The Importance of Right Judgement

In the ancient prayer for the Consecration to a Life of Virginity attributed to St Leo, there is a petition for the gift of ‘modesty with right judgement, kindness with true wisdom’. How do the stories about Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron currently being circulated by the media measure up to that? Are they helpful? Do they do anything more than satisfy a desire for curiosity or titillation? A man may commit adultery then later learn the importance of fidelity. The stupidities of youth do not necessarily define or last into middle-age. In short, why are we wasting time on the past lives of our politicians when it is their present actions that are most important? True, one may argue that being a philanderer or a drunkard in one’s youth, for example, may lay one open to blackmail/corruption in later life, but I suspect most of us have done or said things which, if they were to be laid against us now as the key to our character or actions, would seem seriously wide of the mark. So, what is this thing called ‘right judgement’? How does it operate? Why does it matter?

I would argue, first and foremost, that right judgement is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is reason informed by grace — a human quality which can be nurtured through prayer, reading, reception of the sacraments and, above all, by practice. It is another name for the gift of counsel, and it is one we stand in need of every day of our lives. We often have to make choices between two or more apparently good things. But we also have to make choices in grey areas, where nothing seems particularly good or bad. Take the stories about Corbyn and Cameron again. Aren’t they inconsequential, read today, forgotten tomorrow? Yes and no. Imperceptibly, they shape our opinion of the two men and, as such, have more importance than might at first appear. We actually have to bring our judgement to bear on the matter, which means deciding how significant they are. We can’t just absorb and ignore.

To exercise judgement with modesty, admitting that we may not always be the best of judges, that not everything is helpful, leads inevitably to that kindness and wisdom of which St Leo speaks. They are qualities we tend to prize in others rather than ourselves. Wouldn’t it be useful to spend a moment or two thinking about how we could cultivate them in our own lives? Right judgement isn’t a rarefied spiritual quality; it is a very practical one.


The Jewishness of Jesus

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus

This illustration might have been better used yesterday, when we read the first half of the Emmaus gospel, but I think it still has a point to make. In today’s section of the gospel Jesus explains to his disciples how everything in the Mosaic Law and the prophets pointed to himself. He identifies completely with the Jewish people and their experience. In exactly the same way, the medieval illustrator of the Emmaus story did not hesitate to show Jesus wearing a Judenhut or Jewish hat (Latin pilleus cornutus). Compare and contrast the situation today, where Jesus is too often portrayed as a blue-eyed, fair-haired, rather bloodless figure who would have been entirely out of place trudging the roads of Roman Palestine or fishing with Peter and Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the best efforts of Geza Vermes and others, we still seem to have difficulty with the Jewishness of Jesus and thereby impoverish our understanding. (I speak generally, as I know there are many who are sensitive to this aspect of Jesus.) Why is there a problem?

I think part of the answer lies in fear of the stranger. People who observe different cultural norms, who eat different foods, wear different clothes, speak a different language are always suspect. If, in addition, they hold radically different ideas about the meaning of the same texts — in this case, what Christians know as the Old Testament scriptures — the problems are compounded. When history is thrown into the mix, and centuries of anti-semitism and persecution are considered, it all looks very bleak indeed. However, there are bright spots, too. In the twelfth century, the Cistercians were very keen to understand the scriptures aright, and there are a number of instances of Cistercian monks sitting at the feet of local rabbis in order to learn Hebrew and study the Bible and other Jewish texts, just as, a little earlier, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, had ordered a translation of the Koran to be made so that his monks might understand Islam better.

Understanding the other, welcoming the stranger, is still a challenge for us today. When David Cameron spoke of Britain as a Christian country, some took it as a slight on all who are not Christian. The debate continues to rage, but I think myself it is a largely phoney debate because the terms cannot be defined sufficiently precisely. From ‘cultural Christianity’ to missionary endeavour/proseletysing fervour (choose as appropriate) and the infinite varieties of church allegiance, the concept is susceptible of a thousand different interpretations. What matters, surely, is that those of us who regard Jesus Christ as our Lord and God should attempt, however imperfectly, to be as loving and generous as he. Love is the golden rule of Judaism as of Christianity and, as St Paul remarks, is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour. Perhaps we might think about that today.


Pause for Thought

So accustomed have I become to Bro Duncan PBGV’s occasional kidnapping of the keyboard, I nearly wrote ‘Paws for Thought’ and maybe there is greater wisdom in that than I thought. I will explain anon, but first, a very simple summary of some important events here in Britain during the past few days.

Earlier this week Parliament voted against military intervention in Syria in principle and David Cameron, very properly and honourably, said that meant that Britain would not now be party to any military intervention there in the future. Those picking over the decision have been drawing all kinds of conclusions from it. The party political ramifications, although important to us here in Britain, are a distraction from what is ostensibly our principal concern: the suffering of the people of Syria. The effect on the ‘special relationship’ between the U.K. and the U.S.A. also strikes me as being secondary. (I had the impression that President Obama was rather lukewarm about it anyway.) But Parliament’s decision does mean that other countries have paused in their rush to decide about military intervention, and that pause may be exactly what is needed to allow the voices of the Syrian people themselves to be heard. The ugliness and brutality of the Assad regime is not in doubt; but his opponents are not exactly angels of light, either; nor is the volatility of the Middle East as a whole in question. Why the fifteenth use (allegedly) of chemical weapons in Syria should be the point at which outside military intervention is considered appropriate is still not clear to me. We know that at least 100,000 people have been killed and that 1,000,000 Syrian children are now refugees. Each one is an individual, with a history, a personality, a face. Each one is a child of God.

It is at that point that Bro Duncan’s ‘paws for thought’ resonates with me. Dogs are noble in their ability to get on with even the nastiest human beings. They forgive readily or, if they do not forgive, they do not allow their negative feelings to destroy the opportunities of the moment. By and large, they are not too bothered about status or position, in the domestic context at least. They are patient, ‘dogged’ in the popular sense. Dogs would make very good diplomats, and I think we need some doggy diplomatic qualities as never before.. Christians in Syria have appealed for renewed dialogue rather than missile strikes, and that is something we in the West ought to pay more heed to. We have a tendency to look at problems from the outside in, and confuse activity with transformation. Moral indignation is all very well, but our duty is to change what is wrong. The fact that the U.K. will not be intervening militarily does not mean that we have any less of a responsibility to work for peace. The humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria is on the conscience of us all. The danger is  that, now that military strikes have been ruled out, we will fold our arms and do nothing. Shame on us if so!


Envy, Jealousy and the Morality of Money

Envy is wanting what another has and being resentful one doesn’t possess whatever it is oneself; jealousy is wanting what another has and not wanting anyone else to possess it if it cannot be one’s own. That simple definition would never pass muster with a dictionary-maker, but I think it highlights an important distinction between the two: envy is not very nice; jealousy is plain nasty.

Politicians are adept at appealing to our envious tendencies. David Cameron’s latest pronouncement on tax avoidance may well backfire, but for the moment it is grabbing headlines. Jimmy Carr is richer than most of us will ever be. Stoking up public opinion against him (or more correctly, his accountant and tax lawyer, surely) is easy. Suggest a little moral outrage into the bargain, and once again you have a potential vote-winner on your hands.

The trouble is, life is not so simple. Mr Cameron is taking a calculated risk. What if envy becomes jealousy? Next in the firing-line may be political donors (again), millionaire members of the Cabinet (again), even perhaps M.P.s expenses (again). We are particularly sensitive to the ‘morality of money’. Bankers’ bonuses, chief executives’ pay and benefits, they are all under the spotlight of public examination at the moment, and, as you might expect, those who have less are not convinced that others need more, or at any rate, not so much more. One reason the doctors’ day of action hasn’t gained much popular support is that doctors’ salaries and pension schemes look very generous by most people’s standards.

Is there a knee-jerk quality to all this? Are we really thinking through the bases on which we make decisions about pay and salaries? In a monastery goods are apportioned according to need, which it is for the abbot to determine. Those who need less are not to grumble or be downcast; those who need more are not to become puffed up at the mercy shown them. That wouldn’t work in secular society, for we could never agree who should decide, still less agree the degree of need. There is one idea we could take from Benedict, however, and apply to our discussion of salaries and rewards: accepting responsibility for our own actions and the effect they have on others.

We cannot change how other people regard money; we cannot make others honest; but we can be honest ourselves; we can be generous ourselves. We sometimes lose sight of what we actually do with what we earn. The man or woman earning millions may be spending it all on self-indulgence, or they may be giving their wealth away in order to help others. Envy can easily become jealousy, almost without our being aware of it, and when it does, we lose the good along with the bad. Is that a risk worth taking?


Class and Conscience

Being ‘posh’ is not a sin. Being nouveau riche is not a sin. Being just plain rich is not a sin. Those of us who are not posh or rich sometimes have difficulty seeing beyond the things that irritate us about those who are. Nadine Dorries may be right about David Cameron’s shortcomings, but what she said told us more about her than about him. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and ugly too because it makes judgements on the basis of something utterly ridiculous, quite literally a no-thing..

In England, class is hard to define but instantly recognizable. It is linked to, but not determined by, wealth. Accent and education play a major part, but not intelligence or many of our grandest families would hardly qualify as upper class. Everyone can become middle class, but one has to be born lower or upper class. That fact alone should indicate how silly it is to value or misprize anyone on the basis of class.

But do we use class as shorthand for attitudes that really have more to do with conscience? Many rich people are extremely generous; many others are extremely mean. Whether Christian or not, we still tend to expect those who have a lot of this world’s goods to share with those who don’t. When the rich person refuses to share or is rude or belittling about those less fortunate, we feel that something is not right and are left thinking about camels and eyes of needles. A hard heart and a tight wallet is a particularly unlovely combination.

It would be sad if our present economic mess were to lead to another outbreak of class warfare. Much better, surely, to concentrate on developing a conscience about others and a more generous response to their needs. ‘All in this together?’ Yes, Mr Cameron, but at a much deeper and more demanding level than I suspect you, or most of us, have yet guessed.


O Adonai: the holiness of God

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.

I suggest we read Exodus 3; Isaiah 11:4-5; Isaiah 33:22 and spend a few moments thinking about the holiness of God.

Recently, I’ve had people ticking me off for various things. One which comes up again and again has to do with what, in the ticker-offer’s view, religion should be about. For example, a number of people took me to task yesterday for being critical of David Cameron’s ‘vaguely practising’ Christian. Quite apart from the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I suspect a political agenda was being piggy-backed onto faith and that some of the Prime Minister’s other statements are difficult to square with a Catholic understanding of Christianity (redefining marriage, for example), what really stung me was the idea that God is rather like the ‘poor relation’ who is indulged with a remembrance at Christmas and ignored at other times.

That is not the God of infinite holiness in whom I believe, the God whose presence makes the whole earth holy ground and whose glory blazes forth from all that is. Religion can, indeed, be a great comfort but it is more often, in my experience, anything but comfortable. The holiness of God sears the soul. It is no accident that God is likened in the Old Testament to refining fire, that the Letter to the Hebrews describes God as a consuming fire, to obey whom is life, to disobey whom means death. God is infinite Love and Compassion, our Saviour and Redeemer, yes, but he is also infinite Holiness: the Mystery at the heart of being whom we adore and whom we await in his coming as Man at Christmas.