Just Wondering

First we had Wikileaks, splattering our screens with all kinds of “private” information from the diplomatic bags of American officials. Now we have Egypt suspended in internet isolation while the Mubarak regime struggles to hold on to power. Has the web changed our understanding of freedom? It has certainly made the exercise of it more dangerous.

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Byte Sized Chunks

For the last day or two Digitalnun has been posting small chunks of Pope Benedict XVI’s address for World Communications Day over on the community’s Facebook page. They are a good summary of what Christian engagement with the internet generally, and social media in particular, should encompass; so why the little gobbets rather than the whole text or a link to it? Simple. The internet has changed the way we read. Online our attention span is rivalled only by the goldfish’s proverbial fifteen seconds. The papal document is too dense and daunting for many in the way in which it is presented on the Vatican web site, but split up into little chunks we can meditate on as we surf hither and hither, it works. It’s lectio divina for the silicon age.

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Posh or Public Spirited?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are apparently posh, or at any rate they went to expensive Public Schools (note the distinction). This fact is often remarked upon by political commentators who have noticed that all three main political parties are dominated by people who have been to private schools or Oxford or Cambridge. Is this evidence of the continuing power of class in our land? Do these people simply assume they have a right to govern? I wonder.

Long ago, in the Dark Ages, when my sister and I were young, our parents and our school drummed into us the idea of public service. Every Sunday, we would find a group of young immigrant workers invited to spend a “family day” with us, being fed a good meal and given some small treat or other. Terribly paternalistic it may have been, but the experience of being young, lonely and poor in a foreign country is not an enviable one and our parents were definitely overstepping the normal employer/employee boundaries of those days. We children were expected to volunteer to help out in the local geriatric wards (probably not allowed today on grounds of Health and Safety or  Safeguarding of Vulnerable Adults) or find some other way of giving back to society (not that anyone would have used that phrase then). I often rebelled at the time, but looking back I realise that I was being taught something that religion lessons alone would not have taught me: the importance of service.

When I went to Cambridge, the Mistress of my College lamented that graduates were tending to go for high-paid jobs in the private sector rather than showing the public spiritedness she expected in her gals (these were the days of Thatcherism). It looks a world away today, bound up with antiquated ideas of noblesse oblige and all that, horribly condescending and false, don’t you think?

Well, no, actually. I believe in the importance of service. Every time I hear of some public figure behaving badly, dipping his hand in the till or lying to preserve his skin, I feel almost personally affronted. It undermines the ideal of public service I grew up with and which certain schools and universities still inculcate despite the selfish celebrity culture which has come to have such allure elsewhere.

Public service remains an essential note of civilized society. If a privileged background can inspire people to serve then I, for one, am not too bothered about it. I’m just grateful that someone is prepared to do so.

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Blue Monday

This is Blue Monday, the worst day of the year, or so Quietnun informed me straight after Lauds. (She has been reading too much social anthropology recently.) Why should the mere fact of New Year resolutions crumbling to dust, credit card bills plopping through the post box  and the darkness outside seeming never to end have any effect on people’s mood? And why should feeling a bit low be construed as moral failure? Is it all some vast conspiracy to make us feel worse than we do? Aren’t we allowed to be miserable any more?

Personally, I find quite trying the relentless joyfulness of those who wish to assure us that “Jesus loves you” while we’re attempting to deal with some catastrophe or other. It’s true, I agree, but maybe I don’t need to be reminded while I’m struggling to clear the drains or heading towards the bathroom with some malady or other. Anyway, what’s wrong with being tired and tetchy on occasion? Blue Monday is as good an excuse as any to be a little grumpy — just don’t make anyone else as miserable as you are yourself.

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Light in Afghanistan

Apparently, some Taliban groups in Afghanistan are allowing girls to go to school and women to return to teaching. These are local agreements brokered by tribal leaders, strictly limited in scope but a sign of hope nonetheless. There had been a fear that, in their haste to get out of a situation which has seen so much loss of life, both Britain and the U.S.A. would be prepared to sacrifice human rights, especially those of women; so it is heartening to see a change of this kind being brought about by the people themselves.

Why, then, the muted response? A few years ago I blogged about a young Afghani girl who had acid flung in her face because she had dared to go to school. She is now blind and disfigured, condemned to a difficult and marginal existence because no one will marry her (the Taliban have not moved on other aspects of their beliefs). Her story is not unique. The statistics for female illiteracy worldwide are still shocking and, like it or not, the subjugation of women is still a reality in many parts of the world. The sad fact is that we in the west tend to shake our heads and do nothing. Our gaze is elsewhere. Some even mutter darkly about “feminism” as though women were the source of all ills (nothing new there, then).

Education for both men and women is the key to overcoming these blindspots and allowing the development of a just and equitable society. I’m reminded that one of the old definitions of justice is “right order”. There is surely a rightness about little girls being taught to read and expand their horizons. So, light in Afghanistan? Yes, just a chink.

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Brotherly Love

Donna Rice was returning home from a trip to buy school uniforms with her sons, Jordan and Blake. Unfortunately, the place they were in was Toowoomba and they were caught up in the “inland tsunami”. A rescuer managed to reach them as they stood on the roof of their car and started to tie a rope round Jordan. The thirteen year-old insisted, however, that his younger brother Blake be rescued first. Blake was indeed rescued, but Jordan and his mother were swept away.

This story will go round the world, and rightly so. Of the many stories of heroism coming out of Queensland, it is one of the most affecting. I daresay Jordan and Blake were like any other brothers, completely unsentimental, given to scrapping with each other but fiercely loyal in the face of any outside interference. Yet in the shock and horror of that moment in the floodwaters, Jordan made a choice many an adult might not have been able to make. Fear can make even the most generous selfish. It takes a pure heart to choose another’s good instinctively, to sacrifice self.

As we pray for the Rice family in their grief, let us also thank God for this reminder that human beings, even very young ones, can live lives of great grandeur. It adds a new emphasis to Jesus’ exhortation to become as little children. Adults, take note.

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Standing in Another’s Shoes

Two snippets of news mentioned by the BBC almost in passing: the murderer of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was applauded and showered with rose petals when he appeared in court; in Egypt, people are being encouraged to attack Christian churches on the eve of the Coptic Christmas (7 January). Most people in Britain probably feel sick at the prospect: we don’t glorify violence unless it is somehow “sanitized” by being part of a war in defence of  some good or other.

Possibly both the death of Mr Taseer and the threatened attacks on Egyptian Christians are seen as a holy war in defence of Islam, but before we assume that religious extremism is the sole motivation, we should consider the highly volatile political situation in both countries. Neither Pakistan nor Egypt is a western democracy; neither functions as we would expect a western country to do. In the west religion is often ignored or treated as a figure of fun. Not so in Pakistan or Egypt.

The marginalisation of religion in the west has consequences we are only just beginning to recognize. Our assumptions about human rights and human dignity are not necessarily shared by those who view the world from a different religious perspective. Maybe our own indifference to religion makes it harder for us to understand and therefore engage with the people of Pakistan or Egypt. Standing in another’s shoes is something we all need to do more often.

Podcasts

iTunes has finally approved our podcast stream after we moved the feed to Audioboo. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sorting out our podcast collection and begin a new series. Thank you to all who offered help and advice, and especially those who tackled Apple on our behalf. To find our podcasts on iTunes, look for iBenedictines.

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Value

Facebook is apparently valued at $50 billion, which means it is more “valuable” than Tesco though less subject to public scrutiny because it is not a publicly quoted company (one wonders how long that will be true). What does that say about value in our society? Remember the dot com boom of the 1990s, when people stopped reading balance sheets and ploughed fortunes into companies which had never actually made any money? Then the backlash, the return to “only manual labour really counts” kind of thinking, and now, at long last, the painful realisation that having any kind of job is real riches.

Throughout these ups and downs I have valued (there’s that word again!) Benedict’s sanity on the matter. He appreciated manual labour, knowing that working with one’s hands guards against excessive spiritualisation of reality; but I don’t think he exalted any one activity above another. Everything could, indeed should, be of use to the community and part of the quest for God. So, whether I am working in the garden or sitting at my desk doing the accounts is all one, really. I may enjoy the garden more but that is irrelevant. The value of what I do is in its purpose: service of the community. I don’t think one can put a price on that, do you?

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A Brave Beginning

Our Lady of Perpetual Succour
Our Lady of Perpetual Succour

January: the door of the year, the month that looks both ways, a hinge between two worlds; in the most literal sense, a critical time. How will 2011 be for any of us? The one certain thing is that we shall all change in the course of it.

For the godly-minded, today is also the oldest Marian feast in the calendar, that of Mary the Mother of God, and the Church’s World Day of Prayer for Peace. A connection between the two may be found in the fact that today is also the Octave Day of Christmas, the day when Christ was circumcised and, as St Paul says, “in his own flesh made the two one”. Catholic tradition has long seen in the blood shed at the circumcision a type of the blood shed on the Cross to redeem us. Mary gave us the Prince of Peace to be our Saviour, stood beside his Cross as he was dying and became mother of the Church (i.e. us) when the Beloved Disciple took her to his home. It seems fitting that the first day of the new year should be placed under her protection.

And for the rest? No doubt there will be rejoicing and merriment, and some valiant attempts at self-improvement in the form of New Year Resolutions. January is indeed a critical time and as we get older we know better than to prophesy or announce our plans. Let us just begin bravely. The outcome we can safely leave to God.

May you have a very happy New Year!

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A Cheerful End

I know that if I say we are at the end not just of a year but of the first decade of the twenty-first century someone will correct me. For bloggers, correction is both a blessing and a bane. It is a blessing when it puts right an error, advances an argument, or throws light on something previously obscure (Digitalnun would add, when it makes us smile as well). It’s a bane when it it is simply the outpouring of rudeness or venom which does nothing constructive. I can’t help feeling we’ve seen an awful lot of negative correction during the past ten years, not just in the blogosphere but also in the world at large.

Here in Britain I think many people have been dismayed to find how much corruption simmers beneath the surface of our public life and in the shock of that discovery have exaggerated the effects. Some MPs fiddled their expenses so now we are cynical about all politicians; some bankers behaved greedily and irresponsibly so now bank-bashing is a legitimate blood sport. Religion is not exempt.  Some clergy abused children and young people so now all Catholics are the spawn of Satan; some Islamist extremists murdered so now all Muslims are terrorists. Even the weather attracts our ire. We’ve had two harsh winters in succession and it’s highlighted the inadequacy of some of our preparations, so we castigate our local authorities for not doing more. Now ‘flu is spreading and our misery knows no bounds. At the year’s end, with budget cuts and job cuts and VAT rises to look forward to, we are not at our most cheery.

Cheeriness, however, is not a virtue; cheerfulness is, though I fear you will not find it listed in any textbook of moral theology, more’s the pity. Cheeriness is merely the state of being happy and optimistic and is limited to self; cheerfulness is causing happiness and optimism in others and knows no bounds. If iBenedictines has a wish for its readers at the end of 2010 it is simply this: be cheerful. There’s more true religion in that than you might think, but correct me if I’m wrong.

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