In one of his many sermons, St Augustine remarks that we are often more impressed by reading about the feeding of the five thousand than we are by seeing a whole field of wheat sprung from a few grains. I think he was wrong. There is so much to wonder at and be grateful for in the world around us, precisely because it comes from nature or human ingenuity. Yesterday there was that forty-second helicopter flight on Mars to marvel at — a triumph of engineering, vision and faith. Then, for us coffee addicts, there was the welcome news that a strain of coffee thought to tolerate higher growing temperatures had been re-discovered, thus potentially saving our favourite brew from disappearing off the face of the earth. I don’t know how much coffee-drinking the NASA engineers needed to accomplish their feat, but I’m sure there must be a connection of some kind.
That is my point. The natural, human and spiritual are interconnected. We often dissociate them in an effort to analyse and understand, but when we do so, we fail to see the possibilities they contain or give thanks. That flight on Mars, that re-discovered coffee plant, what potential they hold for all of us!
A lot has been written about physical and mental health and the impact COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have had, and continue to have, on both. We are too deeply involved in the present crisis to be able to see with any real clarity the long-term consequences, but there is a general awareness that the prospects for many people have worsened. That is not just because delayed or cancelled treatment leads to poorer health outcomes but because lockdown, for example, has also meant poorer living conditions, loneliness and emotional stress, not to mention the mounting evidence of increased domestic violence and abuse. Add to that concerns over the impact on children and young people of the effect on their education and it is easy to see why many are worried about the future physical and mental health of the nation.
Spiritual Health in Time of COVID
Churches and other religious organizations have done their best to minister to the spiritual needs of their members. Some, like the Irish priest who devised an imaginative and truly pastoral response to the question of First Holy Communion, or the lay groups that have maintained a sense of community by keeping in touch via online and telephone meetings, have shown real creativity in their response to a complex situation. Others have settled for live-streamed worship, podcasts, vodcasts and experimented with other ways of reaching out to people as time, energy and resources permitted.
Moral Health in Time of COVID
What I am not sure many people, other than a few philosophers, have been thinking about is what I call our moral health. By that I mean how we, both as individuals and as a society, act ethically and with moral purpose in a confused and confusing situation such as a pandemic, and the consequences for us and our sense of right or wrong conduct. We have all read of instances of people behaving with courage and generosity, looking out for others and performing acts of unexpected kindness. We have also read of people behaving selfishly and putting others at risk. What are the principles at work here, and how far is the Government, the Churches or any other body responsible for setting the tone? Is the moral health of the nation to be identified with that of individuals, or does it have a larger existence?
Those familiar with Catholic Social Teaching will be able to guess to which side of that last question I myself lean. It does concern me when people say, ‘When everything gets back to normal, then I’ll do so and so.’ The situation we find ourselves in may not be familiar, but it is the current ‘normal’ and therefore precisely the one in which we must act as moral beings. How we apply injunctions to be truthful, charitable, generous, is therefore a matter of moment. I have a hunch that the privatisation of our lives — working from home, not travelling so much and having far less social contact with others outside our chosen spheres — has meant that most of us are living in a moral space less challenged by difference than it used to be. Here in this part of Herefordshire, for example, we rarely meet anyone who isn’t white or from a rural, probably local, background. I don’t think I’ve met anyone here who isn’t either a Christian of some sort or an agnostic or atheist. Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs belong to the wider world I used to know — they are not on my doorstep. Social media used to provide another window on the world, so to say, but recent changes in content moderation make one question whether that, too, is going to become even more of an ‘echo chamber’ for those of similar mind than it was. All this affects us, often more than we realise.
To take a concrete example. The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, which begins on Monday, will present us with unique challenges this year. There can be no dutiful ‘shared worship’ of the type we held in the past, which let us off the hook of really engaging with one another. Our prayer and work for unity must be real, and working out how to do that is going to test all of us. We shall have to make choices, some of which will be hard; but they must be moral choices, that is to say, proceeding from principle and conviction. Some look to technology to provide a solution, perhaps forgetting that technology is a means to an end. How we use it matters. Why we use it matters. But it is what we actually do with it that matters most of all.
Hopefor our Moral Health
I am hopeful that our experience of pandemic will enable us to reflect on what we really value. I have said before that I hope it will lead to a deeper experience of God in prayer, to a fresh appreciation of family, friends and community and the many good things we encounter in our daily lives, plus a more profound sense of the interconnectedness of the world in which we live. I hope it will also lead to a strengthening of our moral health, our concern for one another, and our delight in trying to make things better for everyone. The world is not broken as it once was, but we may have failed to see how beautifully it has been repaired by the coming of Christ and the part we have to play in keeping its bonds strong. We tend to think of ourselves as clay, being moulded by the Potter. Maybe, just this once, we could identify with Christ himself, with that little line of gold purified in the furnace of experience and suffering but helping to hold together the vessel God has created, the world and everyone in it.
We all love to quote, especially if by doing so we can suggest a whole chain of allusions and dress ourselves in borrowed plumes of learning and wit. Unfortunately, it can also be a little dangerous. Quoting out of context can sometimes lead to serious misunderstandings or a complete perversion of what the original author intended. I’ve been guilty of that myself, and suffered from it happening to me at times. I’m sure it’s also true of anyone reading this. We register the fact, but do we always register its significance?
Take the liturgy, for example. Advent presents us with a carefully-crafted thematic series of readings from which we can derive a much deeper understanding of what salvation means, but if we don’t read round the texts, so to say, we can miss much more. When people ask how to read the psalter, for instance, I often give them the psalm scheme we use in the Divine Office (150 psalms in the course of a week), then urge then to realise that the psalter is already an arranged book. To understand one particular psalm it helps to read those that precede and follow. It is the same with the Mass readings. Gospel passages read in context often have a sightly different emphasis from the one we assume when we hear them proclaimed at the ambo.
Of course, my point about quoting out of context has a much wider application than the liturgy. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all how easy it is for those of us who are not medically qualified or trained in the use of statistics to misinterpret the arguments of others and advance as fact what is actually a matter of opinion. In my view, the UK Government hasn’t helped with its frequent claims to be ‘following the science’ when it clearly has not recognized that ‘science’ doesn’t usually achieve a consensus all at once, nor is it necessarily infallible. Those of us who are not constitutional lawyers may have unintentionally taken sides in the dispute about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election without realising that opinion, by itself, is not sufficient justification for a course of action with definite, legal consequences. Those of us brave enough — or should I say bold enough — to plunge again into the muddy waters of the Brexit debate may rue the day when arguments were reduced to slogans and some very dodgy claims made about predictable/unpredictable outcomes.
Does this matter? Surely we all have a right to our opinions and their free expression? Yes, we do; but, as with any right, there is a responsibility attached, too. We may think of ourselves as insignificant but each of us has a role to play in forming public opinion, especially if we are users of social media and the like. We have a duty to ensure that our opinions are based on as thorough an appraisal of the arguments as we can make. That means careful listening, careful reading and careful expression in contexts where we may influence others. I can cheerfully go on proclaiming that the PBGV is the best breed of dog in the world (a highly subjective opinion, not to be uttered in the presence of Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, and one that only other PBGV devotees will take seriously) but I would do well to be more cautious in expressing my views on racial injustice or the ethics of using certain technologies. That is not because my opinion does not matter, but because these are matters of great importance and should be treated with the seriousness and respect they deserve.
Already some are arguing that any COVID-19 vaccine which incorporates matter derived from aborted embryos cannot be used, citing as proof the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. That is to disregard or ignore an important clarification issued some years ago which states that, while it is preferable not to incorporate such tissue, it is permissible to use such vaccines where there is a grave risk to health. (For a summary of some of the arguments and relevant documents, see this article by Deacon Greg Kandra: https://is.gd/AwgY7T). Even as we try to be quieter during Advent, it seems we may need to speak out, providing context as well as memorable quotes. We await the coming of the Word at Christmas, so how could we be indifferent to the way we use words every day?
We have probably all been shocked by the sight of empty supermarket shelves, people squabbling over packets of loo rolls or loading impossibly large amounts of food and drink into the back of their cars, not to mention the heart-wrenching photos of an elderly man or woman standing forlorn in the midst of the chaos, shopping-list and empty basket in hand. It has been a powerful reminder of how selfish we can be, how easily we return to the law of the jungle — only it isn’t the law of the jungle, but something much worse. It is the law of fear and anxiety. We are afraid that we might have to go without; afraid that there might not be enough to go round; afraid of a future we thought we could predict and control but now find we can’t. What we have been seeing is literally panic rather than panic-buying. The results are the same, but the origins lie deeper and are less susceptible of rational control.
We, of course, do not panic. In fact, we are inclined to take a rather severe view of those who do. So, instead, we tell stories of acts of unexpected thoughtfulness and kindness — strangers sharing scarce items, neighbours offering help or leaving little gifts anonymously, postcards through the letterbox to ensure that people know whom to contact in case of need. It is all heartening and reassuring of the decency of the majority of our fellow human beings. We smile over the jokes and clever memes on social media, enjoy clips of the balcony performances of opera singers, and share links to enchanting Youtube videos intended to keep our spirits up. The religiously-minded rush to Zoom and other platforms to maintain contact and provide cyber-worship while we all become a little starry-eyed over the possibilities opening up to us. Then a bubble-buster comes along with an inconvenient question. Is it possible to be a ‘panic-buyer’ in cyberspace as well as in a supermarket? Is there such a thing as feasting, fasting and maintaining a healthy nutritional balance online? I think the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.
If, like us, you live in a rural area, where the Broadband service is at best slow and at worst patchy or non-existent, you will understand the point I’m making more easily than if you live where blistering upload and download speeds are obtainable. Access to the internet is a resource like any other. Over the next few weeks and months it is likely that demand will go up hugely — just think of all those educational establishments taking classes online, for example. It is to be hoped that supply will be able to keep up. Even so, we know that there is an ecological cost involved, and that streaming video and audio uses more energy than other uses of the internet — about 50% of the total before the COVID-19 outbreak. So, there is more to be thought about than just, can we do something. The question is, should we do something?
That is one of the reasons we ourselves have decided not to add to the amount of religious audio or video being put online at the moment (there’s still quite a lot available on our main site, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk) and why we don’t often listen to, or view, the contributions of others (another is the need for silence and recollection in the monastery, which we protect as well as we can).
Perhaps it would be helpful to think of our (your) own internet usage in terms of feasting, fasting and maintaining nutritional balance. I myself think that the internet is a great way for those finding the isolation imposed by COVID-19 difficult to keep in touch with others and maintain some sense of normality, including, for many, worship. That I would liken to maintaining nutritional balance and good health. I also think it is a great resource for learning, dealing with boredom, and stretching the imagination. It can be glorious fun. That I would liken to feasting. And fasting? That is where discernment comes in. For example, I don’t think it necessary for us to add to our online engagement at present, and I don’t think that every parish, congregation or community needs to livestream everything every day. Nor do I think it quite in keeping with Lent to be spending unlimited amounts of time online (in the monastery we actually have rules about that, so it is easier for us to maintain some restraint). But that’s just me and the community here.
In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.
‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.
How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.
Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.
Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.
Yesterday the BBC website ran a brief article on the Vatican’s launch of an eRosary bracelet — a snip at £85. I did what any twenty-first century nun would do, enquired of others via Social Media whether they had any experience of it. Of course, not one had, though I learned quite a lot about what they did have and what they thought about the principles involved (too expensive being a recurring theme).
I have often explained that, for us as Benedictines, the Rosary is a purely private devotion. I personally take the view that whatever helps someone to pray must be good, and a prayer that concentrates, as the Rosary does, on the life, death and resurrection of Christ and some of the doctrines that flow from that is of special value. But I’m not sure about expensive gadgets or an app that ‘checks’ how we pray. Big Brother and Loving God are not one and the same. If you have an eRosary or experience of using it, do please let me know what you think of it. It may encourage me to dust off an app I designed some time ago but never actually got round to releasing . . . .
Automated alerts for new blog posts I think we have finally resolved the problems that prevented some people from receiving the automated email alerts when new blog posts are published. If you signed up but have not been receiving the post notifications, please would you sign up again and remember that we use a double opt-in system, so you will need to confirm your original request. That is to ensure no-one signs up on your behalf!
Anyone who has ever tried to telephone a monastery will know that it is not usually the easiest way to get in touch. Monks and nuns have an irritating habit of keeping odd hours. They are in choir or sleeping when one wants to talk, or they inhabit an entirely different time zone from ourselves and one finds that what is reasonable in X is the middle of the night in Y. That still leaves letters, emails, texts and Social Media, of course, but we have become so accustomed to instant and immediate contact via the telephone that it seems odd that a group of people should remain so resolutely difficult to reach. Are they just being perverse? Is the silence they are so busy protecting fundamentally selfish, not about God at all?
I was pondering this as I received yet another request to advertise our telephone number on Facebook. It is already given on our web sites, so I see no need to flaunt it elsewhere, but the request still makes me think. There is something about the human voice that the written word cannot convey. Many of the people who telephone the monastery desperately want to hear a kind word, to hear in a human voice the accents of love and compassion they do not find in others. Alas, the monk or nun is not always tuned into that need. I have sometimes crawled out from unblocking a sink to deal with someone in a state of breakdown or woken in the middle of the night to hear a torrent of abuse about the Church, at the bottom of which was a great unhealed wound. I remembered that afterwards, of course, but I fear that at the time I was quite crisp and direct. I was thinking about ‘my’ silence, not the other’s need.
I have to conclude that the telephone occupies a very important place in monastic life. Like it or not, it confronts us with aspects of ourselves we would rather not admit. An unexpected call reveals our true mettle. It can demand a generosity that stretches us, especially when we have other priorities. In short, it turns topsy-turvey our ideas about how the day or night should go. It would be an exaggeration to say that it is God breaking in on us — or rather, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, sometimes it may be — but to treat it always as an unwelcome interruption to our plans is clearly wrong.
Today we begin re-reading chapter 2 of the Rule, On the Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be. It is a masterly summary of what every monk or nun should be and it is noticeable how it concentrates on the interaction between individuals. I will read it this time with one eye on my spoken communication, especially that which is done over the telephone.
On this day in 1534 Parliament passed the first Act of Supremacy. The Act recognized Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church of England and required an oath of loyalty from his subjects regarding the legality of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. My ancestors were no more given to martyrdom than I am, but some were just as obstinate as their descendant and preferred to stick to their principles rather than obey the king’s will. Over the next few decades they paid the price, which leaves me with a slight conundrum. Do I forget them and their sacrifice, taking the lofty view that we understand things differently now? Or do I allow them to prick my conscience and ask myself what it was they thought they were defending, and why they considered it so important? As often happens, we end up with a question of ecclesiology when we thought we were merely considering politics.
The question of ecclesiology (how we understand the Church) was given fresh emphasis yesterday when Pope Francis announced a commitment to seeking a resolution of the differences between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Excellent, one would say — except that commentators have homed in on two points that are going to cause some confusion and much theological heart-searching. Pope Francis reaffirmed the othodox Catholic view that it is impossible for a woman to be ordained to priest’s orders, then later talked about working towards a shared Catholic/Lutheran Eucharist. As some Lutheran Churches permit the ordination of women, there is clearly a major difference in the understanding of Holy Orders which will inevitably affect our understanding of other sacraments, including the Eucharist.
At this stage, it is difficult to see how such differences can be resolved; and if they are resolved, what the implications would be for the Catholic Church (I am not qualified to ask what the implications would be for the Lutheran Church). Already we have received a trickle of questions from ‘confused Catholics’ of various kinds. One thing I think we can assert with some certainty is that the resolution of Catholic/Lutheran differences will take a long time. It will not be ‘top priority’ for many people; and though it may not be so evident in Rome, it is not possible to pursue a policy of liberalism (if it is fair to call it that) in one area while demanding strict conservatism in another without some unintended consequences. Maybe the all-male panellists of tomorrow’s Core Values Conference in Rome will provide us with some indications of how the circle can be squared? Whatever happens, much prayer, deep learning and serious thought is required.
I ought to be blogging about St Jerome, for whom I have a soft spot. Saints who struggle with their anger and sarcasm appeal to me because, without being at all saintly myself, I can identify with their struggle — especially when someone touches a nerve online and the temptation to be withering in reply is very strong! But I have written quite a lot about him in the past (if interested, please do a search for St Jerome in the sidebar search-box), so today I just want to give you advance notice of changes scheduled to take place during the next fortnight. If he were on earth today, I’m sure St Jerome would be deeply into MySQL databases and the like, don’t you? I’m therefore invoking him as patron of our transitions.
At some point during the next two weeks all our web sites, including this blog, will be offline for about twenty-four hours. We are changing from U.S. to U.K. based servers. The intensity of the cyber-attacks we have sustained in the last few months, plus the plunging value of the pound relative to the dollar, make the change inevitable. In fact, we only kept our sites with a U.S. host because we thought, mistakenly, that doing so would cut down the amount of time we had to give to their maintenance, thus leaving us free to devote our major efforts to the sites we host for others on our own servers. We will still be using the hosting services of another company rather than our own, in the hope that most daily problems will be taken care of automatically, but at least we shall not have to deal with time differences when things go wrong. As we care about the security of the users of our web sites, we shall continue to implement several layers of extra security, including monitoring by one of the leading companies in the field.
Once all the sites are safely transferred, I hope to be able to begin uploading the redesigned sites, starting with this one. There will be teething-problems, you can be sure of that; but we will work through them, one by one. Please note that one effect of these changes will be that our emails, including the prayerline, will be temporarily suspended. However, we have set up a temporary catch-all at holytrinitydotmonasteryatgmaildotcom (please replace the words with the requisite symbols) and our personal gmail addresses will still be operative.
May I ask your prayers for all this? I’m suffering from ‘chemmie brain’ so it is a daunting prospect in some ways, although long overdue. It would be very kind if, when the inevitable ‘what’s happened?’ questions start piling up on Facebook and Twitter, those of you in the know would spread the word. Thank you in anticipation.
When the British Government encouraged us all to think about CO2 emissions by lowering the tax rates on diesel cars, we saved up to buy a second-hand diesel. After much deliberation, following the realisation that diesel particulates may do more damage than CO2 emissions, we have just bought another — principally because, living in a rural area, we cover a larger than average annual mileage and needed a car with a more van-like driving position for me. The car we have is not a Volkswagen, but made by a company owned by Volkswagen. Like many others the world over, therefore, we are wondering whether the emission figures have been fudged for our car, too, and what the moral implications are. Do we say, we acted according to our best knowledge and belief, which is true up to a point, although we bought our present car in the full knowledge that the case for diesel is not as unassailable as it once seemed; or do we admit that, no less than Volkswagen, we were lured by greed — in our case, the seductiveness of lower vehicle excise duty and fuel costs? As someone who has both sarcoidosis and leiomyosarcoma metastases in the lungs, I can’t pretend to be personally unaffected by this question. I’m implicated both as perpetrator and as (potential) sufferer.
I think this highlights what I was saying earlier in the week about right judgement. We use reason informed by grace to make decisions, but we make them according to our knowledge and belief at the time we make them — and that may not be complete, nor morally unquestionable. When we bought our first diesel car, we did not know about the effect of diesel particulates in the atmosphere; we do now, but even so, decided that other considerations outweighed our concerns. The Volkswagen revelations have undermined much of the basis for our decision because, if there is no CO2 advantage, we can’t offset that against the particulates. The scale of the German car-maker’s fraud and its implications for diesel technology are not yet clear but it may not be too fanciful to liken it to the financial melt-down caused by the failure of Lehmann’s. As always, it is easy to point the finger, to talk about corporate greed and corruption. No one is denying that there must be huge elements of that here; but, if we are honest, aren’t those of us who own diesel cars, to some degree, complicit?