Courage

We have been fortunate in having two examples of courage to think about recently. Felix Baumgartner’s descent from space was spectacular and caught the imagination of the world’s media. As someone who finds it difficult to climb a ladder, I have no hesitation in calling him a very brave man — but I have no wish to emulate his bravery. The arrival of Malala Yousafzai at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham reminds us of another kind of courage: the daily courage of a young girl determined to become educated and ready to risk the wrath of the Taliban. For me, education involved no risks at all, but I’m such a coward, I’m not sure I would have  been able to live with a death threat for going to school.

Two different people, two different kinds of courage, both of them equally impossible for me and probably for many of my readers. There is a third kind of courage, and it’s worth thinking about. Forgiveness, given and received, is not the act of a weakling, an easy way out of a difficult situation. To accept forgiveness we need to acknowledge our responsibilty for wrongdoing. It wasn’t the woman who forced you to eat the apple, Adam, it was your own gluttony and desire to have something forbidden you. Equally, to forgive others, we have to admit that the wound dealt us is not the whole story: we have consciously to refuse to allow either ourselves or the other to be imprisoned by our shared history. Some of the stories of reconciliation and forgiveness following the Second World War are truly inspiring: the former prisoner of war and his Japanese captor shaking hands; the Holocaust survivor gently reminding his children that the lesson to be learned from the death camps is not what Germans did to Jews but what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

When we look at our own lives, we are often ashamed of the pockets of unforgiveness we find. Are we really so small? Do we need to cling to that old hatred? We all have different ways of coping with such challenges. If we apologize for everything, we don’t need to apologize for anything. If we don’t want to admit we’re wrong, we can cut the other person off. Even if it’s something as trivial as disagreeing with another’s opinion, we can just ignore them. Every blogger knows that when a reader is irritated or annoyed by an opinion expressed — or sometimes, the failure to express an opinion the reader would like to see — there is often a little huff, and the reader stops reading the blog. It’s payback time!

René Girard has written movingly of the dynamic of forgiveness, of the importance of not passing the poison on. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of the way in which God deals with sin and failure. The Cross was Jesus’ way of not passing the poison on — a supremely brave, as well as forgiving, act. That is the kind of courage we all need.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Good Friday: the Moment of Truth

Yesterday’s events are still uppermost in our minds. We are weary with watching through the night. The morning brings no relief, only the prospect of a long trudge through hot and dusty streets, then out to Golgotha and the final act of this tragedy.

Today is a day of emptiness, when we are numbed by the experience of suffering and loss. We long for it all to be over, and yet we don’t. Every nerve is stretched to breaking-point, but we do not want it to end, because we know it must end in death. Yet the death we await is not the death of Jesus only, it is the death of all our false ideas of him, our shabby equivocations, our casual accommodations to ‘the spirit of the age’, our self-made religion. The Crucifixion of Christ is a moment of truth for all of us.

The Cross shows us, better than anything else, that God’s ways are not our ways. Our idea of him is too little, too monochrome. We try to edit out the bits we find uncongenial, reducing God to a kind of wishy-washy compassion that cannot encompass the reality of the compassion displayed on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross challenges us to rethink all our ideas, not just those we label ‘religious’. Painful though that is, it is not negative for we have his assurance that ‘the truth shall make you free’. Although we cling to our illusions, deep down we do desire that truth, that freedom, we just lack the courage to be free.

We shall never find the courage we need within ourselves. Only grace can work the miracle. Today, as we look into the eyes of the dying Christ we know ourselves for what we are: grubby, smudged with sin, yes, but loved infinitely, tenderly, more than life itself. Without us, he will not; without him, we cannot; with him everything is possible.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Annunciation 2012

When I wrote about this feast last year (see here), I mentioned that it reminds us youth can do great things for God. More than that, I think this lovely feast tells us that our dreams and ambitions are all too little for God. He called Mary to be theotokos, God-bearer, in the fullest sense. Just think for a moment what that must have meant to her, a young Jewish girl with the ordinary expectations of her place and time. What an upset of all her plans and expectations!

God calls each one of us to be something special. Often we are so conscious of our ordinariness, and rightly so (heaven spare us the person who thinks (s)he’s special!), that we overlook or undervalue the unique grace he has given us. For those of us who live in monasteries, our only talent may be that of living the monastic life, but it is for us the essential talent, the one that endows us with grace to respond to our vocation, to be what God desires us to be. As we give thanks for Mary’s acceptance of what God asked of her, let us pray for ourselves, that we may be equally generous and fearless in accepting what is asked of us.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Steadfastness

St Agnes was martyred early (at age 12 according to Ambrose, 13 according to Augustine) and is today chiefly remembered for being one of the female saints mentioned by name in the Roman canon. She is the patron saint of virgins, rape victims, gardeners, etc (there is a lot in the etc. but we’ll leave that for the moment) and has a singularly beautiful Office, so it would be easy to drift off on liturgical and historical reminiscence, but I think that might be to miss the point. The saints are not given to us so that we can commemorate them with exquisite art (though we often do) nor are they meant to be the subject of historical enquiry (though they often are). Saints are given to us for our encouragement. What encouragement can we derive from this young Roman girl martyred more than 1700 years ago?

For a start, she is a wonderful example of holiness in the young; and not the namby-pamby kind of ‘holiness’ which is in the eye of the sentimental beholder alone, but the real thing — gutsy, determined, tough-minded. Agnes stood up to her elders for what she believed and paid the price. Moreover, she stood up for something that many today find laughable or even an embarrassment: the freedom to choose whether to marry or not, whether to have sex or not. In her case, she chose a state of permanent virginity as an expression of love for Christ. That was the original ‘woman’s right to choose’ which she defended at the cost of her life. It is worth remembering that whenever we hear her named in the Mass, whenever we hear of someone being forced into an arranged marriage or raped. Let us ask her prayers for all vulnerable girls and women today.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Marmite Toast Moment

The last few weeks have been rather trying for the community (a classic British understatement, if ever there was one). As far as I can see, we can do nothing except put up with it as well as we can. I will therefore share with you the secret of maintaining a cheerful countenance in the face of disappointment and difficulty (though it won’t work in Scandinavia).

When the wine of life turns to vinegar and you feel knee-high to a worm, when prayer seems hollow and even the dog avoids you, there is only one thing for it: Marmite toast. That hot, savoury, tangy delight with its wicked afternote of forbidden saltiness will soothe the sore in spirit and revive the faltering courage of those sunk in gloom. If Delia Smith can do God for the spiritually hungry, surely nuns can do food for those down in the dumps? A ‘Marmite toast moment’ is so much better than giving in or giving up. Sometimes religion needs to take a very practical form. Taste and see!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Power of the Crucifix

Crucifix by Giotto
Crucifix by Giotto

The crucifix, with its poignant twisted body and bleeding wounds, is a powerful reminder that suffering and death are part of our lives. When we look on ‘the one they have pierced’ we remember also the love that held him there: ‘See, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.’ Who would not take courage from that?

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Saying Sorry is not for Wimps

Many readers of this blog probably sighed with relief when they heard that Britain’s state-owned woodlands are not to be sold off to the private sector; but I wonder what they made of the curious political tit-for-tat that followed the Environment Secretary’s announcement. I thought myself that Caroline Spelman handled a difficult situation with dignity, even graciousness, and was particularly struck by the absence of fudge in the way she began her announcement, ‘I would first like to say that I take full responsibility for the situation that brings me before the House today.’ That is not what, sadly, we have become accustomed to hearing from some of our M.P.s. Even more interesting, though, was the way in which she countered an accusation that she had been ‘humiliated’. Whatever her private feelings on the matter, what she said was straight and to the point: ‘I’m sorry . . . One of the things we teach our children to do is say sorry. It is not a humiliation; it is my choice.’

Why do we think that admitting one is wrong and saying sorry is humiliating? Some of the most terrible miscarriages of justice in history, some of the most dreadful wars, owe their origins to someone’s inability to climb down and say sorry. We all know the kind of apology which is no apology at all and merely provides the one ‘apologizing’ with an opportunity to run through all the resentments that led to the explosive situation in the first place. But a genuine apology, made simply and humbly, is utterly disarming. Few have the courage to attempt that, and I have to say, at the risk of annoying my male readers, that women tend to manage it better than men. Perhaps because we cannot physically exert our will on another, perhaps because we are better at reading emotions than many men, we don’t find it necessary to maintain our position in the face of the evidence. We can concede without feeling defeated.

Jesus of Nazareth was one man who knew how to handle an apology. On Fridays our thoughts turn naturally to his Passion and death on the Cross. I am trembling on the edge of heresy when I say this, but I think his death is not only the occasion when man said sorry to God for all the sin committed by humankind, I think it is also the occasion when God said sorry to us and bowed his head before his creature, not because God had ever done us wrong but because the way in which an apology is accepted matters, too. Saying sorry is not for wimps but for the brave of heart and truly loving.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail