Yesterday we heard that UK deaths from COVID-19 had reached 100,000 +. Today we mark International Holocaust Memorial Day and remember the millions of Jews who died in the concentration camps and death camps of the Nazi era. What sadness, what an ocean of tears! Statistics have a way of appearing inhuman, yet we know that every figure represents a human person, an individual, infinitely loved by God, tenderly loved by family and friends, and we feel helpless in the face of so much suffering and anguish. It is good that we should. If we did not feel pain, would we ever know compassion? Would we ever try to make things better for others?
I have often thought about my mother who, when I was young, paid a weekly visit to someone I’ll call Hedwig — a survivor of Nazi ‘experimentation’, who led a sad and lonely life, consumed by fear, all her possessions gathered into a few carrier bags. My mother wasn’t a ‘do-gooder’, nor was she motivated by religion or any ‘ism’. She knew what it was to grieve (she lost two brothers during World War II) and she knew that Hedwig grieved the loss of everyone and everything familiar to her, so she did what she could to reassure her that she was both loved and lovable. I hope her sympathy and interest made life a little better for Hedwig. I know it did for me. Go figure, as they say.
The popular slogan of our time ‘Be kind’ tends to irritate me, partly, I suspect, because those who utter it are sometimes anything but kind themselves or use it as a defence against any criticism of their own opinions or actions. Yet we all need kindness, perhaps never more so than as the New Year 2021 advances on its way with a pandemic still uncontrolled, wars, poverty and injustice still rife, and human hearts still unconverted. And perhaps the only way to real kindness is via an experience of compassion.
The meaning of kindness and compassion It helps, I think, to reflect on the origin of the words we use. To be kind is to recognize kinship with another — Old English cynd(e) gecynd(e) — and is closely linked to nature. We are naturally kind to those with whom we are united by blood — only, let’s be honest, sometimes we aren’t. That’s where compassion comes in. To feel with, to suffer with another — Latin compati — requires imagination and is a work of grace. That has nothing to do with natural relationships as such, but allows us to be kind to those with whom we have no natural affinity.
Being truly kind, being compassionate, requires more than vague feelings of benevolence or a few well-meaning words. It requires effort, a change of stance. Matt Collamer’s photo reminds me of the top-down attitude we often adopt towards those we try to help or ‘be kind to’. The photographer has come down to the level of the man holding the sign, and how different everything looks! The figures in the background are higher, distant, and, whether by accident or design, walking away from the subject. There is no connection between them and him. It is almost as if man with the sign has become an object rather than a person. Does that make you examine your conscience? It does me.
The challenge for us People often speak of our living in a broken world or one in need of healing. We tend to forget that it is up to us to mend the pieces and bind up the wounds. The fact that we feel we can do very little doesn’t mean that we can do nothing. We can be kind; we can be compassionate; and doing so will bring us closer to God than many of the other activities in which we engage. Ultimately, it is not how rich, powerful, learned, beautiful, admired, ‘right’ or anything else we are that matters, but how much we love God and others for his sake, who is all mercy and compassion.
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Consolation and the 70th birthday of the National Health Service. I owe an enormous debt to both and make no apologies for an intensely personal post.
Many years ago, before I became a nun, I was doing some research in Ourense, Galicia, where the canon-archivist was very keen to show the enigmatic Inglesa his pride and joy: a statue of Our Lady of Consolation that had been much beloved of English seamen. I had so far acculturated to Spanish ways that I actually dropped to my knees and prayed — for England, of course, but even more, with all the egocentricity of youth, for myself and future path in life. I did not know that it would lead me to an English Benedictine monastery under the patronage of that self-same Lady of Consolation, nor that one of my kinswomen had been a member of the community back in the eighteenth century. But it did, and I think that the emphasis on compassion, on strengthening, the choice of dedication gave the community has been a marker in many monastic lives. Here at Howton Grove, where we are under the patronage of the Blessed Trinity, we continue the tradition, I hope, albeit in a different form from that of the seventeenth century when Cambrai was established.
It seems to me very suitable that the NHS should have begun on the feast of Our Lady of Consolation, though I doubt whether its first architect would have been so appreciative of the link! During the last seventy years the NHS has undergone many transformations and will doubtless undergo many more, but one thing it has done superbly well, especially for the poor. It has taken away the worry of ‘how will I afford treatment?’ I myself have two rare diseases, one of them a rare and aggressive form of cancer that has been kept at bay far longer than I have any right to expect by a treatment programme entirely funded by the NHS. The community couldn’t afford the treatment I’ve had; we couldn’t even afford the insurance premiums for the treatment I’ve had. So, yes, I am just one more person who owes her life to the NHS, but there is a little more to it than that.
I began by referencing Our Lady of Consolation for a reason. I haven’t much time for those who moan and groan about the NHS being underfunded or who are scathing about its poor outcomes in some areas because I happen to believe that we are each of us chiefly responsible for our own health. It is up to us to adopt as healthy a life-style as we can and I don’t expect the NHS to make good any defects in my own ‘self-care’, as it were. The NHS is flawed, as any large organisation will be flawed; but that isn’t the point. The existence of the NHS has freed us from an anxiety about ourselves that can be quite crippling. The question we must therefore ask is, what do we do with that freedom? Are we givers of comfort and encouragement or merely consumers thereof? There are times when my own illness makes me look inward and feel very sorry for myself, but I hope there are more times when it forces me to look outwards at the sufferings of others. When I can do nothing else, when I am too sick to write or respond to requests, I can try to pray — and somehow, in ways I can’t explain, I think that does achieve something. Despite all the sadness, anger and division in the world, despite all the moral, physical, mental and spiritual sickness that exists, there is a way of spreading health and happiness. It is called prayer, and it costs . . . everything.
Yesterday I made the mistake of re-reading some of my previous posts about this feast (to try not to repeat myself today) and was brought up short by the realisation that I have frequently wittered on about repository art and kitsch, especially in connection with the Sacred Heart. It is difficult for an English Catholic to avoid the topic altogether since so many of our churches were built with the pennies of the poor at a time when accommodating the largest number of worshipers was more important than anything else. The devotional art with which we filled them was indeed devotional rather than art and has not been helped by the subsequent reorderings of Vatican II and the reorderings of the reorderings that have followed since. But to harp on about tackiness when considering this feast! It shows, I have to admit, a lack of perspective. This is the great devotional feast of the Passion, as Corpus Christi is the great devotional feast of the Holy Eucharist, and it allows us to pause for a moment and reflect on the endless compassion of God, the outpouring of sacrificial love we see in Christ Jesus.
Even the most superficial glance at the headlines will show that compassion is not the most obvious quality we as human beings possess. There is too much strife, too much hardness of heart. A celebrity may obtain the freeedom of someone gaoled for what many consider to be a minor crime, but the plight of children separated from their families because they fall foul of immigration legislation, that is a ‘more difficult area’ (sic). Perhaps today we could spend a few minutes kneeling before the crucifix and pondering the last two lines of today’s first Mass reading, from Hosea 11.9,
I am the Holy One in your midst
and have no wish to destroy.
and the significance of that piercing of Christ’s side with a lance that John describes (John 19.31-7). The blood and water that poured out came from the dead body of Christ. The Fathers loved to meditate on the meaning of the blood and water, but for us there may be more to be gained from thinking about the fact that Christ had already died when his side was pierced. He, for a little while, could no longer act, only be acted upon. Sometimes compassion has to be drawn from us when we are unable to give it of ourselves. Are we ready for that? If not, this feast may help us prepare.
Today, in our novena to the Holy Spirit, we pray for the gift of understanding. Have you ever stopped to consider what that really means? The meaning of wisdom, for which we prayed yesterday, is fairly obvious, but understanding? It is more than mere comprehension. When Solomon prayed in the temple for an understanding heart, he was praying for the grace of discernment, the grace of right judgement, that he might govern his people Israel wisely and well ( 1 Kings 3. 7–12). To understand requires humility, the ability to let go of one’s own ideas and absorb another’s. But it doesn’t mean letting go of one’s crictical faculties, far from it. To understand implies a sifting out of true and false, important and unimportant, of coming to a decision about the matter to be understood; but because it is a work of the Holy Spirit, it is a process accompanied by love and compassion.
There is a French saying to the effect that to understand all is to forgive all; and there is a lot of truth in that. So many of our disputes are based on misunderstandings, on our determination always to be ‘right’, always to have the upper hand. I like the fact that in English we have to stand under in order to understand. That is contrary to almost everything that contemporary society values. We no longer prize humility or the slow and patient work of the saint or scholar. We want immediate results. We sell ourselves as a big success even when we aren’t. We mistake aggression for courage, point-scoring for argument, sound-bites for solid reasoning. That is why I think we need understanding more than ever today. We all know how lovely it is to have a friend who ‘understands us’ but we sometimes forget that we need to be understanding too. Let us pray today that the gift of understanding may be given us in abundance.
The death of Robin Williams is sad, in the way that the death of any human being is sad. ‘No man is an island, entire of himself. . .’ Sadder still is the thought that he may have taken his own life. Only those who have plumbed the depths of depression themselves will truly understand how bleak and unfathomable was his feeling of isolation and hopelessness. But the public outpouring of grief and sentiment at his death may make some uneasy as it does me. It is not that I question the genuineness of the emotions expressed — the sense of connectedness many feel, the feeling of loss — but I wonder whether they say more about the living than the dead. Are the protestations of grief partly a defence against one’s own death; and is there any way in which the underlying fears can be lessened?
If this seems strange to you, let me give you an example. As many readers know, I have leiomyosarcoma, a rare but aggressive cancer which is not curable. The reactions of my friends, and of the community’s friends, have not always been the same. Some are clearly upset but know me well enough to realise that, however open I may be about what is happening, the last thing I want is oodles of sympathy (I get that from the dog, and it is much easier to deal with.) Others are so keen to know every detail, constantly suggesting alternative therapies and ‘what worked for Aunty Flo’, that I have sometimes thought, ‘This is about you, not me at all: you are worried about your own death, not mine; and you somehow hope that by poring over the details of my illness you will protect yourself against the same happening to you.’ When I think that, a huge wave of compassion goes out towards the person concerned, because there is nothing as dreadful as fear, especially a fear that cannot be articulated, and I am moved to pray for them.
I think that when celebrities die, some of these unarticulated fears surface. We grieve for the dead as a way of grieving for ourselves. Perhaps that is why I cannot find it in me to condemn even the most uncongenial forms of expression of that grief. But, as a Catholic, I can’t let it rest there. I do believe (most of the time) that life is eternal and nothing ultimately lost; that there is hope, even in the darkest of times. I believe, too, in the duty of praying for the dead. So, this morning, in addition to praying for Robin Williams’ family and the thousands who feel they have lost a friend, albeit more of a screen friend than a flesh-and-blood friend, I shall pray for the repose of his soul. That, for me, is the real connection between us: the union of prayer between the living and the dead, a union that surpasses every distinction of age, race and, indeed, belief. Requiesact in pace. Amen.
Contrary to the opinion of some, Christianity — at least in its Catholic form — regards neither poverty nor riches as a sign of God’s favour or disfavour. Why, then, is the ‘prosperity gospel’ proving so attractive? Yesterday, not for the first time, our email prayerline contained many requests for financial blessings. Some mentioned distressing situations: nowhere to live, not enough to eat, inadequate or non-existent healthcare, the inability to pay college fees, and so on. Others clearly regarded prayer as a means of obtaining everything the petitioner thought would make him/her happy: a big house, fast car, trophy girl/boyfriend, and so on. We may smile over these, agreeing sagely that money can’t buy happiness, but the fact remains that many people still think of wealth as directly related to God’s blessing and, more troubling still, a blessing that is in some way deserved. By contrast, those who lack anything are under God’s curse, and that is equally deserved. How did such a skewed view of things ever arise?
I wonder whether it is a reaction to centuries of various forms of Christian quietism. Upholding the status quo, not challenging the establishment, accepting that
The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
is a self-evident truth (whereas it is nothing of the sort) may have played their part. On the whole, Catholicism has tended to exalt the value of being poor over the value of being rich, recognizing that material plenty can clutter our spiritual vision; but no one can argue that the Church has ever herself felt the need to be poor as an institution.
Lent is a good time to think through our attitudes to poverty and riches, especially as almsgiving is an essential feature of our Lenten discipline. Mercy and compassion aren’t the first qualities that spring to mind when we think of riches, but for Christians they ought to be. That is what we are asked to demonstrate with particular generosity throughout these days of Lent. Our almsgiving shouldn’t be token giving; it should be from the heart, and as much as we can give, whether we’re talking money or some other form of giving, e.g. time. But there is still the underlying attitude to consider. Do we give from a position of superiority, or do we share from the same level? In short, are we believers in the ‘prosperity gospel’ without realising it, or are we ready to accept that we are all equally God’s children and as such bound to one another? The answers may prove uncomfortable, but Lent is a time for being made uncomfortable.
Yesterday, for the first time, it struck me that ‘arrogance’ must come from the Latin arrogare, to claim for oneself. I was reading something which made me think the writer unscholarly and rather arrogant when I found myself questioning what I meant by the latter. In my experience, arrogant people tend to twist and turn facts to suit their own purpose; they are supremely self-confident; and they do not really listen to others because such engagement would show up flaws in their own arguments. What they say and do is all about drawing attention to themselves — see how brilliant/beautiful/superior I am! It is indeed making a claim for oneself, and put like that, it looks rather childish, doesn’t it?
There is a danger in arrogance, however, as there is in most forms of childishness. One hesitates to name any individual as arrogant, but one can see the effects of arrogance all around. Many of our political and economic woes can be traced back to arrogance: to an exaggerated sense of self which disregards any check or balance. It is arrogance which makes it fashionable to decry needy people for being needy — why should I be compassionate when to do so I must step beyond myself and feel the pain of another? It is arrogance which makes it easier to fire bullets at one another rather than sit down and discuss, for why should I listen to you when I know I’m right and you are wrong?
Religious arrogance is just as deadly but often takes a slightly different form. It tends to hide behind the group or organization rather than being outrageously individual, but it retains all the characteristics of personal arrogance. Maybe that is why Benedict is so insistent on monks cultivating humility. The best antidote to arrogance is truthfulness, just as love and compassion are an antidote to hatred and violence. To be truthful, loving and compassionate is to be genuinely grown up, mature in Christ as the apostle says. It is to be selfless in the best sense. To make no claim for oneself, but to allow others to make claims on one, now that really is worth thinking about!
One of the expectations of Christian clergy and others is that they will be compassionate. Sometimes this amounts to no more than listening patiently and handing out tissues while someone pours out (or more often, chokes out) their grief and anger. But is that all compassion is? The Latin roots of the word go much deeper. To be compassionate we must suffer with the other, feel with them, not just identify with them intellectually. I wonder how many of us, clergy and religious, could honestly say that is what we do when confronted with the world’s pain? To keep our sanity, to enable us to go on, we sometimes have to place some emotional distance between ourselves and the other’s suffering.
Very often, awareness of having placed limits, of having perhaps lacked the imaginative capacity to sympathize as we think we ought, can lead to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I think myself they are misplaced. We are not called to be Christian supermen or superwomen; we are called to be Christ in any and every situation; and to be Christ is to allow Christ to work in and through us. He respects our limitations. After all, we are God’s creation! So, we do not need to worry about whether we are being truly compassionate or feeling the world’s pain as we ought. We have only to allow Christ to love others in and through us as best we can. Sometimes not getting too much in the way is more than enough.
If, today, you are called on to deal with a person or situation that seems beyond your strength or ability, take heart from the example of St Matthias. He was chosen to take the place of Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus had caused so much pain both to the Lord and to the disciples. Matthias knew he wasn’t first choice for the job, wasn’t even the surefire choice of the other apostles (who chose between between him and Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus). He had been with Jesus and the others from the beginning, but never in the first rank, never in the close circle we read about in the gospels. He could have had a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but he didn’t. His experience of being ‘outside’ stayed with him ‘inside’. I have a hunch that he was probably the most compassionate of the disciples because he knew not to get in the way. May he pray for us all.
One of the (many) good things about living in a monastery is that one is spared all those end-of-the-year reflections, when people attempt to name the most significant events/people/products of the year just gone and predict the same for the year just coming. It is so wearing, and if one were to wait ten years, the lists would probably look very different. Those of a classical bent have much sport with Janus and ianua, of course, (I’ve done it myself), and I daresay tomorrow I shall be among the many saying something about Mary, the Mother of God, whose feastday it is. But today, what of today? Do we end the year with hope or despair, gratitude or an almighty grumble?
Poverty, disease, hunger, violence — they are still with us, as they were at the beginning of the year. Does that mean that the bright promise of 2012 is unfilled, that nothing has really changed? It is easy to forget that if we wish to change the world, we must begin with ourselves. If we see poverty as a scandal, we must examine our own use of material goods; and not those alone, for there is a spiritual and intellectual poverty that is just as crushing. If we believe that no one should go hungry, we do not need to go very far to find someone who hasn’t enough to eat, even here in England. As for violence, unless we address our own inner violence, we shall never free the world of the desire to wound and kill. The problem for most of us is knowing where to start, even with ourselves.
I think we can all learn from Lawrence DePrimo, the New York policeman who met a poor man with no shoes on. Instead of just passing by, he stopped and measured the man’s feet, then went into a store and bought him a pair of boots. A bystander captured this act of humanity and kindness on camera and soon the policeman’s action was all over the internet. Officer DePrimo was baffled by the fuss, but the important point is that he noticed the need of another and did something about it. Noticing was the first step, and that’s the same for all of us. Too often we just don’t see, so we do nothing. There can be no end unless we first make a beginning, and opening our eyes is the only way to start — whatever day of the year it is.