Those who live in monasteries don’t always experience the blissful peace that visitors do. We’re too aware of the gutter that needs fixing, the admin to be finished, the chant we have to practise, not to mention the Enemy of the Moment who must be avoided until tempers cool and an apology makes all harmony again. But yesterday I think I did experience the peace of the monastery, though perhaps not quite in the way you might expect. It had been a demanding day and I was inwardly chuntering about all kinds of things, but I had a few minutes to myself so I went into the calefactory (which is used for meetings and various kinds of ‘events’, so not a particularly silent place) and was immediately quietened. There is no explanation other than the obvious one. The peace that fills our oratory overflows into every room of the house. It isn’t always a comfortable peace. It can be painful, searing, but it is peace. At times we become conscious of it in a way that escapes us at others. I am reminded that the Benedictine motto is pax, peace, surrounded with thorns that both bar the way and protect what is within. Too often we are conscious only of the thorns. Just occasionally we are allowed to glimpse the treasure they surround.
Alan Henning’s murder has shocked and saddened everyone in Britain — everyone, that is, except those who believe the vicarious death of an innocent man is justifiable because of perceived cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the U.K. That fact alone makes it difficult to write about. We are conscious of Mr Henning’s grieving family and the pain they are suffering, yet at the same time we are aware that there are those, even here in Britain, who rejoice at what they see as a great ‘victory’. It is sadly ironic, if that’s the right word, that we are faced with these contradictions on the feast of St Francis of Assisi, one of the best known and best loved saints of the Christian West, whose prayer ‘Lord, make me a channel of your peace’ has become almost a cliché of the quest for peace.
Last year I wrote about the danger of sentimentalising St Francis, illustrating my post with the only known contemporary portrait of the saint. This year I have chosen one of El Greco’s paintings of St Francis receiving the stigmata (the marks of the wounds inflicted on Christ’s hands, feet and side during the crucifixion). The contrast between the beauty of the saint’s hands and the terrible wounds piercing them, the darkness the saint inhabits and the brilliance of the vision before him, above all, the harsh light El Greco throws on his subject’s face, parallel the role of prayer and suffering in Francis’s quest to be a man of peace — moments of peace and tranquillity glimpsed through prayer and long years of sacrifice in which he was broken open, scooped out, transformed. To be a man of peace meant identifying completely with the Master he followed, snatching victory from apparent defeat.
Mr Henning left home and family to help others in distress. He was clearly a charitable man, prepared to take risks to be of service to others. Francis was also a man of great charity, who lived a life of simplicity and joy. For both of them there was an integrity and courage that bore them through the difficulties they faced. I think we can learn something from each of them. In the end, it is charity and peace that secure the world; but neither peace nor charity is attained without sacrifice.
Yesterday saw an all too brief cessation of hostilities between Gaza and Israel, but was it, as some said, a moment of peace? Technically, I suppose it was; but peace surely means more than the absence of war or civil disorder. I tend to think of peace as being more of a state than a process — what we Christians mean, or should mean, by the Kiss of Peace exchanged, above all, at the Eucharist: a sign of the unity and charity that exists in the assembly. St Benedict was quite keen on the Kiss of Peace, given and received. It was an important part of the ritual of welcome for a guest, but it was not to be shared until prayer had been offered (cf RB 53.4–5). That reminds us that peace is not a matter of mere feeling, of general goodwill; nor is it something we can attain in all its fullness by our own efforts. Peace comes to us as a divine gift, but it is a gift we have to be ready to receive. To be united in peace and the bond of charity requires effort on our part. It often means laying aside our preferences, our prejudices, even making sacrifices of things dear to us. It is no accident that the Benedictine motto ‘pax’ appears within a protective crown of thorns. For the great paradox is that while we may seem to struggle to attain the gift of peace, it is the Lord himself who guards the hearts of those he keeps in peace.
I have always believed in the value of brevity. The fine phrase, the purple passage, the adjectives rattling along in quick succession: they should all be deleted. Every word should count, even if that means some readers worry that I have not ‘covered the ground’ as I ought. Sometimes, there simply are no words at all. What is happening in Gaza now is unspeakable; so too is Hamas’s continuing rocket-fire into Israel. We can pray, we can fast, but most of the time all we can do is watch the tragedy unfolding. I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of that. What is happening is not an Arab crisis or a Middle Eastern crisis, it is a humanitarian crisis — one in which we are all involved. Our helplessness, our inability to end the misery, is a painful reminder of the fact that we are not gods. We cannot bring about peace just by wishing it, nor by expecting the other person to make compromises or concessions. Peace can only be achieved by recognizing our own powerlessness and willing a change, even at the expense of appearing weak or foolish or both. Perhaps the real problem is that we don’t actually want to change. Let us pray that is not true of the people of Gaza and Israel.
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.
After nearly seven weeks of travelling up and down the A40 and staying with delightful friends in Oxford while I underwent treatment at various hospitals, I am home for a while. I’m very tired and sore, so home is, first of all, somewhere I can rest. For me, that means, once the daily duty of prayer and reading is fulfilled and I have done my share of domestic tasks such as cooking and account-keeping, I can, with a quiet conscience, do nothing in particular. Our culture values doing to such an extent that doing nothing is seen as ‘wasting’ time, ‘wasting’ talent — being, in some measure, selfish. In truth, it is nothing of the sort. Doing nothing silences mind and heart to make them more receptive, more supple, more genuinely creative. It should also make us capable of greater generosity. I don’t mean the kind of generosity that others expect of us. (Anyone telephoning the monastery at the moment or asking me to do things for them is likely to be met with a polite ‘no’: I haven’t any spare energy.) I mean the kind of generosity that goes back to the roots of the word itself: a nobleness, a largeness, that flourishes best when we are at peace; and we are never so much at peace as when we are at home.
It is a truism of Christianity that ‘we have not here an abiding city’ and, for monks and nuns especially, we travel light, owning nothing of our own, our gaze fixed (most of the time) on the City that is to come. That doesn’t mean, however, any misprizing of our earthly home. Indeed, the Benedictine vow of stability is often intertwined with stabilitas loci, a sense of place, of standing firm. The blessing of home is not the comfort or beauty it provides but the assurance that here we have a place, somewhere we stand firm. Let us pray today for those many millions who have no home and do not enjoy the blessing we may take for granted.
I haven’t been blogging for obvious reasons and will not be online much for the next couple of weeks or so. Please don’t assume that because I tap out the occasional post here everything is back to normal. It will take a while for energy levels to recover. Thank you.
Yesterday was one of those curious days one suspects will prove more important than anyone realised at the time. On the one hand, there was the public announcement that an American team working on the BICEP2 project had found a residual marker for cosmic inflation (see the brief BBC report here); on the other, President Putin signed an order recognizing Crimean independence and approved a draft bill on the absorption of the peninsula into the Russian Federation. The contrast between the excitement over extraordinary new evidence in support of the Big Bang Theory for the origin of the Universe and the sick feeling that Ukraine was being destroyed with barely a whimper could not have been more marked.
The Universe is too big a subject for most of us to grasp, but what is happening in Ukraine touches us all. There have been the inevitable sabre-rattlers with half-remembered notions of how the First and Second World Wars started, who are anxious to ‘stop Putin in his tracks’ — usually at the cost of other people’s lives. There have been the indifferentists who think the Crimea not worth bothering about and don’t mind being called ‘appeasers’ by the sabre-rattlers. Then there are those who are aware of the labyrinthine ties between Russia and Ukraine, Russia and Crimea, and the economic and political mess Ukraine is in whatever the outcome of the present difficulty. Western politicians, by and large, simply don’t ‘get’ the complexity of the situation, tending instead to see everything through the lens of their own experience.
If Syria has made us recognize how defenceless ordinary people are in the face of mutual hatred and joy in destruction, the situation in the Crimea reminds us that people may not want to live as we think they should. It is worth thinking through the implications of that and acting accordingly. We must pray for a peaceful resolution of the situation, but we should also pray that those engaged in trying to find a diplomatic solution should have the humility and generosity of spirit to recognize the right of others to live as they think best.
I imagine every Western politician woke up this morning wondering what to do about Russia and the Crimea. Last month it may have been Syria or North Korea. Before that, Egypt. We tend to deal with difficulties and problems sequentially, dropping one when another looms into view. It is not that Iraq and Afghanistan have been ‘dealt with’, but we are collectively great believers in ‘moving on’. We have other countries in our sights now. The trail of death and destruction is one we prefer to ignore because ultimately it is traceable back to those who gave the order to mobilise the troops or clamoured for something to be done. That qualification is important because it reminds us that in a democracy we all bear a measure of responsibility, whether active or passive. We can’t distance ourselves from it simply by saying ‘not in my name’.
I mentioned a few days ago that I had been thinking about the Crimean War of the nineteenth century. I have also been thinking about the symbolic importance of Ukraine to the Russian people, about gas pipes and oil lines, and the way in which Western politicians tend very easily to assume that an uprising or protest movement will usher in something better than before. If it doesn’t, it can be forgotten, or at least allowed to slip from the headlines, e.g. Libya. Unlike many political commentators, I have no suggestions to make regarding the dilemma we face. I have only one constructive tool to offer: prayer. To some, that will seem laughable; to others, an admission of failure; but I think myself it is the most powerful thing those of us who are not movers and shakers in the accepted sense can do. Indeed, prayer has a way of upsetting the usual order of things. It can bring hope and peace out of the darkest situation. Let us pray that it does so now.
How shall we mark Remembrance Sunday? Last year I wrote, a little glibly perhaps, that the act of remembering was essential to our learning the lessons of history:
Today, at 11 o’clock, the country will come to a stop for two minutes of silence and prayer for those who have died in two world wars and subsequent armed conflicts. It will be a moment of sadness for some, of awkwardness for others. It is the only time in the year when we make a collective act of remembrance, and its importance grows greater the further we are from the events which prompted it.
When I was a child, the effects of World War I were still plain to see: the elderly men who coughed and wheezed and were missing limbs; the great-uncle who still shook uncontrollably at times; the elderly maiden ladies who lived lives of genteel poverty, their fiançés killed in France or Flanders. I grew up listening to the men and women of my parents’ generation talking quite naturally about the events of World War II. Indeed, even today, I have only to open one of my father’s poetry books to see the flowers he picked in the Western Desert, the bloodstain where he was wounded, and the small black and white photographs of people and places that to me are only names, if that. For my nieces, even that tenuous thread is broken. It is all one ‘with yesterday’s seven thousand years’.
We need to remember because if we forget, we shall forget why freedom matters, why decency matters, why some things are worth fighting for, however much we may shrink from the idea of violence. So, we pray today not in any triumphalist spirit, but gratefully, humbly, and with the hope that we may learn the lessons of history at last.
I still think that’s true, but the terrible reality of the war in Syria, the loss of life to natural disaster in the Philippines, and the recent shocking revelation of a British soldier’s murder of an Afghan insurgent put another perspective on it. Death, it seems, is all around: brutal, inglorious, needless. Perhaps that is what we ought to think about today, as well as praying for those who have died in war or been crippled in mind or body as a result of war. It is not only those who die heroically but those who die abjectly, cowardly — perhaps especially those who die abjectly, cowardly — who remind us of our essential fragility and vulnerability. Peace is a precious gift it is only too easy to destroy.
We are currently re-reading St Benedict’s chapters on the Divine office, often called the Liturgical Code, which may explain why I am keen to advocate having a good curse from time to time. I don’t mean profanity, but the praying of the so-called cursing psalms, e.g. Psalm 108 (109), which cheerfully asks the Lord to ensure that our adversary’s life should be short, his children wanderers and beggars and his wife a widow, or Psalm 57 (58) which has the splendid prayer, ‘O God, break the teeth in their mouths!’ Why, you may ask, should a normally mild-mannered nun be recommending that I pray such horribly vengeful prayers? It isn’t nice.
My answer is that we aren’t nice ourselves. We can kid ourselves that we are nicer than we are if we don’t own up to the darker, still unredeemed side that we harbour within until our dying breath. We pray the cursing psalms, but not against our enemy, real or imagined, but against all that is violent and troubled within us. We take the un-nice bits of ourselves to God, knowing that he alone can transform them by his grace. I think this is important, especially when we look at the violence convulsing Syria and other parts of the world. We know that for there to be peace outside, there must be peace inside; and we shall never attain that inner peace unless we first acknowledge, then renounce, everything that makes for war and violence in our own hearts. Praying the cursing psalms which, as Christians, we do in union with Christ, is a very good place to start. But there is more, for how could Christ pray those psalms save in union with us? Doesn’t that give pause for thought? Do we dare to be ‘nicer’ than he?