Tag Archives: responsibility

October 13: Decisions

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One of the aims of L’Arche is to enable all community members to take part fully without being over-helped at every step of the way; to be able to make decisions – and sometimes to have to stick with those decisions. So if someone opts to spend time in the garden, they don’t just turn up once and expect to be able to do something different the next week. That sort of commitment is part of being human too.

I’m reminded of a story told by someone from L’Arche who briefly worked for another organisation which need not be named. In L’Arche there are discussions about where people go on holiday and with whom, and in the event, everyone seems to enjoy themselves. In this other agency, careworkers chose a destination according to their own preference and the clients’ holiday budget. If a resident hated flying or Spanish food, hard luck, but the carers enjoyed themselves.

James’ words on August 28 bear repeating:

Providing ‘care’ to someone with particular needs enables the individual to live life with more freedom and independence which in turn offers more opportunity for them to care about—and be cared for —by another human being.

Does that sound easy? I remember from many years ago a young man who would refuse to leave the care home where he lived. If staff carried him to the minibus he would cheer up within a few minutes and enjoy the outing or holiday. And he would have been helping plan it all in the preceding weeks. If he stayed at the house, there would have been nothing to do, no-one to play football with. Which course of action promoted his freedom and independence? Which would be said to protect his human rights?

It isn’t always a small and cosy world.

Pray for Wisdom!

MMB.

Mosaic at Broadstairs Baptist Church
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June 10: Justice VI: Justice, Gratitude and Religion

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Abbey of Saint Maurice, Switzerland.

We have not yet talked about justice expressed toward God, but we need to. It is of crucial importance. The Catechism’s definition of justice mentions God as the principal recipient of our justice. Why should that be so? God does not need anything from us! Isn’t justice about responding to need?

Yes, justice is about responding to need, and about paying our debts. But justice is not primarily a virtue by which we learn to add up the numbers and pay the bill. On a more fundamental level, justice is the virtue by which we become increasingly sensitive to our indebtedness. The distinction is subtle, but important. There can be a grudging quality that goes with paying a bill, as we know when we see our hard-earned money vanishing so quickly.

But, a grudge does not belong in the virtue of justice as it relates to God. In being sensitive to indebtedness, we realize how much we have been given by God. In him we have received something far beyond what we have strictly deserved – the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the very kingdom of heaven, as Jesus expresses it.

Even if we do not acknowledge God as our loving Father, and the creator of the universe, it is hard to avoid admitting that we have been given gifts in our lifetime that are of vital importance to us, that have helped us to become ourselves. This gives us a recognition, simply put, that someone has loved us, and has shown it, and our life has changed for the better because of it. When that Someone is acknowledged as God, then we need a way that allows us to make some sort of response. Tomorrow, we shall reflect on this.

SJC

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29 April: Prudence VI, Shrewdness.

 

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In the virtue of prudence shrewdness complements teachability and limits it.  (Summa Theologica  II. II. 49:4) ‘It is a disposition to acquire a right estimate by oneself’, says St. Thomas.  In other words, after you have listened to the advice of those who are older and wiser, the obligation to arrive at a decision about what to do still rests on oneself.  Others cannot and should not decide for us.  The weight of the final decision is still a burden we must carry alone.  One can be running to this or that person forever, unable to come to a decision and rest in it.  Shrewdness knows when one has listened enough and found the answer; shrewdness accepts that the answer in this case might always contain some ambiguity, realises that a certain amount of risk and uncertainty must be borne, but that the issue is now as clear as it will ever be, and the time has come to act.  Saint Thomas will even go so far as to say that in deliberation we may take as much time as needed, but a considered act must be performed swiftly (Summa Theologica  II.II. 47:9).  There comes a time, and we must simply get on with it!

It is important to remember that prudence isn’t about being indefinitely watchful and careful.  Its most important act, for Saint Thomas, is the command.  Prudence answers a question: “What is the best course of action in this situation?”  When it discovers this answer, it commands, “Do it.”  Prudence is a “directive knowledge”, for Saint Thomas.

SJC

Carving, Chichester Cathedral. MMB

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27 April: Prudence IV, Understanding.

 

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The next step in the dance of prudence is understanding, for Saint Thomas.  Understanding gives us the ability to see how this principle applies to this case.  Each event is different from the one before.  Understanding helps us to see the differences – especially those that are not immediately obvious.  This usually requires us to think something through, and not simply react on the basis of how something appears on the surface.

Let’s go back to Jack, our small-business owner about whom we were thinking yesterday.  Let’s say he has a bookshop.  Let’s say his down-and-out employees help themselves to the cash.  Now Jack had better think this through.  He wants to help the needy – this is an important principle.  So he turns a blind eye to the disappearing cash.  But sooner or later, this is going to have an adverse effect on his business.  Sooner or later other principles, that are arguably more important, get buried – such as his obligation to support his family.  If the business suffers, he will soon be in a position to help no one, including himself.

Good people are not usually attracted to doing bad things, but to doing a good thing in an immoderate way, at the wrong time, under the wrong conditions.  With understanding we acquire the ability to set priorities, to determine which good thing I need to be doing now, to say no sometimes to one good thing in order to safe-guard a greater good, and to see what is really at stake in a given situation.

SJC

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26 April: Prudence III: Memory,

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So then, where does St. Thomas begin when he looks at the virtue of prudence?  For him, the first aspect of prudence is memory (see Summa Theologica, II.II: 49:1).  Why?  Because

…it is typical of prudence to be aware of what is true in the majority of cases.  This kind of awareness is fostered and engendered by experience and time, therefore, prudence requires the memory of many things.

Perhaps it is easier to understand this by looking at the opposite quality.  I suspect we all know someone about whom others will roll their eyes and sigh, saying, “Oh dear.  Jack never learns.”  Here, Jack is someone who makes the same big mistakes over and over: the small business person, say, who hires incompetent and dishonest employees out of a desire to help the under-dog.  These employees subsequently harm the business through irresponsibility or theft.  This becomes a pattern, though, in Jack’s business career.  He lets his need to “save” people who have a sob story get in the way of his judgement.  Repeatedly.

It is the repetition of the error that is at issue here.  Memory, says Thomas, is aided by diligence.  With diligence, we make a mental note of what happens, we put conscious effort into noticing how events unfold in matters that are important to us.  We don’t just let life go by, and let the same mistakes happen again and again.  We ask why something keeps happening.  From this, we gain some capacity to predict what is likely to happen if we do the same thing again.  ‘It behoves us to argue about the future from the past; therefore memory of the past is necessary in order to take good counsel for the future,’ says Saint Thomas.

SJC.

Prudence suggests a waterproof in Wales.

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Just Say No!

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A homily worth reading!

Just say No

Follow the link to Fr Christopher Shorrock’s wake-up call as we start Lent.

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6 March:Human Will II: The Will and the True Self

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 We are trying to understand what our will is, and are enlisting the help of St. Augustine.  Yesterday we were looking at St. Augustine’s notion of the ‘divided’ will.  In Confessions he admits that he was enamoured of this idea for a while, because in allowing himself the emotional “leeway” which the idea of a divided will gave him, he found himself in the emotionally comfortable position that comes of blaming something else for his sins and failures.  But Augustine ultimately rejected this idea. His relentless pursuit of truth just would not allow him to rest in an untruth.  Eventually, he admits that his will was one and that it was whole.

This kind of will – single and undivided – demanded that Augustine take full responsibility for all his actions.  In one way, this was a much less comfortable position for Augustine.  But by this time, he had found that, paradoxically, a certain kind emotional discomfort is no bad thing, if it enables one to come to a deeper level of personal truth.  His words in the Confessions that we looked at yesterday have a modern sound to them.  ‘I was the only one involved,’ Augustine declares, in describing his moral wrong-headedness.  He is saying here that the desire to blame his wrongdoing on a flawed will is simply a dishonest cop-out.  His words also ring with a kind of healthy, joyful spiritual freedom, as anyone will know who has begun the process of accepting the truth about himself and of undergoing a deep interior change.  Augustine lived in the fourth century, but his words and experiences are timeless.

I recall the words of a teenage boy I knew when I was a teenager – a boy who had been caught stealing on a rather grand scale.  When he finally began to turn his life around he admitted frankly, ‘I stole.  I did it because I wanted to and because I was greedy.  I deserved the punishment I received.’  The acceptance of personal responsibility for his actions, the complete absence of blaming anyone or anything else for his decision to steal, the honest naming of the greed that impelled him, paradoxically, strengthened him on the level of his will and of his true self.  This boy really did turn his life around.

So, what kind of light does this shed on the concept of the human will?  The boy’s very conversion of heart was inseparable from something that originated in his will: the act of taking personal responsibility for his behaviour and attitudes.  This resulted in giving him a sense of himself not as a thief, but as an honest person, allied to truth and goodness.  For this teenage boy, as for Augustine so many centuries before, the will was both the instrument of change and the locus of a new sense of self.  Our will, then, is quite an important endowment.

SJC

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5 March, 1st Sunday in Lent: The Human Will.

 

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O God, who are the light of the minds that know thee,

 the warmth of the hearts that love thee and the strength of the wills that serve thee, help us so to know thee that we may perfectly love thee,

so to love thee that we may worthily serve thee, whose service is perfect freedom.

 Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine, in the beautiful prayer given here, mentions the human will and says that God is ‘the strength of the will’.  I would like to reflect on this notion of the human will in a few posts.  The Church has always given the will an important place in her teaching on the dignity of the human person, but the human will isn’t an easy thing to define.

Perhaps we don’t think about our will very much or very deeply.  We may think about our emotions, or our mind.  But the will tends to be forgotten.  So let’s start with a simple definition that may not be completely adequate, but at least is easy to understand.  The will is the part of us that assists us in sticking with our good resolutions.  But as anyone knows who has tried to stick to a diet, the will isn’t always very effective in its task.  Just when I might want my will to give me some real backbone, it is nowhere to be found.  What is going on?

I find Saint Augustine to be a great help in understanding this kind of problem.  His Confessions, written in the late fourth century, show us that some things about human nature never change: Augustine, too, had plenty of experience with the weakness of his will.  During the period in his life when he was exploring Christianity but had not yet become a Christian, Augustine felt that his will was not merely weak, but split in two.  This is how he describes it:

The enemy had my power of willing in his clutches, and from it had forged a chain to bind me.  The truth is that when [vice] is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion.  These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress.

     A new will had begun to emerge in me, the will to worship you disinterestedly and enjoy you, O God,… but it was not yet capable of surmounting that earlier will strengthened by inveterate custom.  And so the two wills fought it out – the old will and the new, the one carnal, the other spiritual – and in their struggle tore my soul apart.

[Confessions, VIII:10].

Is our will really split in two?  It can seem so, and certainly seemed so to Saint Augustine.  What of these two wills, then?  And what of Augustine’s declaration that ‘the enemy’ controlled his power of willing?  Augustine gradually came to realise that his moral problems could not be blamed on an external ‘enemy’ of any sort.  What he found when he felt that his will was split in two, was that conflicting desires within his soul led him in conflicting directions.  But his insights were even deeper than that.

Here is what he says later in the Confessions

When I was making up my mind to serve the Lord my God at last, as I had long since purposed, I was the one who wanted to follow that course, and I was the one who wanted not to.  I was the only one involved.  I neither wanted it wholeheartedly nor turned from it wholeheartedly.  I was at odds with myself, and fragmenting myself.  This disintegration was occurring without my consent, but what it indicated was not the presence in me of a mind belonging to some alien nature but the punishment undergone by my own

[Confessions VIII:22].

Note the repeated use of the pronoun ‘I’ in that passage.  Augustine takes personal responsibility here for all his actions.  That no alien being could take the blame for Augustine’s weakness was a crucial realisation for him – and for us as we strive to understand what our will is like.   Furthermore, Augustine sees a sort of ‘justice’ in his personal struggles, for he realises here that the weakness in his will that he deplored was the logical consequence of living a life in which he gave priority to the pursuit of selfish pleasures.  A weak will was what he called ‘the punishment’ appropriate to and consequent upon the lifestyle he had chosen for so many years.  No one was to blame but himself, and he finally realises that clearly.  Now, all this may seems rather heavy and dreary.  But, St. Augustine shows us that there is always the possibility of the will growing stronger as we grow in grace.  In the next post, I hope to develop this idea further.

SJC.

 

 

 

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Interruption: Taking Responsibility for Climate Change.

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A degree less on the central heating, walking instead of driving, eating less meat; climate change is the responsibility of each one of us. Yet I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the little I can do is too little, and that governments must lead by example.

We sometimes think of the US as a litigious society, a bad habit that’s spreading over here, with lawyers encouraging people to sue blithely for harm done to them by those with a duty of care. Monica has drawn attention to an interesting and possibly momentous law suit brought by young people in Oregon, alleging that US Authorities have failed in their duty of care to those growing up since the facts about pollution and how to combat it were known and not acted upon.

She found the story here but a  more sober account is here at the Environmental Law Reporter . (I checked, fearing a hoax story, sorry Monica!)

WT

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August 2: The Psalms as Personal Prayer III.

 

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John Cassian

The monastic writer, John Cassian, writes in the fifth century that when we pray the psalms over time, it will be like this:

[The one praying will] take in to himself all the thoughts of the Psalms and will begin to sing them in such a way that he will utter them with the deepest emotion of heart [emphasis mine] not as if they were the compositions of the Psalmist, but rather as if they were his own utterances, and his very own prayer…. [c.f. Conference X:11].

How does this happen?  Is the every-day experience something that always involves the “deepest emotion of heart”?  Well, of course, there are good days and bad days, as is always the case with any human endeavour.  But, on a deeper level, it may be important to say that the concept of the heart for the ancients had connotations that we don’t automatically think of today.  The heart, for Cassian’s original audience, has very little to do with the mushy, over-emotional concept we may associate with the term today.  For Cassian, the heart is the most important part of the inner being.  It includes the mind, but it is also to do with the will, the place of deepest inner truth, of self-dedication, firm decision, profound responsibility.   So when Cassian talks about the deepest emotion of the heart we need to understand something that has more permanence and stability than we usually attribute to the emotions, maybe akin to a kind of “groundedness” in truth.  In a fast-changing world, and an often chaotic life-style, this description of the heart’s inner strength and capacity for self-dedication can be highly appealing.  The psalms can help us to realise this state in our own lives.

Many of the psalms are composed in the first person.  This allows a species of “transference” to take place, because when we pray things like “O God whom I praise, do not be silent, for the mouths of deceit and wickedness are opened against me” (108:1), or “When I think I have lost my foothold, your mercy Lord, holds me up” (93:18), or “I am beset with evils…” (39:13) and so on, the “I” in any given psalm can become our “I” when we’re praying, no matter what our mood might be at that particular time.  In this way, the psalms become not only a mode of praying, but they help free us from the tyranny of our own emotions, and become a means of self-transcendence, and of empathy.  The psalms enable us to say to humanity, “I am praying not merely for you, but as you”.  We can pray the psalms from within the very consciousness of the one represented by any given psalm.  This allows us to put our own “stuff” to the side, and really listen to and pray from the perspective of different “stuff.”

SJC

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