Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times

November is the month for remembering. We pray for the dead with special zeal, but as the days go on and the anniversaries increase in number, the parallels and ironies become ever more troubling. Today, for example, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, is described as a feast of unity and peace under the see of Peter — a celebration of the ‘whole assembly of charity’ which is, or should be, the Church. But no -one, looking at the Church as portrayed in the press and social media, could describe her as being united or at peace while different factions snipe at one another in the name of orthodoxy. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, further back, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Yesterday Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech which seemed capable of ushering in another cold war with its brusque condemnation of China and Russia. This morning there is blood on the doors of a synagogue in Brighton and Liliana Segre, an 89 year old Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is under guard because of the death threats she has been receiving. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s candidates for election to Parliament make huge promises to the electorate and hurl accusations at one another. Tomorrow there will be a kind of truce as we observe Remembrance Sunday, but some may suspect that all the talk of sacrifice and the heroism of those who fought in World War I has been assimilated to another agenda. We are caught up in a troubling war of words and ideas that we instinctively feel matter but which we can’t quite get ahold of. Where is all this rhetoric leading?

When I was a child, the very idea of abusing a Holocaust survivor or desecrating a synagogue or Jewish cemetery would have been unthinkable. Yet, year by year, The Jewish Chronicle has noted a rising number of attacks and the row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party refuses to subside. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall I attended a Regulae Benedicti Studia conference in Kassel where I was practically the only non-German or non-Austrian in attendance. We listened to a nun of Alexanderdorf describing what life had been like for her community under the G.D.R. and then argued late into the night (and most subsequent nights) about the way in which Germany was trying to come to terms with her past and build a good future for all her citizens — including the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ and Albanian refugees who were then a source of anxiety for many. It was honest and open and hopeful. Today Europe appears to be fragmenting again; Hungary and Poland have adopted policies that are stamped with the ideology of the Far Right; and no one seems sure whom or what to believe any more, least of all when politicians campaign for our votes.

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Whom or what are we to believe? It would be easy for me as a Catholic to say, we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is true. But we have to work out how we are to apply that belief in Christ to any and every situation. May I make three suggestions, none of them novel, which I think could prove helpful?

First, we have to pray; and prayer is not telling God what we want him to do or comforting ourselves with the thought that God approves of what we have decided is right. Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.

Second, we have to learn to read both texts and other people carefully. Many disputes are caused because we haven’t taken the time to register exactly what is being said but made assumptions. I find that people often react to a blog post title without reading the post itself and are somewhat discountenanced when it is pointed out that the argument they thought was being made wasn’t. It is the same with other matters, such as the political and economic arguments that are the staple fare of Brexit Britain. We have to learn to slow down, think, consider nuance. Too often we are busy with our response before we have allowed the other’s argument to sink in — and sometimes we are too lazy to check facts!

Third, I think we need to grant to those with whom we disagree the courtesy to which they are entitled simply because they are human beings. We may not think much of their arguments; we may find them tiresome or silly or anything else you care to name; but not to treat others with respect is to fail to treat Christ with respect; and that, surely, is unacceptable to any Christian. Learning to be firm and clear in argument while remaining courteous is a difficult art, one that requires goodwill and generosity. We all make mistakes, but sometimes we take refuge in obstinacy when it would be better just to admit we are wrong. Are we big enough to do that or not?

I said at the beginning that November is the month for remembering. The Latin origins of the verb are linked to a conscious effort of mind. No one is suggesting that the problems and challenges we face as a Church, as a society or as individuals can be solved without effort, but the way in which we approach finding a solution is important. One question we could all ask ourselves today is, are we ready to make the effort? Do we really want to make a difference, or do we want to offload the responsibility onto others? In other words, if, as I believe, we live in troubled times, are we prepared to try to make them better?


Remembering: Armistice Day and More

The last few days have seen events that have made huge demands on the world’s attention and understanding: the horrors being perpetrated in Mosul, the outcome of the U.S.A. presidential election and the diverse reactions to it, the ongoing squabbles about Brexit. At the same time, we have been marking some significant anniversaries: Kristallnacht, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Armistice Day. If what I have read is in any way typical, there has been a great deal of gloating and unholy glee manifested by some who are ordinarily kind and considerate, and a good deal of self-indulgent and self-referential grieving expressed by others. These will be thought harsh verdicts and I am sure many will leap to their keyboards to accuse me of being snobbish (because I am not a populist), stupid (because I do not agree with them) and, of course, ‘judgemental’ — which no one should ever be, least of all one who professes to be a Christian (I am being ironical). I hope you will allow me to argue my point, notwithstanding.

Armistice Day always makes me think of my grandparents and the people I knew in my youth: the wheezy old gentlemen, sometimes missing a limb or two, who would never speak about war or what it had meant to them; the maiden ladies whose fiançés had died at the Front and who subsequently lived lives of genteel poverty and loneliness; the tears shed by my maternal grandmother over her two sons killed in World War II; the pressed flowers from the Western Desert and the blood stains in one of my father’s books which told their own sad story. We children remembered, even though we ourselves had no part in the wars of our parents and grandparents; and as we stood during the Two Minutes’ Silence, we prayed for all the fallen of all wars and armed conflicts and asked God to grant us peace in our day. Today that prayer looks a little frayed round the edges. What is happening in Syria is barbaric; the souring of relations between the world’s superpowers is the stuff of nightmares; and the growing feeling that we no longer share any common sense of the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is deeply troubling.

The polarisation of society is something that should concern us all because, left unchecked, it does indeed lead to the victimisation of individuals and groups. If we value free speech, we need to be responsible about what we say and how we say it because, when all controls are gone, the very freedom it is meant to safeguard is endangered. We are all familiar with the way in which Social Media has been used to inflict pain and suffering through the repetition of untrue or unsubstantiated claims and through direct and sinister attacks on others. I think, however, there is something we can do which might help us.

As you might expect of a Benedictine, I always pray before going online or before writing anything. In effect, what I am doing is pausing a moment to remember what it is I am about and the people involved. Sometimes, of course, I get it all wrong and express myself badly or rudely or otherwise inadequately. Sometimes, however, I get it right; and instead of stoking the fires and multiplying misunderstandings, I manage to stumble across the words needed to defuse a situation. Sometimes, face to face, no words are needed, just a smile. You might expect me to say that prayer is at the heart of this, but I would say the act of remembering precedes prayer. It is what we need to do to allow God into the situation. Remembering, in this context, is not taking up a pre-determined position and going over (yet again) all one’s grievances. It is a little more difficult than that, and requires an act of will to accompany the act of remembrance. It means saying to oneself: this is a situation I have to deal with. I can make it better or worse. What do I have to do or change in myself to make it better?

Tomorrow, on Remembrance Sunday, many will stand beside War memorials and bow their heads in remembrance. Many others will not; or will utter some sort of protest at British imperialism or the arms trade or whatever. If what I have said above is true, what matters is what we ourselves do: how we remember, how we respond. It is no use lamenting the state of the world if we are not prepared to do something about it. We must start with ourselves, and remembering is a good first step.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail