Muddled Thinking and Muddled Morals

In the last forty-eight hours we have been treated to some very diverse interpretations of what constitutes the common good. In the Netherlands, for example, it is now legal for doctors to sedate patients with dementia before administering euthanasia (so they do not resist). At the same time, Angela Merkel, long the guardian of the European conscience, has urged that COVID-19 vaccines should be available to poor countries as well as rich ones — on grounds of fairness (and possibly, self-interest). Matt Hancock has helpfully informed us that ‘Christmas is a special time of year’ while not, apparently, going as far as one scientific adviser who thinks Christmas should be ‘postponed’ for six months because the new programme of restraints the government has devised for us does not go far enough to protect public health. Religious illiteracy is clearly even more widespread than we thought. Public sector pay is to be held at current levels but the increases for M.P.s are, at the time of writing, still to go ahead. As to what is happening in Hong Kong or the U.S.A., I dare not comment for fear that I should have to go into hiding from all sides. Meanwhile the barque of Peter sails serenely on, according to its own timetable (the liturgical calendar) and its own preoccupations, which are rarely those of politicians or secular society.

In his homily for the solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis admonished us not to give up on great dreams. It is easy to be dismissive of the pope. The subjects on which he chooses to speak or write, the language he uses, and the sometimes interminable length of the addresses themselves, can be difficult for English-speakers. But the great dreams to which he alludes are not to be summarily dismissed. We can get bogged down in the minutiae of daily life and mistake the seemingly urgent for the genuinely important, limiting both ourselves and others unnecessarily. The headlines dominating our news or engaging our social media streams are sometimes petty and leave us making bad or selfish choices. Our thinking can become muddled, and when that happens, so, frequently, does our conduct.

Advent is still a few days away but it provides an excellent opportunity to simplify, reassess what truly matters and act accordingly. That is why I always think these days between Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent are a precious time of preparation. We may be choosing an Advent book to provide a fresh perspective on what we are celebrating or drawing up a routine which will ensure we read the Mass readings every day and make time for prayer. Here in the monastery we like to begin with three days of almost perfect silence. Apart from the Divine Office and necessary conversation with the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker, so to say, we try to keep quiet and allow the silence to lead us. That isn’t possible for everyone, nor would it be advisable in all cases. We have to use common sense as well as spiritual sense in our decision-making. Whatever we decide to do, I have a hunch that if we use this time imaginatively and ask the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall discover that the common good and our own personal good are more closely aligned than we may have thought. But it may take some hard thinking and hard praying to work that out.

Audio version

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How Large Is Our Circle?

Terrestrial globe

Yesterday, when winds were high and seas rough, a small boat capsized off the coast of Dunkirk. Among those who lost their lives were children aged 8 and 5. A baby is also believed to have drowned, while some of the 15 people who were rescued are critically ill. Some have dismissed the tragedy with a call for stricter controls on immigration, while others have merely noted that the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in this way is over 7,000 this year, four times the total of previous years. At the same time, a row continues to rumble about whether children in need should be given free school meals during the half-term break. I cannot bring myself to repeat some of the things said or written by those who cling to the notion of the feckless poor being responsible for their own troubles. Hungry children are hungry children in my book, and we have a duty to look after them. But whether we are talking about migrants to Britain or British children, we are talking about people, human beings like ourselves.

One feature of the abandonment of globalism has been the adoption of fundamentally selfish policies by both individuals and governments. ‘What’s best for me/us’ is a convenient mantra, expressed in a thousand different forms from ‘Make America Great Again’ to ‘Take Back Control,’ but it inevitably means what is not so good, or even bad, for others. Tribal identities are defined as much by those they exclude as those they include. Once upon a time, people used to talk about the people in their circle. I apologize for being so predictable, but if you look at the illustration to this post, you’ll see a globe. When God made the world, he made it round. We’re all in his circle. Shouldn’t everyone be in ours?

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Learning from the Dog and St Benedict

A sleeping Fauve
A sleeping Fauve

Early this morning I went into the room where our Basset Fauve de Bretagne (Bro Dyfrig BFdeB on Twitter) sleeps. He may have registered my presence vaguely, but there was no wag of the tail to indicate that he had done so. He just went on sleeping, trusting that my purposes were honourable and food not involved. Wise dog!

Trust often seems in short supply these days. We have all been let down by others at times, sometimes hugely. Even more painful, I’d say, is the knowledge that we ourselves have let others down. With so many challenges on the political landscape — a pandemic, Brexit, a presidential election in the U.S.A., growing concerns about human rights and personal freedoms in many countries of the world — it can be tempting to become cynical, to adopt disbelief as our customary attitude, to trust no-one. The trouble is, cynicism rarely achieves anything positive.

The best antidote to cynicism I know is to be found in the twelfth step of humility, which we read in the Rule of St Benedict today (RB 7. 62–70). It isn’t just for monastics. It reminds us that hope is real, transformation possible, and ultimately God is in charge. Our sleeping dog is a good Benedictine — his trust is perfect. How about yours and mine?

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Collective Obsessions and Seeking to Understand

Despite what I said in my previous post, or perhaps because of it, I have been trying to articulate and therefore understand my feelings of unease about some of the matters currently affecting us all, for example COVID-19, the protests following the death of George Floyd, the public arguments about transgenderism and so on. Perhaps you can help me?

I am not talking about having a particular stance, nor am I asking for your opinions on these matters as such. We all have our own views, and this is probably not the best place to debate those I have mentioned. My question has more to do with the dynamics of debate, the way we go from one subject to another and how we are to understand our collective obsessions and the way they affect us.

A little while ago everyone was talking about COVID-19 and giving the world the benefit of their opinion on the nature of the virus and its origins, the effectiveness of lockdown measures and, in the UK at least, the competence or otherwise of the Government’s response to the crisis. As someone said, overnight we all became epidemological experts, and if we had celebrity status, we expected our adoring public to hang on our suitably woke words and whacky medical recommendations.

Next came the brutal death of George Floyd, which ignited a series of riots and protests that is still going on. The way he was treated was wrong, unambiguously wrong, no matter that some want to argue that he had a criminal record as though that somehow ‘justified’ what was done to him. Some of what has followed, however, — further deaths, looting, statue toppling and so on — strikes me as being troubling, though not all equally serious. Death and injury will always be more serious than daubing a wall with graffiti or tumbling a bad statue into a river. Politicians and others have rushed to issue suitably contrite statements and take actions which, to an outsider, look to be panic-driven rather than a considered response to a complex and many-faceted situation.

At the same time, some comments of J.K. Rowling have added further fuel to a fire that has been raging for some time over transgenderism. I hope my transgender friends will allow me to say that casting accusations of transphobia at people doesn’t really meet the case. One can believe that biological sex cannot be changed without disliking or having a prejudice against those who have had gender reassignment or identify as being a different sex from the one they were assumed to be at birth. It is always going to be difficult to talk about deeply held beliefs without causing hurt, but should the fact that it is difficult mean we simply dismiss views we ourselves don’t hold by condemning the person who holds them? If I may use an analogy. My being a Catholic is central to my existence, but that has never stopped my being friends with those who don’t share my beliefs or are even hostile to them.

My problem with what I have called collective obsessions is this. First, we tend to deal with them sequentially. One minute we are flooded with comment on COVID-19; the next it is racism; then transgenderism. But when the shouting dies down, what have we done to effect any change? My second is more personal: how do these matters affect us at a deeper level of consciousness and our Weltanschauung?

We may have clapped and cheered the NHS for ten weeks, but what have we done to limit the spread of COVID-19 or help those whose lives have been most affected by it? There is an emotional response to the work being done by healthcare professionals, but can we go beyond that? We may have denounced racism and slavery, but how aware are we of the slavery that exists in Britain today or that brutalises the lives of people living in other countries? Only this morning I read on the BBC news web site of a little girl of 7 who had been working as a maid in Pakistan and was tortured to death by her ’employers’ (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53008093). If I say that worries me more than any statue, am I to be immediately condemned for not being alert to the discrimination and injustice suffered as a result of present-day racism in this country or the role of historical remembrance in perpetuating racist attitudes? Are they mutually exclusive? And with regard to transgenderism, what effort have we personally made to understand? If one does not condemn a particular view, is one complicit with it? Or is one simply saying, I don’t know enough, haven’t thought enough, to express an opinion — and do I need to have an opinion on everything, anyway?

I suspect my questions don’t really have answers, and I must be prepared for comment from those who don’t want to engage with the questions but merely want a platform to express their views. So be it. I must go on asking, however, because otherwise I know that I shall not be trying to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in many and various ways, not least through events and the perplexity we experience in the face of them. Our collective obsessions may be fleeting, but they can have a huge effect on our lives and the lives of other people. Ultimately, they matter. We must take them seriously.

Audio Version

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Cleansing Fire

Pentecost
Pentecost: from the Chapter House paintings of
D. Werburg Welch © Stanbrook Abbey. Used by permission

My favourite image of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is fire, cleansing fire. At a time when COVID-19 and a lack of leadership in many countries have contributed to a sense of being adrift in a stew of corruption and fear, the idea of the Holy Spirit sweeping in like a storm-wind, scattering the darkness with flashes of fire and lightning, cleansing the world of sin and negativity and putting fresh heart into us all is immensely attractive. But it must be the Spirit’s doing, not that of some self-appointed messiah who thinks they have the right to order the world according to their own notions. That raises important questions about discernment and co-operation with grace — in other words, how we work out what God is asking, and how we follow his lead.

I think D. Werburg’s painting provides a clue. Whom do you see, and what are they doing? We see some of the apostles, certainly, but also Our Lady and Mary Magdalene, a reminder that the Church is not confined to a single group but embraces all humankind. The figures are shown at prayer and the Spirit has come upon them, but notice how the symbol of the Spirit, little golden flickers of flame, is painted against their haloes. To me, that suggests that the Spirit works through the ordinary and everyday as much as through the dramatic and unusual. Indeed, the action of the Holy Spirit may be almost imperceptible at first, but think how it changed the early Church! There is more. D. Werburg was a great admirer of the Desert Fathers. When she painted Our Lady robed in a flame-coloured garment, I wonder whether she had in mind the story told of Abba Joseph

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?

We, too, can become fire, but our fire must be ablaze with God not self. Only if it is can we hope that others will take fire also and the renewal of the world be accomplished.

No audio today: breathing not very good.

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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Folly is a sin, but distinguishing between a fine disregard for unnecessary constraints and foolish recklessness is never easy. At the moment we have some arguing that the Churches are over-reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic; others wondering whether we are doing too little, too late. I understand why some are feeling sad about not being able to go to Mass or receive the other Sacraments, but it is important to reflect on the reasons for the decisions taken by Church authorities and ask ourselves whether we are seeking the common good or privatising our religion, i.e. wanting what’s best for me.

Those of us blessed (or should it be cursed) with a historical memory may be recalling what happened in Burgos and Zamora during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic early in the twentieth century. The mortality rate in those cities was much higher than elsewhere in Spain (in October 1918, 12.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants and 10.1 per 1,000 respectively, as against 3.8 per 1,000 elsewhere in Spain). In Zamora, Church authorities refused to cancel Mass and encouraged a public novena in the cathedral which was widely thought by epidemioligists then and now to have played a major part in spreading the disease. Although I certainly don’t believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, I can understand why we should want to stagger the impact of the current virus and would not myself wish to make others run an unnecessary risk.

Here at the monastery we have decided to implement a policy of Virtual Welcome for the time being, but that does not mean shutting ourselves off from others, least of all from those who have come to depend on us in some way and whose own religious and social worlds may be contracting because of the pandemic. Perhaps it would help others if I set down a few of the matters we took into consideration before making our decision. 

Prayer never ceases. As you will see from the statement appended to this post, the celebration of the Divine Office remains unchanged. It is just that it is being celebrated privately rather than publicly. If you cannot get to Mass, you may like to think about saying the Divine Office on a regular basis. Some of you will already do so, but if you don’t, you may be encouraged to know that it is the ancient prayer of the whole Church — not just clergy and religious. It hallows all the different hours of the day, which is why it is sometimes known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Here in the monastery we say a long form peculiar to ourselves, but there are a lot of resources available online which give the shorter Roman form. For example, Universalis https://universalis.com/index.htm provides a free version for every Hour of every day in English. 

Keeping in touch is important, especially if one lives alone or is more than usually isolated because of illness. I am pleased to see that many churches are organizing ad hoc fellowship groups, maintaining some form of online or telephone contact among small groups of people. Our 24/7 email prayerline is always available but we have had to give up using Messenger (our Broadband service is too flakey) and WhatsApp. However, there are still services like Skype or Facetime for video conferences. These can be a great comfort to people, and I doubt whether our email inbox will grow any smaller. My only worry here in rural Herefordshire is that, if everyone goes online at the same time, our already feeble Broadband service may peter out entirely.

A few people have asked for suggestions about how to pass their time if they are living in self-imposed isolation. That is very difficult to answer. I am always wanting more time to get things done and don’t know how many people would share my interests. What I do think is that it need not be a negative experience. Once the daily chores are over, I would suggest reading, music, gardening, hobbies, anything that stretches mind and imagination. This might be a good time to explore what is freely available on the internet. For example, here in community we have taken advantage of some of the free courses offered by the Open University and others for the FutureLearn project: https://www.futurelearn.com/. Definitely worth exploring.

Finally, isolation for the common good reminds us that we have a duty to others — a duty to show care and compassion and to help when we can. Sometimes all that is required is a little thought about the consequences of our actions. Stockpiling over and above what we genuinely need is sheer greed. In fact, it can even be theft from those unable to afford what we can and so are deprived. A ‘phone call to someone who may be lonely; an email to check on someone who may be in need of help; even posting a petition on our Facebook prayer page can all help. Solitude is, for many of us, a great blessing; for others it is a painful kind of loneliness, a feeling of not mattering to anyone very much. It would be a tragedy if that were to be the legacy of COVID-19.

Statement from Holy Trinity Monastery | Howton Grove Priory

We have decided that, from the Third Sunday of Lent until further notice, the monastery will offer a Virtual Welcome only. That means

· the Divine Office will be recited privately
· no retreatants
· no visitors

We shall continue to pray and maintain, as well as we can, our online outreach as an expression of our desire to welcome everyone tamquam Christus, as though Christ.

We did not make our decision lightly. One of the community has no immunity and little respiratory reserve, which means that any infection, but especially COVID-19, could prove fatal. It therefore seems prudent to limit for a while the number of people coming to the monastery. However, this does not mean that the nuns care any less about you or your concerns. You are the apple of God’s eye. We never will, nor ever could, forget that.

13 March 2020

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Three Types of Valour

Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer, originally known as the Women’s World Day of Prayer because of its beginnings in 1887 with Mary Ellen Fairchild James’s call for a day of prayer by women for the home missions. It soon grew beyond its U.S. and Free Church base and now embraces more than 170 countries and Christians of all traditions (and sexes) with its emphasis on ecumenism and reconciliation. At its heart, however, remains prayer inspired by, and led by, women. On Sunday secular society celebrates International Women’s Day. It, too, began in the U.S.A. when the Socialist Party of America organized a Women’s Day in New York in 1909. In 1910, at the International Socialist Woman’s Conference, Clara Zetkin, a German, proposed that 8 March be honoured as a day in memory of working women, their aspirations and rights.

Over the years both events have attracted derision from some, support from others, but only those most deeply committed will know what it has cost to stand up to the mainstream and proclaim that women and girls are not mere adjuncts to society but intrinsic parts of it. For a Benedictine, the two days have a resonance with the monastic emphasis on work and prayer. To pray and work for justice and peace is not an additional extra but an essential element in what it means to be Christian. One does not have to look very far to see how unwelcome that can be. It upsets the cosy order of things. Whether the wrong to be addressed is a patronising attitude towards women in the Church, the failure to allow girls equal access to education in some countries or disregard for the inhuman working conditions imposed upon women in others, it takes courage to identify and challenge the situation.

I mentioned three types of valour, though, didn’t I? Today is also the memoria of SS Perpetua and Felicitas whose passion (account of their martyrdom) is one of the most thrilling documents to have come down to us from the early days of the Church. You can read it online here. Perpetua was just twenty-two, well-educated, with a young child; Felicitas was her servant, several months’ pregnant. Together they faced hideous cruelty but refused to give up their faith. The text that has come down to us is complex, with many layers of reference and meaning, but I think it demonstrates that women’s roles cannot be confined to those dictated by others. To put it another way, the Holy Spirit guides women as well as men, and women are loved by God as much as men are.

I hope readers will think about that last sentence a little because one of the things I realised recently in corresponding with a Catholic priest was that he had a difficulty. On the one hand, he truly loves Our Lady and sees in her a holiness that is unique; on the other, he is extremely uncomfortable with women generally, seeing them as intellectually and morally inferior. I wondered about that, but I think it may be because, deep down, he thinks that only men count, and if only men count, it is because God loves them more than He does women. I may be wrong, but that thought has enabled me not to bristle at some of the things Fr X has said which otherwise might have set my wimple into a spin.

Where I think Fr X and I would agree is that Our Lady is the bravest of all the women I have mentioned in this post. To accept the role of Mother of God, to be theotokos, goes beyond our human comprehension and takes us into the realm of the Spirit. None of us knows how much the faithful fulfilment of her role cost her, but I suspect most parents will have an inkling. That is why yesterday, today and tomorrow we ask her intercession, not just for the Church, not just for women and girls, but for the whole world, for everyone in need — but it may take a fourth kind of valour to do that, the kind given by humility and the knowledge that we, like her, are the anawim, the poor of God.

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Greta Thunberg and Climate Change

One would have to have been living on another planet not to be aware of Greta Thunberg and her campaign to make us all more aware of climate change and the urgent need to change our behaviour. So far, so good. As Benedictines, we are very conscious of the obligation to treat everything on earth with reverence. As individuals, we are convinced of the reality of climate change (Quietnun, being a scientist by training, is particularly eloquent on the subject) and try to ensure that everything we do as a community is consistent with that. But that does not mean that we endorse any one approach to the matter, or that we are entirely comfortable with the way in which some people argue their case. For instance, the exhortations of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, measured against their jet-setting lifestyle, are hardly compelling. The case of Greta Thunberg is much more complex.

Let me say at once that I myself am a little uneasy. What she says strikes me as being true and necessary, and there is a consistency about her conduct that speaks volumes not only about her but also about her family. I am not so sure that I agree with some of her methods, the school strikes being a particular worry of mine. Two things really trouble me, however. First, there is the question of manipulation. How far is she being used by others? At sixteen, she is having to deal with situations most of us would find difficult even at a much older age; and knowing that she has Asperger’s makes me wonder whether undue pressure is being put on her. Second, the amount of vicious scorn poured on her by older adults is completely indefensible. Sometimes it takes the form of outright attacks which betray the envy and hostility of the perpetrators; sometimes it takes the form of seeming concern for her well-being that fools no-one. What nobody can dispute is that Greta Thunberg has done more in a year to highlight the urgency and potential disaster of climate change issues than the rest of us have in over forty years.

So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with two very real concerns. Whenever a young person challenges the complacency of an older generation, there will be sparks. We all admire the fervour and courage of young people, but we do not always take them seriously or we find reasons to play down their importance. In the case of Greta Thunberg there is a danger that the message will be lost because of hostile reactions to the messenger. There is also the danger that she herself will be damaged by the experience she is currently undergoing. The media have a habit of fêting the latest novelty, be it person or idea, then dropping it equally quickly. Just as I think we have a duty to pray for wisdom and decisive action in the matter of climate change, so I would argue that we have a duty to pray for Greta Thunberg herself. We should be grateful to her; and we should care for her as we would for any other young person — more so, perhaps, because she is being exposed to demands and pressures that go far beyond the ordinary. Whether we agree with her is not the point: she is an exceptional person and our response should be akin to the challenge she presents.

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The Persecution of Christians

The bishop of Truro’s report on the persecution of Christians contained no surprises for those who keep au fait with such matters. Unless memory plays me false, I seem to remember someone remarking forty years ago that a couple of lartge jets would be all that would be needed to remove the entire Christian population of Israel. The situation today in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, India, China and many other places, however, is not merely one of petty persecution and decline but of ruthless violence intended to exterminate every Christian. Church leaders can say all they like about how wrong it is, but unless and until politicians recognize both the injustice and the danger it poses to many of the values we hold dear as a free society, it is difficult to see how matters can improve.

To some, Christians are merely reaping the consequences of colonialism and whatever they suffer is justified by reference to that. Identifying Christianity with colonialism has always seemed to me slightly questionable, but I accept that many have shied away from a defence of modern-day Christians because of what happened in the past. The trouble is, our historical perspective is often faulty or, at the very least, partial. We rightly condemn the evil of slavery, for example, while being remarkably ambivalent about the kinds of exploitation that exist today. It is easy to condemn the people of the past, but making those of the present pay is morally dubious. Where does responsibility lie? Can we really judge the past by the standards of the present?

The University of Cambridge is just embarking on a two-year investigation into its connection with slavery and the slave trade. It will be interesting to see what conclusions are drawn. My first reaction was that it was one of those politically correct exercises that fosters guilt but achieves little of substance. It is clearly not meant to be a historical investigation as such, and from what I have read it is not concerned with the modern forms of exploitation many of us find troubling. The nearest parallel I can find is with those public enquiries into the perceived failures of the army, police, medical profession, social workers and others that centre on the sadness and distress suffered by individuals or groups of people whose lives have been turned upside down by what they have experienced, but with this difference — we can’t change the past; we can’t ‘make it better’ for those who were enslaved or who were cruelly mistreated.

In the case of modern-day Christians, I think we face a particular difficulty. There are those who wish to eradicate Christianity and deliberately target Christians. Frequently, and especially if they are Westerners, they have very sketchy ideas about what Christians actually believe, but the one thing they all know is that Christians are meant to be forgiving. No matter how harsh the treatment meted out, no matter what suffering is inflicted, even to the loss of life in the most brutal and painful circumstances, the Christian must forgive. I am, as you may imagine, far from being impartial, but I believe that the forgiveness of Christians enduring persecution — at this very minute, remember — is not only worthy of record but a witness the whole world needs. We pray for them, of course, but perhaps we should glory in them even more for they show Christ to the world in a way that we more lily-livered types never can. They demonstrate by their fidelity and their refusal to hate that there is a better way; that the world can be transformed by grace.

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