Organized Selfishness?

One of the most damning things that can be said about any organisation or institution is that it has become self-serving. Benedictine communities, in particular, are always at risk of descending into organized selfishness. It is not that we give way to really big sins (though some, alas, have), but we can become tolerant of those we consider small — and many communities have the resources, in terms of buildings and opportunities, to acquiesce in them. That doesn’t mean that everything is bad, but we may become mediocre. The Office, as Dom David Knowles once remarked, can be kept up with every appearance of care and attention long after the heart has gone out of a community, but the signs of selfishness multiply. Our comfort becomes important. Little indulgences in the matter of food or drink or holidays are not questioned or are brushed aside as trivial. Once, when I was attending a monastic bursars’ meeting, the men discussed the level of holiday money each monk should be given. Against the names of the nuns’ communities were the initials n/a, not applicable. When I said it should stand for ‘not available’, I was laughed at; but my point was serious. Women are just as likely as men to become tired or need a break from regular duties at times, but to assume that every monk needs at least one holiday a year and nuns never is plainly stupid. The Rule exhorts us to consider need and acknowledges that needs differ.

I don’t think, however, that Benedictines should take all the blame for appearing at times insensitive to others. Many communities, especially of women, are financially hard-pressed. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice going on behind the scenes. But outsiders can be very demanding or unrealistic in their demands. Whenever someone decides to tell us what to wear, for example, I tend to adopt my ‘blotting-paper expression.’ We do, in fact, wear a traditional habit, happily and contentedly, but it is far from being of the essence. Benedict’s only concern about monastic clothing is that it should be suitable for the climate, available in the locality and fit the wearer (RB 55). Those most anxious to fulfil their own fantasies about monastic life are usually the last to consider the cost, difficulty or even the safety of maintaining a particular form of habit. It is the same with the activities in which we engage in order to keep our communities going and to serve the wider community. One of my Facebook followers regularly reminds me of the disapproval of some people of our online engagement. I don’t rise to the bait because I can see that many of those who have been loudest in their criticism are now rushing to take advantage of live-streaming, social media and the opportunities offered by the latest technologies. I rejoice in that because it is a way of reaching out to those who would never knock on the monastery door.

I think we can sometimes forget that we do not become monks and nuns for ourselves alone. We have a role in both Church and society that we must fulfil, faithfully, generously, unselfishly. We pray unremittingly, yes; but we know our prayer won’t always be as whole-hearted as it should. We are hospitable, of course; but there are limits to our hospitality and what we can manage, and we should not feel guilty when others say to us ‘you should’ which is actually shorthand for ‘it is my opinion that’. Our community lives won’t always be sweetness and light, but we can try to be kind and honest and accepting. Above all, we can do our best to be open to grace, to the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit (RB 7. 6-70). We can show that we love the young, reverence the old, care for the earth and everything in it as though it were a sacred altar vessel, bow down before Christ in the stranger and in one another, do what is better for the other and, hopefully, ‘at length, under God’s protection, attain the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue’ (RB 73.9).

I write of Benedictines, but it is my hope there is something here for everyone.

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The Problem of Arrogance

Arrogance is a swaggering, brutal word. It suggests someone with a loud voice, an overbearing manner and probably a florid complexion into the bargain. Unfortunately, arrogance can come in rather more humdrum form — not so much overweening self-confidence as complete disregard of others, an almost risible inability to register what others are thinking or feeling. From time to time I delve into the spam folder on this blog and find comments spluttering expletives and self-righteous denunciations, so bound up in the writer’s own views as to be incapable of taking on board anyone else’s. I suspect these writers have very few friends if they converse like that offline!

The problem with arrogance is that it makes claims for itself at the expense of others. It is selfish; and because it is selfish, it can be destructive. It is suspicious of others’ motives, grudging of others’ success. The contempt it shows is simply a mark of its being turned in on itself. The best image I can think of is not the lip curled into a snarl but the clenched fist, ready to pound a table or another’s nose, the hand that will neither give nor receive. Maybe that is why the prophet Isaiah said that when the Messiah came, he would uncurl the clenched fist; why, as evening comes, we sing the Magnificat, with its bright promise that the arrogant and powerful are cast down and the humble raised up.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Asceticism: True and False

It might surprise you to know that there is a lot of false asceticism about. All that flesh-hating, afraid-of-the-body nonsense peddled by those who are neither ascetic themselves nor wish anyone else to be is seriously misleading. It is behind much of our simplistic ‘fat-is-bad, thin-is-good’, thinking. It makes people miserable when they ought to be happy and, because it is based on a false premise, prevents people from realising that they never can be happy while they subscribe to a lie.

True asceticism has nothing whatever to do with punishment, but everything to do with training and discipline. The Greek origins of the word are enough to show that (askesis means practice, athletic training). It is not to be identified with austerity, although a certain restraint is necessary since what we aim at is mastery over our appetites and any bad habits they may have led us into. St Jerome was very clear-eyed about this, saying that fasting, for example, should not be taken to excess as it is only a means to an end. It is a help towards attaining moral perfection, but it is not perfection itself. We could go further and say that fasting taken to excess is a sin, because it is a misuse of material goods and a profanation of the body, leading to pride, hardness of heart and a host of other evils.

Asceticism is always ethical, both in origin and in scope. There is nothing mystical about it, although some modern writers seem to confuse the two. Nor is there anything sad or heavy about it. Like all exercise, it is meant to invigorate, only for Christians it is a spiritual invigoration that we seek.

The chief asceticisms of the Rule of St Benedict are obedience and the common life, in which the use of time, speech, material goods, food and drink are all regulated. They are disciplines aimed at freeing the monk or nun from anything that might hold them back on the way to God. Self-will, self-indulgence, all the many forms of selfishness we prefer not to admit to, are encouraged by soft living and having no checks on what one says or does. (You do not have to be a moral theologian to work that out — just look at the gossip columns of the Mail Online, for instance, and you can see how sad and empty are the lives of many people who judge their worth by what they own and who walk away from relationships when the going gets tough.) But the point to note about the Benedictine asceticisms is that none is carried to excess. They are part of our training in the spiritual life and, as such, the renunciations they involve should be joyful. Benedict makes that very clear when he writes about Lent and our offering things up gladly, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.

I myself think asceticism began to go wrong when people began to go wrong about religion, mistaking misery for holiness and punishment for penance. Food, instead of being blessed, shared and enjoyed, became a temptation; wine, instead of being a source gladness of heart, became sinful; and once things become temptations and are regarded as sinful, we get them all wrong, too. Maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about an obesity epidemic if we hadn’t decided that food is innately sinful and therefore curiously desirable; maybe we wouldn’t be worrying about our drinking habits if we hadn’t let them run out of control because we associate the pleasures of wine with guilt; maybe we wouldn’t have so many broken marriages if we hadn’t got so confused about love and sex. I could go on, but I might end up indulging in a grumble, if not a rant.

My suggested remedy for many of the social ills that assail us is for the Churches to rethink asceticism and, instead of presenting much of our ethical and moral behaviour as a series of negatives, try to regain something the early Church understood much better. We are runners in a race towards heaven, and we need to get into training. In other words, we need to become true ascetics. The world has more than enough of the fake and phoney kind.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail