The Corrosion of Trust

Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.

I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.

In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Tears of the Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene has always been one of my favourite subjects, so forgive me if I repeat some ideas I have already written about at length. 

When the Congregation for Divine Worship instituted this feast and explicitly gave Mary the title ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ (previously used by Rhabanus Maurus and St Thomas Aquinas, be it noted), some expressed dismay. How could she be called an ‘apostle’, wasn’t that to confuse her role as prima testis or first witness to the Resurrection with the power of rulership in the Church, which was limited to men? Some rather unsatisfactory discussion followed which seemed to me at least to say more about the participants’ attitudes to women than deepen anyone’s theological understanding. Centuries of misidentification of Mary as a fallen woman — in itself a telling phrase, given that we are all fallen beings — and a certain uneasiness about her straightforward emotional response to Jesus have left their mark. It seems we must either champion Mary as a feminist icon, or dismiss her as a secondary figure in the gospel narrative, outside the circle of those who really count, Peter, James and John and the rest. Then we remember her tears.

When Mary first gazed at the Risen Christ through her tears, she did not know him. Then, with eyes washed clean of sin and deformity, she knew him truly and worshiped him. In the life of each one of us there must be that moment of recognition, that instant of grace, when we pass from not knowing to knowing. It is the moment of the heart’s conversion, of repentance and re-making, and it is all God’s work. I don’t see Mary Magdalene as a feminist icon or as a second-rate figure in the gospel narrative but as an immense encouragement to us all. For monks and nuns particularly, familiar as we ought to be with the gift of tears*, she is a powerful reminder of what we ourselves hope to become. May St Mary Magdalene pray for every one of us, male or female, clerical or lay.

*I am referring here to a phenomenon sometimes experienced in prayer when tears flow freely and sweetly, an effect of divine grace at work in the soul. It is much discussed by early monastic writers and is not to be confused with a morbid or unhealthy response to God. The Sarum Missal contains a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Trying to Stay Positive

Most of us have experience of trying to stay positive when everything seems to be negative. The weather’s ‘wrong’; our job’s ‘wrong’; people around us are ‘wrong’. Everywhere we look we see division, squabbles, blistering rows and the most heartless violence. In such circumstances it is difficult to remain upbeat. Often it looks to others and to ourselves like foolishness or a flight from reality. Our determination to hold to our course is interpreted as stubbornness, our refusal to give in to lowness of spirits is a mere pose. Or is it?

One of the things I have learned from having metastatic leiomyosarcoma is that many of our reactions to people and events are affected by matters beyond our control. The various drugs I have to take affect my mind as well as my body. Steroids make me peppery; the anti-emetics make me tired and depressed; the chemotherapy drug itself can reduce me to a little heap of negativity quite unlike my usual self. But — and it is, as always, an important ‘but’ — there is something else at work, something that, until now at least, has always got me through. It is grace, but not necessarily grace as usually portrayed. I have no doubt that the prayers of all praying for me play a huge part in keeping me going, but there is also an element of choice. I have to choose to keep going, and I honestly don’t know where the power for that comes from. I assume it is grace, an unmerited gift of God, but I don’t assume that it will always be there or that I’ll always respond. That is not to doubt God. On the contrary, it is to assert the glorious freedom of God and our own free will and to recognize that what is possible to one person at one time may not be to another at another time. I have, so far, been able to choose to go on; others, alas, have not.

What of those who can’t go on, who are too tired/ill/broken in spirit to make choices or stay positive? We are often severe on them without meaning to be. We avoid X because he is always down in the dumps; we think Y would do a lot better if she didn’t keep harping on about what’s wrong with her life. Either way, we tend to judge them wanting because they do not conform to our idea of the brave cancer patient/the doughty battler against all odds we would like them to be (fill in as appropriate). We do not stop to ask ourselves why they should conform to our expectations in the first place, and are sometimes very grudging in our assessment of what they are struggling to cope with.

There is a sentence in the Rule of St Benedict that is well worth pondering in this context: ‘Let them bear with the greatest patience one another’s infirmities, whether of body or character.’ (RB 72. 5) Body or character . . . there’s the rub. We frequently mistake the one for the other, but that doesn’t mean we can make distinctions, saying this person is worthy of our compassion and that person isn’t. We are asked to bear with every kind of weakness with the greatest patience, and I think that stands the whole concept of staying positive on its head.  The emphasis is not so much on the one trying to stay positive as on those who have any kind of dealings with him/her. So, the person locked in clinical depression, the one who feels he/she cannot go on, the person overwhelmed by sickness or sorrow, it is not for them to feel guilty because they cannot be positive, it is for us who know them or come into contact with them to stay positive; and I suspect we can only do that by grace. In the end, it all comes down to grace, doesn’t it?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Augustine: a Very Contemporary Saint

St Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, wrote so much and so well that it is almost impossible to get him into any kind of focus. Most people know and love his Confessions; many will have read his City of God; a few more will have read some of his treatises or his reflections on the psalter; I myself acknowledge having plundered his sermons on many occasions for readings in choir; but it is perhaps those who live according to his Rule who know him best. It is very short, and full of north African sunshine. His theme is love and his words simple, but I don’t think his thought is; and that’s the great challenge of reading Augustine today.

We have a tendency to assume that the way in which we read a text is the way the writer intended. Unfortunately, because most of us are not schooled in rhetoric or are unfamiliar with many of the references and allusions contained in his works  — even the text of the Bible he quotes is different from any we customarily use — there is often a gap in our understanding. Perhaps that is why his speculative theology is so attractive. One does not have to beaver away at understanding the context of North African Christianity but can attempt to follow his mind as it ranges over the created universe in pursuit of the Eternal Uncreated. (A propos of which, modern physics enhances one’s understanding of his treatise on the Trinity rather better, in my opinion, than all the footnotes of Augustine scholars, but that’s a dangerous point to argue!) Is that enough? Don’t we have a duty to get to know the Augustine who has been so influential in Christian history?

I think we do, and that is where his life-story becomes important and very contemporary. The profligate youth; the sudden conversion at the age of thirty-one; the thinker and teacher who engaged with the important issues of his day; these different aspects of Augustine helped determine his opinions and proved to have a long currency. His concept of Original Sin, for example, and his understanding of the workings of grace have made the Church of the West very different from the Church of the East. Today we tend to concentrate on his anthropology: his condemnation of abortion and slavery, his strict sexual morality, etc.; but to his contemporaries, Augustine’s teaching on the nature of the Church, her sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, and free will were possibly of greater moment. He became the pre-eminent Doctor of the Western Church, and it is not without significance that, as Augustine lay dying in 430, the Vandals were laying siege to the city of Hippo. The brilliant Christian culture of North Africa was about to sustain its first destructive blow. Everything was to change.

Today, when Christianity in North Africa is only a shadow of its former self, when the Churches of East and West are divided and secular morality has moved very far from the positions held by St Augustine, one might argue that it would be vain to look to him for any guidance. Yet there is a perennial freshness about Augustine’s work that makes him as relevant to us today as he was to his fifth-century contemporaries. He makes us think, and he makes us pray. Who could ask more of him than that?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Disappointment

We all know what it is to be disappointed, when ‘ah’ turns to ‘oh’ on a downward note, and a brave smile replaces a bright one. I was fascinated to learn that the word originally meant precisely what it says: to remove from office. Perhaps an element in disappointment, then, is the feeling that one has been deprived of something that is one’s due. It isn’t merely an unfulfilled hope that is being dashed but a (more or less) legitimate expectation.

All very well, but how do we deal with it? I daresay at Christmas there will be many a person saying, ‘It’s the thought that counts,’ as they open a gift they don’t much care for, not realising how those words can numb the heart of the well-intentioned giver. We can ignore; feign; insist on acting as though nothing had happened. Very few of us have the ability to accept with perfect equanimity that things haven’t turned out quite as we had hoped. The tacite conscientia of the Fourth Degree of Humility is beyond most of us — except by grace. When it is a question of something more than present-giving, how we deal with disappointment can have effects that go far beyond anything we intended. Some of the horrors of the Second World War surely grew out of the disappointments of the First and the determination of Clémenceau and others to make Germany pay. Disappointment and humiliation are evil bedfellows.

In recent weeks we have had a number of disappointments here at the monastery, so this post is being written very much in via rather than safely on the other side of disappointment surmounted. My most recent PET scan revealed that the secondaries in my lungs and liver are growing merrily and have now invaded my right hip (bone) and, indignity of indignities, even my sit-upon! Fortunately, the pain is bearable at present, and beginning to walk like a drunken sailor is just one more eccentricity to cultivate. Of course I am disappointed. Of course it is difficult. But somewhere in that disappointment we as a community, no less than I personally, have to find meaning and grace. I am sure it is possible, but it may take a while to figure out how.

Note: we have a server problem which means all emails addressed to @benedictinenuns.org.uk addresses are currently being rejected. Prayer requests made via our online contact form are still getting through. We hope to get it fixed as soon as possible.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

How to Be a Good Sinner

Sometimes my readers make me feel knee-high to a grasshopper. They manage to lead lives of great generosity and holiness in the midst of circumstances I would find unbearable. Here I am in the monastery, well-fed (too well-fed, to be honest), surrounded by books and music and gardens, with a handsome hound (a.k.a. Bro Duncan PBGV) and a very holy nun (a.k.a. Quietnun) to cheer and chivvy me by turns, the liturgy and sacraments of the Catholic Church to inspire me and the Rule of St Benedict to guide me, yet I still don’t quite make the grade. I fail as often as I try. I am a sinner through and through. And that’s not a little bit of hyperbole, like that of the Spaniard who had ‘El Gran Peccador’ carved on his tombstone, it is the simple truth.

Can anything redeem that bald statement, or is it all negative? I think being a sinner, and knowing and acknowledging that one is a sinner, means one is open to grace, which is what really matters. Our very need cries out to God for help, and we know he will never spurn our cry. I like to quote the example of the Desert Father who described his life as falling down and getting up again. To be a good sinner all we need do is follow his example, trusting in the mercy of God and asking his help to amend for the future. Grace will work its miracle in us, if we allow it.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Gift of Encouragement

One definition of the verb to encourage is to give active help or to raise confidence to the point where one dares to do what is difficult. On the feast of St Barnabas, the Son of Encouragament, it is worth thinking about this, and the different words we use to express different shades of meaning. We embolden others, for example, to overcome shyness or diffidence; we hearten others in an effort to inspire them to fresh endeavours; and those we try to hearten or inspire, we usually try to foster or nurture as well. What is common to all is the need for us to do something in the service of others. We can’t encourage by sitting mute and doing nothing. We must ourselves risk failure if we want to help others. We can’t embolden others if we lack the courage to tackle their shyness and diffidence; and we certainly can’t put fresh heart into anyone if we are quailing at the thought of doing so.

I think St Barnabas, ‘the apostle no one talks about’, is a splendid example of an encourager. His life was so completely focused on his mission that we have almost forgotten him in our remembrance of what he achieved; and what he achieved was the building up of the young Church in circumstances that were indeed daunting. Most of us need encouraging at times. What we often forget is that we also need to encourage others. Let us ask the prayers of St Barnabas that we may learn from him the art of giving encouragement.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

On Being a Bucolic Benedictine

A smattering of Greek and an Anglo-Saxon weakness for apt alliteration determined the title for today’s post. I have spent much of the last few days in delicious idleness, watching the calves over the way. They are Herefords, all legs and eyes and bumbling charm. Seen through the drifts of plum blossom, they are enchanting. If I were more religious (!), I’d probably quote the psalms and their references to stall-fed cattle, bulls of Bashan and the like; but we are in rural England in springtime, and the dust and heat of ancient Israel seem very far away. All that will change in an instant on Palm Sunday, when we become one with those following Jesus into Jerusalem and trace, step by step, the events of that momentous week. Today, however, it is life, new life, that surrounds us here at the monastery and reminds us of the everlasting creativity of God.

One of the biggest temptations we face is to believe that everything has been done: that from here on, everything goes downhill, gets worse, ends in dissolution and decay. It is a fundamentally pessimistic view of life, one that cramps both mind and spirit. Many physicists of the nineteenth century believed, by and large, that their subject had been exhausted. There were just a few loose ends to tie up. No physicist today would say that. We are on the brink of discovering so much more. Every day seems to reveal more and more wonders, opens up vistas we had never dreamed of, invites us to go further, deeper.

The calves over the way may strike the casual observer as a symbol of all that is unchanging in the countryside, but anyone with an eye for cattle or even the most cursory knowledge of the breed will tell you that the size of the Hereford has changed enormously over the past century. At one time they were bred very small, so that being shipped out to South America they fitted the cargo pens to which they were consigned. Today’s Hereford stands taller, stockier, a much more substantial beast than his 1950s counterpart. I wonder what they will look like a century hence. Of one thing, I’m sure: they will have changed; and as my vow of conversatio morum daily reminds me, I too must change. Being a bucolic Benedictine is not an opting-out but an opting-in to living by grace and being transformed by it.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Hatred is a Killer

A man dresses his little sister in a suicide vest and we throw up our hands in horror; another chases someone, sets fire to him, then devours his leg, and we react with revulsion. We know the situation in Afghanistan is complex but we look at the end result: a brutalisation so complete that a child is merely an instrument of war and revenge. We know the situation in the Central African Republic is also complex, but again we look only at the end result: a man is so inflamed by the murder of his pregnant wife that he not only kills the person responsible but shows utter contempt for him. In both cases, our Western susceptibilities are outraged: we believe children should be afforded special protection; cannibalism is off-limits; the perpetrators of these acts are vile.

It is no good blaming religion as such for either of these atrocities. It was not Islam which made that man force his sister to wear a suicide vest; nor was it Christianity which made that man kill his neighbour and devour his leg. We are very much mistaken, though, if we don’t acknowledge that religion, however much misunderstood or perversely interpreted, has played a part in allowing such things to happen because it has become a convenient peg on which to hang visceral hatreds and rivalries. That is dangerous, because it affects public perception of the religion in question, not merely of the individuals who (mis)use it as justification for their actions.

Increasingly in the West, we are seeing Islam and Christianity pitted against one another in the popular imagination. Polarisation between the two has become an explanation, we might say the explanation, of every violent or aggressive act that involves adherents of either religion. The trouble is, that kind of ‘explanation’ merely stops us examining other motives or causes and, incidentally, does a great disservice to those who genuinely try to live good and peaceable lives according to their religious beliefs. Perhaps it is time to take stock and admit that even the most loving and merciful of us are capable of ugly acts.

We may think of ourselves as kind, compassionate people, always eager to do good to others and without a mean bone in our bodies. That may be how we are born, but we quickly learn behaviours that are not so pure or generous. It is only grace that keeps us in check, and it is a grace we must earnestly desire and pray for, not presume upon.

It is easy to condemn someone who makes a walking bomb of his sister or eats his neighbour, but the intense hatred that inspired such acts didn’t begin like that. Its origins may lie in mere dislike or minor antipathy, a half-remembered grudge from ancestral times or a sense of grievance never satisfied; but it was allowed to grow until it stifled every better feeling. One of the lessons to be learned from these tragedies is that hatred is a killer — and just as likely to be found in our own heart as in the heart of another.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Puny Mites, Threshing-Sleds and Glow-Worms

I may as well admit that this morning I feel knee-high to a worm. I am indeed one of the puny mites Isaiah is speaking of, yet the thought of being transformed by grace into a threshing-sled is not an attractive prospect. Far too effortful! (Isaiah 41.13–20) But there is something in this scripture passage that I, and perhaps you also, need to take to heart. It is that the Holy One of Israel is holding us by the right hand, and with him all things are possible. It is easy to forget that God is with us every moment of our lives. He is not a God afar off, but one near at hand: a God who loves us, sustains us, and ultimately redeems us from sin and death. We are preparing for his birth in time, the moment when, as St Leo says, the Creator became part of his creation. That is more than just a glittering paradox. It is an assurance both of God’s essential goodness — he is not, like the pagan gods of old, a fickle and sometimes malevolent being — and of our ability to relate to him. Sometimes that seems so hard. We know him by his absence more than by his presence, and we wish it were otherwise.

We can take scant comfort from today’s enigmatic gospel (Matt 11.11–15). Who are these people taking the kingdom of heaven by storm and being greater than John the Baptist? Surely not wimps like me. I was thinking about that, and the description elsewhere of John as a lamp, a lamp that prepares the way for the true Light coming into the world, when illumination struck. The glow-worm is, zoologically speaking, an insect, but we think and talk about it as a worm: a small, humble creature, wingless and rather unremarkable in daylight, though the female glows in the dark. If I cannot be a threshing-sled but must remain a worm, may the Lord make me a glow-worm, so that I too can say, ‘The hand of the Lord has done this . . . the Holy One of Israel has created it.’Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail