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.


Feeling Blue

I am myself feeling quite cheerful, but I notice some others aren’t. ‘It is a wet and windy Saturday, don’t we have a right to our gloom?’ they ask. I know that whatever I answer will be wrong, so I’ll simply make a few observations addressed to no one in particular.

English has a wonderful repertoire of phrases to describe everything from a mild lowering of spirits to clinical depression: feeling glum, feeling blue, a bit down, a fit of the blues, a touch of black dog, down in the dumps, in the doldrums, an attack of the glooms, and so on and so forth. The only antonym given in my Thesaurus is ‘cheerful’, yet when we are feeling glum, the last thing likely to cheer us is someone who is cheerful. We feel their optimism as a personal slur on our despondency, their brightness as an insult to our gloom. The truth is, apart from those who suffer from depression (which is a real and terrible illness), most of us are quite content to be glum sometimes. We wear our dejection as a badge of honour. See how I suffer, how wretched I am, how awful life is to me! Things can’t possibly improve. It is all dark, dark, dark!

Alternatively, we might say, ‘Look at me, me, me’ . . . and there, unless I am very much mistaken, is the clue to understanding why glumness can be so attractive. It puts the spotlight on ourselves, makes us the object of our own pity and safely insulates us from those horribly cheerful people who whistle and sing through all life’s little mishaps. It is an uncomfortable contrast, isn’t it? If you are feeling down this morning, it will probably make you feel worse. I apologize (sort of), but there’s just a chance it may make you feel better. I hope so.


God’s Laughter

Yesterday my friend Richard Littledale and I had a brief Twittervation (conversation on Twitter) about the Book of Jonah (Richard is writing a book on Jonah, which I’m sure will be well worth reading). I mentioned the humour in Jonah as an echo of God’s laughter, and that has inspired today’s post.

God teases Jonah from start to finish, but it is the loving, gentle teasing of one who wants to rescue Jonah from his own stupidity. Jonah’s attempt to flee God was never going to succeed, but being swallowed by a big fish then vomited on the seashore must have wounded his dignity. All the same, his preaching must have been effective, because even the animals in Nineveh don sackcloth in response to his warning! Only, the Lord does not destroy Nineveh as he has forewarned, so Jonah goes off in a huff then has a misunderstanding about the castor oil plant which gives him shade from the sun. Finally God questions him about his right to be compassionate to all those people ‘who do not know their left hand from their right’. God’s laughter is gentle, but it is very, very eloquent.

There are other passages in the Bible where we catch the sound of God laughing. When God and Moses argue about the backslidings of the Israelites, there is a distinct touch of argy bargy: ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt’; ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt.’ It sounds like two parents disowning their offspring to one another. And in the gospels we find Jesus teasing his disciples again and again, especially poor Peter who is always misunderstanding (thank God for Peter, he gives us hope!) Jesus responded to humour in others: the Syro-Phoenician woman won him over by her quick-witted rejoinder about house-dogs eating scraps from the table.

Perhaps we have made religion in England too serious and not allowed God’s laughter to prick our self-importance as we should. There is a laughter that is destructive. We need to avoid that, but as we get closer to Holy Week, it does not hurt to remember that it is the whole person who is redeemed, not just the ‘religious’ bits.  Our antics must make God smile. It may be too anthropomorphic for some, but I trust that when we reach our final destination, purified by purgatory, we shall be greeted with a huge smile and, quite possibly, a great laugh.


Laughter in the Cloister

It’s Saturday, you’re short of time, and St Benedict has just a few words to say to you today: ‘The tenth step of humility is not to be easily prone to laughter, for it is written: “The fool raises his voice in laughter.”‘ You are probably thinking, ‘He can’t be serious. Life without laughter would be miserable,’ and you’d be right. To understand this short section of the Rule, you need to understand the kind of laughter Benedict is talking about, the resonances in the scripture he quotes (Sirach 21.20) and the oblique reference to the Institutes of Cassian, IV.39.10.

We think of laughter as a simple, joyous expression of amusement or delight. There is nothing nasty about it. Such laughter is not condemned by Benedict. A sense of humour is, as I indicated a few days ago, a great blessing in monastic life, and I am quite convinced that there are deliberate touches of humour in the Rule. The laughter Benedict rejects is, first, the laughter of disbelief, such as Sara laughed when she was told that she would conceive in her old age. It is, secondly, the laughter associated with scurilitas, a word for which we have no exact equivalent in modern English, the laughter associated with obscenity and cruelty.

In scripture the fool is one who lacks knowledge of God and is morally adrift, who does not believe God and goes wrong because of his disbelief. Benedict doesn’t want fools in his monastery. He doesn’t want obscenity or cruelty, either; and he knows that what begins as a good, clean joke can, on occasion, lead to something less innocent, destructive of both the individual and community. So, he is telling us this morning to be aware of the pitfalls, to use humour in the right way, that it may be a blessing not a curse.

It is precisely this thoughtful, considered approach to everyday things that makes the Rule of Benedict a useful guide to living a Christian life. Laugh on, but let it be with a laughter you are not ashamed of before God.


A Sense of Humour and the Fourth Degree

Today we read RB 7. 35 to 43: St Benedict’s Fourth Degree of Humility. The more I read this passage, the more I see in it. Humility, joy, patience, perseverance, generosity, obedience, these are all necessary for a monastic quality of living, whether we be monks and nuns or trying to live as Benedictine oblates or associates outside the cloister. There is just one thing missing from the text: a sense of humour.

The gentle jokes of the cloister (like the one in yesterday’s blog post) are a good way of relieving the tension of a fraught situation, making those who feel awkward a little more at home and helping everyone through moments of trial or difficulty. The trouble is, of course, that not everyone will see the joke. That is why the jokes must be gentle, not undermining anyone or making them feel small. It takes time to learn how to laugh at oneself, but it is a skill worth mastering. A sense of humour can contribute a great deal to community life, and when it is used in the right way can be genuinely edifying. Benedict urges the cellarer, when he has nothing else to give, to give a good word. There are times when just a smile or a little joke may be even better.


Living with a Lisp

The style guide for a publishing house I sometimes work for has just been updated. The section on disability is so mealy-mouthed as to be unintelligible. My own practice, which is to use whatever phrase is preferred by those suffering from a particular disability except in historical/literary contexts where another phrase may be called for, is now disallowed. I must no longer refer to the Parable of the Man Born Blind but to the Parable of the Visually Impaired Person. Ah me.

I wonder where lisps come into the general scheme of things. I have a soft voice and a slight lisp which becomes more pronounced when I am tired. Anyone similarly afflicted will know that a lisp is both trivial and a source of never-ending strain as one struggles to articulate clearly and comprehensibly. People sometimes make fun of my lisp (see the comments on the YouTube version of my Faith 2.0 talk, for example) but more often pretend it doesn’t really exist. ‘Oh, no, it’s scarcely noticeable.’ I don’t think denial is much of an improvement on the circumlocutions of political correctness. As far as I’m concerned, I lisp, I live with it, and those I speak with will have to live with it too as it is beyond my control. I am certainly not going to start talking about having ‘a minor speech defect’. Apart from anything else, who is to say it is minor — or even a defect if we are to be perfectly p.c.? Lispers of the world, let us refuse to be cowed by the style guides and proudly call a spade a thpade. We can do no other.


Nun Jokes and April Fools

When did you last hear of a genuinely funny April Fool? One that was both clever and convincing but which didn’t leave anyone feeling diminished or taken advantage of? One that sticks in my mind was a pseudo-technical review in a respected printing journal some years ago. It concerned a scanning device built from a homely microwave by Chinese engineers. It was brilliant in every way: cutting-edge technology (scanners cost thousands of pounds back then), detailed fake analyses of performance and cost and so on and so forth. The name, alas, gave it away: Lirap One.

Most people enjoy jokes and a sense of humour usually comes fairly high up on the list of desirable qualities in a husband or wife. It is certainly a sine-qua-non of surviving community life, but, pace Freud, it is difficult to define or explain how it works. It doesn’t always travel well. The jokes I tell in Spanish, for example, work quite differently from the jokes I tell in English; and I’m not sure I would even attempt a joke in French. The British and Americans are divided by more than a common language: what is funny to one is not always funny to the other as we frequently learn to our cost.

Humour can be cruel, as every child knows, but I’m not sure we are any better than our forebears at ensuring that we don’t give offence when we make jokes, for all our attempts to outlaw certain subjects. When confronted with a particularly tiresome ‘nun joke’ for example, I sometimes ask the teller to substitute the words ‘black’ or ‘gay’ and see if it is still tellable. The results can be quite revealing.

One thing of which I am absolutely certain is that Jesus had a good sense of humour. The gentle teasing of the Syro-Phoenician woman, the parables he told, his dialogues with Peter and the other apostles, all  are eloquent of someone who knew how to laugh and make others laugh. Mind you, given the disciples he had (and still has) it was a very necessary quality. Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone.