Contemporary Shibboleths

How many people reflect on the fact that the Hebrew word we transliterate as ‘shibboleth’ means ‘ear of corn’? I think we might be tempted to call it a ‘wisp of straw,’ especially when the belief in question is one we do not share or regard as outmoded. I often think that many people in Britain today regard Christianity as rubbish, possibly even dangerous rubbish, and certainly not worthy of respect or any attempt to understand. As a result, whenever Christianity comes into conflict with contemporary attitudes it is dismissed as old-fashioned, over-rigorous or just plain wrong. If one questions what someone means by Christianity, one frequently discovers an ignorance so profound as to be frightening, bolstered by an inadequate grasp of history and a conviction that a very literal interpretation of biblical texts is all that is needed to make one an expert in what Christians believe. If I sound harsh or hyper-critical, it is because I have often been on the receiving end of such misconceptions; and I am beginning to wonder whether our current fascination with the visual (rather than with text) is making it more difficult to argue a case or express an opinion reasonably.

Take, for example, the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance. To anyone who has studied it, it is entirely consistent. From the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, the individual’s right to life is regarded as clear and unequivocal. Abortion and  euthenasia are equally unacceptable; capital punishment may just be allowable, but there is a vast body of opinion that argues against it. Divorce and the possibility of remarriage are difficult areas, and as for same-sex marriage or choosing one’s own gender, the Church doesn’t believe it possible. Not, please note, that the Church is against it; she just doesn’t believe we can decide such matters for ourselves. All these things make Catholics out of step with contemporary British opinion, and often with other Churches that regard inclusivity as more important than tradition. But then, of course, other things come into play. I trust my divorced and remarried friends, my trans friends, my friends who have had abortions, find me as welcoming as those whose lives have taken a different course. And there’s the rub.

Looked at from outside, Christianity, especially in its Catholic form, can appear harsh in its refusal to accept unquestioningly many of society’s current values. Where there is congruence, as, for example, in awareness of the earth’s finite resources and the need for more equitable sharing or for the pursuit of social justice and the common good, there is no problem. But even where there is disagreement, as in some of the instances I have mentioned, these disagreements are not carried over into condemnation of the individual or personal animosity. We are a Church of sinners, and that knowledge teaches us to be humble in the face of difference. We uphold what we believe to be true because we believe it to be true. To do otherwise would be to do violence to our conscience. But we must always be ready to explain, and to make sure that what we believe to be the teaching of the Church really is the teaching of the Church, not our own version of it. Love has a way of making difficult or contradictory things easier. It reminds us that shibboleths can take many forms. Only discernment can show which are nourishing ears of corn and which are transitory wisps of straw.

Please note: I don’t want to get into an argument over the teaching of the Catholic Church in this blog. If you want to know what the Church teaches, a good place to start is the Catechism, which you can find online in English here. (Link opens in new window.)

 

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Two Hairy Brothers: 5

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory
,
Herefordshire

7 July 2017

Dear Cousin Dunc,

I trust you are very cheery up there in Beyond. We don’t seem to have heard from you for a long time. Now I have a problem and need your advice.

I’ve been in a bit of hot water recently. Nothing too serious, but clearly They don’t think much of my eating Their supper (it was yummy!) or burying six bones, one after the other, in the flower-beds, or examining the contents of the waste bin by tipping it all over the floor, etc. They’ve begun referring to you as the Blessed Bro Duncan PBGV and I feel that a comparison is being made. I’m Touri the Terrible, the Ginger Fiend, Our Little Thug. Where am I going wrong? Don’t They love me anymore?

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig xx

Letter from Bro Duncan PBGV to Bro Dyfrig BFdeB

The Heavenly Houndland
Beyond

9 July, 2017

My dear Bro Dyfrig,

Nice to hear from you, young sprog, and my apology for the delay in replying. An awful lot of PBGVs seem to have come to the Heavenly Houndland recently, and we’ve been having lots of Peeb parties. Great fun!

As to your problem, oh dear! I think we have got to get a few things straight or you may go seriously wrong. Nothing will ever change Their love for you, absolutely nothing. I’m sure They call you Touri the Terrible or Little Thug in an affectionate tone of voice. Yes, They will get exasperated if you eat Their supper or dig up all the flowers or empty out smelly waste-bins and whatever else is implied by that ‘etc’ of yours. Human Beans are like that. But They are like our Heavenly Master in this respect. They know that we are the apple of His eye, and so we are of Theirs. The problem They have is They can go all gooey and forgiving when They see our big noses and hairy whiskers, but They are much harder on Their own kind. They tend not to forgive but only put others on probation: ‘do that once more and . . . .’ It is our job to help Them see They’ve got to be kind to those who aren’t blessed with four paws and eyes like melting chocolate buttons. We have to help Them become more dog, in fact, and love everyone — even the most trying.

Of course, I have to admit that eating Their supper is not a very good idea. I never did that, though I did share some goodies — mainly cheese and bikkies, as I recall. But I never stole them. You need to learn the art of staring reproachfully at Them, so that They give in and share with you. Human Beans do something similar when They pray. They stare at God (They call it ‘contemplation’) and He responds — not always in the way They’d like, of course, but He doesn’t ignore Them. I don’t really understand how They get away with it, not being as handsome or hairy as we are. It is all a great mystery, and I am content to leave it like that. I just know it works. Encourage Them in that.

Well, young sprog, I’ve got another party to go to. You’ll love it up here. Nothing but eating and merry-making all day long. Sheer Peeby bliss! And there’s a special spot for Fauves — and Human Beans — too.

Your affectionate old cousin,

Duncan

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The Gift of Understanding

Today, in our novena to the Holy Spirit, we pray for the gift of understanding. Have you ever stopped to consider what that really means? The meaning of wisdom, for which we prayed yesterday, is fairly obvious, but understanding? It is more than mere comprehension. When Solomon prayed in the temple for an understanding heart, he was praying for the grace of discernment, the grace of right judgement, that he might govern his people Israel wisely and well ( 1 Kings 3. 7–12). To understand requires humility, the ability to let go of one’s own ideas and absorb another’s. But it doesn’t mean letting go of one’s crictical faculties, far from it. To understand implies a sifting out of true and false, important and unimportant, of coming to a decision about the matter to be understood; but because it is a work of the Holy Spirit, it is a process accompanied by love and compassion.

There is a French saying to the effect that to understand all is to forgive all; and there is a lot of truth in that. So many of our disputes are based on misunderstandings, on our determination always to be ‘right’, always to have the upper hand. I like the fact that in English we have to stand under in order to understand. That is contrary to almost everything that contemporary society values. We no longer prize humility or the slow and patient work of the saint or scholar. We want immediate results. We sell ourselves as a big success even when we aren’t. We mistake aggression for courage, point-scoring for argument, sound-bites for solid reasoning. That is why I think we need understanding more than ever today. We all know how lovely it is to have a friend who ‘understands us’ but we sometimes forget that we need to be understanding too. Let us pray today that the gift of understanding may be given us in abundance.

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LOL, LiLi and L&P

It is, apparently, a sign of being irredeemably behind the times to use the acronym LOL (‘laughing out loud’). I never liked it much. In my youth, we were told that ladies do not laugh out loud, they smile graciously — or, in my case, give way to helpless giggles — at the foibles of mankind. Any suggestion of impropriety by way of risqué joke or allusion should, by the same token, be met with a glacial stare. How long ago all that seems! But it has left me with a vague feeling that laughter can sometimes be cruel and easily turns to the kind of derisive mockery St Benedict deplored. Time was when the letters LOL stood for ‘lots of love,’ and parts of me wish they did still. Can we reclaim them? If we do, may I put in a word for the monastic LiLi (‘like it or lump it’) and my favourite, L&P (‘love and prayer’)? Much of life is a LiLi experience. We can’t avoid the difficulties, but we can avoid making heavy weather of them. And what is love if it is not accompanied by prayer — if it is not taken up into that greater Love which embraces and redeems all others?

L&P, Digitalnun

And in audio format:

 

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Servanthood and the Women’s World Day of Prayer

FootWashing

The Women’s World Day of Prayer is one of those quiet initiatives that grows and grows. Today it is something that is shared in by many men and children, as well as women. The theme chosen by the women of the Bahamas, who were responsible for organizing this year’s programme, is one that fits well with this week’s gospel readings and is beautifully symbolized by the towel, pitcher and bowl of the Mandatum: servanthood. Today we might usefully spend a few moments thinking about our role as servants of the Lord, and how many of his servants have bent over our grubby feet in times past in obedience to his command, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

 

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Our Biggest Failure?

Most of us can probably recall an incident or action in our own lives that we think of as our biggest failure (and if we can’t, we either have severe amnesia or psychopathic tendencies). Many of us can pick out the faults and shortcomings of political institutions, big business, religious organizations or what you will with a keenness of insight and analysis that would leave the world breathless with admiration were it able to eavesdrop on our conversation. We cry ‘shame’ and point the finger of blame as we register yet another failure. But I wonder whether we are missing the biggest failure of all? Does our anger and negativity achieve anything, or does it merely add to the tide of anger and negativity that seems to be engulfing the whole world?

We are quick to state what is wrong, usually what is wrong with the other person/side, quick to hate and deride (though, of course, we prefer to think of it as ‘stating the truth boldly’ or ‘telling it how it is’) but we are often very slow to love and forgive. I think our biggest failure, both as individuals and collectively, is precisely this failure to love and forgive. We know how our own lives have been transformed by the love and graciousness of others, but we do not always stop to think how we ourselves could transform the lives of others in our turn.

In the last few years we have seen mounting political tensions across the globe, economic melt-down, violence and other horrors that defy expression. We have seen genocide and beheadings, the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and its environment, children deprived of education and the common decencies of life. No one is suggesting that an airy-fairy ‘love is all you need’ approach would solve any of this; and yet, love is, in fact, the only possible solution. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a wrong idea of love. It is not necessarily romantic or warm and fuzzy feeling. Sometimes, there is no feeling at all: just a pure-hearted determination to invite God into situations from which he seems to be excluded. It is the strong, clear, sacrificial kind of love that nails us to the Cross and holds us there with Christ. There never could be any failure in that.

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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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The Pursuit of Perfection

I wonder when the idea of perfection underwent a sea-change, so that we think of it first as a state of flawlessness and only secondarily as completion/fullness. Flawlessness can be a little chilly and remote, as a jewel gleams with cold grandeur or a stone stands smooth and straight but impresses us with its weight rather than its beauty. Completion or fullness is often a little fuzzy, a little messy even: one thinks of the newborn baby — warm, wet, wrinkled and probably wriggley, too, but undeniably ‘perfect’ — or the sleeping dog, a miracle of contentment and ease. Judging by my inbox, the idea of perfection as flawlessness causes a great deal of heartache. Most of us will never have perfect bodies, houses, relationships or whatever, if we mean by that those that are flawless. Most of us will never write a perfect poem or perfect sonata, though we may spend our lives struggling to achieve a ‘better’ poem or ‘better’ sonata than any we have yet managed. The marrying of perfection of form (which is attainable) to the more elusive perfection or fullness of the inner voice is the work of a lifetime, and most will go to their graves with a sense of never having quite attained it. The pursuit of artistic perfection is both ecstasy and anguish, a perpetual trembling on the brink of the unattainable. The pursuit of religious perfection, by contrast, has fewer highs and lows; and it is attainable.

If we really understood that we are not called to be flawless, I think there would be much less worry and grief about what we are or are not. We waste so much time thinking that we ought to be sinless. Of course, we need to try to avoid sin; but a preoccupation with sin can lead to scrupulosity, which turns us in on ourselves and is destructive of both our own and others’ happiness. (Scrupulosity is an affliction, so if you have any tendency that way, do not beat yourself up about it.) We are called to be loving instead, but not with the vapid, won’t say boo to a goose kind of love which isn’t really love at all because it has neither truth nor sacrifice in it. In Luke’s Gospel we are exhorted to ‘be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect’. If you think about it, we cannot be as God is in anything but love; and his love is always redemptive. Everything we are and do is smudged with sin and limitation, but God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and that love transforms us. That does not mean we must try to love in a way we can’t, kidding ourselves that we are being truly loving when in fact we are being faintly ridiculous or cruelly self-deceived. We must love as we are able, as God gives us strength, starting with the people and situations we find ourselves in. What matters is that we love as fully as we are able. That is what it means to pursue perfection — allowing God’s love to come to perfection in us, and forgetting about ourselves.

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Of St Valentine’s Day and Being Too Serious

Every year on this day I face a conundrum. The Church invites us to celebrate SS Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs, patrons of Europe and, whisper it softly, just a teeny weeny bit dull (I refer to the liturgy of the day rather than the men themselves). Meanwhile, the rest of the western world is celebrating St Valentine and love in all its forms with masses of pink ribbon, chocolates and wine. For those who don’t have a valentine, who are lonely or feel a bit vulnerable, it can be a difficult day. I think it is made more difficult still by those joyless Christians who are a little too earnest in their condemnation of others’ pleasures. My Catholic soul rises up in revolt when they attack the roses and romance and mutter darkly about love needing to be general rather than particular. It is a great mistake to think we love everyone because we are incapable of loving any individual. We forget what we learned at our mother’s breast, that love is particular before it can be general; and it never ceases to be particular to some degree, for how else will you explain the gift of friendship, for example?

The readiness of some Christians to condemn others is a very unattractive trait, but especially so when it concentrates on minor matters. We may think the world would be a better place if people did not eat meat or drink wine, but to censure those who do is preposterous and ignores the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ did both. I think we have become too serious about little things and not serious enough about big things. St Valentine’s day may have become a bit tacky and tawdry, but at its heart is a very Christian message: that love is better than hatred, joy better than gloom, and we need to get along with one another as well as we can. Can anyone really object to that?

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The Third Degree (of Humility)

The third degree or step of humility is deceptively short and simple:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’
Tertius humilitatis gradus est ut quis pro pro Dei Amore oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicat apostolus: Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.  (RB 7. 34)

Does this mean the superior is to obeyed to the letter, no matter how silly or outrageous his demand? No, it is much more difficult than that. Religious superiors are to be obeyed in all that is not sin, and our obedience is to be modelled on that of Christ himself, which means that every gift of mind and heart must be brought to bear in understanding, interpreting and sometimes perhaps even refusing, what is asked. Looked at in this way, mechanical or ‘blind’ obedience can prove to be no obedience at all because it fails in the essential element, which is to listen for the voice of God in what is commanded.

That doesn’t mean obedience is negotiable. We vow it, and we know that one day we shall have to give an account of ourselves to the most just of Judges. The motivation Benedict gives for obedience, here and elsewhere, is significant: love of God. We are not primarily concerned with the smooth running of an organization nor with mortification of our own wills. It is love that prompts us to submit to a superior; love that makes us listen for the voice of God in his commands; and love that makes us weigh whether our compliance should be given instantly and unhesitatingly, or whether we should, at the right time and in the right way, put to our superior the reasons why we think an order may be beyond us or not in the best interests of the community (cf RB 3, 68).

Far from freeing us from personal responsibility, obedience, as conceived of by St Benedict, places on us a very direct and personal responsibility to act maturely and wisely. We are called upon to co-operate with the superior in the service of the community. We are reminded that our obedience unites us with Christ; and just as his obedience led him to suffering and death, so ours may lead us where we would rather not go. We must hold nothing back; and because that is impossible to us by nature, we must pray that it may be given to us by grace.

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