Early this morning I went into the room where our Basset Fauve de Bretagne (Bro Dyfrig BFdeB on Twitter) sleeps. He may have registered my presence vaguely, but there was no wag of the tail to indicate that he had done so. He just went on sleeping, trusting that my purposes were honourable and food not involved. Wise dog!
Trust often seems in short supply these days. We have all been let down by others at times, sometimes hugely. Even more painful, I’d say, is the knowledge that we ourselves have let others down. With so many challenges on the political landscape — a pandemic, Brexit, a presidential election in the U.S.A., growing concerns about human rights and personal freedoms in many countries of the world — it can be tempting to become cynical, to adopt disbelief as our customary attitude, to trust no-one. The trouble is, cynicism rarely achieves anything positive.
The best antidote to cynicism I know is to be found in the twelfth step of humility, which we read in the Rule of St Benedict today (RB 7. 62–70). It isn’t just for monastics. It reminds us that hope is real, transformation possible, and ultimately God is in charge. Our sleeping dog is a good Benedictine — his trust is perfect. How about yours and mine?
Most people would agree that this is proving to be a very strange Eastertide, but I wonder how many have been thinking about the language of sacrifice. Some have, obviously. There have been some profound reflections on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and how that affects each one of us. Others have been discussing the Eucharist, more specifically the possibility of online Communion, though I think it would be fair to say that the language of sacrifice, if used at all, has tended to be more about the experience of deprivation for the would-be communicant than what I, as a Catholic, would instinctively link to the Mass. Then, of course, there has been the popular use of sacrifice in relation to the work being done by healthcare professionals, especially where loss of life has been involved during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
I am not undervaluing any of this, but I confess to a growing unease which was crystallised a few days ago after learning that one of our oblates in the U.S.A. had been subjected to a reckless and unprovoked invasion of her business space by someone who regards COVID-19 as a hoax. No one is happy about the restrictions placed on everyday life in an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but most people are taking them seriously and co-operating generously. Those who don’t are placing others at risk, but I’d like to understand why they are they doing so. Why are a significant number of people choosing to flout regulations designed to protect them and the rest of society from the worst ravages of COVID-19?
I don’t think they can all be dismissed as stupid (some, after all, are highly intelligent and well-educated), unusually selfish (attributing moral failure to others is always tricky, and many would argue that they wish to protect their families by going to their second homes or whatever), or even blessed with overweening self-confidence in their own interpretation of everything from statistics to epidemiology, but perhaps a few have still to learn what sacrifice means and the value it has for us all. The Easter season ought to be a good time for reflecting again on that.
As soon as one says that, one runs into a problem. In the West we have become individualistic and consumerist in our approach to life in general and that affects how we think as well as how we behave. The smartphone and the internet have given us choice, but they have privatised that choice in a way unthinkable thirty years ago. We can watch what we want when and how we want rather than relying on a broadcast or cinema showing; we can buy a single music track rather than a whole recording; we can restrict our reading to those whose views correspond to our own more easily than ever; and we can voice our own opinions, no matter how crazy, for free, almost everywhere. That awareness of choice and our freedom to exercise it has carried over into other areas of life. Better transport means that we are no longer locked into the parish system the way we once were. We can travel to a church we find more congenial, and if one Sunday we don’t feel like getting the car out, there’s probably a livestream we can watch instead. It’s no accident that those who argue for the permissibility of abortion in any circumstances have campaigned under the slogan of ‘a woman’s right to choose’.
Freedom and choice may have become absolute values for some but is their enjoyment and exercise dependent on the individual or on the group? We are back to elementary classes in political theory. Can we be free if we do not have a society around us that promotes and, if necessary, protects that freedom? Can we have choice unless there are alternatives, and what happens if some choose differently from us? How do we show care and compassion? What does the renunciation of some good or other actually mean?
Freely to give up something one prizes for the sake of a greater good is a very difficult thing to do. It means giving up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sureness about how things ought to be — and it is only in the West that we have that luxury. I read the other day that there are approximately five intensive care unit beds per million of population in the continent of Africa; in Europe the figure is nearer 4,000. It is easier to make a stand on a matter of principle when there is a safety net to catch one should one fall. Those claiming that their civil liberties are being infringed by the COVID-19 restrictions are right. They are being curtailed, but for a reason: the common good. And that is where it becomes necessary to understand why sacrifice is part of human life, not just religious life.
Without sacrifice, without the free, conscious renunciation of some private good, society as a whole suffers. If, for example, we do not agree to the payment of taxes, the sacrifice of some part of our income, we cannot expect publicly-funded education, healthcare or any of the services we identify as necessary to our well-being. If we do not sacrifice some personal good, such as our presumed right to say what we like when we like, we may seriously wound or even harm others (think slander and defamation). For the religiously inclined, this ought to be easier to grasp, but I don’t think it always is. For example, during Holy Week there was a lot of emoting in social media about being deprived of the Eucharist because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had given instructions about Mass which meant that its celebration had to take place behind closed doors, without a congregation present. It was, and is, hard for all of us; but if we concentrate on our own loss and our own sense of deprivation, I think we miss the point. The Mass is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, one with Christ’s self-giving on the cross. It is where our understanding of sacrifice begins, not ends.
That, I think, is why for the Christian the language of sacrifice can never be limited to what we do in church but must have a larger context. Whatever any of us sacrifices is never a purely individual act, a matter of personal choice alone. I’d say that the people who are worrying about the survival of their jobs and the businesses they have built up are doing more sacrificing than those of us who are being shielded behind closed doors. Those working in hospitals or other front-line services, keeping the rest of us supplied with the necessities of life, are sacrificing hugely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. I’d add that those dying without the sacraments, those mourning the death of someone they love without a ‘proper’ funeral, are experiencing the closure of church buildings and the restrictions on clergy in a uniquely sacrificial way. So it goes on. We can name endless groups of people or individuals who are being required to sacrifice something precious to them.
Sometimes we talk about sacrifice in abstract terms, forgetting that it can hurt, that the pain is deeply felt. We have to trust, as Jesus did on the cross, that the results will be worthwhile; but it is trust that is involved, not a problematic certainty of the kind often alluded to in the mantra of our times, ‘let’s follow the science’. I hope it is not going too far to suggest that today, throughout the world, a different kind of Mass is being celebrated, a Mass in which human loss and pain are caught up into the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with an intensity most of us have not known before. Let us pray that we may be equal to what is asked of us and take our part, never forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice leads ultimately to victory and everlasting life.
I, the Lord, your God, I am holding you by the right hand; I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, I will help you.’ Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite. I will help you — it is the Lord who speaks — the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.
The opening words of today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 41. 13–20
As General Election Day dawns in the U.K., these are potentially encouraging words. I say ‘potentially’, because they presuppose our willingness to accept the Lord’s help. Most of us know that we can and do resist grace, that we make selfish choices. A few of us (me, for instance) will also admit that we can be plain stupid at times. To acknowledge weakness, however, goes against one of the popular memes of society today, that of empowerment and entitlement. From being told that we can become whatever we like to attacking any awareness of difference as discrimination, it can be confusing to try to work out what we are or where we stand without incurring misunderstanding, disapproval or alienation. Today, as the U.K. goes to the polls, there must be many agonizing about how to vote, conscious that they are but a small drop in an ocean of electors. The values we hold dear, the desires we cherish for a better, kinder world and the way in which we see them being achieved, are not necessarily the same for everyone. And being but one among millions of voters, there is a temptation to abandon the whole process, to say we cannot make a difference. Without actually saying so, we acknowledge our own weakness and give up.
I think we are thrown back on 2 Corinthians 12.10. Like Paul, we confess the paradox that when we are weak, then we are strong. It is not the strength of the human strongman, not the strength of the victor, but the strength that comes from a willingness to put the needs of others before our own, relying on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how weak we may feel, we have the assurance that He is always with us and that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid. One of the great themes of our Advent liturgy is integrity and trust. Today, all over the U.K., whether believers or not, we must act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be, or can become, one that serves the common good. Poor worms and tiny mites that we are, let us pray it may be so.
Here in the monastery we keep the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus as a feast of hospitality and friendship — exactly what one would expect given the emphasis St Benedict places on hospitality in the Rule. Western society, however, is becoming less and less enthusiastic about welcoming the stranger or honouring the guest while friendship is often devalued to mean little more than social media ‘likes’. Our ‘hospitality suites’ are commercial enterprises, where every canapé or cup of coffee is minutely costed; our governments are more interested in immigration quotas and building barriers of one kind or another than in sharing what we have with the less fortunate.
In the British Isles we have a long history of welcoming others. We have been called a mongrel race because of all the different nationalities and ethnicities that go into our make-up. But I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that among many the idea of welcoming others is under renewed strain. Where jobs and housing are at stake, a narrower view sometimes prevails: keep the others out! Those who oppose such a view are dismissed as namby-pamby liberals whose comfortable existences are untouched by the hardships and uncertainties of the rest. The rise of the EDL and other far-right groups adds fuel to the fire, for they depend on exaggerating differences, on creating a sense of tension and hostility, of grievance.
I’d like to suggest that it is time we all thought again about the hospitality shown by the family of Bethany. There was Martha, determined to give as good a dinner to everyone as she could — which meant hard work to supply an obvious material need. There was Mary, listening to Jesus and learning from him — paying attention to what the guest considered important, not seeking to impose her own ideas. There, too, was Lazarus, who was Jesus’ friend — so dear a friend that when he died, Jesus wept. All three elements are important in the welcome we give others but the most important is surely friendship. Unless and until we have learned to be friends with one another, we have not begun to be truly hospitable. Learning to be friends takes effort and sacrifice as well as delight in the discovery of what each brings to the friendship. It does not often happen all at once or without an openness that risks being abused. Something to ponder there, perhaps.
There is a line in today’s first Mass reading (Isaiah 49.1–6) that may have haunted Jesus during the course of this week:
I was thinking, ‘I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing.’
How many of us have felt like that when something we cared about greatly has ended in apparent failure? It may have been a project or a relationship, even what we understood to be our vocation in life. Was Jesus troubled by such thoughts in the days between his entry into Jerusalem and his anguish in Gethsemane, the thought that he had failed his Father, failed in his mission? Failure is hard to bear and is made harder still when we believe we have done everything we can to ensure success. We cannot even comfort ourselves, if that is the right word, with a regretful ‘if only I had done so and so.’ There was nothing more we, or Jesus, could do; there are no alternative scenarios we can invent to take refuge in, we must simply face facts.
Facing facts is what Holy Week is about: facing the facts of sin and death and seeing how they are transformed by Jesus’ acceptance of death on the cross and his resurrection on Easter morning. This is the week when Jesus’ love and trust were tested to the utmost, when he plumbed the depths of human despair and suffering and rose triumphant. We must do the same. We must learn afresh our need of God, experience again our utter reliance on him, if we are to share his resurrection. That will mean, for most of us, plumbing the depths of our own sin and failure, bringing to God all that we are, all that we have failed to be, trusting, as Jesus and the prophet Isaiah trusted, that
all the while my cause was with the Lord,
my reward with my God.
I was honoured in the eyes of the Lord,
my God was my strength.
How many people do you trust, how many institutions? And by ‘trust’ I mean what the word always used to mean, to have confidence in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something. It is a searching question, because when it comes down to it, most of us tend to qualify our answers. Absolute trust is placed in very few, usually only someone very close to us and never, in my experience, in an institution. Yet today’s first reading from Isaiah (Is 26. 1-6) urges us to ‘trust in the Lord for ever, for the Lord is an everlasting rock’ while the gospel (Matthew 7.21, 24-27) insists that doing the will of the Lord will mean that our house, our life, is founded on rock. That suggests both strength and reliability should characterize our lives as Christians, but the plain fact is that Christianity and its adherents have never had a worse press than they do today; and despite the fact that our beliefs prompt us to many acts of charity and service, it is not unusual to encounter hostility and suspicion. Even our festivals are mocked or circumvented with neologisms like ‘Winterval’ though no-one, I think (hope?), would dream of re-naming Eid al-Fitr or Rosh Hashanah or any of the great celebrations of other religions.
Sometimes it can be instructive to listen to what our detractors say about us. The most common charges against Christians seem to be that we are
It is true that some of us are guilty of one or more of these charges, but by no means all. In fact, I’d dare to say the majority of Christians are guiltless of all these things. Personal sin and failure affect the whole body, of course, but so too does the faithful living out of our Christian vocation.Why should the negative outweigh the positive?
I think we are beginning to have a real problem with the public perception of Christians as trustworthy people whose beliefs should command respect, even if they are not shared. Time was when a very British reticence would have made me prefer to die on the spot rather than even hint at my beliefs in public. Not so now. It’s time we all came out of that particular closet. I habitually say a cheerful ‘Bless you!’ as often as I say ‘thank you’. I mean what I say, and if I get a snarl in response, as I sometimes do, I simply smile. I have no hesitation in saying grace when I have to eat in public or using the ritual gestures when I have to say the Office away from the monastery. I’m not forcing my beliefs on anyone, but I’m not hiding them, either. Scio cui credidi, as we sing on our profession day. I know in whom I have believed, in whom I have placed my trust.
One of the things that makes me sad is cynicism. Dogs don’t do cynical. We believe the best of everybody, all the time. It doesn’t matter if sometimes we are proved wrong. We were created to trust, and we do. You’ve probably noticed that we are all eager-beaver enthusiasm, even for people you wouldn’t let inside your front door. Whenever I suspect that the Enemy of the Moment has turned up, for example, I go into ecstacies of welcome. That soon brings everyone to their senses. You can’t go on being cool towards someone we’re treating with rapture, can you?
There is an important spiritual point here. Welcoming people — really welcoming them — is not about checking whether they have all the right credentials and espouse all the right views (i.e. the same as you) before trusting them but simply seeing them as they are, as God sees them. I think dogs have the gift of always seeing people as God sees them, which is why we don’t find trust difficult. Yes, human beans can be cranky (just look at My Lot!); they can be difficult, demanding, really rather horrible at times; but underneath all that messiness, the failures, the sin, they are rather beautiful.
Cynicism distorts the way human beans see others and blinds them to their good points. In the end, it can make the cynical lonely, because no one really likes someone who is always negative and trusts no one else. Except, of course, God and us dogs. 😉
From time to time I find myself slipping into ex-M.C. mode when I attend Mass or some other liturgical celebration. Without meaning to, I register confusion or fussiness in the sanctuary or even plain disregard of the rubrics or canon law. I wince inwardly when the lessons are read poorly or the music badly performed; and I have been known to come close to nodding off/counting the heresies during one or two homilies. Quietnun similarly goes into ex-sacristan mode when confronted with ill-chosen vestments or altar linen that hasn’t been washed or pressed properly. If anyone knew, we’d be the bane of their lives; but fortunately, they don’t (you do, but that’s another matter. Please don’t reveal our shameful secret).
This morning’s Sunday Mass was much like any other. There was nothing very much for the critic in us to praise or condemn, but imagine how humbling it was to come home and read this prayer request (I’ve changed one or two details but the gist remains the same):
Dear God, Please look after my brother, Tom. I’m worried about him as nothing ever seems to go right for him. I know you can take care of him like you’ve taken care of me all my life. Thank you, God. I love you, Chris
There you have it: love of God, trust and concern for others. What could be more perfect? Isn’t that what our Sunday worship should express? It is surely the most perfect praise any of us can give. Next time you are tempted, like me, to groan about the way the liturgy is conducted, or the shortcomings, as you see them, of those presiding or fulfilling various functions, why not remember Chris and simply tell God you love Him? That, after all, is the heart of the matter, but how often we forget!
I would hazard a guess that most of us, most of the time, live with Christ’s apparent absence rather than the sense of his presence. The Ascension is therefore very much our kind of feast: Christ is taken from us into a mysterious realm we have not yet experienced, but —and it is an important but — we have his assurance that he is with us until the end of time. His mode of being with us is different. That means, of course, that our mode of being with him must be different, too. I think we often forget that, and feel a sense of failure that our faith is so lacklustre, coming and going rather than remaining steadfast through thick and thin. We want to be angels before we have learned how to be fully human!
If living by faith means anything at all, I think it means going on, as best we can, without the ‘sensible helps’ of a comforting presence we can summon up at will. It means persevering, without knowing that we have all the answers. In short, it means placing our trust in this shadowy, mysterious Presence we acknowledge as our Lord and God, certain only of his love, not of the way in which his love will be poured out upon us. The Ascension is an opportunity to reaffirm our trust and await the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will be tongued with purifying and strengthening fire. We may gaze blankly into heaven at times, but we can be sure that the merciful eye of the Lord is always on us. Let us give thanks for that.
Does God ever chuckle at our extraordinary ideas about him? Recently, I received the nth email in which ‘your god’ was blamed for just about everything, from sexual abuse of children to train crashes, acne and the writer’s apparently disastrous love life. (Possibly the acne and the latter were connected, but a suggestion that he visit a pharmacist wasn’t going to endear me, was it?)
I do wonder, sometimes, why people think God is responsible for everything they do not like or find difficult, but never, apparently, for those things they find good or beautiful. Perhaps it is because we perceive certain events to be tragedies and we want someone to blame, someone to pay for them, more than we want someone to thank or praise for what is good. Not all tragedies can be blamed on human beings, so if there is no-one else we can reasonably pin responsibility on, we accuse God. Religious people do this in one way; those who are hostile to religion do it in another; the net result is the same: God comes in for some pretty rough treatment.
Probably some readers will find this idea shocking. They would never, ever blame God for anything and always resign themselves utterly to the divine will. Such people are almost beyond sanctity, for very few of the saints were so restrained. They told God exactly what they thought while they obediently got on with whatever was required. The great Carmelite, St Teresa of Avila, is an excellent example of this, shrewdly remarking to the Lord that it was no wonder he had so few friends since he treated them so badly. That is not the same as blaming God, for she never insulted him or reviled him. She simply spoke her mind with infinite trust and confidence in God’s goodness and love.
I think a little more honesty with God about our feelings and reactions to events might be a good thing. A little more trust in God might be a good thing, too. Blame is pointless. God does not will harm to anyone. It is contrary to his nature as God. But, continuing this week’s theme of dipping into the dictionary, you may find something to ponder in this thought. The word ‘blame’ derives from a popular variant of the Latin blasphemare and Greek blasphemein, meaning to revile, reproach . . . blaspheme. So, when we blame someone for something for which they are not responsible, we are blaspheming God. That might just make us think before we utter.