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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Loss of Life

Yesterday’s tragic coach crash in Switzerland will have touched the hearts of many. Trying to make sense of the loss of so many young lives is doomed to failure. How can we reconcile what we believe about God, that he is all-loving, all-knowing, all-caring, with death and destruction? For myself, I think the only truthful answer is, we can’t. However much we try, we cannot know the mind of God. We do not know why he allows such tragedies, and I think we belittle the loss and the suffering if we claim that there is some ‘higher purpose’ involved. How can we be so sure? Why should he die? Why should she get cancer? Why should they lose their home and family? Why, why, why?

Perhaps ‘why’ is not the most important question to ask. Could it be that, when such tragedies occur, God is looking for a different response in us? Are we, who are not directly involved, called upon to affirm the goodness of God and our own trust in him? The Book of Job challenges our confident assertions about the nature of God even as it stretches our understanding. Today, as we pray for those who were killed, their families and friends, let us add a prayer for ourselves, that we may learn whatever it is that we need to learn — and let us not be too quick to assume that we know what that is.

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Food, Drink, Love and Hate

A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?

Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.

Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.

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School of the Lord’s Service

We reach the end of the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule today (RB Prol. 45 to 50: you can listen to the daily portion of RB read in English on our main web site, here). The words are so familiar they sometimes lose their edge, yet this dominici scola servitii is constantly presenting us with new challenges because its favourite teaching methods are suffering and patience. No one ‘likes’ suffering; no one ‘likes’ being patient; but if we are to lay ourselves open to the mystery of God, there is no alternative.

Suffering can make us bitter and self-absorbed. Benedict, however, is much more sanguine about human nature. He expects that  instead of our closing in on ourselves, we shall open out, become big-hearted (quite literally — dilatato corde) and ‘run on the way of God’s commandments with a sweetness of love beyond all telling’ (inennarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei). However familiar the words may become, the lesson must always be learned anew, for our hope is not for this world only. We have our hearts set on Christ and his Kingdom.

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Cain’s Question

Reports that twenty-four men have been rescued from conditions of slavery at a travellers’ camp in Bedfordshire have been deeply shocking. (See the BBC accounts) The fact that the men come from vulnerable backgrounds and were kept in appalling conditions underlines the inhumanity of their captors. All right-thinking people will surely condemn what was done to them. Or will they? It is amazing how often we can turn a blind eye to the suffering or exploitation in our midst. It is not that we don’t care; it is that we don’t see, don’t want to become ‘involved’.

Quite what was going on in that travellers’ camp we may never know, but each of us must ask ourselves anew, am I my brother’s keeper? To what extent do we have a duty to become involved when we suspect others of suffering or being exploited? I don’t know. Even in monastic communities we can fail to see signs of distress in our brethren. Perhaps there is more than a bit of Cain in all of us.

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