The Chuckit List

Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, is about forgiveness — something we all find difficult, especially if we try to forgive others in our own strength or think of it as a once-for-all process. It becomes even harder when we hear Jesus telling us that it is not those who have offended us we most need reconciliation with but those who have something against us. Forgiveness is clearly both simpler and more complicated than we might have thought, but there is no escaping it. We live by the mercy of God and that mercy is to be shared with others.

Yesterday, in a different and much sadder context, I was introduced to the concept of the Chuckit List. It is rather like a Bucket List in reverse: not a list of things we want to do or acquire, but a list of things we can let go. May I suggest that we each think about our own Chuckit List — of grudges, resentments, quarrels, prejudices, misunderstandings, estrangements — and resolve to let them go. In setting others free, we are ourselves liberated; and it is never too late to learn that lesson.

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Lenten Fruitfulness

Today is the memoria of St Polycarp, whose name means ‘fruitfulness’ in Greek (you can read an earlier post specifically about him, St Polycarp and the Grace of the Elderly, with some thoughts on ageing and dying, here: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2016/02/23/st-polycarp-and-the-grace-of-the-elderly/), but it is today’s Mass readings that I want to consider this morning.

Isaiah 55.10–11 assures us that the word of God always attains its purpose, while the gospel, Matthew 6.7-15, gives us the text of the Lord’s Prayer and reminds us that forgiving others will secure our forgiveness in return. It is a circle of grace that begins and ends in God. How often do we overlook that and try to batter God into submission to our will through all the penances and good works we take on? As if we could!

Those autumnal apples pictured above remind me of Keat’s ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (it’s his anniversary today, too) and the sheer abundance of God’s mercy. I think we forget how lavish God is in his care for creation, including us. Perhaps one of the things we need to do this Lent is to allow that amazingly generous, merciful God to replace the more niggardly, exacting image most of us have of him. That would make our Lent more fruitful — not easier, for more would be asked of us — but certainly more fruitful. Shall we try it?

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Unlocking Heaven

A simplified version of the Keys of St Peter

The Feast of the Chair of St Peter

As I was mooching round the monastery early this morning, I reflected on today’s gospel (Matthew 16. 13–19) and the number of homilies which concentrate on the power of binding rather than loosing. Many limit interpretation of the text to sacramental confession, a debatable point in itself, while others seem to allow the power of binding and loosing to those they approve of, but not otherwise. Thus, a feast celebrating the unity of the Church under her principal teacher, Pope Francis, is turned into a weapon against him by some, who accuse him of all manner of sins and crimes, including apostasy. He is not, apparently, as Catholic as he should be; and he does not do as much binding as he ought.

Binding and Loosing

Why is there this obsession with binding rather than loosing? I am sorry to say that many of my Catholic friends seem to be rather keen on binding others, excluding them from the kingdom of heaven. Often it seems to be the result of enthusiasm for one aspect of the Church’s teaching blinding them to the necessity of others.

Chesterton wrote of the tendency to exaggerate one truth above another ending in a skewed understanding of Christianity as a whole. Indeed, it is one way in which orthodoxy can become heterodoxy. Sometimes I have the feeling that for some, Catholicism is now anti-abortionism and everyone is to be judged on the soundness or otherwise of their attitude towards it. Please don’t get me wrong. I am opposed to abortion, but I am also opposed to the conditions that make abortion seem acceptable or even desirable. I do not — cannot — condemn those who have had an abortion. That is not the same as condoning abortion, and Catholic social teaching has a great deal to say about our duty to ensure just and fair living conditions for all. I don’t see how we can maintain the one without the other.

If we have the power of binding, we also have the power of loosing, of allowing the mercy of God into any and every human situation. Of course, it is always easier to see the motes in our brethren’s eyes than the beams in our own, but it would make a refreshing change if, instead of concentrating on the power to bind others, we could celebrate this feast by thinking and praying about how we can free others. It is a power given not just to the clergy — in fact, not even mainly to the clergy — but to everyone who claims to be a disciple of Christ. It was to set us free that Christ came into the world, died and rose again. Let us not lose sight of that essential truth as we journey through Lent.

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Tell My Children I Love Them

Who could fail to have been moved by those words of a dying woman, uttered after being attacked in Nice yesterday? They express all that is best and most loving about mothers, about human beings. For a Christian, looking at a Crucifix, they express God’s love for us, his errant children, and they give us hope. We are loved, and we can choose to love in return.

As news of the attacks in France came in yesterday, I admit to feeling more than usual sadness. Something has changed. Those targeted attacks on the eve of lockdown, like the murder of Samuel Paty, do more than challenge the secular values of the French State. They challenge our faith. Either we believe the gospel, or we don’t. Either we will continue to love, or we won’t. Either we allow God to forgive in and through us, or we don’t. How we manage that, I don’t know. May God give us the grace. And may he comfort those bereaved children and all who mourn.

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Survival Tactics

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.

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Prejudice and Fear

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.

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The Covenant of Forgiveness

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.

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Our Own Worst Enemy?

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?

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The Parting of Friends: Jesus and Judas

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?

Audio Version

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Good Friday 2019

The cross at Notre Dame de Paris after the fire
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis } The cross stands while the world turns

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.

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