THE most recent revelations from Christ Church, Oxford (News, Press 21 February), provide a parable for Lent. We are all called in this season to self-examination and repentance. Evagrius, the most psychologically acute of the Desert Fathers, taught that spiritual growth involves paying attention to our thoughts, which, for him, were not mental reasonings, but something more sinister: the false rationalisations by which we justify to ourselves our unruly desires.
The emails from Christ Church show what happens when thoughts intended to be private are revealed. It is difficult not to be repelled at the state of mind of the individual who entertained the fantasy of the Dean’s “wrinkly, withered little body” being found at Osney Lock. Malicious thoughts, disguised as drollery, are easily tolerated by intelligent people when their wishes are frustrated. But, in the light of day, the funniness disappears. Such thoughts reveal out-of-control emotions: anger, contempt, secret envy. They give insight into the hidden violence that the entitled sometimes resort to in the struggle to protect their advantages.
The college says that the emails are unimportant. The Governing Body, which should be the college’s decision-making body, has lacked even basic inquisitiveness, apparently accepting that the toxic contents of the emails were just colleagues letting off steam.
Busy self-absorbed Oxbridge academics, under constant pressure to publish, can easily persuade themselves that they have no time to run college affairs, let alone get wound up about a few indiscreet remarks.
Christ Church delegates much responsibility to a committee made up of former censors (senior tutors). Some of its most sensitive business is, in effect, conducted in secret, with only edited versions available to the Governing Body. This is why the Governing Body has neither seen, nor insisted on seeing, a full report of the Smith tribunal that exonerated the Dean last summer. It worries me that undergraduates are absorbing the lesson that secrecy, lying, and emotional abuse are acceptable, if they serve your interests.
For the rest of us, a useful exercise this Lent would be to turn on the light of the gospel in the house of the self, and uncover the clever, murderous thoughts that we habitually entertain about those whom we most fear or despise. Gossip and malicious daydreams are not the sole preserve of academics. Clergy are particularly prone to what Evagrius called “thoughts”: the half-conscious, half- repressed fantasies that bubble up from our instinctive life and then become rationalised to justify our prejudices.
We can hide such thoughts from ourselves, but we cannot hide them from God — and, if we fail to attend to them, they poison our lives and relationships.