TIMOTHY RADCLIFFE, OP
We live in the shadow of 11th September. We all remember where we were that day. This is not just because it was a terrible event. People in many places have endured worse sufferings since, for example in Darfur. Rather it is symbolic of the world that we inhabit at the beginning of this new millennium. What has religious life to say to this new world?
It is a world that is marked by a paradox. We are ever more tightly bound together by instant communication. We live in the intimate little world of the global village. We are ever more marked by a single world culture. Young people everywhere wear the same clothes, listen to the same songs and dream the same dreams. And even if they cannot afford the real designer label objects, they can buy cheap imitations. They are often more obviously marked by a generational identity than a local one. We all inhabit McWorld, the Pepsi-planet or the Coca-culture.
On the other hand it is a world that is ever more deeply divided by religious violence. All over the planet Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists square up to each other aggressively. In Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and so many other places, communication seems to have broken down. It is precisely the intimacy of the global world that provokes the violence. Most murders occur at home, by people who are close to each other, and in this global village, we are all neighbours. What has religious life to say to this intimate and violent world? And what does this world have to say to us?
I will focus on three aspects of our culture. First of all there is a crisis of homelessness. We all inhabit the global village, but 9/11 disclosed its hidden violence. How can we religious be a sign humanity’s common home in God? Secondly what future awaits us? 9/11 symbolizes the beginning of an era that seems to offer only a future of violence. Thirdly, faced with this uncertainty, there is a growing culture of control, the struggle for hegemony. Faced with each of these religious life embodies a word of hope. There is a fourth topic which is fundamental but about which I will hardly speak, and that is the culture of consumerism and the vow of poverty. I will say nothing about it because it is so obvious. Many people have written much about our witness to poverty in the culture of the market place, so I have preferred to look at some other slightly less obvious topics.
The crisis of homelessness
Many of you are looking rather jet lagged. You have flown in from all over the world. We are inhabitants of the global village. My family often says enviously, ‘Join the Dominicans and see the world.’ Every morning when we open our emails, there will be messages from around the planet. We are citizens of a new world in which, for many people, space has ceased to be of much importance. Fukuyama talked about the end of history, and Richard O’Brien has added, ‘the end of geography’. Zygmunt Bauman wrote that ‘in the world we inhabit, distance does not seem to matter much. Sometimes it seems that it exists solely in order to be cancelled; as if space was but a constant invitation to slight it, refute and deny it. Space stopped being an obstacle – one needs just a split second to conquer it.’
This may almost look like an anticipation of our eschatological hopes. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, he promises a time when God will be worshipped neither on the mountain of the Samaritans nor in Jerusalem, ‘but in spirit and in truth’. The Good Samaritan in our other text walks away from the sacred space of Jerusalem. Sacrifice to God is offered by the roadside, when he tends the wounded man who fell among robbers. Christianity liberates us from a religion of holy spaces into the life of the Trinity, ‘God, that centre Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.’ Cyberspace looks a little like the fulfilment of the Christian promise. Margaret Wertheim wrote that, ‘while early Christians promulgated heaven as a realm in which the human soul would be freed from the frailties and failings of the flesh, so today’s champions of cyberspace had it as a place where the self will be freed from the limitations of physical embodiment.’
9/11 is a symbol of how distant is our global village from the Kingdom in which all of humanity will be at home. On that day, the hidden violence of our world culture became visible. Our planet is in fact suffering from a crisis of homelessness. We are ill at ease in the global village. First of all, we who are at this Congress have been able to obtain visas and pass through immigration controls. But millions of people are attempting to travel, to flee from poverty or oppression, and cannot. There is a vast displacement of people searching for a new home. Europe is building walls to keep out the crowds who want to get in. Never in history have so many people lived in refugee camps and are, quite literally, homeless.
Even those who remain at home are, in a sense, displaced. The human community is fractured by escalating inequalities. And modern communication means that the poor can glimpse the paradise of the wealthy on their TV screens every day, and yet are shut out. The financial nomads who rule our world can move their money anywhere they wish. They have no commitment to the workers of any country. If labour becomes too expensive in England, then they can move to Mexico, and then to Indonesia. Bauman writes, ‘Brief encounters replace lasting engagements. One does not plant a citrus tree to squeeze a lemon.’ This has produced a terrible uncertainty. Even the employed cannot be confident that they will have a job tomorrow. Some economists present us with the picture of a benign world of free trade. But our home is distorted by trade barriers, tariffs and subsidies that exclude the poor nations. It is partly held together by vicious networks, of laundered money, by criminal mafias, the drug trade, the sale of women and children for prostitution, the market of body parts and of weapons.
Finally, there is the imposition of a global culture that is in fact Western, and largely American. John Baptist Metz argued that ‘for a long time non-western countries have been under siege from a “second colonization”: Through the invasion of the Western culture industry and its mass media, especially that of television which holds people prisoner in an artificial world, a world of make-believe. It alienates them more and more from their own cultural images, from their original language and their own history. This colonization of the spirit is so much harder to resist because it appears as a sugar coated poison and because the gentle terror of this Western culture industry operates not as an alienation but as a narcotic drug.’ We are ‘unanchored selves’, whose comfortable old homes are being dismantled. On 9/11 the vast anger that this has generated exploded in the heart of the Western world.
So there is a crisis of homelessness, both literally and culturally. A widespread reaction to this is to build communities of like-minded people, with whom we may feel safe and at home. Mrs Thatcher famously asked of a political rival, ‘But is he really one of us?’ We have become afraid of difference. Richard Sennet wrote, ‘The image of the community is purified of all that may convey a feeling of difference, let alone conflict, in who “we” are. In this way the myth of community solidarity is a purification ritual… What is distinctive about this mythic sharing in communities is that people feel they belong to each other, and share together, because they are the same .’
This search for those who are like us can be seen everywhere, from the Internet to religious groups. On the Internet people surf around searching for others who share their interests and tastes, whether political, sporting or sexual. And if differences emerge, then one can simply break contact and change one’s email address. Fundamentalist religious groups also gather the like-minded. I suspect that the polarization within the Catholic Church today is partly rooted in the pain of living with those who are different from ourselves. The Church has always been fractured by battles, from the time that Peter and Paul slogged it out in Antioch. What is new is our difficulty in reaching across these divisions in a common language. We cannot find words to share communion with those who are different, even within the Church.
Now, in this crisis of homelessness, religious life has surely an urgent vocation to be the sign of God’s vast home, the wide openness of the Kingdom, in which all may belong and be at ease. If we are at home in the spaciousness of God, then we may be at home with anyone. We may do this in all sorts of ways. Thousands of religious brothers and sisters have simply left their homes to be at home with strangers. Small communities of sisters settle down in Muslim villages from Morocco to Indonesia, learning to inhabit foreign languages, eating foreign food, embedding themselves in the tissue of other ways of being human.
We also embrace cultural and ethnic differences within our own communities. I drove through Burundi when the whole country was on fire, to visit a monastery of our contemplative nuns in the north. Half the community were Tutsi and half were Hutus. They had all lost their families, except one novice. And while I was there her parish priest rang to say that her parents had been murdered. And yet they lived together in peace. This was only possible because of a deep life of prayer and the endless labour of making communion. Crucially they listened to the news on the radio together, and so shared each other’s sorrows. In a country that was burnt and brown, and no one could sow crops, their hill was green since anyone could come and grow their food there in safety: a green hill in a brown land is a sign of hope.
The toughest difference for us to embrace in religious life is perhaps not ethnic or cultural; it is theological. I can live at ease with a brother from another Continent. But can I be deeply at home with one who has another ecclesiology or Christology? Can we reach across the ideological fractures of our Church? It is only if we can do this that we may be a sign of the vastness of God. Communities of the like-minded are weak signs of the Kingdom.
This requires of us much more than mutual tolerance. Indeed, we must dare to speak our disagreement. It requires of us a mutual attentiveness that draws us beyond the narrow limits of our own sympathies and language. Do I dare be touched by the imagination of the other, and enter the land of their hopes and fears? We have to embark upon a stretching open of our hearts and minds, what Thomas Aquinas calls a latitudo cordis, which draws us into the capacious home that is God.
In Larry’s Party the Canadian novelist Carol Shields explores how language offers us a home to live in. Larry’s first marriage broke up because he and his young wife did not have a language that was large enough for them to find and love each other. Finally when they are reconciled it is because their language has become spacious enough for them to be together for the first time. Larry asks, ‘Was that our problem? That we didn’t know enough words?’ Being a sign of humanity’s common home in God requires of us that we seek the words that are large enough for us to live in peace with strangers. These strangers may be people of another faith or ethnic group. But a vital preparation for this, and the test of its authenticity, is that we even look for the words that open bridges across the polarization within our own Church and congregations.
This is the obedience that is needed today, and especially after 9/11. It is not an obedience which is the blind submission to the dictates of religious superiors. It is rather that deep attentiveness to those who speak different languages, and live by different sympathies and imagination. It is that ascetic exposure to other geographies of mind and heart, even within our own communities, so that we may be drawn out from the narrow prisons that separate human beings from each other. It is a creative obedience, in which together we seek new and old words, which offer fresh air and mutual ease. Religious communities should be the crucibles of renewed language.
One evening in Rotterdam I met some young people, and I asked them why they still came to church when their contemporaries did not. They found it hard to answer. And then at midnight a young man who had been struggling with this question came back with a letter for me. He explained that he came to our community because here he could use words that he could not use in his home anymore: words like ‘Glory to God’ and Holy, words of praise and wisdom. He needed somewhere where he might share these words with other people and be at home in them.
Living without a story
A home is not only the sort of space that we occupy, with its mental walls and windows, exclusions and inclusions. We also need to be at home in time. We need to live within a story that embraces a past and looks to a future. We make a home within the stories of our ancestors, and are at ease in a shared hope for the future, before and after the grave. We may be at peace because we know roughly where we are in the plot. For example, in Hinduism there are four stages in the life of a man: being a student, a householder, becoming a forest dweller, and finally the stage of renunciation. One can be at home as one passes through this shared narrative of human life. 9/11 changed the stories that we tell of ourselves and our world, and this has deepened our sense of homelessness. We have no story of the future in which to be at home.
To vastly oversimplify, this is the second major transformation of time that the West has lived through in recent years. In my childhood we were still sustained by a fundamental optimism. There was a shared confidence in the progress of humanity. For some humanity might be moving towards a capitalist paradise and for others it was a communist paradise. But East and West, left and right, shared the belief that there was a longer story to tell, and that humanity was on its way to a better world. This confidence in the future began to erode after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Fukuyama famously said, and has been regretting ever since, history ended. The fall of communism was proclaimed as humanity’s arrival at its destiny. The future was here and it looked like America. We have the birth of the Now Generation, who ceased to dream of a future. There was also an increasing hopelessness for those shut out of this capitalist dream. The inequalities of the world went on escalating. Whole Continents, especially Africa, were locked in a poverty that seemed beyond healing.
With 9/11 we enter a third moment, in which there is again a story to be told of the future, but it is one without any promise except of more violence. For some it is ‘the war on terrorism’ and for others it is jihad against the corrupt West. This is not a story in which anyone can be at ease and at home. What sign of humanity’s home can religious life offer?
First of all, what we do not do is to offer an alternative story of the future. The twentieth century was crucified by those who claimed to know the road map of humanity. Millions of people died in Soviet gulags, killed by those who knew where humanity was heading. This year I went for the first time to Auschwitz. At the entrance to the camp, there is a map that shows how it is at the centre of a network of railway lines, from Norway to Greece, from France to the Ukraine, which carried people to their death. Here was literally the end of the line, imposed by those who efficiently planned the future of humanity. Pol Pot slaughtered a third of all Cambodians because he knew what story must be told of the future. Even capitalism’s imposition of its road map impoverishes millions. We are rightly suspicious of those who claim to know the big design.
The foundational story of Christianity is precisely of the moment when we lost a story to tell of the future. No doubt the disciples went to Jerusalem buoyed up by some anticipation of what was to happen: Jesus would be revealed as Messiah; the Roman would be thrown out of the Holy Land, or whatever. As the disciples on the road to Emmaus confessed to Jesus: ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24.21). Whatever story they told now collapsed. Judas had sold Jesus; Peter was about to betray him. The other disciples would flee in fear. Faced with his passion and death they had no story to tell. At this moment at which this fragile community broke down, Jesus took bread, blessed it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body, given for you.’
The paradox of Christianity is that it offers us a home in time but not by telling us a story of the future. We have no road map. We cannot open the Book of Revelation and say ‘Hey guys, five plagues down and one to go.’ We believe that we are on the way to the Kingdom of God, in which death will die and all wounds be healed, but we have no idea of how we shall get there. After 9/11, when some are seduced by the eternal present of the Now Generation and others tell tales that promise only violence, we offer good news. We have a hope that is not anchored in any particular story of the future. Jesus embodied this hope in a sign, bread broken and shared and a cup of wine passed around. How may we religious be signs of that hope?
One way is by daring to embrace our uncertain future with joy. Our vows are a public commitment to remain open to the God of surprises who subverts all our plans for the future and asks us to do things that we never imagined. We say that if you wish to make God laugh, then tell him your plans. Try telling your brothers and sisters too! When I was examined for solemn profession, I said that I would be happy to do almost anything, except be a superior. The brethren thought otherwise! But we embrace this uncertainty with the joyful freedom of the children of God. Václav Havel wrote that hope ‘is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.’ Our joy is the confidence that somehow our lives, with their triumphs and defeats will be discovered to have meaning, however futile they may sometimes seem now. The meaning of our lives is the mystery of God, for which we have no words.
Once again, the vow of obedience is the clearest sign that we will let God go on surprising us. We place our lives in the hands of our brothers and sisters, to do with as they wish. This is not a regression to infantile passivity. We remain intelligent people who have a say in our future. Few religious today would be prepared to plant cabbages upside down! Rather it is a free acceptance that we are not the sole authors of our stories. It is a Eucharistic gesture, following Jesus who gave himself into the hands of the disciples saying, ‘This is my body and I give it to you.’ And the young will not be drawn to us unless they see that we are eager to accept the gift of their lives and use that gift courageously. I met a sister at a conference in the United States recently who said that in thirty years of religious life, her congregation had never asked her to do anything. They did not dare to!
Our vow of chastity is also the promise to remain open to the surprises that God may have up his sleeve. We renounce a relationship that expresses a hope for a predictable plot, a stable love for better or for worse, until death does us part. Instead we promise to love and accept love, without any clear idea to whom we shall entrust our heart. When I came to solemn profession this was for me by far the most difficult act of trust. Would I end up a dried up and lonely old stick? Would my heart remain alive? By this vow, we trust that God will give us hearts of flesh, in ways that we cannot anticipate.
Alas, for most of us the vow of poverty hardly commits us to any uncertainty. In many parts of the world, one of the attractions of religious life is that it offers financial security and all the resources of sure wealth. At the Synod on Religious Life, Cardinal Etchegaray made an appeal for religious to embrace a more radical poverty. If people saw in our poverty a real precariousness, then what a sign of hope that would be!
Our vowed life will only be a sign if we live it with joy. Then we will be seen to be at home in this uncertainty, at ease in not knowing the pattern and story of our lives. We can happily rest in the confidence that our lives will be found to have meaning even if sometimes we cannot now say what it is, for it is God.
St Augustine said, ‘Let us sing Alleluia here below while we are still anxious, so that we may sing it one day there above when we are free from care.’ One of my close friends in the Order is a French Dominican called Jean Jacques. He was trained as an economist, went to Algeria to study irrigation, learned Arabic, taught in the University there. It was hard but he was profoundly content. And then one day his Provincial phoned to ask him to come back and teach economics in the University of Lyons. He was utterly thrown; he grieved, and then he remembered the joy of having given his life away without condition. So he went and bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate with his friends. A few years later I was elected to be Master of the Order and I was desperate to have someone in the General Council whom I knew. I tracked down Jean Jacques and asked him to come. He asked if he could think about it. So I said yes. He asked if he could take a month. I asked him to take a day. He said yes. More champagne. This is the joy of being at home in God’s unpredictability.
Charles de Foucault went to visit a young cousin, François de Bondy, who was twenty one years old, and much given to the pursuit of pleasure. But his life was transformed by seeing the deep joy of this dried up ascetic from the Sahara. ‘He entered the room and peace entered with him. The glow of his eyes and especially that very humble smile had taken over his whole person….There was an incredible joy emanating from him…Having tasted “the pleasures of life” and able to entertain the hope of not having to leave the table for a while, I, upon seeing that my whole sum of satisfactions did not weigh more than a tiny fraction in comparison with the complete happiness of the ascetic, found rising within me a strange feeling not of envy but of respect.’ Enzo Bianchi quotes a fourth century father who says that the young are like hounds in the hunt. If the hounds sniff the wolf, then they will carry on hunting to the end. If they never smell the wolf, then they will grow tired and stop. If the young catch from us the whiff of the joy of the Kingdom, then they will carry on to the end.
It is intrinsic to this witness of hope that we dare to give the whole of our lives, usque ad mortem. We trust that the whole of our lives will be found to have meaning. In the end, the whole story of our lives will make sense, even their darkest moments. In the Instrumentum Laboris 37, it is written, ‘The sense of temporariness and the cultural difficulties with permanence/stability could lead us to study the possibilities of proposing forms of consecrated life "ad tempus" (VC 56 and Propositio 33) which would avoid giving the sense that someone who has joined consecrated life for a time, has deserted or abandoned it.’ I agree. Religious orders have always, for centuries, offered ways to belonging to those who do not wish to make a permanent commitment. Many of our congregations are now exploring new ways in which this may be developed. It is also the case that some people join us and make profession but one day leave. We do not wish them to be fore ever crippled by a sense of failure. But this should not put in question the centrality of a commitment usque ad mortem. It is often wondered whether the young are today capable of such a commitment. Perhaps the issue is rather whether we believe that they are and are ready to fight for their vocation.
The subversion of the culture of control
The final topic I wish to address is the culture of control. Never has the planet been under such tight control by a few nations. Despite so much rhetoric of development, the national interests of a few countries call the shots. Above all, we live, as never before in the history of humanity, under the control of a single superpower, whose worldwide interests are always to be protected. As Bill Clinton said, there is no difference between domestic and foreign policy. 9/11 was in part a protest again those who wish to take control of the planet and its resources. It struck at the symbols of Western economic and military power, the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. But 9/11 has also intensified this culture of control, an escalation in the gathering information, the control of migration, the militarization of the world and the loss of human rights.
At the same time, paradoxically, this is a time when the national state, and even the United States, seems ever less able to control anything. We live in what Anthony Giddens has called ‘the runaway world’ , ‘a manufactured jungle.’ Bauman imagines our world as an airplane that has no pilot. The passengers ‘discover to their horror that the pilot’s cabin is empty and that there is no way to extract from the mysterious black labelled “automatic pilot” any information about where the plane is flying, where it is going to land, who is to choose the airport, and whether there are any rules which would allow the passengers to contribute to the safety of the arrival.’
At the heart of modernity is this paradoxical combination of a culture of control and of our inability to take charge of our lives. It is powerfully symbolized by our modern technological wars, with their highly sophisticated weapons and yet the immense difficulty in achieving the stated goals. Just look at Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq!
In part this is rooted in the fact that the multinational corporations are largely beyond national regulation. The economy is uncontrollable. The fluidity of modern capitalism generates insecurity and anxiety. All this anxiety becomes projected upon the strangers outside our frontiers and within them. Increasingly governments see law and order as their primary task. Fighting crime is the modern drama, locking up the strangers upon whom we project our fear. In virtually every country in the world, the number of people being locked in prisons is soaring. People who have agendas that are different from our own are increasingly seen as enemies, ‘terrorists’, belonging to some ‘axis of evil.’ Poverty is becoming criminalized. Even humanitarian aid and development is being co-opted into the Western security agenda. Global security means Western security, and development agencies will only get grants if they accept its priorities. This is why it is so hard to raise support for the Sudan or the Congo or other disaster areas of Africa.
The culture of control enters the bloodstream of public life as management. Every form of institution must be managed, checked, measured, must meet targets and be assessed. Even the Church is becoming an institution that is ruled by the culture of control. We are watched, reported upon, and assessed. This is not some evil plot of the Vatican. It shows that the Church is living the crisis of modernity, just like everyone else! Even religious congregations often succumb to the culture of management. Those elected to government become ‘The Administration.’ Brothers and sisters are transformed into ‘personnel.’ I have met Superiors General whose offices remind me of multinational corporations. The Superior General becomes the CEO. Chapters set targets and assess achievements. Everything must be measurable, and above all money is the measure.
But religious life should explode into this culture of control as a burst of crazy freedom. We can see hints of what this means in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The apostles go away to do the shopping and when they come back, there he is chatting with this low woman. “Turn your back and you never know what he will get up to!” Jesus is watched, checked up, but he is our uncontrollable Lord.
Our congregations have different understandings of the nature of government. It may be paternal, democratic or military. We have no single understanding of the nature of obedience. But we would surely all accept that leadership – to use a word that I detest – is not about control. It is at the service of God’s unpredictable grace. No one owns grace and can bend its happening to his or her agenda, especially not the superior. The role of those in leadership is to make sure that no one takes possession of God’s grace, neither the young nor the old, neither the left nor the right, neither the West nor any other group. God is among us as the one who is always doing something new, and those in leadership will usually be the last to know what this might be. They have the role of keeping us all open to the unpredictable directions in which God might lead us, for as God says in Isaiah, ‘Behold I am doing something new.’
So leadership will be shown in helping our communities to take risks, to not always go for the safe option, to trust the young, to accept precariousness and vulnerability. It will be in keeping the windows open to God’s unpredictable grace. So, in this culture of control, religious life should be an ecological niche of freedom. It is not the freedom of those who impose their will, but of surrender to the abiding novelty of God.
I was in the United State during the time that those few anthrax envelopes were distributed, and in Asia during the Sars crisis. In both cases I was astonished by the climate of panic. In this fearful and anxious world, religious life should be an island of freedom and confidence. We may not necessarily be fearless, but should not be ruled by fear. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This is the only ultimate drama. Of what is there to be afraid?
When I was a student, our community in Oxford was subject to a couple of very small bomb attacks, by a right wing political organisation that deeply disliked us, for some mysterious reason. I remember being woken in the night by the sound of explosions. I rushed down to the front of our priory and found all the brethren gathered in their different nightwear. But where was the prior? The police arrived, and the prior still slept on. I rushed to wake him. ‘There has been a bomb attack.’ I cried excitedly. ‘Is there anyone dead?’ he asked. ‘No.’ ‘Is anyone wounded?’ ‘Well, no.’ ‘Well, why don’t you let me sleep, and we can all think about it in the morning.’ That is when I first glimpsed what leadership might mean! It dedramatizes our small panics. If our vows are a promise to let God go on surprising us, then leadership keeps us faithful to this brave embrace of uncertainty.
So, to conclude, after the 11th September our little planet is suffering from a crisis of homelessness. This is literally true for the millions of refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. We also suffer from a cultural homelessness, a sense of precariousness, and the subversion of the local cultures in which humanity has made its many homes. As religious we are called to be a sign of that large home which is the Father’s home, ‘in which there are many rooms.’ (John 14.2) We may do this making our home with the Samaritan and welcoming the Samaritan into our home. At this moment we also face a more subtle challenge, to make our home with the strangers in our own congregations and our Church. All of this requires of us a creative imagination. We need to let the Holy Spirit break down the little ideological discourses whether of the left or the right, in which we find security. We need to find the words that open us to the vastness of God, and not shrink God into the pettiness of our hearts and minds.
Since 9/11, that sense of homelessness has been deepened by the loss of a story that we can tell of our future. Increasingly the story that dominates our lives is of a war against terrorism and jihad. We religious may be at home in this time of disorientation, but not by offering an alternative story, but by joyfully and freely embracing uncertainty. We trust that our lives will ultimately be found to have meaning and so can happily let God go on springing surprises on us.
The insecurity of these present times generates anxiety, and this fosters the culture of control. This can even infect religious life, so that we may succumb to the model of management and administration. But leadership should wedge open the doors and windows of our homes, to let in the Spirit, of whom ‘no one knows whence it comes and whither it goes…So it is of everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3.8).
TIMOTHY RADCLIFFE, OP