A Little Grumble About Stereotypes

I have a grumble, only a little one. It stems more from puzzlement than anything else. Several times during the past week I have come up against our failure as individuals and as a community to meet the expectations others have of us, yet the matters in which we have ‘failed’ have been so trivial as to be baffling. I think our experience begs the larger question of stereotyping and the injustice — I hope that is not too solemn a word — not only of trying to make others conform to our ideas about how they should live their lives but also of making assumptions about them. When challenged about the stereotypes applied to ourselves, we react in different ways. If skin colour is involved, we cry ‘racism’; if sex is involved, we cry ‘sexism’; if religion, we have a much more complex reaction. For Christians, in particular, there can be a feeling that we ought not to defend ourselves. We must try to be forgiving, even to the point where we cease to be human.

I suspect some readers will respond with indignation, ‘Of course we must forgive always, no matter how hard it is!’ I don’t disagree, what I’m saying is that in our forgiveness we mustn’t run beyond grace, we should not become doormats. To forgive is a process, not a once-for-all act (unless you’re very unusual), and really to forgive, rather than just put others on probation, requires courage as well as generosity. It means allowing Christ to forgive in us, and sometimes we get in the way of that. We forget that fake holiness is no holiness. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’ requires rather more than pretence, no matter how well-intentioned. It asks for a change of heart, and that’s not done just by wishing.

Perhaps spending a few moments today thinking about how non-Christians perceive Christians could be fruitful. It would alert us to the ways in which our responses may be (mis)understood — and anything that makes for better understanding among people generally is surely a Good Thing. It may also help us to see that sometimes we conform to other people’s stereotypes because that is the image we have (or want to have) of ourselves. That is a Bad Thing, because it means we are not living truthfully; and whatever else anyone may say, Truth matters.

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The Problem with Being Perfect

Yesterday I made use of the Twitter hashtag ‘phrases that annoy’ in connection with a mild joke. I was surprised to be taken up by another Twitter user who said that he thought being annoyed was contrary to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. My reply, that it wasn’t the being annoyed that was the problem but what we did with it, and that the Rule is for those who are not yet perfect, probably didn’t cut much ice. However, in the context of today’s reading from the Rule, RB 7.62–70, the twelfth step of humility, I think it highlights a problem we are all familiar with: ‘religious people’, nuns especially, are expected to be ‘perfect’; and when we don’t measure up to the other person’s expectations, there is grave disappointment.

Part of the problem, I suspect, stems from the fact that most people think of perfection as something static whereas I think it is much more a process of endless becoming. Take that being annoyed again. Someone who is unaffected by others, whose temper is always calm and unruffled, is not necessarily exercising any virtue. He/she may simply be ignoring what is happening, refusing to engage, living a rather inhuman life. The person who is annoyed, admits it, tries to turn the annoyance into changing things for the better is, in my view, much more virtuous, much more human. He/she is also likely to experience repeated failure and so will need to keep on reaffirming his/her original choice. That, to my mind, is part of what it means to grow in virtue.

When today Benedict talks of humility existing not only in the monk’s heart but also affecting our outward bearing, he is doing exactly the opposite of what most people expect. Nearly everyone thinks that one begins by practising humility outwardly and letting it percolate inwards. The reverse is true. We start by keeping the fear of God before our eyes and end, if we can ever be said to end, with a humility that is manifest to others — which is why most of us are going to go on appearing very imperfect to others. Moreover, the perfect love of God to which we aspire is not something in which we rest; it is something in which we move and act. For Benedict, the perfection of humility draws us into an ever more demanding observance in which the keynotes are love of Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. Nowhere does he say that we shall be free from temptation or that we shall not fail.

So, as we read Benedict’s words, I think we should take heart. Unless we are quite deliberately rejecting God, the messiness and imperfection of our lives is something to be treasured. If we were perfect, we would have no need of a Saviour; and I, for one, would much rather the Lord Jesus stooped to my need. Our struggles are transformed by grace, but even grace needs a chink or two to find a way in.

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