Assumed Virtue

‘Assume a virtue if you have it not,’ says Hamlet bitterly to Gertrude (Hamlet, Act 3, Sc 4). In the days since the General Election, those words have come to have a different meaning for me. Both in the press and online, writer after writer has claimed the moral high ground through the simple expedient of labelling those they disagree with as ‘stupid’, ‘evil’ or worse. I have sometimes wondered whether we are back to the ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ simplicities of Animal Farm, because very little actual argument is involved, only the trading of insults, many of them in the brutally unimaginative language of the four-letter word or personal attack. In vain does one point out that none of us can predict the future; in vain does one protest that supporting a particular political party does not imply a monopoly of righteousness and good sense. It seems no one wants to hear such inconvenient truths, only to shout their own views.

There is an important point here. We often ascribe to others views we would be horrified to have ascribed to ourselves. How can anyone else know what we really think? We don’t even know ourselves sometimes! But more than that, how can we condemn others for a lack of compassion or sense of justice, for example, when our own conduct shows that we are rather deficient in that area ourselves? Those who followed the post-election ‘debate’ on Social Media will probably have been struck, as I was, by the reluctance of many to accept that, imperfect as our democracy may be, we were all free to exercise our right to vote, and as a corollary, must accept the result as legitimate, whether we like/dislike it.

The tendency to assume that being angry or aggressive equates to being virtuous is becoming quite widespread, but I believe it is a tendency we need to check. Some will say I am merely substituting middle-class ‘niceness’ for passion, but I would argue that passion is not in itself a validator of anything. The more keenly we feel an injustice, for example, the more determined we should be to work for its being put right. The verb there is crucial: work for. That, for me, would involve prayer, reflection, argument and doing what I legitimately could to achieve the desired end.

When we turn to the Church, we can see similar positions being held. It beggars belief that many who call themselves practising Catholics can write of others in the terms they do. Very often they assume an infallibility that makes one chuckle when it does not make one weep. There will always be those who dislike whatever the current pope/bishop of the diocese/parish priest or whatever is doing, and there will be occasions when we need to speak up to right some wrong; but we need to scrutinize our own motives first. Sometimes, we launch into an attack because we happen to dislike something, not because it is wrong or injurious. All too often the debate becomes deeply personal and leaves its scars long afterwards. It is scant comfort then to say the Church is big enough, and old enough, to weather such typhoons in a teacup because what matters is holiness, and the urgent pursuit of holiness through a life of charity and virtue. Scant comfort, but surely true?

Some will say that such a view of the Church’s fundamental mission and purpose is naive. I’d say it is not so much naive as getting to the heart of the matter. Church politics are very like party politics, and just as capable of leading to unintended consequences if pursued without sufficient thought or reflection.

Today, as we pray for a renewal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us, we might pray not only for right judgement but also for an increase in charity and compassion — and the ability to know when we would do well to shut up.

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The Last Day of the Year

It may be perverse of me, but I think the last day of the year is just as important as the first. It is a time for giving thanks for blessings received, asking forgiveness for wrongs committed, forgiving those who have wronged us, and asking grace for the future. Already, even before January, the month that looks both ways, begins, we are aware of needing to make decisions about both past and future. We cannot reject the past, but we can allow it to be redeemed. We cannot determine the future, but we can allow it to be permeated with the love and mercy of God.

In the monastery on the last day of the calendar year, we read chapter 73 of the Rule of St Benedict and are reminded that the Rule itself is only a beginning of holiness, a first step towards the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue described by St Benedict. For me, it will be the 96th time I have heard that chapter read in community. I can look back and see how often I have failed to live up to its demands. I can look forward in hope to trying to live it better in 2014; but most of all, I can decide, here and now, to try to live today as it should be lived because ‘today’ is all we ever really know. So, for me, no New Year resolutions as such, only a renewed sense of purpose about what I am called to be and do. I think (hope?) that is probably enough. It is certainly the best I can do.

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The Need for Heroes

Whenever some public figure falls from grace, the media tend to react with something like glee. We are currently being treated, if that’s the right word, to a great deal of lurid detail about ‘the Crystal Methodist’ — Paul Flowers, the ex-chairman of the Co-operative Bank. Is the media’s appetite (and our own) for such salacious copy just an exercise in collective schadenfreude, or does it reveal something simpler and sadder, our need for heroes and our disappointment when we discover that they are fallible? The Co-op and its businesses have occupied a unique place in British affections. We talk about ethical banking and investment, Fairtrade and the Co-op in the same way. Some may smile a worldly smile, but we know that there is a decency about the Co-op that demands respect. Sadly, that respect has become a little dented of late. Along with the man, the institution has suffered.

As with the Co-op, so with other institutions. Yet, despite all the outrage, the clamour for regulation and change, we often overlook a fundamental point. Institutions are made up of people. The values we hold as individuals are what shape our attitude to work and society. Can we reasonably expect others to be sea-green incorruptible if we ourselves are less than honest? Can we ask others to be heroes if we will not take on the challenge ourselves? The Catholic Church has always understood this business of heroes. The saints are given to us to encourage us, inspire us, even warn us. They are our heroes of faith — and they are all dead. A not-so-subtle reminder that none of us can claim integrity as an absolute! We need to persevere in virtue until our last breath. That is why we need to pray daily for the grace of fidelity and perseverance, that we may become what we are called to be.

Postscript
Today is the feast of St Edmund, King and Martyr. We know comparatively little about him, but during the Middle Ages he was regarded as the patron saint of England and he has inspired some lovely works of art. Perhaps it is sometimes a good idea not to know too much about our heroes.

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A Little Grumble About Stereotypes

I have a grumble, only a little one. It stems more from puzzlement than anything else. Several times during the past week I have come up against our failure as individuals and as a community to meet the expectations others have of us, yet the matters in which we have ‘failed’ have been so trivial as to be baffling. I think our experience begs the larger question of stereotyping and the injustice — I hope that is not too solemn a word — not only of trying to make others conform to our ideas about how they should live their lives but also of making assumptions about them. When challenged about the stereotypes applied to ourselves, we react in different ways. If skin colour is involved, we cry ‘racism’; if sex is involved, we cry ‘sexism’; if religion, we have a much more complex reaction. For Christians, in particular, there can be a feeling that we ought not to defend ourselves. We must try to be forgiving, even to the point where we cease to be human.

I suspect some readers will respond with indignation, ‘Of course we must forgive always, no matter how hard it is!’ I don’t disagree, what I’m saying is that in our forgiveness we mustn’t run beyond grace, we should not become doormats. To forgive is a process, not a once-for-all act (unless you’re very unusual), and really to forgive, rather than just put others on probation, requires courage as well as generosity. It means allowing Christ to forgive in us, and sometimes we get in the way of that. We forget that fake holiness is no holiness. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’ requires rather more than pretence, no matter how well-intentioned. It asks for a change of heart, and that’s not done just by wishing.

Perhaps spending a few moments today thinking about how non-Christians perceive Christians could be fruitful. It would alert us to the ways in which our responses may be (mis)understood — and anything that makes for better understanding among people generally is surely a Good Thing. It may also help us to see that sometimes we conform to other people’s stereotypes because that is the image we have (or want to have) of ourselves. That is a Bad Thing, because it means we are not living truthfully; and whatever else anyone may say, Truth matters.

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Delight in Virtue

Whenever I read what St Benedict has to say about the twelfth step of humility (RB 7. 62-70), a different word or phrase tends to strike me. This morning it was his observation that when we finally come to the perfect love that casts out fear, we do all that we formerly did ‘no longer for fear of hell but for love of Christ and from good habit and delight in virtue (delectatione virtutum)’. I am accustomed to noting that this chapter follows the Rule of the Master quite closely, that Benedict’s ‘good habit’ is not very far from Cassian’s ‘love of the good’ (amore ipsius boni), and that, like Cassian, Benedict introduces reference to the love of Christ (in Cassian it is affectus Christi) to end his chapter on a ‘high’. But it was that ‘delight in virtue’ which hit me today.

‘Delight’ is such a beautiful word, full of warmth and charm. Is that what we associate with virtue? For many of us, acting virtuously has elements of struggling against our inclinations, being good when secretly we would prefer to be bad — or at any rate, slightly less good than we feel we ought to be. Virtue has a brisk, cold bath quality to it: it is good for us and for others, but it is difficult to convince ourselves that it is anything other than a trifle unpleasant. We are glad when we have been virtuous; actually being virtuous is less appealing.

Benedict’s conclusion to his chapter on humility presents us with a real challenge. To find joy, delight, in being humble and in the practices that lead to humility, means a reversal of values. Self has to move from centre-stage; Christ has to become all in all. We shall never attain that kind of freedom by our own efforts; it has to be the work of grace. I think an important part of that is rethinking our vocabulary. All the words that suggest struggle and grim determination tend to focus us on ourselves; those that point to Christ are much lighter, happier, gayer in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. Delight in virtue. That’s not a bad imperative for the day, is it?

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The Twelfth Degree

Humility is very attractive, in other people at any rate. Does it have an effect on the physiognomy or is it something that shows itself only in the moral sphere? It would take several blog posts to unpack what St Benedict has to say this morning (RB 7. 62 to 70), but there are two points I’d like to highlight: the monk (and equally, the nun) must ALWAYS show humility in their outward bearing and their doing so is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Take the outward show first. You might think that nothing would be easier to fake than the appearance of virtue. In a monastery, that’s not so easy. We become extremely sensitive to each other’s moods and behaviour. Any falsity, any lack of enthusiasm for the Divine Office or the task in hand quickly communicates itself. This awareness of the other is one of the great helps to Christian living that membership of a monastic community provides. The fraterna acies, the community battle-rank, is a source of strength and encouragement. I think it explains why Benedict was so keen on community living. Without community, the opportunities to grow in humility are fewer and the need to manifest humility less obvious.

Next, consider the action of the Holy Spirit. We all know how easy it is to take something to oneself: I did such and such; I overcame some fault or other. Benedict will have none of it. We are gradually cleansed of vice and sin by the action of the Holy Spirit. True, he may use our brethren to do the scouring, but it is always the work of God. In older monks and nuns, one often sees a transparency, a goodness that is hard to define but unmistakable when seen. A lifetime of virtuous living, of allowing the Holy Spirit to change us from within, tends to have an effect even on the face. It is the only make-over that costs nothing and yet everything, the only beauty that lasts beyond the grave.

BBC Radio Wales
The podcast of Digitalnun’s  9 October 2011 interview in the ‘All Things Considered’ series may be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/atc.

 

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People as Commodities

I was very much struck by a sentence in a friend’s email yesterday, ‘Some people think communities are commodities and ask questions as if that were the case.’ I think we could widen the terms of reference to include everyone: people as commodities.

How often does one read of some Government scheme which deals with statistics in such a way that the humanity is bled out of them, or read of some personal tragedy being picked over by the media as though those involved had no role other than to gratify our curiosity? Take the media comment on Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple. There was a lot of speculation about the future of the company, some neat retrospectives detailing the amazing impact he has had on consumer technology, but not one of the (admittedly few) assessments I read did more than mention his illness as a ‘problem’ for Apple. No doubt it was ‘weak and womanish’ of me to think that half a sentence wishing the chap well, or expressing some hope for whatever life he has left would have been a more decent and humane response to the human story behind the headlines. But, no. There was some intrusive speculation about the nature of his illness (what right have we to know?) but that was all.

I suspect that this commodification of people, of seeing others principally as contributors to or detractors from my wellbeing, plays an important part in the decay of virtue which it is fashionable to decry. Consider me old-fashioned if you like, but doesn’t virtue have something to do with vir, being a man, being human?

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