Sentimentality is Not Enough

When the only news item about refugees and migrants on the BBC’s front page is a subcolumn headed EU tries to resolve migrant quota row, it is clear that there has been a major shift in the nation’s media focus. It does not mean that the problem has gone away or diminished in severity. There are still people clamouring to get to the richer countries of northern Europe; still people enduring appalling conditons; still host countries experiencing confusion and uproar. But we are not really looking. Many individuals have responded generously with money and offers of temporary homes. Some of the latter, I fear, have had more to do with sentimentality than serious consideration of what is most needed. Please don’t think I am belittling such offers, but there is a danger that in our anxiety to do something rather than nothing, we may unconsciously be trying to salve our own consciences rather than finding a solution to the underlying problems. To solve those problems, we must face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the situation we face.

A number of commentators have already said the unsayable: that not every person rattling Europe’s cages is a refugee fleeing war and terror; that there is a disproportionate number of young men unaccompanied by women or children; that the absorption of many thousands of Muslims could pose long-term cultural difficulties; that among those entering Europe may be those committed to its destruction. All these things may be true, but we would be untrue to ourselves and our Judaeo-Christian heritage if we didn’t first meet the purely human need of providing food and shelter to those who are lacking such things. But then comes the difficult part. What do we do next? How do we go about absorbing and integrating large numbers of deeply traumatised people? Should we even be thinking in terms of absorbing and integrating anyway? There is the fact that the public purse is not inexhaustible. We cannot complain, on the one hand, about diminishing services and benefits and then, on the other, expect the governments of Europe to cover the costs of resettlement, etc. It can surely not have gone unnoticed that Greece and Italy have borne much of the initial burden of welcome and support.

Politicians will argue endlessly about finance. It is true that Britain is the largest aid donor to Syrian refugees after the U.S.A., outsripping the contributions of other European countries by a considerable margin; but that doesn’t let us off the hook. The unpalatable truth we have to own is that much of the situation we face is of our own creation. The war in Iraq, years of cosying up to Saudi Arabia and oil-rich dictatorships, fighting phoney wars with Russia, even the mistakes, as we now see in retrospect, of British policy in Palestine have contributed to the chaos.

So, what to do? I think we need to support those trying to work out a political solution rather than simply condemn them for their failures. We cannot dismiss the past as of no consequence but, at the same time, we cannot let it dictate the present. Christians believe in redemption, in the possibility of change; and that is surely what we need to work at right now. It won’t be easy. More than one European politician must be having nightmares about civil unrest and trying to calculate how far it is politically expedient to follow one course or another. Such realpolitik should not surprise us. Those with a responsibility to govern, to ensure public order and safety as well as the provision of adequate food, clothing, shelter, etc, cannot be guided by feeling alone. As summer turns to autumn and chill winds begin to blow, it can be helpful to remember that we all need to take risks — and we cannot place the whole burden of doing that on our elected officials. ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ has not lost its force or urgency. It is a sentence directed to each one of us.

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Was St Benedict a Foodie?

It may seem strange that the chapter of the Rule we read today (RB 39) is entirely concerned with food, but not food as it is often perceived in contemporary Western society, where it is the focus of TV programmes and endless discussions about superfoods, cooking gadgets and the latest take on traditional dishes, but rather, food as part of the physical and spiritual discipline of the monastery. The two go together, as feast and fast go together, but we often forget that, so accustomed have we become to abundance and to the exaltation of freedom and choice as absolute values. For St Benedict, as for his followers, food is a symbol of something much more important, and its proper preparation, serving and enjoyment are all part of that process of seeking God that is the raison d’être of the monastery.

Chapter 39 is concerned with the amount and type of food, and would probably delight the heart of any fitness-freak today with its insistence on fresh fruit and vegetable and moderation in everything; chapter 40 discusses drink, and allows for moderate use of wine; chapter 41 goes into the times of meals, which are all related to the Easter feast. In chapter 35 we read of the kitchen servers and the qualities they should bring to their task; in chapters 36 and 37 Benedict makes special provision for the sick, the young and the very old. Elsewhere we read of the rituals surrounding eating (e.g. chapter 38) or the punishment of exclusion from the common table (e.g. chapter 24). All in all, this amounts to a theology of food, a domestic liturgy, in which all participate and enflesh, so to say, the rhythm of the Christian year, with its movement through the different seasons and the alternations of fast and feast until we reach the central point of Easter. The monk is not to be weighed down with excess, not to give way to self-indulgence, because he has mind and heart fixed on paschal joy.

For many people, food is just fuel for the journey; for others it is an end in itself. Most of us would probably admit to being somewhere in between the two extremes, caring about what we eat, but not sufficiently to spend all our time in the kitchen  or concentrating huge efforts on achieving some sort of gastronomic excellence. Perhaps we can all learn something from Benedict’s approach to food as an essential part of life, to be valued and treated with reverence but not idolised. We become what we eat; we also become how we eat. It would be a useful exercise to spend a few moments today thinking about both those things, and how they relate both to our spiritual quest and to our development as human beings. St Benedict was indeed a ‘foodie’, but perhaps not quite as we understand that term.

Emails: our emails are working again. The problem related to our previous use of Postini as a relayer, but I’m not sure how many emails have been unintentionally returned to sender.

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Asceticism: True and False

It might surprise you to know that there is a lot of false asceticism about. All that flesh-hating, afraid-of-the-body nonsense peddled by those who are neither ascetic themselves nor wish anyone else to be is seriously misleading. It is behind much of our simplistic ‘fat-is-bad, thin-is-good’, thinking. It makes people miserable when they ought to be happy and, because it is based on a false premise, prevents people from realising that they never can be happy while they subscribe to a lie.

True asceticism has nothing whatever to do with punishment, but everything to do with training and discipline. The Greek origins of the word are enough to show that (askesis means practice, athletic training). It is not to be identified with austerity, although a certain restraint is necessary since what we aim at is mastery over our appetites and any bad habits they may have led us into. St Jerome was very clear-eyed about this, saying that fasting, for example, should not be taken to excess as it is only a means to an end. It is a help towards attaining moral perfection, but it is not perfection itself. We could go further and say that fasting taken to excess is a sin, because it is a misuse of material goods and a profanation of the body, leading to pride, hardness of heart and a host of other evils.

Asceticism is always ethical, both in origin and in scope. There is nothing mystical about it, although some modern writers seem to confuse the two. Nor is there anything sad or heavy about it. Like all exercise, it is meant to invigorate, only for Christians it is a spiritual invigoration that we seek.

The chief asceticisms of the Rule of St Benedict are obedience and the common life, in which the use of time, speech, material goods, food and drink are all regulated. They are disciplines aimed at freeing the monk or nun from anything that might hold them back on the way to God. Self-will, self-indulgence, all the many forms of selfishness we prefer not to admit to, are encouraged by soft living and having no checks on what one says or does. (You do not have to be a moral theologian to work that out — just look at the gossip columns of the Mail Online, for instance, and you can see how sad and empty are the lives of many people who judge their worth by what they own and who walk away from relationships when the going gets tough.) But the point to note about the Benedictine asceticisms is that none is carried to excess. They are part of our training in the spiritual life and, as such, the renunciations they involve should be joyful. Benedict makes that very clear when he writes about Lent and our offering things up gladly, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

I myself think asceticism began to go wrong when people began to go wrong about religion, mistaking misery for holiness and punishment for penance. Food, instead of being blessed, shared and enjoyed, became a temptation; wine, instead of being a source gladness of heart, became sinful; and once things become temptations and are regarded as sinful, we get them all wrong, too. Maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about an obesity epidemic if we hadn’t decided that food is innately sinful and therefore curiously desirable; maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about our drinking habits if we hadn’t let them run out of control because we associate the pleasures of wine with guilt; maybe we wouldn’t have so many broken marriages if we hadn’t got so confused about love and sex. I could go on, but I might end up indulging in a grumble, if not a rant.

My suggested remedy for many of the social ills that assail us is for the Churches to rethink asceticism and, instead of presenting much of our ethical and moral behaviour as a series of negatives, try to regain something the early Church understood much better. We are runners in a race towards heaven, and we need to get into training. In other words, we need to become true ascetics. The world has more than enough of the fake and phoney kind.

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A Banana Moment

On this day in 1633 the first bananas were imported into England. How they survived the long sea voyage from the Bahamas and were still in a fit state to be eaten beats me, but I do not doubt that they were enjoyed. How we managed to survive World War II without bananas is also a mystery to me, but we did — just.

Why this talk of bananas when you were probably expecting a line or two about the Resurrection? There are some truths so profound one must either write at length or very briefly about them. I tore up my Easter Day post as being too long to read yet not long enough to convey what I wanted it to convey. Then I went and ate a banana and realised that there are banana moments just as there are marmite toast moments.

Marmite toast is comfort food; a banana is as near to paradise as we are ever likely to get in this life. The golden skin of those we eat in Britain, the fragrance, the warm and slightly yeasty taste are a foretaste of the ambrosia we expect at the heavenly banquet. If we are to taste and see that the Lord is good, I think bananas must come high up on the list for doing so — much better than a chocolate Easter egg. So, if you have not yet celebrated Easter in the kitchen, eat a banana, and think how healthy your alternative choice is!

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Food, Drink, Love and Hate

A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?

Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.

Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.

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The Table an Altar

For several months we have been treated to a slew of statistics about the rates of obesity in the U.K.  We are all getting fatter, some of us dangerously so. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section has made this subject its own. Thus, in August, Catherine Hughes argued that there was an ingrained institutional prejudice against the obese. In October Jamie Oliver waxed angry about the government’s anti-obesity strategy. In November Sarah Warwick made a case for exercise being as important as restricting food intake, while earlier this week Zoe Williams maintained that obesity is a consequence of poverty, not lack of moral fibre. Not surprisingly, all the articles have generated a lot of comment about what we eat and how.

Now, what do I find interesting about this? Time was when we weren’t obese, we were merely fat, and that was bad enough. The whiplash-thin adults of my childhood and youth had all experienced the hunger of the War years. Anyone who wasn’t slim was suspected of Billy Bunter tendencies with cream buns: a figure of fun rather than moral condemnation. Since then we have moved through the era of the celebrity chef, T.V. programmes and magazines devoted entirely to cooking, and a vast proliferation of the foods available on supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when olive oil came from the chemist, with a B.P. standard assurance on the label, and garlic and lemons were hunted down with difficulty. We live in the midst of abundance, but it is not an abundance equally available to all, and though we can work wonders in the kitchen we do not see the link with worship. Food is no longer sacred, no longer a gift of God to be celebrated as well as enjoyed.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, Martin Buber had some fine things to say about eating in holiness, making an altar of the table. I wonder how many people do that today? Is eating merely a way of fuelling our bodies? In the monastery, meals are ritualised because the refectory is seen as an extension of the choir. The rhythm of fast and feast is built into the liturgical year and most communities have supplemented this with local customs. For example, we eat scones when the Elijah cycle is being read and cherries when we celebrate the feast of St Etheldreda. We are approaching the great midwinter feast of Christmas. Most of us will be celebrating with family or friends and eating and drinking with great cheerfulness. Maybe we should give a little thought to making our feasting into an act of worship. It isn’t obesity we need to fear so much as forgetfulness. Jesus our Saviour was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and gives himself to us today under the form of Bread and Wine. Every meal is a reminder of that.

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