Steve Jobs, R.I.P.

Not long ago I wrote an article about how Steve Jobs and Apple had transformed the way in which we communicate and the debt we all owe in consequence, especially the Church. Today’s homepage on Apple’s web site demonstrates what is good about Apple products: it’s simple, stylish and extremely effective. If only all Church communication were equally so.

Steve Jobs was a showman, with a flair for knowing what people wanted and would buy. He was also autocratic, apparently not easy to work with. But among the many tributes to him pouring across the web, I like this reminder of the other side of Jobs, the man who had looked into the face of death and was not afraid:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Steve Jobs, 2005.

Requiescat in pace.

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The Cloister of the Heart

Michaelmas, when we think about realities usually unseen, is a good day on which to respond to a question raised by a number of people about what we mean by our ‘cloister of the heart’ and the internet as its ‘fourth wall’.

I hope Sr Joan Chittister won’t mind my saying that I think we were using the phrase ‘cloister of the heart’ before she coined the phrase ‘monasteries of the heart’. Although there are similarities between the two, there are also major differences.

When we began life as a fully autonomous monastic community, we had practically nothing in material terms, but we did have a vivid sense of the importance of chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Reception of Guests. Benedict exhorts us to welcome the guest tamquam Christus, as if Christ. That means that the monastery must not only give to the guest, it must also receive: the guest should not only find Christ in the monastery but also bring Christ to the monastery. Hence, hospitality is a sacred duty, and a mutual duty. For us, without a physical space into which to welcome guests, the internet provided an opportunity to exercise Benedictine hospitality, no less real for occurring within a virtual space. That is why we have tried to introduce elements of interactivity and to create a space that is at once welcoming and imbued with a sense of the sacred. There is a lot still to do, but we have to work within the constraints of our resources, both human and financial.

We commonly refer to this virtual space as our ‘cloister of the heart’, and the internet, which is both the means and mode of its existence, as its ‘fourth wall’. To understand that, you need to have some knowledge of the role of the cloister in monastic history. Historically, the cloister is usually a quadrangular covered walkway, adjoining the three most important places within the monastery, church, chapter house and refectory. It links them all, and is traditionally associated with prayer and reading. In medieval times, it was often also the scriptorium, where monks and nuns worked at manuscripts.

Church, chapter house, refectory: where is the fourth place to encounter Christ? In the guest, of course; and how do we at Hendred chiefly encounter the guest? Through the internet. There is a further point to make. We speak of the internet as a ‘wall’ as well as a vehicle of welcome. That is because a life of prayer requires discipline and sometimes distance from many of the preoccupations of a more secular lifestyle. The internet is a way in which we can take the monastery to others and enable those who wish to share in our life of prayer to experience something of God’s love and explore with us some of the big questions of life; but it is also a way in which a small and ‘economically challenged’ community can protect itself from being devoured by the needs and demands of others.

We hope that readers of this blog and users of our various web sites will always feel welcome in our ‘cloister of the heart’. We cannot always meet your expectations or demands, no human being could; but we hope you will be encouraged to go further into God. It is the greatest of all journeys. May St Michael and all angels attend you on the way.

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Living with a Lisp

The style guide for a publishing house I sometimes work for has just been updated. The section on disability is so mealy-mouthed as to be unintelligible. My own practice, which is to use whatever phrase is preferred by those suffering from a particular disability except in historical/literary contexts where another phrase may be called for, is now disallowed. I must no longer refer to the Parable of the Man Born Blind but to the Parable of the Visually Impaired Person. Ah me.

I wonder where lisps come into the general scheme of things. I have a soft voice and a slight lisp which becomes more pronounced when I am tired. Anyone similarly afflicted will know that a lisp is both trivial and a source of never-ending strain as one struggles to articulate clearly and comprehensibly. People sometimes make fun of my lisp (see the comments on the YouTube version of my Faith 2.0 talk, for example) but more often pretend it doesn’t really exist. ‘Oh, no, it’s scarcely noticeable.’ I don’t think denial is much of an improvement on the circumlocutions of political correctness. As far as I’m concerned, I lisp, I live with it, and those I speak with will have to live with it too as it is beyond my control. I am certainly not going to start talking about having ‘a minor speech defect’. Apart from anything else, who is to say it is minor — or even a defect if we are to be perfectly p.c.? Lispers of the world, let us refuse to be cowed by the style guides and proudly call a spade a thpade. We can do no other.

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Cain’s Question

Reports that twenty-four men have been rescued from conditions of slavery at a travellers’ camp in Bedfordshire have been deeply shocking. (See the BBC accounts) The fact that the men come from vulnerable backgrounds and were kept in appalling conditions underlines the inhumanity of their captors. All right-thinking people will surely condemn what was done to them. Or will they? It is amazing how often we can turn a blind eye to the suffering or exploitation in our midst. It is not that we don’t care; it is that we don’t see, don’t want to become ‘involved’.

Quite what was going on in that travellers’ camp we may never know, but each of us must ask ourselves anew, am I my brother’s keeper? To what extent do we have a duty to become involved when we suspect others of suffering or being exploited? I don’t know. Even in monastic communities we can fail to see signs of distress in our brethren. Perhaps there is more than a bit of Cain in all of us.

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Grieving

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 will have reminded everyone of the grief that thousands experience as a result of that day. Not only those killed then, but all those killed in subsequent acts of terror or war come to mind. We think of those we ourselves have loved and who have died. We understand grief, of course; but do we understand grieving?

I know I often refer to the origins of words in this blog, but to remember that ‘grieve’ is related to Old French ‘grever’, meaning to burden or encumber, and ultimately to the Latin word ‘gravis’, meaning heavy or weighty, is to understand something of the burden that grieving imposes. We are literally weighed down. And while grief can be a more or less fleeting feeling of loss and sadness, grieving is a longer and more difficult process as we try to accept and adapt. We have to accept the loss of someone we love,  but we also have to adapt to the altered condition in which we find ourselves, living with absence rather than presence. That takes time, and our society doesn’t allow much time. ‘Move on, move forward’, we say, but the heart lags behind.

As we pray today for those  killed on 9/11, those dying a slow death as a result of the toxic dust and fumes unleashed by the catastrophe, those killed in subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorist acts throughout the world, let us also pray for a better understanding of grieving, that we may give others time and space in which to accept and adapt. Catholic tradition reminds us that death is not an ending of life but an entrance into another form of life. We are encouraged to pray for the dead and to ask the prayers of those who have gone before. That has always seemed to me a reassurance that grieving is natural and something we do in union with others. Grief, by contrast, is a lonely business: ‘Un seule être vous manque / Et tout le monde est dépeuplé’. Let us not forget that we grieve together.

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Widowhood

The feast of St Monica is a good day for thinking about widows and widowers and the whole concept of widowhood. For some, it is a mournful subject, best hurried out of sight along with the widowed themselves. We believe in a world where love is eternal and youth everlasting, where no shadow of mortality or change can sully our happiness. The brutal truth is, of course, that being widowed is an experience many must undergo in every generation. The rest of us acknowledge the sadness briefly and move on: ‘going forward’, we call it. Is that why so many widowed people find it difficult to adapt to life without a partner, because society allows little time for grief or adjustment and is unsympathetic about loneliness and the (often) straitened circumstances in which the widowed, especially women, may find themselves?

St Monica is, in some ways, the archetypal widow; I sometimes wonder whether our ideas about widowhood, and our expectations of the widowed, are the result of her story. She was married to an impossible man, had a drink problem, and spent most of her life trying to save a brilliant but wayward son. If it weren’t for Augustine, I daresay she would be forgotten today. Her life is defined in terms of her relation to others (husband, son) while she herself is, in an important sense, invisible. Her good works are noted, but apart from the struggle with alcohol, we really know nothing of her.

Today we might think of the widows and widowers we know. Do we see beyond the state of being widowed to the person? The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with widows — female, at any rate. On the one hand, we have the ancient Order of Widows, dedicated to prayer and good works; on the other, there are plenty of exhortations, from St Paul onwards, to contain the bad behaviour to which the widowed are said to be prone. For myself, I can only say how grateful I am to the many widowed people who have figured in my life. I have learned something important from each of them, not least how to draw the circle of love wide enough to embrace more than family. That is a great gift and a reminder not to overlook or undervalue the uniqueness of every individual, widowed or not.

Church Times
This week’s edition of The Church Times contains an article about the community and its online work.

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Rioting in Tottenham

It was a shock to awake to scenes of violence in London. Somehow, the sight of Tottenham out of control delivered a wound to the psyche. We are not accustomed to seeing such naked anger and wanton destruction here in England. We are aware, in the usual cerebral way of those who dwell in the Shires, that the police are not universally trusted or, sadly, trustworthy; that drug crime is intimately connected with gang violence; that racial tensions continue to simmer beneath the surface of our national life; but seeing the night sky lit up with flames and young men throwing petrol bombs and looting shops brings home the reality of the riot in Tottenham.

Over the next few days, the causes of that riot will be picked over. Those caught up in the violence will give their account of what happened; those who were injured or who lost property will begin to count the cost as the official investigations get under way. There will be accusations and counter-accusations. A great deal of money will be spent; a great deal of tidying up will be done. But what is likely to be the net result? Would it be cynical to say, insurance premiums will go up, property prices will go down and confrontation will become more common?

Tottenham is home to many churches and Christian organizations. I expect that the priests and pastors will be doing their bit to try to bring calm to a volatile situation. We too must do our bit and pray for peace on the streets of London. More than that, we must be peace-makers wherever we are, for we cannot pray for others to become what we ourselves have no desire to be. We too must renounce every form of violence.

 

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Financial Meltdown

Fears about the U.S. economy and European debt are fuelling fears of another financial meltdown. The major banks are in a less healthy position than they were a couple of years ago, and once the August holiday season is over, we can probably expect more equity sell-offs. Even gold prices have fallen, which is contrary to the trend we have seen in recent months. What does this mean for the Churches? I don’t know, but less income and increased need in society for the kind of services the Churches offer the poor and  struggling are a piquant mix.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not just for Lent. They are a way of preparing for difficult tasks at any time of year. Perhaps we all need to think about our response to the challenge of the times we live in and prepare ourselves for what may be to come. The certainties of yesteryear are gone forever. We must learn to live by the mercy of God.

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In Praise of Grandparents

The feast of SS Joachim and Anne, (traditional names given to the parents of Our Lady and hence the maternal grandparents of Our Lord Jesus Christ), is an apt day on which to sing the praises of grandparents. You see them today doing the school run, providing out-of-hours childcare, often more engaged with the children than the children’s parents. It wasn’t always so. The grandparents of today are usually healthier, wealthier and more leisured than their own grandparents were. They are Baby Boomers turned Baby Buddies and have a very special place in their grandchildren’s hearts.

Because that is the point about grandparents, isn’t it? They can be so much less complicated about the love they have for their grandchildren, and grandchildren instinctively recognize the fact. Grandparents don’t have the 24/7 responsibility of parents; they can be indulgent; they can enjoy their grandchildren’s company in ways and at times that parents can’t. Their influence can be huge, and it is always the influence of love. Thank God for grandparents, living and dead.

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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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