Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A politically incorrect talk by Bishop Forester

A “Second” Talk

(It has been very difficult to decipher as it was clearly written in great haste in a sort of shorthand. BH)

It is a very different matter to know something in the abstract and to experience its reality. I was well aware that your Congregation was among the most progressive in the country but I had no means of picturing what this really meant. Now I can see you in front of me, all forty-two ladies from your three establishments in this diocese.

The first thing to strike me is, obviously, your appearance. How I admire the ingenuity with which you manage to vary it. Of old, your were in habit, coif and veil. One saw nothing more than your eyes, nose, mouth and hands. How simple it was! Now it has become very complicated. I have not taken an exact count, but you have over twenty different hairstyles. Deep meditation must have gone into such a result. I admire each, although three of you spoil the effect by wearing mantillas here in the chapel. And what a variety of suits, jumpers, frocks! Not two alike. But what I admire most—being a man although a Bishop—is your forty-two varieties of shoes. I have not noticed one pair the same. This is astounding. It must be the result of much prayerful thought.

We are all well aware that the modern world is deeply concerned about pollution and the environment. You look wonderfully clean, so physical pollution is no problem. But has it never struck you that your clothes are your immediate environment? They both condition and express you. Of old your habit expressed your vows and your Congregation. They also conditioned your reaction to people and—more important—their reaction to you. Now they express no more than yourselves. How they condition your reaction to people, I can only guess. How they condition people’s reaction to you is clear. You are females. The members of your own sex will show you little mercy. As for men, were I not a Bishop, I might easily pinch some of the more rotund bottoms. Is that what you want?

Hair-dos, shoe cleaning, clothes cleaning, washing and ironing—it must all take a considerable time. I am not in the least surprised that the half-hour meditation before Mass should no longer be compulsory. What does seem to me odd is that Mass itself has become optional. But so has everything else. As several of you put it to me during interviews: “We now do freely what we did under compulsion.” This you consider to be a great improvement. I have two observations to make.

I grant it to be true that you now do freely what you did by force. The distinction is important. You are the dedicated Spouses of Christ to whom, consequently, you have obligations. You are not His mistresses, whom you are willing to oblige. You must have been told a hundred times that the supreme act of liberty lies in its surrender, be it in marriage, be it to God. That is what is meant by love: the will of the lover surrenders to the Beloved. Since when have you decided that your freedom is worth more than your vows and that your independence is a greater virtue than your obedience to the Rule?
But in fact it is quite untrue that you now do freely what you did by force. You have a rota for your Office. There are no longer community devotions. At meals, you come in when you like, you sit where you like, there is no reading and you talk as you please. This afternoon during interviews I was not impressed by the silence of your house. But what strikes me most strange is your freedom in spiritual reading. I ask each of you what you read. Out of the forty-two only four were reading recognized spiritual books. Most of you admitted to reading nothing spiritual at all. Five of you drew you spirituality from a couple of curious Karls—Marx and Rahner.

My dear ladies, you live in a community but you no longer belong to one. You are a group of independent spinsters held together, presumably, by habit and self-interest.

How have the Old Men crept into the walled garden where chaste Susanna once bathed so gaily in the fountain of eternal life? They have unbolted the door from within. The crowd has surged forward and trampled the flowers underfoot. The garden is a sea of mud. And where is Susanna? She has vanished in the crowd. But how have the Old Men got there?

I suppose the mass media play their part. As the taxi turned into your drive, I could see the horns of your aerial standing proudly above your convent. In your parlour I noticed a fairly wide selection of newspapers. I wonder how much peace of mind you reap from the mass media? Are journalists so incompetent that they never succeed in influencing your outlook? The mass media carry you to the summit of that exceeding high mountain whence you can see all the kingdoms of the world and the glory and shame thereof. What was a temptation to Jesus, is it none to you?

But the mass media alone would not account for the presence of the Old Men. They might make you less vigilant to guard the gate but would not let them in. However, both in your parlour and in your library I noticed a crowd of books and trendy reviews of theological fiction. How easy it is for the Old Men to slip in between the pages!

Fashionable theology, my dear ladies, is the worst conceivable guide to eternal life. Instead of stooping to scour that intellectual dustbin, why do you not stretch your souls to breaking point in the contemplation of God? You will learn more theology by adoring the Divine Reality than by absorbing men’s imaginings. Besides, prayer is an exercise at which you sex excels because it is an activity of the will. Although I have met some singularly stupid women, rarely have I met one who lacks courage and will-power. God has made you that way.

Why do you not steep your minds in the spiritual writers of your own sex? The great St Teresa is no more to be feared than the Little Flower is to be despised. There are Saints Catherine of Genoa and Siena as well as Catherine Labouré; Gertrude and Mechtchild of Helfta; Bridget of Sweden, Angela of Foligno, Colomba of Rieti, Juliana of Norwich, Jeanne de Chantal, Margaret Mary; and among lesser starts Lady Lucy Herbert and Cécile Bruyère—the list is endless. Myself, I have been more influenced by such women than by any man with the exception of St Francis de Sales, whose Treatise on the Love of God was written for a woman, Saint Chantal. Merely to see how these women prayed stretches the soul. We become capable in our little way of imitating the Mother of God: our sou too “magnifies the Lord” and our spirit too “exults in God our Saviour.” The world shrivels and depresses, the spirit exalts and expands. A little more spirituality may give you the energy to repair the garden wall, so that once more chaste Susanna can bathe gaily in the fountain of eternal life.

But I have no illusions, my dear ladies. What I say must seem to you as meaningless as the braying of Balaam’s ass. Like Balaam, it would require an angel to stand here with a drawn sword to you “to fall to the ground in worship” (Nbs 22-31).

— Bryan Houghton, Mitre and Cloak, 1979, pp. 173–176.