Gene Editing, Consecrated Life and Candlemas

Yesterday the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved a limited form of experimental gene editing of human embryos (see BBC report here). For anyone who believes that life begins at conception, irrespective of whether that life lasts for only a few hours or many years, is born or is not born, as we commonly understand that term, it is a decision of enormous consequence. But because it is ‘science’, because it is presented in the language of compassion for those who are infertile or whose children miscarry, most of us are probably not thinking through the questions that follow in its train. By saying the embryos must be discarded after seven days and destroyed after fourteen, are we not saying, in effect, they are not human, they have no rights? The caveat that embryos which have been experimented on should never be implanted or allowed to grow to term may not cut much ice with those of us who remember the debate around the 1967 Abortion Act and the way in which many of its provisions seem to have been ignored. The prospect of GM human beings just came another step closer.

You notice that I have been careful to write of embryos whereas I naturally think of the unborn as babies. (Whoever said, ‘We’re expecting an embryo!’ or ‘I can feel my embryo moving!’) That is because I think the Church often fails to speak or even understand the language of those to whom she must proclaim the Gospel. Today, on the feast of Candlemas (also known as the Presentation of the Lord or the Purification of Mary), when we think of Simeon and Anna keeping faith through long years of hardship and disappointment and finally seeing the Glory of Israel, we tend to think of the elderly, of the gifts they bring to the Church, and we look backwards, perhaps to a Golden Age that never was. We forget the wars, the poverty, the ill-health, the sheer ignorance that marred the lives of many (as they still mar the lives of many in other parts of the world) and indulge in a little nostalgia. We think of peace after the day is done and the quiet tones of the Nunc Dimittis as night falls. The HFEA’s decision is comfortably forgotten in the soft gleam of candlelight and the sprinkle of holy water.

Let us be grateful, therefore, that today is not only the last of the Infancy feasts, a reminder of what the Incarnation means and Jesus’ purpose in becoming man, it is also the Jubilee marking the end of the Year of Consecrated Life. Quite a lot of people see religious life as irrelevant or a refuge for the stupid and are astonished when they discover that it is not necessarily either. Indeed, whether apostolic or contemplative, religious are great shakers-uppers of fixed ideas or accepted notions. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Mary Ward, Mother Teresa, they were all very different, but they exposed and overturned many of the fashionable complacencies of their day. The Church has never had greater need of people whose whole lives will proclaim the absolute transcendence of God and the importance of the Gospel in defiance of whatever society endorses as ‘acceptable’ or even ‘good’.

Today, as we process holding our flickering candles, let us pray that God will continue to call and uphold those whose service of the temple is, in many respects, hidden but who, by their very existence, assert the reality of values that go beyond the present and reach into eternity. And may those privileged to serve in the temple continue to pray that we may never lose sight of our humanity or fail to be humble in the presence of Life.


Awkward Questions for an Awkward Feast

Anyone who remembers my 2011 post on today’s feast of the Holy Family (which you can read here, if you wish) will know that my ambivalence about it doesn’t allow me to sidestep its awkwardness. Indeed, it is because it is for me an awkward feast that I have to work at it each year. For once I am almost glad I cannot go to Mass today. The thought of hearing yet another homily on the idealised home life of Nazareth might send me shrieking from the pews!

This morning I have been reflecting instead on a question posed by a reader of a recent post on Consecrated Life. He said that many lay people feel the Year of Consecrated Life has nothing to do with them, yet they would like to be able to contribute to it. Had I any advice to give? Now, the first point to note is the ecclesiological understanding of my reader. For him consecrated life is as much a part of the Church as his own vocation as husband and father or that of the priest. For many people today that simply isn’t true. We have moved on from the view that all religious are the best of saints/the worst of sinners to one where, by and large, they are invisible. They no longer feature in most people’s ideas about the Church except insofar as they provide a little local colour on the streets of Rome or in the occasional retro movie. The notion that religious vocations are as real as any other and that they start where all other vocations start, in the life of the family, is increasingly alien.

So, perhaps we could begin by thinking about this feast as an invitation to reflect on how the family is both the origin of our membership of the Church (we have to be born to be baptised) and our individual vocation within it. Then we might go on to think about the way in which vocation changes over time, and the demands that makes on us. We are not always children. We grow up, work, marry and have children (most of us), then experience widowhood, etc. Yet membership of the Church remains a constant, even if it is at arm’s length some of the time.

Where religious vocation is concerned, I think it important to stress that more than prayer is needed. If we genuinely believe in the value of consecrated life, then it is up to us to ensure that it is known about. How many parishes, for example, have invited local religious to talk about their vocation or have arranged visits to their houses to see and experience for themselves how religious live (as distinct from how they think religious live)? How many have addressed the difference between lifelong commitment and the intern approach that has become popular of late? In short, how many ordinary families living their ordinary parish life have made the connection with consecrated life that the Year of Consecrated Life seeks to promote, and how many have seen it as a natural part of their ordinary family life? We used to call this ‘fostering religious vocations’. Why have we become reluctant to do so? Is it because, deep down, we don’t really believe in the value of consecrated life? If so, I think we may have some even harder questions to address.

I am aware that I am saying nothing new, but if it encourages even one person to think slightly outside the box on the subject of family, it will have been worthwhile. Have a lovely day!


A Little Heresy of My Own

When Pope Francis declared this was to be a Year of Consecrated Life, we greeted his announcement with muted enthusiasm. We are very enthusiastic about monastic life here at Howton Grove and happy to share our vocation with others, but we are not so keen on some of the ways in which consecrated life in general is promoted or some of the attitudes that surround it. I have been trying for years to work out why and think I may have had a lightbulb moment, at least as regards women religious. I hope it won’t read like a grumble, because it’s not meant to be. I’m trying to articulate something I think matters, and if my viewpoint is a trifle heretical, I hope I’m being heretical in a good cause.

I have the feeling it’s become increasingly common in Europe, though possibly less so in the U.S.A. and other parts of the world, to regard women who live under religious vows with something akin to contempt. It as though the moment we put on the habit (or not), we ceased to be people with minds or feelings and became complete ninnies, neither demanding nor deserving the ordinary courtesies of life. As communities age or struggle to maintain their former apostolates, they are relegated  to the margins of the Church as so much dead weight. I’m sorry to say the Catholic clergy can be among the worst offenders in this respect; and I think that may be at the heart of my unease about the Year of Consecrated Life.

It is no good asking for prayers for vocations or spending money on promotional videos and the like if we don’t really believe it is worthwhile. If we think religious men and women — above all, women, since they cannot be priests — are essentially wasting their time; that there is nothing they can do or be that someone else can’t do or be better; that the accidentals of religious life matter more than the substance; that religious are wrong about the choices they have made or are deficient in their understanding of what the gospel asks; then, of course, I can’t see anyone being attracted to any form of consecrated life in the first place, still less persevering until death, and it is fundamentally wrong to pretend that religious life is a valid way of following Christ. But as someone who has experienced the joy of monastic life, and who has known people of genuine holiness who have become so precisely through the faithful living out of their vocation, I don’t want the nay-sayers to have it all their own way. It is because I believe in the value of consecrated life that I would like to see it flourish in the Church.

For consecrated life to flourish, several conditions need to be met, and religious themselves need to meet the challenge of changing times. Every week, I deal with a handful of vocation enquiries and I can see that, while there is still great generosity of spirit, the way in which people think about vocation has become increasingly secularised. For example, there is a kind of tick-list the community, rather than the candidate, is expected to meet. There is a presumption that discernment involves only the individual, not the accepting community. It would be easy to dismiss this as ‘unmonastic’ (as indeed it is), but I think that is unfair. A vocation isn’t an abstraction; it is enfleshed in an individual; and none of us, whatever our vocation in life, starts out knowing everything or being everything we are called to be. We need to expand our ideas about how people are drawn to religious life, and how we can best help them find their way. I must emphasize that this isn’t a numbers game. Just as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI foresaw a much smaller Church in years to come, I myself think the religious communities of the future will be smaller, too. I don’t think they will disappear, however, because, in the end, religious life is all about responding to God, and God does not cease to call people to himself.

My hope for this Year of Consecrated Life is that we’ll do more than just pray for vocations or run discernment days and the like. I hope we’ll think deeply about the nature of vocation and the place of consecrated life in the Church. I hope those of us who are religious will examine our own attitudes and accept that, ‘because we’ve always done x or y’ may no longer be a valid reason for continuing to do so — any more than changing for the sake of changing is valid. I hope those who aren’t religious will also examine their attitudes, for and against. If you lament the decline in numbers, ask yourself whether you would become a religious, or how you would feel if your son or daughter wanted to become a religious. If you think religious are a waste of space, go and meet some and see whether they justify that negativity. And if you are a Catholic priest, perhaps you could ban the phrase ‘the good sisters’ from your lips and just see religious as the people they are, fellow-toilers in the Vineyard.

Note: Throughout this post I’ve used ‘religious’ as short-hand for ‘members of a religious order or congregation’. I’ve written principally about women because I am one myself and because male religious are often priests as well, which gives them a different standing in the Church. I’d also like to emphasize that I’m lucky enough to count priests and monks among my friends. My remarks do not refer to them but to the kind of senior cleric who, at a lunch I attended, was overheard saying to the person taking him in, ‘Seat me anywhere, so long as it’s not next to one of the nuns’. For our sins, we were seated together. 🙂


On the Holy Mountain

From our monastery we look out towards the Black Mountains and the Brecons. They are a constant reminder that in scripture mountains are a privileged meeting-place between God and humankind. Today Isaiah 11 speaks of the holy mountain on which no hurt or harm will be done. It is a messianic vision, we say, pausing only to pull out our concordances and commentaries to extract every little nuance of meaning we can from the text. It is a prophecy of the end times, not really meant for here and now.

How wrong can we be! The holy mountain on which no hurt or harm is done should be the ground we tread every day of our lives. God wants to be known and loved now, not just hereafter. If we feel there is some block to this knowing, something that hinders us, we need to look at it and be prepared to change. We can be people of integrity, as Isaiah says. We can be ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ — if we wish. That is the crux of the matter. What do we really want? During this Year of Consecrated Life many people will be challenged to answer that question in a way they never thought possible, but it isn’t a question just for religious or clergy but every one of us. We are all called to know the promise of the gospel (Luke 10.21-24), all called to know the Lord.


Withered Leaves: the First Sunday of Advent 2014

There is something melancholy about Isaiah’s description of the people of Israel as ‘withered leaves, blown away by our sins, as by the wind’ (cf. today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 63.16–17, 64.1, 3–8 ). It conjures up a vision of dryness, deadness, being scattered to the four winds in a cold and dusty Gobi of the soul. Yet this is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, the first day of her Year of Consecrated Life! The irony is almost too much. Many a parish congregation, many a religious community, may secretly be feeling a lack of energy and enthusiasm. The last thing we need is to be reminded of our failure, isn’t it?

That is true if we believe in D.I.Y. redemption, but the fact is that we cannot save ourselves, nor can we be saved in spite of ourselves. At some point or other we have to face who and what we are and allow grace to work its miracle. We begin by acknowledging the fact of sin in our lives — not wallowing in it, just admitting it. This frees us from all the false selves and idols we have created and worshiped instead of God. Only then can the Lord Jesus Christ step in, as it were, as Saviour and Redeemer (cf. the second Mass reading, 1 Corinthians 1.3–9). But once he has stepped in, what then? Then we wait, as the gospel says, (cf. Mark 13.33–37).

The meaning of this waiting is admirably expressed in the first Preface of Advent. The English version we use now reads

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming
the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,
that, when he comes again in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day
may inherit the great promise
in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
as we sing the hymn of your glory
without end we acclaim. . . .

But let’s spend a moment or two on the Latin and see if we can tease out a little more depth of meaning than the English translation suggests at first sight.

Vere dignum et iustum est, æquum et salutare,
nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere:
Domine, sancte Pater, omnipotens æterne Deus:
per Christum Dominum nostrum.

Qui, primo adventu
in humilitate carnis assumptæ,
dispositionis antiquæ munus implevit,
nobisque salutis perpetuae tramitem reseravit:
ut, cum secundo venerit in suæ gloria maiestatis,
manifesto demum munere capiamus,
quod vigilantes nunc audemus exspectare promissum.

Et ideo cum Angelis et Archangelis,
cum Thronis et Dominationibus,
cumque omni militia cælestis exercitus,
hymnum gloriæ tuæ canimus,
sine fine dicentes. . . .

To me, the English text doesn’t really convey the interplay between the First and Second Comings of the Lord contained in the Latin (the latter is never mentioned as such in the translation, though it is plainly there in the original: primo adventu . . . cum secundo venerit), and it misses the force of the relative qui linking the introduction with the wonderful proclamation that follows (‘through Christ our Lord Who . . .’). These are small points, perhaps, but in such a pithy text, they are worth remarking. I’m not entirely sure that the translation doesn’t do violence to the original by suggesting that Christ opened the way to salvation, rather than the way of salvation itself. Again there is a difference which is breath-taking when one thinks about it. The Latin text states these things in a beautifully concise, declarative style: three short sentences announcing some of the greatest truths ever enunciated. But what really bothers me is the way in which munus has been translated. I have always taken this to mean the great work of salvation being made manifest, not just a vague ‘all’ or ‘all things’, for it is surely salvation that is our great hope, the promise to which we look forward. In Latin, that promise is the culmination of the Preface text, rather than, as in English, ‘in which now we dare to hope’ (nunc audemus expectare promissum . . .  ‘what we now dare to hope for, your promise’).

Am I just being pedantic or obscure? I hope not, because the Preface contains the theology of Advent in a little and I think it is worth trying to see exactly what that is and how the Church understands it. The interplay between First and Second Comings, the Day of the Lord which we await, the Salvation for which we watch, the Promise for which we dare to hope — these are the great themes we shall be exploring during the first part of Advent. They are what make us shake off our sloth or indifference and fill us with fresh energy and enthusiasm. They mark the springtime of our liturgical year and remind us that the withered leaves of sin and failure can become a rich humus from which new life will grow.