Religious Platitudes

The problem with religious platitudes is that they are exactly that: flat (from the French, plat). They are usually true, or at least half-true, but they are uttered unthinkingly, or with a vague sense that they are appropriate in the circumstances, and have become thin with over-use. So, when somebody dies, there are well-intentioned mutterings about the deceased being ‘at peace now,’ or, rather presumptuously to Catholic ears, ‘with Jesus in heaven.’ Meanwhile, I am busy praying for the dead person’s soul and the forgiveness of their sins, not presuming but hoping, with firm faith and trust, that our merciful Lord will indeed forgive. The comfort offered by the platitude is no comfort at all if it obscures rather than illumines and prevents us responding as we might.

Today’s memoria of the Holy Rosary, instituted as a thanksgiving for the victory at Lepanto, reminded me that love of Our Lady has given rise to a large number of quite cringe-making platitudes concerning her. They do her an injustice even as they seek to honour her. Mary is indeed our mother, but she is first and foremost the Mother of God, a woman of such unique faith, courage and holiness that she inspires a loving awe, a reverent fear, as she directs our gaze towards her Son, Jesus Christ. The wonderful array of titles with which the Church has invested her are the measure of this, each of them worth pondering carefully. Her appearances in the New Testament are comparatively few, but each one is telling. Today, if you have a moment or two, read through the gospel for the feast, Luke 1.26-38, and ask yourself what it means to be the handmaid of the Lord (and if you happen to be male, ask yourself the same question because the whole Church is feminine before God). The answer may disconcert you.

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Lepanto, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (formerly, Our Lady of Victory), and Living with Islam Today

The title of this post proclaims that I am both an insider, for I write as a Catholic and erstwhile historian, and an outsider, for I also write as a Benedictine trained in an English tradition which regards the rosary as a purely private devotion and I am clearly not a Muslim. However, it is the nearest I can get to ‘thinking aloud’ about the significance of this day and the focus it puts on something many of us find perplexing and, at times, troubling: how Christians in the UK live with Islam.

Some Obligatory Historical Background
If you want an overview of the Battle of Lepanto and its importance from a European perspective, I suggest you read this Wikepedia post. It’s not too long, and it does note the link between between the rosary and the victory over the Ottoman Empire. Pius V instituted ‘Our Lady of Victory’ as an annual feast to commemorate the victory, which he attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Dedications to Our Lady of Victory had preceded this papal declaration. For example, Simon de Montfort  built the first shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Victory in thanksgiving for the Catholic victory over the Albigensians at the Battle of Muret on 12 September 1213.  However, in 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of the feast from ‘Our Lady of Victory’ to ‘The Holy Rosary‘. Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the whole of the Latin Rite, inserting it into the General Roman Calendar in 1716, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. Pope St Pius X changed the date to 7 October in 1913, as part of his effort de-clutter the Sunday liturgy of devotional feasts and commemorations. In 1960 Pope St John XXIII changed the title to ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’.

A Contemporary Dilemma
You can see from the above that today’s feast confronts us with something our politicians are often nervous about: the Christian origins of Europe. Anyone who, like me, has been a student of Spanish history, will readily acknowledge the interplay of Judaism and Islam with the Christian history of Europe, including not only the contributions made by Jews and Muslims but also the terrible sufferings unjustly inflicted on those who did not conform to the religious norms of the day. The problem, as I see it, is that today we are both hesitant about identifying with our Christian heritage and woefully ignorant about the difference between mainstream Islam and the Wahabist perversion of it that has perpetrated so much terror and violence — chiefly, let it be said, against other Muslims.

When Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, delivering an academic lecture in Regensburg, quoted (without any approval or identification with the sentiments of the author) a few sentences expressing a negative view of Islam, he released a maelstrom. Many commentators dismissed the pope as out of touch, prejudiced, etc, etc. They did not bother to read what he actually said, nor did they understand or care about the context in which he spoke. He simply failed to conform to their ideas of what was acceptable. Others seized on his words to ‘justify’ their hate-filled torrents of abuse (in both directions). It was ugly; it was unnecessary; but it was also revealing.

It would be foolish to deny that Christians in the UK do have a problem with Islam. Most of us have Muslim friends whom we love and respect and know to be as far away from from being terrorists (the usual accusation) as it is possible to be. We also know that the media aren’t very interested in stories about mutual co-operation and help. They bear a great responsibility for the negativity towards Islam in this country. But it wouldn’t be honest, either, to dismiss the concerns of people who are troubled by the way in which some elements of Islamic practice seem to be undermining historical freedoms and customs. Many are concerned, for example, about the operation of Sharia courts, instances of the separation of men and women at university lectures, or the use of Halal meat in general catering. It isn’t just an unease with difference (think how exotic Catholicism seemed to the average Englishman of a hundred years ago!), but a sense that something important we can’t quite identify and can’t in any way control is being changed.

I see today’s feast as an invitation to reflect and pray about my own attitides — from my wimpish silence at times about what I truly believe to my casual complicity with views I’ve been too lazy to think or do anything about. That may not sound very much, but in the past it has made me read the Koran and Muslim commentaries on the Koran. It has also made me challenge, at least interiorly, much of the media’s speculation about the motives of others and their narratives of Islam in the UK. I think it matters because to believe something untrue about another is a great injustice; it is an even greater injustice to act out of that untruth. It is also, for a Christian, wrong to deny our Christian heritage or play down or dismiss its importance for today. The key to reconciling these sometimes contradictory aspirations is surely the search for truth and the desire to live in peace and harmony with all. May Our Lady, revered in both the Christian and Muslim traditions, aid us with her prayers.

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Lepanto, the Holy Rosary and Us

The feast of the Holy Rosary was instituted to commemorate the Battle of Lepanto, when a significant defeat was inflicted on the Ottoman Turks by the Holy League (a rather optimistic name for the coalition of southern Catholic maritime states that placed themselves under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and ascribed their success to her intercession). The Holy League’s victory effectively prevented further Turkish expansion westwards. Today, many Christians, in Africa and the Middle East especially, feel threatened by the rise of a  militant Islam which seeks to exterminate them by every means possible. The West, however, is no longer Christian in any meaningful sense and seems to have no clear idea how it should respond to any perceived threat. We read about Boku Haram murdering children as they sleep and wonder how such intense hatred can exist, conveniently forgetting that drone attacks in Pakistan have also killed children as they slept. I certainly have no answers to any of the questions raised by terrorism or counter-terrorism in the world today.

My Muslim friends and I have often asked ourselves what we, as individuals, can do and the only answer we have been able to come up with is to pray and work for peace where we can. It often doesn’t seem much, but unless we do try to dissolve the old hatreds and antagonisms, we are doomed to go on living them. If you are a rosary pray-er, why not pray a rosary for peace between Christians and Muslims today?

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