Two Hairy Brothers: 4

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory
,
Herefordshire

30 December 2016

Dear Cousin Dunc,

BigSis says that, if I’m good and stop chewing my sore paw, she’ll let me do the blog tomorrow. Trouble is, I haven’t many thoughts in my head other than the usual — food, sleep and walks. Can you advise?

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig xx

P.S. I bet Christmas in Beyond was . . . heavenly.

Letter from Bro Duncan PBGV to Bro Dyfrig BFdeB

The Heavenly Houndland
Beyond

30 December 2016

My dear Bro Dyfrig,

You’re obviously coming on by leaps and bounds, young sprog. My literary career didn’t begin until I was quite mature; but I’m sure you’ll make a good blogger in time. As to advice, well, it is the end of the year and human beans tend to get silly and sentimental, especially if they’ve had too much to drink. Perhaps you could say something about being determined to make 2017 a better year for everybody? Keep it simple and they’ll lap it up.

Your affectionate old cousin,

Duncan

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory
,
Herefordshire

31 December 2016

Dear Cousin Dunc,

Thank you for your advice. I lay awake in my basket all night long thinking about what I should say today — and then, pow!, it hit me. I should write about what I know best. I know I think about food, sleep and walks most of the time, but I realise that I always think about them with gratitude. P’raps what human beans need is more gratitude and fewer grumbles, then they would be happier — just like you and me, in fact.

So, I thought about saying that, as 2016 comes to an end, instead of moaning and groaning about everything that went wrong and all the disappointments the old year held, we could say thank you for all the things that went right: for the times we got up and the sun was shining, and our paws weren’t sore, and our food bowls were full, and someone gave us a tummy rub or whatever the human bean equivalent is, and life was wonderful because it is life and is to be treasured, every single moment of it. And I thought I could add that even the difficult bits can be O.K. I was very sad to leave my old home in Wallingford, but the monastery isn’t too bad and BigSis and LittleSis do everything They can to make sure I’m happy.

Then I thought some more (it was a long night) and decided I could remind human beans that dogs don’t keep a score of wrongs done (we’re a bit like our Heavenly Master in that respect) and they could try to make peace with those they’ve hurt or let down and begin the New Year with joy and gladness and a dogged determination to try to be kinder and more generous to everyone. That’s much better than making resolutions about losing weight or learning Swahili, and possibly harder, too.

Finally, I thought about the advice you gave me when I was professed: to be myself, but to be my best self. The more I think about it, the more true I realise it is. I think you are the wisest dog I know, Cousin Dunc; and I will try to follow your advice in 2017.

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig xx

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Setting a Good Example

Time was when the idea of consciously trying to set a good example was seen as unbearably priggish, smacking of Victorian do-goodery and implicit hypocrisy. Quite apart from the fact that I think we are unjust to the Victorians, I’d argue that the notion of setting a good example is one we need to re-visit. In the West we are only too ready to step away from responsibility. Politicians exclaim, ‘I have done nothing wrong!’ when caught out being greedy or in some shady activity. Parents exclaim, ‘They are out of control!’ when seeking to excuse themselves for their offspring’s behaviour. Even bishops have been known to disclaim all knowledge of what their priests have been up to. It is refreshing when someone has the courage to say, ‘The buck stops here. I take responsibility.’ But  we need to go further. It is not just responsibility for what has been done that we need to accept, but responsibility for creating the conditions in which certain behaviours are seen as acceptable. In other words, how we set a good example is something we all need to consider.

A short examination of conscience can be extremely helpful. The standards we actually live by, as distinct from those we publicly espouse, will soon show us what sort of example we are setting to others. Honesty, kindness, courtesy, hard work and so on are not specifically religious qualities, inasmuch as they are shared by many who would not claim any religious affiliation, but they do tend to point to the strength of our religious commitment. The intersection of public and private morality can be very difficult, and it is not made any easier by the way in which legislation can seem hostile to the open expression of someone’s beliefs. Wearing a cross or offering to pray for someone is not acceptable in certain situations, and I think most of us can understand why even if we do not always agree. It is much trickier when reservations about the morality of certain forms of research or corporate policy are in question. I remember, years ago, a banker friend putting his job on the line because of his objection to an advertising campaign which encouraged household debt. I am sure you can think of many similar instances.

The fact that something is difficult, however, does not mean that we can avoid making a decision, or ignore the fact that our decision, whatever it may be, will have an effect on others. We have recently celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day, and I was reminded of all those non-Jews in Occupied Europe who chose to put the Star of David on their coats to show solidarity with their persecuted fellow-citizens. We shall never know who was the first to do that, but the example he/she set was surely a good one. May we, in our turn, be just as ready to set a good example in both the big and small things of life.

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Of Kindness and Unkindness

The value of kindness is often under-rated. We all know how a small gesture of courtesy, a thoughtful remembrance of something important to us, a smile, a word, can transform our day from bleakness to sunshine. The opposite is true of unkindness. A harsh word, a contemptuous gesture, can leave us feeling diminished. One of the things that has troubled me for a long time is the way in which the online world often seems to give free rein to unkindness. Even on this blog you will find a few comments that are deliberately rude and provocative, as though giving offence were somehow the measure of independence of mind (it isn’t). Yesterday I ‘listened in’ to one or two Twitter conversations prompted by Dr Meriam Ibrahim Ishaq’s case. What struck me forcibly was the number of people who used this poor woman’s plight as an opportunity to be rude and belittling about religion. There was no attempt at argument. It was like children saying, ‘ya, boo and sucks!’ — only the people doing the name-calling were not children. They were adults, many of them with university degrees and presumably some degree of intelligence.

We can rationalise such behaviour by saying that, if one believes something to be absurd, treating it with contempt simply underlines its absurdity. Possibly, though I myself would argue that to ridicule successfully one must be really witty. ‘Force without mind falls by its own weight,’ and I’m sorry to say there are many instances of that to be found online. The horrible insults and threats to which Professor Mary Beard and others have been subject are not merely examples of a particularly nasty misogyny, they are also the result of the two big dangers of the internet: its anonymity and immediacy. Some people hide behind the shield of anonymity. Others are a little too prompt to express their views. I have sometimes written things I wished I hadn’t in the heat of the moment or expressed myself clumsily when a little more thought and time might have spared both the reader and me some pain. But deliberate unkindness? No, I don’t think I have been guilty of that; so where does it come from?

This morning I read a sad little message on Facebook from a FB friend who has an advanced cancer. Yesterday he informed all of us via a status update that the tumours are still growing and unless the next round of chemotherapy can achieve something, the prognosis is poor. It was honest, brief, and to the point. But he was accused by some of ‘sympathy seeking’ and rubbished. To me, that smacks of cruelty, but I think it is a cruelty born of fear. Did my FB friend tap into a little reservoir of fear in his reader that led to that explosion? Was it his cancer, or the other’s fear of cancer that called forth the resposne?

I think those of us who are Christians have a duty to watch our behaviour online with particular care. We can build up or tear down. To be kind, to attempt to lessen the world’s pain rather than adding to it, may not attract much notice, may not make us ‘big names’ but it is surely worthwhile. Jesus in the gospel calls us his friends ‘if you do as I command you’. Loving as he loved means loving in all the little, everyday things of life, often in simple, human kindness rather than in huge, dramatic sacrifices. We may be mocked for it, but wouldn’t it be better to be mocked for being kind than condemned for its opposite?

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Generosity: Pure but not Simple

Today is one of those days with multiple layers of meaning. We remember that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War for Civilisation which was to end all wars officially came to an end. We also remember St Martin of Tours, himself a former soldier like so many monks, but remembered today chiefly for one incident — the sharing of his cloak with a beggar.

I once summed up the secret of St Martin’s hold on the popular imagination in words that earned me a thorough scolding from some readers:

The fact that we still remember St Martin of Tours so long after his death may provide a few clues about how to attain long-lasting fame. It helps to have a good biographer (Sulpicius Severus) and to have been on the winning side in some historically important struggle (Martin championed Trinitarianism against Arianism). It is also useful to have done something novel (Martin is generally credited with being the founder of the first monastery in Gaul, Marmoutier, and introduced a rudimentary parish system to the diocese of Tours). It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for mercy (Martin did his best to save the Priscillianists from being put to death and the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar has passed into legend). But the most certain way of ensuring that one is remembered is to seek not to be remembered at all and become a saint instead. Easy peasy really.

Perhaps I should have kept the smile out of my writing and concentrated on Martin’s generosity instead, because I think it is generosity that connects both Armistice Day and the saint. The selflessness of those who gave their lives for freedom is a theme many have recalled over the week-end; the lived generosity of day-to-day will be the theme of many a gospel homily this morning. Generous people are immensely attractive. They are big-hearted, kind, warm. They never misuse their gifts to make others feel small or inferior. They never praise one in order to make another feel slighted. They are great encouragers, even if inside they don’t feel quite as happy or confident as they appear on the outside. They remind us that generosity is a mark of the pure of heart, but attaining that purity isn’t as simple as it may seem.

Note:
Do read Tanya Marlow’s blog post for Saturday afternoon (link opens in new window), when she reflected on the CNMAC Blogger of the Year award, for which she, like me, was a finalist. It is a beautiful example of the kind of generosity I am writing about. Her blog is uniformly excellent: add it to your list of must-reads. You can find a list of the winners and runners-up of the CNMAC awards here.

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A Different Way of Acting

Yesterday’s post looked at some aspects of the cellarer’s duties and the personal qualities needed to perform them well. The second half of RB 31 goes into greater detail about how the cellarer should behave in various demanding situations.

Benedict has already reminded us that everyone and everything is, potentially at least, holy — imprinted with the divine image and to be treated with the utmost respect. Now he says that the cellarer should ‘above all’ possess humility and answer kindly if he is unable to meet a request (RB 31.13, 14). There is real psychological insight here. When someone is responsible for the welfare of others, not being able to provide what is necessary can be hard to bear. A crotchety manner, a rough answer, apparent indifference, they are all ways of masking the inadequacy and failure that the person feels. Benedict will have none of it. The cellarer must have an interior freedom about his service which will enable him to answer mildly and with patience. Moreover, just because he has the power of giving or withholding goods, the cellarer mustn’t think he can behave in a superior manner, as though he were conferring a benefit on others. There must be no arrogance or delay in giving the brethren their food, for example (RB 31. 16).

Benedict is aware, however, that the cellarer himself must be treated with consideration or nothing will get done as it should. The proper times for asking for things must be adhered to, and there should be assistants if the community is comparatively large (RB 31.17, 18). What Benedict aims at is, above all, peace and harmony in community.

I have myself been cellarer in a large and comparatively rich community as well as in a smaller and poorer one. I’m not sure which presents the bigger challenge. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictine life. Monks and nuns in richer houses become too comfortable, forgetting the fervour and zeal with which they began. What was once enough becomes in time not quite sufficient, so that yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity. In poorer houses, the need to economize and make do becomes in time a kind of institutionalized miserliness. It is not too much to say that the cellarer bears a great responsibility for steering a middle course, ensuring that legitimate needs are met but no luxury or excess creeps in, not even in inverted form.

There is only one way of ensuring that the cellarer is equal to his responsibilities: fidelity to prayer and constant watchfulness over his own behaviour. To some, what Benedict has to say may sound naive. All right for monks and nuns, perhaps, but not for people in the ‘real world’. It depends what you think is real, I suppose. Benedict’s recommended way of acting is different from that of some of our corporate mega-stars, but I have a hunch that it makes for greater happiness in this world and the next. It certainly makes for greater fairness. What do you think?

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Anniversaries

Each of us carries within a personal calendar: this day is important because I met so-and-so, because I did such-and-such, because something or other happened. Despite the proliferation of social media and the ease of sharing online, these personal calendars tend to be very private. Earlier this week a friend asked me to pray for his mother on 29 October and I said I’d have no difficulty remembering because today is also the anniversary of my own mother’s death. He was immediately contrite, as though he should have known, but why should he? He was empathizing with me from the way he would feel had the situation been reversed. That was generous. It was also kind, literally, expressing kinship with me.

Clock time and emotional time do not always coincide, nor do we always know why someone who is usually bright and bouncy is a little sad or subdued. Sometimes we need to ask; sometimes we don’t. The one thing that is never out of place is kindness and a prayer.

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