Tag Archives: society

24 June: Pope Francis teaches about John the Baptist.

A second post about John the Baptist, whose feast we marked yesterday. This is from Pope Francis’s Audience, 13.12.2021.

Pope Francis reflected on John the Baptist responding to those asking how to change their lives for the better, since their hearts were touched by the Lord. It reflects an enthusiasm for the Lord’s coming and a desire to prepare themselves concretely for this joyous, life-changing experience. In the same way, we too should ask ourselves what we should do within our own lives, the Pope suggested, and reflect on what we are called to do and become.

The question of what we are to do reminds us that “life has a task for us”, the Pope said. It is not something left to chance, but rather, “It is a gift that the Lord grants us,” since He asks to discover ourselves and “to work hard to make the dream that is your life come true.” We all have a mission to accomplish, he explained, and we should not be afraid to ask the Lord this question often: What can we do for the Lord, and what can we for ourselves, our brothers and sisters and how can this be translated concretely into contributing to the good of the Church and society?

John the Baptist, in responding to those who ask him “what should we do?”, gives each person a very concrete reply to their life situation. And this offers a precious teaching, the Pope said, that “faith is incarnated in concrete life,” touching us personally and transforming our lives.

In conclusion, he encouraged everyone to think concretely about what we can do, small or big, in our own lives as we prepare for Christmas. This could mean visiting someone who is alone, helping the elderly or the ill, or serving the poor or someone in need. It may also mean asking for forgiveness for our mistakes, paying a debt, clarifying a misunderstanding, or praying more. We can all find something concrete to do, the Pope emphasised, adding, “May the Blessed Mother help us!”

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30 May: A lesson in respect.

Tagore in later life.

Tagore also recorded an instance where he himself showed great respect to a person that someone in authority might have disdained to take any notice of. Tagore also knows how to tell a story well, so enjoy!
KALIGRAM, 1891. Yesterday, while I was giving audience to my tenants, five or six boys made their appearance and stood in a primly proper row before me. Before I could put any question their spokesman, in the choicest of high-flown language, started: “Sire! the grace of the Almighty and the good fortune of your benighted children have once more brought about your lordship’s auspicious arrival into this locality.” He went on in this strain for nearly half an hour. Here and there he would get his lesson wrong, pause, look up at the sky, correct himself, and then go on again. I gathered that their school was short of benches and stools. “For want of these wood-built seats,” as he put it, “we know not where to sit ourselves, where to seat our revered teachers, or what to offer our most respected inspector when he comes on a visit.”

I could hardly repress a smile at this torrent of eloquence gushing from such a bit of a fellow, which sounded specially out of place here, where the ryots* are given to stating their profoundly vital wants in plain and direct vernacular, of which even the more unusual words get sadly twisted out of shape. The clerks and ryots, however, seemed duly impressed, and likewise envious, as though deploring their parents’ omission to endow them with so splendid a means of appealing to the Zamindar.

I interrupted the young orator before he had done, promising to arrange for the necessary number of benches and stools. Nothing daunted, he allowed me to have my say, then took up his discourse where he had left it, finished it to the last word, saluted me profoundly, and marched off his contingent. He probably would not have minded had I refused to supply the seats, but after all his trouble in getting it by heart he would have resented bitterly being robbed of any part of his speech. So, though it kept more important business waiting, I had to hear him out.

  • ryot, raiyat: peasant farmer, or agricultural worker.

From Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore.

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29 May: On the receiving end.

Christina Rossetti reminded us that we do not always know leaf from leaf; there are often stinging nettles and prickly brambles behind the pretty flowers. A careless hand could be stung or scratched if it reached in to pick a pink campion or a head of Queen Anne’s Lace.

Saint Augustine, as we heard the other day, was insensitive to the dignity of the Welsh bishops who came to visit him. This was hurtful. I imagine this set back Christian unity in these Islands when mutual respect would have healed many rifts. And Augustine was a saint; we lesser mortals need to be vigilant not to be careless in dealing with each other.

Nationality and race are not the only stumbling blocks to the unity of Christians or the unity of all people, but they matter. If they are not respected, especially by those in authority or power, people will feel hurt and insulted and will be disinclined to co-operate. Here is an eloquent example from 19th Century India. Tagore was by no means intemperate, unlike the man he describes.

Let us pray for the grace to see other people as fellow-children of God, brothers and sisters to be respected and loved as equals.

CUTTACK, 10th February 1893. He was a fully developed John Bull of the outrageous type—with a huge beak of a nose, cunning eyes, and a yard-long chin.

The curtailment of our right to be tried by jury is now under consideration by the Government. The fellow dragged in the subject by the ears and insisted on arguing it out with our host, poor B—— Babu. He said the moral standard of the people of this country was low; that they had no real belief in the sacredness of life; so that they were unfit to serve on juries. The utter contempt with which we are regarded by these people was brought home to me when I saw how they can accept a Bengali’s hospitality and talk thus, seated at his table, without a quiver of compunction.

As I sat in a corner of the drawing-room after dinner, everything round me looked blurred to my eyes. I seemed to be seated by the head of my great, insulted Motherland, who lay there in the dust before me, disconsolate, shorn of her glory. I cannot tell what a profound distress overpowered my heart. How incongruous seemed the mem-sahibs there, in their evening-dresses, the hum of English conversation, and the ripples of laughter! How richly true for us is our India of the ages; how cheap and false the hollow courtesies of an English dinner-party!”

From Glimpses of Bengal, Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore“.

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5 April: Strange refuge

The symbolic Gateway to Britain at Dover, where Channel swimmers’ crossings to France may begin and crossings in the opposite direction may end
So I have a new name, refugee.
Strange that a name should take away from me
My past, personality and hope.
Strange refuge then.
So many seem to share this name, refugee,
Yet we share so many differences.
I find no comfort in my new name.
I long to share my past, restore my pride,
To show I too in time will offer
More than I have borrowed.
For now the comfort that I seek
Resides in the old yet new name 
I would choose, friend.

Written by a twelve year old Afghan Refugee.

Mrs Turnstone spotted this poem in an exhibition at Canterbury Baptist Church.

During my lifetime our country has made room for different groups of refugees: to name a few, exiles from Eastern European Communism, Ugandan Asians, Vietnamese boat people, people oppressed for their sexuality or because of their opposition to dictatorships. They and their descendants are part of our society, offering more than they have borrowed.

So why are our shores so unwelcoming today? And why do people not only flee their homes but also seek to come here to Britain? Welcoming or rejecting the stranger, which is our true self?

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24 September, Season of Creation XXV: Global inequality; Laudato Si’ IX.

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A modern Northumbrian coble fishing boat, captured by Nigel Coates

48. The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas.

49. The excluded are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalised, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”.

The photograph introducing this post we first used for a piece about Holy Island, which showed how depletion of fish stocks was taking place before the Great War. How much have we learnt in the century since then? Stocks are still being extracted to the point where their survival is threatened, and livelihoods demolished.

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October 23. Month of Mission: Thoughts from my cell.

Another example of Mission is the Irish Chaplaincy. Here Eddie shares some thoughts on the prison ministry side of that work. Enough to read his article to know how important it is.

I awoke in my cell having had an interesting dream in which I was in a kind of social club with my guitar (the one mentioned in the last blog) playing ‘Country roads’ with lots of people singing along.

                 

It’s one of the songs I’d sung at a prison event a couple of days before, after one of the guys said he liked American country songs and sang a couple himself. He had a really good voice and wasn’t at all shy. None of the others, though, seemed too interested in singing and were happy to sit and chat with one another and with those of us from the Irish Chaplaincy, away from their cells for a blessed couple of hours.

I should explain that the cell I was in was at a monastery where I go regularly to spend 24 hours in silence, and I was particularly curious on that occasion why the monastic tradition gives the same name to the room of the monk as that used in prisons for the place of confinement. It was an interesting link to our Traveller event at Wormwood Scrubs, so too the dream.

Our event at Scrubs was surprisingly relaxed, especially considering that it was one of the hottest days of the year, when the tiny, airless cells must be like infernos. We were in the multi-faith room, with doors wide open (exceptionally) and fans whirring, and the space was laid out café style, with tables and easy chairs. There was a lot of pleasant conversation, a little bit of singing (not too much, and that was fine). And then there was the food: a feast of bacon and cabbage and potatoes, with lots left over for the guys to take back to their mates who hadn’t been able to attend (or to eat again themselves in their cells!). And after the meal there was chocolate and other treats that Breda and Ellena had brought. Several of the prisons staff came along, for they also enjoy and value our events, and it’s probably a bit of light relief for them too from the major challenges in running a prison today. Sarah the governor was there, with several of her senior staff, plus Zahid the head of Chaplaincy and Fr. Chima the RC chaplain. They’re all good people doing a good job, and I was a little sad to read in the news the following day that Wormwood Scrubs is on a list of 16 prisons judged by the MOJ to be of ‘serious concern’ (the Irish Chaplaincy has a presence in a few of those on the list). Years of under-investment and over-crowding have taken their toll; and when availability to drugs is thrown into the mix and prisoners locked in their cells for large parts of the day then there are some very dangerous and volatile situations created.

Following the food there was a group photo outside with everybody in great spirits, and then there was time to help people with a questionnaire about our ‘Travelling Forward Resettlement Project’. I was struck that in answer to the question about previous education most of the guys ticked ‘1’ (the lowest score), whilst for the questions about interest in training and in being helped to get a post-release job most ticked ‘5’ (the highest). And the majority of the guys needed somebody to write down the answers for them.

I don’t know what these men have done to end up in prison, and I don’t need to know. I simply enjoy the time with them; to share a meal together and a bit of craic. And they’re so appreciative of these events. For Travellers (people who are used to moving around and being out of doors) being confined to a small cell for prolonged periods must be a particular hardship.

As time was called on the gathering (the two hours having flown by) there were multiple handshakes and ‘thank you’ was said repeatedly. And then it was back to the cell. In my monastic cell, from which I could hear the gentle sound of rain through the open window and look out at the woods surrounding the monastery (and from which I could leave whenever I wished), I thought of those guys.

Eddie Gilmore

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September 5: In praise of rain IV.

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I trust I’ll be forgiven for using two photos from Amsterdam to accompany GKC’s thoughts on cold showers for the English. These young people were enjoying a public and communal shower-bath in April and sharing their enjoyment with family and friends! And I guess an craftily programmed computer controlled the flow. Social media if not a socialistic institution.

If the Englishman is really fond of cold baths, he ought not to grumble at the English climate for being a cold bath. In these days we are constantly told that we should leave our little special possessions and join in the enjoyment of common social institutions and a common social machinery. I offer the rain as a thoroughly Socialistic institution. It disregards that degraded delicacy which has hitherto led each gentleman to take his shower-bath in private. It is a better shower-bath, because it is public and communal; and, best of all, because somebody else pulls the string.

Baptism is also public and communal, since all Christians are called to be baptised, either as infants or as believing adults and anyone may attend a baptism in a public church. The churches recognise each other’s baptism and do not re-baptise people who were Christened before joining a particular church.

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10 February: Not through vainglory: a response to Virginia Woolf

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Saint Paul never tramped the byways of Palestine with Jesus, but he knew the Jewish Scriptures – to love the Lord your God with your whole being and your neighbour as yourself. He put it this way:

If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.

Philippians 2:1-4.

You don’t have to be a Christian believer to look to the things of others, to work towards being of one accord with your neighbours. In a diverse society such as the United Kingdom today, that should be obvious. But that sense of solidarity does not predominate in everybody. I feel that it was what Virginia Woolf missed by trying to live the illusion – her own word – that she was somehow superior to others. Vainglory sums it up precisely.

And realising that it was vainglory to affect such superiority – or so I read her ending – she filled her pockets with stones and waded into the river. Woolf was certainly struggling with despair in her last months. The Hamilton Star recently told how researchers from Canada and Brazil created word clouds from her writings in happier times and those last months.

In the cloud created from her final months, the words include: little, miss, war, nothing, never, can’t and don’t. The researchers write that these “negative words” may indicate Woolf’s “thoughts of lack of efficacy, self-criticism, worthlessness, nostalgia, melancholy and mainly hopelessness.”

This is not to deny the mental illness that blighted Virginia Woolf’s life, which surely contributed to her thoughts of melancholy and hopelessness, despite her many privileges. Nor is it possible to compare her suffering with Paul’s time in chains and prison, nor to deny the power of God’s grace to work in her heart. Suicide is an extreme form of repentance, and Woolf was aware, perhaps morbidly aware, of causing suffering to others, and as her last letter shows, she wanted to end that. Let us, for every one who takes their own life, 

be … confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:6.

 

And let us remember, with thanks, that there is now formal and informal help for those in great distress that was not available to Virginia Woolf.

MMB.

 

 

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10 November: This Wreck.

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Henry James’s true country, Azar Nafisi assures us, was the imagination, in a Blakean sense, meaning the life of the spirit.  At the start of the Great War, James wrote to Rhoda Broughton:

Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I am sick beyond cure to have lived to see it. You  and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that these long years we had seen civilisation grow and the worst became possible.

From ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi, Harper Perennial, 2007, p216.

We must remind ourselves of the danger of anaesthetising the imagination too much, to the extent where those caught up in fighting are merely ‘little brown men killing little brown men’, as one US General memorably said. No doubt he was making the world safer, in his own mind. But as Blake reminds us:

Caiaphas was in his own mind

A benefactor to mankind.

The Everlasting Gospel.

We are brothers and sisters of the same dust, the dust of Earth, the dust of the stars, formed by the breath of God.

WT.

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September 2: L’Arche and Care VII -The roots of L’Arche.

Larmes de silence: Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier’s Tears of Silence (DLT, 1973) is the earliest book about L’Arche that I know, As an appendix he has a speech given at Church House in 1972, from which this is an extract.

This is the problem. We have created a society that rejects the weak. This is a terrible indictment of any society. It is a wonderful thing when you put your arms out in a welcoming attitude to a handicapped person; then something happens: his eyes begin to believe and his heart begins to dance and he begins in some way to become our teacher. . .

I begin to discover something: that this wounded person, a distorted face, a crippled hand, that the way the handicapped person looks at me, approaches me – all this does something to me, the wounded person calls me forth. And being called forth, I discover that I can bring him up some tiny little way.

The vocabulary has changed over forty years, but the message is clear. And although big subnormality hospitals are largely consigned to history, our society still rejects the weak, to the extent that parents will be put under tremendous pressure to abort a baby known to have Down’s syndrome.

We need to return, not so much to the 2oth century roots of L’Arche, but to the 1st Century roots of L’Arche, the Joyful Good News we are sent to proclaim to all nations.

(Tears of Silence is on sale in French and English through Abe Books.)

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