The Need for Heroes

Whenever some public figure falls from grace, the media tend to react with something like glee. We are currently being treated, if that’s the right word, to a great deal of lurid detail about ‘the Crystal Methodist’ — Paul Flowers, the ex-chairman of the Co-operative Bank. Is the media’s appetite (and our own) for such salacious copy just an exercise in collective schadenfreude, or does it reveal something simpler and sadder, our need for heroes and our disappointment when we discover that they are fallible? The Co-op and its businesses have occupied a unique place in British affections. We talk about ethical banking and investment, Fairtrade and the Co-op in the same way. Some may smile a worldly smile, but we know that there is a decency about the Co-op that demands respect. Sadly, that respect has become a little dented of late. Along with the man, the institution has suffered.

As with the Co-op, so with other institutions. Yet, despite all the outrage, the clamour for regulation and change, we often overlook a fundamental point. Institutions are made up of people. The values we hold as individuals are what shape our attitude to work and society. Can we reasonably expect others to be sea-green incorruptible if we ourselves are less than honest? Can we ask others to be heroes if we will not take on the challenge ourselves? The Catholic Church has always understood this business of heroes. The saints are given to us to encourage us, inspire us, even warn us. They are our heroes of faith — and they are all dead. A not-so-subtle reminder that none of us can claim integrity as an absolute! We need to persevere in virtue until our last breath. That is why we need to pray daily for the grace of fidelity and perseverance, that we may become what we are called to be.

Postscript
Today is the feast of St Edmund, King and Martyr. We know comparatively little about him, but during the Middle Ages he was regarded as the patron saint of England and he has inspired some lovely works of art. Perhaps it is sometimes a good idea not to know too much about our heroes.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

All Benedictine Saints

On 13 November we celebrate the feast of All Benedictine Saints (i.e. all those who don’t have a day to themselves, so to say) and host our annual Oblates’ Day at the monastery. There is special joy today because our Canadian oblate, Margaret, will be making her oblation by video conference, in which oblates from other parts of the world will be joining. So why am I sitting at the computer in a distracted frame of mind? It is partly because today’s ‘to do’ list already looks impossible and I am not always optimistic first thing in the morning; it is partly because it is cold and dark and neither is conducive to high spirits; but mainly it is because the thought of holiness is sometimes more daunting than encouraging. Other people become saints; I/we don’t.

Regarding holiness as something ‘other’, attainable only by a special few, is, of course, a snare and delusion. It is also completely unBenedictine. The Rule of St Benedict isn’t meant for supermen or superwomen. It doesn’t prescribe any esoteric practices or extreme ascetical feats. Instead, it asks the monk or nun to live a life of daily fidelity to small things which are actually great things: to living in community under rule and abbot; to prayer, work, service, hospitality; absolute renunciation of personal ownership; an obedience as entire as it is intelligent. In doing so, the Rule shows us a way of living the Gospel that will lead to holiness. The tragedy is that many of us stumble along the way, don’t quite make it, grow weary or give up. That is why Benedictines pray for perseverance; for the grace of daily fidelity. Please pray with and for us.

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Paradox of Christian Celebrity

We are currently re-reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. (You can listen to the daily readings from the Rule here on our main website.) It is a chapter that means more and more to me as I see both the possibilities and the challenges inherent in any attempt to live a truthful life. This autumn re-reading happens to coincide with the announcement of the shortlist for the Christian New Media Awards (CNMAC13: see here) which has generated some interesting debate about the nature of Christian celebrity and the place of awards for blogging, tweeting, websites, etc. Let me say straight away that it is the notion of Christian celebrity I want to explore here, not CNMAC or the awards it will be making. An earlier post on social media and humility may also be of interest (see here).

There is a paradox in the whole idea of Christian celebrity, for we all have the idea that Christians ought to be ‘retiring’, shunners of the limelight; but it might not be so paradoxical if we could free the concept of celebrity (= known, honoured, frequented) from the trappings of the celebrity culture we see all around us. To be known as a Christian is something every Christian should aspire to: our whole manner of being should proclaim the fact, not just our words or our dress, and it should be apparent whatever we are doing (cf. St Benedict’s Twelfth Step of Humility). Why then the unease? Is it because there are people who make a business out of their Christianity, who parade their Christianity for ends other than God? People who want to be recognized, applauded, for what is, in fact, a work of grace and not their own doing? Empty vessels making a lot of noise and ultimately proving they are not what they seem or want to seem?

I was pondering this in relation to some popular American preachers and came to the conclusion that we must distinguish between active and passive celebrity, that which is sought and that which is ‘imposed’ —or maybe ‘bestowed’ would be a better word. Popular acclaim is not in itself indicative of anything other than that someone or something has been noticed by others. No outsider will ever really know how truly humble or otherwise an individual may be. We tend to project onto others our own likes and dislikes, fears and fantasies, confuse the person with the position/office and generally muddle along as best we can, admiring X and ignoring Y. It is hero worship translated to the religious sphere. The Catholic Church has always known how to handle this, but she prefers her heroes (= saints) dead so she can apply certain tests of authenticity. ‘The good that men do is often interred with their bones’ is indeed true. Hero worship can be useful. It can inspire us to emulate the virtues of others. It can also be harmful, leading to idol-worship, the setting-up of that which is less than God in the place of God.

I am really undecided about Christian celebrity. There is potential for good and potential for harm. Ultimately, it is not the Christian celebrity (= person) who is responsible for what we make of him/her, but we ourselves. That surely is the paradox at the heart of this question: what we choose to honour may be Christian or it may not. It is we who need humility to keep us grounded in truth, love and service. What do you think?

Note on CNMAC13
Do have a look at the conference programme and, if you can, attend. You will learn  a lot. This blog was nominated by someone, I don’t know who, and is on the shortlist for Blogger of the Year. Check out the other entries. They are well worth reading if you don’t already know them.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St James, Spain and Anger Management

One of the nicknames given to St James, the son of Zebedee, was Boanerges or ‘Son of Thunder’. I have often wondered about that. He and his brother John were among the first disciples of Jesus and always close to him. They had a pushy mother and a reputation for temper, wanting to call down fire and brimstone on a Samaritan town which would not accept them. James is thought to have been the first of the apostles to die for his faith (cf Acts 12.1), and I am not alone in suspecting that fiery temper of his had something to do with it.

So far so good. Where do Spain and anger management come into things? The twelfth-century Historia Compostellana records the legend that St James preached the gospel in Iberia and that after he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa, his body was taken to Galicia and buried at Santiago de Compostela. There is not time enough to go into all the details of the story, nor to examine all the subsequent legends which grew up around it (nor all the doubts which have been cast on it from early times to the present). It must suffice to say that St James in Spain became a warrior hero. Cervantes puts into the mouth of Don Quixote the common opinion:

St James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had . . . has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.

That is the power of St James in Spain, and you need to understand something of the vulnerability of the Spanish peoples throughout the Middle Ages to understand its force. There was always a kind of liminality, a trembling on the edge. The fluidity of the religious situation, with Christian bishops sometimes becoming converts to Judaism or Islam, as well as Jews and Moslems becoming Christians, is difficult for us to appreciate. The Reconquista must have looked very different when one was in the midst of it. Today, when we read accounts of what we would now call ‘hate crimes’, we need to remember this uncertainty and the fear it engendered.

Where there is  great fear, there will often be great anger, too. St James makes a wonderful patron for people with hot tempers for the simple reason that his temper was his glory. He took something that most people, certainly most religious people, would condemn, a capacity for anger, and allowed grace to transform it into energy for good. The hot-headed James we see in the gospel, a man who was probably a bit defensive and unsure of himself, became fearless for God, valiant for truth, a mighty champion of the Lord. He reminds us that God makes saints not in spite of our flaws but through them.

St James, pray for us!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus

Our monastic calendar commemorates the household of Bethany today, not just St Martha. It is a feast of friendship and hospitality which reminds us of the different elements in monastic life: work, prayer, living a completely new life in Christ, one so clearly focused on him that it can be welcoming to others.

Most of us could probably talk about our ‘Martha’ days, when we seem to run ourselves ragged doing things; our ‘Mary’ days, when we seem just to rest in the Lord for a few precious moments; but what about our ‘Lazarus’ days? How often do we advert to the fact that our baptism has made a difference to our lives, that we live now ‘not I but Christ in me’? And if it is Christ living in us, shouldn’t our lives be more luminous, more gracious than often they are?

RSS Feed for www.benedictinenuns.org.uk
We have finally got round to burning a feed for our main community web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk so that you can read updated content in any Reader, should you wish. At the moment, the feed icon displays only on the home page, but as we update the site in August, we’ll add a link to the footer so you can subscribe from anywhere. For a simple introduction to RSS, try http://www.whatisrss.com/.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Mary Magdalene

Friend of Jesus and apostle to the apostles, Mary Magadalene has nevertheless suffered centuries of opprobrium as a ‘scarlet woman’. No doubt it suited some to identify the seven demons cast out of her as demons of lust, but really there is no justification for doing so. Our only biblical source — Luke — barely mentions her before telling us about her role at Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the Middle Ages we find legends which detail her activity as a leader of the early Church and portray her as ending her life as a hermit in the wilderness, where she was clad only in her long hair. She was indeed a mulier fortis, an admirable model for women today.

There is a photo of Pedro de Mena’s  image of Mary Magdalene meditating on the Crucifix, 1664, which is now in the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregori, Valladolid, here (many thanks to Dr Southworth for providing the link). It is not only great art but also one of the most moving depictions of Mary Magdalene that I know. However, here is a link you may also enjoy, to a modern web-based ‘Book of Hours’ by Jan Richardson, The Hours of Mary Magdalene. It makes use of many of the Magdalene legends and will make you think (I hope).

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In Praise of Books

Saturday morning is a good time for indulging a not-so-private enthusiasm for books and reading. I admit I love books: their shape, colour, texture, smell (I got over loving the taste at about age three). I love reading them; I love handling them; I love looking at them on their shelves or wherever they happen to be. Because I am, in some degree, a maker of books myself, I lap up typefaces and layouts, silently noting good or bad typography, choice of paper, ink and binding. I smile over unintentional contradictions, chuckle over misplaced punctuation, purr when I find a gerund or gerundive correctly used. Books are for reading I tell myself, so I don’t mind when the pages are scribbled on, turned down at important passages, loved literally to bits. I like reading on the monastery’s iPod Touch as well. At night, in bed, it’s light and comfortable to hold and there’s a great range of free books I actually want to read, such as Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain, still the most readable guide to Iberia.

Tonight is World Book Night and it’s calculated that over a million books will be given away free at various venues — pubs, clubs and churches, to name but a few. We shall be safely tucked up in bed when all that happens, but tomorrow morning after Mass we shall be giving away new books on Newman and the saints, about thirty all told. You have to be there to get a book, so no email requests, please; and, of course, if you are minded to make a donation towards our Monastery project, we won’t turn it down. Happy reading!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Aelred of Rievaulx

St Aelred of Rievaulx
St Aelred of Rievaulx

In common with other English Benedictines, we keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow is sacred to St Benet Biscop). Aelred’s reputation has undergone many changes in the last fifty years, and I’m not sure that the current version is any nearer the truth of the man.

I suspect Aelred was both immensely attractive and absolutely maddening at the same time. He drew many to monastic life, yet after his death the fractures in community quickly began to show. He could write like an angel, yet those who read Aelred today without knowing or caring for the monastic discipline underpinning his writing see only part of the picture. He was more than just a “charismatic leader” with a beguiling pen and a gift for friendship.

The preface for the feast, which draws on Aelred’s own writings, is worth pondering and praying. Above all, those who have any kind of leadership or managerial role should seek out his Oratio Pastoralis (Pastoral Prayer) and pray it often.

Truly it is right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

Tenderly you drew Saint Aelred 
to the school of your service
where, having tasted of the sweetness of your love,
he became the gentle father of many sons,
a merciful shepherd to the weak,
and a model of spiritual friendship.

Inflamed by the love of Christ,
he embraced the Cross
as the pattern of monastic conversion,
and so attained the repose of those who love you,
the true and eternal Sabbath of the blessed.

And so, on his feast day, we join with him to adore you,
and with all the company of Angels and Saints,
sing the ageless hymn of your praise: sanctus, sanctus, sanctus . . .

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail