Hatred

We hear a great deal about ‘hate crimes’ that sometimes strike a trivial note, then something dreadful like yesterday’s mass slaughter at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, happens and we understand what hatred really means. It is not ‘mere’ prejudice or dislike translated into boorish behaviour. It is murderous — nothing less than the desire to kill, destroy, and inflict deadly harm. It is difficult even to think about such a thing, but think we must because the kind of violence displayed in Squirrel Hill is no different from that displayed by Islamist terrorists or any other individual or group that believes it has the right to exterminate others. The President of the United States of America is on record as saying that had the synagogue had armed guards, the massacre would not have occurred. To me, that sounds absurd. Surely, we should be trying to create a culture, indeed a world, where violence is unacceptable? If our default position is, we need guns to defend ourselves, we should not be surprised if those with criminal intent take us at our word and use the very same means to do us harm.

This morning we pray with and for our Jewish brethren and all who have been victims of hatred and persecution. For me, there is something peculiarly horrible about an attack on people praying in a church, mosque, synagogue or other place of worship. It is a profanation of the holy name of God, destruction of what God holds most precious — human beings. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, and we honour him best by honouring those he has created in in his own image and likeness. Let us remember that, however much provoked we may be.

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In Memoriam René Girard

Yesterday died René Girard, a giant among men, whose thought defies narrow classification. He rarely called himself a philosopher although many philosophical implications can be derived from his work in literary criticism, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, biblical hermeneutics and theology. If one had to try to sum up in a single phrase the range of his interests, the focus of his intellectual enquiry, I think I’d say it was nothing less than what it means to be human. I have myself been profoundly influenced by his work on mimetic desire, the nature of violence and the role of the scapegoat, all of which have illuminated my understanding of the gospels and, I hope, affected my conduct, too. Here are a few of my favourite quotations which you may like to ponder:

The goal of religious thinking is exactly the same as that of technological research — namely, practical action. Whenever man is truly concerned with obtaining concrete results, whenever he is hard pressed by reality, he abandons abstract speculation and reverts to a mode of response that becomes increasingly cautious and conservative as the forces he hopes to subdue, or at least to outrun, draw ever nearer. (Violence and the Sacred)

Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. Each of us is acquainted with the spirit of competition. This spirit is not a bad thing in and of itself. Its influence has long been felt in personal relations within the dominant classes. Subsequently it spread throughout the whole of society, to the point that today it has more or less openly triumphed in every part of the world. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable. Not the least of these is the impressive wealth it has brought a large part of the population. No one, or almost no one, any longer thinks of forgoing rivalry, since it allows us to go on dreaming of a still more glittering and prosperous future than the recent past. Our world seems to us the most desirable one there ever was, especially when we compare it to life in nations that have not enjoyed the same prosperity. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

In a truly global world, the renunciation of violent reprisal is bound to become, in a more and more obvious way, the indispensable condition of our survival. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

The experience of death is going to get more and more painful, contrary to what many people believe. The forthcoming euthanasia will make it more rather than less painful because it will put the emphasis on personal decision in a way which was blissfully alien to the whole problem of dying in former times. It will make death even more subjectively intolerable, for people will feel responsible for their own deaths and morally obligated to rid their relatives of their unwanted presence. Euthanasia will further intensify all the problems its advocates think it will solve.

and this, from Bro Duncan PBGV’s collection:

We don’t know if there’s a heaven for animals, but we know for sure there’s a hell.
Tuesday, 6 January, 2015

May he rest in peace. Amen.

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Violence

If asked, how many of us would say we reject violence as a solution to the world’s problems? We condemn the brutality of IS; we are uneasy about the war in Syria; we are queasy about the so-called ‘intifada of knives’ in Israel/Palestine. As Remembrance Sunday approaches, we are even, at times, equivocal about the wars fought against imperialism and fascism in the twentieth century. It is all conveniently ‘out there’. Then we switch on the T.V. or radio or dip into Social Media and discover the violence is not ‘out there’ at all. It is within each of us, and it is beginning to make monsters of us.

You may think that last statement over the top, but think for a moment. How often do we encounter vehement language and insults in situations where they are inappropriate or counter-productive? We do not need to tell a prominent politician to ‘**** off’. We’d do much better to argue a case he/she has to answer, but we are too lazy to do that. Much easier to rant and rage instead. During the recent Synod on the Family we were treated, if that is the right word, to endless bandying of insults and accusations which achieved nothing of value. Much of the violence we express has, objectively speaking, little to do with the situation we are allegedly upset about but everything to do with us. We want to vent our own feelings, and sometimes we forget that doing so may have a negative effect on others. Perhaps we don’t care. What matters is us and our views and their unbridled expression. Unfortunately, that tends to undermine the value of whatever we have to say. We cannot plead for peace and justice unless we ourselves are prepared to be peaceful and just — and a vicious little  outburst rather gives the game away about what is actually going on inside.

I said yesterday we cannot change others, only ourselves. Maybe we could spend a few moments today thinking about how we react to situations and events that we believe wrong or which make us upset or angry. We can contribute to the world’s violence or we can lessen it. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. Better that than ‘spawn of Satan’ surely?

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A Mini-Course in Hypocrisy

If you believe everything you read in Social Media or the newspapers, you will know that Christians and politicians have a virtual monopoly on hypocrisy. They say one thing and do another; they pose as good and generous folk, while leading deeply selfish lives; they are, indeed, play-acting (the word has tortuous origins, coming to us from ecclesiastical Latin via Old French, but its roots may be found in the Greek hupokrisis ‘acting of a theatrical part,’ from hupokrinesthai ‘play a part, pretend,’ from hupo ‘under’ + krinein ‘decide, judge.’). I wonder, at least about the monopoly part.

This morning I read that Sue Perkins has had to give up using Twitter for the time being because of the storm of abuse and threats she has received from people who don’t like the fact that she is the front-runner to replace Jeremy Clarkson on ‘Top Gear’. One even went so far as to express the desire (more properly, threat) that she’d burn to death. What do the authors of such tweets think they are doing? Are they the same people who rage and rant about the injustices they perceive in other areas of life? I know that if I post a prayer intention for x, someone will rubbish it, suggest that y is more worthy of prayer (as though God couldn’t cope with both) or use it as an opportunity to air a grievance (real or imaginary) or attack someone else. The sheer violence encountered in Social Media ought to concern us all because it both echoes and, I think, contributes to the violence we see convulsing the Middle East and parts of Africa — because it is not just violence, it is hypocritical violence.

We are, rightly, concerned about the violence and destruction perpetrated by IS and its allies, but I don’t think we have given sufficient thought to the causes of that violence. We can trace a very awkward course back through history — the Iraq War, the British Mandate in Palestine, etc, etc — and see that what now alarms and distresses us has its roots in the mistakes of the past, some of them so far back that the average British person (whose knowledge of history is, at best, partial) will not have a clue why others are so incensed.

The truth is, most of us cannot admit, even to ourselves, that we are not quite as nice or kind as we’d like to be, and our forebears were no better than we are. So, we blame others for our own shortcomings and the fact that the world is not as we’d like it to be. We rather enjoyed Clarkson’s blokishness, so we blame Sue Perkins for the fact that we won’t be seeing Clarkson on ‘Top Gear’ any more (never mind that Clarkson’s conduct might have had more to do with it than Perkins’, the logic of hypocrisy is unassailable). We see the horrors suffered by those who have fallen into the grips of IS, so we condemn Islamist extremism without acknowledging that we, or our forebears, may have had something to do with it. We accuse our politicians of lacking integrity/practising deception while conveniently ignoring little pockets of untruth or bad behaviour in ourselves.

The problem with hypocrisy is that it grows and grows until, at last, we cannot recognize truth in any shape or form. We begin to believe our own lie. That is the real danger. It is no wonder that the only people Jesus condemns outright in the gospel are the hypocrites. Time for a little self-examination perhaps?

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The Menace of War

A hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War and we are forced to ask ourselves whether we are on the brink of the Third — or has it already broken out in a thousand different places, in a thousand different guises? We look at North Africa, the Near and Middle East; at parts of subSaharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent; at Malaysia and even further afield; and then are brought up short by reflecting that even here, on our own streets, there is violence and the threat of violence, talk of radicalisation and extremism. Parliament’s recall to discuss British participation in air strikes against IS is widely regarded as a rubber-stamp exercise. Pope Francis has spoken eloquently about the cataclysm enveloping us; President Obama has ratcheted up his rhetoric a notch to condemn the ungodly nature of the brutal killings that are the IS trademark; but ordinary people, you and me, what do we make of it all?

We live very near the headquarters of the SAS and are very aware of the brave men and women who are sent to perform extraordinarily dangerous tasks in order to protect us against various threats, both here and overseas. But we are also aware that the nature of war is changing. It is now much more diffuse, much more hidden. It takes place in shopping malls and subway stations; it targets the civilian as much as, in some ways even more than, the military. The legality of air strikes against IS in Iraq is, to the layman, much clearer than the supposed grounds on which Mr Bush and Mr Blair led us into the last Iraq conflict. The measure being put before Parliament today is hedged with all kinds of qualifications, some of them no doubt intended to ensure that Mr Milliband cannot rock the boat, but still there is fear of mission creep and the inevitable backlash.

The truth is we are faced with an impossible choice. Whether we act or do not act, people are going to die. In earlier posts I have written about the conditions that need to be met for what is called a just war. We cannot pretend that we are not involved in what Parliament decides today. We cannot say, ‘Not in my name’ and thereby distance ourselves from the consequences of that decision. The men and women stationed in Cyprus know very well that within a few hours half a dozen British Tornadoes may be taking to the skies with the aim of inflicting as much damage as they can on IS forces. However ambivalent we may feel about the use of violence, however torn, we have to face up to the fact that we are not dealing with people who are open to reason. Many innocent people have already died terrible deaths at their hands. Let us pray that IS may be stopped from inflicting even more death and destruction. At the same time, let us also pray for the courage and determination to bear the consequences of what promises to be a long and bloody conflict, not only ‘over there’ but also over here.

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The Murder of James Foley

The barbaric murder of James Foley is being picked over by the media, as is only to be expected. The fact that the IS spokesman who did the foul deed is apparently British will have set alarm bells ringing in Britain, where there is already considerable concern about the role of British jihadists and the radicalisation of young Muslims by extremist clerics. Even here, in my monastic fastness, I feel uncomfortable. I have Muslim friends — kindly, civilized people, predominantly second or third generation British and middle class — who are as appalled by this kind of violence as anyone else. But, perhaps because I am a woman and a religious, I have also encountered another face of Islam, one that is much more hostile, much less ready to accommodate itself to British notions of law and justice or socially acceptable behaviour. It is this other face of Islam I find increasingly troubling.

One cannot argue with a gun or a knife, any more than one can ‘dialogue’ with someone who thinks one has no rights or value as a human being. The murder of James Foley, like the murder of Lee Rigby, confronts us with a form of Islamist violence that we do not know how to deal with. It is beyond our experience, outside our conceptual world. We can only ask, rather pathetically, ‘How can people do such things?’

In the past Britain has been, nominally at least, a Christian country. We haven’t always lived up to Christian ideals, but there has been general agreement on the Judaeo-Christian basis of much of our law, morality and social behaviour. That sort of cohesion is now breaking down. We have both an increasingly secular and an increasingly religious divide — but the religious divide is not Christian. A few days ago, newspapers were reporting that the most common newborn boy’s name in Britain is now Mohammed and it is the stated wish of some groups to establish areas where Sharia is applied to everyone living there. That presents a peculiar difficulty to our liberal Western minds. Are there limits to what is acceptable? How do we reconcile the demands of some Islamist groups with our societal norms?

It is a question that affects Christians no less than our secular-minded countrymen. To be expected to be complaisant in the face of Islamist outrages because Christians are, by definition, loving and forgiving is to forget that Christian tolerance is really only a pale form of Christian patience; and Christian patience means more than just putting up with things. We are children of Light, dedicated to the service of Truth. A readiness to forgive injuries does not mean that we condone them. A willingness to accept others’ differences and to defend their right to freedom of religious belief and practice does not necessarily mean we regard them as equal to our own. We walk a difficult path, seeking to be true to what we believe while allowing others to be true to what they believe. But still we must ask the question: do we have a common basis for deciding moral questions any more? Do we have a genuinely common response to the kind of militant Islam fostered by IS?

Inevitably, there will be calls for revenge, for more violence to try to end the violence we have seen in Syria and Iraq and, indeed, on the streets of Woolwich. No doubt Western governments are already planning ‘appropriate responses’ to try and guarantee the safety of their citizens. We know that our safety cannot be guaranteed unless there is a change in attitudes, and no one knows how to do that. It has been said that to adopt an ‘eye for an eye’ approach, tit-for-tat violence, leads ultimately to a world full of blind people. Can we be any more blind than we already are? IS fighters are determined to exterminate all who think or believe differently from themselves. Will there come a point when their brutality proves too much and destroys themselves as well as others? Is it possible for so much cruelty not to have a backlash? I do not know, but for all our sakes, Christian and Muslim alike, for the sake of everyone now living and for the sake of the children yet to be born, I hope and pray it may do, and soon.

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The Cursing Psalms

We are currently re-reading St Benedict’s chapters on the Divine office, often called the Liturgical Code, which may explain why I am keen to advocate having a good curse from time to time. I don’t mean profanity, but the praying of the so-called cursing psalms, e.g. Psalm 108 (109), which cheerfully asks the Lord to ensure that our adversary’s life should be short, his children wanderers and beggars and his wife a widow, or Psalm 57 (58) which has the splendid prayer, ‘O God, break the teeth in their mouths!’ Why, you may ask, should a normally mild-mannered nun be recommending that I pray such horribly vengeful prayers? It isn’t nice.

My answer is that we aren’t nice ourselves. We can kid ourselves that we are nicer than we are if we don’t own up to the darker, still unredeemed side that we harbour within until our dying breath. We pray the cursing psalms, but not against our enemy, real or imagined, but against all that is violent and troubled within us. We take the un-nice bits of ourselves to God, knowing that he alone can transform them by his grace. I think this is important, especially when we look at the violence convulsing Syria and other parts of the world. We know that for there to be peace outside, there must be peace inside; and we shall never attain that inner peace unless we first acknowledge, then renounce, everything that makes for war and violence in our own hearts. Praying the cursing psalms which, as Christians, we do in union with Christ, is a very good place to start. But there is more, for how could Christ pray those psalms save in union with us? Doesn’t that give pause for thought? Do we dare to be ‘nicer’ than he?

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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.

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A Terrible and Bitter Irony

There is a terrible and bitter irony in the fact that Egypt, the land to which Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled to find refuge from the murderous pursuit of Herod, should today stand as a land of blood in which Christians are being persecuted unmercifully. The struggle between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood grows every day more violent. The crackdown on the protest camps has cost the lives of hundreds of innocent people.

So today, instead of writing about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I would simply ask your prayers for the people of Egypt. Perhaps those of you who have a devotion to Our Lady as Mother of God would join me in asking her intercession: for peace, for the dying, for all her sons and daughters.

Note: if you would like to read something about Catholic devotion to Mary, this short post may be useful.

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Violence

We are never very far from violence of one kind or another. Recently, trolling and online abuse have come to the fore; but every day, it seems, we read of bomb attacks, murders, abuse of the most vile kind. Acid is flung in the face of women who want to be educated, refuse to marry/don’t have large enough dowries, or simply want to help others but fail to observe local customs. Men who don’t conform to what is expected of them have their limbs broken or their heads bashed in. We wax indignant and call for controls and forget that violence originates in the heart.

Twitter is no more than a tool, a vehicle for self-expression. If what we want to express is violence, violence is what Twitter will express. Internet sites like ask.fm may generate a dynamic of their own, but again, if what is running through the minds of those who use them is cruel and violent, cruelty and violence is what they will show. If we want to lash out at others, either physically or verbally, that is what we will do, unless we ourselves are under control, unless we accept that there are restraints on our freedom. Don’t blame Twitter, blame the tweeter; don’t blame the gun, blame the person who fires the gun!

Today is the feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known to many as Edith Stein. She died at Auschwitz because she was Jewish and the Nazi regime saw the destruction of all Jewish people as a part of its ‘mission’. She was a victim of anti-semitism but, even more, of the inhumanity we can each show to the other. Today, as we think about the violence being perpetrated by others online and off, we could take a long hard look at our own hearts and see what is lurking there. We may be surprised, and perhaps shamed, to see how much violence we too are capable of, were it not for the grace of God holding us back; and if we are honest, we may be forced to admit that the petty resentments and spiteful words that sometimes slip out of us proceed from the same deep well of violence and anger as others’ more obvious crimes.

Note: I have written about St Teresa Benedicta many times. Last year’s post may interest you, here, or the one from 2011, here, which links with today’s.
PostScript: How could I forget! Today is also the anniversary of the death of Dom Augustine Baker. Fr Baker was a great master of contemplative prayer:

Fr Augustine Baker
Fr Augustine Baker
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