Careful Writing, Careful Reading

One of the minor irritations of life is to be misunderstood. Cue downcast eyes and heavy sighs. Of course, there are times when we have no one to blame but ourselves. I am often mortified when I realise I have expressed myself ambiguously or made an allusion few will understand. Sloppy writing suggests sloppy thinking, and the world is full of it. Why should anyone contribute more? At other times, I feel rather more combative. If people won’t take the trouble to read the whole of a post before commenting, or if they miss my carefully-nuanced argument, should I explain myself more fully? Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. The (lapsed) historian in me wants precise writing; the monastic in me wants precise reading, but it seems never the twain shall meet.

This month we have lost three fine historians: John Bossy, Lisa Jardine and David Cesarani. All three enriched life with their historical writing, which was carefully researched, closely argued and, in most cases, beautifully and perceptively written. How easy it is to miss all that by skimming over their pages or taking chunks out of context! We all have a tendency to speed-read, but there is a case to be made for giving time to our reading. Scripture and poetry do not reveal their riches all at once; nor does history. Unless we are geniuses, slow reading is essential to historical understanding. It means allowing time for the comfortable chatter of the footnote, pausing while we digest a new idea or make a new connection. They are part and parcel of thinking historically — grace-notes in the business of living.

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An Addition to the Three Rs

Time was when the building-blocks of education were the three ‘R’s — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. They still are, but I think the time has come to supplement them with the three ‘H’s — a sense of history, a sense of humour and a modicum of humility.

You cannot have failed to notice how many people take their idea of history from the visual media. The presentation of Thomas Cromwell as hero in the televised version of Wolf Hall may strain the credulity of some, but Mark Rylance acts so well and is so convincing that I’m sure many will have concluded that Cromwell was basically a nice man, fond of his wife and children, and cruelly ill-used by villains like Thomas More. What about the systematic re-writing of history to be found in Jihadist videos? Or the thousand and one other portrayals of historical events and processes subtly coloured to argue a case or to interpret a past world through the lens of the present (think Downton Abbey, for example)? History is not an exact science, but it requires tough thinking and careful assessment of evidence. It is also multi-disciplinary. I’m sure it would help us not merely to read but also to decide what is worth reading in the first place (apologies to Trevelyan). I therefore suggest it should be the first addition to the three ‘R’s.

My second would be humour. You have only to look at Social Media or the pages of an online newspaper to see how many people have become so literal-minded that they fail to register that not everything is said or done with the same level of seriousness. Just as a sense of history gives a feel for period and the development of ideas, so a sense of humour is a great help in interpreting the words and actions of others. I’m not sure one can teach humour, but I think it would be worth a try.

Finally, I come to humility. It is no accident that today we read the twelfth step of humility in the Rule of St Benedict and find that humility — true humility — should be our constant disposition. I think sometimes we can exaggerate our own ability to solve problems or cure ills. If we did indeed have the solution to the world’s problems, the world would be beating a path to our door, but as it manifestly isn’t, perhaps we could pause and ask ourselves do we know all the facts, have we considered all the implications of such and such a course and, perhaps most important of all, are we in a position to judge?

Regular readers will know I have written this with a smile, but also with a grain of seriousness. How we approach the world, how we interpret the words and actions of others, how we manage to convey ideas of our own, matters. Get it right and there is peace and plenty. Get it wrong and there is war and division. Education plays a key-role in determining outcomes. As technology changes the shape of traditional education for ever, it is certainly something I’d urge thinking and praying about.

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Remembrance Sunday 2013

How shall we mark Remembrance Sunday? Last year I wrote, a little glibly perhaps, that the act of remembering was essential to our learning the lessons of history:

Today, at 11 o’clock, the country will come to a stop for two minutes of silence and prayer for those who have died in two world wars and subsequent armed conflicts. It will be a moment of sadness for some, of awkwardness for others. It is the only time in the year when we make a collective act of remembrance, and its importance grows greater the further we are from the events which prompted it.

When I was a child, the effects of World War I were still plain to see: the elderly men who coughed and wheezed and were missing limbs; the great-uncle who still shook uncontrollably at times; the elderly maiden ladies who lived lives of genteel poverty, their fiançés killed in France or Flanders. I grew up listening to the men and women of my parents’ generation talking quite naturally about the events of World War II. Indeed, even today, I have only to open one of my father’s poetry books to see the flowers he picked in the Western Desert, the bloodstain where he was wounded, and the small black and white photographs of people and places that to me are only names, if that. For my nieces, even that tenuous thread is broken. It is all one ‘with yesterday’s seven thousand years’.

We need to remember because if we forget, we shall forget why freedom matters, why decency matters, why some things are worth fighting for, however much we may shrink from the idea of violence. So, we pray today not in any triumphalist spirit, but gratefully, humbly, and with the hope that we may learn the lessons of history at last.

I still think that’s true, but the terrible reality of the war in Syria, the loss of life to natural disaster in the Philippines, and the recent shocking revelation of a British soldier’s murder of an Afghan insurgent put another perspective on it. Death, it seems, is all around: brutal, inglorious, needless. Perhaps that is what we ought to think about today, as well as praying for those who have died in war or been crippled in mind or body as a result of war. It is not only those who die heroically but those who die abjectly, cowardly — perhaps especially those who die abjectly, cowardly — who remind us of our essential fragility and vulnerability. Peace is a precious gift it is only too easy to destroy.

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The Abuse of History

‘The past is a different country’, but it needn’t be an alien one. I have always believed that we need to know our own history, be at home with the story of how we came to be. Often that means accepting that the narrative we grew up with is partial, even misleading in the way it suppresses some things and highlights others. Truth tends to be bigger and more challenging than we like to admit and few of us ever manage to see it whole, but I think we need to make the effort. To think historically is not the preserve of a few specialists. Rather, it is something we all ought to aim at, for those who don’t use history often end up abusing it.

Thinking unhistorically about the past can be dangerous. Take, for example, some of the comments you see online whenever there is some act of violence involving Christians and Muslims. Inevitably, someone will refer to the atrocities of the past. The historian in me winces at the frequently inaccurate references to the Crusades or the Ottoman empire, but they also make me want to ask why anyone should think that what happened in the twelfth century should justify or excuse what happens in the twenty-first. What is the connection, for example, between Frankish knights and most modern-day westerners? It is tenuous at best; but historical fact bends before the power of emotion, and that is the point.

Memory is a great gift, but it can play us false. It can make us perpetuate a cycle of distrust and aggression, of brutality and violence, that stems from an imaginary identification with the past. In short, it can imprison us in destructive attitudes and patterns of behaviour that are unrelated to actual experience. We live a fiction. Before pointing the finger at others, however, I think it would be useful to examine a few (unconscious) prejudices of our own. How do we perceive our own history and the history of our nation, Church or whatever? How far does that history illuminate the present, and how far does it cast a dark shadow over our ability to rub along with others in peace and harmony? The answers may not be comfortable.

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St Benedict, Co-Patron of Europe

For many Benedictines the 21 March feast of St Benedict is the big one. It occurs during Lent and is celebrated with a kind of spartan splendour which seems very apt for the father of western monasticism. The 11 July feast, by contrast, is a rather truncated affair (no I Vespers, for example) and overlaid by other concerns. When Paul VI declared St Benedict Patron of Europe, however, he touched upon something important: the role of Benedictine monasticism in giving shape to what we now call ‘Europe’.

It is scarcely possible to mention Europe nowadays without hearing a groan or mutterings about economic collapse; but Europe as an idea, as a political and cultural entity, as a source of both intellectual and material creativity, is not to be dismissed so summarily. What, I wonder, is the contribution that Benedictines make to the Europe of today? Medievalists tend to talk in terms of learning and literature, art and agriculture, acknowledging the diversity of monastic endeavours in the past. We cannot see the present so clearly, but I have a hunch that the monastic contribution is by no means spent. Maybe the large monasteries of the past, with their great estates and highly regulated way of life, will be seen no more, but it is the genius of St Benedict to be interpreted afresh in every generation. ‘Behold I am doing a new thing.’ These are exciting times in which to be a disciple of St Benedict.

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The Birthday of Our Lady

A couple of years ago I wrote of this feast:

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist. The Birthday of our Lady, which we celebrate today, is a lovely feast, full of light and joy. In the East, it is one of the twelve so-called Great Liturgies. The earliest sermon for the feast is by St Andrew of Crete (though my favourite is by St Bernard) and the day was once marked by a special procession or litania from the Forum in Rome to Sta Maria Maggiore. In England look out for the autumn crocus, the popular name for which, ‘Naked Lady’, is a reference to Mary.

I failed to mention my theory, which I daresay many will shoot down in flames, that devotion to Mary has been both a help and a hindrance to women in the Church. On the one hand we have been given a model of Christian discipleship we can make peculiarly our own: Mary, the strong woman of Nazareth, whose love and faith were unequalled; who gave us our Saviour; who intercedes for us now and at the hour of our death. On the other, we have the ideal no one can ever measure up to: the perfect woman, the eternal mother, someone remote from the inadequacy and messiness of our own lives.

Much of the history of women in the Church can be written as a study of the tension between these two conceptions of Mary. That is why this feast has always seemed to me important. It reminds us of the reality behind the narrative of Christ’s birth, his human lineage; and just as the genealogies of Christ weave into the story some surprising figures, so our ignorance of Mary’s antecedents means we cannot assume that her background was fairytale perfect. We must remember Mary, born an ‘ordinary’ human being, growing up with no one thinking her in any way special, with no education to speak of, no glorious future mapped out for her (a mere girl!), never apparently destined for any great service — and yet, the Mother of God whom all generations would call blessed. Today we think of her small and vulnerable, possibly even a disappointment to her parents, and ask ourselves: would we have passed her by as just another baby, just another girl?

May the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, help us to see ‘Christ, lovely in limbs not his.’ Amen.

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Significant Anniversaries

Yesterday was the forty-eighth anniversary of Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s important encyclical on world peace and justice; today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space-flight. Half a century ago we worrying about a nuclear conflict between the west and the Soviet Union but we had great faith in the ability of science to help create a better world.  We still believed in progress. Today we are worrying about nuclear leaks from Fukushima and watching the violence in Africa and the Middle East with an uneasy sense that maybe, just maybe, climate change and the pressure on natural resources may prove to be even more damaging to human life and happiness. We are not sure what we believe any more, are we?

I am tempted to say that I suspect it has always been so, that every generation has its own fears and dark terrors that may look a little exaggerated to the next. The twentieth century should have brought peace and prosperity to more people than ever before in history. It didn’t; it brought war and death and deprivation on a scale previously unknown. I am sceptical about the way in which we recall some events, the way we pile up anniversary on anniversary without necessarily distinguishing between them. ‘Those who do not learn the lessons of history are fated to repeat them.’ Perhaps. Sometimes I wonder whether the trouble is that we are too busy marking and partying in the name of celebration to do the learning.

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