The Danger of Arrogance

Yesterday, for the first time, it struck me that ‘arrogance’  must come from the Latin arrogare, to claim for oneself. I was reading something which made me think the writer unscholarly and rather arrogant when I found myself questioning what I meant by the latter. In my experience, arrogant people tend to twist and turn facts to suit their own purpose; they are supremely self-confident; and they do not really listen to others because such engagement would show up flaws in their own arguments. What they say and do is all about drawing attention to themselves — see how brilliant/beautiful/superior I am! It is indeed making a claim for oneself, and put like that, it looks rather childish, doesn’t it?

There is a danger in arrogance, however, as there is in most forms of childishness. One hesitates to name any individual as arrogant, but one can see the effects of arrogance all around. Many of our political and economic woes can be traced back to arrogance: to an exaggerated sense of self which disregards any check or balance. It is arrogance which makes it fashionable to decry needy people for being needy — why should I be compassionate when to do so I must step beyond myself and feel the pain of another? It is arrogance which makes it easier to fire bullets at one another rather than sit down and discuss, for why should I listen to you when I know I’m right and you are wrong?

Religious arrogance is just as deadly but often takes a slightly different form. It tends to hide behind the group or organization rather than being outrageously individual, but it retains all the characteristics of personal arrogance. Maybe that is why Benedict is so insistent on monks cultivating humility. The best antidote to arrogance is truthfulness, just as love and compassion are an antidote to hatred and violence. To be truthful, loving and compassionate is to be genuinely grown up, mature in Christ as the apostle says. It is to be selfless in the best sense. To make no claim for oneself, but to allow others to make claims on one, now that really is worth thinking about!

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The End is Not So Soon

One of the (many) good things about living in a monastery is that one is spared all those end-of-the-year reflections, when people attempt to name the most significant events/people/products of the year just gone and predict the same for the year just coming. It is so wearing, and if one were to wait ten years, the lists would probably look very different. Those of a classical bent have much sport with Janus and ianua, of course, (I’ve done it myself), and I daresay tomorrow I shall be among the many saying something about Mary, the Mother of God, whose feastday it is. But today, what of today? Do we end the year with hope or despair, gratitude or an almighty grumble?

Poverty, disease, hunger, violence — they are still with us, as they were at the beginning of the year. Does that mean that the bright promise of 2012 is unfilled, that nothing has really changed? It is easy to forget that if we wish to change the world, we must begin with ourselves. If we see poverty as a scandal, we must examine our own use of material goods; and not those alone, for there is a spiritual and intellectual poverty that is just as crushing. If we believe that no one should go hungry, we do not need to go very far to find someone who hasn’t enough to eat, even here in England.  As for violence, unless we address our own inner violence, we shall never free the world of the desire to wound and kill. The problem for most of us is knowing where to start, even with ourselves.

I think we can all learn from Lawrence DePrimo, the New York policeman who met a poor man with no shoes on. Instead of just passing by, he stopped and measured the man’s feet, then went into a store and bought him a pair of boots. A bystander captured this act of humanity and kindness on camera and soon the policeman’s action was all over the internet. Officer DePrimo was baffled by the fuss, but the important point is that he noticed the need of another and did something about it. Noticing was the first step, and that’s the same for all of us. Too often we just don’t see, so we do nothing. There can be no end unless we first make a beginning, and opening our eyes is the only way to start — whatever day of the year it is.

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Lacrimae Rerum

Death moves us to tears. The tragic murders in the Jewish school at Toulouse have a particular poignancy because the victims were so young and defenceless. No amount of security, no amount of forethought is adequate protection against human malice. So, there is ‘mourning and weeping in Ramah and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more’ and the rest of us feel helpless in the face of such horror. Tears express what we  cannot put into words.

Feeling helpless is not the same as being helpless. There are two things all of us can do, no matter where we live or what our age. First, we can pray: for those who have died, those who grieve, those who are trying to find the perpetrator, for the murderer himself. Prayer invites God into situations where he seems absent, makes it possible for him to change hearts and minds, allows change to occur. Second, we can examine our own conduct. Violence begins inside. In most of us the angry word, the unkind thought never go beyond that, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that we are ‘incapable’ of doing violence to another. As we pray for the teacher and children killed in Toulouse, and the three soldiers killed the week before, let us also pray for ourselves, for pure and compassionate hearts.

As always, I should love to know what you think.

*Lacrimae rerum: The quotation is from Vergil, Aeneid 1. 462, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’ (These are the tears of things and mortal things [i.e.sufferings] touch the mind), spoken by Aeneas as he gazes at a mural depicting the Trojan War. Vergil’s warrior hero is overcome by thoughts of the futility of war.

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Greece in Flames

Anyone who doubts the impact of Europe’s financial crisis on the lives of ordinary people has only to look at the images and stories coming from Greece. Soup kitchens, abandoned children, street violence, these are not what we expect from a European country in the twenty-first century. We have all grown up with the notion of social and economic progress. Life is supposed to get better and better, but the last few years have shown that life does not get better for everyone. There is fear of a general economic meltdown and all the social evils which flow from that.

What is the Church’s response? By and large, what it has always been: practical help, prayer, and lobbying of political interests. The Orthodox Church in Greece is apparently feeding 250,000 people a day and its orphanages are struggling to cope with the number of abandoned children. That is humane, but everyone knows that something more is needed to address the roots of the problem. Suddenly Germany is the object of hatred. Berlin is blamed for the Euro crisis and for the suffering of the Greek people. It seems the European economic union is fragmenting before our eyes. Can it be long before the political union also is under strain?

Exaggerated? Perhaps, but it is high time we started to think about the future in more than narrowly personal terms. A ‘devaluation’ in our standard of living is inevitable and it challenges us to think through the implications of being Christian and the values by which we live. Selflessness and a sense of common purpose are essential. I think John Donne’s Meditation XVII is as apt here, as we watch the death throes of our accustomed order, as when we lament the death of an individual:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee . . .

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Edith Stein, Mob Violence and the Absence of a Moral Compass

Today is the feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein. It is also a day when Britain is again in shock. The idea of mob violence, torching and looting in some of our major cities is hard to get one’s head round. Life in Britain is meant to be predictable and ‘safe’. The police are armed only in exceptional circumstances. We respect people; we respect property; we form orderly queues; we don’t think the death penalty has any part to play in civilized society. But our civilized society isn’t proving very civilized at present.

For an older generation, there are echoes of the 1930s. The Nazis rose to power because they had a ‘solution’ to the apparent disintegration of German society after the First World War. Violence, as we all know, was part of that ‘solution’. It meant the death of St Teresa Benedicta and her sister, Rose, and millions of others besides. No doubt, following the riots in London and elsewhere, there will be calls for ‘crackdowns’, appeals to ‘bring back flogging’ and other variations on the theme. Extremist parties will win votes because people are afraid, while others will speak of the rioters as ‘deprived’ and ‘frustrated’. Very few will have the courage to address the real problem, that of growing up without a moral compass, without a set of values that recognizes the need to observe the laws and customs by which society operates.

What we are seeing in our streets is not a protest movement, nor is it the result of poverty (to say so is to insult the poor). It is sheer criminality: violence and greed running unchecked. It is indefensible. Today our prayers are for all who have suffered as a result of the riots, which includes the rioters themselves. They are prayers for peace and the restoration of order; but let us not forget to ask the prayers of St Teresa Benedicta to preserve us from  the destruction of the tolerance and mutual concern which underlie a civilized society. She understands better than most where the violence could lead.

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Rioting in Tottenham

It was a shock to awake to scenes of violence in London. Somehow, the sight of Tottenham out of control delivered a wound to the psyche. We are not accustomed to seeing such naked anger and wanton destruction here in England. We are aware, in the usual cerebral way of those who dwell in the Shires, that the police are not universally trusted or, sadly, trustworthy; that drug crime is intimately connected with gang violence; that racial tensions continue to simmer beneath the surface of our national life; but seeing the night sky lit up with flames and young men throwing petrol bombs and looting shops brings home the reality of the riot in Tottenham.

Over the next few days, the causes of that riot will be picked over. Those caught up in the violence will give their account of what happened; those who were injured or who lost property will begin to count the cost as the official investigations get under way. There will be accusations and counter-accusations. A great deal of money will be spent; a great deal of tidying up will be done. But what is likely to be the net result? Would it be cynical to say, insurance premiums will go up, property prices will go down and confrontation will become more common?

Tottenham is home to many churches and Christian organizations. I expect that the priests and pastors will be doing their bit to try to bring calm to a volatile situation. We too must do our bit and pray for peace on the streets of London. More than that, we must be peace-makers wherever we are, for we cannot pray for others to become what we ourselves have no desire to be. We too must renounce every form of violence.

 

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Women’s World Day of Prayer 2011

Map of Ivory CoastLast night I could not sleep. Trying to pray failed to cure my insomnia, so I fell back on listening to the World Service. A report from Ivory Coast shocked me. A woman described how a group of about 5,000 unarmed women had gathered to march in support of Alassane Ouattara. As they began to do so, tanks appeared and at least six women were gunned down by the security forces (the woman speaking claimed eight were shot, including one pregnant woman whose womb was ripped open and another whose head was blown off in front of her). This morning, that report is not even mentioned on the front page of the BBC news web site. To me, that is eloquent both of the quiet heroism of many women and their “unimportance”.

It is ironic yet strangely fitting that the news should reach us today, which is Women’s World Day of Prayer. Had those Ivorean women been hurling sticks and stones, I suppose the story might have been more newsworthy, but they were defenceless, in a part of Africa no one except God thinks about very much or very often. Today huge numbers of women throughout the world will be gathering together to pray, and the prayer of all will be one with the prayer of the powerless and “unimportant” in every age. I believe such prayer is powerful with God. Perhaps the death of those women in Ivory Coast may help bring about the political change which no amount of diplomatic dealing or violence has yet been able to do. I certainly hope so.

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Abortion, Rape and the Catholic Church

A thoughtful question posed in a comment to yesterday’s post (Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility) is my reason for writing about this subject. I hope that what I say will stimulate reflection and debate, and that the debate will be conducted with sensitivity. The last thing I should wish to do is cause pain to those who have been raped or who have suffered an abortion.

First, a few words about myself. Long ago, before I became a nun, I used to play an active part in Life which, at that time, had a very clear and simple response to abortion. Essentially, we said that people had to have a choice and the only way that a real choice could be offered was by ensuring that anyone who was pregnant had somewhere to live and all the support needed to bring her child safely into the world. Many of the people we tried to help were deeply afraid: of violent partners, hostile parents, their own inadequacy to cope with parenthood. We provided ‘safe houses’ and on-going help.  I can recall only one woman who said she had become pregnant because of rape, but I’m sure there were others, and probably instances of incest also. I state this because one very good question is, ‘how much do you know about the subject?’ and in my case the answer is ‘very little, but possibly slightly more than some others’.

Next, we need to consider what the Catholic Church actually teaches. It starts, not with a negative, but a huge positive: all life is sacred, and in the case of human life, that life begins at conception. This teaching is based on scripture and natural law. The problem with natural law is that not everyone believes there is such a thing, i.e. a self-evident truth which is accessible by reason and is not dependent on religious belief. If you are prepared to give the time, one of the best accounts of what Catholics believe is in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (The Gospel of Life). In section 60 the pope says, ‘From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth…[M]odern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be.’ Read that, and then read what obstetric textbooks say about the beginning of human life. The fact that the viability of life outside the womb is being pushed further and further back seems to me to underline the fact that the answer to the question ‘when does life begin’ is susceptible of only one answer: at conception.

The Catholic Church is entirely consistent in its attitude to the sanctity of life. As Donum Vitae puts it, ‘It is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.’ (That’s also a reason why the Church is unhappy with capital punishment: there have been so many instances of innocent lives being taken.) We simply don’t have the right to take innocent human life; and that’s something that allows of no exceptions or we get into the business of valuing one life more than another. A child conceived by rape is still a child and has as much right to life as a child conceived by loving parents; so too does a child who has some physical or mental deformity. Our value as human beings does not depend upon our being perfect according to some arbitrary standard imposed by other human beings.

So, we come to the distressing case of someone, woman or child, who has conceived because of rape. Do we say, ‘The circumstances are so awful and the suffering will be so great that abortion is allowable’? or do we say, ‘This is terrible. We must do all we can to help the woman and her child, and go on helping, because there are two lives here and both are sacred’? The Catholic response is the second. Please note that it has two parts.

It says first of all that rape is a terrible wrong inflicted on another. One of the problems we face in western society is that rape has somehow been trivialised. No one I have ever spoken to who has been raped would agree that rape is trivial. That is a message we need to get across loud and clear, and I’m not convinced that the Church has done a very good job on that. Secondly, it says that there are two lives to be considered and we do not have the right to choose between them. On the whole, the Church has done better with that, but it has not always stressed sufficiently that its teaching makes other demands on the Catholic community. If we are to uphold the Church’s teaching about abortion we must also uphold her teaching about the duty to help and support those in need.

I am sure that this post will seem harsh to many. I have not been in the situation I describe and do not know, from the inside, what it is like, but I still believe that what I have written is true. Sometimes when Catholics talk about abortion they give me the shivers. What comes across is the moral absolute, not the reverence or compassion which should be an integral part of it. There are no easy answers to hard questions like those posed yesterday. We have to live with that and do the best we can. Pray today for all who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy — and dig deep in your pockets and your compassion.

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Standing in Another’s Shoes

Two snippets of news mentioned by the BBC almost in passing: the murderer of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was applauded and showered with rose petals when he appeared in court; in Egypt, people are being encouraged to attack Christian churches on the eve of the Coptic Christmas (7 January). Most people in Britain probably feel sick at the prospect: we don’t glorify violence unless it is somehow “sanitized” by being part of a war in defence of  some good or other.

Possibly both the death of Mr Taseer and the threatened attacks on Egyptian Christians are seen as a holy war in defence of Islam, but before we assume that religious extremism is the sole motivation, we should consider the highly volatile political situation in both countries. Neither Pakistan nor Egypt is a western democracy; neither functions as we would expect a western country to do. In the west religion is often ignored or treated as a figure of fun. Not so in Pakistan or Egypt.

The marginalisation of religion in the west has consequences we are only just beginning to recognize. Our assumptions about human rights and human dignity are not necessarily shared by those who view the world from a different religious perspective. Maybe our own indifference to religion makes it harder for us to understand and therefore engage with the people of Pakistan or Egypt. Standing in another’s shoes is something we all need to do more often.

Podcasts

iTunes has finally approved our podcast stream after we moved the feed to Audioboo. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sorting out our podcast collection and begin a new series. Thank you to all who offered help and advice, and especially those who tackled Apple on our behalf. To find our podcasts on iTunes, look for iBenedictines.

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Rioting in London

Those who benefited from the student grants of old have probably had mixed feelings about the proposed changes in university funding and, in particular, the financial burdens being placed on students of the future. When we were young, universities were fewer, student numbers were fewer (can you believe, when I was at Cambridge only one undergraduate in ten was a woman?), and our expectations of the State were lower; but we knew we were immensely privileged and wanted as many as possible to share that privilege. Education was worthwhile: it meant hard work and sacrifice and laid obligations on us which we cheerfully accepted. It made idealists of us.

Looking at what happened in London yesterday, my own idealism began to slip. I thought I understood why the Government proposed the changes it has; I thought I understood how the scheme will work; and I thought I understood why so many people are angry; but I sat on the fence because I thought I also understood the wider economic argument. The violence and vandalism we saw yesterday are completely unacceptable. They show the argument has been lost, and in losing the argument we  have lost something greater still, the sense of what higher education is.

Long ago, a charming and brilliant friend who had devoted her life to the W.E.A. mused aloud, “education is too good to be wasted on the young.” I don’t agree; but I do think education is too precious to be wasted. Breaking windows and throwing paint are like Xantippe’s piss-pot. I hope they will not distract us from the serious matters we need to address.

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