A Non-Existent Future

The first email I read today told me of the death of an old friend. He was 95 and had had heart failure for some time. His last letter told me he was ready for death and hoped it would not be too far off. He was a doughty unbeliever, and a frequent joke between us was that one day I’d say to him, ‘I told you so!’ I fully expect to be able to do that one day. The future does not depend on our believing in it, any more than the existence of God depends on our belief in him.

Consider, next, this tweet from Dr Kate Granger, who has an advanced sarcoma: ‘Hardly surprising I can’t sleep. . . Massive decision to make tomorrow with such uncertainty – one that will determine my non-existent future.’ It is very easy when faced with an aggressive disease that, humanly speaking, can have only one outcome to feel that words like ‘the future’ have no meaning. No matter how brave or positive one is (and Dr Granger is both), there are moments when everything seems bleak and meaningless. One goes on because one must, because the end is not yet, not because one believes one has any future to speak of.

People often think that having faith is a great comfort at such times. I wonder. Faith tends to come and go. It cannot be summoned up at will, however hard one tries. Of course, one can lie — even to oneself; but a lie will not sustain one through a really difficult patch. We have to face up to the reality of our situation and embrace it. That is why, here in the monastery, we pray every day for the gift of faith to be given to us, not merely renewed in us. That is also why we pray for the faith of our fellow Christians to be strengthened, whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves. Those persecuted by IS or by their neighbours in India or Pakistan need our prayers because, ultimately, only grace can assure them any future on this earth. As to the future that we look forward to in hope, well, please pray for my friend and Dr Granger, too.

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Remembrance Sunday 2013

How shall we mark Remembrance Sunday? Last year I wrote, a little glibly perhaps, that the act of remembering was essential to our learning the lessons of history:

Today, at 11 o’clock, the country will come to a stop for two minutes of silence and prayer for those who have died in two world wars and subsequent armed conflicts. It will be a moment of sadness for some, of awkwardness for others. It is the only time in the year when we make a collective act of remembrance, and its importance grows greater the further we are from the events which prompted it.

When I was a child, the effects of World War I were still plain to see: the elderly men who coughed and wheezed and were missing limbs; the great-uncle who still shook uncontrollably at times; the elderly maiden ladies who lived lives of genteel poverty, their fiançés killed in France or Flanders. I grew up listening to the men and women of my parents’ generation talking quite naturally about the events of World War II. Indeed, even today, I have only to open one of my father’s poetry books to see the flowers he picked in the Western Desert, the bloodstain where he was wounded, and the small black and white photographs of people and places that to me are only names, if that. For my nieces, even that tenuous thread is broken. It is all one ‘with yesterday’s seven thousand years’.

We need to remember because if we forget, we shall forget why freedom matters, why decency matters, why some things are worth fighting for, however much we may shrink from the idea of violence. So, we pray today not in any triumphalist spirit, but gratefully, humbly, and with the hope that we may learn the lessons of history at last.

I still think that’s true, but the terrible reality of the war in Syria, the loss of life to natural disaster in the Philippines, and the recent shocking revelation of a British soldier’s murder of an Afghan insurgent put another perspective on it. Death, it seems, is all around: brutal, inglorious, needless. Perhaps that is what we ought to think about today, as well as praying for those who have died in war or been crippled in mind or body as a result of war. It is not only those who die heroically but those who die abjectly, cowardly — perhaps especially those who die abjectly, cowardly — who remind us of our essential fragility and vulnerability. Peace is a precious gift it is only too easy to destroy.

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Hallowing Hallowe’en Again

Anyone who has read my Universe column on the subject will know that I am not an enthusiast for Hallowe’en as it is now celebrated in this country. Happily, however, once we have sung First Vespers of the Solemnity of All Saints at five o’clock this evening, we shall be safely on the other side, rejoicing in Christ’s victory over sin and death and the prospect of eternal life. All will be light and gladness, and anyone who comes to our door ‘trick or treating’ will be sent away with a blessing and a sentence or two about the wonder of the Resurrection (sure to put them off trying it again next year). We don’t do ghosts and ghouls; we do saints instead; and I think we might all be happier and healthier if more of us did saints, especially on this night of the year.

Why the fascination with horror and the celebration of death and destruction which now accounts for £300 million of spending in the U.K.? Surely, it is something to do with getting in touch with our inner caveman, the pleasurable thrill of being slightly scared by things that go bump in the night, knowing that at any moment we can switch on the light and not be scared any longer. Only, it has gone rather further than that, hasn’t it? We have gone beyond the thrill of the horror story to sheer terror instead. I don’t want to go over ground I have already covered, but in my view many of today’s Hallowe’en artefacts are quite sinister and open the way to the occult. Those who have never had to confront evil will laugh dismissively and say it is ridiculous to get worked up over plastic skeletons or ouija boards, tarot cards and the like. Plastic skeletons are a matter of taste, but the ouija boards and tarot cards are a much more serious matter. Ignorance is not bliss: it is dangerous.

I am all for conviviality and hope many of you will be enjoying a pleasant evening with friends, but I hope it will be a celebration of light and life you share, not a celebration of darkness and destruction. There is so much tragedy in the world, we do not need to fabricate horror. There is so much evil, we do not need to manufacture feelings of shock or revulsion. Those 87 people found dead of thirst in the Sahara are a reminder of the reality of suffering and death. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls affirm the unity of the living and the dead, so tonight let us pray for all those whose experience of moral darkness — in Niger, Syria, the DRC, to name just three — is so much more intense and terrible than anything we can produce with our broomsticks and plastic cobwebs. Let’s hallow Hallowe’en again.

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Death-Bed Priorities

As far as I know, no one has ever said on his death-bed that he wished he’d spent more time at the office. I think we can be reasonably sure, therefore, that we won’t be saying that, either. The bon mots attributed to the witty and the celebrated will probably be beyond most of us; so what shall we be saying — always assuming that we are allowed a death-bed in the first place, and that the gift of speech will attend us to the last?

I have been present at the deaths of several people over the years. No one I’ve known has spent their last minutes going over wrongs done to themselves, only wrongs they have done to others. The regrets they have voiced were not that they never climbed Everest or couldn’t afford a Matisse or a Maserati, but that they didn’t give time to others, or that they failed to notice another’s need. The sins of omission as well as commission seem to crowd round us in our last hours. They don’t block out the good memories or the gratitude, but they do seem to be quite troubling.

All this is quite encouraging for those who have been taught from their earliest years to pray for the grace of a good death — in other words, to die in a state of grace, repenting of sin and giving glory and thanksgiving to God for all his mercies. As we live, so we die. If our life now is Christ, just think what it will be for all eternity!

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Lawful and Decent Burial

This morning I was struck by the words used in the charge against Hans Rausing, the failure to ensure ‘lawful and decent burial’ of his wife’s body. It is a sad, sad case, but those words reminded me of something I think we sometimes tend to forget: the immense dignity of the human body. Religious people often wax eloquent about the body, indeed we have a whole theology of the body, but it takes the law, our wonderfully messy, imperfect, civil law to express what I suspect most of us believe deep down, even if we would not describe ourselves as religious: that the human person is uniquely privileged and deserves respect even after death. We are not so much organic rubbish to be left to moulder away: lawful and decent burial is our right, and by extension, the duty of all of us to provide for others.

Of course, we cannot stop there. If the dead body is worthy of reverence, what about the living? The unborn? Those of the ‘wrong’ sex? Those who don’t appear to us to have what it takes to sustain a ‘good quality of life’? The late Lord Denning famously observed, ‘Be you never so high, yet the law is above you.’ This morning I feel like adding, no matter how arrogant we may be, the law reminds us of the limits of our power.

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Remembering 7 July 7 Years After

Few of us would dare to claim that we remember anything ‘exactly’ but certain events stay in the mind with distressing clarity. So it is with the events of 7 July 2005. Whether we were personally caught up in the horror of that day or merely experienced it at second-hand through the media, no one who lived through it is likely to forget the impact it had. The IRA bomb attacks of the 70s were somehow in a different league. This was terror perpetrated by British citizens in the name of God. We were on new ground, but it seemed to be shifting beneath our feet.

Seven years on, have we learned any lessons? We live with the fact of terrorism, not merely the threat, and many of us would probably admit that we don’t really know how to respond. The grief and pain of those who survived 7/7 cannot be magicked away, anymore than the dead can be forgotten; but there must surely be something we can do to ensure that death and destruction are not allowed to become the whole story. For myself I think the only answer is to try to root out violence from our own hearts: the anger, the thirst for revenge, the negativity about others. Otherwise, as René Girard has argued again and again, we are destined to pass the poison on. Let us not add another tragedy to that which has already occurred.

Note
Forgiveness is never easy, but ‘getting even’ isn’t a Christian response. We may not have to confront terrorism head on, but we all have people/events that make us angry. How we deal with the anger is important. We can either add to the stock of violence in the world or reduce it.

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Lacrimae Rerum

Death moves us to tears. The tragic murders in the Jewish school at Toulouse have a particular poignancy because the victims were so young and defenceless. No amount of security, no amount of forethought is adequate protection against human malice. So, there is ‘mourning and weeping in Ramah and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more’ and the rest of us feel helpless in the face of such horror. Tears express what we  cannot put into words.

Feeling helpless is not the same as being helpless. There are two things all of us can do, no matter where we live or what our age. First, we can pray: for those who have died, those who grieve, those who are trying to find the perpetrator, for the murderer himself. Prayer invites God into situations where he seems absent, makes it possible for him to change hearts and minds, allows change to occur. Second, we can examine our own conduct. Violence begins inside. In most of us the angry word, the unkind thought never go beyond that, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that we are ‘incapable’ of doing violence to another. As we pray for the teacher and children killed in Toulouse, and the three soldiers killed the week before, let us also pray for ourselves, for pure and compassionate hearts.

As always, I should love to know what you think.

*Lacrimae rerum: The quotation is from Vergil, Aeneid 1. 462, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’ (These are the tears of things and mortal things [i.e.sufferings] touch the mind), spoken by Aeneas as he gazes at a mural depicting the Trojan War. Vergil’s warrior hero is overcome by thoughts of the futility of war.

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Loss of Life

Yesterday’s tragic coach crash in Switzerland will have touched the hearts of many. Trying to make sense of the loss of so many young lives is doomed to failure. How can we reconcile what we believe about God, that he is all-loving, all-knowing, all-caring, with death and destruction? For myself, I think the only truthful answer is, we can’t. However much we try, we cannot know the mind of God. We do not know why he allows such tragedies, and I think we belittle the loss and the suffering if we claim that there is some ‘higher purpose’ involved. How can we be so sure? Why should he die? Why should she get cancer? Why should they lose their home and family? Why, why, why?

Perhaps ‘why’ is not the most important question to ask. Could it be that, when such tragedies occur, God is looking for a different response in us? Are we, who are not directly involved, called upon to affirm the goodness of God and our own trust in him? The Book of Job challenges our confident assertions about the nature of God even as it stretches our understanding. Today, as we pray for those who were killed, their families and friends, let us add a prayer for ourselves, that we may learn whatever it is that we need to learn — and let us not be too quick to assume that we know what that is.

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Law and Life

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying both highlight, in different ways, the difficulty many of us have in thinking through the relationship between law and life. We no longer agree on the ethical basis of society, which makes it more difficult still.

I was revolted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder but I must confess to uneasiness about some reactions to the Dobson/Norris trial. It is partly that I have difficulty with the dropping of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle which allowed the trial to take place in the first place and the outpouring of visceral hatred in the name of justice which followed*. I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same — and that holds whether the skin colour we are talking about is black, brown, or white.

Are we in danger of saying, for example, black equals good, white equals bad, or seeing racism where we should perhaps see rather brutality and lawlessness? Have we lost our sense of society being greater than the sum of its parts? Or are we taking the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ to its logical conclusion and favouring some more than others, instead of maintaining that we are all equal under the law? Perhaps a lawyer would comment on this point.

I don’t believe, however, that law is something we can leave to lawyers alone. The laws a society makes for itself, the way in which it applies them, the penalties it exacts for breaking them, are all shapers of that society. They have a directive force even when they don’t affect us individually with compulsive force. What happens when emotion comes into play? Is there a danger that we react to the emotion rather than to the law? It will be interesting to see how the Dobson/Norris trial affects the way in which the Metropolitan Police deals with future murder cases. It will also be interesting to see how the various groups and action bodies that work to eliminate racism deal with future incidents.

What of the Commission on Assisted Dying? It is being reported in the media as a panel of experts which has concluded there is a ‘strong case’ for legislation to allow assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. It was apparently funded by those who are working for a change in the law, which, if true, calls in question its claim to being objective. Less contentious because demonstrable may be the fact that Canon James Woodward has dissented from the Commission’s conclusions, and the BMA refused to take part at all.

How we think about life will inevitably be translated into law. Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have. Can we condemn murder but permit ‘assisted dying’ without getting into a strange moral quagmire where law no longer protects the weak but serves rather to advance the interests of the strong — those who can argue better than we can, or who can make decisions they have decided we can’t or shouldn’t? Ultimately, all these questions are personal, not just abstractions. Is my life as a white woman worth less than yours as a black man or either of our lives worth more than hers as an unborn child or his as an octogenarian? Remember, how we answer those questions will be reflected in our laws. What a responsibility we  bear!

*I am not, in any way, disputing the verdict. Like everyone else, I would like to see all who are guilty of his murder brought to trial and sentenced for their terrible crime.

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Life, Death and Holidays

I have been spending the time after Christmas typesetting an Order of Service for a Requiem Mass and Funeral. It wasn’t what I intended, and I’m quite sure the bereaved family would much rather not have to deal with such things. They have lost someone they love at a time when everyone else seems to be holidaying and making merry.

My own father died shortly before Christmas 1999, so I have an inkling of how difficult it can be to deal with grief when the rest of the world is in festive mood. The sudden stab of memory, the tears rising in the throat, the effort it takes to appear cheerful when one has to accept invitations/attend events one would much rather refuse or ignore — they all seem much worse when tinsel and the popping of corks form the backdrop.

It is at such times that we confront the truth of Christmas. Christ was born, not so that we might indulge in some syrupy romanticism but so that we might confront the reality of sin and death. Bethlehem leads inexorably to Calvary. We know the story does not end there, that the Resurrection transforms defeat into victory and that at the end of time, when, please God, all are gathered into the Kingdom, the purpose of Christ’s earthly life will have been achieved: the salvation of mankind.

We know that, but when the heart is aching and the world seems cold and bleak, it is difficult to believe. Spare a thought (and a prayer if you can) for those who have been bereaved this Christmastide.

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