The Jesuit and the Benedictine

Have you heard the story of the Jesuit and the Benedictine? It seems that they were both heavy smokers. Chatting about this one day they agreed to ask their superiors to give them permission to smoke while reading their Daily Office. When they next met, they compared the outcomes. The Benedictine was crestfallen. He asked his Abbot if he could smoke while he was saying his prayers – and got thoroughly told off for his impiety. The Jesuit had no trouble. He asked if he could pray while he was smoking. He was congratulated for his virtue.

We can all see what happened, but it raises an important point. They were both asking for the same thing, and the only difference was the order of the request. It reminds us that our brains are often illogical in their work – sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad.

A very common illogicality is the danger of first impressions. For example, at a job interview, the decision tends to be made in the first few minutes. The first impression colours the later information. I suspect that many university acceptances are influenced by the candidate’s accent. This tendency of first impressions appears to be genetic. Many thousands of years ago our ancestors survived to breed because they immediately avoided situations of possible danger.

We have a built-in tendency to look out for evidence to support our views, and to dismiss evidence which may show otherwise. Take for instance, global warming or choice of political party. How often do we sit down, try to blank out our minds, and start again from scratch?

Here’s a job lot: tall men are more likely to get senior positions; bespectacled people are judged to be more intelligent; women’s eye pupils dilate when they are aroused; successful shops know every trick in their displays and advertisements.

Another genetic outcome is the influence of the groups to which we belong. In primitive times, belonging to your group made for safety, and to disagree with your group made you an outsider. For instance, if I took to slagging off Our Lady on this Blog I doubt if it would last very long.

You may well be aware of many such influences. But just knowing the possibilities is not enough. We must from time to time explore our views and check their truths. It’s a tough task but very worthwhile. And, what better occasion than the New Year?

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Jesuit and the Benedictine

  1. galerimo says:

    Jonathan Pryce, in “The Two Popes”, as Pope Francis, tells the same story of the Two Monks (a Jesuit and a Benedictine? – why not?).

    By the way my favourite line is from Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict when he says “It’s a German joke. It doesn’t have to be funny”.

    I know a woman who does not smoke but often enjoys a cup of tea with her Rosary in the garden some afternoons.

    And a guy walking his dogs while making his morning prayers, or riding the train to work.

    Can you imagine the familiarity? Taking such sacred things so easy and light.

    Such homeliness seems illogical where the sacred is concerned – no kneeling, no joining of hands, no bowing of heads. No. Tea and biscuits.

    I am happy to join in your celebration of illogicality here.

    The pre determined patterns of behaviour that govern a lot of what we do are only one part of the story. There’s more to our behaviour than DNA, blind instincts, or psychological compulsion.

    Just as there is more to the universe than it’s observable patterns and definite rules. There’s also the very important component of chance.

    And as with the universe there’s more to God than morality, Church and Sacraments. There’s also God as Creative Spirit.

    If it was all conformity we would stagnate and if it were all chance, we would have chaos. Life and faith are always somewhere in between.

    Here’s a (true) story of my own to illustrate.

    As the sun was setting one Wednesday evening on the Caribbean Island of Martinique

    There could hardly be found a more miserable man than one Afro-Caribbean, Auguste Cibaris.

    He was in jail, in the town of St Pierre.

    At 8.03am on the following morning, the island’s volcano, Mount Pelee, erupted and killed 30,000 of the island’s inhabitants.

    His cell was a dark, damp underground cave hewn out of stone

    that somehow protected him from the pyroclastic gases that killed everyone else.

    He had been awaiting his execution.

    – at sunrise, that day, no one in the town of St Pierre could have been more certain of their death than Auguste,

    but he was the sole survivor.

    I wonder if Auguste might have been chewing on his last meal while hoping or maybe praying “Veni Creator Spiritus”.

  2. milliganp says:

    Is it, perhaps, the only significant moral advance in our society that we would now ask “why do you smoke?”.
    My parents smoked but I was never tempted. Amongst my family and friends smoking is now rare. I have developed an innate prejudice against those who smoke as I see it as a sign of ignorance or lack of will. Apparently, Cardinal Manning saw smoking as a mortal sin.
    Thus I had great difficulty when our diocese had a chain-smoking Archbishop appointed. Thankfully (to me) he has now retired.

  3. John Nolan says:

    ‘I suspect that many university acceptances are influenced by the candidate’s accent.’

    Quite so. Speak like Jacob Rees-Mogg and you are likely to be passed over in favour of a ‘less privileged’ candidate with a regional accent.

    • Alasdair says:

      Both of my friends, professors, who are in a position to select students for undergraduate and post-graduate programmes insist that accent, or any other indicator of social group, do not influence their decisions. One of them said that the very idea was an insult to his integrity.

      • Alasdair says:

        However, upon further questioning one of my professor friends referred me to the “Widening Participation” process which all universities are tied to by (Scottish) law. This obliges them to consider cases of applicants who have marginally not achieved the general entry criteria for a number of very clearly listed reasons which are subject to a rigorous protocol, ie nothing as trivial as accent.
        Examples of this are applicants who have during the preceding period been full-time carers to family members, have been refugees, or have come from one of a small, and diminishing list of areas of significant social deprivation.

      • Quentin says:

        Alasdair, thank you for passing on your friends’ comments. I am not surprised. The issue is that we may, and many are, influenced without being aware of it. My theme has been that we should continuously be aware of our own influences and allow for them. If your friends are doing this, good for them — integrity doen’t come into it.

      • milliganp says:

        It is particularly common, in academia, to now use implicit bias testing and subsequent training, where necessary to remove bias. It is relatively easy to check for bias against identifiable groups – people of colour, Muslims, gays etc. It is harder to remove bias based on physical appearance, age, accent etc.
        The whole problem of implicit bias is that it is, by its nature, unconscious. Prejudice is often different as it often presents as an initial reaction which can be checked by rational examination.

  4. G.D says:

    ‘first impression colours the later information.’ First impressions are to be taken into consideration of course …….. but, yes, the majority of people still can’t think for themselves, and see beyond previous thought patterns about the ‘packaging’ before them; and see previous thought patterns as the only truth. ……. oh, dear back to talking of prejudice instilled from outside sources … silly me.

    • David Smith says:

      G.D writes:

      // the majority of people still can’t think for themselves //

      I’d say they *choose not* to think for themselves. Being human, they *can*. The default way of getting along with others is probably simply forming yourself on whatever is the approved model in your part of the world. That partially explains how mass movements work. People are sheep, with a need to fit in, to be accepted. To break free of the flock, one first needs a motivation stronger than the need to belong. So long as life in the fold is comfortable, there is likely to be little motivation.

  5. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // It reminds us that our brains are often illogical in their work – sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad. //

    Logic, I think, is just a tool we need to have in hand in order to rationalize, and rationalizing is simply how we construct reality – that and parroting. Good and bad – morality, the moral sense – come only after we’ve lived a while and made enough mistakes. Children don’t have a moral sense. It’s an overlay, a consequence of learning enough painful lessons. It’s an extension and an elaboration of regret.

    The story of the two smokers seems to suggest that a Jesuit is likely to be a post-moral kind of creature: a discarded or atrophied moral sense = no sin.

    • milliganp says:

      I’m pretty much convinced that children have a definite moral sense which we see in the way they play and interact with the world. Many a parent gets feedback from very young children when they promise something in the future to placate the child and get the feedback of “that’s not fair” or “daddy, you lied” when the promise is not delivered.
      This, in my view, points to some morality being innate rather than learned behaviour.

    • ignatius says:

      David, I think the story simply indicates a good sense of humour, it is, after all, a joke.

  6. milliganp says:

    Returning to the original story about what is or is not right to do while praying, I remember a Parish Priest exclaiming “if one more person comes to confession saying they were distracted at prayer, I’ll scream!”
    Having been involved in technical education at one time I remember being told most people can’t concentrate on one thing for more than a few minutes (we were told to change focus at least once every 10 minutes). So the idea of not being distracted at prayer only works if you pray for a very short period of time.
    The Jesuits were once tarred with having invented casuistry – often used a a pejorative term. However casuistry is fundamentally making decisions (judicial, ethical or moral) about situations for which there is no obvious precedent by extending appropriate precedents in similar cases. Obviously smoking was not an issue at the time of Christ but we do know that Jesus changed water into wine and was criticised for associating with publicans and sinners. Thus Jesus did not seem to be overly concerned with people drinking or being under the influence of drink.
    If you can pray when merry, I suspect you can pray while smoking.

    To finish with a personal story, my only reference in the Catholic Herald was in an anonymous column by a Catholic Priest berating the fact he had received a set of “No Smoking” notices for his church (to comply with government regulations about public buildings). I had created and sent them out, under instruction, in my health and safety capacity. I’m unaware of ever seeing someone smoke in church, having been a child in the era when 90%+ of adults smoked. However I once assisted at the funeral of an aunt, years after the indoor smoking ban. There was enormous ash tray, full of fag ends, in the sacristy (where the child server had to dress). The PP chain smoked until moments before the start of Mass and, I was reliably informed, he often would leave the altar during the collection for a quick cigarette to get him through mass. He was not a Jesuit.

  7. John Nolan says:

    I remember, as an eight-year-old boat boy, accompanying the teenage thurifer to the sacristy after the Gospel to put a new disc in. As we were not required in the sanctuary until the Offertory he had ample time to smoke more than one cigarette. An added bonus was that we missed the sermon.

  8. David Smith says:

    Testing to see if posting is now possible.

    Failed attempt, from a few days ago:

    // David, I think the story simply indicates a good sense of humour, it is, after all, a joke. //

    But it’s a better joke because it was the Jesuit who got away with it than it would have been had he been the one caught out. Jesuit = sly, cocky, amoral man of the world.

  9. John Nolan says:

    The Dominicans were formed to combat the Albigensian heresy. The Jesuits were formed to combat the Protestant heresy. Which order had the greater success?

    Well, when was the last time you met an Albigensian?

  10. ignatius says:

    Quentin’
    “Another genetic outcome is the influence of the groups to which we belong. In primitive times, belonging to your group made for safety, and to disagree with your group made you an outsider. For instance, if I took to slagging off Our Lady on this Blog I doubt if it would last very long..”

    Yes, I can certainly go along with you on this!

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