Making a Friend of Death

In our monastic calendar the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus is a very jolly affair because, for us, it is primarily a feast of friendship. We don’t have to agonize about the different roles of Mary and Martha or ponder the effects on Lazarus of those three days in the tomb. Instead, we can reflect on the three siblings’ friendship with Jesus, and the influence on him of all the hours spent in their company. This morning, however, the BBC web site has announced new guidelines for the care of the dying proposed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. It is obviously time to think about Lazarus again.

Many people shy away from death and dying. In the West, it is quite possible to reach late middle age without ever having seen a dead body or held the hand of a dying person. We are often confused, awkward. We don’t know what to say or do. Instead of seeing the dying person, we see something else, something strange and perhaps terrifying. Very few death-beds are really dignified, as most of us understand that term. There is, instead, a mess of feeding-cups, morphine-pumps, crumpled bed-clothes and — often — the unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital. But it is not these that confer or withhold dignity from the dying person. It is the atmosphere of love and reverence surrounding them that matters. Even in the most appalling circumstances, a gesture of love and reverence can be transformative.

When Lazarus came to die, I think we can be confident that he was surrounded with love and devotion. In death his body was treated with as much reverence as in life — washed, anointed, bound in linen cloths and placed in a tomb. When our Lord Jesus Christ came to wake him from death, he was ready. The binding cloths fell away and Lazarus stepped once more into the sunlight. He had experienced death as a friend, and it was his Friend who called him from it.

It is said that St Francis added the verses about ‘Sister Death’ to his Canticle of the Sun just a few moments before he died:

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trouarà ne le Tue sanctissime uoluntati,
ka la morte secunda no ‘l farrà male.

He had learned that death was not to be feared: dying was only the means to attain eternal life. Sin held more terror for him. Most of us are not so brave, or clear-sighted. We fear death as Francis feared sin. We see the death of our body as the end of everything, rather than an entry into glorious freedom. Perhaps we need to wait a little. We cannot manufacture an understanding we do not yet have. In the Benedictine tradition, we are exhorted to keep death daily before our eyes. We are to make a friend of death and live each day as though it were our last, with joy, gratitude and selflessness. I think Lazarus, called from the tomb, would have understood that, don’t you?


A Feast of Friendship and the Problem of Internet Trolls

The festive board
The festive board

Yesterday we used the new monastery table for the first time for a meal with friends. Today would have been even more appropriate, because in the monastic calendar today is kept as the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a feast of friendship and hospitality. So, while the rest of the Church is celebrating St Martha alone, we are celebrating all three siblings together. For us, it is a reminder that all true friendship, all true hospitality, never involves just two but always three; that our Martha days, when life seems all work, and our Mary days, when we glimpse what it means to rest in God, are incomplete without our Lazarus days, when we know the depths of our own helplessness and the graciousness of God who stoops to the lowest part of our need. It is a day for praying for our friends, living and dead, and for learning to be good friends ourselves. Above all, it is a day for acknowledging what a great privilege it is to be friends with Christ — something we would never have dared to say, were it not that he called us friends first.

So far, so good. Friendship is a great blessing, and we can all agree that friends are to be treasured, online and off. But the online world is also home to a particular nasty kind of cyber bully, the internet troll. Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned in the media for women to feature on British banknotes, but as soon as it was announced that Jane Austen would appear on the newly designed £10 note, she began to receive a torrent of abusive tweets, threatening her with rape and death. It is dangerous to generalize from a particular case, but I am sure many people have experienced unprovoked abuse and threats of violence online. Sometimes it is purely verbal: there are some who think that freedom of speech means they have the right to insult others at will and they say exactly what they want without regard to the truth of what they are saying or the feelings of the person about whom they are writing. The comments pages of many sites are not for the faint-hearted! Sometimes, the abuse becomes more hidden, as when an individual is stalked and bombarded with unwanted messages/images. That can be difficult to deal with, especially as some people will go to extraordinary lengths to attain their ends. At the risk of alienating some of my readers, I think there is a noticeable difference between the way in which men are abused online and the way in which women are abused. Men have their arguments rubbished; women are more likely to have their bodies rubbished, and, as in the case of Caroline Criado-Perez, to be threatened with physical violence.

Which brings me to my point. There is much discussion at the moment about how to deal with cyber bullying in all its forms. The official response from Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez has been a bit weak, but I think the objection to a ‘report abuse’ button should be weighed carefully. It will itself be abused and will tend to drive abuse underground. What is hidden is much more dangerous than what is open, as anyone who has had to deal with internet trolls will testify.

I have no magic solutions to propose, but there is one course of action that I think we should all consider seriously. I think we need to be better friends to one another online. We need to watch out for one another so that no one need suffer abuse alone or fearfully. If we read an abusive or threatening comment or tweet, instead of just ignoring it with a virtual shrug of our shoulders, we could spend a moment or two countering it. If we do so politely, reasonably, but firmly we may encourage others to do the same. Bullies only have power because they think no one will stand up to them. Maybe that’s what we all need to do a little more often: stand up to them online. A faithful friend is a sure shelter, says the Book of Sirach (6.14). Please spend a few moments today thinking about how you could be a better online friend to others.

Spot the Dog
Dog-lovers are encouraged to look hard at the photo. Bro Duncan PBGV is there somewhere.


Monday in Holy Week 2013

Today’s gospel, John 12. 1–11, is about the supper Jesus shared with Mary, Martha and Lazarus at Bethany. It contains a shocking extravagance: the jar of nard, a whole pound’s weight, which Mary poured over his feet. It is the kind of gesture only someone very, very rich or very, very indifferent to others’ opinion could make.

Our lives should be like that nard: poured out as a fragrant offering, generously, without a care for what others think, our eyes fixed upon Jesus. It isn’t easy. There are too many who think, like Judas, how much better it would be to spend our lives in the service of some more obvious good. On this Monday of Holy Week, however, we dare to be with Mary, focusing our love and service on the Lord, aware that in serving him we are drawn to serve others, too.


The Friendships of Jesus

Allow me a very large generalisation. For many centuries the Catholic Church has been a bit ‘undecided’ about friendship. Generation after generation of novices and seminarians were warned of the dangers of ‘particular friendships’ and encouraged to avoid any kind of emotional intimacy with others. Of course it didn’t work. People are too sensible not to realise that friendship is a gift, one that can bring people closer to God. Remember Aelred of Rievaulx and his insistence that Christ should be the centre of any Christian friendship? Quite.

Perhaps we would be less afraid of friendship, and readier to accept that the gift of friendship is not without its obligations and duties, if we spent more time thinking about the friendships of Jesus. The household at Bethany was clearly a place where Jesus was happy to be, where he could enjoy the company of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The accounts in John’s gospel of his interaction with the three siblings are all interesting, but I think today’s account of the raising of Lazarus highlights something we too often forget: Jesus loved his friends, just as we do. It wasn’t a case of his being God in human form and therefore somehow immune to feeling. Jesus didn’t act a part, didn’t pretend to a grief he didn’t feel. He shed tears for Lazarus. He mourned his loss. Something of himself was gone when Lazarus lay in the grave. Yes, we know that he raised Lazarus to life, we understand, at least in part, the sign; but I think we misunderstand Jesus if we pass too quickly over the grief and the tears. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, yes; one who has borne the grief of the whole world on his shoulders; one who can weep with us, not just for us.