A Little Blog Housekeeping

Several weeks ago I canvassed readers’ opinions about possible changes to the blog. I think it would be fair to say that the consensus was ‘no change’. However, there were a number of things that needed tidying up, and I hope we have now dealt with most of them:

  • the RSS feed has been emptied of all bloated bits and pieces, so should work more speedily and reliably in future
  • the Facebook link has been redone so that it should post more reliably (it still can’t cope with scheduled posts, for some reason)
  • the sidebar has been re-ordered
  • the Google Translate widget has been made to work as it should (not before time)
  • the Donate Now button takes you to our Charity Choice link (so you can have second thoughts if you wish) rather than simply asking you how  much you want to give (no subtlety there)
  • the Amazon Shopping search bar has been corrected so that if you are in the UK and choose to use it for your online shopping, we get a referral fee
  • there is a tag cloud so you can see at a glance the subjects most often discussed on iBenedictines
  • the link to eBuzzing rankings is now displayed last of all, so you can have fun with it if you want.

There are a few more tweaks to make, but these are enough for now. And if you want a thought for today, how about some fasting and praying for the people of Syria and wherever there is violence? We may think we can do very little, but doing a little is better than doing nothing.


Saints Cosmas and Damian and the Christians of the Middle East

Today is the feast of SS Cosmas and Damian, twin brothers who were born in what is now Turkey, practised medicine or surgery in Roman Syria and were martyred for their faith in about 287. They illustrate the way in which the liturgy often focuses mind and heart on issues of the day. The media may ignore the extermination of Christianity in the Middle East, the profoundly difficult moral issues faced by members of the medical profession, the relationship between religion and the State, but the Church cannot. She is right there in the midst of it all, and her popes have articulated both her concerns and her challenges. Pope after pope has drawn attention to the way in which Christians in the Middle East have suffered persecution; pope after pope has argued for the development of a medical ethics that respects our humanity as well as our science; pope after pope has challenged the attempts of the State to limit human freedom. One of the problems with all this, however, is our ability to listen selectively. As with Fr Antonio Spadaro’s recent interview with Pope Francis, so with much else. Our fondness for the soundbite wrenched from context means that we don’t always get the message right. We hear what we want to hear, and no more.

Let us ask the prayers of SS Cosmas and Damian — for Syria; for the medical profession; for Christians being driven out of their homes in the Middle East; but, above all, for the grace of understanding. So many of our problems stem from misunderstanding, but healing the wounds of sin and division is an essential part of the Church’s mission, as much today as in the third century.


Peace Comes Dropping Slow

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of our community’s foundation and I had intended one of those joyful little posts in which one enumerates the many blessings the community has received over the years, not least the fact that David is still around when many a monastic Goliath has bitten the dust. Then I read of the closure of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. The monks are still there, as they have been since Justinian’s time, but they have closed their doors to visitors because of the dangerous situation in that part of Egypt and now the livelihood of the town that has grown up around them and the 400 workers they themselves employ has been put at risk. It suddenly seemed heartless to proclaim the mirabilia Dei we have experienced when others are suffering.

That, of course, is a perennial problem. Today, as we pray and fast for peace in Syria and the Middle East, we in the West are very conscious of how privileged we are to enjoy the blessings of peace and stability. There are even signs that the economy may be improving (though I have some doubts about how equally that will be experienced). In short, we pray from a position of plenty for those in a position of want and that is troubling, for it feels top-down, not quite in keeping with the solidarity we think we should feel. The important thing to remember, as always, is that we pray as we can, from where we are, which is not necessarily where we would like to be.

There is a wide divergence of opinion about Western military intervention in Syria, but there can be no disagreement about the desirability of peace. How we attain it, I do not know; but I sense that for peace to be achieved internationally, there must first be peace in our own hearts. So, if today we want to pray for peace in Syria, we must first cleanse our own hearts of every un-peace. We must apologize for the wrongs we have done others and do our best to put right every act of violence or aggression of which we have been guilty. The unkind word, the stony face, the clenched fist, they are all destroyers, no less than bombs or bullets.

‘Peace comes dropping slow,’ wrote Yeats. We need the drip-drip of peace to wear away everything that puts up barriers between human beings. Ultimately, if we do not pursue peace, we shall be destroyed, too.



Prayer and Fasting for Syria

Pope Francis has called for Saturday, 7 September, to be set aside as a day of prayer and fasting for Syria. What does that mean, and how do we prepare for it?

Here in the monastery we think Saturday should be marked by a sense of the gravity of what we are about. Each one of us is called upon to implore the Lord to bring good out of an evil situation, as he wills and as he knows best. We don’t presume to know what the answer should be, but we do know that prayer will make a difference. Our willingness to align our will with God’s, to give time and energy to just being with him, is the most powerful thing we can do. It is an act that relies upon faith and expresses our trust and confidence in him. As a sign of this commitment, we shall be adding an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament to our customary round of liturgical and private prayer.

And what of fasting? In a world where people can talk of a ‘fasting diet’ or stuff themselves into obesity, who really knows what fasting is or understands its spiritual purpose? Yet there is a long history of people fasting from food and drink in order to become more aware of their creaturely dependence upon God. So, on Saturday, we shall fast as we do during Lent, going without food in order to realise more completely our need of God.

Most important of all, however, is the preparation we shall be making before the day of prayer and fasting comes upon us. We shall be reading scripture and pondering how best to spend the day so that it is not just a mechanical process we undergo but something that comes from the heart of each of us. Perhaps everyone who intends to join in the day of prayer and fasting could spend a few minutes today and tomorrow thinking how he/she will spend the day. Syria is not a ‘problem’ to be solved but several million human beings created in the image and likeness of God who are, whether we like it or not, our brothers and sisters, for whom we must pray as we pray for those nearest and dearest to us. That is a challenge we must not fail to meet.


Pause for Thought

So accustomed have I become to Bro Duncan PBGV’s occasional kidnapping of the keyboard, I nearly wrote ‘Paws for Thought’ and maybe there is greater wisdom in that than I thought. I will explain anon, but first, a very simple summary of some important events here in Britain during the past few days.

Earlier this week Parliament voted against military intervention in Syria in principle and David Cameron, very properly and honourably, said that meant that Britain would not now be party to any military intervention there in the future. Those picking over the decision have been drawing all kinds of conclusions from it. The party political ramifications, although important to us here in Britain, are a distraction from what is ostensibly our principal concern: the suffering of the people of Syria. The effect on the ‘special relationship’ between the U.K. and the U.S.A. also strikes me as being secondary. (I had the impression that President Obama was rather lukewarm about it anyway.) But Parliament’s decision does mean that other countries have paused in their rush to decide about military intervention, and that pause may be exactly what is needed to allow the voices of the Syrian people themselves to be heard. The ugliness and brutality of the Assad regime is not in doubt; but his opponents are not exactly angels of light, either; nor is the volatility of the Middle East as a whole in question. Why the fifteenth use (allegedly) of chemical weapons in Syria should be the point at which outside military intervention is considered appropriate is still not clear to me. We know that at least 100,000 people have been killed and that 1,000,000 Syrian children are now refugees. Each one is an individual, with a history, a personality, a face. Each one is a child of God.

It is at that point that Bro Duncan’s ‘paws for thought’ resonates with me. Dogs are noble in their ability to get on with even the nastiest human beings. They forgive readily or, if they do not forgive, they do not allow their negative feelings to destroy the opportunities of the moment. By and large, they are not too bothered about status or position, in the domestic context at least. They are patient, ‘dogged’ in the popular sense. Dogs would make very good diplomats, and I think we need some doggy diplomatic qualities as never before.. Christians in Syria have appealed for renewed dialogue rather than missile strikes, and that is something we in the West ought to pay more heed to. We have a tendency to look at problems from the outside in, and confuse activity with transformation. Moral indignation is all very well, but our duty is to change what is wrong. The fact that the U.K. will not be intervening militarily does not mean that we have any less of a responsibility to work for peace. The humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria is on the conscience of us all. The danger is  that, now that military strikes have been ruled out, we will fold our arms and do nothing. Shame on us if so!


The Price of Peace

The price of peace is letting oneself be taken for a coward, a fool, even someone who secretly favours the enemy — whoever or whatever the enemy may happen to be. Being a pacifist is not the same as being a wimp. It means that one can never have the golden glow of feeling heroic, that one has made a difference or done the ‘right thing’ as often conceived. It means a different kind of anguish, one that no warlike activity can relieve; and it is an anguish many must be experiencing today as the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria grows ever closer. Most of us want peace and are prepared to defend it; but that is not the same thing as seeking to impose our ideas about peace on others. Whether we are pacifists, believing that war is never justifiable, or whether we are reluctant fighters, believing war must only ever be a last resort, the situation in Syria calls for some clear, cool thinking about ourselves as well as what we think is happening there. Emotional muddle, soundbite theology and Walter Mitty fantasies are not the best preparation.

We might begin by thinking about what is called the Just War Theory. St Augustine, whose feast we celebrate today, believed that the only just reason for going to war was the desire for peace. St Thomas Aquinas later elaborated on this so that, in his view, three conditions must be met for any war to be called just:

  1. Legitimate authority, with the duty of preserving the common good, must declare the war;
  2. there must be just cause;
  3. the warring party must have the right intention, so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.

To these many would now add that war should always be the last resort, when all other means of resolving differences or righting wrongs have failed; that there should be proportionality, so that whatever good may be achieved is not outweighed by the harm that will result; and that there should be a reasonable probability of success.

I am not sure how a missile strike against Syria measures up against these, but I hope our politicians will think very seriously indeed. President Obama’s talk of a red line being crossed if chemical weapons were used must, in retrospect, look unwise. Men, women and children have been dying as a result of the bloodshed in Syria for two years. The manner of their deaths has been different, but it is surely the fact that they have been killed, rather than the weaponry used to kill them, that is significant. Are the conditions for a just war being met? Can they be met? If the West acts now against Syria, the conflict will escalate. War in the Middle East will quickly spin out of control and mean war elsewhere. The consequences are too horrible to contemplate. If the price of peace is to be thought a coward, the price of an unjust war — perhaps any war — is, quite simply, death.

Note: for the record, I am totally opposed to Western military intervention in Syria and pray that a peaceful solution may be found.


Another War?

As predicted, the language of Western politicians is becoming more bellicose. Whatever the findings of the U.N. team now investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria, there is a disturbing sense that President Obama’s talk of a red line being crossed is going to lead to a missile strike or more. While some are  busy beating the drum about its being ‘the right thing to do’ (arguable) and lamenting the terrible loss of life in Syria (undeniable), I wonder how many are asking themselves one simple question: who gains from this? On the face of it, using chemical weapons was not only murderous, it was crazy. Neither the Assad regime nor its opponents are stupid. Perhaps we should be looking beyond Syria to some other more shadowy figures who stand to gain from the West’s being plunged into yet another war, and pray with all our hearts that another catastrophe may be averted.


One Million Refugees

Ever since the U.N. released its assessment of the situation, I have been haunted by the thought that one million Syrian children are now refugees. One million! We can either view that as a dismal statistic (which it is) or translate it into a million individual lives, a million different faces.

I have never been a refugee myself, but I have known a few people who, for one reason or another, have had to flee their country of origin or, worse still, been forced out of their homeland. It has made me realise that one can only be a citizen of the world if one is sure that one belongs to one particular part of it. We should be very concerned for the children of Syria. Even if all their material needs are met (which I am rather doubtful about), their need for that sense of belonging, for peace and security, for all that makes them Syrian rather than anything else, is much more difficult of attainment. No doubt another tragedy will soon grip the headlines and they will be forgotten by all but a relative few. Who now thinks of ‘displaced persons’ the world over who have spent ten, twenty, even more years in refugee camps? I think we should ask ourselves what it does to someone’s soul to be a refugee. How many of the West’s current fears, for example, are traceable to our ignoring or underestimating the effect of a refugee existence on the expansion of radical Islam?

The situation in Syria, and the situation of refugees from Syria, concerns us all. What we do about it is another matter. The suspicion that chemical warfare is now being used may prompt some nations to military intervention. Let us pray for wisdom and prudence and in the meantime do what we can to help those who are suffering. If that seems to you pathetically weak and inadequate, could it be because we have missed opportunities in the past? If so, let us resolve to try not to miss them in the future.


Syrian Agony

One of the advantages of being on retreat is that news-gathering is restricted to a brief look at the BBC website once a day. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and any of the sites where news is discussed or commented on are off-limits. That may explain why everything else has seemed secondary compared with the agony being undergone in Syria. Even before the U.N. report, it was clear that both government and opposition forces were committing acts of extreme brutality. The detail of some is sickening, involving as it does children too young to understand or make choices for themselves; sickening too is the prospect of the kind of adults many of those children will grow into — if they survive. A war does not end when the guns fall silent but when the wounds of mind, body and spirit are healed. That can take a long time. In Europe we know that wounds from the past still have power to lock us into cycles of mutual destruction; it is the same in Africa, Asia, and wherever human beings have experienced conflict and division. We pray, we hope for better things, maybe send something to a charity providing relief to Syrian refugees; but do we mainly forget as soon as we move on to another headline?

I have been wondering about this during the past few days. We cannot ignore Syria for the simple reason that we are human beings. Our common humanity means that the plight of the Syrian people touches us. We can choose to distance ourselves in some way, arguing that internal politics are no concern of ours; but the moment we do that, the moment we say the bloodshed is nothing to do with us, I think we  become less human. That does not mean that we should rush in and try to impose our own solutions. Like many others, I am completely opposed to the idea of sending arms to Syria or sending in troops to aid one side or the other. For me there are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ as such, only people doing terrible things to one another and to those we would normally think of as innocent — children and old people, for example. The last thing Syria needs right now is more weapons. I suspect many share that view, but there are also some spiritual implications for ourselves as well as the Syrian people we might think about.

How far are we responsible for what is happening? Or, to put it another way, is there such a thing as a collective sin of omission of which we are guilty?* We have seen the escalation of violence in Syria but we have been so busy worrying about the Same Sex Marriage Bill/tax avoidance/the NHS/job prospects (complete as appropriate) that we have done nothing except talk about peace. There are situations where we know we ought to act and act decisively. For most of us, the problem is not knowing what to do for the best, and surely, Syria is a case in point; but does that let us off the hook? What response ought we to make, both as individuals and as a society? I don’t know. The figure of Cain haunts me with his questioning, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ My own response has been to pray, but I sense that something more is needed.

The original meaning of ‘agony’ was ‘contest’. Who can doubt that there is a struggle between good and evil in Syria? We cannot assume that one side is good and the other bad; that is to buy into the moral simplicities of popular politics. The situation is too complex and too dangerous. It matters that good should — ultimately, somehow — triumph. What is our part in that?

*No, rhetorical question, I am using this device merely to express an idea.


The First Frost

We have just had our first real frost of winter. Everything crunches underfoot and there is a mist rising with the sun and shrouding familiar shapes and forms with an ethereal winding-sheet. Odd, isn’t it, how frost and cold turn our thoughts (my thoughts, anyway) to a half-remembered past, peopled by warriors, kings and thegns, with their bright armour and their strange and wonderful poetry. It would never surprise me to see Beowulf emerging from the mist or some dark Celt moving silently from tree to tree. An over-lively imagination, my mother called it, but for me it is just the necessary mental equipment of the (now lapsed) historian. Without the ability, or at least the desire, to enter into the lives of others remote from us in time and place, I think understanding both past and present is much more difficult.

Today there is much that requires a huge imaginative leap to understand, if we ever can. The allegations against Jimmy Savile have propelled us into the dark world of the abuser; the never-ending violence in Syria and Afghanistan haunts us; Malala Yousafzai struggling for life in Pakistan and the continuing search for the body of little April Jones, they weigh heavy on the spirit. As a Christian I believe that evil does not have the ultimate victory, but to live according to that belief requires more than mere acquiescence. It is never an easy way out. We are called to live our faith in the Resurrection; to do battle with all that is opposed to the goodness of God. This morning the first frost reminds us that some of the most powerful enemies we face come not from the world around us but from within, from our own imaginative failures, from imperfectly accepted personal histories. We all have our own inner demons to overcome.