Problems of Authority

‘What authority have you for acting like this? And who gave you this authority?’ That question from today’s gospel (Matt. 21.23) is one that runs through the whole of the New Testament and, indeed, life in general. What right has anyone to tell us what to do or to act in a way that impinges on us, especially if it limits our freedom in any way? When directed at ourselves, we are inclined to side-step the question. ‘I don’t need any authority for what I do. I decide for myself.’ We have become little monsters of egotism and self-sufficiency, without even realising it.

In case you think I exaggerate, consider for a moment. In the Catholic Church the amount of vitriolic abuse hurled at Pope Francis by those who are convinced they are right and he is wrong about everything is symptomatic of what I have described. Rudeness does not come from a pure heart nor from a desire to ‘win back an erring brother’ (assuming he is such). If the target were not the pope, it would be someone else because what is really going on is much more akin to the lust for destruction we see in IS than the zeal for religion it purports to be. At this point, I expect some of my readers to explode. How dare I compare their noble-hearted attempts to preserve the Catholic faith unsullied with the murderous behaviour of Wahabist fanatics? I dare because, judging by the arguments put forward, many of the pope’s critics are less well-informed about the faith they seek to defend than they imagine. They are, in fact, undermining the very thing they want to support by ignoring some of its fundamental principles, including charity and a concern for truth and justice. There is more than one way of destroying others.

We find something very similar in our public discourse about politics, law, ethics, or what you will. We have carried the principle of aseity to its illogical conclusion. A subjective ‘what’s right for me’ quickly becomes a narrow ‘what’s good for me’, so that individualism and self-interest rule the day. Advent, with its call to return to a life of integrity, knocks all this on its head. Like it or not, we are not free to behave just as we please; or rather, we are, but if we do, we shall quickly find that everything turns to dust and ashes. It is only by following the guidance of the gospel, by walking in the footsteps of the Lord, that we shall attain true freedom, true joy. That is easy to say, hard to do because, of course, it requires a real change of heart, a huge humility and a readiness to start again every time we fail. Of one thing we can be sure: the grace we need is always being offered to us. May we be big enough, and wise enough, to accept it.

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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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