First we had Wikileaks, splattering our screens with all kinds of “private” information from the diplomatic bags of American officials. Now we have Egypt suspended in internet isolation while the Mubarak regime struggles to hold on to power. Has the web changed our understanding of freedom? It has certainly made the exercise of it more dangerous.
One of the things I love about St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we keep today, is that he breaks the stereotype of what we expect a holy man or woman to be. For a start, he didn’t look ascetic. In fact, he was so podgy that a little bit of the refectory table had to be cut out to accommodate the saintly tummy. His entry into the Dominicans had been in defiance of his family (who expected him to become a Benedictine) and only after a prolonged period of parental “house arrest” which ended with an undignified exit via a window at night (he was obviously thinner then than he later became).
Thomas’ early academic career was not crowned with success. His first theological disputation met with failure, although he himself prophesied that one day “the dumb ox” would fill the earth with the sound of his bellowing. The next years were filled with study and teaching as he moved from Paris to Cologne, then Naples, Orvieto and Rome and back to Paris again. It was an exhausting schedule, filled with intellectual activity, and brought Thomas into conflict with many.
In 1272 he had an experience of God which he records only obliquely. It made such an impact on him, however, that he abandoned his scholarly work, remarking that all he had done “seemed like straw” to him. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon when he struck his head while riding. He rested for a while at Monte Cassino (where his family had once hoped he would be abbot), struggled on to the Cistercians at Fossanova and there died on 7 March 1274, talking of the Song of Songs.
In 1270 Thomas had been implicitly condemned by the archbishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. In 1277, when he was no longer alive to defend himself, twenty of his propositions were formally condemned by bishop Etienne and led to an eclipse of both his reputation and his work. Fifty years after his death, John XXII declared him a saint and in 1567 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Even though he wasn’t as much quoted as Duns Scotus at the Council of Trent, his great Summa Theologica was placed on the altar alongside the Bible and the Decretals.
So, tubby, rebellious, argumentative and busy-busy-busy, yes; but a man of deep prayer and great humility who for love of God “studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught”. He is patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments.
For the last day or two Digitalnun has been posting small chunks of Pope Benedict XVI’s address for World Communications Day over on the community’s Facebook page. They are a good summary of what Christian engagement with the internet generally, and social media in particular, should encompass; so why the little gobbets rather than the whole text or a link to it? Simple. The internet has changed the way we read. Online our attention span is rivalled only by the goldfish’s proverbial fifteen seconds. The papal document is too dense and daunting for many in the way in which it is presented on the Vatican web site, but split up into little chunks we can meditate on as we surf hither and hither, it works. It’s lectio divina for the silicon age.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg are apparently posh, or at any rate they went to expensive Public Schools (note the distinction). This fact is often remarked upon by political commentators who have noticed that all three main political parties are dominated by people who have been to private schools or Oxford or Cambridge. Is this evidence of the continuing power of class in our land? Do these people simply assume they have a right to govern? I wonder.
Long ago, in the Dark Ages, when my sister and I were young, our parents and our school drummed into us the idea of public service. Every Sunday, we would find a group of young immigrant workers invited to spend a “family day” with us, being fed a good meal and given some small treat or other. Terribly paternalistic it may have been, but the experience of being young, lonely and poor in a foreign country is not an enviable one and our parents were definitely overstepping the normal employer/employee boundaries of those days. We children were expected to volunteer to help out in the local geriatric wards (probably not allowed today on grounds of Health and Safety or Safeguarding of Vulnerable Adults) or find some other way of giving back to society (not that anyone would have used that phrase then). I often rebelled at the time, but looking back I realise that I was being taught something that religion lessons alone would not have taught me: the importance of service.
When I went to Cambridge, the Mistress of my College lamented that graduates were tending to go for high-paid jobs in the private sector rather than showing the public spiritedness she expected in her gals (these were the days of Thatcherism). It looks a world away today, bound up with antiquated ideas of noblesse oblige and all that, horribly condescending and false, don’t you think?
Well, no, actually. I believe in the importance of service. Every time I hear of some public figure behaving badly, dipping his hand in the till or lying to preserve his skin, I feel almost personally affronted. It undermines the ideal of public service I grew up with and which certain schools and universities still inculcate despite the selfish celebrity culture which has come to have such allure elsewhere.
Public service remains an essential note of civilized society. If a privileged background can inspire people to serve then I, for one, am not too bothered about it. I’m just grateful that someone is prepared to do so.
A twaddle is not what you think: it is an instrument used by launderers of old to measure something or other, I forget what exactly. The only one I’ve ever seen was beautifully made of brass and looked vaguely postmodern. It rather sums up Digitalnun and Quietnun on this feast of St Paul, when we should be full of hope about the prospect of Christian Unity but instead are slightly glum.
The absences from the Anglican Primates’ Meeting in Dublin indicate that all is not well there. Nearer home, there is scant evidence that any real progress has been made during the past year and much to suggest the opposite. So, should we burrow our heads under the bedclothes and forget all about it?
It’s difficult to imagine St Paul pulling the bedclothes over his head when there was something that needed to be addressed in the life of the Church. No more can we. Maybe we have reached the point where we have got to reassess what it is that we think we are trying to do and change tack entirely. The one thing we can’t do is give up. Unity isn’t optional: to think that it might be really is twaddle.
Yesterday was a busy day so I didn’t have time to do more than register a blog pooh-poohing the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and the Church’s canonisation process. They are hardly to be equated, but the blogger took her information from a former Catholic and seemed to think that was good enough to link them both in the magical mystery realm.
Quite apart from the fact that I don’t think it’s a very good idea to take one’s understanding of anything theological from someone who has rejected both the theology and its presuppositions, I was surprised to find I was upset (about the Eucharist, not the canonisation error where the ignorance shown was laughable and did indeed make me smile hugely). Religious debate has always seemed to me good and valuable but mockery is hard to take when what is being mocked is God himself. I can’t think what the equivalent of the title “Transubstantiation and Santa Claus” would be, but I know no one in the monastery would use it of anyone’s religious beliefs. The blogger did not mean to give offence or cause hurt, which is important to remember. I wish I had had time to go into the questions raised but I didn’t, and it is the nature of blogging that yesterday’s post is one with eternity.
So why am I going on about religious mockery today? In this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, that blog post was a reminder that we have a long way to go before we Christians really understand and respect one another. St Benedict in his Rule never lets us forget that reverence for God must spill over into reverence for people and for all that is. Even the goods and utensils of the monastery are to be regarded as sacred altar vessels, capable of holding the mystery of God. Mockery, scurillitas, is something he condemns again and again because it is fundamentally opposed to reverence. If we are to to learn how to appreciate the gifts God has bestowed on us, we must learn how to revere one another, how to respect one another’s beliefs.
Yesterday I really understood why.
A reader emailed to ask how to pray for others, meaning principally, I suspect, how to intercede for them. What follows is sketchy and imperfect but I hope that others will add their own insights.
First of all, I think we have to distinguish between mediation and intercession. There is only one mediator between God and ourselves, Jesus Christ our Lord. We know that he is always praying in and for us, which means that our prayer is always united to his. That is what makes our prayer powerful with God: however inept or inadequate it may seem to us, it is the prayer of Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest. As such, it is perfect.
When we ask others to pray for us — Our Lady, the saints, our fellow Christians — we are asking their intercession, asking them to pray for us and on our behalf; and we use a different kind of language from that which we use when we are addressing God. The nearest analogy I can find is friendship. When something matters to us, we take our friends into our confidence and share with them our hopes and fears. What more natural than to ask our friends to join their prayers with ours? In doing so, we have the example of the apostles and early Church to encourage us: St Paul, for instance, asks the prayers of the believers in Rome (Romans 15.30) and himself prays for the needs of the Philippians (Philippians 1. 3-4). That is no more than we should expect from our reading of the Old Testament. Who can forget the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom or Moses interceding for the Israelites in battle? When things really matter, we are moved to pray about them, to ask God’s help.
Whenever we pray, we pray as dear children of God, whose every concern is of interest to him. That does not mean that God necessarily agrees with our ideas about how things should be, any more than a human parent might. Sometimes people imagine that if they pray “hard” enough, if they have faith “enough”, they can somehow force God’s hand, and if they fail, it is because they lack faith or perseverance. I’m not sure I believe in such a strange God. I think it is much more likely that they are praying with false expectations. It is not as though God has made his mind up and we can nag him into changing it. He is not so fickle. We ask that we ourselves may change in accordance with his will. Take our sick person again. When we pray for him we don’t tell God what to do, although we do have the courage to ask for what we desire. We may be longing for the sick person to recover, but God may see things differently. As a result, our prayer may not be answered as we hope: the sick person may not recover, but the prayer is not wasted. God is never outdone in generosity. Some other gift will follow, something we or the sick person need more, peace and acceptance perhaps, a gift made possible because we have opened up the channel, so to say.
One of the wonderful things about God is that he does not compel. He invites, he urges, but he leaves us free either to accept or reject his invitation. Interceding for others opens up a way for God to act that would otherwise be closed. Take our sick person once more. Say he has no faith and cannot or will not pray himself. If we pray, we allow God to come into a situation from which he is otherwise excluded. That is part of our dignity as Christians, part of the gift of prayer poured into hearts at baptism.
Some people think that to intercede for others means endlessly repeating some formula of prayer. To do so would be beyond the strength of most of us. Here at the monastery we receive many requests for prayer each day through our email prayerline or some other means. We print them out and place them in the oratory. Each member of the community will read them through and then go to her prayer with the intention of holding them before God. No words are needed, indeed they get in the way. What matters is the intention: the “simple, naked intent unto God” of which Fr Baker speaks. At times prayer may be prolonged by the inspiration of grace; at other times it may be cut short or distracted. Again, I don’t think God is counting the minutes but I do think he is counting the seriousness and earnestness of our prayer.
To pray for others is not easy but I believe it is extremely valuable. There are no barriers of time or space or understanding in prayer. We may never know in this life what prayer has achieved because we see “as in a glass, darkly”, but one day all will be light.
Oremus pro invicem. Let us pray for one another.
Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a great reputation and discovered that the chef who made it so departed some years earlier? Often the prices remain the same, but the heart has gone out of the cooking and the experience of dining there is more than a little disappointing. It is the same with monasteries. I can think of some which have been truly great but are now shadows of their former selves, living off a reputation for scholarship or music, say, which is no longer deserved. Others, like yet-to-be-discovered restaurants, are in the process of becoming something that one day may be valued by many.
Linking restaurants and monasteries in this way may help to explain why, for a Christian, the daily call to conversion is so important. Permanence here on earth is a myth: everything passes, everything perishes, reputations not excepted. Every day we must begin again. The restaurant is really only as “good” as its last meal, the monastery only as “good” as its current community; we ourselves only as “good” as we are now.
The past we can confidently leave to the mercy of God, the future to his providence; let’s rejoice in the opportunity of the present, which has been well described as the “sacrament of the present moment”. It is the only one in which we can meet God, for with him everything IS.
I am late posting on the subject of Christian Unity, not because I don’t care about it but because I find myself more and more perplexed about what we mean by it. Possibly you are, too. I understand, I think, the importance of corporate unity (beware, reader, when Digitalnun writes in agnostic mode) and am myself a Catholic by conviction rather than mere accident of birth or upbringing, but — and it is a huge but — I find many of the activities in which we engage during this Octave of Prayer bewildering because they seem to avoid the elephant in the room: the unity we already have, and the unity we don’t.
I have no difficulty praying with other Christians, whatever their theological take on such questions as Priesthood or Eucharist. Equally, I have no difficulty discussing what keeps us apart institutionally because I believe that the more we understand one another, the closer will be our real unity. And there, of course, is the rub. We are already united through our common baptism but we seem to spend a lot of this week either pretending we have already attained corporate unity (“the differences between us don’t matter”) or talking about a unity we don’t, in our heart of hearts, actually want (“the nearer to Rome, the further from Home”).
Maybe one of the best things we could do during this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is to spend a few minutes considering both these aspects, the negative and the positive. How far does understanding of our own Church and the Churches to which others belong draw us together or keep us apart? In the gospels, Jesus seems much more concerned with right action than right belief, which left the early Church with all kinds of problems to sort out, from eating meat sacrificed to idols to unions between believers and non-believers. Much as we would like to return to that first gospel simplicity, we can’t. We have two thousand years of Christian experience to integrate into our own faith and practice; and if one believes, as I do, that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in every age, we cannot and must not dismiss that experience because it is God-given.
So, we pray for unity. To hear what the Holy Spirit is saying requires some very delicate tuning of mind and heart. To do what the Spirit urges requires courage and generosity. May we be found wanting in neither.
This is Blue Monday, the worst day of the year, or so Quietnun informed me straight after Lauds. (She has been reading too much social anthropology recently.) Why should the mere fact of New Year resolutions crumbling to dust, credit card bills plopping through the post box and the darkness outside seeming never to end have any effect on people’s mood? And why should feeling a bit low be construed as moral failure? Is it all some vast conspiracy to make us feel worse than we do? Aren’t we allowed to be miserable any more?
Personally, I find quite trying the relentless joyfulness of those who wish to assure us that “Jesus loves you” while we’re attempting to deal with some catastrophe or other. It’s true, I agree, but maybe I don’t need to be reminded while I’m struggling to clear the drains or heading towards the bathroom with some malady or other. Anyway, what’s wrong with being tired and tetchy on occasion? Blue Monday is as good an excuse as any to be a little grumpy — just don’t make anyone else as miserable as you are yourself.