Dead-End Grumbling

At various stages of their ministry, the clergy are sent on training programmes. Having completed 10 years in ministry, I had to go on a Clergy Leadership Programme. I loathe those things. You sit around in groups and they set you exercises like ‘if the Church of England was a train what sort of train would it be? Draw a picture with these felt tip pens'. The one thing that sold it to me was that the programme was based on the Rule of St Benedict. Great, I thought, a solid foundation. Well St Benedict’s rule received barely a mention. I felt deceived and disappointed, so when it came to the plenary feedback session, I took my felt tip pen and I wrote on the sheet on the wall. ‘Not enough Benedict.’ Whereupon another participant immediately wrote beside it, ‘oh come on, we need to move on from the past.’ 

Move on from the past? The monks and nuns of the Benedictine family have been working through what it means to live in community for 1500 years.  I’m going to say something I thought, but instead I fumed inwardly, remained silent and grumbled to myself.

In his rule, St Benedict warns against grumbling, he uses the Latin word  murmuratio, murmuring, a low continuous background noise. In the chapter on obedience he says that  religious should cheerfully obey those in authority. Their compliance should not be ‘cringing, sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness’. What they do for their superiors, they do for God, and God loves a cheerful giver.

In St John’s Gospel, people grumbled about Jesus when he declared himself to be the bread that came down from heaven. Their grumbling prevented them from understanding his teaching, it closed their minds to new thought and new possibilities, and many disciples stopped following him from that point. Their grumbling echoed that of the Israelites in the wilderness whose moaning at Moses and Aaron was taken by God as directed against himself. Their grumbling stunted their memories. Unwilling to think beyond their present hunger they blotted out what God had done for them in delivering them from slavery in Egypt.

In  St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus stresses the importance of sounding out problems, of having it out with someone, facing up to a problem and not pretending that it does not exist. If you can’t sort it out by yourself, take someone with you, to back you up and ensure a fair hearing.

One woman who was always ready to have it out was Ena Sharples, a character from early episodes of Coronation Street.  Everyone knew where they stood with Mrs Sharples. Ena would hold forth in the snug of the Rovers Return, with her companions Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst. When singers believed to be from St Michael’s Church sang carols in the pub, she railed, ‘what happens to the money they get, your ha’pennies and pennies? It makes you wonder, that vicar’s wife toddling round in a fur coat. Don’t tell me she got that on what he’s earned.

Ena would not permit the truth of the matter to cut through her own vindictive prejudices. There is a criticism that is constructive, that seeks resolution and improvement, there is a seething discontent that is destructive, that talks to everyone else about the problem, rather than the cause itself. 

A friend of mine who is 84, says he wished he didn’t still get angry about things. But if he didn’t get angry, it would mean he didn’t care about anything, that he’d given up. A righteous indignation is a good thing, but it needs to be channeled, and not stagnate in pointless grumbling.

St Paul states that the answer to all the commandments is love. If love governs our motives, we will want to keep them. We must speak the truth in love, difficult though it may be.  When we pray about our causes for complaint, when we offer them to the Lord, he is not going to collude with our grumbling. He is not going to play Minnie Caldwell to our Ena Sharples, failing to challenge our destructive complaining with a complicit silence. He will chasten us with love. The Holy Spirit will sift our complaints. Honest and open prayer should shame our foolish, pride-filled complaints, put them in perspective and silence them; whereas problems that really need correction will be reinforced by the Holy Spirit.

When we are unhappy about something, we should ask ourselves, do we wish for resolution and improvement? If we do, then we should speak out, and pray for the discretion that will help us discern the right means to achieve the desired end.

We must not get stuck in dead end grumbling, in a cul-de-sac of complaint that goes nowhere. As St Benedict says, The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action his holy teachings.