I have been enjoying accompanying the Missionaries of Charity on an 8 Day Retreat. It is always great to see how an Ignatian individual guided retreat (IGR) is so often an experience of renewal. The MC’s founded by Mother Teresa live a very austere and effective form of religious life. Famously only owning two sari’s, sharing bedrooms, never travelling alone, with all their communities giving hospitality to the poorest of the poor through breakfast clubs, soup kitchens and also summer camps for urban youth. Alongside all of this is a highly structured day including four and a half hours of prayer. Because of all of this, the Sisters have a very rich interior life – which means that it is a privilege to accompany them on a retreat. The normal periods of resistance and adapting to a rhythm of silence and prayer are not ‘issues’ as they may be with other retreatants. In fact conversely encouraging the sisters to temporarily leave behind a routine of oral prayer and devotion and have the courage to make imaginative contemplations on the Gospel passages and Ignatian themes, and more importantly to give God enough silence and stillness for Him to work in is the challenge. The fruits are wonderful to witness.
Part of my role in accompanying them is to try and go deeper into the life of Mother Teresa, to understand this remarkable woman who began life in a Loreto convent (an Ignatian order) and ended up being a Nobel Prize Winner and probably the most recognised women on the planet. Mother always had Jesuit spiritual directors, in fact one played a crucial role in helping her discern ‘the call within the call’ that brought her out of the convent and on to the streets of Calcutta. However what has struck me most is the anger and sheer hatred that she seemed to generate in some quarters. Most notoriously from Christopher Hitchens and his documentary / book Hells Angel. For a couple of weeks now I have been mulling this over, and being in a privileged position to listen to the sisters and witness their work at first hand over a few years his criticisms, few of which are well-founded, have been wildly exaggerated and lacking insight, generosity, compassion.
Hitchens epitomises a chattering class that live lives that are ultimately unhappy and frustrated, and so compensate by justifying themselves to each other through a spurious moral superiority. So much of the commentariat are affected by this impotence – the secularist and self-appointed gurus have a very flimsy record in building up civil society and actually changing the world. It is easy to stand on the side-line and harp, but Hitchens takes this to an unhinged level – so detached from any practical engagement with poverty. Comparing reading his writings and listening to the Sisters testimony is an interesting comparison of spiritual desolation and spiritual consolation. Hearing (outside of the confidential confines of Direction) Sisters talk about going in and cleaning the house of two dying alcoholics living in squalor in Liverpool is inspiring and moving. Time will be the judge of the legacy Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Christopher Hitchens….. although an interesting footnote for me was meeting his nephew Daniel Hitchens this year. Daniel was an outstanding member of the new intake for Catholic Voices, who train spokesman for the Church. A recent convert, I asked him why he had become a Catholic, and one of the reasons was because his uncle hated Catholics so much! Peter Hitchens has written a fascinating book in response to his brothers atheism, called ‘The Rage against God’. The anger that underpins much of the ‘New Atheism’ is ultimately not constructive, whereas the love that inspires the commitment of the MC’s is creative, and creates hope in the poorest and darkest corners of our world, including urban Britain.
With the rise of ‘Jihad Tourism’ in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, we are told in the UK that the majority of the resources of MI5 is now spent on tracking British Jihadists. Whilst it is alarming to see masked young men with British accents calling for others to join them, I haven’t seen many intelligent reflections on what is attracting them. What are the underlying causes? Sadly sectarian hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims is out of our hands. However close behind is a hatred of ‘the West’. Some of the disillusionment is justified, most of it isn’t. Perhaps our culture excludes more that it includes – with a jaded consumerism, a morally bankrupt celebrity culture and a pornography addled internet with an increasingly toxic and angry social media. Secularists seem to be in denial of all of this and the public debate about faith becomes shriller, with religion being marginalised and often portrayed as being problematic.
As well as some mosques there seem to be three places were radicalisation often occurs, prisons, the internet and universities. A brief look at the history of university education in this country may be in order at this point. Up until the middle ages the universities in these isles were places of theological formation – often run by monastic orders. Of the seven ancient universities (founded before 1600), three of them were founded by papal bulls (Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen) the rest by royal charters (Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin). After Henry VIII’s schism, Catholics were banned from attending many of these universities, and they became exclusive to Anglican students. In the 19th Century, the new generation of ‘redbrick’ universities, based in the growing industrial cities saw it as their civic duty to accept any students without reference to religious belief, and so were proudly secular.
The universities in Manchester fall into this category and because of this secular background they have an uneasy relationship with religion and its presence on campus. It is time for them to rethink this. It maybe that things are changing as they realise how chaplaincy services provide valuable student support and can be at a basic level be a useful addition to student welfare provision. Generally in universities with huge populations of students, (In Manchester 40,000+) – this support for students welfare is inadequate. More importantly universities need to realise that their most effective weapon against radicalisation is well-funded and supported chaplaincy provision. Most young people who are serious about faith will adopt a more conservative/traditional religious identity in order to distinguish themselves in a secular and sometimes hostile culture. A good chaplain can bring experience and wisdom to smooth of some of the harder edges…. universities don’s seem to realise that, students unions often put chaplains in backwaters in freshers week, or their offices in out-of-the-way, hard to find places. Chaplains often complain of institutional apathy, or obstruction and tokenism from the institutions. This needs to change.
This is my homily for tomorrow – the Second Sunday of Advent
Speaking Truth to Power is a phrase that is often used to describe people who bravely stand up against injustice. It takes courage, it takes integrity to put your head above the parapet. It probably explains something behind the overwhelming reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela this week. Whenever there is a media frenzy there is a lot of nonsense spoken about someone’s life – and this week is no exception to this – however it cannot be denied that Mandela become a powerful symbol for many people. He spoke truth to power, and they tried to silence him, but in the end truth won out. He was lucky – he wasn’t silenced – he didn’t become a political martyr. Speaking truth to power is part of the job description for an Old Testament Prophet. And today in the Gospel – on the second week of our Advent Journey we meet the greatest prophet of them all, according to Jesus, John the Baptist. Unlike Nelson Mandela – we know that John was eventually silenced – beheaded by Herod. John is one of the great advent figures – bridging the gap between the NT & OT. He speaks with great authority, and that authority is recognised by the people and so he attracts great crowds.
What is his message for this advent ? I think that he is warning not to be complacent in our faith. He calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees ‘A brood of vipers’. He is not confronting the power of Herod yet – but a much more subtle power – the power of respectability and the power of a good reputation and keeping a public face. So let us examine our own faith and our own lives.
St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises writes very clearly about the seduction of power and honour. In his meditation on the Two Standards – he talks about how the trappings of fame and honour are used by the enemy to seduce us …. to pull us away from God, so that we come to believe that we are all powerful. There is a fascinating index called ‘The Power Distance index’ which measures how much a country respects authority and values hierarchies. The higher the country is the more likely it is to be totalitarian and score high on corruption scales. In ancient times when a Roman General or a Roman Emperor used to have a victory triumph (or parade) and was receiving the adulation of the masses – a slave would stand behind him and according to Tertullian whisper in his ear “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you’ll die”…..the famous memento mori.
So this Advent – let us heed John’s challenge. Let us be honest about the little ways we are seduced into thinking that we are great, we are clever, lest we become complacent. Advent is a time for our hearts to become humbler – that we dust away the complacency – as we would preparing a guest room – for a special guest. But this time the room is our hearts – and for the grace of Christmas to go really deep – our hearts have to mirror that humble manger in Bethlehem.