One aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that has simultaneously amused and horrified me has been the survival tactics adopted by various people. If their social media posts are to be believed, they have ranged from eating and drinking too much, making sourdough loaves, and de-cluttering to learning sanskrit, dieting and binge-watching Netflix. I wonder about those not posting on social media, those in low-paid jobs (or perhaps, no job at all), struggling with depression or another form of ill-health, those just desperate to get by and seeing no end in sight to their troubles. In the monastery, we have encountered a few practical difficulties, but the routine of prayer, work and observance goes on day after day, largely uninterrupted by events outside the cloister. We are, after all, accustomed to solitude, silence and dealing with most domestic emergencies by ourselves (boiler break-downs excepted). But that isn’t really a survival tactic, is it? It is simply ordinary monastic life. A survival tactic suggests to me a way of coping with the extraordinary, and today’s Mass readings strike me as providing a very profound one.
The first reading, Ecclesiasticus 27. 33 – 28.9, is a searing indictment of anger and resentment which bring death to the soul. The gospel, Matthew 18.21–35, is a direct warning of what to expect if we fail to forgive. But it is the second reading, Romans 14. 7–9, which provides a wider context for both. The way we ourselves live, our readiness to forgive, affects not just ourselves but others and taps into the life and forgiveness we experience in Christ. If we pause for a moment and reflect, that is extraordinary. It gives to our whole life a significance and purpose that we might not recognize. What we think and say and do matters. We can give life, or inflict death. St Basil says somewhere that if we have love in us, God dwells in us; but if we harbour hatred and resentment, the devil dwells within us. The choice is plain. Whatever our external circumstances, whatever restrictions the pandemic may impose upon us, we can channel this life-giving love and forgiveness towards others and in so doing discover that we have received the same gifts. A survival tactic? Yes, and more than that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness recently. Partly, I know, it is the effect of reading or listening to the news in the light of our readings from scripture and the Rule of St Benedict; partly it is the effect of knowing my disease is progressing and my not wanting to die burdened with a refusal to forgive others; mainly, however, it is the experience of myself being forgiven that weighs with me. I can look back on my life and see how often people have given me the benefit of the doubt, granted me a second chance, just put up with me — especially those who have treated me the best when I’ve behaved the worst, i.e. the community I live with.
This morning, however, I admit to feeling discouraged. Recently I was sent a letter by someone I don’t know. It was a courteous and kindly letter, urging me to reflect on what the writer perceived to be the errors of Christianity and embrace Islam. My first thought was, if only some Christians were as courteous how much better would be the impression we give of our faith. I said as much on some Social Media accounts. Most people got my point (though not, I suspect, those with a tendency to rant and rave!). Others either didn’t, or decided to use the opportunity to voice their own views of Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, that’s where prejudice and fear began to raise their heads. It hasn’t got too bad, but I may have to step in and delete my original post because, as I often have to say, I don’t want that kind of negativity on any of my Social Media accounts. Informed debate (even, let’s be honest, on some matters, ignorant debate) is fine; attacks on others aren’t; and the historian in me bristles when old chestnuts are brought out with little regard for their validity.
Prejudice is, quite literally, a judgement made in advance of the facts. It means a preconceived idea based neither on reason nor experience. It is usually, but not always, hostile and often proceeds from fear. Frequently, there is a small smattering of truth contained within it: not enough to justify it, but enough to give it a slight appearance of reasonableness. So, for example, we can say that politicians are self-serving. Some are; most aren’t; but the idea is current because of recent high-profile cases of corruption in high places both in this country and elsewhere. Our prejudice against the political class can be said to proceed from fear of its power over our lives. (Please note, I’m saying this by way of example because I don’t want to be drawn into specifics by those who take everything literally.)
So, how do prejudice and fear link with forgiveness? That is where I’d say we have to do some hard thinking. Many people assume that forgiveness has to do with concrete acts: saying or doing what is wrong. But words and deeds proceed from thoughts and attitudes, which is why monastic tradition has always paid close attention to setting a guard on the thoughts that run through our minds incessantly. We don’t stop thinking, but we do have to check any tendency to let our thoughts run away with us into negative channels. Sometimes it seems to me that we carry a pent-up sea within ourselves, its waves crashing and breaking on many a different shore. It is a far-fetched analogy, perhaps, but just as the health of all life on the planet is intimately linked with the health of the oceans, so our willingness to ‘take every thought captive for Christ’ plays an essential part in our spiritual health. We let go of our prejudice and fear by inserting ourselves into his forgiveness, letting him forgive in and through us. And, as always, we find that if we do that, we ourselves are forgiven. Something to ponder, I suggest, when we read the headlines today.
Once upon a time, and still now in some communities for aught I know, chapters 8 to 19 of the Rule of St Benedict, the so-called Liturgical Code, dealing with the structure of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), the distribution of psalmody and so on, are omitted from public reading. The reason usually given is that the said communities have adopted a different form of the Divine Office, so there is no point in reading what St Benedict had to say about it. For those of us who do persevere with reading those neglected chapters, there is a very striking and important passage in today’s section, RB 13. 12–14.
Benedict remarks that the Offices of Lauds and Vespers should never end without the superior’s finally reciting the Lord’s Prayer. No surprise there, you might think. What Christian service does not include the Lord’s Prayer as a matter of course? But note the following.
First, it falls to the superior as promoter of peace and unity within the community, to say or sing the prayer aloud, not the community as a whole, though we are all expected to join in at the end with ‘deliver us from evil’, even at the lesser Offices where the bulk of the prayer is said silently. (RB 13.12). Second, the reason given for the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘the removal of those thorns of scandal or mutual offence’ that are apt to occur in community (RB 13. 12). How true that is! Finally, we come to the stinger: we are reminded that we make a covenant of forgiveness by saying the Lord’s Prayer (RB 13. 13). A covenant is a solemn, unbreakable agreement. We ask forgiveness as we ourselves forgive, so any tendency to reserve just a teeny weeny bit of unforgiveness, to put the other on probation as it were or harbour a little resentment or grudge, rebounds on our own head.
During this time of COVID-19 pandemic many people have taken to singing ‘Happy birthday’ twice over as they wash their hands. Personally, I have used the Lord’s Prayer. It takes the same amount of time, and the fact that it accompanies the washing of hands has acted as a reminder both of the Lord’s forgiveness and our need to forgive and accept the forgiveness of others. It doesn’t make it any easier, but constant dripping may wear away the heart of stone — even one’s own.
It may be a hackneyed phrase but, like most of most of its kind, it contains a lot of truth. We are often our own worst enemy, and when Jesus tells us in today’s gospel to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5.43–48), I don’t think we necessarily have to exteriorise the enemy. Most of us are conscious of an inner struggle. We talk about the old Adam (or Eve) asserting itself or ruefully admit to having behaved less charitably than we should have.
When we do exteriorise our enemy, we tend to make unflattering comparisons between them and us or even demonise the other. Anyone can fall under the curse of our anger and become an enemy: those who don’t share our beliefs, those who are richer, more obviously beautiful or talented, even those who are younger or healthier. We can always find a ‘reason’ for regarding others with hostility, and it is SO much easier when we can convince ourselves that they are persecuting us in some way.
It won’t wash, I’m afraid. There will always be some who seem to hate us without cause but I think we should worry much more about the hating we do ourselves. After all, we can’t do much about other people, but we can do something about ourselves. We can resolve to try to be kind, generous, truthful, forgiving. We may fail a thousand times a day (I know I do) but we can try — and that is all God asks of us. The enemy within can be prayed for just as much as the enemy without. The only difference is that we have to be humble enough to acknowledge the existence of the former. Pride, alas, often veils our sight and provides us with excuses for our own bad conduct. St Benedict spoke of the ‘evil zeal of bitterness’ that separates from God and leads to hell (RB 72.1). That is not where any of us should wish to end up, is it?
Today we recall the parting of friends. Judas betrays Jesus and sets in motion the events we shall be re-living over the next few days. Put like that, everything is low-key, seemingly inevitable. We miss the drama, the anguish, the tortured love that goes on loving. For what we often forget is that Jesus loved Judas, and Judas loved Jesus. No matter that each was deeply disappointed in the other; no matter that there was a parting of ways; love did not, and could not, turn to hatred.
Judas seems to have wanted Jesus to restore Israel’s political independence. His messianic hope was apparently focused on this world only. I say ‘seems’ and ‘apparently’ because we do not know. For centuries he has been demonised as the arch-betrayer, the clever man with astute financial skills, who sent Jesus to his death and was rewarded with what he desired most, a few more coins for his purse. What did Jesus want from Judas? Would it be too simplistic to say, he wanted his friendship, his company, that he enjoyed being with him and hoped that Judas would understand his mission as he himself had come to understand it? When Judas stepped out into the night, didn’t he long for him to turn back? Didn’t consciousness of their being on separate paths wound him? And when Judas began to see the consequences of his action, didn’t he feel a similar pain? When friends fall out, there is sadness on both sides.
Jesus did not approve of Judas’s betrayal, he condemned it, but he did not condemn Judas himself. To me that ‘Alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born!’ is a cry of pain, of sympathy even, for the suffering Judas will experience as a result of his actions. I think we sometimes forget that, as Christians, we cannot endorse that which we believe to be wrong but that does not mean we love the perpetrator any the less. Society often gets itself into a bind. On the one hand it believes that someone is responsible for every perceived wrong and should be made to pay for it; on the other, that there should be universal tolerance of anything and everything. That can be particularly hard for those of us trying to live a Christian life, but I think we can take heart from the interaction between Jesus and Judas. Jesus condemns the sin in no uncertain terms, but not the sinner. The public utterance and the private feeling may strike the casual reader as being at odds with one another. In reality, they are all of a piece. God’s love never comes to an end. In the Dialogues, Catherine of Siena hears from the Lord that he has mercy for Judas, too. He died for him, as he died for you and me. Let that sink in for a moment. Jesus died for Judas. The question I ask myself, therefore, is: if Judas is not forgiven, are we?
Good Friday can sometimes seem remote, but surely not this year. The sight of the cross at Notre Dame still standing after the fire has reminded us all that the events of this day are eternally significant. God in Christ has forgiven us. Nothing can ever change that. Now it is for us to forgive others, and if we are hesitant or inclined to limit our forgiveness to certain groups we approve of or even to put others on probation, as it were, we should remember the forgiveness so quickly and readily expressed by many of the Muslims affected by the Christchurch mosque shootings. Good Friday doesn’t give us options; it gives us a command.
At this time of year I often turn to poetry to help me gain a fresh insight into the tremendous events we celebrate. Inevitably, I turn to old favourites, The Dream of the Rood and many of the poems in the Harley Collection. There is a warmth and humanity about them that brings the Crucifixion very close, making us no longer spectators but involved, participant.
Lovely tear from lovely eye, Why dost thou look so sore? sings one medieval lyric on the Crucifixion. It is we, alas, who make the cross to be what it is not; who ignore the love and compassion that held our Saviour to its beams; who was and is ‘never wroth’. As we sing the Reproaches this afternoon, that love and compassion should be uppermost in our minds. May it become our own response to God’s extraordinary love for us.
Whenever the news is dire, as often seems the case at present, there is a great temptation to bury one’s head in the sand, muttering ‘This too will pass.’ Or we can remind ourselves that we remember very little of what happened on this day five years ago, unless it marked some great personal happiness or sorrow. The ability to forget can be a great mercy, but it is frequently a selective mercy. We forget; but do others? Burying our heads in the sand may be tempting, but can everyone do that?
Lent will soon be here and I shall be writing a few posts about how to prepare for it and, hopefully, allow it to transform us. An important element in that will be trying to hold in creative tension the everyday and the eternal. St Benedict urges us to ‘do now what may profit us for eternity’. In other words, we have to cultivate the ability to see that our ordinary, everyday actions have implications for hereafter. From the perspective of eternity, nothing is unimportant or irrelevant. Everything is charged with meaning. Put like that, we can see the necessity of prayer, scripture and the regular reception of the sacraments, of forgiving those who have hurt us and, even more important, seeking the forgiveness of those we ourselves have hurt. We may have forgotten, but the chances are that those we have wounded haven’t. May I suggest there is something there we need to think about and act on?
I trust you are very cheery up there in Beyond. We don’t seem to have heard from you for a long time. Now I have a problem and need your advice.
I’ve been in a bit of hot water recently. Nothing too serious, but clearly They don’t think much of my eating Their supper (it was yummy!) or burying six bones, one after the other, in the flower-beds, or examining the contents of the waste bin by tipping it all over the floor, etc. They’ve begun referring to you as the Blessed Bro Duncan PBGV and I feel that a comparison is being made. I’m Touri the Terrible, the Ginger Fiend, Our Little Thug. Where am I going wrong? Don’t They love me anymore?
Love and licks,
Bro Dyfrig xx
Letter from Bro Duncan PBGV to Bro Dyfrig BFdeB
The Heavenly Houndland
9 July, 2017
My dear Bro Dyfrig,
Nice to hear from you, young sprog, and my apology for the delay in replying. An awful lot of PBGVs seem to have come to the Heavenly Houndland recently, and we’ve been having lots of Peeb parties. Great fun!
As to your problem, oh dear! I think we have got to get a few things straight or you may go seriously wrong. Nothing will ever change Their love for you, absolutely nothing. I’m sure They call you Touri the Terrible or Little Thug in an affectionate tone of voice. Yes, They will get exasperated if you eat Their supper or dig up all the flowers or empty out smelly waste-bins and whatever else is implied by that ‘etc’ of yours. Human Beans are like that. But They are like our Heavenly Master in this respect. They know that we are the apple of His eye, and so we are of Theirs. The problem They have is They can go all gooey and forgiving when They see our big noses and hairy whiskers, but They are much harder on Their own kind. They tend not to forgive but only put others on probation: ‘do that once more and . . . .’ It is our job to help Them see They’ve got to be kind to those who aren’t blessed with four paws and eyes like melting chocolate buttons. We have to help Them become more dog, in fact, and love everyone — even the most trying.
Of course, I have to admit that eating Their supper is not a very good idea. I never did that, though I did share some goodies — mainly cheese and bikkies, as I recall. But I never stole them. You need to learn the art of staring reproachfully at Them, so that They give in and share with you. Human Beans do something similar when They pray. They stare at God (They call it ‘contemplation’) and He responds — not always in the way They’d like, of course, but He doesn’t ignore Them. I don’t really understand how They get away with it, not being as handsome or hairy as we are. It is all a great mystery, and I am content to leave it like that. I just know it works. Encourage Them in that.
Well, young sprog, I’ve got another party to go to. You’ll love it up here. Nothing but eating and merry-making all day long. Sheer Peeby bliss! And there’s a special spot for Fauves — and Human Beans — too.
April Fool’s Day can be a pain as unfunny joke follows unfunny joke, but I’ve thinking about a friend’s remark about forgiveness which I thnk tells us something important about the foolishness of God. Forgiveness always precedes an apology — if it really is an apology, that is, not just an excuse to go over the original offence and apportion more blame. When someone apologises, it is because the grace of forgiveness has already been at work in their heart. When the Father allowed his Son to be nailed to the Cross in the greatest apology ever made to humankind, it was because he had already forgiven us all our sin. How rarely do we let that sink in! To be forgiven suggests, of course, that there is something to forgive, and most of us are reluctant to admit as much or will only acknowledge those things that don’t cause us too much inner scrutiny. Yet, even if we do marvel at the idea of God’s forgiving us, we may be puzzled by the idea of his apologising to us. I tremble on the brink of heresy here, but I’ll try to make my meaning clear in as few words as possible.
We often rage and rant at God for all the suffering there is in the world, the injustice, the natural disasters. Is God indifferent to these things? I don’t think so. Some are the result of human ignorance or malice; others are beyond our ability to predict or control. When Jesus bowed his head on the Cross all this was was redeemed, made sense of, forgiven, apologised for. We cudgel our brains over it, and rightly so. We are reluctant to admit that we have difficulty forgiving God for some of the things he has done, or for which we hold him responsible (not quite the same thing). Then we look at the Crucifix and have to think again. The tremendous act of forgiveness and reconciliation we celebrate on Good Friday is one that affects our lives here and now. What I call God’s apology sets everything right again between him and us. His humility frees us from pride and self-sufficency and those little pockets of anger and resentment we continue to harbour almost against our will. His foolishness is indeed a wisdom greater than any of which we ourselves are capable, just as his love and mercy exceed our own. No one likes being an April Fool, but to be God’s Fool, to mirror his love and forgiveness, isn’t that something worth striving for?
It’s been a hot, sticky week, and if all human beans are like Them, there will have been some awkward moments when toes have been trodden on, misunderstandings have multiplied and typhoons in tea-cups have rattled the domestic calm. So here is a little lesson in how to apologize by one who is an expert in the subject. I seem to have to say sorry so often — for muddy paw-prints on the floor; positioning myself beside the oven when food is being taken from it; not hearing when I’m called; you know the kind of thing human beans get cross about. My eyes and tail are very eloquent when I have to say sorry, but human beans have to make do with mere words, which often seem to make things worse. So here are a few pointers from me you may find useful the next time you have to apologize.
Let’s begin with what we all know best: how to get it wrong. There are a few phrases you should try very hard to avoid or you may find yourself in the dog-house for ever.
The Wrong Way To Apologize
I apologize for any offence that may have been caused.
I’m sorry if you were offended.
I’m sorry if you found what I said or did offensive.
I’m sorry if I offended you.
All that ‘iffiness’ is unconvincing. Before we apologize, we have to acknowledge that we have done something wrong, even if we gave offence unintentionally. For some human beans that is almost an impossibility. ‘I have been misunderstood,’ they cry, or, ‘you must have had a humour by-pass,’ they say, as though the offence were somehow the fault of the one to whom the apology is due. Such apologies don’t usually end very well, believe me. No, you have to (wo)man-up to things and face facts, however hard that may be.
Then there are all those clever little additions which tend to undermine the apology — limitation clauses such as
In my defence, it was not entirely my fault (Calculating exact degrees of culpability probably won’t restore harmony.)
You can’t blame me for not knowing (But are you sure — shouldn’t you have known?)
It was the dog/the boss/Eve (i.e. Blame anyone but me—I’m the victim here. Not a good tactic.)
I was only doing what I was told. (Unfortunately, the excuse of mass-murderers and the like. Not recommended.)
or attempts to claim the moral high-ground with phrases like
Christian charity forbids my saying more. (Christian charity is probably what was wanting in the first place.)
I acted from the purest of motives but . . . (Possibly you did; more probably you didn’t.)
Contrast all these with
The Right Way to Apologize
Now, I know I am only a dog, but it seems to me that a simple ‘I’m sorry’ is the best apology there is. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’, please; no self-justifying rehearsal of the original grievance by way of exculpation; no attempt to wriggle out of things by blaming someone else, the medicine you have to take or the weather being too hot/too cold. If you’re sorry, say so — as simply and quickly as you can; then do your best to put things right.
But what if you can’t say sorry or put things right? Say the human bean you have injured is now dead, for example, or refuses to have anything to do with you? Then I think you must put your paws together and ask God to do what you cannot. He knows about forgiveness, after all. He doesn’t want you to be burdened with feelings of false guilt and shame. He wants you to be what he intended you to be from the beginning— a true image and likeness of himself — and he wants the other human bean to be like that, too. That doesn’t quite let you off the hook, of course. You have to try to put things right, if you can. Don’t use prayer as an excuse for not doing something you find difficult or don’t really want to do.
Lastly, I will let you into a BIG secret. We dogs share a very wonderful quality with our Creator. We forgive utterly. That doesn’t mean we don’t register unkindness or unfairness, or that we don’t consider them important. It’s simply that we don’t hold grudges or prolong quarrels. So, if you are having trouble apologizing, just try being more doggy. It won’t necessarily make everything better all at once, but it may open you up to becoming the human bean you are meant to be; and that will result in your becoming much nicer — nice enough, even, to be owned by a PBGV.* 😉
*P.S. I’m still working on Them. They have a long way to go to becoming nice, but it’s my vocation, and I enjoy a challenge.
P.P. S. The community retreat begins tonight, Saturday, 11 June, and last until Saturday, 18 June. Please keep Them in your prayers as They will keep you.