Worry and St Cyril of Alexandria

Most people know what it is to worry. We worry about our families, our communities, our jobs, our finances, our country. When we are young, we often worry about our exam results; in  later life, our scan results. Worry preoccupies us, saps our strength, closes us in on ourselves. It tends to shut God and other people out and makes us unaware of, or at the very least insensitive to, the possibility of hope. It also clouds our judgment, making us view every act and word of others in the light of our own preoccupations. In short, worry imprisons us in a hell of our own making.

I was thinking this morning about St Cyrial of Alexandria (it is his feast today) and how much I admire his theology while loathing his methods (he closed the churches of the Novatians, expelled the Jews from the city of Alexandria and battled the Nestorians at Ephesus as though they were the devil incarnate). Was it zeal for truth or worry about the future that made him so combative? We shall never know for certain, but I think it is telling that after the Council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory, making it plain that he had no wish to destroy Nestorius or any of his opponents.

I think there is something we can all learn from this. It is natural to worry during a time of unprecedented political uncertainty such as we are now experiencing in the U.K. and in Europe more generally. Those who assert that ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world’ are right in one sense, but in another, they do an injustice to those who have to live with the mess and try to sort it out. I suspect none of us is thinking very clearly at the moment. The lack of political leadership and direction and uncertainty about what comes next are not going to be resolved any time soon. That is why it is important not to make things worse by digging trenches that must later be abandoned. What St Cyril recognized, and we maybe have yet to learn, is that making an argument deeply personal is not the best way of ultimately achieving peace and unity any more than worrying is the best way to attain hope.

 

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Anxiety

Anxiety is difficult to live with. The worry, the uncertainty, the general nervousness about an outcome affect us in different ways, but the Latin root of anxiety (anxius from angere, to choke) suggests that tightening of the chest and stomach muscles with which all of us are familiar. Anxiety makes us clench. It is quite the opposite of trust, which opens us out. No wonder that anxiety is a great hindrance to prayer, keeping us centred on self, or if not self, then on the concerns that occupy our waking hours. It is so wearing!

There is only one remedy I know of: a deliberate, willed surrender to the Father of every hope and fear, a surrender we need to make again and again. Every night at Compline we sing, ‘Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’ That echo of Jesus’ last words on the Cross is not accidental. The Benedictine motto, pax or ‘peace’, is always surrounded by a crown of thorns. Only through union with Christ can we attain a peace the world does not give. It doesn’t make our worries any less; it doesn’t produce magic solutions to our problems; but it does give us the strength to bear them — not our strength but his. The trouble is, most of us are not really convinced of that. We want to deal with things our way, so we go on worrying and fretting and digging deeper holes for ourselves, feeling more and more of a ‘failure’ as we go on. When that happens, there really is only one way out: to call God down to the depth of our need. ‘The Everlasting God is your dwelling-place and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ Trust him.

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Midnight Musings

Last night I spent rather more hours than I care to admit worrying about money. (If you want to know why, look at the Expansion section of our web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and, as our American cousins say, go figure.) I tried the usual monastic method of beating insomnia, i.e. praying, but when that didn’t work decided to listen to the World Service. There I heard an interesting programme which examined how non-profits measure their performance.

Many of us look at income and expenditure but neglect to ask whether the objects of a Charity are really being attained, and if so, how well — in business terms, how efficiently. It’s possible to show a good financial statement yet be poor at fulfilling the Charity’s objects without actually failing to do so.

Naturally, I started to think about our own Charity. Given the slenderness of our resources, human as well as material, I think we can make a good case for ourselves: monastic life is lived with fervour; we welcome people to the monastery and online, both of which require considerable time and effort; we run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired, etc, etc. but still there is no way in which we can actually measure what we do. Like everyone else we are reduced to an annual Statement of Accounts and Report to the Charity Commission.

Our annual report contains facts and figures, a statement of aims and objectives and our own self-assessment as to how well or otherwise we met them. It gives a good picture of how the year has been spent, but it provides no real indication of what you might call the “efficiency” of our Charity. The question becomes even more interesting when one starts to compare other Charities operating in the same area, for example, all monastic Charities perhaps, or all those active in retreat work.

It would take a much better mathematician than I am to work out a way of comparing the relative efficiency of a big Charity and a small one, but I’m sure the results would be thought-provoking and, in some cases, surprising.

There are some things that cannot be quantified, especially where the work of a Charity is concerned, but amid all the talk of “best practice” and “standards” for this and that, the regulations we are all obliged, with good reason, to observe, I can’t help wondering whether the child’s question is still the one most worth answering. “Why a cow?” asks much more than “what is this cow’s milk yield?” Something to ponder, perhaps, during my next sleepless night.

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