How to Lose Friends and Irritate People

There are times when I feel quite expert on this subject. I have only to be slow answering an email or disagree with someone else’s opinion and I find myself in the Outer Darkness, weeping and gnashing my (metaphorical) teeth. Someone decides to enlighten me on Twitter, and instead of meekly accepting the enlightenment (meekness is a quality people associate with nuns), I drop a little pearl of (usually borrowed) learning before them. Off they flounce, grunting disapproval. If they see the smile playing round my lips, they assume (wrongly) that it is cynical or sadistic. The thought that it might be sheer amusement never crosses their mind. It is the same on Facebook — or even here on the blog, where you will find a number of readers have ridden off into the cybersunset, vowing never to visit these pages again, because I have disagreed with them, challenged their interpretation of words or events, or poked gentle fun at them and myself. Truly, it is easy to lose friends and irritate people when the medium of communication is the written word.

I am doubtful whether the spoken word is any better. When persuaded of some position or argument, we can be so keen to share it that we can be anything but tactful. I am not sure that Trypho, for example, would have thought St Justin Martyr, whose feast we celebrate today, particularly diplomatic in the way in which he rubbished his, Trypho’s, opinions; but Justin is one of those lovable people who delighted in learning, and assumed everyone else did, too. We have only two apologies and one dialogue of his works extant, but if they are not yet familiar to you, I can only urge you to read them. Justin the philosopher, the learned man, the professional seeker after truth and wisdom, was convinced by the arguments of an aged man he met on the seashore who spoke, simply and powerfully, of the prophets:

There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom. (Dialogue)

Instead of losing friends and irritating people because of the desire to instruct or correct others, how about making new ones and winning them to Christ through shared enthusiasms?


The Problem With Internet Apologetics

Those who use the language of insult and derision will not agree, but Christianity is a reasonable religion. By that I mean that we have centuries of articulation of what the Church believes, and why she believes as she does. We call such a reasoned explanation and defence of Christian belief apologetics. The early Christians were particularly good at it, and anyone who is ignorant of Justin Martyr or Origen, for example, is missing something really good. It is not of these that I am thinking today, however, but of the self-appointed defenders of Christian orthodoxy who rage and rant all over the internet. Often what they say is (largely) true, but sometimes it is given a little twist of their own — and a large dollop of venom is not infrequently added to the mix. In the Catholic Church we have seen this at work in the discussion of same-sex unions, the re-admittance of the divorced and re-married to Holy Communion, Pope Francis’s decisions, and so on.

My problem with all this is very simple. I believe — with every ounce of my being — that exploring Christian orthodoxy is the most exciting and fulfilling activity we could ever undertake because it means exploring the beauty and holiness of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. In other words, it is all about Christ and seeking to know and understand him. Rancour, attempts to denigrate others, trying to force them into believing as we do, has no part in this. We cannot argue anyone into belief. We may argue someone into thinking more deeply about faith and acknowledging the inadequacy of previously-held beliefs. We may even succeed in prompting them to see aspects of Christian faith and practice in ways they had never dreamed possible; but faith itself, the ability to believe, is a gift, at no one’s beck and call.

So, what is the secret of good apologetics, of effective evangelisation? I’d say it was not only intellectually-satisfying apologetics as such but also the experience of Christian love. No matter how brilliant our words, no matter how wonderful our understanding of Christian subjects, unless we can, in some measure, reflect the love of God to others, it avails nothing, as St Paul says. This can be quite hard to do on the internet because the comment sections on blogs and, even more, Social Media both invite instant reaction rather than the fruits of reflection. I’ve always been an advocate of ‘contemplative computing‘ and never more so than where apologetics are concerned.

St Francis de Sales was bishop of Geneva at one of the most difficult periods of Christian history. His insistence on quiet, courteous dialogue with those who held contrary views is an example to all of us. No matter how ‘fired up’ we may be about some particular subject, charity is as important as clarity. That doesn’t mean that we water down or deny truth. Rather, it means ensuring that it is truth in all its fullness that we share with others, not some shrunken version of our own. We need to read more, pray more, and listen more. God deserves nothing less.


Mercy and Forgiveness — 2 (to be continued)

Before we look at the Resurrection gospels to which I referred yesterday, we need to take a brief look at the way in which the Church has developed her teaching about mercy and forgiveness, and St Anselm, whose feast we keep today, is necessarily important.

In Cur Deus Homo (‘Why God became Man’), Anselm articulated a theory that has been hugely influential in the Western Church. He asked himself the question, what  is the meaning and purpose of  the Crucifixion of Christ? The answer he gave was that human beings had sinned gravely and incurred a debt to God. Only a human being could recompense God for sin, but the insult to God was so great that no human being could actually do so, only one who was both God and man, himself completely sinless and therefore not in debt to God. Christ alone satisfies these conditions. Hence  we can speak of the Atonement, when Christ, as both God and man, paid the debt incurred by human beings and satisfied divine justice through his death on the Cross. The Crucifixion thus becomes a punishment for sin, our sin; and many theologians in the Reformed tradition have made this satisfaction theory of the Atonement a test of Christian orthodoxy, seeing Christ as a punitive substitute for us.

Philosophically speaking, Anselm’s argument is beautiful; theologically, it introduces one or two more doubtful elements. For a start, the idea of sin as a debt to God is rather less easy to reconcile with biblical notions of sin than may at first appear. We are indeed alienated from God by sin, which ruptures the relationship of love and trust to a greater or lesser degree. We profane the holiness of his great name by failing to live a holy life. If we stopped to consider that, would any of us ever sin? I rather doubt it. But we choose lesser ‘goods’, the satisfaction of some current desire and end up in some sense distant from God, conscious of an unfulfilled obligation which we describe as being in debt to God. Think about that seriously, and one can see that we have nothing we can call our own in the first place. If we owe everything to God, how can sin place us further in his debt? We tend to talk about our ‘fallen nature’ without really thinking what we mean by it: essentially something evil (i.e. opposed to God), or essentially something sick (i.e. in need of redemption)? Our answer may be significant.

Here it may be helpful to consider another way of regarding sin. Where we in the West tend to think of our fallen nature as intrinsically evil, our brethren in the East tend to think of it as intrinsically disordered, sick, something that needs to be restored to full health and vigour. Sin is missing the mark rather than incurring a debt. The Orthodox reject the idea that Christ died to satisfy divine justice as taught by Anselm, or as a punitive substitute as taught by the Reformers. Sin (separation from God, the source of all life) is its own punishment, capable of imprisoning the soul in an existence without life, without anything good, and without hope: hell, by any definition. The death of Christ on the Cross restores life and health to humanity, restores the relationship with God and indeed permits a new creation as the Church is born from the blood and water that flows from his side.

In practice, both views of sin and of the meaning of the Crucifixion can enlarge our understanding and sense of wonder and gratitude. The problem comes when we want to nail other people and demand of others our own concept of repentance and the satisfaction of our own ideas of justice! Tomorrow I hope to argue that we need to be much more circumspect in attributing to God ideas that are not his. Certainly, repentance, conversion, literally changing our course, is a necessary part of Christian living, but we need also to be aware of that unmerited gift of God’s grace that flows so freely upon us all. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke shows us the sinner being forgiven by his father before the words of sorrow and apology had fully fallen from his lips. It was enough that he had turned back to meet the overwhelming love that had watched and waited for him for many a long day. How many of us, deep down, hope that we shall be embraced with such a love when our own time comes?


Mercy and Forgiveness — 1 (to be continued)

Most of us are very happy to have mercy shown us and to be forgiven when we are conscious of wrong-doing. We are not always quite so happy to show mercy to others or forgive them their failings when we are the injured party, and least of all are we happy when mercy and forgiveness appear to be poured out indiscriminately on those we think unworthy of it. Perhaps I exaggerate and everyone reading theses pages is already much more saintly than I am, I can only speak from my own experience.

When Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, to begin on 8 December 2015 and end on 20 November 2016, there was some muttering in certain quarters. First of all, the whole concept of a Holy Year is widely misunderstood. The first was proclaimed in 1300, but its origins are much older since it is a form of the Jubilee, and I cannot do better than quote from the document which ushered in the Great Jubilee of the Millennium (2000):

A Holy Year, or Jubilee is a great religious event. It is a year of forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin, it is a year of reconciliation between adversaries, of conversion and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and consequently of solidarity, hope, justice, commitment to serve God with joy and in peace with our brothers and sisters. A Jubilee year is above all the year of Christ, who brings life and grace to humanity.

The origin of the Christian Jubilee goes back to Bible times. The Law of Moses prescribed a special year for the Jewish people: ‘You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim the liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. This fiftieth year is to be a jubilee year for you: you will not sow, you will not harvest the un-gathered corn, you will not gather the untrimmed vine. The jubilee is to be a holy thing to you, you will eat what comes from the fields.’ (Leviticus 25, 10-14) The trumpet with which this particular year was announced was a goat’s horn called Yobel in Hebrew, and the origin of the word jubilee. The celebration of this year also included the restitution of land to the original owners, the remission of debts, the liberation of slaves and the land was left fallow. In the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as the One who brings the old Jubilee to completion, because he has come to ‘preach the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Isaiah 61: 1-2). . . .

The Jubilee is called Holy Year, not only because its begins, is marked, and ends with solemn holy acts, but also because its purpose is to encourage holiness of life. It was actually convoked to strengthen faith, encourage works of charity and brotherly communion within the Church and in society and to call Christians to be more sincere and coherent in their faith in Christ, the only Saviour.

A Jubilee can be ‘ordinary’ if it falls after the set period of years, and ‘extraordinary’ when it is proclaimed for some outstanding event. . . . The custom of calling ‘extraordinary’ Jubilees began in the 16th century and they can vary in length from a few days to a year. There have been two extraordinary jubilees in [the twentieth century]: 1933 proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1900th anniversary of Redemption and 1983 proclaimed by Pope John Paul II to mark 1950 years since the Redemption carried out by Christ through his Death and Resurrection in the year 33. In 1987 Pope John Paul II also proclaimed a Marian year.

So, why the fuss about proclaiming a Holy Year of Mercy?

Saying he has ‘thought often about how the Church can make more evident its mission of being a witness of mercy,’ the Pope announced the new Jubilee Year during a Lenten penitential service in St Peter’s Basilica.

‘I am convinced that the whole Church — that has much need to receive mercy because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time. . . . Let us not forget that God pardons and God pardons always, the Pope continued.  ‘Let us never tire of asking for forgiveness. We entrust it as of now to the Mother of Mercy, because she looks to us with her gaze and watches over our way . . . Our penitential way, our way of open hearts, during a year to receive the indulgence of God, to receive the mercy of God.’

The Pope also said he wants the Church to live the upcoming holy year ‘in the light’ of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke: ‘Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.’

Part of the problem, of course, is that some people think Pope Francis too soft on matters they regard as central to their understanding of Catholicism. Part of the problem is confusion about the very meaning of mercy and forgiveness. What do all those Resurrection gospels where Jesus confers the power to forgive sin really mean?

We have to begin with a little exegesis of the language and concepts underlying the gospel. Biblical Hebrew has two closely related words which are sometimes translated in the same way. In the first place there is hesed, which denotes God’s unfailing loving kindness to his people. It expresses God’s fidelity to his covenant with Israel, his bride. See, for example, the references in Hosea 2.18 and Isaiah 54.5. It is a word that contains overtones of tenderness, love and strength,  which the scriptures often link with experience of morning. We awaken to God’s loving fidelity which will accompany us through the day, e.g. Ps. 142.8

In the morning let me know your love (hesed)
for I put my trust in you.
make me know the way I should walk
to you I lift up my soul. (trans. Grail)

There is also the word racham, which corresponds more closely to mercy or compassion in English. The differences can be seen more clearly in these sentences:

In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving kindness (hesed) I will have compassion (racham) on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer. (Is. 54.8)

For the mountains may be removed and the hills may be shaken, but my loving kindness (hesed) will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the Lord, who has compassion (racham) on you. (Is. 54.10)

The Lord’s loving kindnesses (hesed) indeed never cease, for his compassions (racham) never fail. (Lam. 3.22)

The Septuagint (Greek Bible) usually translates the word hesed as eleos, while the Vulgate (Latin Bible) usually renders it as misericordia, a word which links ‘mercy’ with ‘heart’. The fundamental idea to grasp, however, is that hesed, God’s loving kindness, is sheer gift — completely undeserved but bestowed on us from the first moment of creation and tenderly, faithfully, strongly maintained thereafter. Exodus proclaims the God who is rich in love and fidelity at the very moment the people of Israel have broken their covenant with the Lord. He goes on being faithful when we have failed to be. (cf Ex. 34.6) It is, ultimately, fidelity to a relationship that God has called into being, and in likening it to a marriage bond, the scriptures stress both the obligations it imposes and the huge dignity conferred on us by God.

When we come to the New Testament, mercy and forgiveness come to the fore. God sees our distress and weakness, like that of the straying sheep, and has compassion on us. It is the love of a parent for a child, a tenderness that can never be completely reciprocated. We cannot earn it, we cannot deserve it, it is simply lavished upon us. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post on St Anselm (I hope), connecting mercy and forgiveness with the idea of indebtedness may have blunted our appreciation of what is really going on. We repent of sin, that which destroys (mortal sin) or impairs (venial sin) the relationship with God, because we have been forgiven, not because we seek forgiveness. But because that statement may read to some as heretical, I’ll attempt to explain more fully tomorrow.


Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich is a good example of how we read texts selectively, imposing on them our own interests and preoccupations. To some she is a feminist theologian, defying male authority with her delicate understanding of the motherhood of God and her optimistic view of human nature. To others, she is the great seer of the Passion, whose lively imagination and homely turn of phrase brings Calvary before our eyes in painful detail. To others still, she is one of those gifted women who transcend conventional categories but whose prayerful quest for understanding has produced a theology of great subtlety and beauty. I would not myself call Julian a feminist, any more than I would call her a mystic (a term used in its current sense only since the seventeenth century). I think she is something much more interesting than that. She is a unique and challenging voice from the Middle Ages. Her Revelations of Divine Love are not meant to be merely read or commented on; they are meant to be engaged with, taken to heart, lived. We are not to be mere spectators of the Passion; we are to feel the drops of blood falling from Christ’s head, the drying wind that blew across Calvary; we are to meet him in his ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ and know him for our Saviour. Julian is much more systematic in her writing than might at first appear, and it is only gradually that her purpose unfolds. She is worth taking time and trouble over because her theme is Life itself.

Note: if you do not yet know this book by Professor Turner, I thoroughly recommend it:


Polemics and the Art of Being Christian Online

St Athanasius, whose feast we celebrate today, is one of my heroes. I love his reverence for the Incarnation, his pastoral concern, his interest in monasticism, the fact that the ancient Churches of both East and West regard him as a great saint. I even love even his rather fiery temper, though I do not think I would have liked to have been on the receiving end of some of his tongue-lashings.

Today there are many who seem to think they are heir to Athanasius in their zeal for purity of doctrine and observance but who quite often overlook two important points. First, Athanasius was a learned man and spoke and wrote from a deep store of theological knowledge and understanding. Second, he was a saint and consciously strove to put into practise the teachings of Christ. I have never been attracted to polemics myself but if I were, I think those two points would give me pause. It is very easy to assume we are right, that we have the answers others are searching for, but it is just possible we are mistaken, that we don’t know enough, or don’t understand as well as we think we do. As to leading holy lives, filled with faith, hope and charity, would it not be presumptuous to claim that?

One of the problems with the blogospshere at the moment, and perhaps even more the corner of Twitter that I inhabit, is that there is too much shrieking going on. Too many people are attacking others without really examining whether they are right to do so. We may want to see ourselves as champions of truth, but very often that desire is all about us and not about truth at all. I’m particularly saddened when I see Catholics attacking one another in virulent terms over supposed lapses in orthodox belief and practice.* Not so long ago I was myself attacked, in no uncertain terms, by someone regarded by many (though not, I have to confess, by me) as a champion of orthodoxy. Even though I did my best to point out where and how the misconception could have arisen, there was no apology, only another sneer. It left an unpleasant taste in my mouth and reminded me forcibly of something we need to remember every time we go online. We will never argue anyone into belief in God; we can only try to show something of God’s holiness and love and pray that he will draw others to himself. That doesn’t mean that we allow errors to go uncorrected or fail to stand up for what we believe; it does mean that we don’t mistake love of a fight for love of the truth. Putting someone down isn’t the best way of raising them up, is it?

Truth matters; and it is precisely because truth matters that I think we should be reverent and charitable in our attempts to defend and spread the truth we have been privileged to know, especially online where it is more difficult to convey nuance or relax tension. That is part of the art of being a Christian online. It is also, unless I’m very much mistaken, part of the secret of successful polemics, too.

*We all have a duty to try to put right whatever may be wrong, but the way in which we do that is important. It is particularly important that we make sure of our facts otherwise we may be guilty of grave injustice.


St Benedict, St Thomas and the Thought Police

How, you may ask, do I get from today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7. 19–23, which is about desire and corruption of the will, to St Thomas Aquinas and what I have called the thought police? It is really very simple. Today is the feastday of St Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian whose work has proved so influential on Western thought. His attempt to reconcile several elements of Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity led to many disputes which have continued to our own day. At one point, Thomas was even accused of championing Averroism (an extreme form of Aristotelianism he specifically rejected). It seems that not everyone was capable of reading what he wrote in the way that he intended, and those who put a false interpretation on his words assumed he held a position he did not. A very similar situation exists today, but it is more generalised and is often an unintended consequence of the way in which the internet has opened up all kinds of speculation and discussion. We read the words others have written and interpret them according to our own ideas. Sometimes we fail to understand properly, or we put a sinister twist on them. That is when the thought police launch their attack!

I sometimes wonder whether, had Thomas lived today and done much of his writing on the internet, he would have been able to do as much as he did. I suspect a lot of his time would have been taken up with patiently trying to explain to those less gifted than himself what he had already explained. I feel quite sure he would have been accused of lack of orthodoxy and had his motives impugned. Those who scoff at truth, or, just as bad, assume they have mastered the truth, easily forget that theology is a prayerful quest for understanding. It is not an exact science. Speculation, thinking aloud we might call it, sharing ideas, arguing, are all part of the way in which we deepen our comprehension; but the final point, the aim of theological endeavour, is, surely, experience of God. As Thomas remarked to Reginald after what is generally regarded as some sort of mystical experience, ‘All I have written seems like straw to me.’

When Benedict writes about desire, he too is urging us to go beyond the material facts of our daily life to experience of God. Not our will but His is to be done. He is aware that good people are led astray not by bad things but by good (cf Proverbs 16.25). Just as those who censured St Thomas Aquinas thought they were doing a good deed, so we can be misled. Benedict’s remedy is the constant scrutiny of mind and heart, the watchfulness I touched upon yesterday. He is a practical man, writing for practical people, few of whom will have the intellectual or spiritual gifts of St Thomas. He simply tells us God is always with us and our every desire is before Him. That is both a comforting thought and a very disturbing one.


The Problem with Being a Man

A little semantic mischief-making may be forgivable on this dull, wet Monday morning, but if you are the kind of person who takes pleasure in pointing out the errors of others, I beg you to read no further.

You see, I have a problem. Whenever I say the Nicene Creed in English, I am obliged to assert that Christ died ‘for us men and for our salvation’. Now, I do have a little bit of Greek and Latin and a smattering of theological and liturgical formation, even a smidgeon of history, if truth be told. I am not exactly a rabid revolutionary, either, but I do find that formulation rather difficult. I believe that Christ died for me, and I would like to be able to proclaim that fact as part of my faith — not as a man (which I’m not) nor as a woman (which I am) but as a human being (which we all are and which, in Christ, transcends all questions of sex and gender). It would not be difficult to drop the word ‘man’ and simply say ‘for us and for our salvation’ without affecting either the sense or the euphony of the phrase, but, of course, we aren’t allowed to, for all the reasons that I’m sure will be brought up in the comments section.

Having done a little liturgical translation in my time, I am aware of some of the pitfalls and would always argue for respecting the historical formulations of faith and belief. That does not mean, however, that an attempt at a literal translation will always be more authentic than one which aims at what we used to call dynamic equivalence. (I think I can hear the sabres rattling as I write those words.)

To proclaim one’s faith is both a personal and an ecclesial act. To express it in language which can only really be true of some is, at best, an impoverishment, at worst, a distortion and falsification. Recently, I re-read the Catechism of the Catholic Church from beginning to end. Part of me was impressed by its clear and comprehensive treatment of Christian doctrine while part of me was thoroughly depressed by the fact that the language seemed to concern men only. The words we use do matter. The problem with being a man when one isn’t is that it introduces a falsity at the point where one ought to be most truthful. Ultimately, it really does affect what one believes. Did Christ die for me or not? Do not be too quick with your answer.


The Price of Peace

The price of peace is letting oneself be taken for a coward, a fool, even someone who secretly favours the enemy — whoever or whatever the enemy may happen to be. Being a pacifist is not the same as being a wimp. It means that one can never have the golden glow of feeling heroic, that one has made a difference or done the ‘right thing’ as often conceived. It means a different kind of anguish, one that no warlike activity can relieve; and it is an anguish many must be experiencing today as the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria grows ever closer. Most of us want peace and are prepared to defend it; but that is not the same thing as seeking to impose our ideas about peace on others. Whether we are pacifists, believing that war is never justifiable, or whether we are reluctant fighters, believing war must only ever be a last resort, the situation in Syria calls for some clear, cool thinking about ourselves as well as what we think is happening there. Emotional muddle, soundbite theology and Walter Mitty fantasies are not the best preparation.

We might begin by thinking about what is called the Just War Theory. St Augustine, whose feast we celebrate today, believed that the only just reason for going to war was the desire for peace. St Thomas Aquinas later elaborated on this so that, in his view, three conditions must be met for any war to be called just:

  1. Legitimate authority, with the duty of preserving the common good, must declare the war;
  2. there must be just cause;
  3. the warring party must have the right intention, so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.

To these many would now add that war should always be the last resort, when all other means of resolving differences or righting wrongs have failed; that there should be proportionality, so that whatever good may be achieved is not outweighed by the harm that will result; and that there should be a reasonable probability of success.

I am not sure how a missile strike against Syria measures up against these, but I hope our politicians will think very seriously indeed. President Obama’s talk of a red line being crossed if chemical weapons were used must, in retrospect, look unwise. Men, women and children have been dying as a result of the bloodshed in Syria for two years. The manner of their deaths has been different, but it is surely the fact that they have been killed, rather than the weaponry used to kill them, that is significant. Are the conditions for a just war being met? Can they be met? If the West acts now against Syria, the conflict will escalate. War in the Middle East will quickly spin out of control and mean war elsewhere. The consequences are too horrible to contemplate. If the price of peace is to be thought a coward, the price of an unjust war — perhaps any war — is, quite simply, death.

Note: for the record, I am totally opposed to Western military intervention in Syria and pray that a peaceful solution may be found.


Wasting Time With God

How we spend our time is a very good indicator of what we value. Prayer, for many, is simply a waste of time and effort. Some even find the whole notion offensive. My first tweet of the day, which is always to assure people of the community’s prayer for them, usually gets one or two grumpy responses along the lines of ‘Don’t waste your time on that nonsense!’ or ‘Thanks, but no thanks’. Yet I notice that our email prayerline and our Facebook page attract numerous requests, while people sometimes ring up in the middle of the night to voice their concerns and ask for prayers.

All these prayers are asking God for something: a favour, a healing, a miracle even. Yet at its simplest, prayer is about nothing more than being with God, ‘wasting time’ with him. He knows our needs and is always ready to respond, though not always as we might wish. It is in this context that today we re-read chapter 20 of the Rule, On Reverence in Prayer. The text is so important that I shall quote it in full:

Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realise we shall not be heard for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore ought always to be short and pure unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together.

We could tease many ideas out of this short passage but there are two words that occur again and again, ‘humility’ and ‘purity’, so let’s look briefly at them.

How humble are we when we pray? By that I do not mean how grand are the titles by which we address God or how lowly is our concept of self, I mean how truthful are we? To be devoid of falsity, to allow God to search our innermost being, requires more honesty and courage than most of us can muster. It takes a lifetime to achieve that kind of humility, but it is what we aim at because humility tears down the barriers we erect between ourselves and God. It allows our humble God to find a way into our proud selves.

‘Purity’ is a word freighted with theology. In Greek the original meaning of apatheia was ‘detachment, without feeling’, but thanks to Cassian’s genius in rendering it in Latin as ‘purity of heart’, we have come to see that the purity needed in prayer is one of great attachment. We are serious about prayer, not in the sense that we are sad-faced or solemn, but as people to whom prayer matters — prepared to give it time  — because we love God and wish to be close to him.

If you read this chapter of the Rule slowly and carefully, you will see that it has much to say about prayer that we are apt to forget. ‘Short and pure’: that is what Benedict recommends our prayer should be. It isn’t difficult to make it short, but pure? There is a challenge for today.