Of Tears and Laughter on September 11

The twentieth anniversary of September 11 was always going to be hard. No one who was alive in 2001 can forget the terrible sight of aircraft crashing into the twin towers, nor what followed after. Seeing people crammed onto window ledges or deliberately leaping from them to certain death brought home to us the intensity of the hatred that inspired such hideous acts. Today, in Afghanistan, the story is still not ended and we are as helpless as we were twenty years ago. People suffer, are maimed for life, die. We pray for peace, for the healing of wounds, but with a kind of reluctant half-belief. It is the best we can do. At least our prayer is real, we say. Tears express what we cannot put into words and today they will flow freely, not just in the U.S.A. but also in the 78 countries whose citizens died in the attack on the World Trade Centre and the aircraft brought down near the Pentagon.

If that were all there were to say, it would be to acknowledge the triumph of death and destruction over life and hope, and I’m not sure that we should. There is another image, also from New York, I would like to put before you*: a young girl laughing with astonishment and delight at finding herself in the finals of the U.S. Open. Whether she wins or loses tonight’s match is irrelevant. Emma Raducano has not only demonstrated that she is a very fine tennis-player but also that enjoyment — being filled with joy — is not dependent on success as such. She has clearly enjoyed playing in New York, and those armchair critics who were so dismissive of her when she showed nerves at Wimbledon might like to reconsider their earlier verdict. Life is not all about winning, though it must be nice when one does. The greatest prize is life itself— one we all share and should cherish.

*For copyright reasons, I can’t post a photo of Emma Raducano and her huge smile here.

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Becoming Expert

Not very long ago, nearly everyone seemed to be an armchair epidemiologist. We regaled one another with our opinions on vaccines, lockdowns, mask-wearing and so on, cheerfully unaware that our (mis)understanding of mathematics often made our interpretation of statistical tables questionable, to say nothing of our failure to understand the science involved in tackling COVID-19. Rumours and ‘false information’ abounded. Now, it seems, we are all experts on Afghanistan. Partly, that is a reaction to the deep sense of shame many in the West feel about the way in which the U.S.A. and its allies have withdrawn from the country; partly, I think, it is our usual response to any item of news that engages our attention.

The problem is, the instant expert does not exist. We may have an instant insight, but that is not the same thing as expertise. To become expert in anything requires long training and practice, for at the root of the word lies the Latin verb ‘to try’. Sometimes people become discouraged when they begin to pray and do not find themselves immediately in what has been variously called the unitive way, the Seventh Mansion, and so on. Happily, St Benedict always adopts a commonsense approach, seeing the importance of prayer but not being prescriptive about methods. One who reads and is faithful to the liturgical prayer of the community, who shares generously in its common life and is careful about obedience and mutual charity, will grow in prayer. The growth is hidden from the individual; but that is true of any expert, who will always say they have more to learn. St Bernard, whose feast we celebrate today, understood this very well — and what an impact he had on the people of his time and still today!

Advance notice

We shall be migrating all our web sites to new servers on 24/5 August. There will probably be hiccups, but we hope to have them sorted before we begin our annual retreat, 29 August to 6 September.

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How do we Pray about Afghanistan?

Afghanistan: Photo by nasim dadfar on Unsplash

The shock and horror of what is happening in Afghanistan have left many in the West angry or numb. Some have taken to social media to vent their distress or accuse those they consider to be responsible. Others have found solace in tears or confided to their diaries thoughts they can scarcely put into words. As to what it means for the people of Afghanistan themselves, there we draw a blank. We can speculate, but imagination and knowledge of what has happened in the past will take us only so far. Afghans living in Britain may have some idea, but most of us do not. We are outsiders, with a guilty sense of being being at least partly responsible for  the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. 

While politicians and commentators take to the media to try to ‘explain’ what is happening and tell us what to expect in the future, the Church exhorts us to pray. That sounds easy enough, at least to those who do not believe or have never tried to pray. It is what the Church always says in times of crisis or tragedy, isn’t it? But how do we really pray when the heart is overwhelmed with feeling and there are no words that do not seem hollow and trite? How do we pray about something as big and painful as Afghanistan? 

Not Praying

Perhaps the first thing we should do is not even try. By that I mean, we need to abandon the idea of praying as a self-regarding exercise. We must forget that we are praying, take the spotlight off ourselves as doing a good act (praying for those in need) and remember Jesus on the cross, his words reduced to very few and ending with a great cry. We must forget all the words we love so much, too, and the way we try to cajole God into doing our will rather than paying attention to him and his will. Words are not necessary, and they bend and break under the strain of trying to express what lies deepest in our being. The Holy Spirit is more eloquent than any of us, and we can trust the Spirit to articulate what we cannot put into words. Most difficult of all, perhaps, we must try to forget the self and its emotions. When greatly affected by another’s pain, it is easy to turn everything round to what we feel, our sorrow, our pain, and forget why we were inspired to pray in the first place.

Why Pray?

Why do we want to pray? It is a question we need to ask because I am not sure we are always clear or honest with ourselves in the answers we give. Praying is what good Christians do, isn’t it? Yes, but there is more to it than that. We pray because we are made for union with God, and for that union to be perfect, it must include everyone. So, we want the suffering in Afghanistan to end, for peace and justice to be established, but we want more than that. We want God to have joy in what he has created, for his beloved sons and daughters to live in freedom and harmony, to experience a transformation in and through the Holy Spirit. The means God chooses to achieve that— the people, the events — may surprise us, but that is not really our business. Our business, humanly speaking, is to make what God desires and wills possible by responding to the invitation to pray, to align our will with his. In Jesus Christ we have the perfect example of prayer and obedience — a prayer and obedience so wonderful that the whole human race has been redeemed.

The Prayer of Christ

At a time of tragedy or crisis, we need to unite ourselves ever more profoundly with the prayer of Christ himself. To do that we have to be much quieter and more attentive than most of us like being. To pray with Christ and in Christ requires a radical change of stance. We no longer have the satisfaction of thinking we do anything. We throw ourselves and the whole world on the mercy of God. There is no safer place to be, but that act of renunciation, of relying on God alone, is infinitely costly. It is much easier to seek safety in words and gestures (which may be very eloquent/heroically generous) and thereby miss the essential. As a wise old monk once remarked, ‘It was not Christ’s death on the cross that redeemed us but the love and obedience that led him there.’ Love and obedience — they are what God asks of us in prayer, not eloquence, not brilliance, just our deepest, truest selves.

Not everyone is comfortable with the kind of prayer I have been describing, and I should be sorry if anyone were to conclude that I think it the only kind of prayer that is valid. We must always ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’, but none of us should dismiss what I have described as being ‘not for me’ or impossible of attainment. Old friends don’t need to say much to each other, and it is cultivating friendship with God that the habit of prayer encourages. Confronted with the tragedy of Afghanistan, however, I think it is also the kind of prayer which protects us against two temptations that can paralyse our best efforts. They are (1) condemning others for what has happened and possibly wishing all kinds of ill upon them, and (2) spending time on our own solutions, most of which are probably naive or ill-informed or both.

Simply asking God to do what is best is much harder than railing against others. Giving time to prayer which doesn’t try to tell God what to do is harder still. To get up from our knees, seeing no obvious change yet determined to persevere, is hardest of all. It is to walk by faith not sight, to trust, to hope. It is what all Christians are called to do, and I think it is a good way of praying for Afghanistan.

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Dilemmas

I imagine every Western politician woke up this morning wondering what to do about Russia and the Crimea. Last month it may have been Syria or North Korea. Before that, Egypt. We tend to deal with difficulties and problems sequentially, dropping one when another looms into view. It is not that Iraq and Afghanistan have been ‘dealt with’, but we are collectively great believers in ‘moving on’. We have other countries in our sights now. The trail of death and destruction is one we prefer to ignore because ultimately it is traceable back to those who gave the order to mobilise the troops or clamoured for something to be done. That qualification is important because it reminds us that in a democracy we all bear a measure of responsibility, whether active or passive. We can’t distance ourselves from it simply by saying ‘not in my name’.

I mentioned a few days ago that I had been thinking about the Crimean War of the nineteenth century. I have also been thinking about the symbolic importance of Ukraine to the Russian people, about gas pipes and oil lines, and the way in which Western politicians tend very easily to assume that an uprising or protest movement will usher in something better than before. If it doesn’t, it can be forgotten, or at least allowed to slip from the headlines, e.g. Libya. Unlike many political commentators, I have no suggestions to make regarding the dilemma we face. I have only one constructive tool to offer: prayer. To some, that will seem laughable; to others, an admission of failure; but I think myself it is the most powerful thing those of us who are not movers and shakers in the accepted sense can do. Indeed, prayer has a way of upsetting the usual order of things. It can bring hope and peace out of the darkest situation. Let us pray that it does so now.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Hatred is a Killer

A man dresses his little sister in a suicide vest and we throw up our hands in horror; another chases someone, sets fire to him, then devours his leg, and we react with revulsion. We know the situation in Afghanistan is complex but we look at the end result: a brutalisation so complete that a child is merely an instrument of war and revenge. We know the situation in the Central African Republic is also complex, but again we look only at the end result: a man is so inflamed by the murder of his pregnant wife that he not only kills the person responsible but shows utter contempt for him. In both cases, our Western susceptibilities are outraged: we believe children should be afforded special protection; cannibalism is off-limits; the perpetrators of these acts are vile.

It is no good blaming religion as such for either of these atrocities. It was not Islam which made that man force his sister to wear a suicide vest; nor was it Christianity which made that man kill his neighbour and devour his leg. We are very much mistaken, though, if we don’t acknowledge that religion, however much misunderstood or perversely interpreted, has played a part in allowing such things to happen because it has become a convenient peg on which to hang visceral hatreds and rivalries. That is dangerous, because it affects public perception of the religion in question, not merely of the individuals who (mis)use it as justification for their actions.

Increasingly in the West, we are seeing Islam and Christianity pitted against one another in the popular imagination. Polarisation between the two has become an explanation, we might say the explanation, of every violent or aggressive act that involves adherents of either religion. The trouble is, that kind of ‘explanation’ merely stops us examining other motives or causes and, incidentally, does a great disservice to those who genuinely try to live good and peaceable lives according to their religious beliefs. Perhaps it is time to take stock and admit that even the most loving and merciful of us are capable of ugly acts.

We may think of ourselves as kind, compassionate people, always eager to do good to others and without a mean bone in our bodies. That may be how we are born, but we quickly learn behaviours that are not so pure or generous. It is only grace that keeps us in check, and it is a grace we must earnestly desire and pray for, not presume upon.

It is easy to condemn someone who makes a walking bomb of his sister or eats his neighbour, but the intense hatred that inspired such acts didn’t begin like that. Its origins may lie in mere dislike or minor antipathy, a half-remembered grudge from ancestral times or a sense of grievance never satisfied; but it was allowed to grow until it stifled every better feeling. One of the lessons to be learned from these tragedies is that hatred is a killer — and just as likely to be found in our own heart as in the heart of another.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The First Frost

We have just had our first real frost of winter. Everything crunches underfoot and there is a mist rising with the sun and shrouding familiar shapes and forms with an ethereal winding-sheet. Odd, isn’t it, how frost and cold turn our thoughts (my thoughts, anyway) to a half-remembered past, peopled by warriors, kings and thegns, with their bright armour and their strange and wonderful poetry. It would never surprise me to see Beowulf emerging from the mist or some dark Celt moving silently from tree to tree. An over-lively imagination, my mother called it, but for me it is just the necessary mental equipment of the (now lapsed) historian. Without the ability, or at least the desire, to enter into the lives of others remote from us in time and place, I think understanding both past and present is much more difficult.

Today there is much that requires a huge imaginative leap to understand, if we ever can. The allegations against Jimmy Savile have propelled us into the dark world of the abuser; the never-ending violence in Syria and Afghanistan haunts us; Malala Yousafzai struggling for life in Pakistan and the continuing search for the body of little April Jones, they weigh heavy on the spirit. As a Christian I believe that evil does not have the ultimate victory, but to live according to that belief requires more than mere acquiescence. It is never an easy way out. We are called to live our faith in the Resurrection; to do battle with all that is opposed to the goodness of God. This morning the first frost reminds us that some of the most powerful enemies we face come not from the world around us but from within, from our own imaginative failures, from imperfectly accepted personal histories. We all have our own inner demons to overcome.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Price of Education

When, in 1869, Emily Davies founded the College for Women at Hitchin, later Girton College, Cambridge, her avowed aim was equality of educational opportunity for women. It was not until 1947, however, that Cambridge women were admitted to degrees. Until then their degrees were merely titular, even though women had shown remarkable ability. In 1890 Philippa Fawcett of Newnham was ranked ‘above the Senior Wrangler’, with a score 13% higher than the next closest, but she was not allowed the traditional title. That was reserved to men only. Nowadays we smile over such follies. Although inequalities and prejudices remain, in the west the right of women to education is taken for granted — even if it has taken a long time to achieve.

Compare and contrast the situation in the Swat Valley. Yesterday we learned that Malala Yousafzai was shot for daring to go to school. She is just 14. Some will remember the diary she produced for the BBC in 2009, which gave a glimpse of what it was like to live in Taliban-dominated society. I have commented before on young Afghan girls having acid flung in their face because they want an eduction. This is not a ‘women’s issue’ or a ‘cultural matter’, somehow secondary to the political process. It is a human rights issue, fundamental to the political process because it has to do with both justice and the rule of law. While we pray for Malala’s recovery, I can’t help recalling that her name means, literally, ‘Grief Stricken’. I think we too should be grief stricken that in 2012 there are still areas of the world where women and girls are not thought worthy of education and those that do dare to go to school risk paying the price with their blood.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Love, Respect and Afghanistan

Benedictines are currently reading chapter 63 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Community Order. Its emphasis on the mutual love and respect which should mark relations between old and young, the small courtesies of the cloister and the etiquette of community life are a world away from the situation in Afghanistan where men seem to make all the rules, women count for little and young girls continue to be attacked for their ‘presumption’ in attending school.

One may question whether the West’s determination to impose democracy in the Middle East is justifiable or simply another form of outmoded colonialism. One may question whether the West’s eagerness to share its values is altruistic or merely a thinly-disguised piece of self-interest. But acid flung in the face or poison poured into the water test to the uttermost one’s belief in ‘cultural accommodation’. The story of the attack on 150 Afghani girls didn’t even make the front page of the BBC web site yesterday but was buried pages deep in ‘world news’.

As a woman whose family prized education, who was encouraged at school to develop and follow as many interests as possible, who benefited enormously from the blue-stocking feminism of ‘That Infidel place’ (Girton College), I find the hostility to women’s education in Afghanistan deeply troubling. I did a Google search for ‘how to help women’s education in Afghanistan’ and came up with some interesting results. May I  suggest you do the same? Love and respect are not passive qualities, nor are Benedict’s thoughts on how to create a fair and happy environment for people to live in limited to monasteries only.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail