Facing Facts

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.

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Trust and the Open Profession of Faith

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

  • obscurantist and anti-sciencee
  • hypocrites
  • intolerant (homophobic, misogynistic, racist, right-wing, left-wing, etc)
  • child abusers
  • out for personal gain
  • worldly

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.

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On Not Being Cynical by Bro Duncan PBGV

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. 😉

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Sunday Worship: The Heart of the Matter

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!

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Ascension Sunday 2014

The Ascension of Christ

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.

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Blaming God

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.

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Thinking Aloud about Society

Yesterday, as our Silence Days were coming to an end, three subjects dominated British media headlines: George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, the prospect of public sector strikes today and the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran. Only time will tell which will have the most lasting effects on society. I am probably in a minority in thinking that the attack on the embassy could have the most disastrous long-term consequences, not just for Britain but for the west in general. Why? Because I think that, irrespective of what the Chancellor does or does not do, we are in for a prolonged period of economic stringency, which no amount of striking is going to change. The attack on the embassy, however, and the anger which fed it mark a departure from the standard of behaviour and practice on which modern diplomacy relies; and if it be true, as many suppose, that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, that anger and that refusal to observe diplomatic conventions is troubling. Those old enough to remember the Cold War will recall what it was  like to live with the ever-present idea of nuclear annihilation. Does that shadow begin to loom over us again, and if it does, how do we reconcile it with what Advent is about?

The only way in which I can begin to answer that question for myself is to say that it is bound up with trust. Advent reminds us of the trust God placed in his Chosen People. Despite the misunderstandings and the backslidings, the Covenant remained firm and the promise of a Messiah was indeed fulfilled in Jesus. But if God’s trust in humanity remained unshaken, how much more was human trust in God tested to the uttermost? Mary’s acceptance of her role as Mother of God expressed an unequalled  faith in God, a faith that we can only marvel at and be grateful for. The present situation also calls for trust and faith. That is something we all need to work at this Advent.

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Patience

Patience is often described as the Benedictine’s fourth vow. It is a theme that occurs again and again in the Rule, where we are reminded that we ‘share by patience in the sufferings of Christ’. (RB Prol. 50) The newcomer to monastic life is to be ‘tested in all patience’.  (RB 58.11) Indeed, patiently bearing with delays and contradictions is one of the signs looked for as the mark of a genuine vocation. It all sounds rather wonderful until one has to practise it. For the plain truth is that patience is hard work. It means embracing suffering, not just stoically putting up with it, and doing so with a quiet heart. (RB 7. 35) Patience requires a great deal of trust and humility as well as self-control.

Patience, trust, humility: these are not qualities that our society cultivates or values very much. We prefer to be self-assertive, thrusting not trusting, testing everything by our own standards and rather despising those who are patient and humble, as thought they were milksops. In fact, it takes real strength of character to be patient, to accept adversity quietly, without anger or upset. Similarly, trust and humility are not for wimps but for those who are brave enough to look themselves in the face and know themselves for what they are.

Today each one of us will be given the opportunity to exercise a little patience, to show a little trust and be a little humble. Are we big enough to meet the challenge?

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Thinking Aloud About Trust

I didn’t know Osama bin Laden had been killed until I returned to Britain on Wednesday last week. Immediately, it seemed, the world was abuzz with claim and counterclaim about what actually happened. Whose account should we trust? Whose account COULD we trust? At the same time, the endless rumble about ‘the financial services industry’ (banks to you and me) continues to raise questions about trust; so too does the debate about the limits of freedom of the press. The Catholic Church is still feeling the effects of the lack of trust that inevitably follows from what we have learned about the abuse of children and adolescents. Everywhere we look, it seems, public trust is very low. Is it any wonder that bad faith and lack of trust often mark our private lives too?

For me, the problem with that question is that it presupposes that public morality shapes and determines our private codes of morality and honour. It is true that some people take their ideas of right and wrong from what is legal or not (though I have to say that does not seem to apply to speed limits). That is why time and energy is devoted to promoting/opposing/repealing legislation which touches on human rights, or what are perceived to be such. Fundamentally, however, it is our private ‘world view’ which shapes our attitude to the public sphere. If there is a lack of trust, and even more, a lack of trustworthiness, in our private lives, it is absurd to expect better in the public sphere. If we bend the truth, why shouldn’t others? Isn’t that why we sometimes doubt what we are told, rather than because we think others are trying to hoodwink us?

I was sickened by what bin Laden did in life, but I have also been sickened by the gloating that has followed his death. The desire to circulate photographs of his dead body to ‘prove’ that he is dead is nothing of the sort. It is a manifestation of something I’d call glee, a measure of the lack of trust in our public institutions and, by implication, an admission of the lack of trustworthiness in our own lives. Overstated? Possibly. Trust is a beautiful quality, well worth cultivating. When it is lost or destroyed, something very precious passes from the earth.

 

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