The Church: Resentment and Reality

This is not a theological post (although I shall try to write one on the subject some day), more a musing-aloud about something that perplexes me. When people refer to ‘the Church’, what do they have in mind? For example, even practising Catholics will sometimes refer to the Church as though it were something other — most frequently, the clergy, the Vatican, or some amorphous institution quite separate from that which they experience whenever they go to Mass and of which they are themselves members. Those who profess no belief can be forgiven for using the term even more loosely. What tends to be common both to believers and non-believers when they speak thus, however, is a kind of resentment of the Church — especially, its wealth, power, and rules.

The wealth of the Church is certainly arguable, for not only is some of it bound up in works of art that are, literally, priceless (and therefore a net drain on resources), but there is no single body called ‘the Church’ that owns it all. Ownership is vested in different groups: dioceses, religious orders, individual communities, and so on. The power of the Church is easier to reckon because there are millions of people throughout the world  who live by its doctrines and help shape the society to which they belong. The numerous agencies of the Church providing healthcare, education and other services are another example of power, if you like, though in this case exercised through service. It is when we come to the rules of the Church, the disciplines it expects its adherents to observe, that the real difficulty begins. Then there is a kind of double whammy. Sometimes ‘the Church’ is regarded as wrong to impose rules (e.g. the ban on abortion) or is held to be deeply hypocritical because some of its members break them (as in the case of sexual abuse). There is even the notion that people today are responsible for what happened in the past, even if they had no connection with that past other than being members of the same Church. Two examples may help explain what I mean.

When I was first asked, in all seriousness, to apologize for the Crusades, I looked rather blank. I have not the slightest idea whether any of my ancestors were involved and feel no sense of personal responsibility for them. When asked to apologize for (unproven) allegations of abuse by religious sisters in another country, I pointed out that (a) I’m a nun, not a religious sister, (b) I’m English and (c) I wasn’t even born when the alleged events took place so doubted whether my responsibility were any greater than my interlocutor’s, who was at least a citizen of the country in question and an adult when the alleged abuse took place. It didn’t go down well. I was accused of tying to wriggle out of responsibility. In fact, I was trying to get at the truth. What is the degree of responsibility individuals have, as members of the Church, especially for events in the past? Is it different in kind from the responsibility we have as citizens for whatever our country may have done in the past? Is there a cut-off point, an unwritten statute of limitations, as it were, or is resentment distorting reality?

I have no answer to those questions. What principally concerns me is working out how to satisfy the demands of truth and charity when faced with the consequences of what I’d call lazy but commonplace thinking. In the end, what people think the Church is is almost as important as what the Church actually is, and we who belong to her must do the best we can to reflect the mind of Christ in any and every situation. Perhaps, deep down, I resent that a little, but it is the reality I know I must try to live. Q.E.D.?

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St Cecilia’s Day 2013

St Cecilia’s Day usually leads to reflections on music and musicians. Indeed, on a former occasion, I tagged onto the feast a few thoughts about music and community life:

I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through Western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving. (See post for this day 2011).

I stand by every word, but from a liturgical point of view, St Cecilia is celebrated chiefly for her virginity and her martyrdom. Neither is a particularly popular concept, but Christianity has never been about popularity, so perhaps we should spend a moment or two thinking about them and try to ignore the cheapening of words and ideas that marks Western culture today.

For a Christian, martyrdom is bearing the ultimate witness to Christ, giving one’s life-blood. To be a martyr, one mustn’t court death but must accept it as the price of fidelity. The grace of martyrdom isn’t one we can presume upon. It is a harsh grace, unpalatable, contradictory, and none of us knows whether we would have the courage to accept it, should the moment ever come. Cecilia was young in years but old in virtue when she died. We, by contrast, may be old in years and still infants in virtue, but it is never too late to try to cultivate a habit of fidelity, of readiness. That is to accept the seriousness of our faith and its implications for both life and death.

Virginity is another of those things many Christians are uncomfortable with. We are much readier to talk about marriage and family, yet the Church has always honoured virginity freely chosen out of love for God. St Augustine wisely remarks that ‘the whole Church is virginal by virtue of the integrity of her faith, hope and love’ while the beautiful Prayer of Consecration attributed to St Leo carefully insists that ‘the dignity of marriage is not lessened’ even as it becomes lyrical in its enunciation of the theology of virginity. One of the impoverishments of the Church today — and perhaps of society, too — is that the theology of virginity, so clearly linked to our understanding of the nature of the Church, has been almost totally eclipsed by our contemporary obsession with sex.

On St Cecilia’s Day, let’s listen to some good music; give thanks for the beauty of sound and silence; pray for the deaf, for whom music is an abstract concept, never to be enjoyed as we who have hearing can enjoy it; and spend a few moments thinking about the paradox that death is a gateway into life, and virginity fruitful in ways most never dream.

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From Nerses to Hilda and Back Again?

I love the way the liturgical calendar confronts us with contradictions. Today is the feast of two great saints, Nerses of Armenia and Hilda of Whitby. Nerses was a man of inflexible principle, sent into exile and eventually poisoned (or so it is alleged) for ‘speaking truth to power’. Hilda, by contrast, was a listener, a compromiser, who helped bring peace to the English Church by accepting the Roman date of Easter and all that it implied. The Church needs both her principles and her compromises; but above all she needs the wisdom to know when to stick to the one or yield to the other, that God may be glorified in all things.

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All Saints Day 2013

I made the mistake of re-reading last year’s post for this day and realised that it says most of what I want to say this year too, so I’ll spare you the repetition. There’s just one thing to add. A twitterstorm yesterday afternoon has heightened my awareness of the need for real holiness among the people of God. I don’t mean the kind of self-conscious ‘sanctity’ that seems chiefly to consist in adopting all the currently fashionable attitudes of liberal left or conservative right, I mean the kind of holiness that costs: the holiness of prayer, sacrifice and service; the kind of holiness that shakes us out of our complacency and changes us for ever; the holiness that reflects the holiness of God himself. It is that kind of holiness we celebrate today, not only among the saints in heaven but also among the saints on earth.

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Vocations Sunday

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is also the forty-ninth anniversary of the Church’s Day of Prayer for Vocations. Do you ever ask yourself what exactly are we praying for on Vocations Sunday? Even more importantly, do you ever ask yourself whom we are praying for?

I suspect most of us are praying for someone else. Our prayer is, may he or she have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. May their son or daughter respond to the Lord’s invitation. (In many cases, most definitely may it be their son/daughter, not mine!) Very few of us consciously advert to the fact that when we pray for vocations we must also pray for ourselves. Vocation isn’t a once-for-all call in the sense that once we answer we need do nothing more. The Benedictine vow of conversatio morum reminds us that we wake every day to hear what the Lord asks of us, and it is always something new. Vocation is on-going for each and every one of us.

When it comes to what we are praying for, many of us are probably more muddled than we like to admit (I know I am). We believe, in some vague way, for example, that priests and religious are a useful part of the Church; at any rate, they have ‘always’ been there, so we don’t want to lose them now. We need priests to celebrate the Sacraments, and religious can always be relied upon to pray for us when times are hard. Having a few around is therefore a good idea, a kind of celestial insurance policy if you like (I exaggerate, of course). Have we forgotten that when the Lord Jesus likened himself to a shepherd, he was using some very tough imagery about himself? It  should remind us that following him can never be comfortable or easy, that holiness is not, so to say, for wimps. Those who follow the Lord as priests or religious need to have similar qualities — toughness, courage and resilience, above all a willingness to sacrifice self, as well as the gentler and more immediately attractive qualities of love and compassion.

I like to pray on this Sunday for the graces I myself need to follow my vocation as a Benedictine nun as well as the graces others need to follow theirs. Whatever our vocation, all of us are called to be part of the Church. Together we make up the Body of Christ, flawless in beauty and holiness, perfect in faith, hope and love.

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Time and Eternity: the Easter Octave and the Eighth Day

The Easter Octave is a good time to think about time and eternity. In everyday conversation we use the words loosely, casually even, without regard to the more precise meanings given them by theologians and philosophers.

On Sunday we celebrated in a more intense form than usual the Resurrection of Christ. That is something we do every Sunday, but on Easter Day and throughout these days of the octave we go on celebrating that event as something that occurs uniquely today. Our ‘day’ therefore stretches over eight days, allowing us to assimilate different aspects of it. The Resurrection gospels read this week add to our understanding. They are like the many facets of a polished jewel, each one revealing different depths of colour and meaning.

But what of the eighth day? Is that the same as the octave day? The short answer is ‘no’. In Christian tradition, the eighth day is a sign of the new creation ushered in by the Resurrection. Sunday, as well as being the first day of the week, is also spiritually the eighth day. The early Christian writers made great play with this, seeing the eighth day as a symbol of perfection and fulfilment, the point where time intersected with eternity. Justin Martyr (c.154) described it thus: ‘the first day after the Sabbath [Saturday], remaining the first of all days, is called, however, the eighth, according to the number of all the days of the cycle, and [yet] remains the first.’

So where does that leave us during this Easter octave? We have, in effect, eight days of eighth days. We are living eternity now. And if that were not enough, the Easter season culminates in Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, ‘when the promise is fulfilled; all is made new.’ No wonder that we sing ‘alleluia’ over and over again.

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Making Sunday Special

An old rabbi used to say that if he came across any particularly delightful fruit, he would save it for the sabbath. It was a reminder to him of the joy and blessing that the sabbath is. For Christians Sunday can all too easily become a day like any other with a little bit of church on top. I exaggerate, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Perhaps if this morning you are preparing to go into overdrive, with a million things to do, you could pause for a moment and ask yourself just how many are really necessary, you might have time to taste and see how good Sunday can be. Rest isn’t the same as idleness, any more than peace is the mere absence of war or joy the absence of sorrow. Sunday is a day for allowing the Lord more scope than we usually do, letting him show us the true value of what we are and do and rejoicing in his presence and action in our lives. We each have to find our own way of making Sunday special.

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Families: holy and unholy, perfect and imperfect

Readers of iBenedictines’ predecessor, Colophon, will know that neither I nor the community to which I belong really ‘like’ the feast of the Holy Family. It’s a fairly recent addition to the calendar and often sentimentalised. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were hardly an average family, so not much use to us as role models, unless we are prepared to live with a constant feeling of failure because we can’t begin to emulate their perfection.

The fact that we don’t like a feast or find it difficult is, paradoxically, all the more reason for thinking about what it has to teach us. Maybe if we could drop the ‘role model’ idea for a minute we might see more clearly, because it is not the perfection of the Holy Family we need to aim at but its imperfection.

Jesus grew in stature and understanding, just as Mary and Joseph grew in understanding and obedience. The key words, I think, are ‘growth’ and ‘understanding’. Mary gave her consent to the angel without realising all that would be asked of her in the future. She grew as her vocation grew, constantly renewing her initial acceptance of her role as Mother of God. Joseph obeyed the angel, only to find that one obedience demanded another. Jesus himself seems not to have understood all at once what his Sonship would entail. He had to choose obedience to the Father step by step, had ultimately to accept death on the cross. For all three, it was a process, a perfecting of their lives.

In the messiness and imperfection of our own lives, that is a tremendous encouragement. None of us lives in a perfect family; many of us don’t live in families at all; but each of us can learn and grow through our experience of ordinary, everyday life. The Holy Family of Nazareth prepared the way for the Holy Family gathered around the cross on Calvary. We too have to make a similar journey, perhaps with many false turnings on the way but always with the same end in view. As we draw closer to Christ, we hope that we shall be made holy, not as members of his family but as members of something more wonderful still, his Body, the Church.

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Dominus veniet

Dominus veniet, the Lord will come: we sing those words over and over again this week, but I sometimes wonder whether we ever really think what we mean by them. Those who have recently experienced the death of someone they love will know what they mean without necessarily being able to articulate their understanding. They have experienced that moment when the Lord takes command and no amount of human effort is of any avail. We pray for the Lord’s coming at the end of time but, to be honest, most of us are happy to have it put off to an indefinite future. The Second Coming is, quite literally, too awful to contemplate.

In Advent and at Christmas we celebrate the three comings of the Lord: in time, in his birth as a Baby at Bethlehem; at the end of time, in his coming as Judge; and his coming to us now, at every moment of our lives, as the Word who gives life. The first and third comings are ones we grasp, or think we can; but the Second Coming baffles us, scares us even. It would be a good Advent exercise to spend a few minutes thinking about the Second Coming and how we are to prepare for it. If the idea of God as Judge paralyzes us, we can take heart from another image, equally demanding, but with happier overtones. ‘At midnight the Bridegroom’s voice was heard. Go out to meet him.’ We can so easily forget that that the Church is the Bride of Christ and in the Second Coming awaits her nuptials. No wonder we are urged to live lives which hasten the day of the Lord’s coming.

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Of Music and Musicians

The feast of St Cecilia is a good day on which to think about music and musicians. Let me say straight away that I am very average choir fodder. Indeed, when being taught to sing plainchant, I so exasperated my teacher that she exclaimed, ‘It’s just a matter of intelligence!’ Whereupon, to my eternal discredit, I did an off-the-cuff translation of one of the trickier hymns in the Hymnale. Pride 1; humility nil.

Inability to sing or play should not be confused with the ability to enjoy. There are very few who do not enjoy music, although we certainly don’t all enjoy the same music. I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving.

Fundraising Update
We’ll be issuing a statement later today after we have met with our advisers. We’ll tweet when it’s up.

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