Them and Us

I like Americans. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of that fact and would probably be indifferent if they did. However, I am very conscious that, although we speak the same language (more or less), our ‘thought worlds’ are different. A politician’s ability to speak French marks him out as one of a privileged elite in the States; here an inability to do so marks him out as a bit of a liability. We value what’s left of our welfare state, believing that everyone should have access to healthcare and education irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay for it; in the States that’s often condemned as creating an ‘entitlement culture’ at odds with the pioneering spirit of self-help and advancement. As with Americans, so with some of our nearer neighbours. The Scots member of the community has often interpreted for me ‘what is really being said’ in some of the more surprising statements about Scottish independence.

We have the same problem with liturgy, except that it’s worse because we are handed a text which needs the mediation of a human voice to disclose its meaning, and every voice interprets. I was thinking about this at Mass yesterday, when a different priest celebrated Mass here in Hendred. The words and gestures were ostensibly the same, but a completely different kind of celebration took place because the priest gave them a slightly different emphasis. Sometimes liturgical ‘discussions’ end in an unholy row, with all participants claiming that theirs is the ‘right’ (=only admissible) way of saying/doing anything. The world is divided into them and us, with us the good guys and them the baddies. I doubt if it is so simple. Perhaps we need to think harder about the meaning of the words before we assume that we know what is being said.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail