer protects the weak but serves rather to advance the interests of the strong — those who can argue better than we can, or who can make decisions they have decided we can’t or shouldn’t? Ultimately, all these questions are personal, not just abstractions. Is my life as a white woman worth less than yours as a black man or either of our lives worth more than hers as an unborn child or his as an octogenarian? Remember, how we answer those questions will be reflected in our laws. What a responsibility we  bear!

*I am not, in any way, disputing the verdict. Like everyone else, I would like to see all who are guilty of his murder brought to trial and sentenced for their terrible crime.

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Benedict’s Bench: welcoming others

At this time of year we all think about hospitality. For many of us, that leads to concentration on the food and drink we provide rather than the quality of attention we give others. A letter from one of our Associates has reminded us what welcoming others is all about, so, with her permission, I am going to quote part of it today.

When I became an Associate, you urged me to consider hospitality, Benedictine hospitality. This came as something of a challenge to an introvert living on a track between fields, outside a very small, workaday village. Responding to the challenge, I dragged a wooden bench, ‘Benedict’s Bench’, out onto a small patch of land beside the field of cattle opposite my house . . . .

I sat on the bench, often with a cup of tea, whenever it was time for me to water the cattle . . .Watering cattle is one of those wonderful tasks that requires one to be present but only actually doing something, i.e. changing the hoselines, for a few minutes in the hour. It makes for good prayer time.

The first thing that happened was that I came to know and love the cows. The second that people started to drop by, to stop on their walks, to collect their post at watering time, to simply sit with their own cup of tea and enjoy the peace.

The bench changed much. Gradually I came to know [the local] people far, far better. A teenager with girlfriend problems turned up for an evening or two, another with exam results and a career choice looming. Mothers sat down and let their children play while we just sat together. Our cattle farmer arrived each morning, and when it wasn’t harvest, stayed on drinking tea.

Benedict’s Bench has had an extraordinary effect on me and this tiny community. We are organising a Christmas Dog Show in the village. (N.B. Bro Duncan – outdoor, with classes and agility runs for everyone) and despite the sensible advice to take in garden furniture over winter, the bench will stay. It has opened hearts.

The writer goes on to describe cattle-home, when this year the bench was joined by several tables and chairs, a side of beef, ham sandwiches, cake, sloe gin and all the accoutrements of a country feast. It is a heart-warming story but it begins with one small step, a gesture of faith and trust. P. has taught us something important about how to welcome others, not merely into our space but into our lives.

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