Lost Faith in Institutions

As an Englishwoman, I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the situation in Ferguson. What is clear, even to me, is that the Grand Jury’s decision not to prosecute the police officer who killed Michael Brown has been rejected by many as unjust. That word is significant. It suggests a lack of faith in one of the very institutions meant to guarantee justice. Whether those who have rejected the Grand Jury’s decision have heard all the evidence in the case, or whether the Jury itself was prejudiced in Darren Wilson’s favour is, in a way, beside the point. As Aldous Huxley remarked in another context, there is a difference between being sincere and appearing sincere. There is a widely-held perception that something is wrong, and it is fast becoming a many-headed hydra feeding on itself. The lack of trust in the law and the way it is administered is palpable, so too is the fear on both sides. It is particularly sad that the U.S.A. should be undergoing such a trial on the eve of Thanksgiving, when people all over the world, not just its own citizens, give thanks for the many good things that have come from ‘the land of the free’.

It isn’t difficult to find parallels nearer home here in the U.K. or in the Church. It is impossible, for example, to talk of integrity and banking in the same breath without someone smiling a little cynically. Some of our Westminster politicians have done a very good job of discrediting themselves, alas; and while I grieve for the sins of the Church, I can’t help admitting that some of her members have behaved so badly that it is a wonder we haven’t all been torched. What has caused this negativity, this loss of faith?

I think myself a partial answer may be found in the experience of war, totalitarianism and untramelled capitalism during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The huge loss of life, the sacrifice of the individual to a very uncertain good, the sheer dreariness of everything, only fleetingly alleviated by the modern equivalents of bread and circuses, have taken their toll. The individual has often felt helpless and alone. Add to this the breaking down of supportive structures like the family and old allegiances, e.g. to Church, and we have a piquant mix. It is not the whole story, of course, but we see the working out of it in the protest movements and sporadic violence now troubling us. We have lost faith. We have lost trust. And because we have lost trust, we may have ended up becoming less trustworthy.

May have. It is an important distinction. Here, therefore, is a question for myself and for anyone who bothers to read this post. What grounds would anyone have for trusting me (us)? Are they adequate, or is there a grey area that invites disbelief? The answer we give may be sobering, but there is something to cling to, even if we feel hopeless. The astonishing fact is that we have been trusted by God — infinitely. He has given the world into our care; he has entrusted life itself to us; and He does so over and over again. We may be disbelieving, but we know He will never lose faith. I think we should be encouraged, don’t you?


How to Be a Good Leader

We usually think about SS Maurus and Placid in terms of discipleship and obedience. In previous years I have commented on the way in which they are presented as near- perfect and the problem that poses for those of us who are imperfect (see here and here). But we live in a world where being a disciple, a follower, isn’t much favoured. We all want to be leaders now. Even applications to join the monastery often read like a pitch to become CEO of a major corporation! I think it is time, therefore, to take the story of Maurus and Placid as told in book II of Gregory’s Dialogues and see what it tells us about leadership rather than discipleship.

Gregory tells us Placid went to fetch water from the lake. Placid fell in but Benedict, being made aware of the situation by God’s grace, sent Maurus to rescue the youngster. Maurus, having received the abbot’s blessing, walked upon the water and rescued Placid. Later, St Benedict attributed the miracle to Maurus’ obedience; Maurus attributed it to St Benedict. It was Placid who settled the matter: ‘When you pulled me out of the water,’ he said,’ I saw over my head Father Abbot’s hood, and I saw that it was he who pulled me from the water.’

The first thing to note is that this is hagiography, not history. It expresses a spiritual truth: the value of obedience in conforming us to Christ. But there is an interesting dynamic at work. Both Maurus and Placid were unhesitatingly obedient to their abbot. Were they simpletons, doing what they were told because they hadn’t the brains or individuality to think for themselves? Was Benedict an overbearing taskmaster whom they feared to disobey, or a charismatic looney of the kind we see in some cults, demanding that his followers do silly or dangerous things? I think the answer is neither. Both Maurus and Placid obeyed Benedict because they trusted him.

Trust tends to get a bad press these days. How many people feel they can trust anyone? Distrust has become our default position. It affects family life; business life; Church life. Leaders may be ‘thrusting’ ‘dynamic’ and all the other buzz words we find bandied around, but are they trustworthy?

The quality which set Benedict apart as a leader was precisely that: trustworthiness. As presented by Gregory in the Dialogues, and even more as we see him in his Rule, Benedict comes across as a true man of God, one who ‘lived as he wrote’; who prayed, worked, served and did not shirk responsibility. He was painfully aware that one day he would have to answer to God for the souls of all those committed to his care, including, in some measure, those who had gone astray. That sense of responsibility affected every decision concerning those over whom he had any authority. It made people trust him, knowing they could rely on him. That is, or should be, true of every religious leader today. I would suggest it should also be true, mutatis mutandis, of every good leader, whatever their sphere.


Digital Technologies and Christian Culture

I have been thinking about the way in which digital technologies are changing not just the expression but also the content of what we religious types put online. Here at the monastery we are contemplating some major changes to our web sites, use of social media, etc. One of the things that has struck me is how word (and Word) centred our practice is. Our main web site, like those of many Christian organizations, contains pages of text: information, reflection, explanation, the fruit of our thinking about monastic life and trying to express it in words.

Thinking, words, these are the traditional elements of Christian culture, requiring silence, time and the discipline of logic for effect. But the online world thrives on immediacy, brevity, the interplay of image and sound, action and reaction. I think we can truthfully say that we have tried to take the monastery into that world. The challenge we now face is how to engage more deeply, to be true to our Christian heritage yet at the same time interpret anew the truth by which we live. That raises all kinds of questions about authority and trustworthiness. It goes beyond language, touching on psychology and social attitudes that are not of the Church’s making.

There is no shortage of opinion about these matters. Resources of various kinds abound, with excellent work being done by CODEC and @xiannewmedia, for example. But ultimately, what we do online proceeds from our lives offline, from the prayer, lectio divina and common life of the community. I am not sure what we shall produce over the next few months but I have a hunch that it may be very different from anything we have attempted so far — not because the technology on offer makes new things possible, but because the world which has developed that technology requires a new approach.

As always, I’d love to know what you think.