Kieran Conry, St Michael and ‘Acceptable Evil’

The resignation of Bishop Kieran Conry and its impact on the priests and people of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton is being picked over by the media. There are those who delight in the idea of sexual shananigans involving a bishop — a Catholic bishop at that! — and are whooping with glee at the prospect of salacious ‘revelations’ in the press and online. There are others who are taking the opportunity to have a pot-shot at everything they regard as liberal and wrong in the Church, with dark mutterings about who knew what and when. Others again are calling for a change in the Church’s celibacy rules and expressing support for Bishop Kieran as he faces not only private humiliation but public shame over his actions. Some, probably the majority, simply feel sad, sensing both the personal tragedy and the tragedy for the diocese.  Inevitably, there is a feeling of betrayal. When clergy in particular are found to have deceived others, people naturally ask whether anyone actually believes what they profess to believe. Is it all moonshine as far as they are concerned? What few within the Church seem to have grasped, however, is that for many people in Britain today, it is all a typhoon in a teacup. For them, the  Church’s teaching is out of step with modern sexual mores. Kieran Conry did no more and no less than lots of other men in this country. End of story (almost).

I think we need to be clear about three things. First, by his own admission, Bishop Kieran seems to have been guilty of fornication, if not adultery; and this breaking of his promise of celibacy and the Church’s rules about sexual behaviour was something that went on for years. Whatever society thinks about it, the Church’s understanding of such behaviour is that it is wrong, sinful. There is no such thing as ‘acceptable evil’. Second, his actions have hurt others as well as himself — the women involved, their families, the priests and people of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton and the wider Church. There will be a price to pay, and it will be far from painless. Third, and just as important, God’s grace is open to us all. We are not called to judge the state of Bishop Keieran’s soul and certainly ought not to revile him. Who among us has a conscience so spotless we can condemn another? We must forgive whatever there is to forgive, pray for his conversion (and remember, confession of wrong is a first step in that direction) and continue to try to live godly lives ourselves as well as we can. That is where St Michael the Archangel, whose feast we keep today, comes in. He is the great protector saint whose aid we invoke against evil in all its most seductive forms.

Those who think of angels as charming little putti, running riot over Baroque altarpieces and ceilings, have clearly never stopped to consider the terrifying aspect of angels in the Bible. They are mighty spirits, messengers of God, with Michael the chief of them. The old Catholic prayer asking his intercession is not ‘quaint’ or ‘outmoded’ any more than evil itself is quaint or outmoded. Evil is deceptive and leads even the best of us astray. The sad story of Bishop Kieran is a reminder to us all that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ I think there are good reasons for making the prayer our own and praying it whenever we face situations that place us in moral, physical, or spiritual danger — remembering always that pride, the idea that we can cope without help, is one of the biggest sins of all.

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

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Not Proud, Just Grateful

I have a confession to make. I am not proud to be English; I am not proud to be Catholic; I’m not even proud to be a Benedictine; but I am supremely grateful to be all three. The current fashion for saying one is ‘proud’ to be this, that or the other leaves me cold. I’m never sure whether the being proud is an attempt to claim greatness by association or simply a way of saying politely ‘ya, boo and sucks to you!’ I daresay it can be both — and more. Pride and gratitude both arise from a deep sense of satisfaction, but with this difference: pride is centred on self and gratitude on the other; one looks inward, the other outwards. Could that be why the Christian tradition has never been very keen on pride but always loved gratitude? As our American friends say, go figure.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 3

Today we reach the final section of RB 49, although it is not Benedict’s last word on Lent (we’ll look at that tomorrow):

Each one, however, must tell his abbot what he is offering up, for it must be done with his blessing and approval. Whatever is done without the spiritual father’s permission is to be attributed to presumption and vainglory, unworthy of reward. Everything, therefore, must be done with the abbot’s approval.

I wonder how many readers of this blog consulted anyone before deciding what to give up or take on for Lent? In community we write a Lent Bill — a statement of what we propose to do — and hand it to the prioress, asking her permission and blessing. It is not unknown for something to be added or taken away, and very humbling the experience can be!

The point Benedict is making here is important: we are not always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always choose wisely, especially where Lent is concerned. We are often muddled about what it is and how we should meet its demands. Pride and competitiveness can easily creep into our decisions. We get hold of the idea of penance then whip ourselves up into an ungodly fervour. ‘I will fast. I will keep vigil. I will . . .’ I, I, I. The whole purpose of monastic life is to lead us closer to God, which means forgetfulness of self. Very often what we think would be best is anything but. We believe we can ‘go it alone’, not realising that we go to God together or not at all.

For us, as Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. We have chosen to live according to the Rule, under a superior, so we submit our ideas to him/her — and take the consequences.  The encouraging part is knowing we shall have our superior’s prayers, and that can be a great comfort when things get bumpy (as they certainly will).

All very well for a monk or nun, you say, but what about those outside the cloister? I think there is value in talking over our ‘Lenten programme’ with someone we trust, not necessarily a priest or religious but someone whose judgement is sound and whose instincts are good. Articulating what we intend to do can sometimes make us aware that it isn’t quite sensible or will end up making us completely batty. Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves or making dramatic  gestures. It is about quietly and perseveringly focusing upon God and allowing him to transform us. That is why it is so joyful.

If you feel you have begun Lent wrong, take heart. To admit that we’ve made a false start is the beginning of grace. And if you feel you have begun in the right way, thank God, and ask him to protect you from all pride and presumption. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but this is the season when we must wage war against the principalities and powers of this present age. Whatever else Lent is, it isn’t dull.

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A Book for Lent

One of the Lenten disciplines required by the Rule of St Benedict is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). I think this one of the best ways of trying to draw closer to God. It is something we can all do, and although it demands no special skill or resources, there are several points to note.

First, the book is not chosen by us but by another. We don’t decide for ourselves what would be a good book to read, we submit to another’s judgement. That is harder than it sounds, especially for those of us who like to think we are ‘educated’, but I have often discovered books I might otherwise not have known simply because I had been told to read them. We begin by humbling our intellectual pride, and isn’t there a reason for that when we look back on the sin of Adam and Eve?

Secondly, the book is read ‘straight through in its entirety’, with no judicious skipping, no lengthy recourse to commentaries, explanations and additional material. It is not academic reading on which we are engaged but lectio divina. Now, there is a debate about what is meant by ‘a book from the library’. Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible; so we read a book of the Bible chosen for us by the superior — easy enough if her choice falls on Deutero-Isaiah, not quite so easy if she lights upon Numbers.

Lent is a time for meditating on the Word of God, allowing it gradually to sink in and change us. It is probably rash of me to say it, but if you have no one to choose a book of scripture for you, by all means email the monastery and one of us will make a suggestion. A ‘book for Lent’ is like a kind word, the best of gifts.

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Gentleness with Self

For many years it’s been my practice to try to get up an hour earlier than the horarium demands in order to have more time for prayer and reading before the busy-ness of the day starts. Recently, it’s been proving harder to do. It’s cold and dark, and my bodyclock has been in rebellion. If St Teresa of Avila could admit that there were days when she couldn’t swat a fly for the love of God, why should I have any problem with my duvet difficulty? Because, of course, I do: I’m slightly rattled that I want to sleep when I feel I should ‘really’ be praying.

It’s very easy to beat oneself up about what one has not done: to feel a failure because one has not lived up to standards one has set oneself. I think that often causes a great deal of unnecessary anguish. Sometimes it is the anguish of mortified pride, because what we decide to do, even though good in itself, is not always of obligation. We are annoyed with ourselves for failing to do what we wanted, not what God asked.

We are currently reading St Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery (RB 31). I hope to comment more extensively tomorrow, but today I should like to draw your attention to just two points: according to Benedict, the most important quality the cellarer should possess is humility, and again and again it is stressed that he should do neither more nor less than is required of him by the abbot. The desire to do more can be commendable, but it can also be a form of spiritual ambition which is anything but godly. To tell them apart may require some delicate discernment. I may be wrong, but I suspect my need of sleep is greater than my need of extra prayer at the moment. God is being gentle with me. I just have to learn to be gentle with myself.

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Mindfulness of God

The section of the Rule that we read today, RB 7. 10 to 18, is a key text, not merely for Benedictines but for all Christians. To understand why Benedict links mindfulness of God with humility we must take a step back and consider the story of Adam and Eve. It was forgetting God that allowed pride to to take hold in their hearts, distort their vision and lead them into sin. It’s exactly the same with us. When we forget God, we are apt to sin because our vision becomes crooked and self looms too large. Consciousness of God makes us see ourselves as we are, and humility is, in essence, truthfulness. To be truthful about ourselves means there can be no room for pride.

For some, the idea that God is always watching them is disconcerting. I myself find it encouraging. To know that nothing escapes his notice, that the very hairs of one’s head have been numbered, that even when I sin his love continues to enfold me, is to know that God is indeed a loving and compassionate God. Maybe our problem is not so much mindfulness as fear. We forget God because we are afraid of so great a love. Put like that, isn’t it rather silly of us?

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