Working at Friendship

Detail of the Raising of Lazarus: Hunterian Psalter, English c. 1170
Detail of the Raising of Lazarus: Hunterian Psalter, English c. 1170

Today in our monastic calendar is the feast of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus, about whom I seem to have written a great deal in the past. Typically, I have written about this feast as a feast of friendship and hospitality, noting also that we have our Martha days, when life seems all work, our Mary days, when life seems all bliss and our Lazarus days, when we have to go into the tomb with Jesus and experience resurrection in a new and painful way. Today, however, I would like to think about this feast in relation to the second section of RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, verses 10 to 21.

The first thing that strikes one about this passage of the Rule is that it is almost wholly concerned with lectio divina, that slow, prayerful reading characteristic of the Benedictine. Why? I think it is a reminder that we have to work at cultivating our friendship with God, just as Martha had to work at serving the Lord when he visited her household in Bethany. Dinner didn’t just happen: it had to be prepared, cooked and served before it could be shared. So, too, with us. We have to prepare ourselves for prayer, concentrate, abandon ourselves to an activity which seems to matter so much to God. It requires effort, even sacrifice, but most of all, it demands fixity of desire and purpose: I want to be friends with God; I will do everything I can to become friends with God.

We don’t become friends with God just by wishing. We have to give him time, not just any old time, but ‘quality time’. We have to lavish time upon him, in fact, lavish love and attention on him, as Mary lavished ointment on the Lord’s feet and sat to listen to his teaching. Others, even those we are closest to or who we think understand us best, are likely to be puzzled by this. We shall be challenged to do something constructive, as Mary was challenged by Martha, but we must hold to our purpose because, in truth, there is no other way of becoming friends of God.

Finally, we must go through the Lazarus experience: feeling that we have been abandoned by God, plunging into a dark place where all we seem to know is death and destruction and hope turns to ashes. This too has to be worked at. There are many surrenders into the hands of God that must be made before we make the final surrender of death; and just as Lazarus had to rely upon his sisters to bring the Lord to his tomb, so there are times when we have to rely upon the prayers and good deeds of others to help us. That is what the Communion of Saints means. It is the great circle of friendship embracing both the living and the dead which draws us into the life of the Trinity.

Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship,’ said St Aelred, the great Cistercian writer on Christian friendship. ‘I have called you friends,’ says Jesus in St John’s Gospel. And as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remarked, quoting Sallust, to like and dislike the same thing is a mark of friendship. Our friendship with God isn’t, first and foremost, about feelings: it is about willing and doing the same things. Both St Benedict’s chapter on work and today’s celebration of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus may suggest ways in which we can deepen our friendship with God and, incidentally, become better friends with one another.


A Feast of Friendship and the Problem of Internet Trolls

The festive board
The festive board

Yesterday we used the new monastery table for the first time for a meal with friends. Today would have been even more appropriate, because in the monastic calendar today is kept as the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a feast of friendship and hospitality. So, while the rest of the Church is celebrating St Martha alone, we are celebrating all three siblings together. For us, it is a reminder that all true friendship, all true hospitality, never involves just two but always three; that our Martha days, when life seems all work, and our Mary days, when we glimpse what it means to rest in God, are incomplete without our Lazarus days, when we know the depths of our own helplessness and the graciousness of God who stoops to the lowest part of our need. It is a day for praying for our friends, living and dead, and for learning to be good friends ourselves. Above all, it is a day for acknowledging what a great privilege it is to be friends with Christ — something we would never have dared to say, were it not that he called us friends first.

So far, so good. Friendship is a great blessing, and we can all agree that friends are to be treasured, online and off. But the online world is also home to a particular nasty kind of cyber bully, the internet troll. Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned in the media for women to feature on British banknotes, but as soon as it was announced that Jane Austen would appear on the newly designed £10 note, she began to receive a torrent of abusive tweets, threatening her with rape and death. It is dangerous to generalize from a particular case, but I am sure many people have experienced unprovoked abuse and threats of violence online. Sometimes it is purely verbal: there are some who think that freedom of speech means they have the right to insult others at will and they say exactly what they want without regard to the truth of what they are saying or the feelings of the person about whom they are writing. The comments pages of many sites are not for the faint-hearted! Sometimes, the abuse becomes more hidden, as when an individual is stalked and bombarded with unwanted messages/images. That can be difficult to deal with, especially as some people will go to extraordinary lengths to attain their ends. At the risk of alienating some of my readers, I think there is a noticeable difference between the way in which men are abused online and the way in which women are abused. Men have their arguments rubbished; women are more likely to have their bodies rubbished, and, as in the case of Caroline Criado-Perez, to be threatened with physical violence.

Which brings me to my point. There is much discussion at the moment about how to deal with cyber bullying in all its forms. The official response from Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez has been a bit weak, but I think the objection to a ‘report abuse’ button should be weighed carefully. It will itself be abused and will tend to drive abuse underground. What is hidden is much more dangerous than what is open, as anyone who has had to deal with internet trolls will testify.

I have no magic solutions to propose, but there is one course of action that I think we should all consider seriously. I think we need to be better friends to one another online. We need to watch out for one another so that no one need suffer abuse alone or fearfully. If we read an abusive or threatening comment or tweet, instead of just ignoring it with a virtual shrug of our shoulders, we could spend a moment or two countering it. If we do so politely, reasonably, but firmly we may encourage others to do the same. Bullies only have power because they think no one will stand up to them. Maybe that’s what we all need to do a little more often: stand up to them online. A faithful friend is a sure shelter, says the Book of Sirach (6.14). Please spend a few moments today thinking about how you could be a better online friend to others.

Spot the Dog
Dog-lovers are encouraged to look hard at the photo. Bro Duncan PBGV is there somewhere.