Stones into Bread and Other Temptations

One consequence of not being able to go to Mass (and not having anyone here who can say Mass) is that one ends up preaching to oneself. So, not for me this Sunday the usual exposition of the three temptations to which Jesus was subject, nor any fascinating diversions by way of why the Spirit drove him into the desert or even any far-fetched analogies with our our own Lenten practice. Instead, I can simply think about the gospel (Matt 4. 1–11) and question my own attitudes and behaviours. To my surprise — and sadness — I have ended up with three analogous temptations I share with you now.

Stones into Bread
Some days ago Cardinal Vincent Nichols gave an interview to the Irish Catholic in the course of which he made some remarks à propos the pope’s commission to study the possibility of extending the diaconate to women. It wasn’t so much the cardinal’s slighly clumsy way of defending the reservation of all forms of holy Orders to men as what he said about women in leadership roles that struck me. He is quoted as saying that he supported leadership roles for women but added, ‘the vast majority of Catholic schools in England and Wales are led by women, as are so many organisations in the English Catholic Church . . .  What I would fear is that the leadership of women would simply be channelled into the Order of Deacon.’

If I have understood correctly, that comes dishearteningly close to saying the only leadership roles he actually envisages for women are in primary and secondary education; and women wouldn’t be able to serve as deacons without that becoming the sole form of service they give to the Church because . . .  well, why, exactly? I don’t think he said. ‘Stones, not bread,’ was my first thought; but then I thought again. It is easy to want the Church to be what we want her to be without regard to what she is in and of herself, and we can come dangerously close to colluding with what is ungodly to transform everything we find unattractive or unyielding to suit us better — in gospel terms, to turn stones into bread because we are hungry and want to be fed. I admit I find the condescension of some of the clergy troubling, even infuriating, at times; but that does not necessarily mean that what they say is rubbish. So, for me, the challenge is to go on praying, questioning, researching, genuinely seeking God’s will for the Church and accepting that I may not always be right, no matter how much I’d like to be.

The Kingdoms of this World
I am sure many share the sense of wretchedness we felt in community when we learned of what had happened at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway. By a painful irony, the news broke just as we had sent off our obligatory annual fee to the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service and were debating, not for the first time, what such bodies are able to do to ensure that the abuse of children and vulnerable adults is no longer taking place within the Church. We may say, truthfully, that the world of the Bon Secours Orphanage was very different from that of today, but there is a lingering suspicion, as revelation follows revelation, that perhaps the human psyche does not change very much and some will  still find ways of abusing the trust placed in them. The temptation to maintain the reputation of the individual or the institution at the expense of truth is always with us. When it involves the sacrifice of those who cannot defend themselves or who feel helpless in the face of wealth and power, it is doubly terrifying. We have allowed the kingdoms of this world to obscure our vision of the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, this is not a problem only for the Church. Corruption seems to be rife in politics, finance, sport, almost everything we can name. It is easy to point the finger at others and forget or ignore where we fall short ourselves. We may not be lured by money or fame or the desire to lord it over others, but most of us have some vanity, some weakness or fault we prefer to keep hidden. What lengths would we be prepared to go to avoid exposure or condemnation? It doesn’t really matter that what we think of as unbearable may, in fact, be trivial. It has a hold over us. We are not free. The question I have posed myself this morning is, what holds me in thrall? What earthly kingdoms, so to say, block my way to the heavenly one? The answer I give must be concrete, not abstract; particular, not general — and that is what makes it difficult.

Worshipping the Devil
There are some lines in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus where Faust asks the devil to appear to him in a fairer guise and Mephistopheles comes back disguised as an old Franciscan friar. Most of us are disgusted by evil in plain sight. We are not always quite so condemnatory when evil appears as something else or we are confused about the nature of what we are dealing with. As Christians, we know the danger of making an idol of ourselves; but we are not always as aware of the way in which we can fail to take the measure of what is happening in other spheres. We may have strong political views but fail to see that we have idolised the person in whom we have placed our faith; we may have a firm conviction of the importance of science yet fail to see that some research is unethical and thefore not admissible. I am sure you can find examples of your own. The last and greatest temptation Christ faced in the desert is one we too must face, but it is not an obvious temptation, nor are the ways in which we combat it obvious.

I am not sure how I examine my own attitudes or behaviour with regard to worshipping the devil, but I know that it matters and that, as Lent unfolds, what is obscure to me will become much clearer. That is one reason why beginning Lent with Jesus’ experience of temptation in the desert is so encouraging. Right from the start we are reminded that we are not alone. Where we must go, he has gone before. The victory is already won; it is for us to make it our own, but we cannot rush the process or think we have already attained our end when we are only a little way along the road. Lent may prove even tougher than we thought.

I have added the link to Cardinal Nichols’ interview, with my apologies for not checking that it had registered properly before publishing this post.


How We Do Business

Once upon a time, if memory serves me right, there was an offence called conspiracy to obtain pecuniary advantage by deception, (Theft Act 1968: section 16). I mention this because in my former existence it was an offence other people committed against banks rather than bankers themselves. Of course there were bad eggs among the bankers, but they were, I think, the exception. Banking was boring because it was honest. Fraudsters were rare and looked upon as letting the side down. If found out, they faced ostracism and worse. Not so nowadays, it seems.

Obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception used to be a criminal offence and carried with it a sentence of up to five years (I’m not sure how the law stands now). Today we read that Bob Diamond has been ‘shamed’ into forfeiting his bonus from Barclays, but he has neither resigned nor been sacked. It may be that a criminal prosecution will follow, but for the moment we are faced with the unpleasant spectacle of corruption and dishonesty at Barclays being brazened out on the grounds that Mr Diamond ‘didn’t know’ what was happening. It may be that he didn’t know, and I certainly don’t want to accuse him of being dishonest himself, but what sort of management is it that disclaims responsibility for ANYTHING that happens in the company for which it is responsible?

Benedict was quite clear about the responsibility of the abbot: it was all-encompassing and extended to the next world as well as this. No one is suggesting that bankers should model themselves on Benedict’s abbot (though there might be a vast improvement if some of them did), but the question of managerial responsibility is a grave one. Too often we find senior mangers shrugging off responsibility when things go wrong, though they are quick enough to claim credit when things go right. What the situation at Barclays has highlighted goes beyond rate-fixing. It touches the very nature of how we do business and the standards by which we live our professional lives.