Something the Chancellor Forgot?

Unlike many in Britain today, I have no strong feelings about the Budget. That doesn’t mean I am indifferent — far from it — but when I look at the situation in Greece or Portugal, or even nearer home in Ireland, I think we are comparatively lucky. However, taking both the Budget and recent decisions to change the nature of the NHS and other familiar elements of our welfare system into account, I can’t help noting that there is one glaring anomaly.

There was nothing I could see in yesterday’s budget to help or encourage the voluntary sector. No matter how successful business in Britain may be, no matter how much surplus wealth may (eventually) be created, the voluntary sector (charity to you and me), can never plug all the gaps in our state welfare system. Indeed, major donors will not be getting the tax relief they have in the past for substantial donations to charity unless they have super-sized incomes (if you give £2M to charity, you now need to be earning £8M, or have I done my sums wrong?). There may be a vague hope that the strong impulse towards charitable giving among Jews and Christians, for example, will help make up for that lack, but with the constant nibbling away at organized religion and the demonstrable falling away in giving across all sectors of society, one may question that.

As one who is very conscious of the needs of some of the most forgotten people in society, the elderly blind and visually impaired among them, I suppose I am entitled to a gloomy view. It won’t stop us doing all we can, but there comes a point where we can do no more. Many charities this morning are probably wondering which services they will need to cut during the coming year. Maybe our Lenten alsmgiving needs to be a whole-year programme? What do you think?

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Financial Meltdown

Fears about the U.S. economy and European debt are fuelling fears of another financial meltdown. The major banks are in a less healthy position than they were a couple of years ago, and once the August holiday season is over, we can probably expect more equity sell-offs. Even gold prices have fallen, which is contrary to the trend we have seen in recent months. What does this mean for the Churches? I don’t know, but less income and increased need in society for the kind of services the Churches offer the poor and  struggling are a piquant mix.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not just for Lent. They are a way of preparing for difficult tasks at any time of year. Perhaps we all need to think about our response to the challenge of the times we live in and prepare ourselves for what may be to come. The certainties of yesteryear are gone forever. We must learn to live by the mercy of God.

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The Problem of Possessions

RB 54 takes up a subject Benedict has already treated in RB 33, the problem of ownership and radical dispossession. Unlike most other religious, Benedictines do not take a vow of poverty; yet if we are serious about our monastic life, the degree of ‘dispossession’ is probably greater than among many who do. For example, in the community to which I belong, RB 54 is observed literally. No one receives anything from another without permission, and no one presumes to keep anything unless it has been authorised. Even at the communal level, strict watch is kept over any superfluity. A kind friend in the U.S. recently offered us an iPad and it was quite hard for a community of Apple geeks to say ‘no’; but we could not justify accepting something that was not truly necessary for the work we do. (Note for the curious: we got a donation instead which we applied to more urgent but less stylish needs.)

Possessions can be a problem: too many or two few and one wastes time and energy worrying about them. Living by the providence of God is something most Christians would applaud in theory, but it is incredibly difficult to do as one gets older and/or there are family members to worry about as well as oneself. There is no easy solution. Without becoming scrupulous in the bad sense, we do need to keep an eye on what we amass. Lent, with its call to almsgiving, is a good time for taking stock. Perhaps we could do more than take last season’s books and clothes to the Charity Shop?

Thank You
iBenedictines has climbed a few more places in the Wikio Top Blogs Religion and Belief category, thanks to our readers. That was a very nice surprise!

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Digital Housekeeping and Lenten Discipline

Yesterday evening I tidied up the Resources entry page on our main web site and redid the main contact form. I realised after I had done so that I had fallen into the biggest pit of all for web designers: doing something that is technically a bit challenging and produces a ‘clever’ effect but which actually obscures rather than enhances what one is trying to say. It will be back to the digital drawing board this evening, but in the meantime I think there is  a lesson to be drawn from this, for me at least.

During Lent we can become so focused on what we are doing, the things we’re giving up, the things we’re taking on, that we can lose sight of the object of the exercise. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are meant to draw us closer to God. They may make us nicer people. They may may make the world a nicer place for everybody to live in; but if they don’t draw us closer to God, aren’t we missing something important?

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Almsgiving

Fasting has become fashionable, or at least, you will find a lot being written about it in the blogosphere. For us Benedictines, with our fairly rigorous Lenten fast and our regular Friday fast from September to Easter, that is not news. You will be pleased to know I have nothing to add to what has been said already. (Does she ever? Ed.) Similarly, much has been written about prayer which is good and useful, but this year I have noticed very little about the third element of our Lenten discipline, almsgiving.

Notice, first, that I call it a discipline, from the Latin, disciplina, a teaching. We are meant to learn something. Secondly, I use the word alms, from the Greek, eleēmosunē, meaning compassion. That is, we are meant to learn compassion during Lent. That in itself is worth thinking about, so too is the means recommended to us: sharing with others what has been given to us. Put like that, dropping a few coins into the hat of a busker or a couple of notes into a CAFOD envelope can seem horribly inadequate. It may be inadequate, of course, but the chances are that we are made uncomfortable more by the thought of our own imperfection than the inadequacy of our giving. Almsgiving becomes a contest, with the prize going to whoever can give most. You can see how absurd that is. Perhaps we should concentrate less on what we give and more on the manner with which we give. It is generosity of heart that counts, and we cannot fake that with God, no matter how many zeros we add to our gift.

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Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday is for many so identified with pancakes that it is known as Pancake Day pure and simple. Personally, I don’t mind that. The level of dissipation in the monastery is rather like Wordsworth’s, miserably low, but we shall have a festive meal (with pancakes) before we turn our thoughts to the main business of the day: confession. I often think that confession is the cindarella sacrament, frequently ignored or undervalued, but essential at so many levels. It needs prayerful preparation and a determination to be honest with oneself, which isn’t easy.

Another task for today is consideration of the Lent Bill. This monastic practice could be more widely known. We each of us consider how as individuals, not as a community, we can offer God “something above the usual measure of our service” in the matter of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (we already have a community take on these). However, no one decides for herself: all is subject to the judgement of another, either the superior, or in her case, that of another nun, the point being that there can be great pride and seeking of vainglory even in the most “religious” practice. We are also given the task of reading through one book of the Bible with special attention during Lent. Again, the choice is made for us by another. This is in addition to our normal lectio divina. I am praying devoutly that the choice for me won’t be Leviticus again. I find it fascinating, but there is only so much Leviticus one can take at one time.

There won’t be a blog post tomorrow; so, prospere procede. May you have a blessed Lent.

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