Hinder us not from living

Taking precautions is one thing, refusing people the Sacraments on the grounds of risk another.

Though I would not challenge the conscience of anyone else on this point, I would say academically, that as a Church, I am deeply bothered by the sense that we are not acting as if we believe what we say in reacting to this epidemic by choosing to stop taking the Sacraments to people almost altogether.

This is because, whatever respect we have for earthly life – and not to respect earthly life as a gift of God is gnostic (i.e. necessarily incorrect) – we are supposed to regard the Divine Life as more fundamental.

This means that I would argue that we should be acting the other way up: that is, instead of saying “the risk to earthly life is the most fundamental thing, unless we can completely negate the risk, we should not take the Sacraments to people,” we should be saying “the risk to Divine Life is the most fundamental thing: we should take every precaution we can to preserve earthly life, but it is right to take whatever left-over risk is unavoidable in taking the Sacraments to people.”  If our Lord who died for us is not worth that risk, what on earth are we doing on a daily basis in ordinary situations?  If we do not believe that the Life that can’t be destroyed is received through these things, what is it that we do believe?

I would suggest that there is quite a strong analogy here with the Christian tradition of martyrdom.  It is who loses their life who saves it, who gives it up for Christ’s sake who finds it.  Many Christians over the centuries have met at much greater peril of their lives than we would be in (not that I am advocating gathering specifically, at least not in large groups – I personally would not see that aspect of things as essential).  As for the fact that whatever we do is a risk to others’ lives, that is true under any circumstances, not just these.  If worship means so little, we could be spending the time we normally spend worshipping helping the famine stricken, for instance.  We could save lives just as much that way, as by almost completely desisting from practicing in this type of crisis (yes, there are differences in the two situations, but are the similarities more important?).

I grew up in a secular culture that condemned martyrs for their inconsideration to their families in holding to their integrity.  St. Perpetua is supposed almost to have lost her child in prison due to the difficulties of feeding it, and her elderly father was publicly beaten and humiliated in court, while pleading with her to deny Christ and thereby spare her child*.  Yet I have no doubt that she was right to hold to her faith at their cost as well as her own, and it is reasonable if we trust God to assume that her doing so will ultimately serve both her child and her father more than her denying her faith would have done.  If I did not believe that, I could not have come so far in the vocation as a religious which I have sought to follow.

Moreover, I am bothered by the sense conveyed in the emphasis on risk to the wider community that Christian worship is merely a matter of personal salvation, personal indulgence.  Granted the element of selfishness is always something that I am vaguely aware of, and which I am perpetually trying to purify from my worship (or, if I was wiser, would be trying to let God purify), but that is beside the point, because it is a flaw, and not how things should be working.  We receive not just for our own sakes, but for those of others; we should ultimately become overflowing vessels of grace.  Just as catching coronavirus is not a risk only to oneself but to others, a person’s falling from the Divine Life will result in others being pulled down, by the lack of their witness and companionship.

I really do not want to suggest that any individual Christian would be wrong to accept not receiving the Sacraments during an epidemic, if they feel it isn’t necessary to sustain them, and I don’t want to suggest bad motivation in anyone’s case.  I know people are doing what they think right in a very difficult situation.

However, there is an unconscious inconsistency as far as I can see, in this action of making a priority of risk to earthly life, over and above the Divine Life.  The person to whom the priest takes the Sacraments, who then dies as a result of the risk of infection they took in so receiving, has still from a Christian point of view gained and not lost.  The risk of infection, moreover, comes under the rules of Double Effect**, if the Sacraments are regarded as having a real value as vessels of the Divine Life: the minister of the Sacraments in such cases is not morally responsible for any deaths that result due to doing something that is more than equally important for people.

It isn’t right to seek martyrdom, only to accept it, and I would emphasis that I do believe completely that it would be wrong to take careless risks with an infectious illness (“do not put the Lord your God to the test”).  But in the end, we seem to have been placed in a position where we have a fundamental choice to make between risk to earthly life and risk to the Divine Life, and we have chosen the former, mostly without even seeming to recognise a case for the latter***.

I think it is unlikely that I’m the only one to be immensely troubled by the logical and spiritual implications of this.

Cherry Foster

 

*http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/ThSp_599z_SpDir/04_mart_vision/00a_start.htm

I do not know the weight of the historicity of this account, but for these purposes, it does not really matter: the archetypal understanding of martyrdom in the Tradition is more to the point, than what happened on any specific occasion (though I acknowledge that if it had never happened, there would be a lack of real witness to the value set).

**Double effect is when one and the self-same action results in a good consequence and in a bad consequence, which is foreseen but not intended.  For instance, when someone builds a railway, they build it in the full knowledge that there will be accidental deaths on it.  This does not make them morally responsible for these deaths.  Someone’s pushing an attacker away in the knowledge that they will probably fall over a cliff and be killed is a similar case.  For double effect to apply the two things should be roughly proportional (or, the good effect more important than the bad), they must be achieved in the same action (it is not possible to justify doing a bad thing to achieve a good one in this way), and the bad consequence should not be intended (i.e. the purpose intended should be achieved if the bad consequence does not come to pass).

***To come to different conclusions about what the priority of the Divine Life considered relative to the value we should put on human life would mean we do is not the same thing as taking earthly life as more fundamental – i.e. as the thing to which an appeal can’t rightly be rejected – which is what I am hearing in all the discussions I have had with other Christians on the subject.

Epidemic, the Sacraments, and the Resurrection

Where do our priorities as Christians coincide with those of the world in an epidemic, and where should they differ? 

Resurrection_(24) Photo credit Surgun source Wikamedia Commons no copyright
Christ rescuing Adam and Eve (representing all humanity) from Hell. Photo credit: Surgun; source: Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of a serious epidemic, it might be appropriate that Communion should be received by an intincted Host being placed reverently in the recipients’ hand, at mutual arm’s length, through an only just sufficiently open window, with both recipient and minister wearing masks, and the recipient only removing theirs to consume the Body and Blood of Christ after the window has been carefully pushed shut.  Or whatever precautions best fit the disease in question.

However, that is very different from it not being possible to receive at all, other than because it is literally impossible.

In a time of contagious illness, we are in the middle of one of the more bizarre paradoxes of Christianity: that of our immense value for earthly life, which ultimately, nevertheless takes second place to the Divine Life in a case of head on conflict.  This creates a massive puzzle when it comes to the handling of an epidemic* of a sort to require serious precautions.

On the one hand, we should be taking every precaution to protect the sick and vulnerable, made in the image of God and designed, within God’s plan, for eternal glory.  Earthly life is made more precious, not less, by the life to come: partly because it is ultimately the resurrection of the body in which we believe, and partly because the created and redeemed human person is infinitely precious.  Earthly life is a gift of God too.  It is Gnosticism that makes earthly life evil and the spiritual good, not Christianity, in which this world is God’s good but fallen creation, which he is in the process of redeeming.

On the other hand, death is fundamentally unescapable.  We will stand before the judgement seat of our Redeemer, one way or another.  The Divine Life, that does not notice death, is normally received through prayer, worship and the Sacraments, and the transformation of being and action that sincere engagement with these things creates.  And the Divine Life is a more fundamental life than the temporary life of the earth.  Though it is impossible to say very much about the practical nature of these things (data deficient) salvation is something that grows in us through this life, as we become more truly restored in the image of God.

Therefore, care for earthly life should be extremely fundamental, but care for the Divine Life even more so.  The secular world may, according to its principles, treat Christian practice as if it was an emotional indulgence of the same sort as going down to the pub.  We cannot.  The normal means of the inbreaking of the Divine Life into human life is not something that can be completely yielded to pressure of any sort, even the threat of mortality, artificial or natural.  Indeed, it is in the face of mortality that we most need God, and it is in the face of death that the commission to reach out to the suffering world with the knowledge of God becomes most urgent.

I would suggest this creates a situation where we should mostly be trying to find ways of co-operating with epidemic precautions, legal and to a lesser extent advised, but should never give up on trying to find ways of working with them which make sure worship and the Sacraments are still accessible to people**.  And at the last, I think any restriction should be disobeyed, if accepting it means accepting a secular view of life and death, with its trivialisation of Christian worship.  However, I don’t think we should ever hold doing so lightly, or do this when there is any option which allows us to honour both commitments.  As far as I can see, much excellent work is currently being done in putting worship online.  But the weight our branch of the Church places on the Sacraments does not really allow us to stop there.  What is or isn’t being done about this, I am not at all clear, and I would like (again) to thank all the clergy for their efforts to keep on supporting people, but I admit to being rather uncomfortable with the way in which I’ve heard it talked about, without mention of the Christian understanding of life and death, or an apparent consciousness that this understanding might cause us to think differently from our culture about what we should do***.

I think, for instance, that I’d suggest the Church should be the last to stop gathering (whether that was the case this time, I have no idea: where I am it all happened so quickly).  Also, if the nature of gathering can be altered effectively, it would be logical to do so – gathering for services outdoors, for instance, at a careful distance, is something I have heard has been done in plague conditions in the past.  After which, I suppose, it is necessary to resort to non-public reception of some kind, such as cautious home Communion, with careful observation of the same precautions that would be used by visiting carers.

Indeed, though it would not be the sort of thing appropriately resorted to under any but the most extreme circumstances, I do remember hearing it said that the Easter Eucharist was distributed in a Russian labour camp of the Communist era, by concealing fragments of the Consecrated Bread in the boxes of cigarettes handed out to each prisoner.  That sort of thing raises the interesting question of which of the normal church rules of handling and reverence it is appropriate to suspend in any particular extreme circumstance.  But, as I would argue that any reverent reception of the Precious Blood is preferable to refusing to allow people to receive it at all, I similarly think any devout reception, even if the normal manner of reverence is impossible, is preferable to not allowing people to receive at all.  Having said, I do not think the issue a simple one.  Such a thing could certainly not be done without great caution, or indeed, without a reasonable amount of knowledge on the part of the recipients as to how to handle the Sacrament.

Ultimately, I think the point I am trying to make is that though our priorities rightly coincide with those of the secular world up to a point, it is necessary to refuse their priorities when it comes to the importance of supporting people in the Divine Life.  And following from that, it is worth in such circumstances talking about Resurrection, worth challenging the view that the best we can hope for is that science will ultimately defeat the illness (an expectation for which I have great gratitude, but which I do not think to be the end of the story).  Death is an enemy that has been far more utterly defeated than that, by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lenten call to repentance is not a call to despair but to hope.  It is a call to remember that we are ultimately created for a Life that no grief can touch or disease destroy.

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Cherry Foster

 

*I remain puzzled as to what causes the problem, given that coronavirus seems to have an incredibly low death rate as these things go, but I accept – despite initial scepticism – that there is a real problem now if people are ordering lockdown.  That isn’t a step most governments would undertake lightly.

**Possibility is different from what individuals choose to do.  It may be conscientious decision on the part of some Christians to stay away in time of sickness, or not to look to receive Communion in a time when it is difficult to gather or be in contact with others.  God works differently with everyone, and some people may be quite happily supported in their faith short term by other things.  But that is completely different from others saying to them “due to the risk we will not do this”.  That is not much different (perhaps slightly worse, by the logic I’m suggesting we should be using) from refusing to care for the sick on the grounds of the risk.

***Given what people are doing, this may well be because they are taking the modifiers for granted: as I didn’t grow up with a Christian world view, I don’t.  If what people say sounds purely secular, that is what I hear :-S

How to assist a disabled stranger without killing them…

All right, that is an exaggeration, but it isn’t as much of an exaggeration as I’d like it to be. I am incredibly grateful to live in a society where the main danger of having a disability is being accidentally knocked under a train by a person who was “only trying to help”, rather than that of being attacked and killed by someone who wants a disabled person’s body parts to use in a magic spell.

However, it is also true that as a culture we lack “manners” for offering and declining/receiving help in many situations, to a point where it is a serious problem, causing actual danger, loss of functionality or confidence, and mutual social resentment.

Here are some (obviously somewhat limited) suggestions about how to offer assistance without doing anything damaging or inappropriate.

Stop.  Think.  Ask.  Respect.

 

Stop:

Don’t panic. Disability is a fact of life, not an emergency.

 

Think:

Take your mind off the disability and note something else that is human about the other person. Are they wearing a wedding ring, a university hoodie, or the latest fashionable hairstyle?

Do they look as if they want help, or are they just getting on with life?

Is offering help at this moment going to make things harder rather than easier for them? If someone has visual impairment needs, wait until after the station announcements. If someone is in a wheelchair, do not move the wheelchair ramp they are trying to go up in order to be able to stand where you can speak to them!

 

Ask:

This stage is about establishing whether or not the person would actually like help.

If you think the person might want assistance and you are able to render it then:

Try to avoid rushing headlong towards someone – this can come across as threatening. We cannot read your minds either! You might be coming to offer help – or you might be rushing towards us with a knife…

Respect personal space generously.

Ask verbally if they would like help.

Never randomly grab or touch someone or their mobility aids without interacting with them first*. At best it isn’t appropriate – it leaves them with no polite way out of the situation if you get it wrong – and at worst it is extremely dangerous – as when someone has poor balance and they end up being knocked off the platform into the way of an oncoming train.

Open ended questions such as “would you like assistance?” are often best. Imagine your work colleague is swearing at their computer, or that you are a shop assistant not sure whether a customer wants to browse or wants to be served. This avoids the awkwardness involved in saying “would you like me to help you across the road?”, followed by an utterly blank face and the words, “What? I wasn’t trying to cross the road”!

Avoid starting with questions or statements which assume the other person wants help. Examples would be “which bus are you trying to catch?” and “I’m going to help you around this sign.” Make sure possible answers to your question include a polite “no, I’m fine, thank-you”.

Don’t pester. Repeat the question once in a slightly louder voice, if you think they might not have heard it, and if they ignore you, then leave them alone. They may need to concentrate and demanding their attention will make things worse.

 

Respect:

Remember, people with disabilities have the same autonomy as anyone else. They are entitled to decide to walk down the street without assistance – and get their feet wet in the puddles or whatever – no matter how stupid the person offering the help thinks they are being in refusing!

If the person says “no thank-you” to help, say something like “have a good day” and leave them alone at once. Don’t press them. I understand why people do, but the harassment value of that can become a problem, particularly when we’re talking to the 6th person to offer help in 8 minutes! In that type of situation, we need to be able to say no thank-you quickly and get on with what we are doing, without having to spend ages arguing about it.

If the person says “yes” to help, try to do what they ask as much as possible.

If you aren’t sure what they want you to do next, questions like “how would you like to do this?”; “do you want to take my arm?”, “would it help if I held your stick?”, are generally completely fine. People tend to get good at explaining what they need done.

 

Cherry Foster

 

 

*With visual impairment, I think this problem arises partly because it genuinely is appropriate to touch a person with VI with whom you are interacting more than you would someone fully sighted. This is because it is a way of using a different sense to compensate for the absence of vision.

However, while it is appropriate to use touch more when interaction has been established, in my opinion it is actually less appropriate to try to establish an interaction with a person with VI needs by touch, due to the fact that they may not know you are there.  (Unless they are also deaf – I have no idea what it is appropriate to do in those circumstances, as none of my “ask verbally like this” stuff can be assumed to work in that case. In the UK, people who are also deaf will often add red stripes to their white cane to alert people to the need for a modified response).

An Annoying Irony

Person-who-does-at-least-have-the-decency-to-be-frank-rather-than-clandistinely-spiteful:

“You told me you couldn’t do X, but you just did Y.  I can’t see how that makes sense.  People who can’t do X didn’t ought to be able to do Y either.  I’m not going to adjust for you or assist you any more, because it’s obvious you’re just a horrible person pretending to have a problem.”

Person-with-unconventional-physical-limitations (a.k.a. a disability):

“So, instead of rejoicing that my difficulties are less than you thought they were, and that you didn’t have to make the adjustments you seem so much to resent on that occasion, you accuse me of pretending because my physical limitations differ from your assumptions about how they ought to work?

“Let’s look at this logically, if rather over-simplistically.  It isn’t possible for someone to do what they aren’t able to do.  It is possible for someone to not do what they are able to do.  The only way in which I can make my condition look as if it fits incorrect assumptions of how it ought to be is to not do things which are perfectly possible.

“Therefore, what you are saying constitutes a social requirement to malinger.  If I do not pretend, I will be accused of pretending!”

 

Cherry Foster

A Question of Value

Conventional feminism and real freedom

Suppose someone takes their daughter, or a young friend, to a social gathering*. This young woman is conscientious and high-achieving, and she’s at the stage of thinking about what she wants to do with her life, or, better still, about how she can best serve given her God-given temperament, interests, and talents.

At this gathering, she meets and talks with two women in their late sixties, one of whom has recently retired after being a consultant doctor for many years, and the other of whom has spent her life as the stay-at-home mother of her three children and as a housewife and homemaker.

On the way home, discussing these conversations with her grown-ups, would you expect both these women to be held up as role models for her? Would their different life choices be regarded as equally good ways for her to consider using her gifts and talents by her teachers, her parents, her school careers advisers?

Freedom, I think, would mean having the choice between paid work or traditional woman’s roles equally valued, advocated, supported, and respected.  Not a situation where girls are pushed into medicine and engineering in order to prove someone else’s political point!

We seem to have an odd tendency as a culture to say nice things about stay-at-home motherhood when directly challenged, but to talk and behave the rest of the time as if it was a waste of people’s time and talents, which no intelligent girl or woman could possibly “want” to engage in.

The acceptance that stay-at-home motherhood is not the right way for every family to do things, and the insistence that it isn’t a laudable ambition for a young woman** who’s drawn in that direction to “want” to occupy herself chiefly with the daily care of her family, are very different things.

Cherry Foster

 

*Or suppose, being at the stage I’m describing, you go to a social gathering, etc. I couldn’t write it to include that grammatically without it being hopelessly confusing.

**Or for a young man.  The gender specific language here is chiefly because I am trying to make a point specifically about women and feminism, not because I think stay-at-home fatherhood is wrong, or that it should be off the map.  I am not an egalitarian but a complementarian: I don’t want men who are suited to usually feminine roles, or women who are suited to usually masculine roles, to be prevented by prejudice or convention from doing them, but I don’t think it helps to try to obliterate the tendency of some roles and tasks to devolve more to men or women.  Rather I think, where relevant, a masculine or feminine environment should be aware of its tendencies and understand what it needs to do to welcome and include members of the minority gender.

The Dangers of Health and Safety

Photo0720
Which is the greater trip hazard, the warning sign, or the hose of which it warns?

I got a bit bruised that day.

I was walking around a dimly lit church; I made a mistake with my cane – and fell with an awful crash over the wet floor sign which someone had put in the way.

The safety sign was certainly more of a hazard to me than a wet floor. Most wet floors are not significantly slippery if you wear shoes with a good tread.

It is thankfully unusual for me to actually fall over wet floor signs, but they are a massive obstacle, placed as they generally are in the way of doors and corridors. The classic A-board signs are Schrödinger objects – objects I cannot readily observe without altering their location – when contacted with the cane, they tend to fall over.

Though it might be logical to conclude that the signs are only a hazard because of my unusual way of functioning, this does not seem to be the case. Others without worse difficulty than need-for-glasses say they keep tripping over the things. Moreover, the floor beneath them is not usually wet, so perhaps about half the time or rather more they are the only hazard present.

The natural solution in our society would be to require people to put up an infinite regress of warning signs: “Warning: Wet Floor”.  “Warning: Trip Hazard: Wet Floor Sign”.  “Warning: Trip Hazard: Trip Hazard Warning Sign”, ad infinitum!

The self-closing fire door is a similar issue. I lived in a flat with internal fire doors for a year. They were heavy and hard, an endless cause of bruises wherever they hit me, and of minor injury to my hands. They constituted a continuous risk of being trapped in the kitchen and unable to get back out.

The only way I could cope was by propping them open the vast majority of the time – mercifully not forbidden in the tenancy contract – which I would guess from the point of view of fire is actually worse than the presence of normal doors which do remain closed most of the time. Indeed, fire doors which didn’t come back at you like an avenging fury, but stayed where they were put, would probably have been perfectly manageable.

Again, I thought this was unusual, until I heard someone talking about the danger involved in the self-closing fire doors in their corridor at work, particularly when it came to moving large items about.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the sort of injury that is frequently acquired from fire doors is less likely to be recorded in accident statistics than the sort of injury that is occasionally acquired from their absence. If I have to live with being continuously covered in bruises and with minor cuts to my hands from my inability to handle my fire doors safely, A and E don’t find out, though its impact on my life is hardly insignificant.  If you are involved in an accident with a trolley as a result of an over-enthusiastic and badly placed self-closing fire door, it is likely to be the trolley, not the door, which gets the blame. I never actually broke fingers or anything worse, though I was quite afraid of doing so – it didn’t exactly make for a homelike existence. And people are mostly very heavy handed about trying to force even those of us with extra physical needs not to prop such doors open, regardless of the resulting risks, or the practical consequences of that refusal, such as not being able to live independently.

There was a tiny risk of someone dying in a fire that might have been prevented by those doors. There was an absolute certainty of my injuring myself as a result of the fact they were heavy and self-shutting. That isn’t an aspect of things people should be ignoring.

I’m all in favour of reasonable and sensible health and safety, having met someone from another part of the world who (if I have this correct) fell through a poorly maintained balcony while pregnant. It is worth putting effort into making things safe, particularly in the type of shared environment where people do not have much personal capacity to alter the extent of the environmental risks they are enduring.

However, these things do need to be thought about holistically, and with an awareness and consideration of the real practical consequences of the precautions required, both to safety and to life in general.

Requiring people, by force of law, to put hazardous signs and doors all over the place is not what health and safety should be about!

Cherry Foster

In a Time of Confusion

Words from the work usually known as “Stainer’s Crucifixion”, by W. Sparrow Simpson.

Gerokreuz_full_20050903 copyright to attribution
Gerokreuz, late 10th century, Cologne Cathedral. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Glory and honour,

Let the world divide and take them,

Crown its monarchs and unmake them.

Thou – Thou shalt reign.

 

W. Sparrow Simpson