Saturday, 10 September 2016

Making a difference, differently

It just so happened that we were in the south of France when we heard that Mother Theresa had been canonised. We scanned various online articles, all covering familiar territory, and then forgot about it. Saints are not really 'our thing' or the 'thing' of most Scottish Presbyterians. We don't really understand the canonisation process and its reliance on evidence of 'miracles', especially when it is as swiftly delivered as Mother Theresa's. No time allowed for nasty things to crawl out of the woodwork. Still, it's not our Church and none of our business. We didn't think of it again, well not, that is, until we visited the Abbaye du Thoronet, a couple of days before we were due to leave.

The little Abbaye du Thoronet rests quietly in the midst of the forests of Provence as it has done for centuries, about nine centuries, to be exact. At first sight, nothing significant seems to have changed over this period, though no monks live there any more and, for a monastery, I suppose that is pretty significant. There it lay before us, plain and tranquil, almost Presbyterian in its simplicity.

How different this tranquillity is from the speed of our own lives, from mine, at any rate! Our ten days in France had been slotted into a veritable whirlwind of activities as a respite from a rather more frenetic period of work than someone who is ostensibly retired is supposed to experience. I speak in the singular, of course because nothing about Stuart's life can be described as 'frenetic', though it can sometimes be a bit 'fraught'. Four-foot putts can be stressful, as he often reminds me. My own life, however, is rather different, as I shuttle backwards and forwards to Malawi.

So tranquillity as symbolised by the gracious lines of Le Thoronet's cloisters, is not my normal scene, as they say.

If you are visiting the Var, you must go to Le Thoronet. To reach it, you drive through miles of sun-filled forest sprinkled with vineyards, most of which would once have been tended by monks. The local wine is still called Domaine de l'Abbaye. From the time of its foundation in 1136 until its abandonment at the end of the eighteenth century, it would have been quite remote. Nowadays, it has acquired a hamlet of red-roofed houses and a car park with a nice little bistro, just across the road. Nevertheless, Le Thoronet can hardly be called 'metropolitan'.

It is a little jewel of an abbey, just big enough for the 11 monks and 11 lay brothers who occupied it during its heyday. The creamy stone of its huge church does not demand that you enter. Far from it. Le Thoronet was an enclosed order. Nobody from outside came into the church so there was no need for a ‘front door’, and even less for a splendidly carved front door such as you find in most urban cathedrals. No, it has just two little side doors, one for the lay brothers and one for the monks, the same doors from which they left to be buried.

The church at Le Thoronet is one of the most serenely beautiful and most spiritual I have visited. Even Stuart didn’t go through his usual grumbling about ‘unnecessary decoration’, because there wasn’t any. Its clear geometrical lines, the proportions of its pillars, roof and floor, were carefully calculated according to mathematical principles laid down by the Cistercian order. And these principles derived directly from the history of Cistercian monasticism as a reform movement returning to the original Order of St Benedict: the 'Presbyterianism' of the Pre-Reformation Church. The balance between the architectural elements, the light, the soaring columns: the simplicity of the building, all reflect the essentials of faith and belief. Anything else - frescos, pictures, statues, let alone stucco cherubs - would be a distraction.

Yet, being a Cistercian monk wasn’t a piece of cake. Indeed, pieces of cake were probably few and far between in most early Cistercian monasteries. The monks ate the olives from their groves, the meat from their flocks, the fish caught by the fishermen they employed, the vegetables from their garden, all washed down with the wine from their vineyards. For that was the rule of the Cistercians: prayer and manual labour - and their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These abbeys were quiet places, the rule of silence kept everywhere except in one room of the abbey, the parlour. The Trappist branch of the order took it even further and communicated only in sign language.

The same practices were true of every abbey founded as  the order expanded from the original French monastery at Citeaux, further north. Cistercians moved to Wales, founding the lovely abbeys of Tintern (below) and Strata Florida.

They then founded the great English abbeys of Fountains and Rievaulx in Yorkshire. And monks from Rievaulx founded the first of the Cistercian monasteries in Scotland: Melrose Abbey in the Borders (below).

These great abbeys, and the little one at Le Thoronet, were not just houses of prayer, but centres of productivity and indeed invention. The Cistercians were the great sheep farmers of their days. But they were not just agriculturalists. Rievaulx Abbey led the way in the development of blast furnaces for example. In England and Wales, of course, all that industry, in both senses of the word, came to an end with Henry VIII's Dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541, and in Scotland with the Scottish Reformation. Some historians have argued that the Dissolution slowed down the industrialisation and technological development of England by centuries. That was not true, of course, in France. Here the Abbaye du Thoronet just gradually declined until, in 1790, only seven old monks were left. (Here are views of their lavatorium or bathroom.)

Now what has all this got to do with Mother Theresa, you may ask? Well, as you wander through the cloisters of Le Thoronet, try to imagine that life of denial, discipline, early rising and prayer five times a day. Not that the lives of monks were any harder than those of the villagers around them. After all, unlike their countrymen, they were not threatened by starvation and had a community of brothers to care for them if they were sick. Convent life may not have been comfortable, but it was certainly pretty safe.

So, for most of their history, the Cistercians of Le Thoronet were secure enough. However, what good did their prayer and fasting do anyone? What difference did they make to the world about them? Weren't their lives just a bit over protected and self-indulgent?

Compare their enclosed and inward-looking lives with the practical service to the vulnerable and destitute carried out by a preaching order such as the Franciscans. Those of you who know Edinburgh may be aware that the garden of their friary at what is now Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh provided herbs and remedies for use in their care for the poor and sick. Indeed, think of St Francis himself. And of course, Mother Theresa.

Everybody knows of Mother Theresa’s service to those dying on the streets of Calcutta. Her order, the Missionaries of Charity, run dispensaries, soup kitchens and orphanages. To the traditional vows of chastity, poverty and obedience they add a fourth: 'wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor'.

Who could possibly argue with that? The Missionaries of Charity certainly 'make a difference'. There are few more degrading deaths than those experienced in the open street, among the feet of people passing by. I remember the shock of seeing the dead body of a man in Chittagong, just lying there as pedestrians swerved around him. What is there not to admire in the devotion of those who care for the most destitute?

And yet, and yet... Being out in the world has its own temptations. Some are relatively trivial. We may laugh at portly Friar Tuck with his taste for roast meat but there are temptations other than gluttony.

Charitable work of any kind, not just religiously-inspired missionary work, seems so obviously 'good', yet it can have such perverse effects if not carefully managed. Think of 'feeding programmes' in developing countries. How wonderful, providing hungry children with an incentive to come to school! I used to think so too. Indeed, we helped to set up and run such a 'feeding programme' once upon a time in Uganda. (Interesting isn't it, that British children have school meals, but African children have 'feeding programmes', like farm animals? At least we could give them their dignity.) However, in poor areas where one meal a day is the norm, parents often stop feeding their children if they know they are going to get a meal at school. And hungry children can often think of nothing else until the porridge arrives, certainly not their learning. Then, when they've eaten, they slip off home again. It is parents' responsibility to feed their children. Removing that responsibility is not a step to be taken lightly except in situations of extreme starvation, and certainly not because of what can be emotional reactions to a degree of poverty we haven't ourselves experienced, and the associated feelings of shame and even guilt.

I once went to a Malawian school where parents had stopped farming the school land to provide school meals as they now considered it was the job of a well-known charity to feed their children. When the charity moved out, they didn't go back to their food-producing activities. It was no longer their responsibility, they said. So often such programmes bring about a dependency culture and, like the one we set up in Uganda, become completely unsustainable. Though those of you who know about this programme may be relieved to hear that another charity has taken it over. Long term, though? Do we feed these children for ever, in a country like Uganda with plenty of food but inequalities caused by social and political factors, as in India? I think the Catholic church in Malawi and organisations like Oxfam have got it about right: help people to improve the agricultural productivity of their land, teach families about nutrition but don't feed them except in extreme situations.

Being in the position of donor or benefactor can in itself be corrupting. Think of the power, the power literally over life and death! And this is why there is such controversy about the canonisation of Mother Theresa, the woman who believed that there was nobility in suffering. She has been accused of refusing medical treatment or pain relief to patients, even to children. She has been said to have accepted, and even lobbied for money from gangsters and corrupt politicians. She has been accused of bullying, ruthlessness and moral blackmail, with plenty of anecdotes - and some convincing evidence from people like Christopher Hitchens - to support at least some of the accusations.

Yet, how many of us would not succumb to the temptation of power if we felt it could make a difference? You start with a burning desire to help the less fortunate, to change things, to make that difference. However, things go too slowly. People are too slow, too stubborn. You want to cut corners, to get the job done quickly, and so you start pushing a bit too hard. You get money where you can for money can change things quickly. You start parachuting charity from on high instead of working with people so that they make things happen themselves. And all of us operating in developing contexts are, at some time or another, guilty of behaving in similarly insensitive and high handed fashion.

Yet it is not always like that. I myself was born in a leprosy hospital in the Chittagong Hill Tracts run by missionaries, which provided the best medical care not only in that country but also for any who crossed the border from Burma or elsewhere. Nevertheless, coming as I do from two or three generations of missionaries, I have listened to enough negative as well as positive stories to make me cautious about even the world-famous work of Mother Theresa and her order.

Perhaps the monks of the Abbaye du Thoronet, of Tintern, of Fountains, of Rievaulx and Melrose got it right after all. Theirs was an order devoted to prayer and manual labour. They reared their sheep, pressed their olives, brewed their beer and bottled their wine, all ordinary activities carried out by ordinary men and, in time in separate communities, ordinary women. At night they slept in a bare communal dormitory, one monk per alcove. They spent the rest of their time in contemplation and prayer.

When as a casual modern visitor you enter the light-dappled church of Le Thoronet, you feel as if some of that prayerfulness still resides within its walls. In their own quiet ways, the monks made, and through their architectural legacy continue to make, a difference. And when they died, they were laid to rest in the earth they tilled, under the shadow of their forests. There are worse ways to live, and to die.

The following post may also be of interest:

A day out from Edinburgh: Melrose Abbey

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