Rights, Duties and the Holy Trinity

This morning, at Vigils, my thoughts wandered. Usually the thunderous anathemas of the Athanasian Creed concentrate my mind, but not today. I thought of St Patrick using the shamrock to teach how ‘God is One and God is Three’ and denouncing the slave trade (he had been a slave himself) and emphasizing the importance of respect for others. In the light of the Republic of Ireland’s decision to repeal their eighth amendment, that seems almost ironic.  It cannot be said too often: if we have rights, we also have duties; and we cannot love and revere God if we do not love and revere other people. For myself, I am convinced that the result of Thursday’s referendum has as much to do with the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in Ireland and the slowness with which Catholicism in general has embraced the idea that women are not just mothers (as men are not just fathers) as anything more sinister. The result, however, is indeed sinister. If the unborn child has no right to life, then the rights of all of us are in question.

So, back to the Trinity. Love must have a beloved, and the love between them must be fruitful; so we have this luminous circle of love within the Trinity that pours itself out in an endless embrace of our humanity. Knowing that, how can we treat the unborn child as a ‘thing’ when he/she is made ‘in the image and likeness of God’? In the years before I became a nun, I was active in the Life movement, trying to provide help and material support to those whose pregnancies were unplanned or unwanted. Most had been abandoned by the men who had made them pregnant; some had been ‘ordered’ to have an abortion by their partner or by their family who regarded the birth of a child as ‘inconvenient’ or a ‘dishonour’. Yet I don’t remember any of the women themselves thinking of their unborn child in that way. Some chose to keep their child; others offered their child for adoption. Whatever their decision, it was clear they cared, that they saw their child as a person, not just a bothersome collection of cells that they had the right to treat how they would. And never once did I hear any of them call their child ‘an embryo’ or ‘a foetus’ (which is just Latin for ‘offspring’, anyway). It was always ‘my baby’.

Call me naive, if you will, but I can’t help thinking that God must be weeping over us, his ‘babies’, today. We get so many things wrong. We think we can cherry-pick our morality, so we condemn abortion, perhaps, but are gung-ho about the death penalty. Or we want to save the environment and are passionate about clearing the oceans of plastic and other waste, but we don’t put much effort into defending unborn or elderly human beings. Or we campaign for disability rights, but then argue that we should eliminate those with Down’s or other conditions that we, from the outside, regard as intolerable.

I suggest we need to do some hard thinking about the way in which our adoration of God must, absolutely must, affect how we regard other people — how we deal with questions of rights and duties, how, in short, we live the mysteries of our faith. We are not the lords of creation, only its stewards. Today’s feast is a reminder that God’s thoughts are, as the psalmist says, ‘not your thoughts’ but ‘as high above your thoughts as the heavens are above the earth’. Or, as St Benedict tells us in the portion of the Rule appointed to be read today, ‘God is always present in our thoughts,’ always searching for that fear of God which is life-giving and life-affirming, a sign of the indwelling Trinity which is the greatest and most beautiful mystery of all. (cf RB 7.10–18)

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Mindfulness the Beginning of Humility

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 10–18, is like a bucket of cold water over one’s head. It pulls one up sharp with its reminder that what we call ‘the spiritual life’ is quite the opposite of that deliciously dreamy, pseudo-mystical stuff peddled by religious charlatans. Humility begins with mindfulness, with remembering God, keeping the fear of him before our eyes at all times, and guarding ourselves at every moment from those sins of inattention into which we so easily slip. It is an active and earnest pursuit which transforms our whole way of life. God’s gaze is always upon us. To some, that is terrifying; but if we reflect a moment, it is really quite the opposite. We know — or should do — that our merciful Lord wills us nothing but good. The fact that he is always with us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, should be a source of joy. Our problem is that we are too busy looking elsewhere, too caught up in our own ideas, that we don’t notice; and not noticing is where all the trouble begins. The sins of omission, the sins of inattention, are like a great pile of dead leaves around our ankles. They clog our way, hold us back, keep us from beginning to climb the ladder of humility, because they obscure its first step: awareness of God.

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