A World on the Brink?

One might be forgiven for thinking that the situation in Syria is about to explode into another world war. Whether the West takes military action or not, there are too many nations using Syria to further their own ambitions and fight their own proxy wars. The stand-off between Russia and the U.S.A. is but one element, but it is potentially deadly, and if one looks at what is happening elsewhere, the build-up of warships in the South China Sea, for example, one can feel thoroughly unsettled. So, what do we do? Do we take refuge in distractions of one kind or another, build ourselves bunkers or otherwise close our eyes to the reality of what is happening and our own part in it? Or do we indulge in a kind of gloomy fatalism, Que será, será, and leave all the worrying to others?

Our celebration of Holy Week and Easter should have reminded us that we cannot dismiss either the suffering of others or our own possible complicity in evil. We may feel powerless, but each of has a real responsibility towards the Syrian people and towards what happens in Syria. How we exercise it is the difficult point. For most of us, I suppose, the means most available to us are prayer and the forming of conscience.

When we pray for Syria, we are asking God to come into the situation and transform it as he knows best, but we are also asking him to transform us and guide our response. We are saying, in effect, that we don’t have the answers, that we know we need help, and that we trust him to act. The forming of conscience is rather trickier because many of us forget that our own opinions are not always wise or just, and though we may be very ready to share them with others, we do not always do so with discretion or judgement. The power of Social Media to shape opinion must be taken seriously, for example, but I wonder how many of us consider whether our use of it is ever sinful. We can add to the store of good or evil by our use of Social Media, almost without thinking.

This morning perhaps we could spend a few moments praying for Syria and reflecting on what we can do or not do that will be constructive of peace rather than war. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that this goes further than Syria. It goes to the heart of the existence of each and every one of us, doesn’t it?

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Has God Failed to Keep His Promise in Syria?

How different today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 54. 1–10, seems when read in shortened form at the Easter Vigil, yet the promise it contains is one and the same. The Lord does not forget; he has joined himself to us in an everlasting covenant. If that is true, then it is true in the streets of Aleppo and the dark corners of Yemen as well as in the peaceful, well-nourished households of the west. Our problem is that we do not see it like that; we feel that God has failed in some way to keep his promise, and we are angry and disconsolate. We blame God for the tragedy, for all the misery inflicted on those he claims to love.

One of the uncomfortable truths with which Advent confronts us is this: God relies on us to fuflfil his promises — most spectacularly, when he relied upon the consent of Mary to be the Mother of God, but also, less spectacularly, when he relies upon us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and do good to them that hate us. We may think that we can do nothing to help the people of Syria or the starving children of Yemen, but in fact we can do a great deal. By living as we ought to live, with integrity and generosity, by being peace-makers in our own circle, by cultivating an unshowy sense of mutual support and kindness, we contribute to the store of good in the world and undo much that human malice and evil attempts. It is easy to dismiss this as pie-in-the-sky-idealism, but as G.K. Chesterton remarked long ago, it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that Christianity has never been tried. We cannot silence the guns, perhaps, but we can create a climate of opinion in which the guns cannot be fired.

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A Darkness of Our Own Making

Earlier this morning, I listened to the sound of gunfire and bombing in the streets of Aleppo. The BBC World Service reporter said very little. There was no need. We already know there is a darkness at the heart of the world, but a darkness of our own making, created from our collective greed and obstinacy certainly, but also from our reluctance to get involved, our confusion, our not knowing what to do or how to do it. Apportioning blame, stridently accusing others, gets us nowhere. It does not lessen the darkness, it only adds to the sense of despair.

Advent is about hope, just as today’s feast, that of St Lucy, is about light; but how can we speak about hope and light when everything seems so black? I think the first Mass reading from Zephaniah 3 gives us a clue, especially these words:

I will remove your proud boasters
from your midst;
and you will cease to strut
on my holy mountain.
In your midst I will leave
a humble and lowly people,
and those who are left in Israel will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.
They will do no wrong,
will tell no lies;
and the perjured tongue will no longer
be found in their mouths.
But they will be able to graze and rest
with no one to disturb them.

Our mistake is to think that we can ‘do it all ourselves,’ without really changing our attitudes. Humility, truth, a recognition of our own littleness, these are not wishy-washy qualities. They are the mark of the truly great person, one whose trust is placed in the Lord and who relies on him; they are attitudes we must cultivate both individually and as nations, however much they may go against the grain. We know that the Sun of Justice will rise with healing in his wings and scatter the darkness  around and within us. May he shine upon Syria and all of us — soon.

VIGIL OF PRAYER FOR THE PEOPLE OF SYRIA
We shall hold an informal Vigil of Prayer for the people of Syria between 8.00 p.m. and 9.00 p.m. tonight. Please join us in spirit and intention.

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The Problem with Indignation

We all know what makes us indignant. Sometimes our outrage is accompanied by a nice warm glow of self-approval as we condemn what everyone else seems to accept uncomplainingly: war, poverty, disease, that sort of thing. I exaggerate, but for a reason.

There is a lot of indignation circulating online at the moment, but I’m not sure it is achieving anything very much or that it is always genuine, in the sense that it represents a truly compassionate response to a grave situation. The problem with indignation is that it often generates more heat than light. Our emotions are worked up, but our brain cells barely function. We seethe at the Save the Children report that over 1,700,000 children in Yemen (yes, you read that right, one point seven million) are severely undernourished and in need of ‘protective assistance’ because of war, but we do not know what to do about it. We may sign a petition; we may give money to aid agencies; but beyond that, we are at a loss. It is at that point that something sinister often seems to happen. We begin to feel guilty, as though we were responsible for what has happened, or, worse, we try to pin the guiilt on another. It helps if the other is an institution of some sort — a government, a church, an -ism of some kind. Either way, our indignation is in danger of feeding on itself because, of course, neither we nor the institution that becomes the focus of our rage is necessarily capable of changing things. That is particularly true, I think, when we are talking about the situation in non-Western countries. Our indignation gets us nowhere; it clouds what little vision we have and may even work against what we hope to achieve because anger feeds anger.

To return to that terible statistic about Yemen. We must translate that statistic into nearly two million children’s faces — children who, if they grow up at all, will always bear in their bodies and minds the dreadful consequences of these years of malnourishment and conflict. This morning the media are awash with reports of the terrible bombings in Jakarta and Diyarbakir, and rightly so; but those children, who will plead for them? More to the point, who will be prepared to give up an entrenched position so that they may live? We in the West earnestly desire peace for the people of Yemen, Syria and wherever there is conflict. We know perfectly well that the reasons for the present conflicts are many and various, but ultimately all our efforts, all our indignation, will avail nothing unless the people fighting one another want to change. Our prayer today must surely be for a change of heart, for an overcoming of every obstacle — in ourselves, as in others.

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Rejection

Unless we have lived charmed lives, we have all experienced rejection in one form or another. We know how painful it is to be rejected, literally ‘thrown back’, by someone we love or in whom we had placed hope and trust. Not getting the university place we had set our heart on or that job we wanted so badly can be crushing. We are left feeling inadequate, a failure. We plumb the depths of self-doubt, perhaps even despair. I wonder if that is how John the Baptist felt on the morning of his execution.

The liturgy blithely assures us that the Beheading of St John the Baptist, the feast we celebrate today, was a glorious martyrdom — and so it was, but perhaps not quite in the way we often assume. The Forerunner experienced an unjust death just as Jesus Christ was to do. But I wonder whether the feast is more helpful to us if we consider not John’s triumph, but the loneliness and fear that must have accompanied his final days and hours. He had longed to prepare a way for the Messiah. He had burned with love for his fellow Jews; but, ultimately, he was made to pay the price for honesty and integrity.

It isn’t difficult to make a splendid sacrifice in front of the cameras, so to say; it isn’t difficult to stand up for what one believes when the microphones of the world are turned in one’s direction; but to remain steadfast in the darkness and dirt of a Palestinian prison, when there is no one to hear and apparently no one to care, is much harder. All at once the martyrdom of St John the Baptist takes on a very contemporary quality.

I think we honour his feast best by praying for all who speak the truth and must pay the price for it: those silenced by the regimes they live under or ridiculed and abused into submission. Let’s pray also for those who experience another kind of rejection: the three million Syrians who have fled the war in their home country; the Christians and other religious minorities who have been forced out of Iraq; all who know what it is to live in fear of death at the hands of those close to them.

 

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The Destruction of Christianity in the Middle East

It is one of those beautiful Sunday mornings England seems to do so well: sunlight streams across wet grass and the air is filled with the busy chatter of sparrows and the sweet, milky smell of the calves across the way. In hundreds of churches people will be gathering, as we ourselves will gather, to sing the praises of God, ask his intercession and celebrate his sacraments. It is a world away from the horrors of war and exile; but war and exile is precisely what many people are experiencing. There are over 50 million refugees in the world today, and yesterday their number was increased as Christians fled Mosul, Iraq, and those who could, fled northern Gaza.

I find it heartbreaking that we as a nation are standing by as the ancient heartlands of Christianity are ripped apart and destroyed. Whatever may be happening elsewhere in the world, Christians in the Middle East are disappearing fast. It will not be long before the only ones to be found in Syria and Iraq, for example, will be foreign visitors. That matters, and I, for one, am appalled that the British Foreign Office, to the best of my knowledge, has STILL said nothing — although it has said a great deal about Russia and Ukraine in the past 72 hours.

Why should we be concerned? The first reason is that we are talking about human beings who have a right to life and liberty being driven from their homes by the ISIS campaign of terror and by other militants who want to see Christianity destroyed. That is indefensible. The second reason is more complex. The destruction of Christian holy places, the desecration of ancient sites, the profanation of holy things, bites into the soul of every Christian in ways we do not always admit. We are not all spirit: we are flesh and blood, and we need signs and symbols to help us along. People come to the monastery here because they know they will find enfleshed, so to say, a way of prayer and seeking God that has centuries of lived experience behind it. The Christians of the Middle East enable us, through their very presence in the ancient holy places, to draw close to the sources of our belief and practice. They have given life to the Churches of the West, but now they themselves face death.

At the risk of repeating myself, I want to ask again a question I have often posed. If one man’s death diminishes us, how much more that of a whole people?

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From Big Bangs to Little Whimpers

Yesterday was one of those curious days one suspects will prove more important than anyone realised at the time. On the one hand, there was the public announcement that an American team working on the BICEP2 project had found a residual marker for cosmic inflation (see the brief BBC report here); on the other, President Putin signed an order recognizing Crimean independence and approved a draft bill on the absorption of the peninsula into the Russian Federation. The contrast between the excitement over extraordinary new evidence in support of the Big Bang Theory for the origin of the Universe and the sick feeling that Ukraine was being destroyed with barely a whimper could not have been more marked.

The Universe is too big a subject for most of us to grasp, but what is happening in Ukraine touches us all. There have been the inevitable sabre-rattlers with half-remembered notions of how the First and Second World Wars started, who are anxious to ‘stop Putin in his tracks’ — usually at the cost of other people’s lives. There have been the indifferentists who think the Crimea not worth bothering about and don’t mind being called ‘appeasers’ by the sabre-rattlers. Then there are those who are aware of the labyrinthine ties between Russia and Ukraine, Russia and Crimea, and the economic and political mess Ukraine is in whatever the outcome of the present difficulty. Western politicians, by and large, simply don’t ‘get’ the complexity of the situation, tending instead to see everything through the lens of their own experience.

If Syria has made us recognize how defenceless ordinary people are in the face of mutual hatred and joy in destruction, the situation in the Crimea reminds us that people may not want to live as we think they should. It is worth thinking through the implications of that and acting accordingly. We must pray for a peaceful resolution of the situation, but we should also pray that those engaged in trying to find a diplomatic solution should have the humility and generosity of spirit to recognize the right of others to live as they think best.

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The Conversion of St Paul

The Octave of Prayer for Christian unity ends with this feast of the Conversion of St Paul. That is in itself an encouragement to hope. Who would have thought that Saul, relentless persecutor of The Way, would undergo a conversion of heart so complete that he would be named an Apostle of Jesus Christ, would live and die for him, and be remembered today as a towering figure of the early Church, a saint, a man no one can easily ignore? Today we need the kind of hope St Paul inspires, not only in our quest for Christian unity but also in our prayer for peace in Syria. One reader of this blog is a Catholic Sister living and working in Straight Street, Damascus. I find myself moved by the knowledge that even today, amidst all the dangers of the war in Syria, there are Christians patiently living out the Gospel in the very place where Paul first saw the Light and came to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. May that same Light enlighten the hearts and minds of those taking part in the Geneva peace talks today. Amen.

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Cruelty and Compassion

There are no words adequately to describe the suffering of the Syrian people. For most of us, what we know comes at second-hand and is inevitably tinged with the opinions of whoever is doing the reporting. The situation is grave, yet the rest of the world seems incapable of doing more than trying to bring the many warring factions to see that a military solution is no solution at all. We should not undervalue that. Just as cruelty takes many forms, so does compassion. In acknowledging our own helplessness, our inability to end the suffering of others, we too can suffer with them — not in the literal sense, but in the moral sense. From a Christian perspective, all human suffering is taken up into the redemptive suffering of Christ. For those of us who are bystanders, so to say, our job is to pray: pray for peace; pray for reconciliation; pray for a miracle. Our faith is being tested no less than our compassion, but with God all things are possible.

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Remembrance Sunday 2013

How shall we mark Remembrance Sunday? Last year I wrote, a little glibly perhaps, that the act of remembering was essential to our learning the lessons of history:

Today, at 11 o’clock, the country will come to a stop for two minutes of silence and prayer for those who have died in two world wars and subsequent armed conflicts. It will be a moment of sadness for some, of awkwardness for others. It is the only time in the year when we make a collective act of remembrance, and its importance grows greater the further we are from the events which prompted it.

When I was a child, the effects of World War I were still plain to see: the elderly men who coughed and wheezed and were missing limbs; the great-uncle who still shook uncontrollably at times; the elderly maiden ladies who lived lives of genteel poverty, their fiançés killed in France or Flanders. I grew up listening to the men and women of my parents’ generation talking quite naturally about the events of World War II. Indeed, even today, I have only to open one of my father’s poetry books to see the flowers he picked in the Western Desert, the bloodstain where he was wounded, and the small black and white photographs of people and places that to me are only names, if that. For my nieces, even that tenuous thread is broken. It is all one ‘with yesterday’s seven thousand years’.

We need to remember because if we forget, we shall forget why freedom matters, why decency matters, why some things are worth fighting for, however much we may shrink from the idea of violence. So, we pray today not in any triumphalist spirit, but gratefully, humbly, and with the hope that we may learn the lessons of history at last.

I still think that’s true, but the terrible reality of the war in Syria, the loss of life to natural disaster in the Philippines, and the recent shocking revelation of a British soldier’s murder of an Afghan insurgent put another perspective on it. Death, it seems, is all around: brutal, inglorious, needless. Perhaps that is what we ought to think about today, as well as praying for those who have died in war or been crippled in mind or body as a result of war. It is not only those who die heroically but those who die abjectly, cowardly — perhaps especially those who die abjectly, cowardly — who remind us of our essential fragility and vulnerability. Peace is a precious gift it is only too easy to destroy.

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