Collective Obsessions and Seeking to Understand

Despite what I said in my previous post, or perhaps because of it, I have been trying to articulate and therefore understand my feelings of unease about some of the matters currently affecting us all, for example COVID-19, the protests following the death of George Floyd, the public arguments about transgenderism and so on. Perhaps you can help me?

I am not talking about having a particular stance, nor am I asking for your opinions on these matters as such. We all have our own views, and this is probably not the best place to debate those I have mentioned. My question has more to do with the dynamics of debate, the way we go from one subject to another and how we are to understand our collective obsessions and the way they affect us.

A little while ago everyone was talking about COVID-19 and giving the world the benefit of their opinion on the nature of the virus and its origins, the effectiveness of lockdown measures and, in the UK at least, the competence or otherwise of the Government’s response to the crisis. As someone said, overnight we all became epidemological experts, and if we had celebrity status, we expected our adoring public to hang on our suitably woke words and whacky medical recommendations.

Next came the brutal death of George Floyd, which ignited a series of riots and protests that is still going on. The way he was treated was wrong, unambiguously wrong, no matter that some want to argue that he had a criminal record as though that somehow ‘justified’ what was done to him. Some of what has followed, however, — further deaths, looting, statue toppling and so on — strikes me as being troubling, though not all equally serious. Death and injury will always be more serious than daubing a wall with graffiti or tumbling a bad statue into a river. Politicians and others have rushed to issue suitably contrite statements and take actions which, to an outsider, look to be panic-driven rather than a considered response to a complex and many-faceted situation.

At the same time, some comments of J.K. Rowling have added further fuel to a fire that has been raging for some time over transgenderism. I hope my transgender friends will allow me to say that casting accusations of transphobia at people doesn’t really meet the case. One can believe that biological sex cannot be changed without disliking or having a prejudice against those who have had gender reassignment or identify as being a different sex from the one they were assumed to be at birth. It is always going to be difficult to talk about deeply held beliefs without causing hurt, but should the fact that it is difficult mean we simply dismiss views we ourselves don’t hold by condemning the person who holds them? If I may use an analogy. My being a Catholic is central to my existence, but that has never stopped my being friends with those who don’t share my beliefs or are even hostile to them.

My problem with what I have called collective obsessions is this. First, we tend to deal with them sequentially. One minute we are flooded with comment on COVID-19; the next it is racism; then transgenderism. But when the shouting dies down, what have we done to effect any change? My second is more personal: how do these matters affect us at a deeper level of consciousness and our Weltanschauung?

We may have clapped and cheered the NHS for ten weeks, but what have we done to limit the spread of COVID-19 or help those whose lives have been most affected by it? There is an emotional response to the work being done by healthcare professionals, but can we go beyond that? We may have denounced racism and slavery, but how aware are we of the slavery that exists in Britain today or that brutalises the lives of people living in other countries? Only this morning I read on the BBC news web site of a little girl of 7 who had been working as a maid in Pakistan and was tortured to death by her ’employers’ (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53008093). If I say that worries me more than any statue, am I to be immediately condemned for not being alert to the discrimination and injustice suffered as a result of present-day racism in this country or the role of historical remembrance in perpetuating racist attitudes? Are they mutually exclusive? And with regard to transgenderism, what effort have we personally made to understand? If one does not condemn a particular view, is one complicit with it? Or is one simply saying, I don’t know enough, haven’t thought enough, to express an opinion — and do I need to have an opinion on everything, anyway?

I suspect my questions don’t really have answers, and I must be prepared for comment from those who don’t want to engage with the questions but merely want a platform to express their views. So be it. I must go on asking, however, because otherwise I know that I shall not be trying to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in many and various ways, not least through events and the perplexity we experience in the face of them. Our collective obsessions may be fleeting, but they can have a huge effect on our lives and the lives of other people. Ultimately, they matter. We must take them seriously.

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The Language of Sacrifice: a new kind of Mass?

Most people would agree that this is proving to be a very strange Eastertide, but I wonder how many have been thinking about the language of sacrifice. Some have, obviously. There have been some profound reflections on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and how that affects each one of us. Others have been discussing the Eucharist, more specifically the possibility of online Communion, though I think it would be fair to say that the language of sacrifice, if used at all, has tended to be more about the experience of deprivation for the would-be communicant than what I, as a Catholic, would instinctively link to the Mass. Then, of course, there has been the popular use of sacrifice in relation to the work being done by healthcare professionals, especially where loss of life has been involved during the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

I am not undervaluing any of this, but I confess to a growing unease which was crystallised a few days ago after learning that one of our oblates in the U.S.A. had been subjected to a reckless and unprovoked invasion of her business space by someone who regards COVID-19 as a hoax. No one is happy about the restrictions placed on everyday life in an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but most people are taking them seriously and co-operating generously. Those who don’t are placing others at risk, but I’d like to understand why they are they doing so. Why are a significant number of people choosing to flout regulations designed to protect them and the rest of society from the worst ravages of COVID-19?

I don’t think they can all be dismissed as stupid (some, after all, are highly intelligent and well-educated), unusually selfish (attributing moral failure to others is always tricky, and many would argue that they wish to protect their families by going to their second homes or whatever), or even blessed with overweening self-confidence in their own interpretation of everything from statistics to epidemiology, but perhaps a few have still to learn what sacrifice means and the value it has for us all. The Easter season ought to be a good time for reflecting again on that.

As soon as one says that, one runs into a problem. In the West we have become individualistic and consumerist in our approach to life in general and that affects how we think as well as how we behave. The smartphone and the internet have given us choice, but they have privatised that choice in a way unthinkable thirty years ago. We can watch what we want when and how we want rather than relying on a broadcast or cinema showing; we can buy a single music track rather than a whole recording; we can restrict our reading to those whose views correspond to our own more easily than ever; and we can voice our own opinions, no matter how crazy, for free, almost everywhere. That awareness of choice and our freedom to exercise it has carried over into other areas of life. Better transport means that we are no longer locked into the parish system the way we once were. We can travel to a church we find more congenial, and if one Sunday we don’t feel like getting the car out, there’s probably a livestream we can watch instead. It’s no accident that those who argue for the permissibility of abortion in any circumstances have campaigned under the slogan of ‘a woman’s right to choose’. 

Freedom and choice may have become absolute values for some but is their enjoyment and exercise dependent on the individual or on the group? We are back to elementary classes in political theory. Can we be free if we do not have a society around us that promotes and, if necessary, protects that freedom? Can we have choice unless there are alternatives, and what happens if some choose differently from us? How do we show care and compassion? What does the renunciation of some good or other actually mean?

Freely to give up something one prizes for the sake of a greater good is a very difficult thing to do. It means giving up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sureness about how things ought to be — and it is only in the West that we have that luxury. I read the other day that there are approximately five intensive care unit beds per million of population in the continent of Africa; in Europe the figure is nearer 4,000. It is easier to make a stand on a matter of principle when there is a safety net to catch one should one fall. Those claiming that their civil liberties are being infringed by the COVID-19 restrictions are right. They are being curtailed, but for a reason: the common good. And that is where it becomes necessary to understand why sacrifice is part of human life, not just religious life.

Without sacrifice, without the free, conscious renunciation of some private good, society as a whole suffers. If, for example, we do not agree to the payment of taxes, the sacrifice of some part of our income, we cannot expect publicly-funded education, healthcare or any of the services we identify as necessary to our well-being. If we do not sacrifice some personal good, such as our presumed right to say what we like when we like, we may seriously wound or even harm others (think slander and defamation). For the religiously inclined, this ought to be easier to grasp, but I don’t think it always is. For example, during Holy Week there was a lot of emoting in social media about being deprived of the Eucharist because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had given instructions about Mass which meant that its celebration had to take place behind closed doors, without a congregation present. It was, and is, hard for all of us; but if we concentrate on our own loss and our own sense of deprivation, I think we miss the point. The Mass is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, one with Christ’s self-giving on the cross. It is where our understanding of sacrifice begins, not ends. 

That, I think, is why for the Christian the language of sacrifice can never be limited to what we do in church but must have a larger context. Whatever any of us sacrifices is never a purely individual act, a matter of personal choice alone. I’d say that the people who are worrying about the survival of their jobs and the businesses they have built up are doing more sacrificing than those of us who are being shielded behind closed doors. Those working in hospitals or other front-line services, keeping the rest of us supplied with the necessities of life, are sacrificing hugely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. I’d add that those dying without the sacraments, those mourning the death of someone they love without a ‘proper’ funeral, are experiencing the closure of church buildings and the restrictions on clergy in a uniquely sacrificial way. So it goes on. We can name endless groups of people or individuals who are being required to sacrifice something precious to them.

Sometimes we talk about sacrifice in abstract terms, forgetting that it can hurt, that the pain is deeply felt. We have to trust, as Jesus did on the cross, that the results will be worthwhile; but it is trust that is involved, not a problematic certainty of the kind often alluded to in the mantra of our times, ‘let’s follow the science’. I hope it is not going too far to suggest that today, throughout the world, a different kind of Mass is being celebrated, a Mass in which human loss and pain are caught up into the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with an intensity most of us have not known before. Let us pray that we may be equal to what is asked of us and take our part, never forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice leads ultimately to victory and everlasting life.

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Embracing Uncertainty

People often say to me, ‘Your faith must help your cancer.’ To which, if they will listen, I generally reply, ‘No, cancer helps my faith.’ What I mean by that is that my experience of cancer has impressed on me the fact that we are not in control, and control isn’t the most important thing in life anyway.

Today the whole world is being asked to embrace an uncertainty such as we have not experienced in a long time. Those who say, ‘ Our faith will get us through,’ are undoubtedly sincere but do not always recognize that faith isn’t something any of us can summon up at will, nor is it much use as a crutch. Our belief should encourage us to hope and prompt us to show love to others, but most of us know dark times when our belief falters, our hope evaporates and love is just a word. That is human and natural and not something we should scold ourselves for — still less, anyone else.

As always, I think we need to turn to the gospels and see how Jesus coped with the temptation to despair or rebel against the Father (if you don’t think he was ever tempted, I suggest re-reading the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent or the accounts of the agony in the garden at Gethsemane). He truly struggled. Many people are struggling now. Here in the monastery, where we are familiar with lockdown (only we call it ‘enclosure’) and practise a form of social distancing (only we call it ‘solitude’), we know that the single most important thing we can do for anyone is to pray, and pray we do. In prayer we embrace the uncertainty of life, for prayer is God’s gift. It all depends on him, but because it all depends on him, we need to stay alert and be co-operative.

That applies to every situation, including the one in which we find ourselves now where the rapid acceleration of COVID-19 is causing great distress and anxiety. In the U.K. this morning the message is clear: stay at home. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, just stay at home. That need not be a negative experience, but for many it will be very hard, requiring a renunciation of self few have been required to make before. I am reminded of Abba Moses, one of the Desert Fathers, encouraging a younger monk with the words, ‘Stay in your cell and it will teach you all things.’ Perhaps that sentence is one to ponder as we enter lockdown, and to remember it was love that prompted the monk’s withdrawal into the desert in the first place. We cannot know what the future holds, but faith, hope and love come together in an uncertainty that is, paradoxically, very sure. Let us embrace it as best we can.

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What the COVID-19 Coronavirus Is and Is Not

Let’s start with what it is not. The Covid-19 coronavirus is not an excuse for scaremongering, stockpiling, spreading false information, exploiting or attacking those who are fearful or anxious about the implications of the disease. I have been astonished — that is the most neutral word I can find — at the behaviour of some who ought to know better, but I wonder how many have stopped to think about the morality of what they are doing. At the very moment the WHO has been trying to impress on us all the seriousness of the outbreak, some have been trying to undermine their work by wrenching statistics from their context or posing as experts in areas where they know no more than the average Tom, Dick or Henrietta.

Now that the whole of Italy is in lockdown, perhaps we might think about what the Covid-19 coronavirus is, rather than what we’d like it to be. It is a new form of coronavirus for which we currently have no vaccine. If you have read any account of how it attacks the body, you will understand why one would not wish to die from it. The later stages are simply horrific. Among those who have recovered, there is speculation that a few may experience lasting damage to the liver and kidneys. That just highlights how little we actually know. What we do know, without a doubt, is that it is spreading fast and having a major impact on the lives not only of the sick and those who care for them but also of others dealing with quarantine regulations and the fall-out, both social and economic, that such a disease causes. In other words, it is nasty, but exactly how nasty is best left to the virologists and medical officials who know what they are talking about to determine.

So, why are some people deliberately flouting common-sense precautions, such as regular handwashing, or ridiculing arrangements intended to slow the rate of its spread? Is it because they are inconvenient, or put some small fetter of responsibility on those who want to be completely free? Why are some clergy pooh-poohing instructions designed to protect as many people as possible from infection? Is it because they fear that once people have got out of the habit of Mass-going they may never return? Why are we being so selfish? Could it be that we are not making the connection with Lent and its call to be generous, to put the needs of others first? That can be particularly difficult when it means foregoing our own opinions or what we think is in our own best interest. St Benedict, as usual, leaves us in no doubt that we are always to do what is better for another. I hesitate to say that Covid-19 is an opportunity to learn that, but it is undoubtedly an opportunity to put it into practice.

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