Unexpected Kindness and Unexpected Prejudice

Yesterday Quietnun and I were standing in an IKEA car-park looking at a heavy flat-pack we needed to load into the car when along came a very nice couple who offered to help. The awkward package was in the car in a jiffy. Bro Duncan PBGV immediately turned on his own peculiar brand of high-octane charm and we all parted the best of friends. Such instances of unexpected kindness are far from rare, but we often overlook them because we like to think we’d do the same in similar circumstances. As we get older, however, or illness saps our strength, or we simply find we lack the necessary skill or confidence to do something, our gratitude becomes the more profound because we know that, without the other’s help, we’d be in a very difficult situation. I often think of those who have helped me in unexpected ways and ask a blessing on them.

I was musing on this as the basis for a blog post when I encountered a couple of instances of anti-Catholic prejudice online. I was surprised because they came from fellow Christians, and because I had tended to assume that one good result from all the ecumenical endeavours of recent years was less hostility among the denominations. The fact that I was surprised is evidence that something has been achieved, but still, it made me think.

Spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity, like spontaneous reactions of unkindness or prejudice, are as much habit as anything else. We can, and should, cultivate what used to be called good habits, but most of the time we just don’t think: we act or speak, and there’s the rub. The kind couple we met yesterday saw our difficulty and unhesitatingly offered to help. They did not pass by on the other side, pretending not to see us (something we British are very good at), nor did they regard what they were doing as in any way unusual. They just acted, and I feel confident that they are as helpful to others. Similarly, I suspect my anti-Catholic friends are unaware of their prejudice and would be amazed if they were to be taxed with it.

In the monastery such unawareness is contrary to the close watch over the actions of our life that the Rule demands we keep (see RB 7). Our spontaneity must always proceed from good habit and delight in virtue. As such, it should always be positive, always help build others up. Today would be a good day for thinking about how we ourselves behave. It may not be physical help we are asked to give but a listening ear or a kind word, or even just a smile. The question is, do we?

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The Beheading of St John the Baptist

Last year, in this post, I speculated on the feelings of failure and rejection St John the Baptist might have experienced on the morning of his execution. I stand by what I wrote then, but this morning I would like to suggest another aspect. I think we all secretly identify with John, the fearless speaker of truth to power, and like to think that, should we ever be in conflict with the regime of the day, we would be as brave as he. Our own attempts to speak out, to be men and women of integrity, give us a little glow of satisfaction — and if we think they don’t, either we are saints already or we are being economical with the truth about ourselves. How about turning it all round and thinking about the times when we have tried to silence others, have been deaf to what they said or treated with contempt their endeavour to alert us to something important? How quickly the glow of satisfaction changes to a blush of shame!

There are many questions about which we probably have firm, possibly fixed, opinions. Immigration, gun control, abortion, social welfare, economic policy — these all provoke quite strong reactions in most of us. That is the point. We react; we don’t always reflect. Least of all do we reflect when someone is saying what we don’t want to hear. Yet it is precisely then that we may need to listen hardest. St Benedict says of the visiting monk that he may have some observations and criticisms to make that the Lord wants us to hear. (cf RB  61.4) Instead of listening to the message, we tend to concentrate on the messenger; and if he doesn’t meet our idea of what he should be, we reject both him and what he has to say. The temptation to side with Herod rather than the Baptist is always there.

Today would be a good day to ask the Lord to open our ears and free us from the prejudice that prevents our hearing him, especially the prejudice of which we are unaware. Only then can we be people of integrity, upholders of truth and justice rather than persecutors of those who see and speak more truly than we.

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Prejudice Pure and Simple?

Bro Duncan PBGV is in a huff. Apparently, the flatiron token in Monopoly is being replaced by a cat. I thought, at first, that it was the introduction of the cat which he objected to, but, no, it is the loss of the flatiron. He is a romantic at heart, and sees the flatiron as being more than just a lump of metal. For him it is a symbol of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, a reminder of all the iron goods produced in the Midlands which transformed life for the masses, allowing everyone, not just the rich, to have smooth smocks and shirts, on Sundays at least. How I have misjudged the little fellow, assuming he thought one thing when in fact he thought another. He is not, after all, the prejudiced PBGV I believed him to be. I’m sorry, Brother.

And the moral of the story is this: to assume prejudice where there is none is itself an act of prejudice.

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Prejudice

What is the point at which opinion turns into prejudice? I was stunned this morning to find a Christian pastor on Facebook promoting a poster from an American ‘Stop Islam’ campaign. I am very conscious of the fact that I don’t ‘get’ America, north or south, so don’t take what I say as a criticism, I’m merely thinking out loud. Had I promoted that poster, it would have been prejudice; I’m not sure that it necessarily was so for the pastor, but it set me thinking.

In Britain we tend to make jokes about being ‘politically correct’. The media love to seize upon the latest manifestation of ‘political correctness gone mad’, and we usually smile broadly when we hear that something or other may not be done or called by its traditional name for fear of giving offence to someone. For Christians, the smile sometimes wears a little thin when we find that Councils have abolished Christmas in favour of Winterval, or ancient liberties are attacked; but in general we accept that we live in a plural society and have to rub along together as best we can. We do not have to travel very far before we are in a different country, with a different language and culture. Whether we like it or not, we are used to adjusting.

Or are we? One of the disturbing aspects of Britain today is the extent to which extremism of various kinds seems to be flourishing, most of it underground though sometimes it surfaces in ugly ways. Whether we are talking about Islamic extremism or the racially-motivated extremism of other groups, the problem is the same: opinion has turned into prejudice. Opinion may not be based on fact or experience, but it is at least open to questioning. The Latin roots of the word ‘prejudice’, by contrast,  show very clearly that the attitudes it represents are not based on reason or experience nor are they open to question: prejudice is, quite literally, a judgement made in advance of knowledge, and, as such, it is very dangerous.

None of us is free from prejudice, but, as I asked at the beginning, what is the point at which opinion becomes prejudice? As a Christian, I believe that there is only one mediator between God and ourselves, the Lord Jesus Christ. For me, there can be no watering down of that; no casual accommodation to other beliefs and creeds. But I have no difficulty in honouring the truth I find in other religions — not in a wishy-washy, we all believe the same kind of way, but with wonder and gladness that I can learn something about God I might not otherwise have the opportunity to do. When we had a couple of Tibetan monks living with us for a year, we soon realised that the philosophical bases of Christianity and Buddhism, if one can call them that, were worlds apart, but the concept of purity of heart and the monastic quest for it were points of close agreement. The experience enriched my understanding of what it means to be a nun.

This Saturday morning it is worth spending a moment or two thinking about our own opinions and the point where they slide into prejudice. It is good to have firm opinions, to be zealous, to proclaim the truth as we see it; but to be prejudiced is to have a closed ear and a closed heart. And the problem with that is, nothing can get through except the bile we leak out.

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