A Queen’s Example

The Anglo-Portuguese Alliance is the oldest in the world still in force, dating back to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373. Over the centuries England and Portugal have enjoyed a close, though not always easy, relationship. This morning I found myself wondering whether St Elizabeth of Portugal (1271–1336), also known as Elizabeth of Aragon, whose feastday this is, may have something to teach us here in the U.K. that we badly need to learn.

It is fashionable nowadays to decry privilege. The mere fact of having gone to Oxford or Cambridge, for example, is often cited as a reason for distrusting people or heaping abuse upon their heads as a privileged elite, somehow remote from the struggles of ordinary life. It is even worse if one’s parents sent one to Eton. Then one is by definition a bully and a boor (which cannot be true of every Etonian, surely?). Elizabeth quietly reminds us that holiness is to be found among the rich and privileged as well as among the poor and disadvantaged. Her family produced a number of saints and was renowned for its religious fervour. She herself was named for her great-aunt, St Elizabeth of Hungary, whose charity was legendary. Of course, in the Middle Ages, it was much easier to become a saint if one had the right connections, so to say, although, statistically, even a queen was at a disadvantage compared with men, who became saints in much greater number. Elizabeth’s holiness was of the painful, often rather dreary variety. She put up with her husband’s endless infidelities and devoted herself to the service of the sick and the poor — not the nice, sanitized sick and poor of Victorian imagination but the smelly, dreadful reality of her times. She was faithful in her attendance at Mass and the celebration of the Divine Office. But it is as a peace-maker that she stands out.

The complicated politics of the day were made yet more difficult by the fact that the parties involved were often closely related by ties of blood. During the civil war between her husband, Denis, and their son, Afonso, Elizabeth acted as intermediary. It is said that at one point in 1324, she climbed onto a mule and stood between their opposing armies to prevent their killing one another. That took courage of a high order. It wan’t to be the last time she intervened between feuding family members. Her granddaughter, Maria, was married to Alfonso XI of Castile, who proved a brutal and negligent husband. (It seems to have been something of a trait in royal husbands of the time.) The marriage which had been intended to ease tensions between the two kingdoms simply added fuel to the fire and Afonso IV marched against Alfonso XI. Elizabeth, already ailing, rose from her sick-bed and travelled to Estremoz where she succeeded in making peace. The effort is widely credited with having killed her, for she died shortly afterwards, still in Estremoz.

So, what we can learn from this? First, I think it is good to be reminded that privilege is not a barrier to holiness. All of us in the West are immensely privileged, not only the wealthy or well-educated. But we mustn’t be complacent. We are stewards of the gifts we have been given and one day will have to give account of them, just as the Benedictine must give an account of the tools of good works exercised in the monastery (cf RB 4). Then there is the fact that prayer and charity go hand in hand. Elizabeth’s service of the sick and poor stemmed from her daily practice of prayer and reception of the sacraments. ‘Doing good’ wasn’t a substitute for prayer, a kind of holy social service. No, prayer was the well-spring of her action. It provided both the impetus and the focus she needed to serve Christ in the person of the needy. Finally, and most importantly, there is her engagement in politics and her actions as peace-maker.

When a saint takes to politics, things tend to change. Perspective are altered; enemies begin to talk to one another; tensions are defused. There can be very few who do not think that that is ugently needed in the world today. It isn’t wimpish to talk about the need for peace and reconciliation. Even here in the U.K. we have seen enough divisiveness to last a lifetime. In the end we all have to have the courage to sacrifice something, or at least be prepared to sacrifice something, for a greater good. During these days when we remember the terrible carnage of the Somme, the long shadow cast by the Holocaust and the late Elie Wiesel’s relentless attempts to ensure we never forget, we would do well to spend a little time thinking about our own role in history, be it little or large. We are not mere cyphers. When St Elizabeth of Portugal rode out between those opposing armies she must have wondered whether she would be their first target. To make peace, one must be prepared to be broken, to fail, to have one’s name covered with ignominy. When Jesus Christ made peace by the blood of his cross, was he really as confident of his ultimate triumph as we often assume? Wasn’t there a huge risk, but one he was prepared to take for our sakes?


Death from the Skies

Yesterday afternoon, at about the time that a Malaysia Airlines jet was being blown apart in the skies above Ukraine and the brief ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ended with renewed rocket fire and air strikes, I looked up into the peaceful blue skies above Herefordshire and thought, not for the first time, that there is something peculiarly dreadful about death coming suddenly and unexpectedly from the skies. We half-expect danger on the ground or in the water. We have thousands of years of collective experience of predators, human enemies and sea-storms taking us by surprise; but missiles, rockets and bombs dropped from the air, these are somehow different. They come so swiftly and the destruction they wreak is, despite what the perpetrators say, essentially indiscriminate.

As the death toll in Gaza rises and the likelihood that the Malaysia Airlines jet was hit by a missile sourced from Russia increases, international tensions also rise. The West focuses upon the Middle East and Russia, but many in Asia are asking what China intends. The world looks as fragile and volatile as it ever has. The Christian response — trust, prayer, loving surrender — probably looks ‘inadequate’ to those who believe that all the world’s problems can be solved by action; but there are times when human action seems only to complicate and confuse. As we pray for peace, we need to remember that peace has to start somewhere, in the individual human resolve to forgive and, what is perhaps still harder, accept forgiveness. It is no good lamenting what a terrible state the world is in if we do not look into our own hearts and see what needs to be changed there. The choice before us is always, as Deuteronomy says, between life and death. Let us choose life.


Bro Duncan PBGV Speaks His Mind

Leaving aside the snarky remark one of Them made, to the effect that I don’t have a mind, just two brain cells to deal with the important questions of food and sleep, I think it’s time I gave you my perspective on world events. After all, although I live in a monastery, I’m not ‘cloistered’ in the way most people use that word, and with my senses ever on the alert for prospective food supplies (postman, visitors, etc), I think I can safely say I am well up on what is happening.

It is quite clear that the world is going to the cats. Those who are not slumped in front of television sets watching some ball game called the World Cup are out and about murdering one another. When I asked BigSis what she thought about the Middle East, she looked grave and said from North Africa to Iraq, there is trouble. Israelis and Palestinians are fighting one another and may soon plunge the whole region (and perhaps the West, too) into all-out war. There is a credible report that ISIS has obtained 40Kg of radioactive material that could be made into bombs. If you look further afield, the continent of Africa isn’t doing so well, either. There is a darkness in Nigeria and the Central African Republic that makes people live in fear.

To me, all this is rather strange. I don’t understand why humans can’t live peaceably with one another. I bark at Rusty, a Ginger Tom who visits my place occasionally, but only when he’s outside and I’m inside. If we meet on the path, we give each other a wide berth. I respect him; he respects me. We have learned that it isn’t worth getting into a scrap. Why can’t humans do the same? After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that it has to do with memory. Humans won’t let go of their history. When I said this to BigSis she said she would want to nuance that statement (a polite way of disagreeing with me, I think: she can be ever so diplomatic when she tries). She said that humans are often reluctant to let go of a particular version of their history, one that validates whatever position they have taken up in the present. So, for example, both Palestinians and Israelis see themselves as victims and, to some extent, have grounds for thinking that. But it’s not the whole truth, and unless or until someone can break the mould and do something far braver than shooting at one another, conflict will continue.

I suppose that may be so. As a small hound, I know I can’t do much except show forgiveness and tolerance in my daily life and put my paws together for others. But doing the little I can is important. Big changes begin with small ones.