Death, Be Not Proud

Yesterday thirty-nine people — thirty-eight adults and one teenager — were discovered dead in a refrigerated trailer in Essex. We do not yet know who they were nor where they came from, though the Essex Police and their colleagues from other Forces have moved quickly to begin investigations. The media have reacted as we would expect, expressing horror and revulsion, then turning to other topics. This morning Twitter, for example, is replete with squabbles about politics, ‘inspirational quotes’ and the usual rag-bag of opinions, ranging from the thoughtful to the whacky. For some of us, however, those deaths in the trailer are not so easily forgotten, nor should they be. Our common humanity demands that we remember.

At the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal, we pray for the dead. Some outside the community would like to limit such prayer to the ‘faithful departed’ in the strictest sense (i.e. those baptized as Catholics), but we have never done that, preferring to pray for all who have died, especially those who have no-one else to pray for them or who have died in terrible circumstances. The thought of those desperate people dying in an airless, frozen darkness is horrible. Not for them the beautiful rituals with which we surround death in the monastery — the prayers by the bedside, the anointing, the candles, the holy water, the accompaniment of the sacraments. A prayer, a kind thought, a remembrance, is little enough, surely?

Too little perhaps, because behind the horror and tragedy of those deaths is the scandal of people smuggling and trafficking. We need to do more than lament the circumstances, we need to eradicate the evil. That will take courage and vigilance and the kind of activism many of us baulk at. It will also mean sacrifice, because unless we tackle the causes of migration to the West people will continue to take huge risks — and there will always be others ready to exploit them. There will be more deaths, more tragedies.

We do what we can, of course. Here in the monastery we pray, and we do not lose hope. Donne’s sonnet ends with the lines

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Amen to that.


Armistice Day 2018

we pray for all who have died in
or as a consequence of war,
whether as combatants or civilians;
we pray for
those maimed in body or mind,
those still subject to armed conflict,
and those who grieve.
We ask the Lord’s forgiveness,
a firm purpose of amendment,
and the grace to seek peace and pursue it.


The Language of Death and Dying

Regular readers will know that I tend to be fairly straightforward about death and dying. ‘Brutally blunt’ was the term used by someone blessed with greater sensitivity, or perhaps a richer vocabulary, than I. The truth is, I have watched at the bedsides of too many people in their last hours to be squeamish about the process of dying, and my own illness forces me to contemplate my own death with as much regularity as the precepts of the Rule could desire. (As an aside, Benedict refers to death and judgement several times and exhorts the monk to keep death daily before his eyes, RB 4.47). Death, then, is no stranger; and though I do not think I would ever follow St Francis in calling it ‘Sister Death,’ I do not care for the various euphemisms we use to try to rob the word of its power. When I die, I shall die: I shall not ‘pass’ or ‘pass away’. Still less shall I ‘fall asleep’ or ‘lose my battle with cancer’. Does it matter? I think it does.

Traditionally, Christianity has always seen death as an entrance into the fullness of life. It is as much a part of life as being born, and just as precious. To be with someone in their last hours is a great privilege. Yes, it’s nice if the process of dying is attended with clean sheets, quietness and an absence of struggle, but often it isn’t. It can be messy, painful and as far removed from the idealised version as it is possible to be; but the moment when God comes to claim his own, when sin and failure fall away and the true beauty of the soul is glimpsed, is always a moment of sheer wonder. The power of God is active in a way we rarely advert to at other times, so we have no need to dress death up with circumlocutions as though it were somehow an affront to our humanity. It is the realisation of our humanity, the completion of our humanity.

Today, many will be recalling the anniversaries of those who have died. For those of us who lived through them, the events of 9/11 seem unforgettable, but memories fade, and the personal connections dissolve. I like the fact that Catholicism has never seen any need to distinguish between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the monastery, for example, every Hour of the Divine Office, every meal we eat, ends with a prayer for the souls of the faithful departed. We pray for ALL the faithful departed, not just those known to us. By that simple remembrance, we unite with those who have died, of course, but also with those who grieve and with those who have no words to form a prayer; and just as the words we sing or the food we eat are, so to say, a fleshly reality, so death itself becomes not an absence of life but truly part of it.

The language of death and dying is beautiful in its honesty and its starkness. Let us honour it and pray that we ourselves will meet death with courage and truthfulness when it comes. In the meantime, let us not shy away from it or try to pretend death doesn’t exist. It does, and we should rejoice in that fact — because where Christ has gone before, we hope to follow.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

On the Tenth Anniversary of the 7 July Bombings

Ten years ago four bombs killed the following people at these locations:


  • Lee Baisden (34)
  • Benedetta Ciaccia (30)
  • Richard Ellery (21)
  • Richard Gray (41)
  • Anne Moffat (48)
  • Fiona Stevenson (29)
  • Carrie Taylor (24)

Edgware Road:

  • Michael Stanley Brewster (52)
  • Jonathan Downey (34)
  • David Graham Foulkes (22)
  • Colin William Morley (52)
  • Jennifer Vanda Nicholson (24)
  • Laura Webb (29)

Russell Square:

  • James Adams (32)
  • Samantha Badham (35)
  • Phillip Beer (22)
  • Anna Brandt (41)
  • Ciaran Cassidy (22)
  • Elizabeth Daplyn (26)
  • Arthur Frederick (60)
  • Emily Jenkins (24)
  • Adrian Johnson (37)
  • Helen Jones (28)
  • Karolina Gluck (29)
  • Gamze Gunoral (24)
  • Lee Harris (30)[9]
  • Ojara Ikeagwu (56)
  • Susan Levy (53)
  • Shelley Mather (25)
  • Michael Matsushita (37)
  • James Mayes (28)
  • Behnaz Mozakka (47)
  • Mihaela Otto (46)
  • Atique Sharifi (24)
  • Ihab Slimane (24)
  • Christian Small (28)
  • Monika Suchocka (23)
  • Mala Trivedi (51)
  • Rachell Chung For Yuen (27)

Tavistock Square:

  • Anthony Fatayi-Williams (26)
  • Jamie Gordon (30)
  • Giles Hart (55)
  • Marie Hartley (34)
  • Miriam Hyman (31)
  • Shahara Islam (20)
  • Neetu Jain (37)
  • Sam Ly (28)
  • Shayanuja Parathasangary (30)
  • Anat Rosenberg (39)
  • Philip Russell (28)
  • William Wise (54)
  • Gladys Wundowa (50)

Many more were injured, and those who lived through the attacks will never forget their horror, any more than survivors of IRA bomb attacks in an earlier period will forget them.

Such violence isn’t new. Every time we read of some further outrage perpetrated by IS, Boko Haram or any other terrorist group, we ask ourselves whether humanity can sink any lower, but we know we can. We call our species homo sapiens, but we might with equal truth have named ourselves homo vastans. We are destroyers. Denying the violence within ourselves is to deny part of the truth of ourselves; but acknowledging our own violence, actual or potential, how does that help when confronted with such brutal acts? I think it helps in three ways.

First, it helps us make a connection with the perpetrators we might find impossible otherwise. We need to recognize that human beings like ourselves are capable of such wickedness. Otherwise we demonise them, reduce them to less than human status and so close off from them, and perhaps from ourselves too, the possibility of conversion of heart, metanoia in the biblical sense, and ultimately, redemption. That matters, because we cannot have two classes of being: human and sub-human. We are one human race, inhabiting one earth, but when faced with such hostile acts, we tend to forget that. Rage and the desire for revenge cloud our vision. All the more reason, then, to make the effort to recognize our shared humanity.

Second, by recognizing that the perpetrators are human like ourselves, we open the way to forgiveness. Forgiveness sets us free, as well as the other. We are not everlastingly bound together by violent deed and violent reprisal — either acted out or poisoning minds for generation after generation. But have you also considered that forgiveness, by breaking the chain of action and reaction, also denies the other victory? They can kill, but they cannot conquer. No matter how much death and destruction they inflict, they can never make the one who forgives completely subject to their will. Denying those who seek to harm us what they most crave — power over us — is to assert our essential dignity as human beings and our belief that love is more powerful than hatred. Our forgiveness affirms that there is only one true form of martyrdom, only one way of really witnessing to the holiness of God — and it is not by murdering the innocent.

Third, admitting our own propensity to violence helps to unite us with the victims of these terrible attacks. We can identify with them imaginatively, knowing what we ourselves are capable of (one of the roots of the word ‘violence’ has as its meaning, ‘to make vivid’). Their suffering, their death, has meaning which is not erased by time or the shifting political alliances of the world in which we live. It has a greater and more lasting significance than we often express when we say, ‘They won’t be forgotten.’ However obscurely, their deaths are linked with the death of Christ on the Cross. He is the Victim who makes sense of every act of victimisation. His death somehow encompasses the deaths of all others, invests them with meaning, redeems them from meaninglessness.

So, let us pray for the repose of the souls of those who died on 7 July 2005, including the suicide bombers responsible for the bomb attacks. Let us pray for those who were badly injured, those who mourn the loss of someone they love, and those who had to deal with the aftermath and still suffer. Above all, let us pray for ourselves, that we may learn to live with one another in peace and charity. The alternative is too dreadful to contemplate.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

When Celebrities Die

The death of Robin Williams is sad, in the way that the death of any human being is sad. ‘No man is an island, entire of himself. . .’ Sadder still is the thought that he may have taken his own life. Only those who have plumbed the depths of depression themselves will truly understand how bleak and unfathomable was his feeling of isolation and hopelessness. But the public outpouring of grief and sentiment at his death may make some uneasy as it does me. It is not that I question the genuineness of the emotions expressed — the sense of connectedness many feel, the feeling of loss — but I wonder whether they say more about the living than the dead. Are the protestations of grief partly a defence against one’s own death; and is there any way in which the underlying fears can be lessened?

If this seems strange to you, let me give you an example. As many readers know, I have leiomyosarcoma, a rare but aggressive cancer which is not curable. The reactions of my friends, and of the community’s friends, have not always been the same. Some are clearly upset but know me well enough to realise that, however open I may be about what is happening, the last thing I want is oodles of sympathy (I get that from the dog, and it is much easier to deal with.) Others are so keen to know every detail, constantly suggesting alternative therapies and ‘what worked for Aunty Flo’, that I have sometimes thought, ‘This is about you, not me at all: you are worried about your own death, not mine; and you somehow hope that by poring over the details of my illness you will protect yourself against the same happening to you.’ When I think that, a huge wave of compassion goes out towards the person concerned, because there is nothing as dreadful as fear, especially a fear that cannot be articulated, and I am moved to pray for them.

I think that when celebrities die, some of these unarticulated fears surface. We grieve for the dead as a way of grieving for ourselves. Perhaps that is why I cannot find it in me to condemn even the most uncongenial forms of expression of that grief. But, as a Catholic, I can’t let it rest there. I do believe (most of the time) that life is eternal and nothing ultimately lost; that there is hope, even in the darkest of times. I believe, too, in the duty of praying for the dead. So, this morning, in addition to praying for Robin Williams’ family and the thousands who feel they have lost a friend, albeit more of a screen friend than a flesh-and-blood friend, I shall pray for the repose of his soul. That, for me, is the real connection between us: the union of prayer between the living and the dead, a union that surpasses every distinction of age, race and, indeed, belief. Requiesact in pace. Amen.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Andrew’s Day 2013

Today is the end of the liturgical year, the end of the month we set aside for praying in a special way for the dead. It is a bluff, gruff kind of day, cold and a little bleak. It is also the feast of St Andrew, and in Scotland a sad day as people come to terms with the helicopter accident which has injured many in Glasgow. We can see it as a hinge between two times, one that looks back and one that looks forward, a kind of hiatus between death and life. It has an almost ‘Holy Saturday’ quality about it; and just as we spend Holy Week in silence and recollection so now, as Ordinary Time passes into Advent, we shall have three days of profound silence here at the monastery. It won’t be an empty silence, nor will it be particularly penitential (I hope), though it will have its longeurs. It will be a time when we try to listen more intently to the voice of the Lord calling us to follow. Each of us must, in our own way, step out into the deep, sure of only one thing (and sometimes perhaps, not even of that): the Lord who calls desires to give us life in all its fullness. We are fee to accept or reject his invitation. What we cannot do is put off our answer to an uncertain future. We must decide now.

While the community is in retreat, blog posts, tweets and Facebook statuses will all be automated (i.e. scheduled in advance) and we won’t be responding to any emails or comments. We shall hold all of you in prayer. Please pray for us, too.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

5 November for Catholics

I don’t know whether they still burn effigies of the pope in Lewes (I imagine it now constitutes religious hatred and contravenes some law or other), but I know one Catholic who will thoroughly enjoy any bonfire or fireworks on offer tonight. Guy Fawkes is no longer a bogeyman. Historical distance allows us to smile at his misplaced zeal and make jokes about his having had the right idea about blowing up Parliament. Some try to make him sound more ‘relevant’ or ‘contemporary’ by calling him a ‘Catholic Jihadist’, but I think that is to misunderstand the politics and religion of the seventeenth century. Personally, I feel sorry for Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. I don’t approve of what they tried to do, but their deaths were ugly; and the legacy they bequeathed, that Catholics are not really to be trusted, has lingered long.

So, how shall I mark 5 November here in the monastery? It happens to be the day when we say the Office of the Dead for all our deceased relatives, friends and benefactors. In praying for the dead, we are asking for their sins to be forgiven, for them to be purified of any remaining imperfection. As far as I know, I don’t have any personal connection with Fawkes or any of the other twelve Gunpowder Plot conspirators, but I shall pray for the forgiveness of their sins; and I shall do so as a loyal Englishwoman, because at the heart of today’s commemoration is a painful paradox. Each of us has many loyalties that, to outsiders, may seem competing but which in an individual are resolved and unified.  5 November is a reminder of this complexity and a challenge to any simplistic categorisation of others.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Windy Night

Last night the wind tugged and pulled at the monastery, sending shivery blasts through every little crack and crevice. It was a powerful reminder that, no matter how much we like to think we are in control, no matter how much technology we have at our disposal, there are many things we cannot control. We are left like Job, putting a finger to his lips when questioned by God. But that does not stop us wanting to know, wanting to control.

The desire to control is one we all experience, to greater or lesser degree. At its best, it encourages us to explore, explain, understand; at its worst, it makes us seek to dominate or destroy. During this month of November, when we pray so often for the dead and remember particularly those who died in war, it may be helpful to reflect on those areas of our own lives where there is either too much or too little control, knowing that the consequences of untrammelled desires can be deadly. It may help, too, to go through the Bible looking at the ways in which wind is used as an image of God’s action in our lives, above all, as an image of the Holy Spirit.

A windy night may teach us more than we ever dreamed possible.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

All Souls Day 2013

Had he lived, today would have been my father’s 100th birthday. It was always a joke between us that I would never forget to pray for him in years to come because on this day above all others, the Church prays in a special way for all the faithful departed. It is our ‘Day of the Dead’ — and that’s not a morbid or sad thought. It is a cause for joy.

In several earlier posts, I sketched the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and prayer for the dead (see, for example, this about All Souls or this about prayer for the dead, or use the search facility in the sidebar). It seems to me that the connection between the Church Militant (i.e. those of us on earth), the Church Suffering (i.e. the souls undergoing the final purification of purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (those who enjoy already the vision of God in heaven) is worth pondering for many reasons, not least because it reminds us of our essential dignity as human beings. We are not mere clumps of cells, with no meaning before we are born and none after we are dead. There is a continuity in being that nothing can destroy. We are, as Hopkins says, ‘immortal diamond’.

Like many, I have been haunted by the thought of those people from Niger whose bodies were found in the Sahara. Each was buried according to Muslim rites where he/she lay. In death they were accorded more respect than many of them probably experienced in life. But somehow that burial, that reverent consigning their dead and decomposing bodies to the sandy soil, is a sign of hope, whether we be Christians, Muslims or whatever. It is a mark of humanity, the triumph of simple decency over everything callous and inhumane.

Love does not end with death, nor does our fellowship with one another. Prayer and reverence is an expression of that. As a Catholic, I believe that my prayer can help those who have died, so I pray for those people of Niger as I pray for my father and all the departed. Requiescant in pace. Amen.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Work of Mercy

Burying the dead is one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy. It goes back to Jewish tradition (see the opening of the Book of Tobit) and is generally regarded as being a civilized thing to do. Today, in London, there will be several funerals, but for many the spotlight will be on just one, that of Lady Thatcher. Already there has been heated disagreement and our security forces have been prepared for outbreaks of violence. This is not the place to go over the arguments for and against the funeral plans or their cost, but I would like to suggest a reason why violence at the funeral would be . . . inappropriate.

When we bury the dead we are doing more than disposing of ‘mortal remains’. We are marking the end of someone’s life on earth and their entry, as we hope, into eternal life, commending their soul to God and praying for mercy. As a Catholic, I naturally think that most of us pass from death into a state of purification known as purgatory, which we who are alive have a duty to aid with our prayers. So, our prayers for the dead person do not end with their death. Our connectedness remains, so much so that I would argue that each of us has a role to play in the death and funeral rites of every person on earth. In the monastery we are frequently reminded of this. Not only do we have a long Office of the Dead which we pray on certain days of the year, we remember the dead at the conclusion of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal.

Today there will be people all over Britain grieving for the death of someone they love. There will also be funerals of people who have no one to mourn them but the clergyman or woman who takes the service and represents the rest of society. Whatever our views on what is happening in central London today, perhaps that thought could give us pause. In death we become as everyone else who has died, but we are still bound together with the living and the living have a duty to the dead. Let us ask the mercy of God for all who have died, knowing that in doing so we ask mercy for ourselves and all whom we have ever loved.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail