Problems of Authority

‘What authority have you for acting like this? And who gave you this authority?’ That question from today’s gospel (Matt. 21.23) is one that runs through the whole of the New Testament and, indeed, life in general. What right has anyone to tell us what to do or to act in a way that impinges on us, especially if it limits our freedom in any way? When directed at ourselves, we are inclined to side-step the question. ‘I don’t need any authority for what I do. I decide for myself.’ We have become little monsters of egotism and self-sufficiency, without even realising it.

In case you think I exaggerate, consider for a moment. In the Catholic Church the amount of vitriolic abuse hurled at Pope Francis by those who are convinced they are right and he is wrong about everything is symptomatic of what I have described. Rudeness does not come from a pure heart nor from a desire to ‘win back an erring brother’ (assuming he is such). If the target were not the pope, it would be someone else because what is really going on is much more akin to the lust for destruction we see in IS than the zeal for religion it purports to be. At this point, I expect some of my readers to explode. How dare I compare their noble-hearted attempts to preserve the Catholic faith unsullied with the murderous behaviour of Wahabist fanatics? I dare because, judging by the arguments put forward, many of the pope’s critics are less well-informed about the faith they seek to defend than they imagine. They are, in fact, undermining the very thing they want to support by ignoring some of its fundamental principles, including charity and a concern for truth and justice. There is more than one way of destroying others.

We find something very similar in our public discourse about politics, law, ethics, or what you will. We have carried the principle of aseity to its illogical conclusion. A subjective ‘what’s right for me’ quickly becomes a narrow ‘what’s good for me’, so that individualism and self-interest rule the day. Advent, with its call to return to a life of integrity, knocks all this on its head. Like it or not, we are not free to behave just as we please; or rather, we are, but if we do, we shall quickly find that everything turns to dust and ashes. It is only by following the guidance of the gospel, by walking in the footsteps of the Lord, that we shall attain true freedom, true joy. That is easy to say, hard to do because, of course, it requires a real change of heart, a huge humility and a readiness to start again every time we fail. Of one thing we can be sure: the grace we need is always being offered to us. May we be big enough, and wise enough, to accept it.

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Our Need of Wholeness

Last year, when I wrote about today’s antiphon, O Rex Gentium, at some length (see here), I concentrated on the idea of God’s authority, which is so different from our usual experience. Today, however, I’d like to focus on what the antiphon says about wholeness.

Most of us would probably admit that we are broken in some way, discordant, at odds with both ourself and others to a greater or lesser extent. Most of the time we bumble along quite happily and only really register that something is amiss when we see the fruits of that inner discordance: a row with someone perhaps, or a sudden feeling of flatness and weariness in the midst of what ‘ought’ to be unalloyed happiness. It can be distressing. Of course we have to live with imperfection, in ourselves as much as in others, but we do not like it. I think the antiphon’s insistence on our fragility — mere vessels of clay that we are — and on God’s strength — the corner-stone of our lives — is a powerful reminder that the wholeness we seek comes to us as a gift. There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation.

Today, as we pray for the coming of the King of the nations, the corner-stone who has made both Jew and gentile one, let us pray that whatever in us is broken or out of tune may be restored to wholeness through his mercy. And may the mercy shown to us teach us to be merciful to others.

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Digital Technologies and Christian Culture

I have been thinking about the way in which digital technologies are changing not just the expression but also the content of what we religious types put online. Here at the monastery we are contemplating some major changes to our web sites, use of social media, etc. One of the things that has struck me is how word (and Word) centred our practice is. Our main web site, like those of many Christian organizations, contains pages of text: information, reflection, explanation, the fruit of our thinking about monastic life and trying to express it in words.

Thinking, words, these are the traditional elements of Christian culture, requiring silence, time and the discipline of logic for effect. But the online world thrives on immediacy, brevity, the interplay of image and sound, action and reaction. I think we can truthfully say that we have tried to take the monastery into that world. The challenge we now face is how to engage more deeply, to be true to our Christian heritage yet at the same time interpret anew the truth by which we live. That raises all kinds of questions about authority and trustworthiness. It goes beyond language, touching on psychology and social attitudes that are not of the Church’s making.

There is no shortage of opinion about these matters. Resources of various kinds abound, with excellent work being done by CODEC and @xiannewmedia, for example. But ultimately, what we do online proceeds from our lives offline, from the prayer, lectio divina and common life of the community. I am not sure what we shall produce over the next few months but I have a hunch that it may be very different from anything we have attempted so far — not because the technology on offer makes new things possible, but because the world which has developed that technology requires a new approach.

As always, I’d love to know what you think.

 

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 3

Today we reach the final section of RB 49, although it is not Benedict’s last word on Lent (we’ll look at that tomorrow):

Each one, however, must tell his abbot what he is offering up, for it must be done with his blessing and approval. Whatever is done without the spiritual father’s permission is to be attributed to presumption and vainglory, unworthy of reward. Everything, therefore, must be done with the abbot’s approval.

I wonder how many readers of this blog consulted anyone before deciding what to give up or take on for Lent? In community we write a Lent Bill — a statement of what we propose to do — and hand it to the prioress, asking her permission and blessing. It is not unknown for something to be added or taken away, and very humbling the experience can be!

The point Benedict is making here is important: we are not always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always choose wisely, especially where Lent is concerned. We are often muddled about what it is and how we should meet its demands. Pride and competitiveness can easily creep into our decisions. We get hold of the idea of penance then whip ourselves up into an ungodly fervour. ‘I will fast. I will keep vigil. I will . . .’ I, I, I. The whole purpose of monastic life is to lead us closer to God, which means forgetfulness of self. Very often what we think would be best is anything but. We believe we can ‘go it alone’, not realising that we go to God together or not at all.

For us, as Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. We have chosen to live according to the Rule, under a superior, so we submit our ideas to him/her — and take the consequences.  The encouraging part is knowing we shall have our superior’s prayers, and that can be a great comfort when things get bumpy (as they certainly will).

All very well for a monk or nun, you say, but what about those outside the cloister? I think there is value in talking over our ‘Lenten programme’ with someone we trust, not necessarily a priest or religious but someone whose judgement is sound and whose instincts are good. Articulating what we intend to do can sometimes make us aware that it isn’t quite sensible or will end up making us completely batty. Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves or making dramatic  gestures. It is about quietly and perseveringly focusing upon God and allowing him to transform us. That is why it is so joyful.

If you feel you have begun Lent wrong, take heart. To admit that we’ve made a false start is the beginning of grace. And if you feel you have begun in the right way, thank God, and ask him to protect you from all pride and presumption. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but this is the season when we must wage war against the principalities and powers of this present age. Whatever else Lent is, it isn’t dull.

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O Rex Gentium: a new kind of authority

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.

Here are a few scripture texts to ponder before listening to the antiphon: Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians 2.14; Genesis 2.7

 

We live in a world where ‘authority’ is conferred by the search engines or the ratings agencies and many individuals chase after Twitter ‘followers’ or Facebook ‘friends’ as a form of personal validation. The idea of inherent authority is quite alien to lots of people, so the imagery of today’s antiphon needs working at.

Christ is presented to us as King: one who, in the Ancient World, had absolute power, an unassailable authority, but who, as a consequence, had an obligation equally serious toward his subjects, best expressed by the idea of covenant. We are not talking about someone unconcerned with our fate but someone involved in it.

It is, however, the next phrase of this antiphon that I find most striking. The translation doesn’t quite capture the force of desideratus. To invoke Christ as the Desired of All Nations is to make a strong claim for his universality. This title for the Messiah rests on the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: ‘I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour’ (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). As though to say, there is in all of us, whether overtly religious or not, an impulse towards what is good and beautiful and true which will be gloriously fulfilled.

The reminder that we are divided among ourselves, needing a Saviour to redeem and reunite us, is hardly news, but so often we think salvation is some kind of self-help process we can achieve through myriad self-improvement projects. At a national/international level we rely on agreements and legislation which often fail at times of crisis. The truth is, with God everything is possible; without him, nothing is.

The antiphon ends with a reference to our creation from the dust of earth. It is full of hope. Who can forget that, according to the Christian understanding of things, our very humanity has been transformed:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Jew and gentile have been made one through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he has formed from the dust of earth. This Christmas we celebrate not just the birth of Christ but our own birth in Christ, our own glorious recreation.

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That Vatican Blogmeet Again

I suspect that by now anyone interested in the historic Bloggers’ Meeting at the Vatican on 2 May 2011 will have found links a-plenty. In case you haven’t, you can listen to all the audio files here (about half-way down the page). The best address, in my opinion, was given by Elizabeth Scalia, (a.k.a.The Anchoress), here, and the best post-meeting reflection by Anna Arco here. If it’s photos you are after, I suggest you look here or at the video on romereports.com. The live-streaming of the event was not wholly successful because of inadequate bandwidth. (Indeed, I appeared to be in a wi-fi blackspot as I was unable to get Twitter to load during the meeting.) I couldn’t attend the alternative meeting the day after organized by Hilary White, nor can I go to the London meeting today about forming a Guild of Catholic Bloggers. However, the internet is awash with information and comment, and even a cursory look through the Twitterstream #vbm11 gives  a lively idea of what was happening as it happened.

So, what’s to say that hasn’t been said? First, I must record my personal gratitude for having been encouraged to apply to attend, my delight at having been one of the lucky 150 invited and my very great thanks for the sponsorship which made acceptance possible. It was wonderful to meet bloggers who previously were only names, although there was far too little time to talk. There was such a buzz in the aula.

Richard Rouse and others had put a lot of hard work into organizing the event at short notice. We tend to take for granted such things as simultaneous translation, but a little note of congratulation should go out to the translator who, without missing a beat, rendered Brazilian Portuguese into excellent English, even though it was not on the official ‘language menu’. Communication was truly the order of the day.

The first panel provided the most interesting talks. All were from thoughtful bloggers who reflected on such diverse topics as the nature of the blogosphere (e.g. the problem of charity and promotion of the ego) and ways of engaging people with faith (Fr Roderick Vonhogen must be one of the most media-savvy people in the Church). The second panel said some good things, although the language used tended to be more impersonal and abstract: definitely less blog-like! It was encouraging to hear about the Vatican’s plans for a new web portal and more creative use of social media; encouraging, too, to hear it stated that bloggers perform a valuable and valued service within the Church.

For me, the most remarkable thing was that the meeting took place at all. It reinforced my sense of the universalism of the Petrine ministry. However, I did come away with some questions.

I think bloggers fall into two categories: those who are in some sense professional journalists or otherwise ‘appointed’ to blog, and those who are enthusiastic amateurs (like Digitalnun). Some of the questions raised at the meeting about accreditation and copyright struck me as being of more concern to professionals than to amateurs. Those who blog in order to report news (or rumours) have a different take on things from those of us who merely share our bathtub thoughts about this and that. I don’t feel I need or want accreditation, nor any kind of policing (loyalty to the Church and to my monastic community would, I trust, prevent my straying too far into heterodoxy). I suppose I am suspicious of ‘badges’. I am not a  Catholic blogger but a blogger who is Catholic, as likely to blog about dogs as dogma. Most bloggers are responsible people who do their homework before launching forth into the blogosphere with their opinions, and I think the Vatican officials who spoke duly acknowledged that fact. But, and it is quite a big ‘but’, I did occasionally wonder whether the distinction being made between the institutional Church (as represented by the Vatican officials) and the rest of us was perhaps a little too clear-cut. We are all members of the one Body. Maybe that is what we need to emphasize.

And for the rest . . .

My two days in Rome were different from any I’d experienced before. I arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday, when the crowds who had gathered for the beatification were beginning to disperse but public transport was at a standstill. It was a long hard slog with my luggage from the Piazza Cavour, where the airport shuttle left me, to Paulo III, on the heights of the Via Aurelia; but the frequent need to stop and draw breath (Rome is not kind to people with sarcoid) made for some lovely exchanges. A beautiful Mexican stopped and chatted away and a lovely threesome from the U.S.A., grandmother, mother and baby, helped me drag my case the last couple of hundred yards.

Rome itself is not very welcoming to Benedictine nuns in full habit, especially on their own. The Swiss Guard salute rather endearingly as one passes by, but some of the locals go out of their way to be unpleasant. Is that why so many nuns and sisters look rather dour? I don’t know. Meals are another problem: cafes and restaurants are O.K. if one is with someone but can be awkward if one isn’t. If hungry, I usually opt for something from a supermarket or, if there isn’t time, from one of the street stalls. The trouble is, I can hear my grandmother saying, ‘No lady ever eats in the street’, which oughtn’t to worry me but does. Funny, that.

However, while in Rome I was able to see D. Margaret at Sta Cecilia (for the first time in at least six years); Abbot Cuthbert and Bro. Michael from Farnborough and I met in St Peter’s Square, as one does, and went off in search of coffee; and Muriel Sowden and I had a good face-to-face chat, our first since connecting on Facebook.

Really the best part of my visit came at the end, when Sr Lucy FMA bore me off to their Generalate and I was overwhelmed with kindness. It was lovely to be in a big community again, and I must say I was very impressed by their spirit. Sr Lucy could not have been more considerate. Finding that my flight out was not due until the afternoon, she arranged to take me to Subiaco for morning Mass and an unforgettable tour with Sr Mary and Sr Connie, devoid of tourists (!). It was immensely moving to kneel in St Benedict’s cave and be able to pray there for Benedictines the world over, and all our oblates and friends. Finally, I was driven to the airport.

It was a short visit but one I shall remember always with affection and gratitude. The gifts God chooses to give are always so much better than those one seeks for oneself. Thank you, Sr Lucy.

 

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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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