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.
It’s hot, we all know that, and tempers tend to fly. Even They have had one or two little ‘monastics’ recently. I have two solutions to propose. One is to make oneself scarce whenever trouble looms. I’m rather good at that myself (see above). The other is to follow St Benedict’s advice and always, ALWAYS, make peace before the sun goes down (cf RB 4.73). He puts that particular Tool of Good Works just before he tells us never to despair of God’s mercy. I think that’s to emphasize how hard but necessary it is if we want to experience mercy ourselves. Taking it easy doesn’t just mean lying comfortably in the shade, although I’m rather fond of that myself. It also means being easy on others, too. Even Them. 🙂
After our brief overview of the Old Testament background (post 1) and the different emphases of what might loosely be described as Latin and Greek ideas of sin (post 2), I’d like to continue by looking at some of the post-Resurrection gospels. What I don’t say is as important as what I do, so please don’t expect the argument of a whole book in a single paragraph!
There are some features common to all the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus:
he appears suddenly;
he is the same, but different;
he urges his disciples to a deeper level of faith and understanding;
he speaks words of mercy and forgiveness (even if he does, at times, remind his hearers that they have been slow to believe);
he commissions his disciples to act — announce his Resurrection (Mary Magdalene); preach the Good News (disciples at Emmaus and at the Ascension); follow him (Peter); forgive sins (disciples in the Upper Room).
It is with the words of mercy and forgiveness and the commission to forgive sin that we shall principally be concerned here.
If we look at John 20. 19–23, a sequence of events the Fourth Gospel describes as having taken place in the evening of the first day of the week, the very day of the Resurrection, we note several interesting things. Jesus appears among the disciples without warning, greets them (probably with the word shalom, which means much more than ‘peace’ as we understand it: it is a blessing that confers life, fulfilment, perfection), invites them to look at his wounds, again bids them ‘peace’ and commissions them to share in the same work that he was assigned by the Father. He breathes on them, imparting his spirit, re-creating them as Adam was created when God first breathed the breath of life into his nostrils; and then, importantly, he speaks these words:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
I’ve never been convinced that we should see here an institutionalisation of the sacramental power to forgive sin. What I see first of all is a sharing in the life and mission of Christ given to the nascent Christian community. It is a participation first and foremost in Christ’s healing of us, restoring us to life and wholeness, and it is the whole community, not just part of it, that is entrusted with the mission. That is why Thomas’s absence is so significant. It is not just that he is one of the disciples closest to Jesus, one of the apostles, it is because the Christian community is incomplete without him and Christ’s charge is laid upon all. So what are we to make of that addition: ‘if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’? Does it mean that by sharing in the mission of Christ we also share in the power to give/withold life, or does it mean, rather more shockingly, that we shall be accountable for any failure of others to attain fullness of life? Not so much giving us the power to judge others but laying upon us the responsibility for others? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I think it is one we should ask ourselves because it takes us into the heart of the meaning of mercy and forgiveness and the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection. (cf John 3.16–17)
This is made clearer by considering John 20. 26–30. Again it is evening, the first day of the week, but now we are at the octave day, the point where time and eternity intersect (see, for example, this post), and Thomas is present. Jesus again appears suddenly and greets the disciples with ‘peace’. Then he invites Thomas to touch his wounds and urges him to believe. Thomas’s corresponding affirmation of faith immediately joins him with the other disciples, and John’s purpose in writing the gospel is fulfilled: ‘These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’
In both gospel pericopes, the wounds of Jesus are significant. They have become channels of grace and healing. We are once more confronted with what the Exsultet dared to call the ‘happy fault’, the ‘necessary sin of Adam’. It is overcome because Christ has destroyed death for ever. Christ’s wounds do not disappear; they are transformed; and there is a lesson for all of us in that. Our humanity is not to be denied but allowed to become what it is meant to be. We are to become ‘sons in the Son.’
Thus I would argue that it is new life, not the repayment of a debt, that Christ bestows upon us and in which we rejoice at Easter. Sin cramps us, makes us sick and distant from the Father and one another; forgiveness frees us, restores us to new vigour and ends the ancient enmities that divide us, one from another. It is indeed the work of mercy, a wholly unmerited gift of God.
In my fourth and final post on the subject (tomorrow?), I hope to tease out a few implications and take into account some of the objections readers have raised.
Today has dawned grey and silvery, bright with frost and the sharp tang of woodsmoke. While the rest of the world busies itself with New Year resolutions and a more or less dreary catalogue of what went wrong in 2014, here in the monastery we are thinking about the good zeal we ought to have (RB 72) and what we can do to make sure that 2014 ends on a positive note, with wrongs, insofar as in us lies, righted, forgiveness given and received, and hope and trust restored. You might think that was easy for us, but we live in the same world as you do, and have just as many quirks of character. Indeed, I sometimes think that the reason for Benedict’s insistence on our bearing charitably with one another is because monks and nuns are more quirky than most and make bigger demands on one another.
To put things right with another, we must first admit that something has gone wrong. That can be difficult, especially if we secretly think the other person responsible. Unfortunately, thinking like that tends to lead to another rehearsal of the original grievance; and we all know where that ends. I think we have to ask ourselves what we most desire: victory or harmony. That doesn’t mean we do violence to our sense of right and wrong or pretend to a fault we genuinely believe we haven’t committed, but it does mean humbly acknowledging that somewhere along the line, we haven’t been all we might have been. Aquinas wrote of that which, though not sin, had something of the nature of sin about it; and we all know how easy it is to perform what used to be called an act of charity in such an uncharitable way that it is quite the opposite. The end of the year is a good time to reflect on these things and see what we can do about them.
Here in the monastery today and tomorrow will be days of mutual apology and reconciliation, of giving thanks, of thinking about the events of 2014 and our way of living through them, all with the firm purpose of trying to do better in 2015. 2014 was not an easy year for us, but it has been a year of blessing. Learning to give thanks in all circumstances doesn’t come naturally to most of us, any more than forgiveness does. Maybe that is why St Benedict ends his chapter on good zeal with a simple but heartfelt prayer: May they prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. Amen.
It is sad that the word ‘martyr’ is now most commonly heard in the context of Islamic extremism. That is unfair to both Christians and Muslims, but it is particularly unfortunate that it should have distorted our understanding of what it means to witness to one’s beliefs. From a Christian perspective, the martyr does not choose to die, still less does he/she inflict death on others; he or she accepts death because the alternative — to accept a lie — is unthinkable.
Today, when we have barely had time to register the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Church directs our thoughts towards Stephen, the first Christian martyr (the Holy Innocents are also considered proto-martyrs although not strictly Christians) and we see the close connection between martyrdom and forgiveness. As Christians we witness best to the truth of Christ with our love and compassion. There are many ways of expressing that, and over the Christmas season, millions of people who think of themselves as ‘nothing very special’ will have shown extraordinary generosity and kindness to others. Forgiveness can be a bit more tricky. It doesn’t come naturally to us, because we find it harder to forgive an injury done to ourselves than to be universally benevolent. We have to deal with the particular, not the general; and so often, there is a history we are not keen to let go because it somehow validates our reluctance to forgive.
Stephen challenges all that nonsense. His witness to Christ is precisely that of someone who forgives, at the moment of death, those who have caused his suffering. In this he unites himself with the sacrificial death of his Master. It is a short step from the crib to the cross. Today, as we survey the remains of yesterday’s jollifications, we are powerfully reminded that the Word became flesh, not so we could revel in holy sentimentality, but so we could change the world and make it what it is meant to be: a pure and beautiful reflection of the loving and compassionate heart of God who, in Christ, has forgiven us everything.
Most of us can probably recall an incident or action in our own lives that we think of as our biggest failure (and if we can’t, we either have severe amnesia or psychopathic tendencies). Many of us can pick out the faults and shortcomings of political institutions, big business, religious organizations or what you will with a keenness of insight and analysis that would leave the world breathless with admiration were it able to eavesdrop on our conversation. We cry ‘shame’ and point the finger of blame as we register yet another failure. But I wonder whether we are missing the biggest failure of all? Does our anger and negativity achieve anything, or does it merely add to the tide of anger and negativity that seems to be engulfing the whole world?
We are quick to state what is wrong, usually what is wrong with the other person/side, quick to hate and deride (though, of course, we prefer to think of it as ‘stating the truth boldly’ or ‘telling it how it is’) but we are often very slow to love and forgive. I think our biggest failure, both as individuals and collectively, is precisely this failure to love and forgive. We know how our own lives have been transformed by the love and graciousness of others, but we do not always stop to think how we ourselves could transform the lives of others in our turn.
In the last few years we have seen mounting political tensions across the globe, economic melt-down, violence and other horrors that defy expression. We have seen genocide and beheadings, the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and its environment, children deprived of education and the common decencies of life. No one is suggesting that an airy-fairy ‘love is all you need’ approach would solve any of this; and yet, love is, in fact, the only possible solution. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a wrong idea of love. It is not necessarily romantic or warm and fuzzy feeling. Sometimes, there is no feeling at all: just a pure-hearted determination to invite God into situations from which he seems to be excluded. It is the strong, clear, sacrificial kind of love that nails us to the Cross and holds us there with Christ. There never could be any failure in that.
Today is St Crispin’s Day and the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Given my ancestry, I have mixed feelings about that. Do I get all patriotic about the English victory, or lament the French defeat? I’m a peaceable chap, so my tendency is to lie doggo and keep quiet. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, at home anywhere — especially in a comfy dog basket or beside a roaring fireside — so I don’t go in for arguments or quarrels. That doesn’t mean I lack love of country; but it does mean I don’t have to keep proclaiming that my country is better than yours or running yours down because it isn’t lucky enough to be mine.
I think BigSis is on to something when she says love is never negative about others. Love simply loves. The only competition love seeks is to be first in doing good to the other. I ‘spect that’s quite spiritual really. BigSis says you just have to look at a Crucifix and all your complicated ideas fall away when you see what love really means. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I’d do anything for Them. I’d forgive Them anything—anything at all. I think that’s what love means, don’t you?