The Importance of Good Deeds (RB Prol. 21–32)

Everything would be so much easier if we could be, like James Hogg, a justified sinner and never have to worry whether our conduct is right or wrong. Catholicism, however, takes another James for her guide and insists that we demonstrate the reality of our faith through our good deeds. Not surprisingly, St Benedict takes the same view.

Today’s section of the Prologue goes into some detail about these good deeds we have to perform. They are not to be mere occasional outbursts of godly behaviour, they are to be constant. It is not so much doing good we have to aim at as being good. The verbs Benedict uses are exhausting: we have to run, walk, act, speak, believe, hurl, dash and then glorify, all at once. Quite clearly, monastic life is not for wimps and being virtuous is not for the lazy or faint-hearted.

There is one theme, however, that stands out about the rest: the centrality of Christ. The only effective way of dealing with temptation is to take it to Christ, and not in some limp and effete manner but with vigour and purpose. We are to hurl the devil and his temptation from our hearts, dash our half-formed thoughts against Christ. It is easy to forget that; to think we must struggle and struggle on our own when, in reality, the opposite is true. Often we don’t want to acknowledge our temptations, even to ourselves. We are ashamed of them; and it is shame, often as not, that gives them their power. The old monastic tradition of ‘manifestation of thoughts’ has profound psychological as well as spiritual truth in it.

Today will present each of us with many choices, many temptations, many opportunities. God doesn’t ask us to ‘get it right’ all the time, but he does ask us to be truthful about our failures and humble about our successes. What he wants is love, not sacrifice. Our good deeds are important insofar as they draw us closer to him, but we must always remember they are his work in us, and to him be the glory.

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Another Kind of Suffering

We are about to begin Holy Week, the Great Week of the Christian year, and our eyes are already beginning to focus on the Cross and the suffering Jesus will undergo for our sakes. All our own suffering and failure is taken up into that one great redemptive act. That doesn’t mean, however, that what we suffer is somehow less real because it cannot compare with the suffering of Jesus. We can exaggerate, but we can also ‘spiritualize’, not acknowledge how deeply or negatively we experience things. Yesterday I had a negative experience I’ll share with you in the hope that it may help you see that whatever we suffer can be a way in to understanding what we celebrate this coming week. At least, I found it helpful.

I had been invited to take part in a radio programme. The producer had kindly sent an advance list of questions to form a basis for conversation and the interviewer was one I admire. All very promising. I listened to the first two contributors and felt very much in sympathy with them. Then came another, and as she spoke I began to be troubled by what she was saying about something I happen to hold very different views on. When my own turn came, I was distinctly lacklustre. No problem with that (except for my pride!), but then I was taken off-guard by the way in which two further questions were posed: the ordination of women and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Catholics will know that John Paul II placed discussion of the ordination of women off-limits, and for those of us who are priests or religious, it is a tricky question to handle in the public sphere because the way in which it is presented (as one of equality or power in the Church) is not one that corresponds to our understanding of the sacrament of holy orders. One has to tread carefully to be intelligible to the general public and not overstep the boundaries currently permitted by the Church. I made a hash of it. Then came the killer. Would the presence of women in the priesthood help avoid sexual abuse? There are two things to note here. First, I find the idea of women being priests themselves (or priests being allowed to marry) as a way of preventing men from acting wickedly rather insulting to women. To be fair, I don’t think the interviewer meant that. It just sounded like it to me. Secondly, but just as importantly, few seem to recognize that most Catholics — surely the vast majority — are deeply upset by what we have learned of abuse and cover-ups. It reduces me to tears, and yesterday I found myself welling-up on air at the thought of how those children had been abused and the whole Church had been betrayed.

Quite clearly, the narrative of abuse in the Catholic Church is the only one the media are really interested in. I am beginning to wonder, however, whether it is time to ask the un-askable. Are there others who suffer in addition to those abused, and should we be concerned about them, too? A few years ago I wrote about the effect of abuse compensation claims on the diocese of Boston. So huge were they that the diocese had to close schools and hospitals for the poor, and one convent of religious sisters had the roof over their heads sold to help meet the cost (they were generously re-homed by some Episcopalian sisters). It was all very sad. The abuse was dreadful; the price paid by the Catholics of Boston and the poor was also dreadful. This is another kind of suffering which is not, by and large, acknowledged: the suffering of those who are themselves innocent of abuse but who must pay for the sins of the guilty — in terms of money, services, reputation and the constant drip-drip of poisonous remarks.

Some will argue that that is just tough. The awfulness of what happened means that Catholics must put up with whatever the world chooses to throw at us. The latest scandals attaching to the name of Cardinal Keith O’Brien have led to even more gleeful dirt-chucking. Those who believe that a vow of chastity or a promise of celibacy obliges to continence are appalled and saddened. The abuse of power is rightly seen as completely unacceptable. There is no excuse.

But I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the constant negativity does have an effect. To be held responsible for something one had no part in, that one condemns absolutely, isn’t easy. The pain and grief we feel for the wrong done to or by others is not assuaged by knowing that it may draw one closer to Jesus. The only way in which we can make sense of it is by remembering that we are the Body of Christ — wounded, bloodied, it is true, but still intimately united to our Lord and Saviour, who will never fail or forsake us.

As we process with our palms tomorrow, rejoicing in that transient moment of triumph which was a prelude to the everlasting triumph of the Cross, let us give thanks that we have a Saviour who has borne all our sin and shame. In him, we are washed clean, given fresh hope, redeemed.

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Jimmy Savile and the Spectacle of Shame

Peter Watt has written what is, in my view, the simplest, shortest and most worthwhile comment to date on the Savile scandal. You can read it here (link opens in new window). It has been bothering me that a media circus has been created out of a tragedy; that people who had no connection with Savile have been hounded as though they were responsible for his actions; and all the time, the underlying problem, the lack of respect adults have for children (many of them, anyway) and the quite frightening disregard for their safety has not been addressed. Will it ever be? All the regulations in the world cannot make up for the willingness or otherwise to listen to a scared child blurting out the horror of what they have experienced and then judging whether the child is telling the truth or not. (The presumption is in favour of the child, but let’s not forget that false accusations can be made and we have a duty to ensure that the innocent are not condemned.)

Every day brings fresh allegations. We are told that the scandal may touch a former Prime Minister. One would need to be very naive indeed to believe that politicians are exempt from any kind of wrongdoing, but the thought that first the Church, now the BBC and the political establishment, are to be paraded before us in a spectacle of shame provides no catharsis. Although the sickening cover-ups in the Savile case have helped me to understand better (though not to condone) the failure of bishops and other senior clergy to deal with clerical abuse in years past, I still think we are looking in the wrong direction. We are using the past to shield us from the present, looking at the child’s world with adult eyes.

That perhaps is the big problem. Thinking about events in Rochdale and Rotherham, I wonder whether we are somehow incapable of entering imaginatively into a world we are more and more distant from. ‘Except you change and become as little children,’ said the Lord, ‘you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ So often we hear those words and think in terms of conversion, religious change. Maybe we need to think about them in more purely human terms,  as a need for insight and attention to the least powerful, most vulnerable members of society. I don’t know, but it is something I urge you to join me in praying about.

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Shame on a Salisbury Street

Yesterday an elderly man fell in a Salisbury street and lay there, in freezing temperatures, for nearly five hours before a passer-by called an ambulance.

I don’t, for one minute, think that the citizens of Salisbury are any more callous than the citizens of anywhere else, but this incident does highlight something of the bleakness that has crept into society. We are afraid to get involved. Much safer to pass by on the other side rather than deal with someone who may be drunk or on drugs or otherwise a “danger” to us.

It won’t wash, of course. Like it or not, we are our brother’s keeper. It may seem a huge task, to keep our humanity when society urges us to “look after number one”, but is there any other option? Advent is about bringing light into darkness, and there is no greater darkness than that which we find in our own hearts, the darkness of fear and selfishness which makes us shrink from the Light and cripples our humanity.

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