Our Biggest Failure?

Most of us can probably recall an incident or action in our own lives that we think of as our biggest failure (and if we can’t, we either have severe amnesia or psychopathic tendencies). Many of us can pick out the faults and shortcomings of political institutions, big business, religious organizations or what you will with a keenness of insight and analysis that would leave the world breathless with admiration were it able to eavesdrop on our conversation. We cry ‘shame’ and point the finger of blame as we register yet another failure. But I wonder whether we are missing the biggest failure of all? Does our anger and negativity achieve anything, or does it merely add to the tide of anger and negativity that seems to be engulfing the whole world?

We are quick to state what is wrong, usually what is wrong with the other person/side, quick to hate and deride (though, of course, we prefer to think of it as ‘stating the truth boldly’ or ‘telling it how it is’) but we are often very slow to love and forgive. I think our biggest failure, both as individuals and collectively, is precisely this failure to love and forgive. We know how our own lives have been transformed by the love and graciousness of others, but we do not always stop to think how we ourselves could transform the lives of others in our turn.

In the last few years we have seen mounting political tensions across the globe, economic melt-down, violence and other horrors that defy expression. We have seen genocide and beheadings, the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and its environment, children deprived of education and the common decencies of life. No one is suggesting that an airy-fairy ‘love is all you need’ approach would solve any of this; and yet, love is, in fact, the only possible solution. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a wrong idea of love. It is not necessarily romantic or warm and fuzzy feeling. Sometimes, there is no feeling at all: just a pure-hearted determination to invite God into situations from which he seems to be excluded. It is the strong, clear, sacrificial kind of love that nails us to the Cross and holds us there with Christ. There never could be any failure in that.

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Thinking about Saints

Today we celebrate the memorial of Blessed John Henry Newman. Unusually, his feastday is kept not on the date of his death but on the anniversary of his conversion to Catholicism. That tells us something important about the way in which the Church views his life and work. The gradual development in Newman’s theological understanding is held up to us as a model to emulate but also, I think, as an encouragement. If we seek truth ardently, we shall be rewarded by an ever greater understanding.

On Sunday the pope declared two very different saints Doctors of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen, the Benedictine nun, and John of Avila, the diocesan priest. In declaring them doctors, the pope was saying, in effect, here are two people on whose holiness of life and soundness of teaching you may rely. Very few saints are accorded that status in the Catholic Church, indeed only 35 to date.

I think all three saints share what we would today call a concern for evangelisation, for right teaching and fidelity to the mind of the Church. Hildegard was something of a polymath and pushed the boundaries of what was expected of a Benedictine nun. In her letters and her teaching she instructed many of the clergy. John of Avila, by contrast, is remembered chiefly for the personal holiness and zeal which informed his preaching and a book of advice addressed to a nun, Audi Filia. Hildegard’s missionary zeal spread out from the cloister; John’s flowed back in. And Newman? Newman is an interesting case of someone who wrote and spoke voluminously and probably did his greatest thinking about the Catholic Church and her mission as an Anglican. All three remind us that the saints of the Church do not conform to a single pattern; there is hope even for us, if we are prepared to make the sacrifice. The holiness of each one was rooted in the Cross of Christ and in the renunciation of self that discipleship demands. That isn’t a very fashionable doctrine, but it is a true one. Some things never change.

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