Saying Sorry is not for Wimps

Many readers of this blog probably sighed with relief when they heard that Britain’s state-owned woodlands are not to be sold off to the private sector; but I wonder what they made of the curious political tit-for-tat that followed the Environment Secretary’s announcement. I thought myself that Caroline Spelman handled a difficult situation with dignity, even graciousness, and was particularly struck by the absence of fudge in the way she began her announcement, ‘I would first like to say that I take full responsibility for the situation that brings me before the House today.’ That is not what, sadly, we have become accustomed to hearing from some of our M.P.s. Even more interesting, though, was the way in which she countered an accusation that she had been ‘humiliated’. Whatever her private feelings on the matter, what she said was straight and to the point: ‘I’m sorry . . . One of the things we teach our children to do is say sorry. It is not a humiliation; it is my choice.’

Why do we think that admitting one is wrong and saying sorry is humiliating? Some of the most terrible miscarriages of justice in history, some of the most dreadful wars, owe their origins to someone’s inability to climb down and say sorry. We all know the kind of apology which is no apology at all and merely provides the one ‘apologizing’ with an opportunity to run through all the resentments that led to the explosive situation in the first place. But a genuine apology, made simply and humbly, is utterly disarming. Few have the courage to attempt that, and I have to say, at the risk of annoying my male readers, that women tend to manage it better than men. Perhaps because we cannot physically exert our will on another, perhaps because we are better at reading emotions than many men, we don’t find it necessary to maintain our position in the face of the evidence. We can concede without feeling defeated.

Jesus of Nazareth was one man who knew how to handle an apology. On Fridays our thoughts turn naturally to his Passion and death on the Cross. I am trembling on the edge of heresy when I say this, but I think his death is not only the occasion when man said sorry to God for all the sin committed by humankind, I think it is also the occasion when God said sorry to us and bowed his head before his creature, not because God had ever done us wrong but because the way in which an apology is accepted matters, too. Saying sorry is not for wimps but for the brave of heart and truly loving.

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Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility

The BBC has highlighted the fact that our Cro-Magnon ancestors were not only opportunistic cannibals but apparently dab hands at turning left-over skulls into carefully crafted drinking vessels (see http://bbc.in/idMRaK). Skull cups are found in many traditions but, by and large, we thoroughly modern people find the idea of drinking from a dead person’s cranium rather repellant.

Our squeamishness does not extend to some aspects of contemporary life which, if we could think about them with the kind of distance time lends, might not be so acceptable: abortion, napalm bombs, land-mines, to name but a few. The one thing these have in common is a very ambivalent attitude to human life, with some lives being valued above others. Once we let go of the idea that all life is sacred, that my life is worth neither more nor less than yours, then I think we get into a moral quagmire with no firm footing.

Looking at those Cro-Magnon drinking cups, I can’t help feeling that there was a strange kind of reverence involved in their fashioning. Maybe our problem is that our power to kill and destroy is so great that we dare not consider what we are doing. Our squeamish sensibility protects us from facing up to the consequences of what we do. Sadly, it also deadens our sense of reverence.

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Why Greed is Wrong

No doubt you are expecting some loyal articulation of what the Catholic Catechism has to say about the right relationship between production and consumption or perhaps a whimsical disquisition on bankers’ bonuses or council pay packets. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I think the worst aspect of greed is not its injustice (some having more than others, and wanting more than their ‘fair share’), nor the violence to which it often gives rise (think Congolese diamonds) or even the suffering inflicted by an empty belly, lack of housing and the absence of medical care or access to education, though heaven knows, these are wrongs that cry aloud for vengeance. No, the problem with fat cats is that they are fat: the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness.

I daresay most of my readers are recoiling in horror at such levity of mind and wondering what the heck I mean. I am not saying that greed is not unjust, of course it is. It is all of the things I have enumerated above. But it is also a distortion of something very precious, the image of God each one of us bears within ourselves. That is why I say that the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness. To allow ourselves to corrupt that image is, when you think about it, the most terrible form of destruction, because it is fundamentally self-destruction. For most of us greed is confined to occasional bouts of excess or selfishness but it can become habitual and so blind us to what we are really doing. Price is not a measure of value, but sometimes what we value isn’t worth the price.

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A Colophon Digest

It has been suggested that a little book of some of the better blog posts in Colophon (you mean some were good? Ed.) would be worth making. I don’t think we are the people to make the selection, but if anyone would be interested in doing so, please would you get in touch? The whole blog is archived over on our web site at http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/blog/colophon.php. It would mean going through the entries and noting which you think would be suitable for publication. Not exactly a service to humanity but definitely a work of supererogation!

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Jesus is not my Boyfriend

We are made of stern stuff here in the monastery and are celebrating the feast of SS Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs. Not for us the wine and roses of St Valentine’s Day, although I did hear someone reciting Donne after breakfast and stopped what I was doing to listen. There is no finer poet of love in the English language, engaging mind as well as heart.

Donne, however, is not my subject this morning but the misapplication of the Bride of Christ theme. From time to time I look at an American web site frequented by (mainly) young people discerning a vocation and cringe at some of the soppier expressions of what is, I am sure, at base a very genuine love of the Lord. The sponsa Christi imagery applied to nuns and consecrated virgins is certainly valid, but one should remember that it can only be applied to the individual because it has first been applied to the whole Church. Christ has no other Bride but his Church, whom he espoused on Calvary.

It follows that there is no other way for any of us to go to heaven save as a Bride of Christ. That applies as much to the curmudgeonly old bachelor as the lissome girl. Strange thought! But if today you are alone and feeling that there is no one very much to care about you, and no one in particular for you to love in return, consider this: by virtue of your baptism you are espoused to him before whom the sun and moon bow down. Jesus is not your boyfriend, but he loves you more than you could ever possibly imagine.

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Of Flags, Flowers and Dreams of Freedom

One of the minor pleasures of modern mass communications is seeing what world leaders like to have as backdrops. The President of the United States of America is invariably accompanied by flags; the President of Russia seems to prefer some nondescript bits and pieces of technology and some very grand paintings (not difficult when one has at one’s disposal the treasures of the Hermitage); the Egyptian Military Council has flags, of course, but also some rather stiff arrangements of flowers improbably placed around the Council’s horseshoe desk.

During World War II my father served in North Africa. Some of his books are filled with wild flowers picked on the battlefields or gathered on ‘sight-seeing’ trips during rare intervals of rest and recuperation. This morning I found several from Egypt: fragile, crinkled blooms of unfamiliar flowers. They made me reflect that tyranny, like the poor, is always with us, only the names change. The thought that today is the anniversary of the Dresden bombing is a further reminder of the dreadful things we can do in pursuit of freedom and peace. Those flowers around the Egyptian military are surely meant to be reassuring. Let us hope that they presage better things for all Egypt’s citizens.

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Cracking the Code

How about a little light-heartedness to start the week-end? We all love being let into a secret, so today I’ll give you a little bit of nunspeak and what it really means. Please note: you are advised not to try these at home. They only really work in monasteries and among people strangely attired

“in your abundant leisure” = I know you haven’t a moment to spare and it’s probably hopeless asking, but . . .

“in case I die in the night” = I want you to know that I put something in the oratory/library/attic (delete as appropriate).

“I was in the prayer of gentle drift” = I feel asleep during  prayer time.

“by virtue of holy obedience” = I’m pleading with you.

“Dear Sisters” = there’s been a disaster somewhere (probably in the kitchen).

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Ideals versus Interests

Half the world has its eyes on Cairo at the moment, and there is every chance that this blog post will be overtaken by events. One aspect of the reporting which has fascinated me is the way in which it has shown the uneasy tension between the west’s ideals and interests. On the one hand, democracy is canonized; on the other, the west’s diplomatic and commercial interests seem paramount.

I’m not sure any western leader would really like to see a democratic Saudi Arabia (Osama bin Laden for President, anyone?) but it’s difficult to press purely selfish concerns in the light of what is happening in Egypt. Personally, I was much heartened by President Obama’s latest speech, in which he came down firmly on the side of his ideals. But he knows, as we all know, that if President Mubarak doesn’t go, he’s got to continue to work with him for many months. That is realpolitik, twenty-first century style.

To pray for our leaders, to pray for our governments, is no idle prayer.

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The Invisible Nun

I want to return to the subject of my last post. Before I do, I ought to mention that St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, is not the founder of Benedictine nuns and sisters (that honour goes to her twin), but she is is great role model for us all. She shows what love and prayer can achieve in the face of what we might call misplaced concern for legal niceties. If you want to know more about her, I suggest you read what St Gregory the Great has to say in his Dialogues.

Scholastica is also a type of the invisible nun, and invisible nuns have been very much on my mind of late. Not long ago we heard of another community in another diocese which had fallen on hard times. Their story fired my anger but I think I can now tell you a little more without the page bursting into digital flame. No names, no pack drill, because my intention is not to apportion blame but rather explain why I asked the questions I did about contemplative communities and what we really believe.

The community of nuns to which I refer did what it could to help itself and then appealed for help, a very modest amount of financial help, and was rewarded with lots of kind words but very little cash. Many of those who knew the community made generous sacrifices, but the diocese had other priorities and often those to whom the nuns wrote didn’t even acknowledge their letters. I suppose it saved the embarrassment of saying they couldn’t or wouldn’t help.

Eventually, the nuns were told that they had better join themselves to another community. It would save money. Now just think about that for a moment. On the whole, we don’t tell married couples who get into financial difficulties that the solution to their problem is to go and live with another married couple, nor do we recommend splitting families up unless there is some grave reason for doing so. Nuns, apparently, are different. I have seen something of what it means, on both sides, for people to leave the community in which they had expected to spend their lives and join another with customs and traditions not their own. The intensity of community life for cloistered nuns makes this harder than anyone looking at things from the outside might realize. It is particularly difficult for Benedictines because we prize our autonomy so highly and each community is so very individual; perhaps it is slightly easier for Carmelites or Poor Clares, I don’t know.

Be that as it may, the nuns of whom I speak were dispersed to other communities, one here, another there, two somewhere else. I understand that the diocese took possession of the nuns’ property and is now applying the proceeds of sale to various worthy projects, though whether any include the remaining contemplative nuns in the diocese I’ve no idea. It seems a bit hard that the diocese should profit from the nuns’ loss, but it isn’t unusual. Nor is it unusual for outsiders to criticize the communities themselves for failure to act as they think they should have. People tend to take ‘ownership’, forgetting that the nuns themselves usually work hard and live frugally to fulfil their vocation.

Anyway, more than a century of contemplative life got snuffed out for want of a few thousand pounds (or it might be euros, I’m not saying), and the nuns themselves were parted after a lifetime of living together in the same house. Not all were old but all had to accept the loss of their familiar circle and surroundings. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such a story, nor will it be the last. Often what precipitates such a state of affairs is a lack of vocations, though in this case it seems not to have been.

The point I want to make is this. Living with risk isn’t the problem, but if we really believe what we say about the value of prayer, would that community have been forced to disperse? If it had been a community of monks, would it have been so invisible? Would it have attracted more help? We say that prayer is fundamental, but we do not always act in accordance with what we say.

I am quite sure that every single commentator on my original post was absolutely sincere in his/her expressions of appreciation of the contemplative life, and I know that many of those who wrote have been extremely generous to us and to other communities. But, and it is a big but, how many contemplative communities are quietly going under for want of practical help?

Yesterday someone telephoned in some distress to ask our prayers. She had not been in contact for over two years but assumed, correctly, that we would lay aside what we had in hand to listen. She spoke for nearly an hour. We have no problem with that, but we had to work an hour later into the night because if we don’t earn our living, we aren’t going to be around to answer any telephone. Some people understand that; others don’t. I think it does illustrate, however, one facet of the invisibility of nuns: people expect us to be there when they want us to be and forget about us at others.

The invisibility of nuns is fine if it enables us to lead lives of prayer and charity. If it gets in the way of our doing so, if it means that we end up being ‘vicariously holy’ for others or prevents our very survival, I’m not so sure. Sometimes, when reading requests we get via our prayerline, especially those that ask us to ‘pray and fast for financial blessings for x’ I have the uneasy feeling that we have tapped into a commodification of God.

We became nuns because we were captivated by a sense of his holiness and beauty. We remain nuns because our sense of that holiness and beauty grows ever greater. To convey that matters; but I’m still puzzling how to do so. May St Scholastica help us with her prayers.

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Self-Doubt

Yesterday I wrote a blistering piece about the role of women in Church and society but decided to sleep on it before publishing it in iBenedictines. I’m under no illusions about the reach of this blog, so it wasn’t exactly an exercise in ‘damage limitation’, more a ‘do I want a permanent record of my anger?’ self-questioning. Anger is a fleeting emotion (for me, at any rate) but can be destructive, especially when it achieves a kind of permanence in the written word. Self-questioning in such contexts is good and valuable, and I often wish some bloggers would think more and write less. (That applies to me, too, but I do try to be constructive and polite, wimper, wimper.)

There is a point, however, where self-questioning passes into self-doubt and I’m not so sure about the wisdom or advisability of that. When one feels entirely alone in perceiving an injustice, self-doubt can cripple one’s ability to act. One is not going to change the way in which the institutional Church overlooks or undervalues the contribution of women (despite many fine statements to the contrary) but perhaps quietly upsetting a few ‘apostolic apple-carts’ will ultimately achieve more.

So, I leave you with the question that prompted my anger yesterday, though I won’t tell you why the question arose. Would anyone really care (and I do mean really) if contemplative communities like ours no longer existed? And before anyone gives the stock answers about ‘hidden witness’ and all that, please ask yourselves the even bigger question: what do I really believe? The answer might surprise you.

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