Gaddafi and the Problem of Tyranny

Watching the very public agonizing of President Obama and others over what to do about Libya set me thinking about the way in which Christian writers have attempted to deal with the problem of tyranny. That it is a problem is obvious. You have only to read Romans 13. 1-7, which seems to recommend absolute submission to earthly rulers (and has often been quoted by earthly rulers as justification for whatever they want to do) to see the dimension of the problem. People must put up with anything and everything, right?

Some Christians would certainly agree. Indeed, those of us who have vowed obedience to a religious superior know that our vow obliges us to obedience in all that is not sin. The problem comes when we and our superior disagree on what constitutes sin (folly is a sin, dear Mother) or we venture into that grey area which St Thomas Aquinas describes as “not sin, but sharing in the nature of sin.”

St Thomas gave a lot of thought to that passage from Romans. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Bk2, dist.44, quest. 2, art 2), he makes a distinction between authority derived from God and authority that isn’t. In other words, rulers must fulfil certain conditions if they are to be obeyed. He provides this helpful little guide to identifying rulers whose authority is not God-given:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

Thomas goes on to argue that both passive and active resistance to tyranny are allowable. He also considers whether and under what conditions it is legitimate to kill a tyrant. With regard to the tyranny of Julius Caesar he concludes that “in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded.” That is strong stuff and is the natural consequence of what he has to say about the nature of legitimate authority, how it is conferred and how it should operate. Thomas’s principal concern is for the good of the community (which reminds us he was a medieval, not a modern, man) but he was aware of what Walter Ullmann called the “ascending theme of government”, the need for the people’s consent. Only those who protect the good of the people are legitimate rulers in St Thomas’s eyes.

I find it interesting that St Thomas should write so clearly about a problem that exercises our minds today. At what point does someone cease to be a legitimate ruler, what are the limits of obedience and what is the scope of legitimate disobedience? The answer might have surprised my novice mistress.

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Pondering the Prayerline

One of the most popular parts of our web site is the Prayerline. Every day we download numerous requests, and from time to time certain patterns emerge. At the moment, the bulk of requests from the U.S.A., for example, concern financial worries: finding a job, avoiding foreclosure on the house, affording medical care. We find it easy to identify with these needs. Just like everyone else, we have the monthly challenge of finding rent and council tax, affording utility and household bills, keeping a car on the road (we live in a village) and generally making ends meet from a variable income (we run a small design company.) Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about affording essential medical care because the NHS continues to provide a cradle to the grave service of which we are rightly proud.

British prayer requests tend to be family-centred. There are pleas for people in hospital or facing a life-threatening illness, broken relationships, estrangements. Requests from South America or Asia are often concerned with getting on in the world: prayer for exam success or admission to a particular course. From Africa come requests for the gift of children and freedom from evil spirits. From many parts of the world come requests from those who experience persecution because of their Faith.

Whatever the request, we hold it before the Lord, confident that God will hear our prayer. Nothing is too small for his notice, nothing too big for him to deal with. He may not answer as we or the petitioner might hope, but that is his business, not ours. Our business is simply to ask.

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The Problem of the Week-End

A chance remark by a friend made me think about what we mean by a week-end. In monasteries week-ends tend to be busy. There are often visitors, both individuals and groups, and Sunday, of course, is liturgically the high-spot of the week, a day we try to mark with special joy. By Monday we can be feeling a little limp, but that is when the working week begins again so we must move into another gear. Yet I still look forward to the week-end. Despite the busyness, there is a sense of winding-down, of a different quality to the days. I am not sure what it consists in but it is not a figment of my imagination. Time is a human construct, so maybe it is at base a philosophical problem. That’s too much like hard work. Just enjoy your week-end.

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Managing Expectations

I imagine we all have our own take on this. There are the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we have of ourselves. The expectations God has of anyone rarely seem to figure, probably because he is much less demanding than we are.

I have become fairly inured to the expectations others have of me as a nun. I know I should be eternally young, beautiful, patient and kind, needing nothing, giving everything; but as I can’t manage any of that, I am quite happy to disappoint. The expectations I have of others are more troubling. I know I have sometimes burdened them with my expectations, wanting them to be perfect in a way that I am not perfect myself or, worse still, to be perfect in the way that I have decided for them. Finally, there are the expectations I have of myself, which are largely delusional, even down to the time it will take me to do something (one always underestimates).

And God? God is different. “What I want is love, not sacrifice.” What God wants is us, just as we are: poor, weak, wobbly and absolutely infuriating, always misunderstanding, backsliding and generally unsatisfactory. God is never disappointed in us, never put out by our failures, because no matter how often we get it wrong he still sees in us something we so often fail to register: “Christ lovely in limbs not his”. Praise him.

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Work and Vocation

It is easy to assume that what one does equates to what one is, that one’s work is the same as one’s vocation. That is especially true if one’s work is of a particular kind: medicine, say, or teaching. I suspect that there would be much less unhappiness, and certainly much less frustration, if we could accept that what we are is not just the sum total of what we do. Each one of us is a vocation; each one of us is chosen and precious in the sight of God, irrespective of what we do.

Usually that works in our favour. God is infinitely forgiving of the ways in which we attempt to spoil or ruin his creation (and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to finding new ways of doing so). It is a bit more problematic when we realise that we stand before God eternally empty-handed. We don’t really like that. Just as we spend many years of our life cheerfully defining ourselves as X, where X stands for whatever work we take up or whatever organization we work for, and go into a decline when we become unemployed or reach retirement age, so we like to point to numerous good acts or attempts at virtuous living which we hope will assure our belonging to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Salvation comes to all of us as a gift. The good deeds are important, but however much we try, we’ll never work our way into heaven. We are caught in a kind of spiritual dilemma, which is really no dilemma at all: to rely utterly on God yet work as though we depended on none but ourselves. As so often, we must live with a paradox. There is no greater vocation than to be a child of God and no harder work than to try to live up to the demands that makes.

First Bricks
Yesterday we sold our first Charitable Bond, which represents the first bricks of our ‘new’ monastery. Deo Gratias.

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An Invitation to Share our Future

Great Oaks from Little Saplings Grow

The Feast of the Chair of St Peter is a good day for new beginnings. It reminds us that small acorns can grow into mighty oaks which provide shade for all who seek it.

When we first came to Hendred, we felt less than acorns, mere dry husks; but little by little, the sapling has grown. Now it needs to put down permanent roots and grow stronger still.

Please read what we say about the future of the monastery on our web site. You can check out our vision, our hope for the future and the innovative way in which we are trying to solve the age-old problem of how.

Above all, if you pray, please pray that this venture of faith may succeed and bring a blessing to many.

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Monday Morning Tease

Tomorrow, Feast of the Chair of St Peter, we shall be making an important community announcement and on Tuesday, 1 March, we shall be launching a new online service. All Deo Volente, of course; but if you are interested, please keep an eye on this blog and on our web site at http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk.

In the meantime, I have been fascinated to learn that monkeys apparently suffer from self-doubt, just like human beings (see http://bbc.in/hz0z7y). I can’t help wondering how today’s saint, St Peter Damian, who was such a keen reformer (especially of clerical morals), would have reacted to that, had he known.

Peter Damian is sometimes judged harshly by those who see only his zeal and none of his compassion. He was orphaned early and never lost a sense of identification with the poor. As a Camaldolse (hermit Benedictine) his form of life was strict, but he was a gifted peacemaker and his love of the Church, though sorely tried during some of the sixteen papacies through which he lived, never left him. He is widely credited with having died of overwork, which is not a virtue but a measure of his obedience, which was heroic. The scandals of the last few years have reminded us how much we need another Peter Damian, fearless in speaking the truth, relentless in urging repentance, absolutely sure of what the Church, at its purest and best, should be. May he pray especially for all our clergy and those charged with their formation.

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The Importance of Sabbath

Sundays are very busy days for monks, nuns and clergy. That doesn’t mean that they lose everything we mean by ‘sabbath’: sacred leisure, silence, joy in the Lord. We have the custom of saving the best of what we have for Sundays, so even the food we eat marks out this day as special; and because Benedictines often work in solitude at their appointed tasks, we try to make this day one on which we share something as a community — a walk, perhaps, or that most British of institutions, tea at four o’clock.

I wonder whether many Christians have lost the sense of the importance of sabbath. We are so busy with all the multitudinous activities that fill the week-end that Sunday can end up being just another day with church on top. If so, it would be a good idea to think again about how we keep the Lord’s day holy. ‘The sabbath was made for man’: we are meant to have time to enjoy it.

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Abortion, Rape and the Catholic Church

A thoughtful question posed in a comment to yesterday’s post (Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility) is my reason for writing about this subject. I hope that what I say will stimulate reflection and debate, and that the debate will be conducted with sensitivity. The last thing I should wish to do is cause pain to those who have been raped or who have suffered an abortion.

First, a few words about myself. Long ago, before I became a nun, I used to play an active part in Life which, at that time, had a very clear and simple response to abortion. Essentially, we said that people had to have a choice and the only way that a real choice could be offered was by ensuring that anyone who was pregnant had somewhere to live and all the support needed to bring her child safely into the world. Many of the people we tried to help were deeply afraid: of violent partners, hostile parents, their own inadequacy to cope with parenthood. We provided ‘safe houses’ and on-going help.  I can recall only one woman who said she had become pregnant because of rape, but I’m sure there were others, and probably instances of incest also. I state this because one very good question is, ‘how much do you know about the subject?’ and in my case the answer is ‘very little, but possibly slightly more than some others’.

Next, we need to consider what the Catholic Church actually teaches. It starts, not with a negative, but a huge positive: all life is sacred, and in the case of human life, that life begins at conception. This teaching is based on scripture and natural law. The problem with natural law is that not everyone believes there is such a thing, i.e. a self-evident truth which is accessible by reason and is not dependent on religious belief. If you are prepared to give the time, one of the best accounts of what Catholics believe is in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (The Gospel of Life). In section 60 the pope says, ‘From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth…[M]odern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be.’ Read that, and then read what obstetric textbooks say about the beginning of human life. The fact that the viability of life outside the womb is being pushed further and further back seems to me to underline the fact that the answer to the question ‘when does life begin’ is susceptible of only one answer: at conception.

The Catholic Church is entirely consistent in its attitude to the sanctity of life. As Donum Vitae puts it, ‘It is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.’ (That’s also a reason why the Church is unhappy with capital punishment: there have been so many instances of innocent lives being taken.) We simply don’t have the right to take innocent human life; and that’s something that allows of no exceptions or we get into the business of valuing one life more than another. A child conceived by rape is still a child and has as much right to life as a child conceived by loving parents; so too does a child who has some physical or mental deformity. Our value as human beings does not depend upon our being perfect according to some arbitrary standard imposed by other human beings.

So, we come to the distressing case of someone, woman or child, who has conceived because of rape. Do we say, ‘The circumstances are so awful and the suffering will be so great that abortion is allowable’? or do we say, ‘This is terrible. We must do all we can to help the woman and her child, and go on helping, because there are two lives here and both are sacred’? The Catholic response is the second. Please note that it has two parts.

It says first of all that rape is a terrible wrong inflicted on another. One of the problems we face in western society is that rape has somehow been trivialised. No one I have ever spoken to who has been raped would agree that rape is trivial. That is a message we need to get across loud and clear, and I’m not convinced that the Church has done a very good job on that. Secondly, it says that there are two lives to be considered and we do not have the right to choose between them. On the whole, the Church has done better with that, but it has not always stressed sufficiently that its teaching makes other demands on the Catholic community. If we are to uphold the Church’s teaching about abortion we must also uphold her teaching about the duty to help and support those in need.

I am sure that this post will seem harsh to many. I have not been in the situation I describe and do not know, from the inside, what it is like, but I still believe that what I have written is true. Sometimes when Catholics talk about abortion they give me the shivers. What comes across is the moral absolute, not the reverence or compassion which should be an integral part of it. There are no easy answers to hard questions like those posed yesterday. We have to live with that and do the best we can. Pray today for all who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy — and dig deep in your pockets and your compassion.

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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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