The qualifications of a modern holy man

Holiness is hard work. Cardinal Hume lived under a gruelling discipline of prayer
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE two qualifications to be recognised as a modern spiritual leader. The first is that very few people actually follow you. In this respect, Cardinal Hume was no different from many others. Though he was an outstandingly successful church leader, he did not, so far as anyone can tell, alter the behaviour of the English very much.

We remember, and honour, his campaigns for the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, which succeeded. But his tireless campaigning for the homeless, for asylum-seekers, and against Sunday trading and the power of middle-class parents in the school system all had very little effect.

In the English public imagination, the chief role of a religious leader is to preach against sex. Here the Cardinal showed considerable skill in conceding gracefully the determination of most people to ignore his message while yet delivering it in a clear, quiet voice. His views on sexual morality were almost exactly those of Ann Widdecombe, yet no one thought him ridiculous.

This was not because of his position as Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. This is an age not so much suspicious as contemptuous of traditional authority. To be an Archbishop, a Cardinal, or even an OM almost guarantees that only a narrow circle of professionals will be interested in your opinions. The gift that Basil Hume had was personal; and most bishops exhibit very little of it. In fact the only comparable religious leader I met in 10 years writing about them was the Dalai Lama. Like Hume, he is a man whose commandments are honoured by hundreds of thousands of people who have no intention of following them. But he also has a quality of holiness that is noticeable when you talk or watch him at work.

Holiness is an extremely tricky word. But there is some quality about those two men, and about many other people not in the public eye, which needs a label: and "holiness" will do for their attitude of watchful loving attention to the world. They seem inexhaustibly interested in it, without being terribly involved in what they watch. There is a sense, when you talk to them, that you are taking part in a conversation between two people, not conducted for the benefit of any third party.

This makes their quality sound like charm, to which it is certainly related: Hume, like Robert Runcie, had both qualities. But the two are distinct. Bill Clinton has more charm than he can keep inside his trousers. In Primary Colours he is described as practising "aerobic listening", which is a wonderful description of the intensity of charm, but no one would call him holy. The holy do not expect to enjoy your pleasure in their company, as the charming do.

Nor is holiness the same as spirituality. Though we're told there is an explosion of yearning for spirituality, the people who flock to New Age shops do not seem calmer or holier as a result. They just get new and more boring neuroses. This is almost certainly because holiness is hard work. The one thing that Cardinal Hume had in common with the Dalai Lama was that he was a monk - they both put a lifetime of work into their vocations (a succession of lifetimes, in the case His Holiness). Both spent most of their lives under a gruelling discipline of prayer, with three or four hours a day, every day, spent praying or meditating. I don't know if either was in touch with anything outside himself. But it is quite clear that a life spent like that alters people profoundly.

The alteration is essentially a private one, and people who have undergone it may well shun public life. Whenever I came across it as a journalist, my instinct was to write nothing and to tiptoe away, for fear that public attention would destroy it. This suggests that it is the opposite of vanity, which is what drives most people into the newspapers. Indeed it clearly has more to do with selflessness. "One doesn't develop one's own spirituality," said a Benedictine friend I consulted. "It's more like gardening: you must give it time to grow."

Time of this sort is a quality of which the modern world is notoriously short, which must explain the explosion in microwave spirituality. People who buy crystals to meditate on or who brood over their past lives seldom do so for more than 10 minutes at a time, or three months for a fad. To this extent, the market in spirituality is exactly like the market in slimming magazines and health foods. It is a way of reading about things which the great majority of readers are never going to do. The growth of interest in spirituality no more means that people are praying more than the growth of Weight Watchers proves that people are thinner.

Christians, and members of other formal religions, have at least the advantage, if they care to exploit it, of working within a tradition that interprets their experiences of prayer. Other people have been there before, wherever there is. But modern Christians may not take the time to follow them, because they have been bored and staled by the repetitiveness of the outer world. It's difficult to imagine any quality more unholy than boredom, yet that is the motor of the consumer economy.

So perhaps the world needs more monks; or the churches do, if they are to recover their credibility. Unfortunately, the experiment has already been tried and comprehensively disproved. In the Orthodox churches, parish clergy may marry, but all bishops and above must be celibate monks. The result is not conspicuously holy bishops, but monks hand-picked by the government. There really is no amount of prayer that can guarantee a man will not be corruptible by power.

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