Taking a Principled Stand

The feast of SS John Fisher and Thomas More always invites some reflection on the meaning of conscience and the cost of following it. Too often that ends in a more or less superficial recognition that they paid with their lives for opposing the king’s will and that was a Good Thing because they were on the side of truth and right. I happen to believe that they were on the side of truth and right, but even a little knowledge of Tudor history will soon show how complex was ‘the king’s matter’ (Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon) and the changes in relations between Church and State signified by Henry’s adoption of the title Supreme Head of the Church of England. We look at the result and forget the process that led to it. Had I lived in those days, for example, I am quite sure I would have agonised as much as Fisher and More about the right thing to do and only gradually come to see the course I should follow. There the similarity ends, for I would never have had the courage to endure what they endured: the loneliness, the disgrace, imprisonment and execution.

Note I put loneliness and disgrace ahead of the sufferings Fisher and More experienced in the Tower and in the manner of their death. I think we often forget that taking a principled stand about something rarely looks principled at the time. It is frequently mocked by others, attributed to selfishness or stupidity, even reviled as being unpatriotic or disloyal. One’s closest family or friends fail to understand and urge another, safer course. Worst of all, one is not absolutely sure oneself. More’s letters from the Tower show his growing awareness that no compromise would be possible, but he clearly felt the force of the objections voiced by his family. For Fisher, it was an even lonelier process, although he was much more direct than More, declaring early on that he was prepared to die, like John the Baptist, in defence of the marriage bond between Henry and Katherine. Not all the bishops agreed with him by any means, and his closest living relative, his sister Elizabeth, a nun, was unable to visit him. To the very end he was not allowed the ministrations of a priest, and when his body was was buried (his head was thrown in the Thames), not a single funeral prayer was said. One can only speculate what went through his mind and wonder at his ability to hold firm.

Today there are many who experience in their own way the cost of being true to their conscience. They are not necessarily universally admired. There may even be some we ourselves condemn because we do not know all the facts or make our judgements on hearsay and what we find on Social Media. That is a sobering thought. Sobering, too, is the realisation that we may be called upon to make a stand one day. It may be in the first flush of youth, when everything seems so promising; in mature middle age, when the promise is largely fulfilled, all looks glorious and the cost unbearable; or when we are old and frail and it would be much easier just to give way and seek some means of escape. We cannot tell, we can only trust that grace will be given when we need. St Thomas More assured his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. We know he was. Who knows what we are capable of but the Lord?

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A Question of Focus

Earlier this morning I thought of writing a post about conscience with topical allusions to Bishop Philip North, the new guidelines being proposed by the General Pharmaceutical Council and the European Court of Justice’s decision regarding the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace. But I quickly realised that any such post would end up becoming not a discussion of conscience but a battle over the rights and wrongs of the three cases I intended to use as illustrations.

I don’t think such a diversion would be because people failed to see the point I was trying to make (although sometimes they do); I think it would be because the point they themselves wished to make was infinitely more interesting than anything I could say, and who could possibly blame anyone for that? We all do it. We all love to turn the subject of conversation round to something that really interests and engages us. The only problem is, we tend to do the same thing when confronted with scripture or the liturgy or anything else that requires us to stand aside from our own noisy certainty and listen, humbly and attentively.

I often think that when Mrs Zebedee came to Jesus and asked for James and John to sit at his right hand in the kingdom of heaven (today’s gospel, Matt: 20. 17–28), it was not so much because she was a pushy mother as because her sons had very selective hearing. They had filtered out all Jesus had said about suffering in order to concentrate on the coming glory of the kingdom. Their focus turned out to be quite different from that of Jesus. This Lent we might all usefully ask ourselves what we are trying to filter out from the gospel, what we are trying to avoid. The answer may surprise and chasten us.

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The Blessing of Sleep

One of the incidental blessings of my recent surgery has been the ability to sleep ‘normally’ again. After two years of disturbed nights, I appreciate how easily we are affected by aches and pains — and what a pain we are to others when we don’t sleep well!

You can find recommendations a-plenty for how to get to sleep and ensure your sleep is sound, but along with the milky drinks and the regular routines advocated by the sleep specialists, there is one conspicuous absence: the need for a quiet conscience. I don’t mean by that an innocent conscience. Few of us are fortunate enough to live wholly unblemished lives; but although we all sin, we don’t have to let sin define us. We have it in our power to repent, to change, to try to put things right. When St Benedict gives as a tool of good works ‘make peace with your opponent before sunset’ (RB 4.70), he is merely putting into concrete form something he alludes to many times in the Rule: never nurse a grudge, never allow your conscience to become accustomed to thoughts of revenge, see where your desire leads and check it if it is leading you astray.

The old practice of ‘examination of conscience’ before bedtime is a helpful way of reviewing the day’s events. It enables us to give thanks as well as repent of wrongdoing. It can also help organize our discordant and jangling impulses into a programme for tomorrow, when we will try to live more truthfully, lovingly, etc.

Despite years of research we still do not know all sleep’s secrets. Perhaps the most elusive is the way in which sleep fashions our future. We know that the wear and tear on our bodies is repaired during sleep; we also know the psychological benefits of a good night’s sleep and the way in which problems are often resolved without our consciously thinking them through; but what of the spiritual benefits of sleep? Sleep is the one time when we can’t put up any barriers to God, when there are no obstacles to the working of grace. You may not be a monk or nun, but before you go to sleep tonight, try making your own that lovely saying of the Desert Fathers, ‘the monastic cell is like Easter Night: it sees Christ rising’, and quieten heart and mind in readiness.

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The Right Thing to Do

It is almost impossible to talk about ‘the right thing to do’ without sounding like a politician. The phrase has been used and abused so often that it has become virtually meaningless. That is a pity, because there is nothing else that conveys the idea behind it so simply and beautifully.

The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.

I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation. I am still left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated. We have seen something of that in recent discussion of marriage in this country. If we peep over the ecumenical fence, we can see our Anglican brethren tearing themselves in different directions over questions some of us find too perplexing for an answer yet.

Today is a good day to pray for all who have difficult decisions to make, who are keen to do the right thing because it is the right thing and nothing less will do. May SS John and Thomas pray for us all.

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Class and Conscience

Being ‘posh’ is not a sin. Being nouveau riche is not a sin. Being just plain rich is not a sin. Those of us who are not posh or rich sometimes have difficulty seeing beyond the things that irritate us about those who are. Nadine Dorries may be right about David Cameron’s shortcomings, but what she said told us more about her than about him. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and ugly too because it makes judgements on the basis of something utterly ridiculous, quite literally a no-thing..

In England, class is hard to define but instantly recognizable. It is linked to, but not determined by, wealth. Accent and education play a major part, but not intelligence or many of our grandest families would hardly qualify as upper class. Everyone can become middle class, but one has to be born lower or upper class. That fact alone should indicate how silly it is to value or misprize anyone on the basis of class.

But do we use class as shorthand for attitudes that really have more to do with conscience? Many rich people are extremely generous; many others are extremely mean. Whether Christian or not, we still tend to expect those who have a lot of this world’s goods to share with those who don’t. When the rich person refuses to share or is rude or belittling about those less fortunate, we feel that something is not right and are left thinking about camels and eyes of needles. A hard heart and a tight wallet is a particularly unlovely combination.

It would be sad if our present economic mess were to lead to another outbreak of class warfare. Much better, surely, to concentrate on developing a conscience about others and a more generous response to their needs. ‘All in this together?’ Yes, Mr Cameron, but at a much deeper and more demanding level than I suspect you, or most of us, have yet guessed.

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The Right Thing to Do

British politicians seem to have adopted ‘the right thing to do’ as their catch-phrase of choice. It suggests high moral purpose, deep thought and a noble sticking to principle. I shall be very surprised if David Cameron does not tell Parliament this afternoon that exercising Britain’s veto at the E.U. summit was ‘the right thing to do’.

The trouble with claiming something is ‘the right thing to do’ is that very few choices in life are simple, and a bad or ill-informed decision cannot be defended by appealing to some vague conception of ‘rightness’. On the other hand, we all regularly have to make decisions on the basis of imperfect knowledge and imperfect grasp of possible consequences. Today’s collect captures this sense of moral confusion by asking the light of Christ to shine on the darkness of our heart, tenebras cordis nostri. The darkness (tenebrae) referred to is a little more definite than mere obscuritas but not quite so intense as caligo — not darkness as a deliberate choice of evil so much as darkness caused by laziness or lack of knowledge.

Advent calls us out into the desert in order to rediscover what the Covenant is all about, to prepare a highway for God in our hearts, to allow the light of Christ to shine on our darkness. We may be in a fog about many things, but turning to the Lord is always the right thing to do. As Hosea assures us, he is our Teacher who will show us the way — if we are prepared to listen.

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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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A Sense of Entitlement

Occasionally, I catch myself saying or doing something that, on further reflection, strikes me as being presumptuous. Presumption isn’t something we talk about very much. Perhaps if we substituted ‘a sense of entitlement’ it would be easier to understand. We live in a society where demanding or asserting one’s rights is seen in positive terms. We are entitled. One unfortunate result of this is to have made us less honest. An accident can lead to litigation, so fault is not acknowledged; a mistake is always an ‘oversight’ for fear of the consequences of saying one made a mess of things. We don’t have to worry too much about kindness or courtesy because we are entitled. (I exaggerate, of course.) We talk about corporate responsibility and individual responsibility but try to wiggle out of it in various ways. In short, our sense of entitlement can make us childish, demanding that everyone else be responsible but ourselves not at all.

I was thinking about this the other day when I looked through a number of emails that Quietnun was struggling with. (She would do almost anything not to disappoint people.) Each writer assumed that his or her request was perfectly reasonable and should be responded to promptly and positively. As it happens, we can’t meet all the demands but that is not my point. What struck me was the writers’ sense of entitlement. You are there, you are nuns, you should do this or that which I have decided you should do. Apply the same sense of entitlement to personal relationships and one can see how quickly all will end in disaster.

Our expectation in the west that we should never be hungry or thirsty and should always have medical care is increasingly under threat from changing economic conditions. Out right to own property and enjoy a lengthy retirement is also being challenged. But it is easy to see these things in impersonal terms and shy away from any sense of our own involvement. Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress that our reliance on rights has produced a culture of death because we have not balanced it with a sense of responsibility. Perhaps we need to do some reassessment at the personal level. We used to consider presumption a sin. I’d say we should also think about our sense of entitlement in similar terms.

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Becket and Conscience

St Thomas Becket
St Thomas Becket

The feast of St Thomas Becket always takes me back to Cambridge days and the difficulty of making up my mind about Becket. I always wanted to see him as the doughty champion of the Church, clear-eyed in his acceptance of the consequences of clashing with the king. But I was enough of a historian to worry that many of his contemporaries were less convinced. Gilbert Foliot, for example, did not see Becket as a hero; and Foliot was a man of great integrity. I finally decided that I could accept Becket’s holiness without necessarily thinking him right in all his judgements (it is significant that no one, not even his worst enemies, ever accused Becket of unchastity which, at that time, would have scuppered any claim to sanctity, but the cause for which he died was quickly superseded by a compromise).

My student dilemma is one we are regularly faced with in the secular sphere. Recent events in Russia leave one “wondering” about the justice system there. What is happening in the Ivory Coast has a definite whiff of sulphur about it; and as for what we know of Afghanistan, who could say, hand on heart, that the western forces have made the situation there any better, despite the huge sacrifice of people and resources on every side?

All of us have to make decisions based on imperfect and often contradictory evidence. We must do the best we can. Sometimes doing the best we can may lead to martyrdom of one kind or another. More often it means being misunderstood or misprized, usually by those whose opinion we most value. Let us not undervalue the courage and persistence that requires. The daily death to self, the trying to do the right thing, makes the whole of life a martyrdom, a witness for Christ.

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