Inequalities | St Matthias

I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.

During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.

Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.

Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?

Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.

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St Francis of Assisi and the Danger of Sentimentality

St. Francis. Sacro Speco at Subiaco. Fresco. 1224 or 1228.

The above image, taken from the Benedictine Monastery of Sacro Speco at Subiaco, is the only known contemporary portrait of St Francis of Assisi. It shows a young, strong, clear-eyed man who could so easily be a campaigner for social justice or ecological issues today. There is a temptation to see Francis in exactly those terms: as a champion of the poor, the marginalised, a lover of animals and plants, a man who was spectacularly ‘alternative’ in his simplicity and poverty, a thorn in the side of the Establishment. All that is true, but there is another portrait of Francis, done long after his death by El Greco, which shows St Francis receiving the stigmata, and I think it captures the other side of the saint, the one that even today makes us uncomfortable: the man of God whose fierce, all-consuming love of Christ led him to identify with his Master in everything, but especially his suffering and sacrifice.

It is easy to sentimentalise St Francis. We can get a warm, fuzzy glow about Franciscan simplicity (especially when it is lived by other people) but without that intense love of God as motive, every renunciation is essentially hollow. It lacks heart, and St Francis never lacked heart no matter what else he and his first companions did not have. His poverty was embraced tenderly and joyously, so we forget that an iron will was also called into service. Francis was an uncompromising realist. For all his exuberance and light-heartedness, there is a steady determination about his desire to live and die in union with Christ.

Today Pope Francis will journey to Assisi and is scheduled to make six(!) speeches in the course of the day. I shall be very surprised if we do not hear something of that more hidden side of St Francis: the call to union with Christ as the well-spring of every action, of every service of the poor. In the meantime, a very happy feastday to all our Franciscan brothers and sisters!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The End is Not So Soon

One of the (many) good things about living in a monastery is that one is spared all those end-of-the-year reflections, when people attempt to name the most significant events/people/products of the year just gone and predict the same for the year just coming. It is so wearing, and if one were to wait ten years, the lists would probably look very different. Those of a classical bent have much sport with Janus and ianua, of course, (I’ve done it myself), and I daresay tomorrow I shall be among the many saying something about Mary, the Mother of God, whose feastday it is. But today, what of today? Do we end the year with hope or despair, gratitude or an almighty grumble?

Poverty, disease, hunger, violence — they are still with us, as they were at the beginning of the year. Does that mean that the bright promise of 2012 is unfilled, that nothing has really changed? It is easy to forget that if we wish to change the world, we must begin with ourselves. If we see poverty as a scandal, we must examine our own use of material goods; and not those alone, for there is a spiritual and intellectual poverty that is just as crushing. If we believe that no one should go hungry, we do not need to go very far to find someone who hasn’t enough to eat, even here in England.  As for violence, unless we address our own inner violence, we shall never free the world of the desire to wound and kill. The problem for most of us is knowing where to start, even with ourselves.

I think we can all learn from Lawrence DePrimo, the New York policeman who met a poor man with no shoes on. Instead of just passing by, he stopped and measured the man’s feet, then went into a store and bought him a pair of boots. A bystander captured this act of humanity and kindness on camera and soon the policeman’s action was all over the internet. Officer DePrimo was baffled by the fuss, but the important point is that he noticed the need of another and did something about it. Noticing was the first step, and that’s the same for all of us. Too often we just don’t see, so we do nothing. There can be no end unless we first make a beginning, and opening our eyes is the only way to start — whatever day of the year it is.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Some Thoughts on the Feast of St Francis

In my mind’s eye I am looking at a painting of St Francis by El Greco (copyright prevents my including the image here). The saint is marked with the stigmata and looking at a crucifix. Below the crucifix is a skull. Above, there is a fitful gleam of sky and a withered trail of ivy over the cave’s mouth. The colour scheme is sombre: black, brown, dusty blue. It is Francis as he is rarely portrayed: gaunt, dogged, ‘walking by faith, not by sight’. The Francis of popular imagination, joyful in his poverty, surrounded by God’s creatures great and small, is eclipsed for the moment by this other Francis, the man of God who wrestled alone and painfully with the divine will.

There are many this morning who are struggling with the divine will. The search for April Jones continues, but with less hope; the escalation of violence between Syria and Turkey is stirring vague fears of world war; add in the political stand-off between Israel and Iran, the situation in Afghanistan, and the eruption of anger against the west in many predominantly Muslim countries and you have a piquant mix. The skies are as cloudy and stormy as in the El Greco painting.

There is, however, a ray of hope. Just as Francis’s face is illumined with perfect peace and tranquillity in the face of suffering, so there is light for the world, if we look for it. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning. Sometimes we refuse to admit that. We are so determined to cling to old habits, old hatreds, old failures. They are the way we build a barrier for ourselves against feeling more pain. We prefer the goldfishbowl to the ocean because it has a kind of safety. Thinking about St Francis’ life, however, I am reminded that safety was one thing he never bothered about. His radical adoption of poverty meant that there was no barrier for him, no safety-net of property or private ownership. He faced the world throughout life as we must all face it at death.

Today it would be good to spend a few moments in prayer asking for the grace to rely upon God more completely. That doesn’t mean we should lessen our efforts to do whatever we can to meet our own needs and the needs of people around us. It is rather a question of deciding where we are going to set our hearts. Francis was supremely free because his heart was set on God alone. Can we say with equal truth that God is our treasure and that our hearts are set firmly on Him?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Money and Madness

With inflation at 5.2%, interest rates the lowest they’ve ever been, and unemployment, especially among the young, assuming quite frightening proportions, the ‘other-worldly’ message of the Churches can seem far removed from reality. In vain we argue that it is the true reality: that we are more than the sum of what we possess, infinitely more than what may ‘possess’ us. But our words sound hollow, especially when most of us are involved in fund-raising for this or that. Our language of gift and tithe is alien to many. Are we mad or simply a bit thick, unable to comprehend the new world economic order in which the haves will tend to acquire more and the have-nots to have less and less? Wasn’t it ever so?

Yes and no. The perfect community of Acts 4 has always left me unconvinced. We’re fallen creatures and it shows. The best we can hope to do is to embrace a frugal lifestyle that allows us to be generous to others. We must learn to love not having as once we loved having. One of the great things about being a nun is that we can really live the dispossession of the gospels. Here at Hendred it’s no fiction: the community finances are permanently on a knife-edge, but we still aim to be as hospitable as possible. We don’t experience the poverty of many in the so-called Third World, but by many of the indices used to assess poverty in Britain, we are down there with the best of them, and I myself wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It is when one is utterly dependent on the mercy of God that one knows true freedom. The trouble is, most of us don’t really want to be free. We prefer the chains of habit and possession. Maybe the rather grim economic future we all face will make us think again about our priorities: we may not have much money, but perhaps the very lack of it will help us regain our sanity.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Poverty and Powerlessness

Today is the feast of St Clare. To some, she is merely an adjunct of St Francis: the rich young woman who fled to him for refuge, became a nun and founded an Order we know today as the Poor Clares. The more scholarly will recall that she is the first woman in history we can be sure wrote a Rule for her community, which during her lifetime was called the Order of Poor Ladies. She had to fight, and fight hard, to maintain her original inspiration against clerical opposition. Her joyful and radical embrace of poverty was simply not understood, and much pressure was put on her to make her Rule more Benedictine in character. Just two days before her death, on 11 August 1253, Innocent IV confirmed her ‘privilege of poverty’ in the bull Solet annuere.

So much for history. It is easy to sentimentalize Clare’s vocation and that of her sisters after her, but I think most Franciscan friars would agree that if you wish to experience Francis’s ideals lived in all their rigour and purity, you must go to the Poor Clares. Clare’s theology of poverty is spelled out in her four letters to Agnes of Prague. They are not an easy read. Benedictines don’t make a vow of poverty and often have difficulty in understanding those who do. We make a radical renunciation of private ownership and are committed to living austerely, without excess; but the Poor Clares go further. They embrace the powerlessness of being dependent on others, of perpetual fast, of being genuinely poor.

There is much talk about poverty at the moment, usually by those who have never experienced it at first-hand. Religious poverty tends to be dismissed as mere play-acting by those who see only the externals. I don’t pretend to understand the Poor Clare vocation but I do know how necessary it is for the Church today. There is more than one way of sharing the poverty of the poor and allowing the grace of God to flood it with joy and gladness. The Poor Clares have something important to teach us all.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Overseas Aid: How Much is Enough?

The leak of Liam Fox’s letter challenging the Government’s plan to enshrine in law the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid has been brilliantly timed to coincide with Christian Aid Week. Or rather, brilliantly mistimed. On the one hand, we have the Defence Secretary raising legitimate concerns about the effect of such a statutory requirement on the Government’s freedom to allocate spending as it sees fit (something we all need to think about, given the commitment of British forces in Afghanistan, Libya, etc); on the other, we have the example of years of quiet do-goodery (using that word without any pejorative overtones) funded by the generosity of private donors to Christian Aid, an organization I very much admire.

Christian Aid is using the slogan ‘Help people in poverty out of poverty. For good.’ For me, the sting is in that ‘For good.’ You could dismiss it as merely fashionable punctuation. Which likes to do things differently. Or you could take it as an expression of something more important, the motive for and the consequence of giving being the good of others. Poverty is something one can find anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean being physically hungry or without access to education or medical care. Mother Teresa was appalled by the spiritual poverty she saw in the west, but we tend to dismiss that. We don’t need religious people telling us that we lack something. We are generous; we support lots of good causes; we believe in the secular redemption of a secular society.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it can lead to complacency. I can save the world by not eating meat/using wind power/delete as applicable. Complacency is another form of spiritual poverty, the refusal not so much to give as the refusal to share. To give is sometimes to place oneself above another; to share is to place oneself alongside. What troubles me about Dr Fox’s letter is that many will take the argument about Government spending and turn it back on itself, asserting that we cannot afford to give to others because of our own needs as a country. We need organizations like Christian Aid to remind us that overseas aid is not about giving to poorer nations but sharing resources with them. How much is enough? I don’t know, but I believe we need to think about it.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Problem of Possessions

RB 54 takes up a subject Benedict has already treated in RB 33, the problem of ownership and radical dispossession. Unlike most other religious, Benedictines do not take a vow of poverty; yet if we are serious about our monastic life, the degree of ‘dispossession’ is probably greater than among many who do. For example, in the community to which I belong, RB 54 is observed literally. No one receives anything from another without permission, and no one presumes to keep anything unless it has been authorised. Even at the communal level, strict watch is kept over any superfluity. A kind friend in the U.S. recently offered us an iPad and it was quite hard for a community of Apple geeks to say ‘no’; but we could not justify accepting something that was not truly necessary for the work we do. (Note for the curious: we got a donation instead which we applied to more urgent but less stylish needs.)

Possessions can be a problem: too many or two few and one wastes time and energy worrying about them. Living by the providence of God is something most Christians would applaud in theory, but it is incredibly difficult to do as one gets older and/or there are family members to worry about as well as oneself. There is no easy solution. Without becoming scrupulous in the bad sense, we do need to keep an eye on what we amass. Lent, with its call to almsgiving, is a good time for taking stock. Perhaps we could do more than take last season’s books and clothes to the Charity Shop?

Thank You
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