Is the Church Out of Touch?

It may be wrong of me, but I’ll hazard a guess that lots of people are returning to work today with mixed feelings — glad to get away from unrelieved family, but distinctly dyspeptic and concerned about their bank balance. A few will have left their Christmas tree up and will return in the evening to continue celebrating, albeit in a minor key. And in between, what? I daresay a certain amount of moaning and groaning, sharp-tongued responses to those who ask clumsy questions, and a general rejoicing that there are only four working days to go before the week-end. In other words, there is a very clear divide between Church-speak — we are celebrating the Incarnation, and how! — and ordinary-human-being-speak — we’ve had our holiday, now it’s back to the rat-race. Is that why the Church so often seems to be out of touch with people’s lives? Where once it turned pagan/folk celebrations into Church festivals, it now grimly argues that those same festivals are being obscured by contemporary secularity.

Those of us who are believers need to reflect on the way in which we present our faith to others. Do we make it sound attractive or off-putting? Are we more interested in proving others wrong than in attaining a clear-eyed vision of the truth? I am sometimes criticized for not doing enough to defend Catholicism, which seems to mean that I have not condemned enough people or argued sufficiently over intricate points of observance. My usual response, that I am much more interested in spreading faith than in defending it, is clearly regarded as inadequate. I certainly don’t think that we can be wishy-washy about what we believe or why, but I have never found anyone drawn to Christ through being rapped over the knuckles, so to say. The two saints we commemorate today, St Basil the Great and St Geregory Nazianzen, illustrate this in different ways.

It was St Basil the Great’s meeting with Eustathius of Sebaste, rather than having grown up in a remarkably saintly family, that, by his own account, changed his life:

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labours, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.

Despite his firm opposition to Arianism, Basil was never unwilling to see the good in his opponents, and although he was quite capable of criticizing public officials or unworthy clergy, he more than made up for his hot temper and sometimes imperious manner by his generosity and very real concern for the poor. His friend Gregory, theologian par excellence, was much less disputacious, a true contemplative whose discourses and poetry drew many to reflect more deeply on the truths of Christianity. I wonder how we measure up to men like these. Do we draw others to Christ, or do we repel them?

There are many in Britain today who never see the inside of a church save for the occasional wedding or funeral and who are as devoid of any Christian background as it is possible to be. The Bible is an unfamiliar book, while the Christian calendar and its rituals have to be explained in the simplest possible terms because of complete unfamiliarity with the language of the liturgy. It is in such a world that we are called to proclaim Christ; and it is for us, as ordinary Christians, to respond to the challenge. If we are out of touch, what chance have we of showing forth the beauty and holiness of Him whom we adore?


Hopes, Dreams and Cynicism

The New Year is still in its infancy but already many of the hopes expressed for the future will have been dashed. The world hasn’t become kinder or more peaceful overnight. To dare to hope for better things labels one a dreamer, a romantic; but a cold douse of cynicism soon brings us to our senses.

Perhaps it is because I’ll be offline when you read this, in the midst of three days of intense silence and prayer, that I can’t bring myself to be cynical. Hope is always something of a cinderella virtue, but I think it defines the Christian attitude to life. God never abandons us, though I admit he does seem to keep his face hidden much of the time. The Incarnation we have been celebrating, and even more, the revelation to the gentiles which, in England and Wales, we celebrate in tomorrow’s great feast of the Epiphany, contradict any ideas we may have of a God indifferent to our plight. In Jesus, God has united himself once for all with our human condition. He shares our hopes and is himself the fulfilment of those hopes.

Today the Church celebrates the feast of Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen. How much work remains to be done to heal the schism between Catholics and Orthodox! But it is not an impossibility, a ridiculous dream. As we look back to an age when the Church was essentially one, though riven by disagreements and quarrels and what we now regard as heresies (e.g Arianism), let us also look forward in hope to a time when the Church will again be one in faith and love. May our merciful Lord show us how.

Health update for Digitalnun
You may like to know that Digitalnun got the results of her latest PET scan on 30 December. The metastases (secondaries) in her lungs have grown since the September scan, but not, apparently, those in her liver, etc. The sarcoidosis seems under control again, but because treatment for that interferes with treatment for sarcoma, the situation is being monitored for a few weeks until the effects have worked through. Given that she didn’t expect to see 2015, let alone 2016, she is quite upbeat and very grateful to you for your prayers, and to the Oxford Sarcoma Team and Herefordshire Macmillan Nurses for all their care.


The Gift of Friendship

January is the month for friendship. Today we celebrate the feast of SS Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen who were, among other things, close friends; later on we shall celebrate St Aelred of Rievaulx, author of one of the most influential medieval tracts on friendship, De Spirituali Amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship). They show us how creative Christian friendship can be, but since most of us are not in the same league as they were as bishops, theologians, poets or monastic founders, we may be forgiven for thinking our own friendships rather more humdrum, less noteworthy, maybe even less worthy of regard.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our friends are gifts we should both treasure and celebrate as demonstrating something we might never otherwise know: the ability of human beings to love one another in uncomplicated ways. They show us something of God’s own love. The very word ‘friend’ has interesting Indo-European roots connecting it with both love and freedom. There is indeed something magnificent about bonds of affection entirely free of self-interest or ties of blood; and for Christians, there is the assurance of John’s Gospel, that Christ sees his disciples as friends.

So, why does friendship often seem to go wrong? Why do people who once loved each other as friends end up hating each other as enemies? One reason must be that we have a tendency to selfishness. We want exclusive rights. When we want exclusive rights over another person, things can go very wrong indeed. Instead of freedom and mutual respect we play out a game of dominance and submission. We forget that Christian friendship must always have a Trinitarian aspect, with Christ himself the bond of unity between the friends. One way to avoid falling into the trap of forgetfulness is to pray for our friends, to invite Christ into the time we spend with them. That doesn’t mean we are any less free, or that our friendships take on a pious cast that is death to all spontaneity or ‘silliness’. It simply means that we honour the giver of friendship as we honour our friend.