Setting a Good Example

Time was when the idea of consciously trying to set a good example was seen as unbearably priggish, smacking of Victorian do-goodery and implicit hypocrisy. Quite apart from the fact that I think we are unjust to the Victorians, I’d argue that the notion of setting a good example is one we need to re-visit. In the West we are only too ready to step away from responsibility. Politicians exclaim, ‘I have done nothing wrong!’ when caught out being greedy or in some shady activity. Parents exclaim, ‘They are out of control!’ when seeking to excuse themselves for their offspring’s behaviour. Even bishops have been known to disclaim all knowledge of what their priests have been up to. It is refreshing when someone has the courage to say, ‘The buck stops here. I take responsibility.’ But  we need to go further. It is not just responsibility for what has been done that we need to accept, but responsibility for creating the conditions in which certain behaviours are seen as acceptable. In other words, how we set a good example is something we all need to consider.

A short examination of conscience can be extremely helpful. The standards we actually live by, as distinct from those we publicly espouse, will soon show us what sort of example we are setting to others. Honesty, kindness, courtesy, hard work and so on are not specifically religious qualities, inasmuch as they are shared by many who would not claim any religious affiliation, but they do tend to point to the strength of our religious commitment. The intersection of public and private morality can be very difficult, and it is not made any easier by the way in which legislation can seem hostile to the open expression of someone’s beliefs. Wearing a cross or offering to pray for someone is not acceptable in certain situations, and I think most of us can understand why even if we do not always agree. It is much trickier when reservations about the morality of certain forms of research or corporate policy are in question. I remember, years ago, a banker friend putting his job on the line because of his objection to an advertising campaign which encouraged household debt. I am sure you can think of many similar instances.

The fact that something is difficult, however, does not mean that we can avoid making a decision, or ignore the fact that our decision, whatever it may be, will have an effect on others. We have recently celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day, and I was reminded of all those non-Jews in Occupied Europe who chose to put the Star of David on their coats to show solidarity with their persecuted fellow-citizens. We shall never know who was the first to do that, but the example he/she set was surely a good one. May we, in our turn, be just as ready to set a good example in both the big and small things of life.


Substance over Style or Management for the Rest of Us

Devotees of Lord Sugar’s business methods may find today’s post rather baffling. What I say follows on from yesterday’s post and deals with the second half of Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. It is all about value, but not quite as that is often understood. It is about management in which substance is rated above style.

Benedict’s first point is that the cellarer must be humble (RB 31.13). No strutting his stuff or playing the status game. No, he must be grounded in reality (for that is what humility means) and that is the surest of all foundations for whatever he undertakes. The way in which that humility is worked out and manifested is interesting, especially when he is in what we would call a tight corner or asked for something impossible:

 . . . when he lacks the wherewithal to meet a request, he should give a good word in answer, as it is written, ‘A good word is above the best gift.’ (RB 31.13 quoting Sirach 18.17)

So, no bawling, no bullying, no primadonna tantrums, but courtesy and gentleness even in the most stressful situations. That is something to aim at, even if we fail dismally at times. Benedict goes on to say that the cellarer must not go beyond his authority. His powers are great, but if the abbot has said there is something he shouldn’t deal with, then he shouldn’t ‘presume to meddle with what has been forbidden him.’ (RB 31.15) Few of us like to think of ourselves as meddlers, but that is precisely what we are if we stray outside the boundaries of our duty. At a practical level, it can cause confusion and resentment. It can also lead us to have over-grandiose conceptions of our own ability, and that is never a good idea. The list of failed companies where the CEO had thought him/herself immune to market forces or even simple economics is long and growing longer.

Benedict’s cellarer is expected to be fair. If he isn’t, if he provokes others, then he is responsible for their failures. The example given in the Rule concerns the cellarer’s duty to provide for the brethren’s meals. If he is haughty or makes them wait unnecessarily, playing the power game again, ‘he must bear in mind what scripture says someone deserves “who tempts one of these little ones to evil.”‘ (RB 31.16, quoting Matthew 18.6) If you look at the scripture referred to in that sentence, you can see how very seriously Benedict takes the matter. Someone who does not act responsibly is a dead weight on the community—better he were not there at all.

Fairness is not all one-way, however, for Benedict recognizes that it is possible for an individual to be burdened with unrealistic demands, endlessly harassed by those who think that just because he is cellarer he must be constantly available to meet their every whim. On the contrary, Benedict stipulates that if the community is comparatively large, the cellarer must be given assistants to help him in his work and, tellingly, ‘Necessary items are to be applied for and distributed at appropriate times.’ (RB 31.18) How often does someone in a managerial position feel that his/her time is eaten up with small requests that interrupt the ‘real’ work of the day. Benedict has already made it plain that those small requests are, in fact, part of the real work of the day, but everyone in the monastery must ensure that they never become outrageously burdensome. He is asking, in effect, for a co-operative management style, having as his aim the peace and contentment of the community, for he concludes his chapter by stating that his reason for asking these things is ‘that no one may be upset or troubled in the house of God.’ (RB 31.19) That last touch, the reminder that the monastery and everyone and everything in it are God’s domain, is surely enough to remind any cellarer that it is God’s will he must do, not his own.

All very well in the monastery, you may say, but what are the practical applications outside? I think what Benedict says of the cellarer’s attitudes and behaviour are easily translatable into a secular context, although the language we use might differ a little. Good managers, whether they are running ICI or a small household, tend to have similar qualities. They are good at getting the best from other people because they respect others and are prepared to work collaboratively with them. That doesn’t mean they necessarily share their decision-making with them, but they are good at making people feel they are part of an enterprise rather than just a cog in a faceless machine. Courtesy, engagement (the ‘good word’), a sense of service, these are all important to the success of any business. They help create value. For Benedict, the supreme value  is the sanctification of the community members; for the rest of us, it is more likely to be a healthy balance-sheet and a happy workforce. Neither is to be despised.


Manners Online

Colm O’Regan is slightly irritated by the rash of chumminess which has infected online communications, especially the false intimacy characteristic of websites such as Facebook with its intrusive, ‘How are you feeling, Colm?’ (see I must confess that, by and large, it doesn’t bother me. Time was when I daresay we all had but a single name and were just Thomasina, Ricarda or Harriet to fellow members of our tribe and grunted and pointed our way through life, without adverting to any of the finer feelings. That, to me, sums up the process of shopping online; so those cheery emails which inform me that ‘Catherine! Your payment was successful!’ leave me quite happy; it’s those that say ‘Ooops! there was a problem with your card!’ that annoy.

There is, however, a whole area of life online where I think manners matter very much indeed: blogs and social media. We reveal a great deal about ourselves by the way in which we interact online. Yes, of course, we all have ‘off’ days or sometimes say things we regret or with a clumsiness we subsequently deplore and are chastened to think that those remarks are there for ever and ever. It is a challenge we have to work at: how to be ourselves, but in a genuinely social way.

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I defy you to find a single line where Jane Austen ever approves of arrogance or the wit that achieves its effect by wounding others. Today is also the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. It is said of him that, although he was often abstracted and did  not welcome interruptions, he was a true intellectual aristocrat and always answered others with politeness. St Benedict often referred to the need for courtesy in the monastery, seeing it as the outward manifestation of the humility and reverence at the heart. Centuries after Benedict and Aquinas, Chesterton defined courtesy as ‘the wedding of humility with dignity’ and declared that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’.

I think there is something there for us all to think about, don’t you?


Twitter and the Joy of Contradiction

There are times when I think the only reason some people use Twitter is the joy they find in contradicting others. The glee with which they seize on a statement they dislike or don’t agree with, and the aggressive way in which they set about putting the tweeter right surprises me. I have myself had to say on occasion that it was impossible to nuance an argument within the 140 character limit. Otherwise, I feared the ‘conversation’ would go on and on, rather like the Tennysonian brook. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen often, but it is worth thinking about when it does.

Why do people derive so much pleasure from attempting to prove others wrong? Why do we always want to be in the right? I suspect a moral theologian or psychiatrist might give a different answer, but doesn’t being in the right confer a kind of security on us? If we’re right, we’re right, and somehow unassailable. St Benedict never directly addressed this topic, but I think his teaching on humility, the importance he attached to confession of error or wrongdoing (note, we are not talking sacramental confession here but the regular monastic practice of confession of faults at chapter or in private to the superior), and the strict limits he imposed on fraternal correction provide some clues. He recognized that quite often we aren’t right, though we think we are; and our conduct should reflect the lack of certainty. Courtesy and mildness of manner are not signs of weakness but of the importance we attach to truth, even in small things, and the reverence we show one another as persons created in the image and likeness of God.

But what if we are definitely right, and the other person isn’t, what do we do then? I think I would say that it is not enough merely to be right; we must be right in the right way. That is trickier because we have to balance some apparently equal and opposite concerns. We must uphold the truth, but never in such a way that we fail to acknowledge the dignity of the person with whom we are speaking. Whether we’re talking about Twitter , Facebook, or wherever we engage in online argument, it is a case, once more, of bringing our online and offline persona into harmony: being the same person, acting according to the same standards.


The Transfiguration

The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch
The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch, © Stanbrook Abbey

The Transfiguration is one of the most luminous of feasts. Whatever happened at Tabor, whether at night as many suppose, or during the day, something of Jesus’ glory as God was revealed to Peter, James and John. No wonder the Cluniacs made this feast peculiarly their own: it breathes a very Benedictine sense of the divine glory being in everyone and everything.

That is very far from pantheism or a lovely warm fuzzy glow about the essential niceness of everything. It is instead a call to action, to a way of being. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of being human as well as Jesus’ glory as Son of God. When we really take that on board, we cannot go on acting as we once did, using (and possibly abusing) others for our own ends. We cannot be rude or impatient or scornful. Or rather, we can, but if we are any of those things, it is a sign that we have not yet allowed the grace of God full scope in our lives.

Earlier this week I was involved in a series of emails with people who claimed to be Christian but were the reverse of courteous. The correspondence demonstrated something I have often remarked upon: unless we treat our online communications as seriously as our offline communications and observe the same standards of truthfulness and courtesy, those of us who claim to be Christian are doing a tremendous disservice to our Faith. The internet/email/social media are as much a sacred space as any other. Here, too, we must allow the glory of God to shine through, for the Transfiguration is here and now as well as in eternity.

A note on the illustration
The illustration comes from a reprinting of the card D. Werburg Welch designed for the Abbé Couturier’s movement for Christian Unity before World War II. It was originally issued in several languages with a prayer he had composed. When I was printer at Stanbrook, it was reissued both on handmade paper and in a commercial edition.


In Praise of the Salesians

There is much to say about my recent trip to the U.S.A. but there is a lot of catching up to do first, so this will be no more than a brief ‘I’m back’ kind of post.

For the New York part of my stay I enjoyed the hospitality of the Salesian Sisters at Haledon, New Jersey. They couldn’t have been kinder or more generous (though I did wonder briefly whether the large mug and copious quantities of tea bags on 4 July had some Deeper Significance). There were lots of good things I noticed about the Sisters but one struck me very forcibly. I never once heard any of them grumble about any of the other Sisters or speak testily to them. It may be that they already are saints; they certainly are living as saints. Community life isn’t always easy, as anyone who has tried it will tell you. Being thrown together with a group of people one hasn’t chosen and to whom one is not related by blood, each of whom is blessed with idiosyncracies and foibles one doesn’t necessarily share, can be taxing. All credit, then, to the Salesians for being so considerate of one another, not just the guests. St Benedict would have approved.