The Church’s Powerful Women

What does that phrase convey to you? Whom do you think of as the Church’s powerful women? My guess is that the majority of Catholics would be hard put to name any living woman as such. A little scratching of the head might produce a few names from the past: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, say, or Teresa of Avila. The idea of women exercising power in the Church is alien to most, and the names we remember tend to come from a comparatively small group of people who did comparatively similar things, e.g. found an order/congregation/institute of charity or write. The more historically-minded could provide a list of Late Antique empresses and medieval queens who exerted a lot of influence in the Church, not all of it good, but that mythical beast, the (wo)man in the pew, would probably end up with very few names. Among them would almost certainly be that of today’s saint, Hild or Hilda of Whitby, but I wonder whether it would be the Hilda of history or the Hilda of modern myth who would be celebrated?

A close reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells us several interesting facts about Hilda and suggests many more. She may once have been married. ‘Everyone called her mother,’ says Bede, a phrase he uses of no other nun. She was certainly of mature age (33) when she abandoned her plan to go to Chelles, the leading monastery for women of the day, and answered Aidan’s call to establish a monastery in Northumbria. The monasteries she founded all followed the Celtic pattern and were double houses for both men and women. Bede emphasizes her gifts as an administrator — and her sensitivity to poetry. She plucked Caedmon from the cow-byre to be a singer of psalms and sacred songs. Her role at the Synod of Whitby has been much discussed, and I think it may explain why Hilda has been mythologized in recent times.

What happened at Whitby must have been quite earth-shattering for many of the participants. Indeed, the monks of Lindisfarne refused to accept the decision to embrace the Roman date for Easter and withdrew first to Iona, then later, to Ireland. For those who did accept the decision, Hilda among them, it meant the loss of much that was dear and familiar. Little by little, or in some cases overnight, the old Celtic practices gave way to the ‘new’ Roman ones. Even the shape of the monks’ tonsure changed. Perhaps only those who have lived monastic life themselves can really appreciate what these changes meant to the individuals concerned. There was continuity but also change, and it is often the little things that cost most.

Hilda undoubtedly played a key role in getting the decision accepted. Such was her reputation for wisdom and prudence that many would have looked to her for guidance. Crucially, what many overlook is that in accepting the Roman date of Easter Hilda was placing the desire for unity in Church practice above any other consideration. As a Celtic Christian, she already acknowledged the primacy of the pope, but here she was, stating that a theoretical acknowledgement had to be translated into actual practice.

People sometimes speak of Hilda as though she were a role model for female bishops. She is undoubtedly a role model for Christian leadership, but I think myself it is more helpful to see her in the monastic context, where leadership is exercised without hierarchical status. Power, in Church terms, is such an odd thing. I think we sometimes mistake the importance of the different elements in building up the Church. Administration is a gift, a charism, not to be undervalued; but it is a gift meant to lead to holiness, and holiness without compassion is an impossibility. Hilda did not set herself up over and against the existing hierarchy of the Church but used her many gifts of heart and mind to bring others to the Christ she knew and loved so well. It is no accident that, holy herself, her monastery became a nursery of saints. May she pray for us all.

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A Horror of Hell and the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity

The title of this post is deliberately ambiguous. I am in fact referring to two separate but related things: one of the tools of good works cited in today’s passage of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 4.45, and this week of the year when we Christians devoutly pray for unity. Let me explain.

Today’s section of the Rule is concerned with judgement — how we shall be judged on the Last Day, how we are to motivate ourselves to keep guard over the actions of our life, how we are to understand God’s watchful presence in our lives, and so on and so forth. For me it is a powerful reminder that Christian unity is not an optional extra but an obligatory part of being a Christian. The trouble is we all understand different things by unity, and therein lies the challenge.

As a Catholic, I subscribe to the teachings of the Catholic Church without reservation.  I don’t find all of them easy, and there are certainly some that I consider to be more important than others (a hierarchy of truths in operation, if you like). But the essential thing is that I try to understand the Church as the Church understands herself because I believe that to be key to understanding Christ. Therefore, the first kind of unity I seek and aim at is the unity of the Church to which I belong. I am always trying to improve my own knowledge and understanding so become uncomfortable when self-appointed guardians of the Faith hurl accusations at those they consider to be less ‘orthodox’ or less ‘compassionate’ than themselves. I am inclined to follow Benedict’s lead in believing that correction should only be given by those with authority to do so, i.e. those appointed. Sadly, I find many of those wanting to set others right online are themselves ill-informed. This makes for a disunity that is like a slow poison in the system — not helped by the fact that Google is not able to distinguish between truth, half-truth and fiction!

Another kind of unity I aim at is unity with all my fellow Christians, not at the institutional level, but at the practical level of prayer and charity. Many readers of this blog will recognize themselves in my designation of ‘online friends’ and know, I trust, how highly I value them and their insights. iBenedictines is evidence of the way in which we can share ideas, concerns and prayer for one another in a spirit of mutual respect and honest engagement.

It is when we come to the question of institutional unity between the Churches that we face the biggest gulfs in understanding. I naturally look to Orthodoxy first, but I know that for many of my fellow countrymen, Orthodox Christianity is something of an exotic of which they have no first-hand experience. Then there are all the infinite varieties of Anglicanism and Protestantism. Very often we assume that because we say the same (or similar) words, and do the same (or similar) actions, we believe the same things, yet that is patently not so. Again, I think ecclesiology is fundamental to understanding these differences and their importance, but ecclesiology is hard work and most of us, if we are honest, are inclined to avoid hard work if we can. So, we settle for something less arduous although still demanding in its own way. At the back of our minds, however, is that nagging imperative, the prayer of Christ himself for the unity of his Body, the Church, and the need to understand and attain that unity in the way that Christ intends rather than as we ourselves might choose.

As we work to maintain the unity of the Church to which we belong, as we work to deepen the practical unity of all Christians, let us not forget the need also to work towards that third kind of unity. It is not a light matter that we undertake. We may prefer not to think about heaven and hell, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, nor that our conduct will not one day be weighed by our loving and merciful God.

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The Paradox of Christian Celebrity

We are currently re-reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. (You can listen to the daily readings from the Rule here on our main website.) It is a chapter that means more and more to me as I see both the possibilities and the challenges inherent in any attempt to live a truthful life. This autumn re-reading happens to coincide with the announcement of the shortlist for the Christian New Media Awards (CNMAC13: see here) which has generated some interesting debate about the nature of Christian celebrity and the place of awards for blogging, tweeting, websites, etc. Let me say straight away that it is the notion of Christian celebrity I want to explore here, not CNMAC or the awards it will be making. An earlier post on social media and humility may also be of interest (see here).

There is a paradox in the whole idea of Christian celebrity, for we all have the idea that Christians ought to be ‘retiring’, shunners of the limelight; but it might not be so paradoxical if we could free the concept of celebrity (= known, honoured, frequented) from the trappings of the celebrity culture we see all around us. To be known as a Christian is something every Christian should aspire to: our whole manner of being should proclaim the fact, not just our words or our dress, and it should be apparent whatever we are doing (cf. St Benedict’s Twelfth Step of Humility). Why then the unease? Is it because there are people who make a business out of their Christianity, who parade their Christianity for ends other than God? People who want to be recognized, applauded, for what is, in fact, a work of grace and not their own doing? Empty vessels making a lot of noise and ultimately proving they are not what they seem or want to seem?

I was pondering this in relation to some popular American preachers and came to the conclusion that we must distinguish between active and passive celebrity, that which is sought and that which is ‘imposed’ —or maybe ‘bestowed’ would be a better word. Popular acclaim is not in itself indicative of anything other than that someone or something has been noticed by others. No outsider will ever really know how truly humble or otherwise an individual may be. We tend to project onto others our own likes and dislikes, fears and fantasies, confuse the person with the position/office and generally muddle along as best we can, admiring X and ignoring Y. It is hero worship translated to the religious sphere. The Catholic Church has always known how to handle this, but she prefers her heroes (= saints) dead so she can apply certain tests of authenticity. ‘The good that men do is often interred with their bones’ is indeed true. Hero worship can be useful. It can inspire us to emulate the virtues of others. It can also be harmful, leading to idol-worship, the setting-up of that which is less than God in the place of God.

I am really undecided about Christian celebrity. There is potential for good and potential for harm. Ultimately, it is not the Christian celebrity (= person) who is responsible for what we make of him/her, but we ourselves. That surely is the paradox at the heart of this question: what we choose to honour may be Christian or it may not. It is we who need humility to keep us grounded in truth, love and service. What do you think?

Note on CNMAC13
Do have a look at the conference programme and, if you can, attend. You will learn  a lot. This blog was nominated by someone, I don’t know who, and is on the shortlist for Blogger of the Year. Check out the other entries. They are well worth reading if you don’t already know them.

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Another Kind of Suffering

We are about to begin Holy Week, the Great Week of the Christian year, and our eyes are already beginning to focus on the Cross and the suffering Jesus will undergo for our sakes. All our own suffering and failure is taken up into that one great redemptive act. That doesn’t mean, however, that what we suffer is somehow less real because it cannot compare with the suffering of Jesus. We can exaggerate, but we can also ‘spiritualize’, not acknowledge how deeply or negatively we experience things. Yesterday I had a negative experience I’ll share with you in the hope that it may help you see that whatever we suffer can be a way in to understanding what we celebrate this coming week. At least, I found it helpful.

I had been invited to take part in a radio programme. The producer had kindly sent an advance list of questions to form a basis for conversation and the interviewer was one I admire. All very promising. I listened to the first two contributors and felt very much in sympathy with them. Then came another, and as she spoke I began to be troubled by what she was saying about something I happen to hold very different views on. When my own turn came, I was distinctly lacklustre. No problem with that (except for my pride!), but then I was taken off-guard by the way in which two further questions were posed: the ordination of women and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Catholics will know that John Paul II placed discussion of the ordination of women off-limits, and for those of us who are priests or religious, it is a tricky question to handle in the public sphere because the way in which it is presented (as one of equality or power in the Church) is not one that corresponds to our understanding of the sacrament of holy orders. One has to tread carefully to be intelligible to the general public and not overstep the boundaries currently permitted by the Church. I made a hash of it. Then came the killer. Would the presence of women in the priesthood help avoid sexual abuse? There are two things to note here. First, I find the idea of women being priests themselves (or priests being allowed to marry) as a way of preventing men from acting wickedly rather insulting to women. To be fair, I don’t think the interviewer meant that. It just sounded like it to me. Secondly, but just as importantly, few seem to recognize that most Catholics — surely the vast majority — are deeply upset by what we have learned of abuse and cover-ups. It reduces me to tears, and yesterday I found myself welling-up on air at the thought of how those children had been abused and the whole Church had been betrayed.

Quite clearly, the narrative of abuse in the Catholic Church is the only one the media are really interested in. I am beginning to wonder, however, whether it is time to ask the un-askable. Are there others who suffer in addition to those abused, and should we be concerned about them, too? A few years ago I wrote about the effect of abuse compensation claims on the diocese of Boston. So huge were they that the diocese had to close schools and hospitals for the poor, and one convent of religious sisters had the roof over their heads sold to help meet the cost (they were generously re-homed by some Episcopalian sisters). It was all very sad. The abuse was dreadful; the price paid by the Catholics of Boston and the poor was also dreadful. This is another kind of suffering which is not, by and large, acknowledged: the suffering of those who are themselves innocent of abuse but who must pay for the sins of the guilty — in terms of money, services, reputation and the constant drip-drip of poisonous remarks.

Some will argue that that is just tough. The awfulness of what happened means that Catholics must put up with whatever the world chooses to throw at us. The latest scandals attaching to the name of Cardinal Keith O’Brien have led to even more gleeful dirt-chucking. Those who believe that a vow of chastity or a promise of celibacy obliges to continence are appalled and saddened. The abuse of power is rightly seen as completely unacceptable. There is no excuse.

But I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the constant negativity does have an effect. To be held responsible for something one had no part in, that one condemns absolutely, isn’t easy. The pain and grief we feel for the wrong done to or by others is not assuaged by knowing that it may draw one closer to Jesus. The only way in which we can make sense of it is by remembering that we are the Body of Christ — wounded, bloodied, it is true, but still intimately united to our Lord and Saviour, who will never fail or forsake us.

As we process with our palms tomorrow, rejoicing in that transient moment of triumph which was a prelude to the everlasting triumph of the Cross, let us give thanks that we have a Saviour who has borne all our sin and shame. In him, we are washed clean, given fresh hope, redeemed.

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Instruct, Inform, Infuriate

I very nearly called this blog post ‘Advice for Mothers-in-Law of Either Sex’. The desire to instruct and inform others is something most of us suffer from. Some are able to keep the desire more or less in check because we are afraid of showing our ignorance. Others are less cautious and quite happy to give everyone the benefit of our superior knowledge and wisdom. The trouble is, our generous-hearted instruction of others can be infuriating to those on the receiving end.

I daresay I shall be accused of sexism or worse when I say that, in my experience, men are actually more prone to giving unasked-for advice than women. I have sometimes listened enthralled as someone dug a deeper and deeper pit for himself, laying down the law on a subject about which I happened to be marginally better informed (that’s nunspeak for something less modest). With half an ear, I listened; meanwhile my mind was running along quite different channels. What had suggested to my interlocutor that I was in need of instruction? What had I said or done to prompt this outpouring? What sort of assumptions were at work and why?

I have never fathomed the mystery, but it has made me think about situations in which there is a very fine line to tread between giving instruction/information and infuriating one’s audience. Preaching the homily at Mass, for example, is reserved to priests and deacons, which means that we Catholics only ever hear from our pulpits the male view of the Gospel or Church teaching. At one level, I have absolutely no problem with that, so please don’t think you can sign me up to any dissident pressure group or similar; at another, I do wonder whether the result is that younger women in particular need to make a bigger imaginative leap than their male contemporaries. I remember when I was young being in an agony of laughter at Lavinia Byrne’s ironic description of how to describe oneself as a Catholic woman: ‘I am a child of God, well, son, actually . . .’ It is so true. Theologically, we understand being ‘sons in the Son’, but expressing our identity as sons of God does require a bit of a double-take (for me, at least).

I have, of course, no solutions to suggest and am not even sure that the problem I have identified is a problem for many. It affects me because I spend so much of my time working with Church documents, listening to homilies and dealing with  questions addressed to the community via our vocations portal or other online resources. I am wondering where the increasingly didactic tone of many Church communications is going to lead. Today’s section of the Prologue (vv 14 to 20) is about longing for life and a right use of speech and action which allows us to hear the voice of the Lord. That, surely, is what we are all aiming at. I just wonder whether we need to think more deeply about how we achieve our aim.

I’d love to know your views, but please, no trading of insults or imputing base motives to others (even if I have been a bit hard on the men myself).

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A Deep Sense of Shame

The sex abuse scandals coming to light in the Catholic Church have appalled everyone. As a woman, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could think of abusing a child or young person. I’m sure most men feel the same way. In vain do some argue (what is actually true) that Catholic clergy are statistically less likely to be abusers than married men. The stories of abuse, the cover-ups, the ineptitude of many ‘official’ responses have left us all reeling. As a Benedictine, I feel a deep sense of shame that Benedictine monks have been among the offenders. I’ve known some of them, and it is painful to record that I’ve heard them preach, received the sacraments at their hands, even been lectured on how I ought to live while they themselves were breaking their vow of chastity and injuring those entrusted to their care. How does one deal with one’s feelings of disgust and betrayal?

One way would be to say, I will have nothing more to do with any of them. They are all hypocrites and liars and have profaned the holy of holies. A little bit of me does want to do that, if I’m honest. A bigger bit of me wants to say, perhaps even this can be a source of purification for the Church. Perhaps there will be less arrogance among the clergy. An even bigger bit of me wants to lament the evil that has been done and pray for all who suffer as a result, especially those who are losing many of the services the Church has traditionally provided because of the discrediting of the institution along with some of its members — the compensation payments to those who have been abused do not come out of thin air. Most of all, however, I want the Church, and the Monastic Order in particular, to ask itself how this could have come about. A scandal is literally something that causes us to stumble, that deflects us from the right way. Some people have accused us as nuns as being in some way in ‘collusion’ with the monks. That is nonsense, but I think it highlights the fact that a deep sense of shame is not enough. The past cannot be changed, but it can be redeemed and everyone of us has a part to play in that.

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Prejudice and Fear

Last night I listened to part of the World Service and learned that another Catholic church in Nigeria had been burned to the ground by Islamist extremists. It reminded me that when I last saw Mother Charles of Enugu (a Benedictine community of nuns) she remarked, very quietly, that she was expecting her community to be martyred. Expected it! I think we in the west sometimes forget that our fear of a terrorist attack, though real, is light years removed from the daily reality of many Christians in Africa, India and the Middle East.

As the fireworks burned and blazed last night in memory of 5 November, I couldn’t help reflecting that very little has changed in over four hundred years. The name of the enemy may have changed, but we continue to be afraid of the ‘other’. Whether we live in Nigeria or New Jersey, London or Lagos, we feel our vulnerability. The only difference is that we in the west have security forces which devote considerable time and energy to trying to keep us safe, irrespective of our opinions and beliefs. Perhaps today we could remember all those who don’t enjoy that kind of security, who fear the corruption of police or army and who live with an ever-present fear of being bombed or butchered by their fellow citizens.

 

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Enda Kenny and the Catholic Church

Most people will have sympathized with Enda Kenny and his denunciation of the apparent slowness with which the  Catholic Church as an institution has got to grips with the implications of, first, the Murphy report and now the Cloyne report. I think I have written enough on this subject for everyone to know the position of the community here. I am troubled, however, by two things: the fact that so many of the clergy still don’t ‘get’ what it is all about, and the fact that it is primarily the laity of today who must pay for the sins of the clergy of the past.

Clergy who are innocent of any kind of abuse (the vast majority) are often bemused by the distrust and hostility directed at them. We find that as nuns we get a small amount of ‘hatemail’ on the subject and sometimes have a few gibes made at us; it must be much worse for the clergy. The point is, our understanding of the Church means that we are all affected by what a few do or have done. There is such a thing as collective responsibility, though I am not sure how far it goes in this case. What I am sure is that adopting a public stance of condemnation and privately playing down the significance of abuse is completely unacceptable. Despite all the talk of safeguarding and putting in place statutory measures to ensure the proper reporting of abuse, etc, there still seems to be comparatively little being done to enable the clergy and those in training to understand, identify and combat paedophilia in their ranks. If I am wrong about this, someone please put me right. I can only speak as I have heard.

My other worry is that when the victims of abuse bring lawsuits against the Church, it is principally the laity of today, especially the poor, who suffer. We have seen what happened in the Boston diocese. No one denies the awfulness of what was done to those who were abused, but the closure of schools and hospitals (and even the making homeless of some of the sisters who served in the diocese) has hurt the poor of today in ways that few are prepared to acknowledge. Other dioceses face similar sorts of closures. Those who are hostile to all forms of religion may rejoice, but those who know only the kindness of Christians will not. During my recent visit to the U.S.A. I was struck by the trust shown to nuns by those at the bottom end of the economic scale: African Americans and Hispanics doing ‘menial’ jobs or out of work altogether  seemed to find it easy to approach and ask for prayer or a blessing or just talk about their concerns. When trust is destroyed, what is left in its place?

Personally, I think we are only just beginning to understand the extent of abuse in the Church. Paedophilia has, quite rightly, come under scrutiny; but there is abuse of authority which affects not just children but adults, too. For all that, the Church remains a divine institution: one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. No matter how flawed, she remains the Bride of Christ, guardian of sacred scripture and of the sacraments, the nexus of our salvation in this world and the next. We must pray for her, love her, serve her, no matter how difficult at times that may be.

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Saints John Fisher and Thomas More

I feel a sense of connectedness to these two saints that I don’t feel to many others of the period. First, there is Fisher: a Cambridge man of course, of ascetic mind and temper, but fond of his sister (a nun) and capable of gentle humour. The cane he used on his walk to the scaffold is kept over the way at Hendred House, and when I first held it I was struck by how small he must have been. Somehow, one always expects giants of the faith to be giants physically. Then there is More, with his quicksilver mind and delight in his family, a more complex character than Fisher. His drinking cup is kept at Hendred House as a family relic, but we claim a small association of our own as the community at Cambrai from which we are ultimately descended had among its founders D. Gertrude (Helen) More, his great-great-granddaughter.

Today, many claim Fisher and More as their own, ignoring the inconvenient truth that they died upholding the primacy of Rome over the English Church. It is a sobering thought that these two saints were clear where we are often confused. They challenge us today, not least in their understanding of the universalism of the Church. May Saints John and Thomas pray for us all.

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