The Humility of St Barnabas

When I was a novice we used to remark on the fact that St Barnabas was always celebrated liturgically as a Memoria. (In simple terms, that means he got four candles instead of six, and no gloria.) Yet, if one reads the New Testament attentively, it is clear that Barnabas was a man of considerable spiritual authority in the early Church. Whether or not we believe Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, that he was one of the 72 disciples sent out by the Lord, he was obviously an early convert and was placed first among the prophets and teachers of Antioch. It was he who stood surety for Paul in Jerusalem after the latter’s conversion. When the mission to the gentiles was inaugurated in Antioch, Barnabas set out for Tarsus to persuade Paul to join in the work of preaching.

We can chart the course of the next few years: Cyprus, then Perga, where John Mark departed (‘deserted’ according to Paul), Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, back to Antioch again and the debate about circumcision, and finally, the parting of the ways, when Barnabas went with John Mark back to Cyprus and Paul and Silas revisited the churches of Asia Minor. Somewhere in the course of these years the disciple began to eclipse the master, but the friendship between the two persisted (see 1 Cor 9. 5 to 6). There are many contradictory traditions about his last years but his best epitaph is that given him by Luke, ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.’

Why, then, do I talk of his humility? His openness to the Greeks, his readiness to lay aside many of his most cherished Jewish traditions, cannot have been easy for him; nor can it have been easy to see his pupil and protegé ‘overtaking’ him, so to say, in influence. He was a man who inspired affection and whose nature enabled him to remain friends with both Paul and John Mark, despite the quarrel between them. I think he must have been essentially modest. Perhaps the lack of a gloria on his feast is as it should be. On the eve of Pentecost it is good to be reminded that the Spirit blows where he wills and allowing ourselves to be guided by him is our greatest glory.

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Managing Expectations 2

I’ve already blogged on this subject but yesterday’s little dip into the world of TV and radio highlighted another area that is worth considering: the relationship between religion and money. (For those of you who haven’t a clue what I am talking about, one of us appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ here while BBC TV showed a short video here and issued a written summary here about our newly-launched Online Retreats.) The BBC presenter ended his piece with a short to-camera  reflection: “This begs the question of the relationship between religion and money” or some such wording.

It’s interesting that many people, whether they would describe themselves as believers or not, expect “religion” and all its works to be free. To some extent, that is entirely reasonable. We have come to expect that our churches and chapels will be free to enter when we wish to pray. When we visit them as tourists we stump up our entrance fees a little reluctantly. We are still not used to the idea that buildings have to be maintained and the congregation cannot necessarily do so without help. It somehow goes against the grain: we expect things to be otherwise. We don’t expect to have to pay to listen to homilies or sermons, on the grounds that the priest or clergyperson receives a stipend for performing clerical duties, one of which is preaching; so sometimes we get confused about what we may reasonably expect. Ask the parish priests who are telephoned every time they sit down to a meal and you will get some pretty plain speaking!

When we visit monasteries we expect to be received hospitably. The monks and nuns will drop their work and ply us with food and drink as a matter of course. After all, St Benedict says that every guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ. If we attend a day of recollection on monastic premises, we usually make a donation or pay a fee in recognition of the time and effort that has been devoted to us. Monks and nuns don’t receive salaries for what they do because we stand outside the clerical structures of the Church (I’m not talking of monk priests who have charge of parishes, obviously) yet there is still a common perception, shared maybe by our BBC presenter, that we ought not to charge for anything we do or provide. (How it is all to be financed is a question never addressed, but that is not what interests me here.)

I think this assumption that religion should be “free”, like the assumption that nuns, for example, should never be tired or angry, is actually a tribute to generations of good people who have been remarkably generous and remarkably virtuous. It is difficult, often impossible, for those of us who would describe ourselves as believers to meet the expectations of others in this regard; but when people senselessly knock religion and parrot out the view that all the bad things that happen in the world are the fault of religion, I think we can point to these assumptions and say, “If religion were as bad as you are claiming, you wouldn’t have these expectations.” The fact that we expect the clergy to be gentle with us and monks and nuns to be welcoming (and are rather put out if they aren’t) says something important about Christianity.

What, however, are the expectations that can reasonably be had of us as Christians, pure and simple? I am always immensely impressed by the way in which Christians in this country respond to any call for help. Disaster funds raise much of their money from those who have least. The tradition of tithing is well-established. We give our time, our talents, whatever we have; but how do we manage the expectations others have of us as people who should be endlessly giving? I’m not sure; but I am amazed and humbled into gratitude for all those from whom I learn so much, who somehow manage to be what I cannot.

 

 

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Why Are Catholics So Nasty?

Whenever I want to think through a coding problem for a web site, I “waste” time by looking at a number of religious blogs. The distraction helps, and I often end up finding something useful or stimulating while the coding problem resolves itself once I have stopped thinking about it. Maybe it’s just the blogs I follow, but I have to say that the ones I enjoy most are not often Catholic. Indeed, the Catholic blogosphere is sometimes a very nasty place to be. Why should that be so?

I think it may have to do with the current fashion for damning Vatican II and all its works and exalting the minutiae of liturgical observance. Now, I am not uninterested in liturgy, said she with a dangerous gleam in her eye, but I believe reverence is more important than anything. Say the black and do the red, but don’t accuse those whose practice differs from your own of lack of orthodoxy or worse. Don’t cherry-pick the Councils, either, if you want to have a truly Catholic understanding of the Church. Those more papal than the pope worry me. The energy devoted to hating others seems inconsistent with what we profess to believe. Of course, it could just be that I am out of step with the times. I don’t mind that if I am in step with Christ and his Church, or at least not too far off-course, though I can’t judge.

In the novitiate we were urged to be always one with the mind of the Church. That means reading and reflecting and taking the trouble to find out for oneself, rather than just assuming. It also means being kind. I think we sometimes forget that. When Christians cease to love one another, they cease to be Christians except in name. The history of Christianity is marred by rows and we live today with the resulting divisions. As we prepare to go to Mass, I can’t help wondering how I shall answer the question, “What did you do to bring unity to my Church? Did you love as I have loved you?” I hope that I won’t have to say, I abused your gifts, I wrote nastily about others, I hated and divided; but shall I?

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Managing Expectations

I imagine we all have our own take on this. There are the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we have of ourselves. The expectations God has of anyone rarely seem to figure, probably because he is much less demanding than we are.

I have become fairly inured to the expectations others have of me as a nun. I know I should be eternally young, beautiful, patient and kind, needing nothing, giving everything; but as I can’t manage any of that, I am quite happy to disappoint. The expectations I have of others are more troubling. I know I have sometimes burdened them with my expectations, wanting them to be perfect in a way that I am not perfect myself or, worse still, to be perfect in the way that I have decided for them. Finally, there are the expectations I have of myself, which are largely delusional, even down to the time it will take me to do something (one always underestimates).

And God? God is different. “What I want is love, not sacrifice.” What God wants is us, just as we are: poor, weak, wobbly and absolutely infuriating, always misunderstanding, backsliding and generally unsatisfactory. God is never disappointed in us, never put out by our failures, because no matter how often we get it wrong he still sees in us something we so often fail to register: “Christ lovely in limbs not his”. Praise him.

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Fat and Holy

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico
St Thomas by Fra Angelico

One of the things I love about St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we keep today, is that he breaks the stereotype of what we expect a holy man or woman to be. For a start, he didn’t look ascetic. In fact, he was so podgy that a little bit of the refectory table had to be cut out to accommodate the saintly tummy. His entry into the Dominicans had been in defiance of his family (who expected him to become a Benedictine) and only after a prolonged period of parental “house arrest” which ended with an undignified exit via a window at night (he was obviously thinner then than he later became).

Thomas’ early academic career was not crowned with success. His first theological disputation met with failure, although he himself prophesied that one day “the dumb ox” would fill the earth with the sound of his bellowing. The next years were filled with study and teaching as he moved from Paris to Cologne, then Naples, Orvieto and Rome and back to Paris again. It was an exhausting schedule, filled with intellectual activity, and brought Thomas into conflict with many.

In 1272 he had an experience of God which he records only obliquely. It made such an impact on him, however, that he abandoned his scholarly work, remarking that all he had done “seemed like straw” to him. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon when he struck his head while riding. He rested for a while at Monte Cassino (where his family had once hoped he would be abbot), struggled on to the Cistercians at Fossanova and there died on 7 March 1274, talking of the Song of Songs.

In 1270 Thomas had been implicitly condemned by the archbishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. In 1277, when he was no longer alive to defend himself, twenty of his propositions were formally condemned by bishop Etienne and led to an eclipse of both his reputation and his work. Fifty years after his death, John XXII declared him a saint and in 1567 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Even though he wasn’t as much quoted as Duns Scotus at the Council of Trent, his great Summa Theologica was placed on the altar alongside the Bible and the Decretals.

So, tubby, rebellious, argumentative and busy-busy-busy, yes; but a man of deep prayer and great humility who for love of God “studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught”. He is patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments.

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Blue Monday

This is Blue Monday, the worst day of the year, or so Quietnun informed me straight after Lauds. (She has been reading too much social anthropology recently.) Why should the mere fact of New Year resolutions crumbling to dust, credit card bills plopping through the post box  and the darkness outside seeming never to end have any effect on people’s mood? And why should feeling a bit low be construed as moral failure? Is it all some vast conspiracy to make us feel worse than we do? Aren’t we allowed to be miserable any more?

Personally, I find quite trying the relentless joyfulness of those who wish to assure us that “Jesus loves you” while we’re attempting to deal with some catastrophe or other. It’s true, I agree, but maybe I don’t need to be reminded while I’m struggling to clear the drains or heading towards the bathroom with some malady or other. Anyway, what’s wrong with being tired and tetchy on occasion? Blue Monday is as good an excuse as any to be a little grumpy — just don’t make anyone else as miserable as you are yourself.

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Humility and Assurance

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist

On the Second Sunday of Advent our eyes are on John the Baptist. What a strange mixture of humility and assurance he is. Or rather, how his humility confounds our ideas about both.

It was precisely because John was so humble that he could be so assured. Like Moses in the Old Testament, he was “the humblest man on earth”; and his humility and assurance came, like Moses’, from his sense of the nearness of his God.

One who is close to God tends to see as God sees, and that perspective is utterly transforming. John looked at the world, saw the beauty and holiness of its Creator and wanted everyone and everything to share that transforming vision. Hence his passion and his joy, his severity and tenderness. He could not contain himself, so near was our salvation. If he were silent, the very stones would speak. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

This Advent the grace of sharing that transforming vision, of repenting, of turning again to God, is offered to each of us, if we will but accept it. Only the molehills of pride and self-sufficiency stand in the way, but we know how easily we stumble over them. Let’s ask St John the Baptist, with his humility and assurance, to show us the right path. For, as he himself would say, there is no other Way but One, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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