Star Dust

The announcement that scientists have discovered the oldest material known to exist on earth in the Murchison meteorite is thrilling (see, for example, what the BBC made of it here: https://is.gd/UZpjOA). Older than the earth itself, older than the sun, it is literally star dust — fragments of real stars — and 7.5 billion years old. That conjures up a lovely vision of something glittery and bright. The reality, however, is slightly more prosaic. Ground up, shavings from the meteorite apparently smell like rotten peanut butter, then have to be dissolved in acid for testing.

I’m sure many a homilist will be using this report to make a point which, depending on their temperament, may include any of the following

  • our Creator God existed even before this;
  • our celebrity culture stinks and destroys those who embrace it;
  • the world was made 4,004 years ago and to deny that is to deny scripture, so this can’t be true.

Only the first appeals to me. The discoveries of science are rather like what St Bernard says of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ‘a wonder and a joy’. The Murchison meteorite and its fellows may hold more secrets to be uncovered, but the lessons we draw from them mainly depend on us and our openness to the unknown. A small mind and a small heart often go together. Let’s hope that ours will be large, with more than a scattering of another kind of star dust, the kind that really matters: love of God and others.

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The Extraordinariness of the Ordinary

Today we return to the liturgy’s Ordinary Time. That has always seemed to me something of a misnomer. To anyone who lives in a monastery the ordinary is really extraordinary, every moment of every day freighted with meaning and grace, leading us deeper and deeper into the paschal mystery. Even the words we say again and again or the gestures we routinely perform are transformed into runways into God. A deep bow during the gloria at the end of every psalm reconnects us with our creatureliness as we face the ground, then raises us to our new identity as ‘sons in the Son’ as we stand erect. And to those of us who are, so to say, ‘brands snatched from the burning’, the sense of the preciousness of the ordinary can never be extinguished. The raindrop on the window pane, the weed growing through the asphalt, the feel of the sun or wind on our cheek, these are ordinary things, but they are miracles, too.

A personal thanksgiving
Most of us like to mark anniversaries and the passage of time. Today I have a very personal reason for giving thanks. Six years ago today a letter was sent confirming a diagnosis of metastatic leiomyosarcoma. The cancer had spread to my lungs (already scarred with sarcoidosis), my liver, my hip and various other parts of me. The outlook was not encouraging. I thank God, the many, many people who pray for me, and all those who have worked hard and long to keep me alive — especially when I’ve found things a bit tough and haven’t been my nicest, kindest or sunniest self. I hope my experience will encourage others not to assume the worst when they receive a shattering diagnosis; and to treasure every moment of life as a gift. I know my own life could end at any minute but, as a Benedictine, I take to heart the Rule’s exhortation to ‘keep death daily before one’s eyes’, not as a threat but as an invitation to make the best of things, serving God and others as well as I can, and joyfully, too. Laus Deo.

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Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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On Being Oneself

The statement issued yesterday by the duke and duchess of Sussex is being picked over by the media and every Tom, Dick and Henrietta with any kind of online access. Some applaud; others deprecate. I have no particular interest in the royal family (leaping over 51 candidates with a nearer claim to the throne to ensure the Protestant succession in 1714 doesn’t make me a Jacobite though it does make me feel a little distant from the institution) but I am interested in one of the underlying questions prompted by the statement, viz. how to be oneself. It is both a profoundly moral and profoundly religious question which goes beyond individual personalities.

As a Benedictine and erstwhile medievalist, I have always felt the force of the importance of community, the group. For many, a parallel is to be found in family. The individualism we associate with the Enlightenment is really only possible in a world where we are not dependent on one another for the basics of existence — food, shelter and so on — but can obtain these things for ourselves without reference to community/family. In other words, if we can buy something, we do not have to rely on its being provided by our group. That has not been the case for most people most of the time. Indeed, if parents were not to provide for their children, the human race would have died out long ago. Some degree of mutual co-operation is essential, but the amount may be determined by our economic circumstances — which is why the rich have choices the poor can only dream of.

Benedict sees things differently, of course. He comes from the world of sixth century Rome, and his values are not primarily economic but religious. Someone who can write of the property of the monastery in terms of sacred altar vessels, as he does when addressing the cellarer, is by no means indifferent to the importance of material things, however, nor is he unaware of how they affect the well-being of both individuals and community.

The abbot is to provide everything the individual needs via the cellarer or some other official, while the monastery itself is to be equipped with everything the community is likely to need in order to sustain itself. As a corollary, there is a delicate system of checks and balances, an etiquette all are expected to observe which is meant to ensure that the community not only functions but flourishes. This includes mutual obedience, reverence for the old, kindness towards the young, consideration about when to make requests (even by the sick and cantankerous), patience, giving help when needed — and accepting that when one fails, there is a discipline to be undergone to reassert a right relationship with those who have been affected by one’s shortcomings, whether it be a false note in choir or a more serious matter. Being oneself does not mean doing anything one chooses — that, in Benedictine terms, is to be a sarabaite — but accepting the yoke of the Rule as a way of becoming what one is meant to be and freely doing all those things which once required effort (cf RB 7). It isn’t easy at first, which may be why newcomers to the monastery often have difficulty seeing how their individual quest for God, their sense of personal vocation, fits into the common endeavour of the community. We go to God together, but it takes time to realise that we become more free, more ourselves, as we go on.

This morning, as I mulled over the first Mass reading (1 John 4. 11–18), I had as an echo at the back of my mind the thought that in the Lord’s service is perfect freedom. It is in him that we find our deepest, truest identity, are most genuinely ourselves. Let us pray for all who are learning how to be themselves, especially the young; for those who feel they have made mistakes or lack courage; and for those who are baffled or hurt by the choices made by those they love. It takes most of us a lifetime to learn how to be ourselves, but we have the Lord’s assurance in the gospel that we should not be afraid (Mark 6.45–52). Let us trust him.

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Statistics

I love statistics. Like work, I can sit and look at them for hours. I am not clever enough to know how some are calculated, but I do tend to challenge a few (usually the financial ones) and, even more, the conclusions drawn from them. This morning, for example, I was thrilled to read that the number of murders, manslaughters and cases of infanticide in the U.K. fell in 2019 to 650, the lowest level for five years. For a population assessed to be 66.87 million, that may look impressive. But part of me wants to say, add in the number of abortions or people taking their own lives, and the figure rockets up; drill into the number of deaths by sex and age and the terrible toll wreaked on young men in particular becomes clear. There is still a lot of explaining to do before the statistics become helpful in terms of planning or working out how to reduce the number of deaths. It is so easy to forget that behind every statistic is a human face, a suffering face, and just look at the numbers.

Another statistic that took my eye this morning relates to the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo: 310,000 are apparently infected, and 6,000 are said to have died already. Given the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures from the Congo, one wonders whether the actual number of people involved is much higher. The solutions being proposed look inadequate and probably are inadequate, but only when the numbers reach a certain level will there be pressure to act — or so it seems.

What started me on this trail of thought was re-reading a comment I had made nearly seven years ago on an article written by a priest in a well-regarded Catholic journal (I was renewing my credentials with a commenting platform and my comment popped up before me). The article had contained unflattering observations on ‘the traditional orders’ and proposed some radical solutions based almost entirely on numbers. I had taken issue with this, little realising that some of the observations I was making in jest would reappear in Cor Orans as completely serious. Looking back, one of the things I noticed was that no-one appeared to have engaged with what I myself had written about the future of monastic life for women. Instead, many had used the opportunity to say what they thought about the habit, the liturgy and so on. There was no reason anyone should engage with me, of course, but in nearly two hundred comments, I had hoped someone other than myself might have been interested in the future of monastic life for women. Apparently not. The argument went down a different line from the one I had expected and ended up in a morass of contradictory figures and opinions, plus some fascinating insights into what really interests some American Catholics.

One should not conclude too much from that, but it illustrates a problem many of us have with statistics. First, we tend to believe them, if they fit our narrative. Second, we then use them rather crudely, citing them as ‘scientific proof’ of whatever it is we want to argue. (I am not referring to professional statisticians, who will be horrified by the suggestion that they could ever misuse their skill in such a way. I am referring to us amateurs.) Recently, I smiled over a friend’s evident sense of grievance at the amount of money the UK had contributed to the EU budget over the years of our membership. He correctly gave the figure in terms of umpteen millions. Re-worked as a contribution per capita per annum, it came to a pitifully small sum. Both figures were correct, but could be used in different ways to argue a case according to the individual’s preference.

Is there such a thing as a Christian approach to statistics? I don’t think so. But there is a Christian approach to truthfulness and fairness. A frequent theme in the Rule of St Benedict is his concern for fairness. From everyone being treated compassionately, according to need rather than status, to the constant exhortation to avoid favouritism in the monastery, Benedict wants everyone to know that there are no second-rank individuals in community. Nothing will be used to ‘do them down’. I wonder if there is something there for us all to ponder about the assumptions we make and the way in which we try to justify them, using, of course, irreproachably objective things like statistics.

Over to you.

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On Starting Afresh

Bro Duncan PBGV sending a message from Beyond

My first blog post of 2020 is not being written under the happiest of circumstances. The situation in the Middle East has brought home to everyone how fragile is the peace between nations, how easily the conventions by which we live can be overturned, and what a terrible price could be exacted for our folly. Yet still we persist. There is an obstinacy about human nature that, for good or ill, seems to determine the course we follow. I have therefore done what any sensible person would do and consulted my canine friends about how to proceed. Bro Dyfrig BFdeB was too busy napping to give a coherent reply, but Bro Duncan PBGV responded from Beyond in his usual good-tempered way. (I think they follow a different horarium up there.)

The trouble with you Human Beans is that you complicate everything. You spend far too much time giving everyone the benefit of your opinion instead of just getting on with the business of living. You waste so much energy saying Mr Trump was right, or Mr Trump was wrong, or the Ayatollah is doing this, that or the other, that you fail to see what is right under your noses. Yes, the world could go up in smoke tomorrow (then you’d all be with me in Beyond, which would be nice) but the chances are that you’ve got some more living to do down below and you need to make what you do worthwhile. You may not be able to do very much, but you can still make life pleasanter for those around you.

You can be kind, considerate and selfless. Rather like a dog, now I come to think about it. You can live in the moment, not in the past or the future. You can be grateful for everything, even the tiniest, silliest little thing — and it doesn’t have to be food. You can be ready for any adventure, no matter how much your old bones creak or the warm fireside lures you. Above all, you can learn to forgive. I don’t remember holding a grudge against anyone, ever (not even when BigSis forgot my Dentastick) and I know it made me a happy boy. Happiness is much under-rated by Human Beans. You think you will find it in having all the things you want. One day you will understand that that it is being with the Person you want that really counts. God is waiting for you Beyond. There’s no rush. He will call you when he’s ready. In the meantime, learn to be a good boy (or girl) like me and live in the sunshine of God’s love (like my successor, The Ginger Fiend).

That’s not quite vintage Bro Duncan, but it makes sense to me. The New Year may be looking a little ragged, but we start every day afresh, with new opportunities and new challenges. The love of God is the constant in our lives. As 2020 unfolds, we may need to remind ourselves of that more often. I have no doubt we will need to share it more often.

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The Antidote to Hate Crimes

The stabbing of five people at an orthodox Jewish rabbi’s home in New York state during Hanukkah celebrations on Saturday added one more dreadful statistic to the wave of hate crimes associated with the resurgence of antiSemitism in the West. Then came news of a gun attack in a Texas church during service-time on Sunday. No doubt we shall be told in due course who the attackers were and what their motivation was thought to be. We in the U.K. will probably allow ourselves to wonder whether the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S.A. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-50936575) has created a culture of indifference towards such violence, but we have nothing to be proud of when we consider the rise in knife crime in our own city streets. The fact is that the expression of hatred is becoming harder and harder to contain or neutralise. The kind of anger and abuse we find in social media easily translates into violent action, only we tend not to see or want to acknowledge the way in which it can affect both ourselves and others. There are no boundaries, it seems — except for some fashionable hate crimes which seem to draw a disproportionate amount of attention because endorsed by the celebrities of our day.

I was struck by the response of Mayor de Blasio to what happened in Monsey: he promised more security in Jewish areas, by which I presume he means more armed guards, and a programme of education in schools. As Rabbi Sacks sadly remarked, in a tweet published yesterday,

Antisemitism has returned within living memory of the Holocaust, and after more than half a century of programs of legislation, and education designed to ensure that it could never happen again.

Legislation and education don’t appear to have changed things, and while there are those who will say it was because a churchgoer had a gun on him that the attack in Texas was no worse than it was, some of us still find the thought of taking weapons into a place of worship highly questionable. Two thousand years since the birth of the Prince of Peace and we still have not learned that violence too often begets violence!

As 2019 races towards its close, we are faced with an ever starker choice. Do we want to be people of violence or of peace? Are we going to pass the poison on, or are we going to say, ‘No. I refuse to be part of that violence’? If our answer is ‘no’ we must be prepared for huge sacrifices. It will mean being extremely careful about how we speak or act, not in the sense of being cowardly but in the sense of being mindful how our words and deeds increase or decrease the stock of tension in the world. It may be ‘fun’ to denigrate others with our witty put-downs; it may be a relief to our feelings to disparage those with whom we disagree; it may even be a source of inner congratulation to have pointed out the wrongness of a policy or an individual’s behaviour, but we do need to think about possible consequences. It is no good lighting a touch-paper and then lamenting the fact that the building burned down. The only real antidote to hate-crimes comes from those who are not prepared to hate. Which will we choose?

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Holy Innocents 2019

This morning I re-read some of my earlier posts about this feast. That for 2017 was hard-hitting in its statistics and left me with a feeling of despondency. Things are no better now than when I wrote. In fact, they have got worse. There are more children said to be living in poverty in the U.K., for example, than there were three years ago. World-wide, there are more children being aborted, exploited, trafficked or exiled than ever before. Yet the Church continues to assert the importance of this feast. Is it merely a reminder that the defenceless will suffer because of those who think they don’t matter? A kind of liturgical corrective to the sentimentality of the secular celebrations of Christmas to which we are exposed? Or is it something more, something that goes deeper, into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation?

I think we can only understand this feast by looking at Christ’s birth, an event that is located in place and time, within the specifics of a particular family. One consequence of this is to change our notion of what matters and our responsibility for others. Christ’s coming into the world means we can no longer plead indifference about the importance of individuals, even those we have never met. Everyone matters. There isn’t a single human being God has not looked at with love, so who are we to argue or act otherwise? The massacre of those young Jewish boys two thousand years ago is an event in time, with its own particularities, but it is also an event that transcends time because it is for ever present in the mind and heart of God. As such, it is both a comfort and a challenge. A comfort, because it assures us that God’s love never ends; a challenge, because it demands a response from us. While there is any child who goes to bed hungry, thirsty, or exploited, any child who is not allowed to be born or live with dignity, we have failed to meet that challenge. We have failed to recognize Christ when we saw him.

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St John the Divine

I once tried to sum up why I love this feast:

Of all the Christmas feasts which follow thick and fast after the Nativity of Our Lord, I think I like St John’s best. He is the most poetic of the evangelists: a man who had learned ‘how to bear the beames of love’ and who reflects the beautiful light of the Word made flesh, as stars reflect the light of the sun. But there is more to John than beauty. There is grace and truth, again reflecting the grace and truth of the Word, and there is strength.

Truth needs strength otherwise it easily becomes something less — mere criticism, perhaps, or the kind of grumbling that achieves nothing except to make both grumbler and audience weary. St John is the most mystical of the evangelists not because he wrote beautifully, or because he reflected the grace and truth of the Word made flesh, but because he he was strong — strong in faith and love. It enabled him to see what others could only guess at, gave him the courage to explore what others might shy away from, kept him at the foot of the cross when he was tempted to run away. He was a true contemplative.

Whether we think of John as the young Galilean fisherman, the old man in Ephesus, the mystic on Patmos or simply ‘the author of the Fourth Gospel’ matters not a whit. John understood the nature of mystery. In secular parlance, mystery tends to mean no more than something we can’t fully grasp, a puzzle of little consequence; but to the Christian, mystery goes far beyond that. It is a secret we can know only because God has revealed it to us — a wonder and a joy, as in the holy Eucharist. John’s writings are full of mystery in this sense and take us very close to the mystery of God’s being. In his gospel, as in his letters, he expresses this through images of light and love, word and silence, hinting at what can be known only through faith. In our own lives, too, there must be something of the same light and love, word and silence, the same quest for God through prayer and sacrifice and fidelity to the covenant God has made with us.

All this — our understanding of the mystery and our eagerness to pursue it — comes to us as sheer gift, a gift given by our incorporation into Christ at baptism. It is the source of our strength, of the grace and truth by which we live, and it is our ultimate destiny, for one day we shall see Him as He really is. (1 John 3.2) That is a promise that goes far beyond anything we can think or dream of, but one we too often ignore. May the prayers of St John help us recognize it and respond wholeheartedly today.

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St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.

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