Another Kind of Suffering

We are about to begin Holy Week, the Great Week of the Christian year, and our eyes are already beginning to focus on the Cross and the suffering Jesus will undergo for our sakes. All our own suffering and failure is taken up into that one great redemptive act. That doesn’t mean, however, that what we suffer is somehow less real because it cannot compare with the suffering of Jesus. We can exaggerate, but we can also ‘spiritualize’, not acknowledge how deeply or negatively we experience things. Yesterday I had a negative experience I’ll share with you in the hope that it may help you see that whatever we suffer can be a way in to understanding what we celebrate this coming week. At least, I found it helpful.

I had been invited to take part in a radio programme. The producer had kindly sent an advance list of questions to form a basis for conversation and the interviewer was one I admire. All very promising. I listened to the first two contributors and felt very much in sympathy with them. Then came another, and as she spoke I began to be troubled by what she was saying about something I happen to hold very different views on. When my own turn came, I was distinctly lacklustre. No problem with that (except for my pride!), but then I was taken off-guard by the way in which two further questions were posed: the ordination of women and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Catholics will know that John Paul II placed discussion of the ordination of women off-limits, and for those of us who are priests or religious, it is a tricky question to handle in the public sphere because the way in which it is presented (as one of equality or power in the Church) is not one that corresponds to our understanding of the sacrament of holy orders. One has to tread carefully to be intelligible to the general public and not overstep the boundaries currently permitted by the Church. I made a hash of it. Then came the killer. Would the presence of women in the priesthood help avoid sexual abuse? There are two things to note here. First, I find the idea of women being priests themselves (or priests being allowed to marry) as a way of preventing men from acting wickedly rather insulting to women. To be fair, I don’t think the interviewer meant that. It just sounded like it to me. Secondly, but just as importantly, few seem to recognize that most Catholics — surely the vast majority — are deeply upset by what we have learned of abuse and cover-ups. It reduces me to tears, and yesterday I found myself welling-up on air at the thought of how those children had been abused and the whole Church had been betrayed.

Quite clearly, the narrative of abuse in the Catholic Church is the only one the media are really interested in. I am beginning to wonder, however, whether it is time to ask the un-askable. Are there others who suffer in addition to those abused, and should we be concerned about them, too? A few years ago I wrote about the effect of abuse compensation claims on the diocese of Boston. So huge were they that the diocese had to close schools and hospitals for the poor, and one convent of religious sisters had the roof over their heads sold to help meet the cost (they were generously re-homed by some Episcopalian sisters). It was all very sad. The abuse was dreadful; the price paid by the Catholics of Boston and the poor was also dreadful. This is another kind of suffering which is not, by and large, acknowledged: the suffering of those who are themselves innocent of abuse but who must pay for the sins of the guilty — in terms of money, services, reputation and the constant drip-drip of poisonous remarks.

Some will argue that that is just tough. The awfulness of what happened means that Catholics must put up with whatever the world chooses to throw at us. The latest scandals attaching to the name of Cardinal Keith O’Brien have led to even more gleeful dirt-chucking. Those who believe that a vow of chastity or a promise of celibacy obliges to continence are appalled and saddened. The abuse of power is rightly seen as completely unacceptable. There is no excuse.

But I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the constant negativity does have an effect. To be held responsible for something one had no part in, that one condemns absolutely, isn’t easy. The pain and grief we feel for the wrong done to or by others is not assuaged by knowing that it may draw one closer to Jesus. The only way in which we can make sense of it is by remembering that we are the Body of Christ — wounded, bloodied, it is true, but still intimately united to our Lord and Saviour, who will never fail or forsake us.

As we process with our palms tomorrow, rejoicing in that transient moment of triumph which was a prelude to the everlasting triumph of the Cross, let us give thanks that we have a Saviour who has borne all our sin and shame. In him, we are washed clean, given fresh hope, redeemed.

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Grief

The grief of the people of Norway one year on from the Breivik massacre is compounded by what happened a couple of days ago in Aurora, Colorado. At the back of most people’s minds is the thought, ‘It could happen again.’ Where the technology exists (guns, grenades, etc), there will always be people mad enough or bad enough to use them for mass murder and there is practically nothing that can be done to prevent it. Does that mean we are both helpless and hopeless? I don’t think so.

Death is something we must all experience sooner or later. When it comes early, or to someone we love, or with pain and distress, we rebel against it. Everything in us cries out for life. It is for life that we were created, after all. But for a Christian, life is changed, not ended, by death. The trouble is, we don’t know what lies beyond this life. All the assurances in the world can do nothing to overcome our personal feelings of doubt or difficulty. We must cling, as Mary, Martha and Lazarus clung, to our friendship with the Lord and trust that he will not abandon us after death any more than he has abandoned us in this life.

Grief weighs us down, shuts out the light, makes everything seem empty and hollow. At such times, it is good to look at a crucifix, that strange and terrible symbol of God’s aching love for us.  When there are no more tears to be shed and all the words that could be said have been said; when there is only the numbing pain of loss and the bleakness of an empty tomorrow, then the crucifix reminds us that God is not apart from us, uninvolved or uncaring. The bowed head of the Christus reminds us that he is with us always. He shares our sorrow, but unlike any other comforter we may have, he can and does transform our sorrow into joy.

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In Tune or Out of Step?

On several occasions recently I have found myself wondering whether I am in a minority of one. For example, I did not think Carol Ann Duffy’s poem on Stephen Lawrence, published in the 9 January edition of The Guardian, very good. That is not to question her sincerity or the topicality of her subject. It was the treatment of her theme that I found weak and pedestrian. As far as I am concerned, it wasn’t poetry, so it was a relief to find Ian Patterson saying as much in the London Review of Books. You can read his comment here. We all have our own ideas about poetry, I suppose, but when everyone else seems to be hailing something as ‘great’ or ‘moving’, one can question one’s own sanity as well as judgement.

Earlier in the week The Guardian printed an article by Mehdi Hasan entitled ‘Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Rick Santorum’. Point 8 stated, When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home, where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.

Mehdi Hasan seems to have found this macabre at best and in a subsequent piece argued that those who thought he was wrong to criticize the Santorums were themselves wrong. Clearly, he has had no experience of the grief felt by the parents of stillborn children nor thought about the variety of mourning customs that exist. To me, it did not seem strange that the Santorums should wish to spend some time with their dead child, pray for him, welcome him into their family as a person. It is a very Catholic thing to do. You would not have got that impression reading some of the comments! Again, it was a relief to find this thoughtful piece on the web which not only deals with the need to mourn a stillborn child but the way in which responsible journalism needs to address such difficult subjects.

Finally, an article about the manufacture of altar-breads in the U.S.A. (which you can read here) raised interesting questions for me about the Eucharistic nature of work and the economics of cloistered communities. I shared the link on Facebook and was interested to see that many people jested where I myself was made thoughtful, probably because some of the difficulties mentioned in the article were close to home.

These three instances highlight the fact that we always bring our own perceptions (and sometimes our prejudices) to what we read. We interpret. We are, of necessity, subjective. We sometimes miss words and phrases as we skim through articles. I think, on the whole, monks and nuns tend to read very carefully. We are, after all, proponents of Slow Reading (lectio divina). That doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand any better or misinterpret less frequently, but I think it does make us more cautious about asserting that we have fully understood, less anxious, I hope, to ‘put others right.’ Maybe there is room for more  humility in how we read. That is something I hope to practise this coming year.

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Life, Death and Holidays

I have been spending the time after Christmas typesetting an Order of Service for a Requiem Mass and Funeral. It wasn’t what I intended, and I’m quite sure the bereaved family would much rather not have to deal with such things. They have lost someone they love at a time when everyone else seems to be holidaying and making merry.

My own father died shortly before Christmas 1999, so I have an inkling of how difficult it can be to deal with grief when the rest of the world is in festive mood. The sudden stab of memory, the tears rising in the throat, the effort it takes to appear cheerful when one has to accept invitations/attend events one would much rather refuse or ignore — they all seem much worse when tinsel and the popping of corks form the backdrop.

It is at such times that we confront the truth of Christmas. Christ was born, not so that we might indulge in some syrupy romanticism but so that we might confront the reality of sin and death. Bethlehem leads inexorably to Calvary. We know the story does not end there, that the Resurrection transforms defeat into victory and that at the end of time, when, please God, all are gathered into the Kingdom, the purpose of Christ’s earthly life will have been achieved: the salvation of mankind.

We know that, but when the heart is aching and the world seems cold and bleak, it is difficult to believe. Spare a thought (and a prayer if you can) for those who have been bereaved this Christmastide.

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Grieving

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 will have reminded everyone of the grief that thousands experience as a result of that day. Not only those killed then, but all those killed in subsequent acts of terror or war come to mind. We think of those we ourselves have loved and who have died. We understand grief, of course; but do we understand grieving?

I know I often refer to the origins of words in this blog, but to remember that ‘grieve’ is related to Old French ‘grever’, meaning to burden or encumber, and ultimately to the Latin word ‘gravis’, meaning heavy or weighty, is to understand something of the burden that grieving imposes. We are literally weighed down. And while grief can be a more or less fleeting feeling of loss and sadness, grieving is a longer and more difficult process as we try to accept and adapt. We have to accept the loss of someone we love,  but we also have to adapt to the altered condition in which we find ourselves, living with absence rather than presence. That takes time, and our society doesn’t allow much time. ‘Move on, move forward’, we say, but the heart lags behind.

As we pray today for those  killed on 9/11, those dying a slow death as a result of the toxic dust and fumes unleashed by the catastrophe, those killed in subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorist acts throughout the world, let us also pray for a better understanding of grieving, that we may give others time and space in which to accept and adapt. Catholic tradition reminds us that death is not an ending of life but an entrance into another form of life. We are encouraged to pray for the dead and to ask the prayers of those who have gone before. That has always seemed to me a reassurance that grieving is natural and something we do in union with others. Grief, by contrast, is a lonely business: ‘Un seule être vous manque / Et tout le monde est dépeuplé’. Let us not forget that we grieve together.

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The Friendships of Jesus

Allow me a very large generalisation. For many centuries the Catholic Church has been a bit ‘undecided’ about friendship. Generation after generation of novices and seminarians were warned of the dangers of ‘particular friendships’ and encouraged to avoid any kind of emotional intimacy with others. Of course it didn’t work. People are too sensible not to realise that friendship is a gift, one that can bring people closer to God. Remember Aelred of Rievaulx and his insistence that Christ should be the centre of any Christian friendship? Quite.

Perhaps we would be less afraid of friendship, and readier to accept that the gift of friendship is not without its obligations and duties, if we spent more time thinking about the friendships of Jesus. The household at Bethany was clearly a place where Jesus was happy to be, where he could enjoy the company of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The accounts in John’s gospel of his interaction with the three siblings are all interesting, but I think today’s account of the raising of Lazarus highlights something we too often forget: Jesus loved his friends, just as we do. It wasn’t a case of his being God in human form and therefore somehow immune to feeling. Jesus didn’t act a part, didn’t pretend to a grief he didn’t feel. He shed tears for Lazarus. He mourned his loss. Something of himself was gone when Lazarus lay in the grave. Yes, we know that he raised Lazarus to life, we understand, at least in part, the sign; but I think we misunderstand Jesus if we pass too quickly over the grief and the tears. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, yes; one who has borne the grief of the whole world on his shoulders; one who can weep with us, not just for us.

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