The scandal of the Navity

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I was trying to work out why the media seem to have focussed on the Pope’s thoughts about the appropriateness of the ox and the ass in the nativity scene. It really is something of a non-story, although when I was interviewed about this earlier today, the presenter seemed to believe that the Holy Father had broken controversial new ground, by ‘re-dating’ the birth of Christ and claiming that by highlighting the lack of cattle in the manger, the Holy Father is trying to remind us that the nativity story is simply a myth, not to be taken literally.

I’m not sure how well I managed to get my points across (unfortunately one of the children had a meltdown towards the end of the phone interview) but one of the things that I did point out was that though Joseph Ratzinger is an acclaimed theologian and biblical scholar, whilst his book does not undermine anything in the Magisterium, neither is it infallible doctrine, it’s a book written under his own name and Catholics are free to disagree. There’s no need to consign the donkey figurines to the knackers yard just yet. The Pope may think that they have no place but as he said, he can’t see that changing any time soon. There were no accounts of cats or peacocks in the Gospels, but they often feature in nativity scenes, the peacock symbolising immortality and there is a legend about a cat giving birth to a litter of kittens in the stable. In some parts of the world you might also find a St Francis figure anachronistically kneeling at the crib, Mary’s midwife or representations of local townspeople and tradesmen, although I think the lobster in the film Love Actually, might be stretching things too far.

We know that there are no mentions of cattle in either Luke or Matthew’s account of the Nativity stories. This won’t come as news to anyone who is au fait with their Bible and neither will the Pope’s clarification that the dating of Christ’s birth is out by a few years, I remember being taught the controversy over twenty years ago in school.

It is thought that the tradition of Nativity scenes were introduced by St Francis of Assisi. The basic elements comprise Mary (on Christ’s right), St Joseph (on Christ’s left), at least one shepherd, at least one angel, the three magi (who make their way to the crib in time for Epiphany), a lamb to symbolise not only the shepherd’s gift but also the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the ubiquitous ox and ass. The reason for the presence of the cattle is in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy,Isaias 1:3

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood.

The donkey also prefigures the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There is a rather endearing tradition that a cross was marked on the donkey’s back as a reward for using its breath to warm the infant Christ in order to mark out its offspring precisely so Jesus would recognise it for his entry into Jerusalem. I remember searching for this mark every time I encountered a donkey as a child, just in case!

What stands out for me, from the limited extracts that I have read, is what Pope Benedict is emphasising with his interpretation of the infancy narratives. Rather than suggesting that the nativity is a fable, he is grounding Christianity firmly in historical fact by going back to the primary written sources. That there may have been no donkey in the inn is something of a minor detail, our Pope is an incredibly thoughtful and precise man, his reflections are typically very careful. I would suggest he was focusing on the way in which the Gospels were written and what they can tell us. Benedict argues that the Evangelists set out to write real history, that had actually happened and he seeks to contextualise this.

The media have focused in upon the donkey detail for a number of reasons; firstly it makes a sensational story and is an easy way to get in a dig at the Pope and casts him in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Secondly, in a post-Christian era that subverts the message of Christmas in a grotesque orgy of consumerism and self-indulgence, casting doubt upon the nativity justifies the distortion. The Nativity isn’t real anyway, look even the Pope says so. Thirdly and probably the most overriding reason is that journalists are not theologically literate enough to pick out the compelling points from the Vatican’s press release, so go for the easy story.

More compelling than the lack of cattle, or that the angels may have spoken rather than singing, is what the Holy Father confirms for us, such as the Star of Bethleham was an actual celestial event. One of the things that struck me was the comparison of Pax Christi to Pax Augusti and the discussion of the political realm. These words seem especially prescient in the light of the vociferous opposition and vilification of those who defend life and marriage.

The political realm has “its own sphere of competence and responsibility;” it oversteps those bounds when it “claims divine status and divine attributes” and makes promises it cannot deliver.

The other extreme comes with forms of religious persecution when rulers “tolerate no other kingdom but their own,”

Any sign God announces “is given not for a specific political situation, but concerns the whole history of humanity.

It would be marvellous if the negative publicity whetted appetites and aroused public curiosity to make the book hit the best seller lists, so that people could experience precisely what the Pope has to say for themselves. Perhaps the headlines should have emphasised that it’s an uncharacteristically short tome, only numbering 132 pages.

There should be controversy around the book, it reaffirms the cornerstones of Christianity, namely the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. As Pope Benedict says, Jesus’ life was full of contradiction, paradox and mystery and remains a contradiction today.

Benedict describes Christ’s life as a scandal against the spirit of the modern age; God does not restrict himself to the ethereal or spiritual but demonstrates his power in the material world. The true scandal is not the omission of the Ox and the Ass, but that God humbled himself in order to redeem mankind. That’s what the headlines should have been screaming.

On coming home

Damian Thompson writes today that the era of Anglo-Catholicism in the Anglican Church is drawing to a close due to the forthcoming vote on women bishops in the Synod this week. According to Damian, Anglo-Catholics who are serious about their faith,will have already decamped leaving only what he describes as the ‘gold chasuble brigade’ i.e. those who like the liturgy of the Roman rite but not the meat of the Catechism. He also describes how the Ordinariate has not attracted most of the Anglo-Catholic laity and attributes this in part to the failure of the Catholic Church to provide the Ordinariate with a London church.

I’m not so sure he’s right on either score. I don’t think it’s fair to use the amusing biretta and lace trope (which does have an element of truth) when discussing matters of spiritual integrity. There are undoubtedly those who like the liturgy and outward trappings of pre Vatican II Catholicism but are very liberal in terms of Catholic teaching on sexuality and other matters; on the other hand there are those who genuinely yearn for reunification, who are well-formed, highly educated, theologically and morally literate who just cannot in good conscience sign the Catechism. I would hazard a decent guess that the former Bishop of Chichester, John Hind, is just such a man. Those who do not ‘Pope’ are not hypocritical or ignorant, all style over substance, simply that leaving home is not easy and takes much soul-searching.

There have been a few times online when I have seen decent men barracked and hectored that if they have any integrity they should convert. Such attitudes make me sad and angry in equal measure. Bullying and berating people is not the way to ensure conversions of heart.

I can only speak of my second-hand experience as the wife of someone who converted, though I was party and privy to Robin’s journey, being already a Catholic, I could not experience the turmoil in the same way. For me, it was blatantly clear that he should convert, but that was something he had to discern for himself in much prayer and thoughtful reflection, it was a decision between him and God, one in which I could have very little input. If I’m being entirely candid, on one level it would have suited me absolutely fine had Robin remained an Anglican clergyman. We had a lovely Rectory, a great parish, he was Freehold, a wonderful circle of friends and support, a pension scheme and lifetime security. We went to vigil Mass on a Saturday together so I could fulfil my obligation and then I would support him in the parish on a Sunday. I was being spiritually nourished, we had a good life, Robin was on Synod, conducted lay reader training, was part of diocesan vocations, school governor, trustee of a local charity, all in all was doing well, surely to throw all that away for an uncertain future was folly? I know both sets of parents were very uneasy about it all.

But all the while there was a nagging and niggling sense for me, that this was somehow dishonest. It became clearer and clearer that he needed to convert, that he wasn’t being honest with himself, with his parishioners and most importantly with God, but the impetus, the examination of heart and conscience can only come from deep within, no-one else can or should make those spiritual choices for you, plus we have to trust in God’s grace and the Holy Spirit. I wanted nothing more than the person who I love most in all the world to be in communion with me in faith, there is nothing more painful than being spiritually divided; of course I wanted him to receive all the richness and beauty of the faith, the graces and blessings of being a member of the one true Apostolic Church. Love is not selfish, it wants to share its joys with others, it will put the other person first regardless of the cost. But ultimately I could not substitute my will for his.

And yes, there was a cost, an enormous cost for us as a family and no doubt if I were a better, holier and more pious woman, I would have borne it a lot more unflinchingly, but when the eventual decision came, it was full of joy, our parish made Robin so welcome, but it was very bittersweet. We laid down our previous lives to take up a new one, which entailed much pain and sorrow. I know Robin felt like he was letting people down, deserting a group of people who he had cared for and ministered to over the past ten years and I felt like I was betraying those who had made me so welcome and loved when we got married.

We then, as detailed on this blog, had an incredibly testing two years whilst he discerned vocation and worked in the funeral industry, during which we doubled our number of children from two to four, I found a writing voice and struggled to come to terms with the swash and buckle of internet discourse and was subject to a series of vicious personal attacks, which was at times my only social contact with the outside world.

That’s not to deter potential converts, our story is not unique, every single Anglican convert’s wife has a similar tale to tell in terms of the impact upon their family life. One of the things that almost all mothers crave is stability and the opportunity to build a future for their children. One of the downsides of being any clergy wife, is that you have to accept that your husband’s vocation does not entail a guarantee of permanence. Moving house multiple times can be incredibly destabilising and losing one’s circle of real-life local friends and acquaintances, to move to an area in which you know no-one and can’t easily get out and about, isolating.

I was as supportive as I could be, I knew it was the right thing, but it was by no means easy and I was by no means a paragon of saintly virtue in serenely accepting the family turmoil or years of flux and uncertainty.

I’ve digressed, but the point is, that I was always 100% supportive of Robin. What about Anglo-Catholic clergy whose wives are reluctant to convert and/or support them? It’s an enormous ask and therefore denigrating the decision to put family stability first cannot be the correct way to go. Furthermore leaving one’s spiritual home can be an enormous wrench. I’ve never done it, but when C of E clergy are ordained, like their Roman counterparts they believe this to be a lifelong commitment and calling, in the same way as marriage vows. One cannot deny the affection for the spiritual tradition in which one was formed and it takes a lot of courage to admit there is no realistic prospect of reunification, to abandon your home and watch helplessly as it tears itself to pieces and moves further and further away from universal truths.

Crossing the Tiber is not the straightforward intellectual exercise that it might seem on paper, these are real people with real lives and a multitude of responsibilities to juggle. For the clergy there is the additional question of vocation. One has to accept that one’s former ministry was probably not wholly valid. What if one still feels called to priesthood? There is no guarantee that the Catholic Church will accept one as a candidate. What do you do if your life hereto has consisted of ministry, you have a hatful of theology degrees, huge amount of transferable skills yet are competing with people not only younger but with more relevant experience? All of a sudden you have to rebuild your life, whilst attempting to provide for yourself and any family. Was your former life a waste of time and meaningless?

All of which means than the decision to convert has to be made out of love in a spirit of joyful acceptance and not because one feels that the Church of England has left one with little other choice. There is a difference between choosing to ‘Pope’ and being pushed. Neither of us regret for one moment the decision to convert, there is no question that it was where The Lord was leading, our lives are spiritually richer, our marriage has been transformed and strengthened and if ordination does not take place, though crushing, we would still not look back. This is where converts need to be, it has to be a total laying down of a life in order to resume it and an acceptance that The Lord may not lead one back to the altar in the same way. It’s a total death to self and an acceptance than one may no longer be in ministry. The older one is, the more difficult that becomes, and if one is a young unmarried vicar, then one has to abandon any previous notions of marriage and family.

And this, I suspect is one of the reasons why perhaps not as many laity as some expected have joined the Ordinariate, because again, for many, leaving a former parish church and affiliated social groups is just too physically painful, not because of any shortcomings on behalf of the Ordinariate. I’m willing to bet as well that there are plenty of families where one party is far more enthusiastic than the others, Anglicanism famously encompasses a broad spectrum of views. An unsatisfactory status quo is psychologically more comforting than a leap of faith into the great unknown.

Is Anglo-Catholicism dead? I am no longer au fait with the latest developments, but it seems to be thriving as ever in its little pockets around the country, such as here in Chichester diocese. I guess it depends on one’s definition, perhaps life is untenable for Anglo-Papalists, but groups such as Affirming Catholics would claim otherwise.

I cannot stress strongly enough that the joy and happiness of conversion far outweighs any difficulties and every convert clergy family I know says the same. There is no looking back, no regrets and this is, I believe, because it was an independent decision to embrace Catholicism and not a convenient bolthole. There is a distinct difference. This is why Damian Thompson is wrong to want the legislation on women bishops to pass in its current format, with no provision worked out for conscientious objectors. We should not laugh or pass judgement on the consciences of those who remain behind to be alienated and vilified by their peers and brethren in Christ. It must be a horrific time for all. It could well have been my husband, I take no credit for his journey but undoubtedly one of the factors that led to his conversion was the actual experience of worshipping in a Catholic Church with his wife every week for two years. The unknown did not seem so scary, Christ called from the Eucharist, he pushed at doors and found them opening. Not everyone is so fortunate. I know many who are still grappling with their consciences.

For those Anglo-Catholics who do read this (I had the honour of being listed as a blog of note by New Directions) please know that you are all in our thoughts and prayers. If clergy or families want to contact us to sound out ideas or go through any practical realities, put your details in the combox (I won’t publish) and I’ll get in touch. There is help and support available, not least the St Barnabas society without whom this would not have been possible.

If Anglo-Catholicism is dead, it is a tragic time. The only reason for rejoicing is if this alleged death provides an impetus that leads people home. This is far more likely if we extend a lifeline out of caritas, condescending pre-judging and barracking is counter-productive. The body of Christ is wounded but never beyond repair. If history teaches us anything it is that any movement that feels suppressed eventually re-emerges stronger. We have to trust the Holy Spirit and pray for resolution and comfort for those whose futures currently lie in the balance.

A modern gibbeting

It seems that the removal of Jimmy Savile’s gaudy headstone is not sufficient for those intent on wreaking their revenge for his alleged crimes. Savile’s mortal remains are to face our society’s more civilised version of the gibbet – there are calls for him to be disinterred and cremated, or even ignominiously dumped at sea so that no earthly trace of him remains. In a move reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth or the Soviet Union, his appearances are being wiped from any re-runs of Top of The Pops 2.

The latter move is perhaps understandable; to continue to feature him would be an insensitive move on behalf of the BBC, but I am uncomfortable with the proposition of disinterring him. As a vessel of the Holy Spirit, human remains must be accorded the respect and dignity due to all human beings, regardless of their crimes here on earth. The deceased’s last wishes must be taken into account and Savile was explicit with regards to what he wished to happen, even detailing the site and angle of his burial. Even those facing execution on death row for multiple murders are allowed to make requests as to the treatment and burial of their corpse.

Savile’s Catholic faith cannot simply be disregarded because his deeds went unpunished. Though we can all make guesses as to his psychological condition, we cannot presume to know what was in his heart. It is perfectly possible that he may well have made a good confession before he died. We cannot know whether or not he repented for his terrible deeds or whether he was truly sorry. That is between him and The Lord.

Preferred Catholic practice is for burial of remains because of the truth of the resurrection of the body and reunification with the soul when Jesus returns at the Last Judgement. The early church retained the Jewish tradition of burial rejecting the Roman pagan ritual of cremation, because God has created each person in His image and Likeness and therefore the body is good and must be returned to earth after death. Christ himself died and was buried in a tomb and rose at Easter, therefore the early Christians buried their dead out of respect and in anticipation of the Last Judgement. The Church’s stance against cremation and belief in the bodily resurrection was mocked by their persecutors who often burnt Christian martyrs and scattered their ashes as a sign of contempt. If Catholics are cremated, their remains must not be scattered or kept on the mantelpiece but must instead be interred in their entirety in a cemetery. That’s not to say that those loved ones who have had their ashes scattered will not experience the resurrection, we trust in the Lord’s power, mercy and love, but canon law states the following:

“The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (No. 1176, 3).

To dig him up and cremate him is profoundly un-Christian and indicative of the post-Christian age in which we now live. Frustrated that he escaped punishment in his lifetime, we now seek to exact revenge upon his body, not trusting that he will already have faced judgement and possibly punishment.

If Savile is to be removed from his high profile resting place out of respect for the bereaved relatives of those who share the cemetery and his victims, then he needs to be reinterred intact and anonymously, preferably in a Catholic cemetery where his grave can be visited by his relatives and regularly blessed and prayed at, in accordance with Catholic custom for all our dead, regardless of earthly sins.

It would be truly horrifying if the authorities felt that they could redefine or override religious practice in terms of how we should treat our dead. To exhume and cremate Savile would be allowing the state to make a judgement on his faith, what constitutes a real Catholic and moreover, his soul. I do hope that he has a decent Catholic advocate.

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Smart Loving – reigniting the spark

My attention was drawn to the Smart Loving website in a letter by Edmund Adamus, director of Marriage and Family Life for Westminster Diocese, in this week’s Catholic Herald.

I’ve just spent some time scouting round the website which looks to be an excellent resource for single, engaged and married Catholics and Christians, whether in a relationship, looking for romance or simply wanting to reignite the spark.

Discover your unique love profile or take the quiz to discover whether your relationship needs some work to love smarter. There is also some useful information regarding spirituality and a
guide to getting started if you do not already pray as a couple and eight steps to deeper couple prayer. I cannot recommend strongly enough the benefits of praying as a couple as a way of increasing and deepening intimacy. I think many couples, especially when embarking on a relationship feel very self conscious at the idea of praying with one’s boyfriend or girlfriend, especially if the relationship doesn’t work out, or they are worried that the idea might put the other person off, but what can be more natural than wanting to help each other and walk together in one’s journey of faith and quest for holiness? To help each other deepen one’s eternal and everlasting relationship that extends beyond the mere earthly plain.

There is also a smart loving marriage seminar taking place in London, the weekend of 24 November, to enrich and empower married couples, commencing with Mass, opportunities for confession and including input from Theology of the Body.

Definitely worth attending, providing one can get babysitters!

Further thoughts

Something I was thinking about last night when pondering whether or not to pursue police action was that it’s a very telling indictment of society when a concerted online bullying campaign can tip a person over the edge into depression, so much so that she can contemplate aborting her baby and this would be perfectly legal.

Tom Chivers from the Daily Telegraph wrote a thoughtful piece on bullying yesterday and how words can really hurt – they trigger an intuitive evolutionary response and can do real damage.

Using social media to bully & harangue others is an increasing menace. I can well see how others could be driven to extremes and suicide. It’s a tightrope to be walked, but where someone has clearly transgressed the limits of acceptable discourse and actually tried to interfere in another’s real life (such as in my case) then we need to think again.

When a pregnant woman is driven into depression such that abortion is mooted as a solution, something needs to change. When social media is able to whip itself up into such a misguided frenzy of moral superiority, that a pregnant woman pleading with others to stop, for them to at least provide detailed charges and evidence of whatever it is she is supposed to have done as a matter of natural justice, is met with more bullying, derision and accused of using her unborn child as a human shield – something is seriously wrong.

When a well-known pro-abort blogger with a self-proclaimed mission of exposing liars in the media, sends a string of emails accusing you of making a malicious blog comment, evidenced by “it must be you it mentions your nana, don’t even try to deny it, does your good Catholic lawyer know what kind of a person you are”, it gets to you. When he says that he will publish something defamatory about you, but is just giving you the chance to respond, it gets to you. Why should I have to defend myself against something I haven’t done?

When fellow Catholics menacingly and repeatedly comment “tick, tick, tick your time is up” and admit they are working with this person to “expose” you, refer to you as a boil who needs to be lanced, as a person in need of public exorcism, that they are looking forward to seeing you suffer, they’ve bought popcorn, and then piously proclaim that it’s necessary, everyone must pray but I must be brought to my knees in order to repent and apologise, it’s sickening. Particularly when I haven’t done whatever it is I am vaguely accused of and there is nothing to suggest otherwise.

When people are willing to destroy my family through a misguided sense of “justice” something needs to change.

We talk about living in a progressive enlightened tolerant age. Quite how civilised is it to accuse, judge, condemn and punish a pregnant woman, to revel in taunting and abusing her, for the simple fact she has, in their opinion, got above herself and is trying to build a career?

I am a mother, a wife and a university student. My husband is a funeral director on minimum wage. Two years ago we had a lovely big rectory and garden, guaranteed income and lifetime stability and a wide circle of friends and a support network.

Today we are struggling, with reduced living space and no nearby friends or family. I have no idea what the future holds, where we will be living or what schools to think about for my children. Mothers and families crave security. I sometimes find it hard to get out of the house with 2 very small children. I don’t know many people nearby and am loath to invest in friendships locally in that I’ve no idea whether or not we will be living in the area for very much longer. It’s why I had become a bit dependent on the Internet as a support network as many of my real-life friends are there.

I actively encouraged and supported my husband in his decision to convert knowing precisely what this entailed. I knew the future would be rocky and uncertain. As a result of this unfounded hate campaign we could find ourselves homeless and without a job. A zealous Catholic has already described how my university’s Catholic Society has been contacted, to find out if they knew me. The fact that I was unknown (I attend a local parish instead) was held to be damning. There has been talk of contacting our diocese to exact an apology and prevent “scandal” which isn’t commensurate with the gloating over the alleged forthcoming “media sh*tstorm”. The charges are that I pretend to be bullied whilst using this as a cover to bully others.

It’s precisely to protect myself and my family that I am seriously considering what to do next. I didn’t start blogging to build a career, I did it because I enjoyed it and it tied in with some of the previous voluntary pro-life work. It’s a shame if it has to end, but I have to put my family first.

The bully has stated his intent that this “Mallory Towers Messalina”, this “Iggy Pop in drag” should be made to withdraw from the net. To do so is to let him win. Other people have kindly said that I write some of the best pro-life stuff around. I wish that were true.

Maybe the answer is just to solely concentrate on that. The last thing I want to do is cause scandal to the Church I love and the cause I am so passionate about. I’ve been accused of being a terrible wife and mother. I am told I am neglecting them as a result of blogging or tweeting in spare moments either at home or in the university library. It’s provided a great foil to Marxist gender theory. The Internet has been a source of comfort, spiritual inspiration and support.

There is nothing like Christian fellowship, with people who cry, rejoice and share in your sufferings and triumphs. At times of trouble they bear your burdens and lift you up in prayer. (Though it is fair to note that two people who have reached out and provided comfort have been skeptics and atheists.)

The wonders of Christian fellowship renders its failure even more painful. It is always hurtful when someone says horrible things about one, but when they are a brethren in Christ, the pain is magnified. Vulnerability is a key part of Christianity. We open our hearts to each other and to Christ in order to share in his suffering, this can be wonderful.

The word “vulnerable” derives from the Latin vulneris meaning “wounded.” If you’re vulnerable you’ve let down your guard, you are capable of being wounded, which means uncharitable words and deeds are not like water off a duck’s back but penetrate through and pierce your heart and soul.

Pro-life: Prayer, PR or politics?

The controversy about 40daysforLife continues to rumble on, following their appearance on the Today programme on Wednesday morning, which with an audience of over 4 million people, was a massive publicity coup for an ‘organisation’ which is run on a shoe-string.

The amateur nature of 40days is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in as much as without access to any sort of slick PR machine, unlike the abortion clinics and their associated groups, 40daysforlife cannot be accused of back-door lobbying or underhand techniques. There is no flashy website or dedicated social media manager. They are very much what they say on the tin. An attempt to unite Christians and other faiths, in an invitation to attend vigils to peacefully pray for all those inside the abortion clinics. There can be no doubt with regards to the sincerity of the organisers or participants. Credit needs to be given to Robert Colquhoun who brought this campaign to the UK and who has mobilised the prayers of many people, both in front of the clinics and encouraged prayer, meditations and fasting for those at home.

That 40days have appeared on national media, following their appearance on Radio 4, they were then the subject of discussion on Matthew Wright’s show on Channel 5, is a testament to their success. They are certainly raising awareness. There can be no doubt that they have pro-abortion advocates rattled, with the emergence of counter-campaigns and lots of attempts to smear and discredit.

Which brings me on to the flip-side of their efforts. It needs to be remembered that this is a wholly amateur operation. Every single volunteer, from Robert Colquhoun downwards, is unpaid and gives up their free time. They all have day jobs. There simply is not the money to employ anyone. Which means that their social media account is not running in as professional a way as would be desirable. Getting the PR right is an essential part of activism, and social media plays a not inconsequential part. Understandably, 40days sees their main role as prayer and fasting, they are far more concerned with the spiritual than the temporal, which leaves them open to criticism.

More seriously, the amateur nature of the campaign also means that it leaves themselves open allegations of malpractice and harassment such as the filming and harassment of women. The filming of women both on the street and going in and out of the clinic is wholly unacceptable. 40daysforlife do not condone or encourage this is any way. The difficulty for them is, that despite the presence of at least one organiser at every vigil, it becomes very difficult to control the behaviour of other people. Participants do need to sign up to the statement of peace, which explicitly prohibits people from acting in a manner that may be harmful and asks participants to ensure that they reflect Christ’s compassion and love. The difficulty is that Christian compassion and love may be interpreted in a myriad of ways, however we can be reasonably confident that Christ would not condone the filming and invasion of privacy of vulnerable women. Once somebody does start to behave in a way that is unacceptable, they are immediately disassociated from the vigil, but as the participants are supposed to act in a peaceful way and are predominantly concerned with prayer, it becomes almost impossible to force someone to stop doing something unhelpful. Filming in public is not against the law and even Sunny Hundal was not averse to turning up to Bedford Square and filming, although he did not specifically film the faces of women. Unless any specific laws are broken or public order offences committed, though the organisers can politely request people to stop filming or behaving in a way that may be deleterious, they are powerless to act, other than call the police. The filming would appear to be a two way street, participants on the vigil have informed me of being very disconcerted that for the entire duration of their stay (usually an hour) there has been a member of the clinic with a video camera trained directly upon them.

On the Today programme Anne Furedi read a statement from a woman who said that she had been followed to the clinic and then made an allusion to women being pinned up against the wall. Obviously if this has happened it is despicable, however as BPAS are obviously filming the protest, surely if this had happened there would be evidence which should have been passed to the police. Personally speaking, if someone had done that to me whilst entering an establishment, I would have alerted the staff inside straight away, identified the assailant and called the police. There was another accusation of encirclement, followed by an admission that very often there will only be one protestor, which makes encirclement impossible. If one person follows another to the clinic door as alleged, unless they are some kind of super-hero with extraterrestrial powers, or able to bi-locate, encirclement seems highly unlikely.

Whilst loathe to accuse anyone of lying, it seems possible that some distortion has gone on here. The modus operandi of 40daysforlife is that most participants take part in prayer and witness and volunteers take turns to distribute leaflets. The following accusation, is not one of stalking, but of women being followed to the door of the clinic. If this does happen, the zeal is understandable, but it must stop. I have spoken to several participants of 40days vigils over the past few days and none of them recognise this type of behaviour. What usually happens is a leaflet is offered, if the person wants to accept or engage in conversation, discourse takes place, but following anyone down the street is not encouraged and would disassociate someone from the vigil.

40days recognise that women entering the abortion clinic are vulnerable. That’s why they have a big sign “we are here to help” and why they offer back-up support, which I will discuss in a later post. Abortion rights groups are so concerned by the impact of these vigils that they are using every tool in their arsenal to smear and discredit, that they are also targeting the Good Counsel Network, again another voluntary organisation, entirely reliant on charitable donations and who are more concerned with their daily work of actually getting on and providing real practical help, than mounting PR campaigns or properly defending themselves. Those on 40days must ensure that they do not leave themselves open, if a leaflet is offered and refused then that should be the end of it. An opportunity to engage and change hearts and minds has been put forward, pestering women who are in terrible situations is counter-productive. IF this happens, and I’m not convinced it does, but if it does, then organisers need to stamp on this. Though I am in no way vulnerable, I know just how annoying it is when someone attempting to advertise a product or hand out a leaflet won’t take no for an answer. It just puts one’s back up and causes defensiveness. On an everyday level, there is an incredibly pushy group of cosmetic salesmen in Brighton’s Churchill Centre, who seem to target me every time I have the children in the double-buggy. Despite the fact I am clearly preoccupied with manhandling a buggy, stopping child A from pulling child B’s hair or preventing child from clambering out of buggy or tantrums etc, a “no thanks” seems to have no effect, these boys continue to sidle up alongside you, repeatedly cajoling you to try their luscious products. Never mind the hand-cream, it’s Arnica they need if they don’t leave me alone. If unwanted hand cream samples give me the rage, it can only be imagined what a passionate pro-life supporter might do to a woman who is in a delicate emotional state. A leaflet offered is the most that should be attempted and a refusal met with good grace.

Ann Furedi and others have commented that the actions of 40daysforlife are un-Christian in their actions. Whilst I usually attempt to ensure that my pro-life arguments are predominantly secular, a pro-life viewpoint does not necessitate theism, I am not ashamed to admit that I am first and foremost a Christian, and for me, being pro-life follows holistically from my Christian faith. Prayer constitutes an enormous part of Christianity. I don’t talk about my prayer life as often as I should, but that is partly because for me, it is deeply intimate and personal. As personal to me as my intimate life with my husband. I worry that talking about it, somehow violates my relationship with the Lord, but prayer is a huge feature of my daily life. As Christians we should never under-estimate the power of prayer, which is part of the success of 40daysforlife. There have globally been thousands of babies saved.

Some, including Christians, have mooted that this prayer should be in the confines of our own homes. To me, that seems to be pandering to the modern secular agenda. It’s Okay to be a Christian, but we have to be nice mute ones, never causing any trouble. That isn’t what Christ was about, he was a radical, he hung about with the poor, the dispossessed, the outcast and the vulnerable. He drove money lenders out of the Temple and was non too concerned with what view the authorities may take of him. Would he have been outside an abortion clinic healing women before they went in? The answer is most definitely. However, though Christ always meets you where you are, He does not force Himself upon you. All of those who encountered Christ, saw Him and came to Him. He did not chase people, He invited them to follow Him. Which is of course the lesson for those outside clinics. An invitation must be issued, but not forced.

When it comes to the issue of Christians publicly manifesting their faith, we seem to have something of a crisis in the UK, which is feeding into a culture war. Politicians love to tell us that we are a tolerant and diverse society, but what that seems to entail in practice is smiling tolerantly and happily at women in their hijabs or saris or at Gary and Jamie holding hands whilst walking their Gucci-clad chiuaua down the street. Isn’t it wonderful, we tell ourselves, that people can now live their lives without harassment or fear. Whilst that is most definitely true, the same is not said of Christians who could be said to be serious in their faith. We are “fundy nutters” driven by religious fervour and hatred apparently. What is forgotten is that a key part of Christianity is not only prayer, but evangelisation. Spreading the Good News. Clearly this has to be done in an appropriate way, one that is not counter-productive, but in an allegedly tolerant and diverse society, it should be possible, to gently talk about your faith or your beliefs without living in fear of hate-speech or dismissal. If a work colleague wants to ask me my views on something, I should not be too frightened of the consequences to honestly engage.

Far from being un-Christian praying peacefully outside an abortion clinic is an act of witness and of faith, it is a living out of the Christian vocation and should not be eschewed out of fear or because it is thought impolitic. There seems something diabolic behind the notion that Christians should not be praying outside of Churches or their own homes, let alone in front of abortion clinics, where so much destruction of life is taking place. It comes to something when Catholics are suggesting that other Catholics should not be praying in public, for fear of other’s reactions or negative PR.

For those who suggest that their presence is un-Christian in that it potentially upsets women, I refer to my previous post; if abortion is upsetting and traumatic – why is that? This person appears to think that it is nothing of the sort – I love abortion she says. Women must be treated compassionately and sensitively, which must rule out harassment, invasion of privacy or anything that could amount to condemnation, however a presence which offers another choice or point of view, a way back from abortion, does not lack compassion. Abortion is the ending of the life of an unborn child, which hurts not only child, but the mother as well. A pastoral team in my diocese patrols Beachy Head, spotting potential jumpers and offering fellowship, comfort and support, a way back. No Christian would stand back and watch a person hurl themselves off a cliff, because it’s their body, their choice and they were scared of being intrusive. Offering a leaflet or saying a rosary in those circumstances would be a wholly inadequate approach. A pro-life presence signifies to people that they do not have to end the life of their unborn child.

What all Christians need to be aware is that pro-life should consist of the three Ps; politics, PR and prayer, which all have equal import. 40days need to ensure that their wonderful prayer efforts are not undermined by lack of PR or politics. “Professional” Catholic pro-life activists must not forget or deny the power of prayer and public witness.

Responding to Robert Colquhoun’s statement that those attending vigils were there out of a spirit of compassion and love, Anne Furedi requested that they should “take your love elsewhere”. It doesn’t take a genius to work out which of those statements is most in accord with Gospel values.

Postscript

During yesterday’s vigil at Bedford Square, a member of the public arrived and covered the vigil in horse dung. They calmly ignored it, continuing to pray, clearing up the site when they left. That’s intimidation for you!

Gabriel and Gethsemane

One of the reasons I felt so guilty about struggling with this pregnancy is because I look at the example of Our Lady, who upon hearing the news that she was to conceive, something that could have had grave and life-threatening repercussions for her, adultery carrying the penalty of stoning, was instantly accepting of God’s will, and indeed joyful, giving glory to God in her singing of the Magnificat.

My soul doth magnify the Lord.And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid;for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.Because he that is mighty,hath done great things to me;and holy is his name. And his mercy is from generation unto generations,to them that fear him.He hath shewed might in his arm:he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.He hath put down the mighty from their seat,and hath exalted the humble.He hath filled the hungry with good things;and the rich he hath sent empty away.He hath received Israel his servant,being mindful of his mercy:As he spoke to our fathers, Abraham and to his seed for ever.

No evidence of “aargh, what a nightmare, I feel sick, this isn’t really what I wanted, I’m going to be a pregnant bride, not what a planned, oh no, this is such a disaster, everyone is going to hate me, I hate myself, what if I resent the baby, I’m going to have no sleep, I’m exhausted, we’ve got that journey to make to Bethlehem, I’ll be about to drop, they might kill me and it’s not even as if I’ve had sex, it’s so unfair.”

I’ve clearly got some way to go. But with that in mind, I was recalling Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. His acceptance of God’s will was not “right, OK, gee thanks Pops” skipping his way off to Calvary. The Gospels tell us that he prayed in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, for this burden to be removed from him, he prayed that he might do God’s will, but that God’s will might be something other than the dreadful price that he had to pay. Christ emerges from Gethsemane, covered in sweat, following a night of tortuous agony.

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. Luke 22: 42-45

Which gives rise to the question, why the different responses, and the potentially heretical thought, was Mary more open to the will of God than Jesus?

I think the answer has to be that Mary did not have the same agency of choice as Jesus. She was presented with a fait accompli and told what would happen. Gabriel was simply the messenger, he could not alter what had already been determined. Mary’s response could have been a lot different, her joyful outpouring of praise is proof of her sinless nature and openness to God, but she did not have the option to refuse, due to her lack of sin, just as Gabriel did not have the option to take away her pregnancy. Abortion would not have been an option in 1st century Judea, while there were probably various herbal remedies and preparations available to women, it was not the society of 21st Century Britain, where every pregnancy is deemed to be a matter of personal choice, there wasn’t a handy Marie Stopes offering abortion in every market for 20 denarii. As an orthodox Jew the idea was simply unthinkable, even if one isn’t talking about disobeying God or killing his only unborn son. Mary did not pray for mercy or respite, she did not complain, she rejoiced, in spite of her lack of control. Gabriel tells her “you will”, she could have refused to co-operate, but she is instantly accepting and believing. I think the importance is in the quality of her yes. God prepared her from all eternity to be the mother of the Redeemer, which whilst not taking away her free will.

Jesus, by contrast, had a more overt agency of choice. He prayed, not that his will was done, but that the Father’s will might be obeyed. Theologians have speculated that being the Son of God, Jesus could at any time, have summoned a legion of angels to remove him from the cross. We know that Christ was capable of performing miracles, there is the account in John of when the crowd at Nazareth rejected Jesus, drove him out of the town and to the brow of a hill in order to throw him off a cliff, and yet Christ serenely walked through the surging crowd intent on killing him and on his way. Christ had a choice and he chose the way of the Cross to Calvary; he choose to accept suffering and death for the sake of mankind and it was this choice that caused him so much torment. He was in agony in Gethsemane because he wanted his Father’s will to be something other than a tortuous death, in order to atone for the sins of mankind. Jesus chose to bend his actions to the way of the Father, no matter the personal cost to himself.

Where does that leave me? Somewhere in the middle. As various comments have noted, it’s not as though I had nothing to do with becoming pregnant, unlike our Blessed Virgin. Whilst I can aspire to the response of Mary and look to her as an example, whilst praying for intercession, I can also look at her son, the Redeemer who took on our human frailties and suffers along with us. He too, found it difficult, His was not an easy choice, it was a path beset by pain and suffering, but a price worth paying, one from which he emerged victorious, having done the will of God.

So whilst not on Calvary, I am still somewhere in the garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops like blood, knowing that the choice I’ve made which seems almost unbearable at times and is certainly full of great physical pain as well as fear, anxiety and uncertainty, will ultimately bear beautiful fruit. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is very weak.

Listen to the cry of the baby Jesus

Here is this year’s piece from The Catholic Herald Christmas supplement.

Merry Christmas.

 

This Christmas will be the third consecutive occasion that we have celebrated in the company of a young baby. As the mother of young children it is all too easy to get drawn into the physical narrative of the Nativity, with discussions about the shepherds, wise men and angels while neglecting the theological truth of the Incarnation and our true reason for celebration.

Contemporary culture celebrates the Christmas story in a vague, general sense, with as much emphasis upon the peripheral characters in the tale, as opposed to the infant Christ. When we are invited to consider the birth of Christ, it is purely in the sense of the “cute little baby Jesus in the manger” as opposed to Christ humbling himself by taking the form of a helpless and feeble baby: mankind in its weakest and most vulnerable form. One of the many blessings and privileges of parenthood at Christmas is that it brings the joy of the Incarnation into a much sharper focus. I cannot be the only parent who metaphorically rolls their eyes heavenwards whilst forcing a rictus grin upon hearing or singing about the immaculately behaved infant who never uttered a single cry. The idealised, cloying, mawkish stained glass image of a mute infant Christ is not reflective of the real truth of the Incarnation. A real baby will cry as it has no other way to communicate its needs and so we can be assured that, even if he did not go through the terrible twos, throwing constant temper tantrums out of anger and frustration, Jesus most certainly would have cried to indicate to his mother that he required feeding. Tending to a baby who is totally reliant upon you to meet all of its basic needs is a constant reminder of both the self-emptying – or, to use the correct theological term, kenosis – manifested in the Incarnation as well as the way in which God takes into Himself humanity’s weaknesses without losing any of his divine grandeur.

So much of the Christmas pageantry revolves around a sentimentalised image of the baby Jesus, the plastic dolly or porcelain figure in the manger. A living, breathing baby with all of its bodily functions is a welcome counterpoint. Rooting the Incarnation in the realties of life with a newborn baby is a reminder that Jesus was not some abstract figure but a real human being with inherent physical frailties and bodily needs, and yet at the same time not simply another baby, but the Redeemer of the world. Every year a priest friend of ours, affixes a cross to the cradle on Christmas Eve, in time for the arrival of the baby in the manger, as a reminder of just that.

We are not just celebrating the birth of a sweet baby in inauspicious and unusual circumstances, but the Word of God made flesh. Without Christ’s Passion and victory over death, his birth is meaningless. We cannot celebrate the cradle without celebrating the cross.

As any parent with young children will testify they are constantly changing and growing, often looking entirely different from one day to the next. Inevitably at Christmas we cast our minds back to previous years, and as I look at my toddler chasing about the house, demolishing Christmas decorations and attempting to dissect the undecorated Christmas cake it seems like only yesterday that she was a two-week-old baby fast asleep in her Santa babygro on Christmas Day. It seems incredible when I contemplate that the almost eight-month-old who has recently had a growth spurt and sprouted some teeth, this time last year had just hit the point where she could be considered viable and a person in her own right.

Very often when cradling my baby sleeping peacefully in my arms there is an awareness that this is a brief and fleeting moment in time, which only serves to make the moment more precious: it won’t be long before the baby decides that there are exciting things to discover and explore beyond the confines of my breast. A line from Shadowlands seems particularly fitting: “The happiness now is part of the pain then.” As parents, we witness and guide our children on their journey to adulthood knowing that the way will be littered with moments of great sadness as well as joy. The beautiful innocence and childhood wonderment cannot last forever and we wonder what will become of our children. As we reflect on the image of the infant Christ it is important to remember that this a snapshot in time, like a mosquito caught in amber, not the whole story or the whole person of Christ. We already know the end of the story and part of the pain of the Crucifixion is present in the happiness we feel in the lowly birth of our Saviour. We can unite our fears as parents to those of Mary, who while unaware of the terrible price that her son would need to pay for the salvation of the world, must nonetheless have been filled with trepidation as to the future,having been informed that her son was the Messiah with whatever that might entail. Simeon will shortly prophesy that “a sword will pierce your soul” and Mary’s joy must have been all the more poignant as she contemplated what must have seemed an uncertain and turbulent future for her tiny baby.

Though we must not forget that the baby is not the Jesus who will challenge us on the Day of Judgement, there is still much to be said about the contemplative gaze of love when we look upon the manger, a gaze that is echoed every time I look at my children, whether they are feeding at the breast, marauding through the house or peacefully reading or sleeping. They are yet to acquire any personal sin, and I see reflections of the perfect nature of Christ in them and experience a renewed gratefulness, not only for the gift of my children and the special blessing of a newborn baby, but also for the child of God, fully human and yet fully divine. John’s Gospel tells us of how the Word speaks creation into being, and yet here is the Word made flesh and unable to speak. Here is Emmanuel physically come to be with us in the second person of the Trinity. Here is a physical representation of how God is with us all the time, gazing upon us with reciprocal eyes of love, perhaps best summarised by the French peasant’s conversation with the Curé d’Ars: “I look at Him, and he looks at me, and we are happy together.”

The simple act of a mother fondly gazing at her child with love while reflecting on the nature of God is in itself an act of contemplative prayer. Throughout the rest of the liturgical year we are invited to listen, to engage with and to act upon the words of Christ. The Christmas celebration of the Incarnation is the perfect opportunity to take a step back to watch and to wonder, just to be with God as we contemplate His son in the form of a tiny baby. No matter how we look upon the image of the Incarnation, we remember that to gaze is to love. Our whole soul is in our gaze.