The Three ‘C’s: Choice, Control and Celebrity

Once upon a time, cultivation of the three ‘R’s — in other words, education — was seen as the passport to a happy and fulfilled life, especially for those born into what were then called ‘modest circumstances’. Nowadays we seem more concerned with the three ‘C’s: choice, control and celebrity. The first two have become a mantra for our politicians. ‘Give the people choice,’ they exclaim, as they urge us to choose which hospital will have the pleasure of (eventually) performing some necessary surgery on us. ‘Take back control,’ insist the Brexiteers, conjuring up the bogey of a Brussels bureaucrat intent on limiting our freedom. As for celebrity, one has only to glance at Instagram or some other Social Media platform to see how many seek fifteen seconds of fame or notoriety as though it were the highest good. By the time we are twenty-five, most of us know that choice is often more illusory than real unless we happen to be rich, that control is, in practice, a rather dubious concept, and as for celebrity — the moment for that has long passed. We are now ready to read chapter 5 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Obedience.

At first sight, the very concept of obedience seems destructive of individual freedom and aseity. It goes contrary to everything we believe about the value of choice, our desire for control, even our secret longing to stand out from the crowd (see above). Or does it? Benedict begins by noting that obedience without delay is as it should be for those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ. (RB 5.2) By beginning with the principal motivation for obedience, Benedict clears the way for everything that follows, piling up motive after motive and emphasizing throughout the importance of listening. (RB 5. 3–6. The word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin obaudire, to listen hard or carefully.) In the next few sentences he maps out how swiftly the monk’s obedience should be accomplished before delivering what we might call his knock-out blow, we choose the narrow way; we choose to live under obedience; we desire to have an abbot over us, thereby imitating him who said, ‘I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.’ (RB 5. 11–13, quoting John 6. 38) Obedience is chosen; it makes us like Christ.

We might have assumed that Benedict would leave matters there. After all, what more is to be said when obedience is freely chosen as a way of identifying with Christ our Lord? Well, Benedict is a realist and knows that obedience can be costly. Most of us obey grudgingly at times or in a way that is anything but an imitation of the Lord. So Benedict goes on to say that our obedience must be marked by a certain sweetness of disposition, a courage and cheerfulness that will make it acceptable in the Lord’s sight and not a burden on others. (cf RB 5. 14–19) Those who have served as monastic superior know how difficult it can be to ask a community member to do something one knows they will not like — rather like asking a teenager to tidy his room or go to bed at a ‘reasonable’ hour — so does Benedict!

Chapter 5 should not be read out of context. It is no accident that it follows chapter 4, On the Tools of Good Works, and precedes chapter 6, On Restraint in  Speech. It is part of the Benedictine programme, so to say, for becoming a true monk, one who has come to the perfect love of God. (Rb 7. 67) That is the goal of obedience as of every other practice or discipline in the monastery; and you don’t need me to tell you that in that love of God we find perfect freedom. We have chosen to place our lives under the control of God, and in so doing discover our true identity as ‘sons in the Son’. No human celebrity could ever equal that. And what is true of the monk is, mutatis mutandi, true of every Christian.

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The Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus

It has often been remarked that there was something about the Risen Christ that made even those closest to him hesitate. He was familiar, yet strange. Mary Magdalene thought at first he was a gardener; the disciples in the gospel this morning are uncertain until Peter literally takes the plunge. Those blessed with a mind choc-full of certainty will have no difficulty explaining this to their own satisfaction, but for those of us more accustomed to complexity and contradiction — we of little faith, perhaps — will find here something worth pondering. The cosy, conventional Jesus of popular imagining has taken on something of the transcendence of Ezekiel’s vision. We are confronted by the mystery of the burning bush, the flaming seraphim, the utter holiness of God. It is as though a veil has been drawn aside and, like Moses, we are permitted to enter the dazzling darkness of God himself. These Resurrection gospels challenge us as no others do. Jesus is revealed to us as much more than a prophet, much more than a holy man. Will we adore him as God or not? We have to answer one way or the other, don’t we?

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Palm Sunday 2014

On a previous Palm Sunday I wrote:

Today, wherever our Palm Sunday celebration takes place, we are in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. One question we might ask ourselves is, where do we stand? Are we with the crowd following Jesus and singing hosannas; with the bystanders, looking on from a safe distance; or with those indoors, dismissing what is taking place as just another riotous assembly it is better to keep clear of? Our answer can tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way in which we see the unfolding of Holy Week.

Holy Week is quite brutal in the way in which it demands choice from us. If, during the rest of the year, we are rather unremarkable Christians, regular in our church-going and dutiful in giving to good causes, but keen to avoid drawing attention to ourselves and definitely not the stuff of which martyrs are made, this week reminds us that in following Christ we have made the most radical choice imaginable, one we must live to the end. We cannot simply bumble along the way; we must deliberately choose to follow wherever Christ leads.

I think today I would want to nuance that a little. This is the first time I’ve been unable to take part in the Palm Sunday Mass and Procession; so this year I am not among the followers singing hosannas but among the bystanders who look on from afar. Does that mean I am any less involved? Surely not.

There are many ways of following; many ways of being close to the Lord. One of the hardest is to feel we have no choice, are unable to follow in the way we would wish. It is important to remember, however, that the essence of discipleship is to follow as the Lord chooses. We must all accompany Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem, to Calvary and beyond. How we get there, when we get there, doesn’t matter. We can trust him to show us the way. ‘I would be at Jerusalem,’ says the Pilgrim in Hilton’s Scale of Perfection. That is all that matters.

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Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

I’ve written a lot about this feast in previous years but realise I’d never admitted, until recently, that the often syrupy form it takes in some parishes was always a barrier to my appreciation of its theology and, indeed, historicity (it was clearly a pre-Reformation devotion at Netley, which was impeccably Cistercian). I suspect others feel the same. The clue to overcoming this will be found, as so often, in the preface for the feast and its reference to the piercing of Christ’s side with a lance as he hung on the cross, and the streams of grace and mercy which flowed from the wound.

Videos and television may have accustomed us to the sight of gore. Blood flowing from a wound may no longer have the power to shock. But for a Christian, the thought of God’s Son shedding his blood for us is truly awful. (Interesting: I originally wrote ‘bleeding for us’ but thought the more conventional phrase might be less offensive . . .) The blood of Christ washes us clean of sin, nourishes us in the Eucharist and restores us to union with God. Christ’s heart pulses eternally with that redemptive blood. The feast of the Sacred Heart, therefore, challenges us with a love so complete, so unremitting, that we are forced to choose: will we accept that love, or reject it? One of the wisest things ever said to me was to look in the eyes of a crucifix and say, if I dared, that I didn’t give a damn. One might do the same with an image of the Sacred Heart. Who could possibly be indifferent?

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Palm Sunday 2012

Today, wherever our Palm Sunday celebration takes place, we are in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. One question we might ask ourselves is, where do we stand? Are we with the crowd following Jesus and singing hosannas; with the bystanders, looking on from a safe distance; or with those indoors, dismissing what is taking place as just another riotous assembly it is better to keep clear of? Our answer can tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way in which we see the unfolding of Holy Week.

Holy Week is quite brutal in the way in which it demands choice from us. If, during the rest of the year, we are rather unremarkable Christians, regular in our church-going and dutiful in giving to good causes, but keen to avoid drawing attention to ourselves and definitely not the stuff of which martyrs are made, this week reminds us that in following Christ we have made the most radical choice imaginable, one we must live to the end. We cannot simply bumble along the way; we must deliberately choose to follow wherever Christ leads.

Today we begin our following with rejoicing, but a rejoicing which already has a hint of menace. On Good Friday we shall see where that menace will take us. For now, we  focus on Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem where we know he will be rejected. Nevertheless, we stand with him every inch of the way. It is a choice we make every day of our lives, not just during Holy Week.

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