Tuesday, 7 September 2010

a meditation Andrew Bebb

The Role of Authority and Governance in the Life of the Church.

A theological meditation by Andrew Bebb after reading the beautiful first encyclical of Pope Benedict.

The notion of Authority and Governance as ‘the power to compel obedience’ has occasionally infected the life of the Christian Church from two distinctive and sometimes dangerously corrupting sources.

Firstly, it derives from the ideal of Christendom, which was generated after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Christianity then became the established religion by law. This influenced both the political and social structures of the Church as, increasingly in the Middle Ages; it began to imitate the hierarchical organisation of the State.

Secondly, the threat of liberal modernism and individualism in the nineteenth century led the Church to turn inwards away from the ‘modern’ world and to form a complete and ‘perfect’ independent society. It chose to organise itself as an hierarchical centralised organisation confronting a threatening alien world beyond its frontiers. This required a powerful totalitarian structure demanding obedience and submission from its adherents under the penalty of excommunication and ultimately damnation. Rome became the centre of an inflexible orthodoxy as all spiritual power was focused in it. Creative scholarship and any recognition of diversity and pluralism were excluded. This process reached its climax in 1870 during the First Vatican Council with the proclamation of Papal infallibility.

This idea of Authority as ‘the power to compel obedience and submission’ would seem to be directly contrary to the Gospel teaching. There ‘Authority’ and ‘Truth’ belong to God alone. All other manifestations of them are ‘participations’ only and not ‘possessions’. Indeed to claim to ‘possess’ either ‘authority’ or ‘truth’ as their complete and ultimate source is to turn them dangerously into despotism or lies. Authority is not to be as it is with the ‘gentiles who lord it over them’ but rather as one who serves. It is the power and authority of love.

God’s own authority and truth are most fully manifested in the self-humiliation and death of Jesus. In him, they are shown as impotence and tender loving service: ‘learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart’. The most powerful sign of Christian authority was offered in the events leading up to the Last Supper, when ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God, got up from the table, removed his outer garments and taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and began to wipe them with the towel he was wearing’. A simple statement about Divine authority!

It is an authority grounded in love, as Benedict says, which compels neither by force nor fear, but rather by the power of attraction and desire. It draws rather than repels. It is not a power to command through strength in the ruler or fear in the ruled. When God displays the utter shamelessness of his self-humiliation, it is not for our edification and imitation. It is a display of the very nature of God. This is the truth about the Divine reality.

God’s revelation of Himself is made in a person, it is experienced in a personal relationship and hence is infinitely explorable. It is a disclosure made, not as a body of information concerning an absent reality, a fixed set of doctrinal formulae used to browbeat people into submission. All doctrine is symbolic, sacramental, rooted in the authentic experience of the presence of Jesus in the life of his Body, the organic community of the Church. It must reflect a trustful pluralism, which is a necessary consequence of the presence of a living Spirit at its heart. Orthodoxy in word and action must constantly be open to the changing and humble witness of all Christians. This role of the community is central as it celebrates the presence of the Lord in Word, Eucharist and action. This is the sensus fidelium. Order within the Christian community is of course necessary but it must be an order, which facilitates and encourages witness, not one that suppresses it. The leader, the minister, the priest has the task of refining, guiding, serving, professing and above all of serving. Ministry is a dialogue: a dialogue which is embedded, through the presence of the Spirit of Jesus, in every member of his Body through Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, and is also embedded in the witness of countless Christians who have explored the meaning of the gospel throughout the last two millennia. That is precisely what we understand as the traditio.

The constant danger is to permit structures to predominate over life, for the Church to become primarily a juridical institution and to cease to be the family of God. It is this experience of an unyielding inhuman authority that many in the past have encountered. Should that happen, it is then that the prophetic voice of the lonely, individual conscience, with all its awesome dangers, has to be heard.

The church’s authority must above all avoid the danger of being identified with secular and juridical notions of authority. It must be an authority based upon the experience of God in the love of Jesus. Authority in the church at all its levels is neither absolute nor democratic in character. It is unique. Its source is neither a philosophy nor a political science, but the New Testament. The New Testament is in the proper sense quite anti-authoritarian. There is a hatred of the type of dominion seen in secular power or religious autocracy. No member is to occupy a position of dignity or eminence. The one who carries responsibility for others is only their lackey or servant. Somehow authority within the Church must discover a wholly new way of exercising itself. Its use must be determined solely by its mission, namely the proclamation of the Gospel. It belongs to the whole Church and is not to be the exclusive possession of a few. It is subject to the workings of the Holy Spirit.

It is more than democratic. All must be ready to speak. All must be ready to listen. It is directed to persons not to ideas, institutions or things. Anything resembling a power structure must be forever excluded. Authority within the Church is based upon its unity with Christ.

Eulogy andrew bebb

Recently I was invited to give the eulogy at the funeral of my brother in the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Leeds. Andrew Bebb

It was at times like this, I said, that memories come flooding back. Tony was my eldest brother by almost six years.
Of course I can recall those early days when he seemed an older, very capable figure whilst I was a young child. We lived in the rooms above the Catholic Club on Robert Street opposite the church, and also in the cellars beneath. Dad was the steward. Mam told me of the occasion when she heard me calling from the window of the second storey window above the street. She was horrified when she entered to see me standing at the window calling ‘Tony’. I was standing precariously on the open window cill, shouting at Tony in the street below. I must have been three or four years old at the time. She said she crept up quietly behind me and grabbed me before slamming down the large window. She remembered it well because the big heavy window dropped down on her fingers.
Throughout my childhood, Tony was someone I was bound to admire and to look to for some support.
But it was some years later that I discovered him as a close friend.
He had been demobbed from the RAF. Those years he had spent as the Flight Engineer in a Halifax Bomber flying 36 Raids over occupied Europe from the base at Elvington south of York were behind him, (incidentally Halifax bombers were constructed at Speke), as also was the time of his posting subsequently to India at the close of the Far Eastern War. It is only now that I realise how fortunate he had been to survive. I remember him visibly weeping as he described an occasion when he watched his friend in an accompanying plane being hit and destroyed. He had many other painful recollections of those days. The Canadians in the crew were deeply fond of him. During intervals between the raids they were often to be found sleeping overnight on the floor of our house at 19 Robert Street, Harrogate. (We had moved down the street by that time)
His log book is kept with care in the archives of the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington, south east of York. It is a very moving document, each flight described in his own careful handwriting.
However back to the occasion when we began to share a close and developing friendship.
I was on holiday from college and Tony suggested that we should make our way from Ripon up Wensleydale to the Lake District under our own steam. I suspect he needed to walk and camp and immerse himself in the greenness and gentleness of the countryside and so leave the terrors of war behind him. It was for both of us a memorable time which we never, ever forgot. Although there was an anxious look on Dympna, his wife’s face when she saw us off. We carried basic equipment from our memories of our time in the Scouts: tent, cooking stuff, etc. We had both in our time been King Scouts. The weather was good. We marked on the ordinance Survey map the location of the village pubs. We found the licensing hours were fairly flexible. A pint in one would usually see us through to the next.
On one occasion we pitched our tent in a kindly vicar’s front garden and were regaled with a hot breakfast in the morning. On another occasion, in a farmer’s field we were directed to a deep spot in the local beck to wash and bathe. On Tony’s suggestion I was the first to slip down the overhanging rock into water up to my neck. At that point Tony shouted; ‘Don’t move, there’s a snake!’ Somehow I leapt up the steep rock in a jiffy. I think I was dry by the time I reached the top. It turned out to be a peculiar white rock formation.
Reminding Tony of that always led to hilarious laughter- from him, of course. On another occasion we returned to the tent to find it covered in flying ants. It was a warm night for mating – for the ants, I mean.
We did reach our destination just above Windermere and spent a day or two by the side of Trout Beck.
I can’t remember how we got back but I suspect it was by bus!
Those few days were deeply significant for both of us. I cannot remember how often we talked about them. It was the welding of a very deep and enduring friendship for which I will always be grateful. I look forward to reminding him of them when we meet up in the land of eternal youth.
Then followed the years he spent in the City of Leeds Police Force. He worked his way up from constable to sergeant to inspector. Again he was very committed and happy in his work. I understand he was respected as a man of deep integrity and sensitivity. I recall him describing an occasion when he had seen a youth doing something he shouldn’t, and began to chase after him. Realising he had no hope of apprehending him; he jumped on a passing bus and passed him by. He knew where the lad lived. He told me it almost broke his heart to see the look on the lad’s face as he shut the door behind him with relief only to see me sitting in the armchair in the living room. I suspect Tony never forgot the things he himself got up to when he was a youngster. During his time in the Force he was also posted for a time to Cyprus as a Police Sergeant during the troubles there.
On leaving the Police, Tony worked for some time as the Security Officer at Elland Road, the Leeds United Football Ground.
The final thing I would like to mention and it is something that those of you who knew him well would need no reminding of and it is this: his deep love and fidelity to his wife, Dympna. She was the love of his life. How he loved to drive her up his beloved Dales and to Harrogate, whenever the weather allowed. Without her he was only half a person. Never a day passed without a visit to her grave in the cemetery off Wetherby Road in Harrogate, after her death, to be alongside her the best way he could. It is there that he will be interred today.
The other morning in my prayers, I read a fitting memorial from the Book of Isaiah: ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.’

Evil and Suffering andrew bebb

A Reflection for Easter. Andrew Bebb

I remember many years ago watching an interview on the television. The theme appeared to be an exploration of the problem of evil and suffering in human life. The interviewer had chosen to interview a fairly young couple. They were sitting together on a sofa in a modestly furnished room of a rented council house in the North of England. Held against the bosom of the woman, with her arms clasped around the neck of her mum and her legs around her waist, was a young girl, about four years old. Although the child’s eyes were open, they were expressionless as was the young girl’s face. The mouth hung open and the tongue lolled within it. The child’s body was quite incapable of any independent movement or response, let alone that of speech.
We learned from the interviewer that the child was bereft of any form of communication and every movement had to be gently controlled by the parents. We were shown a scene in the small garden at the back of the house where the child had been brought to enjoy the sun and fresh air. Although there was no indication of any pleasure in the child’s demeanour.

The interviewer began to probe the feelings of the parents.
‘Here you are,’ he said, ‘I understand that you are unable to have any other child. She is the only child you will ever have. This little girl you are holding is quite unable to make any kind of reaction to your loving and gentle handling of her. So it will continue for many years into the future. Do you not think that you have been dealt a very unjust hand? Do you not feel any bitterness because of it?’
The young father looked at his wife in bemusement and for a while there was silence. ‘I don’t know about that’ he said, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever thought about it. One thing we do know though. Our little girl will know only one thing in her life. That is the love that we give her. To take that away. That would be an injustice.’

For myself, I have never forgotten that image. It was the finest expression of human dignity I have ever encountered. It has helped me to begin to understand the place of suffering and imperfection in human life. Let me try to explain how.

That little girl with all her limitations and total self-enclosure had managed to draw out of her parents a depth of selfless love and joy that most of us will never begin to educe from those we spend our lives among. It helped me to begin to understand the meaning and purpose of God in creating this so imperfect world.

Again many years ago as a young adolescent, I remember reading in the preface of a missionary magazine a mysterious phrase. ‘It is the sinner,’ it said strangely ‘who is closest to the heart of Christ.’ It has taken me many years even to begin to understand that odd statement.
We spend our lives in a broken, imperfect world. Love grows out of our outstretched hands. As we reflect upon, admit, and accept our imperfections, our sinfulness, our unattractiveness, our abiding weaknesses, our hidden shames, we open up a space for love to be generated in the enclosed hearts of others and through them to the God who cares beyond all imaginings. The One who numbers the hairs on our head, who knows the dying flight of the sparrow as it plunges to the earth.
It is only in our emptiness and fragility that there can be room for love to enter in.

When on Easter morning, the Deacon sings that great hymn of joy, the Exultet, he sings of that ‘happy fault which merited so great a Redeemer’. It seems such a strange thing to be joyful for! Original sin? Our weaknesses? Our propensity to shame ourselves with our failings? Surely not.
And yet that is precisely what the whole Church rejoices in as it celebrates the resurrection of Christ.
It is the sinner kneeling in the shadows beating his breast muttering: ‘Lord, have pity on me, an unworthy outcast’, who goes back to his house justified, not the boastful righteous ones who are busy congratulating themselves on their piety standing at the front. It is the criminal hanging on his gallows beside Jesus and asking to be remembered in the Kingdom, who is promised a place in Paradise that very day!
These are the chosen ones. What a strange message does the Lord bring! He comes to call sinners not the upright!

Deep in shame
Years of perfidy
Pressed down upon me.

In the bench
Beyond the sacred encounter
Quiet tears ran.

The unseen head pressed upon my chest.
‘Be still. All is well’

Above thje Storm the Smallest Prayer Andrew Bebb

Above the storm, the smallest prayer. Andrew Bebb

I remember as a small child, diligently poring over the many questions and answers in the old penny catechism, being mystified by the questions about God. With the approval of the Holy Child nuns responsible for my induction into the nuances of Catholic belief, I was able to recite that ‘God is a Supreme Spirit who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all His perfections’ and moreover that ‘God is everywhere’. And all that in the first three pages! . The notion that puzzled me most was this idea that God is everywhere. I could cope with the notion that my Guardian Angel was always around, keeping what I hoped was a benevolent eye on me. He (or she) I understood, was always on my side even if they might blush at my unseemly actions on occasion. But the idea of God being everywhere was a bit difficult. The idea of being under constant surveillance was not a very appealing one! There was ‘no hiding place’ it seemed. Whatever the level of my understanding at the time, at least the formulas stuck around in my mind and continued to echo when I enrolled as a student of theology reading the great Summa of St.Thomas Aquinas. Even there it wasn’t easy. Thomas told us that apart from the revelation made by God through the Incarnation of His Word, the only intellectual thing we can say about God is to state what he isn’t! He calls it the ‘via negativa’, the negative way. God is not finite, He is not constrained by the limitations of space or time, and He is not created, and so on. In fact Paul Tillich, the 20th. Century Lutheran theologian went so far as to claim that: ‘it is as atheistic to say that God exists as to say that He doesn’t exist’ on the grounds that to say that God exists is to make God into an object existing alongside other objects. All very difficult!
Tillich however was a Protestant and had none of the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of the ‘real sacramental presence of God’s self revelation in the created world around us’. It is in that real presence that we encounter God’s proximity and inwardness. The Orthodox Churches use the term ‘Mysterion’ or ‘Ikon’ for that which we in the West describe as ‘Sacrament’ It is not simply a question of learning about God. It is in the form of an encounter with Him: whether in the created world around us, in other people or in the self-revelations He makes in the Word incarnated in the scriptures and finally and completely in His Son, Jesus in his Eucharistic presence.

If only the catechism had started the other way round. Can we forget the abstractions and concentrate on the concrete? Where out of our ‘unknowing’ may we encounter God? Let’s get rid of all our preconceptions, whether from philosophy or from the imaginative projections of primitive peoples who needed something outside themselves to worship or to protect them from the unpredictable.
I think that perhaps the catechism was starting at the wrong end. Abstractions are difficult enough for most of us even when we are adults. It reminds me of the story of the good nun trying to prepare her young pupils for the visit of the Diocesan Inspector She primed them to be able to respond to the examination by learning one answer each. The idea was that when the Priest asked a question from the catechism the child whose answer it was would raise a hand and reply. Unfortunately when the Priest asked: ‘Who made you?’ there was silence until a child said: ‘The girl that God made is away today, Father.’
Anyway to move on..

Let’s go back to the roots of our knowledge of God in the Gospel and in the life of the Church’s faith.
When Philip the Apostle, in his bewilderment, asked Jesus, before He left them, ‘Show us the Father’ the almost withering answer he received must have made Philip feel a little humiliated. John in his gospel remembers the incident well. John of course in subsequently composing his gospel recognised the presence of God in every sign and action and saying of Jesus. ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip,’ said Jesus, ‘and you still do not know me? How can you say “show us the Father? Did you not know that if you have seen me, you have seen the Father?” What a staggering statement!
Tillich in once sense was right. There is nothing we are able to know rationally and directly of God’s existence or His nature. To attempt to do that is to project our own images upon that simple word, God.
But for the fact that in His graciousness, God has taken the initiative and revealed Himself sacramentally to us in his creative activity and ultimately in the human life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus, we can know little about him. He remains a closed book subject to our conjectures.

There is here a kind of analogy of this in our own human relationships. What indeed can we know of one other, except insofar as we take the initiative and open ourselves up to one another? Otherwise we and they remain simply objects in a world of other objects! We simply slot people, and indeed our self, somewhere into our personal data banks. We tend to put them into the correct slot in our list of categories: old, young, middle aged, priest, layperson, immigrant, mentally ill, etc. etc. What do I really know even of the person beside me during Mass except for the (hopefully) fleeting smile during the kiss of peace! (Unless of course it happens to be a personal friend or my wife!!) Other people remain a mystery until they or I take the initiative and open up ourselves to one another in the great risk of self-exposure. And it is a great risk! A friendly loving approach can lead to great pain and anguish when the offer of intimacy and openness is abused, derided or betrayed.

This leads me on to another of those difficult catechism questions.
‘What is faith? - Faith is a supernatural gift of God which enables me to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.’
Is it simply that? A question of simply wrapping your mind around statements of doctrine without understanding or joy? In moments of doubt just gritting your teeth and carrying on as faithfully as you can?

Not really.
God took the incredible risk of opening Himself up to us in His enormous act of faith in humanity. It was his eternal act of self-exposure. As Paul said, He loved us whilst we were still in our sins. It is his initiative entirely. We are utterly undeserving of it. This is really what the act of faith is. There can be no guarantee that the gift will not be hurled back into the face of the One who has the temerity to make it. It is open to derision, to abuse, to rejection. We can recognise this in the human history of Jesus the son of Mary.
Just as the act of self-revelatory faith which God continues to make in this world in which we live, can be abused, manipulated and destroyed for gain and profit, so the men and women through whom he comes to us as his real presence in our daily lives can become simply objects for competition, or manipulation or fear or abuse.
All we need is faith. A faith which includes both courage and daring.

Before coming to live here in Liverpool, my family and I spent ten idyllic years living in a converted farmhouse in a little village on the banks of the river Tamar in Cornwall. I was working as Head of Divinity at an Anglican college on the outskirts of Plymouth. Since living here for the past twenty odd years, I have often been asked whether I have any regrets about moving to Liverpool. My reply has often surprised the enquirer. ‘Were I to choose any place to live in this country, I would choose to live here.’
I remember catching a black cab back to Lime Street station after attending an interview at what is now called Liverpool Hope University. The job was Head of Theology. In that cab was my first encounter with a typical ‘scouser’. In the course of the short journey we exchanged an unbelievable amount of friendly details of our personal lives and so developed a mutual act of faith in one another! I am still impressed. Journeys using my free bus pass into town or more recently to Morrison’s, have almost always led to friendly brief conversations with my fellow travellers- especially the ‘golden oldies’ like myself. Often the best experiences of this mutual faith occur in the pub! Particularly the Gardener’s in Woolton near my son’s house! (No advertising fee!)

That’s Liverpool.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Belonging Andrew Bebb

The birds of the air have their nests.

One of the most painful experiences is, I think, that of feeling that you do not belong. The feeling that you are an ‘outsider’. An outsider in a group, a place, and most painfully of all, in ‘anywhere’ at all. Some of us may have experienced something of that particular experience during the time of our adolescence. The increasing number of self-harm incidents and suicides among the young is maybe a testament to that.

I recall occasions in the past when I have been attending conferences, usually of an academic and theological nature, when, at least for the first day or two, this feeling has predominated. There have always been those who seem to relish the situation and quickly become the focus of attention either by their humour and self-confidence or by the respect they feel entitled to attract because of their expertise. For me, I have usually looked to gravitate towards someone sitting quietly in the corner of the bar, looking equally disconnected. Some have described it in the past as ‘having an inferiority complex’. Perhaps accurately. Maybe in the circumstances, it was the constant awareness of the many lacunae in my classical and neo-classical education. After all, my initial contact with the aroma of ‘Higher Education’ had been in the field of Mathematics and Structural Engineering, certainly not in the area of poetry, literature or theology. It has of course become easier as the time passes and the focus of attention has been on the lectures or seminars But that feeling of ‘not really belonging’ has often been there.

I suppose the concomitant sensation is that of ‘loneliness’.
Here it is that one thinks of the loneliness of the elderly, perhaps left on the shore of life after the departure of a partner or children. The single mother or father left to care for a child struggling in an alien world without the support of friend or relative: The man or woman facing a life threatening disease unable to share with anyone, no matter how close they may be, the fear that takes over and drives out any hope or joy. There is too is that painful entrapment within oneself: the loneliness of the prisoner in gaol, the illegal immigrant constantly afraid of exposure, the vulnerable stranger moving to a new abode, the mentally ill and the Alzheimer sufferer, bewildered by the world they do not understand. There is also the loneliness of those imprisoned by an addiction, in the face of the contempt that it can generate. The isolation engendered by the remembrance of unforgiven guilt as one reflects back on the shame and sins of the past can be a joyless burden to carry. Perhaps we might also not forget the isolation of the priest now living alone and sometimes comfortless in a large presbytery designed to house many. Finally at the close of our lives, there is the loneliness of those who have no one to grip their hand as they travel into the darkness on that last journey of all.

‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from?’ sang the Beatles.

I remember my late wife, Marie, suffering from terminal cancer, waking me in the early hours, asking me if it was a nightmare and in the morning she would be free of the disease and that she would be able to watch her young children come to adulthood. It was difficult to share the panic and fear that she had to live with. It was a self-contained isolated cocoon that it was difficult to enter. Sometimes she would be driven to question whether there really was anything beyond the grave.

This bitter journey into loneliness was a journey that Jesus shared and knew well. There is almost a hint of self pity in his voice when he proclaimed: ‘The birds of the air have their nests and the foxes their lairs, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ As he prepared for his last journey and agonised in Gethsemane, almost plaintively he asked of his closest friends: ‘Could you not watch one hour with me?’ No wonder that Peter went out from the courtyard and wept bitterly as the cock crew and he remembered the words of his master foretelling treachery and disavowal.

At the end, as Jesus’ own last journey into darkness began, he looked down and saw that all his friends had fled. Save his best friend, John and his agonised mother. Other women stood some distance away. All he could hear was the taunts of groups passing by. It was then that the terrifying cry comes from his lips: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Was there ever an agonised experience of ‘not belonging’ as deep as that? How grateful he must have felt when the man hanging beside him, uttered those words of pity. What a reward he promised him. ‘This very day you shall be with me in Paradise!’
Dying outside the city walls, rejected by his own: ‘How often would I have gathered you under my wings like a hen her chicks’ he had said in his final days, as he looked down from the hill above Jerusalem.

And yet it is important, I think, that we distinguish loneliness from solitude. Loneliness can be corrosive. Freely chosen solitude can be fulfilling and creative. Jesus often praised the enrichment that solitude can bring us. It is there that we can commune with the Father who holds us in existence. He directed us to find our secret room, even that quiet room behind our closed eyelids, where only God can see us and where we can explore the deepest depths of our communion with Him. We watch him sometimes slipping away from the crowds into the hills, to pray to his Father when he felt suffocated by those pressing upon him. A prayer so impressive to his followers as they watched him, that they asked him to teach them how to pray like that.

Where is the source of our belonging? The deepest foundation of the ‘good news’ of the gospel of Jesus is that each one of us in spite of everything does belong. Each of us is pre-chosen and loved with all our individual gifts and quirks and disabilities, and even with our sinfulness and our weaknesses. That is fundamentally true, before we establish that right to belong by any credentials we might be able to offer.

I recall being told of the initiation rite of a Kikuyu tribe during the incorporation of the newly born. The chant was simple: ‘I am because we are. We are because I am.’
As we might say: ‘We, your family, your friends, and the whole human race welcome you as a precious gift into our midst. We belong to you and you belong to us. May you be contented and happy all the days of your life.’
‘I am with you all days even until the end of the world.’
‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them,’ said Jesus towards the end of his earthly time with us.

The Sacramental life into which we have been initiated in Baptism is not intended to separate us out from the human race. It is meant to enable us to become fully human, to belong in the deepest way possible, not by our uniformity or the badges that we bear, but by the welcoming acceptance of our differences and those of others.

Sadly without that assurance, we may look for an identity elsewhere. Unfortunately this quest for ‘belonging’ is not always a happy and humanising process. We seek refuge from isolation by enclosing our unique identity in the suffocating mentality of the tribe, even the tribe called Christian or Catholic! So many ways we have of escaping from our sense of insignificance. Our need to become a member of something seems to predominate. Here it may be helpful to recall the wise words of Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian, who described those visibly outside the Church but who follow the light that God has given them through their God-given humanity, however imperfectly, as ‘anonymous Christians’. I suspect that some of my children might merit that description!

How I love to label myself in order to find refuge from my isolation.
In place of the sharing and cooperative endeavours that I have been created for, anxiety and fear can replace love. The temptation to suppress the fear of isolation is present in all of us to a degree, just below the surface.

Recently I read something that changed quite radically my understanding of the reason why God in creation made each one of us so different, with separate languages, colours, sexuality and beliefs. I had previously been led to understand an interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel that it was a punishment for human effrontery in its attempts to create by its own power, a universal order of uniformity with a hierarchical structure. However contemporary scholarship claims that cultural and linguistic diversity are part of God’s design for the world, rather than his punishment of it.

Perhaps we need to learn to rejoice in the richness of our differences and in the otherness of those we live among. It would be a miserable joyless world were we all identical.

One of the most reassuring and yet most challenging words of Jesus come in the Gospel of Matthew (ch.7 v.1): ‘Do not judge and you yourself will not be judged’ If only I could get through life with simply that, my salvation would be assured!!
If only.

Celebration in Our Lives Andrew Bebb

Angela and I spent a couple of days a few weeks ago in North Yorkshire in a lovely Hotel overlooking Saltburn Bay. The hotel was in the centre of a golf course. It was just on the border of a little village called Brotton. My mother was brought up in a house on the High Street, number 41, which is still there. As children we used to spend our holiday there with our grandparents. Every day we were anxious to catch the bus down to the beach at Saltburn, with its soft fine sand. Saltburn is a beautiful Victorian resort with a lovely long pier and a funicular railway to get you up to the town at the top of the cliffs. Across the High street from number 41, in Brotton was a little Catholic Church, St.Anthony's, where my parents were married in 1924. It was the reason why my eldest brother was baptised Anthony.It was a moving experience to attend Mass there on the Sunday morning of our stay. It was in fact the day of the Golden Jubilee of my priesting in 1959. The Feast of St. Anne, Jesus’ Grandma. St. Anne was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages, especially in Celtic parts like Cornwall.My Grandad worked as an iron miner in the mine at Skinningrove just a fewmiles down the coast. Although the mine is now closed it was lovely to sitthere and to remember the past. In the house in Brotton, I recall his rocking chair and the spittoon beside it, filled daily with fresh sawdust by Grandma!Incidentally my mother became a Catholic when she married Dad. She remembered, as a child, throwing stones at the windows of the little church as it was being built in the early years of the last century!! The hotel was very comfortable and the food was excellent, and the view over Saltburn Bay magnificent. I can certainly recommend it..That Sunday morning Mass in Brotton was quite an emotional experience for me. The elderly congregation were so warm and friendly, and the elderly celebrant had a lovely smile as he stumbled around the sanctuary. He looked at least twice as old as our own dear sprightly Theo! I thought of my Mam and Dad exchanging their vows before the altar. They would be so happy to see Angela and me there on this my special day. Incidentally we also visited on our way home the Church in Harrogate where I had been priested fifty years before.I began to think about the importance of celebration in all our lives. As a father of so many children and grandchildren, it struck me that without this element in our lives from our very earliest days, our humanity would be deeply diminished. The saddest thing in our present day culture is perhaps that for many, the life-enhancing possibilities of joy or sadness through celebration has been supplanted by the life-denying occasions of binge drinking, and stag and hen parties where the prime aim appears to be to dehumanise oneself in a drunken orgy. Some seem to have lost the art of ingenuous even artless, innocent celebration. Maybe because it was absent in their childhood.Without communal celebration, life is not simply poorer it is scarcely able to be human. Children, indeed all human beings, who are deprived of this dimension in their day-to-day living are deprived to a degree only now being appreciated. In Schools, dominated as they sometimes are today by the demand for motivation, function and testing, there is sometimes little more on offer but conformity, and occasionally in the less able, a sense of alienation. Imagination is sometimes undernourished. Yet on the contrary, it is in communal celebration that we can affirm passionately that growth and knowledge and the acquisition of skills are not the sole purpose of human life. I remember some years ago, being involved in a project sponsored by the Schools Council under the auspices of the DES as it was then. It was trying to investigate the reasons why current Moral Education was deficient, at least in Schools. It attempted to produce teaching resources to address the lack. The unsurprising conclusion was that what was needed was not discipline through fear of punishment, but rather a capacity to empathise imaginatively with the feelings and desires of others in a sympathetic manner. Thus one would be able to treat others with empathy, compassion and acceptance without pre-emptive judgement. The technique of storytelling, poetry, music, and celebratory participation, needs to predominate. It is in this simple manner that freedom grows within us.Every culture has had its imaginative morality stories to pass on to its next generation. From Aesop to Hans Anderson. One cannot forget the parables of Jesus. Stories which invite exploration from the inside, and identification of ourselves within them, without them being simply didactic. Nor can we forget the Eucharistic celebration, which he bequeathed to us as the centre of our identification with him. His greatest gift. I remember telling my students in teacher-training, never to regard story telling as simply time out or as an escape from the other important elements in the curriculum. It could be the most important time of the school day.It is the element of story telling and celebration in our lives that perhaps is the most significant. As Harvey Cox, the American Theologian once said: “When festivity disappears from a culture, something universally human is endangered.” (The Feast of Fools. Harvey Cox. H.U.P. 1969). It is in celebration that we are able to affirm that knowledge is not simply an intellectual business, but rather an interpretive relationship with the world in which we spend our lives.It is then that a child learns to be enraptured by the dancer and the clown, by the mimic, the poet, and the mystic, the artist, the singer, the storyteller and the fancy dress.It is in the excesses, the excitement and the revelry that all of us learn to situate ourselves in the past and also in the future of the community to which we belong.I don’t suppose that there are many families now with time to sit together at table for a meal, even once a week, to celebrate family togetherness. Indeed I read in the paper recently that houses are being built without even a single dining room capable of seating even a small number of family members or guests to eat together with any degree of festivity. Only a lounge is available. When we read the Gospel stories, it is as though Jesus was never happier than when He was invited to meals and parties; whether it was at the marriage feast at Cana or at the homes of tax gathers and sinners in the house of Levi. When a Pharisee invited him in for a meal, he didn’t hesitate to take his seat, and seemed so pleased when a woman who had a bad name in the town, pushed through to pour precious oil on his head and wash his feet with her tears. He loved also to relax and put his feet up at the house of Martha and Mary. When you are organising a party, he said, do not restrict your invitations to the wealthy and the influential. Go out seeking the poor, the sick, the blind and the lame. The Kingdom, he describes as a great banquet where the loving, the humble and the sorrowful and the neglected will find themselves at table, whilst the self-satisfied and uncaring stand outside, uninvited.Unless we can become as little children, he warned us, you will not able to enter the Kingdom. They brought their babies for him to touch them, somewhat to the annoyance of his friends. Having had so many babies brought to me for my touch over the years of my parenting and grandparenting, I warm to that memory.Celebration can fluctuate from the most complex traditional ritual with all its mysterious undertones, to the simple unstructured and informal sharing in the delight of the unexpected. It is, I think, important to view it as a whole spectrum of possibilities and not to set one against the other.It can vary from the most complex traditional ritual with all its mysterious undertones, to the simple, unstructured and informal sharing of delight in the unexpected. There is also the important place in our lives for the celebration of our mourning at the wake or the funeral, as we try to come to terms with the gaping hole left as one of our number departs. I remember the wake for my brother many years ago. It lasted throughout the night, as the room echoed with the uncontrolled tears of his wife and six children, or with helpless laughter as memories of him came to surface. He was a lovely humble man full of compassion and gentleness. His influence still surfaces in the children he bequeathed to the world, especially Cathie, whom Theo knew well.. I think of the Benedictine parish priest who had been at his side as his life slipped away in Knaresborough Hospital telling me that he had just been at the deathbed of a saint. He died still relatively young and his prayers and influence still reverberate in all who remember him. He is one of the unknown ones whose intercessions we seek on the Feast Day of all the Saints.Perhaps the critical years are those spent at home before a child enters school. Children whose mum is always there for them are indeed privileged.Small children have a facility for excitement and fantasy and nostalgia long before they are able to articulate it in language.For the fortunate child, informal festivity can be an almost continuous experience. There are so many opportunities – parties, presents, dressing up, dancing, outings, picnics, birthdays, holidays. So many experiences are fresh and new, and so need to be celebrated. It is often a good idea for adults to keep out of the way! Where have all the games we played as children gone?I remember watching a gorgeous celebration in an Infants Class, as the culmination of a theme on ‘Things that Sparkle’.So many different aspects of festivity are open to exploration – solemnity, gaiety, formality, and spontaneity. There is so much to affirm and to celebrate, from the colours and textures of autumn to the Festivals and dancing and imagery of the many varieties of Religious faith and experience. ‘Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom….…’

Continuity and Change Andrew Bebb

Nearly 40 years ago, I resigned from the active diocesan ministry in which I had worked for 10 years. Although the transition from cleric to layman carried its own traumas, the most profound and the most surprising experience was, and indeed has proved continuously to be, that of a deep underlying continuity in my life. A continuity, which I would like to try and explain.
I remember some time before my resignation sharing my reflections with my brothers and friends in the priesthood during a day of recollection. I had been invited to lead the day. I chose for my theme that of the celibate life and its significance. I attempted to describe it as a gift designed to 'liberate for freedom’. A state of detachment for service in love. A state in which the priest is able to reflect back to the people of God that Word which is already present within them and which precedes his own coming amongst them..
Christ is present, I recalled, in his Body, the Christian community; as really present as he is during the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist. The priest accepts that presence from them and re-focuses it only to return it. The demand is simply to become transparent to that presence, both in the proclamation of the Word and in its eucharistic celebration. His whole purpose is to live out the grace which has chosen him to be the medium and servant through which the Spirit of Jesus is brought into the lives of men and women.
His task is to empty himself and not get in the way. The possibility of the priest becoming such, lay simply in the extent of his capacity for self-effacement in the power of the Spirit. This is a continuing quality, which I have recognised in so many of the ministering priests I have met in my life, in all the parishes in which my family and I have lived.
On leaving the ministerial priesthood, I was soon to discover, as indeed Martin Luther had also found, that that demand was not one, which was the fruit of a professional celibate clerical status, but was a continuing commitment arising indeed from the Sacrament of Order. If the institutional Church in its wisdom chose to try to limit the exercise of that commitment, so be it. My responsibility as a husband and a father and as a human being could only be to do my best to continue to exercise priesthood within the constraints and opportunities of the new life that God had called me to. Celibacy was certainly not the indispensable condition of an existential priesthood as I came to experience it, although it clearly may be for others. Married life carries with it continuous opportunities for self-sacrificing love. If we, as incarnational Christians, are to love, serve and enjoy God in our neighbour, where else can we who are married, find him more completely than in our closest neighbour, our spouse? What, I think, is helpful, is to convince oneself that to experience change, even a quite profound change, is normal in human life. It is not simply something to be undergone, but is often desirable, is quite healthy, is indeed rooted in the Biblical experience. The God of biblical revelation is a God who calls us into newness. What is important, however, is that the change should not be dependent upon total discontinuity, a rejection of everything that has gone before. We need to build links between the 'there and then' and the 'here and now'. Those links lie within us to discover. For some, it may lie in the exercise of leadership through political activity; through worship, spiritual direction or shared prayer; for others, it is expressed in teaching, social service, the caring professions. Every priest, celibate or married, male or indeed female, must exercise the ministry within the constraints and possibilities of a particular life situation.
After forty years of living out a married priesthood, it may be a help to share some of my experiences. Like most people, I have known moments of enormous joy and also times of deep pain and sadness. After twenty years of a contented marriage, which bore the fruit of four delightful children, my wife died of cancer after a protracted illness. Now, perhaps a little like Thomas More (I like to think so anyway!), I am once again happily married to Angela who herself was suddenly widowed and left with five lovely children. So there you are, this former celibate has been able to rejoice in two lovely wives, nine beautiful children and fourteen grandchildren! Although I do not think they would thank me for describing them as children! The youngest is now thirty and the eldest thirty-nine. I do hope it is a good sign that three of them read theology at University. All of them are now working in the caring professions, as mothers, teachers, social workers, nurses, carers and one policeman.
Now, back to my theme. In what ways has the Sacrament of Order continued to flourish in my own life? Sometimes it has done so in practical ways. I remember the few occasions when I was able to offer sacramental support and comfort to the seriously injured in accidents, or in recent years, as a member of the chaplaincy team here in the Royal Liverpool Hospital. I remember the many times I was able to bring my first wife viaticum and the sacrament of the sick. I remember the blessing I was able to give to young children and to the new born, especially my own. I recall the many occasions when in giving counselling, support and advice to my students, I have felt the power of priesthood very close. I have been fortunate in being able to teach theology in Higher Education during all these years and it is difficult to describe the satisfaction, which that has brought. My experiences in politics, standing as a candidate for election provided many opportunities for offering Christian and priestly witness.
In some ways perhaps our state as married priests, for there many of us, is a little like the hidden years of Jesus' priestly life. What I want to say more than anything to those whose wounds are still raw from experiences of rejection and shame, who may perhaps also feel an emptiness in their lives deep down, is this: rejoice in your continuing priesthood, whether it is the priesthood of all the baptised or of the Sacrament of Order, and the eternal commission which Jesus gave to you through His Body, the Church. That commission is still laid upon you and its exercise will be surprisingly possible in all kinds of unexpected situations. Perhaps in your liberation from the restrictions of clericalism, comes a freedom to be incarnated fully into human existence. I remember an occasion when the partner of a friend who was on the point of leaving the ministerial priesthood, said that she was dreading the day when he would say his last Mass, because it meant so much to him. My response was to say that such a day need never come. Whenever he is actively present during the celebration of the Eucharist, no matter how far down the Church he happens to be kneeling, he will be a concelebrant and offering that Eucharist as a priest. Nobody can ever take that away from him.

Friday, 6 August 2010

sacred spaces

Sacred Spaces Andrew Bebb

From my second floor window I am able to see the upper part of St. Austin’s Church. During the few days when I have been confined to bed, this was a great consolation. As a child, I was taught that if you were unable to be present at Mass and to receive Holy Communion, it was possible to be present in your mind and heart and to receive what was called ‘a spiritual communion’. I recall an occasion when I was confined to the infirmary at Ushaw and yet being able to hear the singing from the College chapel. It strikes me that physical presence is maybe not such an unconditional necessity.

Maybe it is important to regard the walls of the Church when we are present within them, not as enclosures but as opening out to the whole world beyond. I remember hearing Mass in a little chapel in Northumberland where behind the altar was a huge window where the clear glass opened out to the lovely garden beyond.
I love to watch the swaying branches of the trees outside the windows, when sitting at Mass in St. Austin’s.
The procession into Church after the kindling of the Easter Vigil fire in the garden outside, and then carrying its light inside is like a symbol. A sign in which the newly redeemed world is carried within the sacred space.
These thoughts have led me to think of all the other sacred spaces we may encounter.

When visiting Orkney a short time ago, I marvelled at the immense Ring of Brodgar. The ring of huge stones on the lonely moorland consisting once of sixty huge megaliths, now twenty-seven remain. The ring is 104 metres wide. Thirteen prehistoric burial mounds have been found around the perimeter. Not far away is the huge conical mound of Maeshowe with its single low entrance tunnel into the dark interior where there are burial chambers. Only once a year for a few moments the light of the rising sun illuminates the interior. These truly are sacred spaces.
We have no records of what their significance must have been to the Community who raised those megaliths.. A number of theories have been proposed. What we do know is the importance that particular space must have meant to the men and women who erected them. The sheer complexity of organisation that must have been necessary. Without cranes and metal tools, digging up, transporting and erecting them must have taken years and involved everybody. Why was it so special? Was it the space where in ceremony, the community expressed its unity and identity? The space in which the Spirit they worshiped was present and available? Even now to enter within that space is an emotional experience. As I looked out at the world beyond the stones the place where I was standing seemed still a truly holy place. The quietness and solemnity of that inner circle was daunting.

It made me think of all the other sacred spaces that we continue to venerate and to visit.
The secret sacred place where my first wife, Marie, is buried and the times when I call to tell her about things and how her children are getting on. The place where one day soon my own body may perhaps lie with hers. I find cemeteries to be wondrously precious sacred places. Watching others walking quietly through, clutching their flowers in hand, it seems that others do too.
I think of all the other sacred domestic places: the garden with the wild areas loved by the birds, robins, coletits, and blackbirds. So many, with so many different songs, the cheeky dunnocks, the swifts hurtling into the gardens after their long journey from southern Africa. The ones that come to feed on the nuts and seeds from what I call ‘le cafĂ© des oiseaux’ it is amusing to watch as they drink and flutter as they bathe themselves in the water bowl.
Little wonder that the Holy Spirit is typified as a dove.

I think of all the other quiet sacred spaces both ancient and modern: the island of a thousand saints at Bardsey off the coast of Wales: the little chapel at the edge of the plain of York on the top of the hill below which is the ancient monastery of the Carthusians near Osmotherley. The chapel that many pilgrims would secretly trek across the Yorkshire moors to visit during the long years of the penal days. There, tradition has it; the body of Margaret Clitheroe was brought after her martyr’s death at York.
The little medieval chapel carved out of the rock side at Knaresborough, dedicated in thanksgiving, to Our Lady of the Crag. Then there are the Holy Wells in Cornwall and in North Wales; the well dressings in Derbyshire. So many quiet holy places. I am sure that many of us could add to the list. Lourdes, Compostella, Walsingham. The whole world is sanctified by their presence.

Home is a holy place. I wonder if there are many of us that have a little dish of Holy Water at the entrance to bless ourselves as we leave and enter. It was once quite common. I remember a life long good friend I had in my youth. Though English born, his parents, one of whom was a high-ranking officer in the Army, were from the North of Ireland. There was a picture of the Sacred Heart in the entrance hall. Always without fail, as he left, he would touch the picture and quietly say the little prayer at its foot. He was not particularly pious. It was just his way. It was a privilege for me to be invited to deliver the homily at his Requiem a year or two ago.

Some other Religious faiths themselves are very much domestic in their prayers and practice. The Hindu family has its domestic altar with its images, incense and candle as a focus for its family worship. Judaism is a family faith. It inaugurates the Sabbath at the family table each Friday evening, as the mother lights the candle and invites the eldest son to relate the story of their origins when God led his people from slavery in Egypt. The Buddhist will often have a quiet, starkly furnished prayer room to contemplate simplicity and the emptying of the self.

During this time of Pentecost as we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit into the hearts and minds of the first friends of Jesus, it is helpful to recall some of the words that he spoke. ‘ When you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’
And so for the followers of Jesus every place is now a sacred place. Even though there be no visible tongue of fire over our heads, to those who are open to Him there is most certainly one in our heart and mind.

family christening

A Family Christening.

When my wife and I married twenty years ago, we found ourselves with nine children. Both boys and girls in almost equal numbers. We had both been previously widowed.
It meant that over the years we have become accustomed to organising many baptisms. Fourteen grandchildren so far. Even the odd naming ceremony for the unchurched.
The last occasion was quite memorable. It may be helpful to share the experience.

As you may imagine the Church was quite full with a number of little people as well as adults. The priest was a lovely gentle Indian Franciscan. He clearly loved children and had enormous patience. His response to an apology for the amount of excited movement and exploration they got up to was: “Don’t worry. It is what children do. It means they feel at home here.”
He performed the ceremony with gentleness and patience. Isla who was the focus of the proceedings received the sacrament with surprising attention and dignity. For a two month old anyway. The white garment used was lovingly crocheted by my wife and was used by her brothers and sister before her.
A word about the godparents, Ben and Sarah. Ben has for many years struggled against alcoholism. After months at a re-hab centre in Wales, he has been clear now for well over a year. But more than that he has developed a warm and serious spirituality. He now spends a good deal of his time working with AA groups and helping others at the re-hab centre. He has always had a warm and affectionate personality and has so much to offer as he grows into early middle age. Sarah became a member of our family many years ago when, as one of my students, her mental health broke down and she came to live with us for a number of years. Although she now lives close by and independently, she still looks for my wife’s support. Sarah has an enormous capacity for empathy. She never forgets a birthday and her cards are always beautifully hand-produced. Although she may struggle a bit in no-mans land as far as religion is concerned, I find it difficult to imagine a more effective Christian.
Anyway I think we had chosen a couple of ideal godparents.
After the formal liturgy of the Baptismal rite, after the applause, Isla was presented to our extended family to greet and hold. At that point my wife addressed Isla with the family blessing that I had put together:

‘As with all our grandchildren, Isla is very fortunate in the family she has chosen to belong to. Her sister, Elspeth, and her brothers Blair and Ross, were delighted to greet her when Mum and Dad brought her home from the hospital..
There is nothing in this life so beautiful to watch as the eyes of loving parents as they gaze upon their new baby. A few days ago, I found myself watching compulsively the exchange of looks between Clare, her mum, and Isla. It was so beautiful. I realised just why the God who holds all of our lives in his gentle hands was jealous and decided to become for a while like a little baby in the arms of his so loving mother at Bethlehem.

And so Isla:

May beauty delight you and happiness uplift you,
May wonder fulfil you and love surround you.
May your step be steady and your arm be strong,
May your heart be peaceful and your word be true. May you seek to learn, may you learn to live.
May you live to love, and may you love – always.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith:
If children live with approval,
They learn to like themselves;
If children live with love around them,
They learn to give love to the world.

And so, Isla, we bless you as we welcome you into our midst.
May you enrich this world with your life.’

After this, and it was my wife’s idea, all the little ones in turn came up to receive from the godparents on behalf of Isla, the newly baptised, a large Easter Bunny chocolate bar. My wife pointed out the connection with the Easter Paschal Candle. In a way it was, I hope, for them a kind of communing in what had happened.

Celebrations in the Church Hall followed. All the food was prepared by members of our extended family. A happy time.

Baptism is the welcome we extend to the newcomer. It is a family welcome. It seems a pity that the priest cannot sometimes be a woman. I recall some years ago being present at the Christening of a baby. It was in an Anglican church. The priest was lovely. She was both a mum and a priest. The manner in which she held the little one so tenderly, was clearly indicative of that. So moving was the ceremony that his sister, herself only a child climbed onto the bench to clap her hands as the water was poured.

I understand that among the Kikuyu in East Africa, a refrain accompanies the initiation of a child into the tribe: ‘I am because we are, we are because I am.’

Andrew Bebb

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

First Brush

First Brush.

Sitting in the White Horse in Woolton, the other evening, my son, Matthew, related an amusing and yet perhaps, quite serious incident.
Freddie, his four year old and about to start ‘big’ school in September, (he graduated with honours from play school last week) gave out a shriek. He had found a big, fat woodpigeon under a bush. It clearly either had expired or was about to. There were feathers everywhere. I suspect a sparrow hawk was the culprit. Freddie shouted and dashed indoors to grab his plastic toy mobile phone. After bashing a few keys, he began to shout into it: ‘Emergency, emergency. Is God there? I need you! Now! Now! If you aren’t God, get him now, quick! This is an emergency!’
Matthew picked up his phone and called the RSPCA. Within minutes a van arrived and the man investigated. He gently took up the bird and put it into his van. He seemed to instinctively know what was happening.
Freddie said: ‘Look after it and tell God I asked you to.’
The man smiled and said he would and not to worry.

I have just ordered a child’s membership of RSPB for Freddie.
By the way, they have some lovely real ales in the White Horse, especially the Wainrights!

Andrew Bebb

Monday, 19 July 2010

Small Mercies Andrew Bebb

As the snow falls round my shoulders,
Eyes closed,
I sit in the Barber’s chair.
‘Round or square?’
Couldn’t really care
I never see it.
It’s other folk’s problem.

My eyebrows carefully shorn,
Even the ears' hairs.
Extra tip in order?
Bit easier now to face my face
As I shave.
Why not be vague
(and ask for Haig's)?

Small mercies.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Post modernism. Is it a threat>

Relativism. Opportunity or Threat ?

The postmodernist perspective is so amorphous as to almost defy description. A good deal of imprecision inevitably flourishes. Its description ranges from the superficial level of popularist culture and its images, to an anarchistic nihilism. Many of its adherents are refugee post-Marxists sheltering under the banner of a relativistic abandonment of all ideological absolutes. Where is one to find the link between the post-structuralism of literary criticism and the postmodernists in field of architecture and art.? There are many who regard the process as a fundamental transformation in human self understanding. They regard it as a radical de-centring of the self and as a comprehensive embracing of relationality and relativism, (which seems to be generating such concern in the breast of Cardinal Ratzinger and his colleagues), as a complete disavowal of the enlightenment project. Others, on the other hand, see it simply as the next sequential stage in the modernising process. The emphasis, for them, is on continuity.

It is a difficult area and I approach it with great diffidence. If you like, this article is simply an offering in a dialogue. After all, it is only in dialogue that we can even approximate to truth, as Levinas might say.

Both the enlightenment and the reaction against it in postmodernity have at their heart an exploration of the significance of the self as it is confronted by a world in which it feels to be an alien. Prior to the change in Western European consciousness inaugurated by both the Reformation and by Descartes, the dominant medieval perspective seems to have been that of a holistic pyramidal model with God at its apex. This hierarchical image was also reflected in the manner in which both Church and State were organised. Although there were those who claimed that this model was organic, paternalistic and with the best interests of the lower orders at heart, it seems to have been largely concerned with the possession of power. Change was regarded as a threat to the status quo and tradition was the power base used to resist it by the establishment. The Church was in possession of the ultimate truths because of its claim to contain, interpret and to communicate Divine Revelation. The most potent threat to the established order of society was heresy.
In philosophical speculation, there were clear restrictions. Metaphysics was acceptable provided that it posed no threat to the ontological structure of a God-oriented and God directed world administered by his legitimised authorities, Church and State. Ethics was founded on the human capacity (guided by the Church authority) to interpret God’s law in the creation for which he was responsible, thus the law of nature. It was there for all to recognise and obey. This description is something of a charicature and an obvious oversimplification. Nevertheless it was at least the underlying aspiration and myth generated by believers in the medieval system, both then and since. The individual had few rights other than those conferred upon him by his divinely legitimated superiors.

The Enlightenment project was directed towards the emancipation of the human individual from this mythical synthesis which had God at its heart. This emancipation was to be achieved through the progressive exercise of the critical reason. Reality was to be reduced to a quantitative model, mathematics was to be the key to power. Newtonian physics gathered all that was considered to have any real significance into its orbit. The qualitative was consigned to the uncontrolled and private arena of subjectivity, no longer available for public truth claims. In that area, taste was to be the sole criterion. The critic and the connoisseur shared centre stage. Art inevitably became artefact. Its function could no longer be an invitation to explore the symbolic significance which it was designed to contain and mediate in the public forum. Private possession of it as an object of value satisfied the acquisitive needs of the art collector or decorative designer. Only music and to some degree poetry seem able to resist. The pressure of rationalisation succeeded eventually in the de-centring of God and replacing Him with the individual, autonomous self.
Religious toleration became for the first time a virtue, since religion could no longer be conceived of as making objective truth claims. It was acceptable until or unless it was deemed to threaten the public good, as defined by liberal orthodoxy. Religious experience replaced religious dogma and creeds or confessions, at least in liberal religious thought.
The Aristotelian/Thomist union between knowledge and love - omne ens est intelligible et omne ens est bonum, with all its optimism for the suppression of non-being which was their estimate of the nature of evil and ugliness, was split apart. Goodness and evil were confined to the interiority of the subjective self where alone there was space for god and demon, and the external physical universe was available to the individual only through the exercise of the power of critical rationality. The inner world and the outer world had lost the possibility of any convincing synthesis.
The subject/object divide engendered by both the reformed theology and the enlightenment philosophy isolated the self within the cocoon of impotent not-belonging. The individual must henceforth establish his right to belong and to participate in the common life through the exercise of power. Autonomy, maturity, independence became the key words at the heart of moral education. To be dependent on others became a sign of weakness. Those who could not compete in the struggle for self-control or power over their surroundings were marginalised. This isolation and centring of the human self initiated a sea-change in which the self and the other, the subject and object, could no longer interrelate or discover each in each. The symbolic value of the object could no longer contain and mediate any transcendental presence with its invitation to explore its limitless meaning and mystery. It became merely a symbol, a sign which perhaps evoked in the now devalued interiority of the beholder the memory of an absence. The inner self now liberated from its conjunction with the outer world of experience became prey to gods and demons. The story lost its roots in reality; faith, as Kant boasted, no longer was dependent on the ambiguity of the historical event. God if not yet dead, was at least confined to the inner realms of personal predilection. History became subverted by historicism. Intentionality as the central presence in the historical process was replaced by a search for the facts. Reality was reduced to the quantitative, to physical law, to the value-added. There was no longer any meta-narrative in which the human individual or community could discover itself. Society had become a myth and no longer had any effective existence beyond the illusion. As George Kitzer points out in his book ‘The McDonaldisation of Society.’ which applies Weber’s Concept of Rationalisation to the 1990’s, the process of McDonaldisation had begun. The iron cage of rationalisation, both inhuman and dehumanising, continues its relentless progress. Systems of quality control and non-human technologies are replacing the inefficient yet messily creative contributions of the human agent.
The modern world was born at the moment when human beings lost their sense of the organic unity of all things. The individual then stood centre stage and looked at the world around as simply different and strange. Subject and object confronted each other. Each was precisely what the other was not. The bridge had gone. No longer was the myth, the story, the imagination able to include both within its mysterious embrace. The human individual was defined at birth and did not belong nor have value, until and unless he or she could acquire the power to control and dominate the environment into which they had been thrown.
Attempts were made in the 19th. Century to regenerate the metanarrative. The universal syntheses of both Hegel and Marx both generated idealistic utopian aspirations. Both submerged the unpredictable particularity and freedom of the individual as subject, into the totality of the whole. The self, under the pressure of the dialectic, was relegated to the status of a disruptive irrational inconvenience. Subjectivity was thus suppressed in the interests of the ideological totality. And so the dichotomy between the object and subject was seemingly overcome. Subjectivity was entirely dissolved into the One, either the Geist of Hegel or the Matter of Marx. But at what cost! The individuality and awkward particularity of the autonomous human being was not liberated from the alienation which the liberal enlightenment had generated, it was simply replaced by another form of personal isolation and impotence. Feelings and values were still to be excluded from human affairs of any significance.
The other significant attempt to reconnect the subject and object was that of Romanticism. It tried to situate the bridge between them in the Image generated within and by personal sensibility. It attempted to restore to, and to impose upon, the world of human experience the transcendent qualitative aura which the enlightenment had consigned to the escapist irrelevance of the subjective.
In the field of religion, it was the notion of Salvation History which began to emerge. The historical process was guided and directed by a transcendent Being who in spite of the vagaries of human freedom and sheer awkwardness, was able to achieve his purposes nevertheless. The presence of God in history could be identified and supported by the historical sciences alone. Thus the 19th. Century quest for the Jesus of history was inaugurated. Thus the History of Religions School searched for common threads in the evolutionary religious history of humankind.
There was also the synthetic evolutionary Teilhardian optimism in which the rational self took control over the whole historical sweep of reality as it was seen to progress inevitably to the millennium of complete exploitation of the natural world.
In retrospect, the evaporation of such optimism took place only progressively. The roots of postmodernity, both in its anarchic and nihilistic form, and also in some constructive attempts to generate new possibilities and space for the human event, can be uncovered in a number of places. Schweitzer towards the end of the 19th. Century effectively put paid to the attempts of the historicists to recover a portrait of Jesus sufficient to generate faith in contemporary believers. Nietzche’s devastating critique of the distortions which had corrupted the Christian gospel and the goodly life. Feuerbach’s consignment of religion to the area of self-projection and the subsequent alienation which those images then generate. Conrad’s exploration of the death of God syndrome in his novel, The Heart of Darkness. More recently we have watched the demise of ideology in Marxism and Socialism. It has to be noted though that attempts are still made to breathe life into the ideology of the market place.
Both Romanticism and Rationalism seem to offer no escape from the corrosive effects of Cartesian dualism. Are there then any grounds for hope in the human project? What if anything lies beyond modernity if a way backwards is sealed off? If the temptation to reconstruct the past through religious or political or social fundamentalism is resisted? If romantic revivals or a re-creation of an organic synthesis or meta-narrative on the medieval model is no longer available? If not even the attempt to revive Victorian morality is conceivable outside the cynicism of politicians?
Some of the Christian theological responses to modernity which have emerged during the past century confront the question as to whether there any hope for the future of the human project.
Karl Barth was the first to repudiate totally the liberal modernism of 19th. Century German theology. God is the ‘Wholly Other’, he proclaimed, not to be discovered in any exploration of the created world in which we live nor in our own subjectivity. He himself is wholly and entirely ‘subject’ and is unavailable save within the relationship which he offers to us. He can never be conceived of as object. Before the divine initiative in which he freely discloses himself, his inaccessibility is complete. Every attempt to approach him must begin from agnosticism. It was, said Barth, unique to the Christian claim that this God who lies beyond all human comprehension had freely offered himself in a personal relationship in which alone he could be encountered and known. God was not a being existing within the perimeters of self identity, he was essentially relational. It was this decentering of man in favour of relationality which points towards the post-modern radical theological rejection of modernity.
This radical disavowal of liberal modernity in the theology of the 20th. Century was the starting point for others. Existentialist perspectives were incorporated into the theological explorations of Bultmann, Tillich and others. Their concern was to affirm that authentic human existence did not lie in the affirmation of unchanging absolutes even in the absolute of the self, but in exploring the unique possibilities which the exercise of authentic freedom in commitment to the other, discloses for human existence. Loving, courageous, unchanging obedience to the other in the confrontation with self-dissolution is the keynote of the life of Jesus.
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, identified the two primary relationships in which he claimed, we respond to the world of external reality. It was in and through the intimacy of the I-thou relationship that we encounter the eternal Thou at the heart of all existence. It is this relationship which is our primary and self-identifying experience.
This movement towards the displacement of the self in favour of relationality as the prerequisite for personal identity, was the foundation of the philosophical anthropology of the Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner. The constitutive existence of being does not consist in its static, simple self-identity prior to relationship. All being is multiple, he claims. Everything which exists achieves its self-realisation through its capacity for self-expressiveness. There is a dynamic at the heart of existence. All being in its movement outwards towards the other, generates its own symbolic self-projection in which it discovers itself and is available for the intimacy of union with its other in the mutuality of self-giving. It enables the possibility of being utterly close to the other and yet to experience through that process of self-dispossession the surprising truth and reality of oneself as it is transcended. This, he claimed, is the paradigm and paradox of the Christian Gospel. To go out of oneself in order to discover oneself. To die so that life might be possible.
To refuse the attraction of the other and to opt to remain within the static self-enclosed isolation of negativity is to refuse to be in its truest sense. It is to generate an imaginary self, an illusion, which has no real existence. This was the problem with Romanticism. It generated images constructed in the self-enclosed arena of the false inauthentic self, rather than in that which is simply there, warts and all. The God who is the product of self projected images is simply that and no more : a self-projected image, an idol. Barth was right. If the Christian Gospel contributes anything to the process of human self-understanding, it can only be when it ceases to be a religion. God is dead. The God of Rahner is a God at the heart of existence who achieves his own self-realisation through this same process of self expressive self emptying. In his own real symbol, the Word which he utters, he eternally encounters and achieves his own self-existence. Dynamic relationality is the ground of all being and in humankind this process becomes uniquely conscious and deliberate. We can choose in freedom to be or not to be. We are our relationships. No more. No less. There are no discrete self-enclosed absolutes. No truth exists independently of the one who speaks it. All truth claims are symbolic and perspectival. It is the singer not the song, the saying not the said. The word made flesh, not the word, the ratio or logos of the Stoics.
This would seem to be the end of the grand meta-narrative which is considered to exist in its own right and almost independently of its participants. Can History survive once it has dispensed with it? Is there still an underlying and overall meaning to be grounded in any dialogue with ideology? Perhaps the way ahead is for both history and theology to disavow the temptation to generate grand projects and to be totally contextualised and problem centred. To spend more time exploring Intentionality and relationships.
In this final section I want turn to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish philosopher who died recently. He claimed that the ethical relationship between the Self and the Other is the primordial relationship rather than that of the dichotomy between subject and object typified in the Cartesian scenario. His project was to prioritise ethics over the pretensions of ontology, and he saw ‘the act of saying, and the exposure it entails, as the mark and the very possibility of ethical sincerity. Whereas ontology must reduce saying to the totalising closure of the said, saying is a state of openness to the other.’ Subjectivity he defined as the dis-interested vulnerability of saying.
In advance of all systems, whether political, religious, or conceptual, and indeed prior to Being itself is the ethical responsibility towards the Other. Alterity consists in the otherness of that which comes to me as my own personal other. It challenges my impulse to transmute it into a stultifying sameness, to reduce it to my cognitive possession, and so to have power over it. This process of destructive transformation of the other into the same typifies the ego in its desire for knowledge and mastery. On the contrary, ‘I become’ said Levinas, ‘a responsible or ethical ‘I’ to the extent that I agree to depose or dethrone myself....to abdicate my position of centrality - in favour of the vulnerable other. As the Bible says: ‘He who loses his soul gains it’. The ethical I is a being who asks if he has a right to be!, who excuses himself to the other for his own existence’ (Levinas 1984, 63)
This de-centring of the self in favour of the absolute other is at the centre of the post-modernist theological stance. It is a rejection of the absolute self-containment of the human self and the arrogant claim for the all-sufficiency of rationality. It opts instead for a profound relationality and relativity. The language of ethics is different from and prior to the language of phenomenology and philosophy. It transcends the Hellenic language of conceptual intelligibility. It transforms the language of dogmatic formulas into the language of explorative relationality
The ethical relationship, he claims, begins in discourse. But even before any word is spoken, the discourse commences in the non-verbal manifestation of the human face and skin. The other is a being of flesh and blood. It is in the corporeal contact with my other that the ethical demand comes to me. So the ethic of Levinas is concrete and corporeal. He is not an idealist nor a romantic. It is the face-to-face encounter which is at the heart of the human reality. The problem is to find a way of maintaining the ‘I’ in the very act of going beyond the ‘I’. To avoid the total dissolution of the self typified in Eastern spirituality. Self transcendence makes no sense in classical phenomenology either, since it it is a self-contradictory notion. To go out of oneself in transcendency would mean that the self has ceased to exist and is no more.
Levinas takes as one of his models the erotic relation. In the sexual union, he says, we have the instance of a relation, a union, which in the mutuality of the coming together remains a duality. He rejects the platonic and romantic idea of sexual union as a becoming one. Levinas describes it as a union with an absolute Other, which remains other as it withdraws into its mystery. Knowledge gives way to the mutuality of voluptuosity.
Luce Irigarey finds it in the relation between mother and foetus during pregnancy. She cites the placenta as the means by which both mother and foetus are both joined and separated. She notes the ‘almost ethical character of the foetal relation’ and uses it as a metaphor for relation of the self to the Other. She describes the cry of the baby at the moment of birth as a moment of exquisite sadness. The cry of triumph ‘I’m here!’ It is the first goodbye of many. She sees its face, and hands it over to others. It is no longer hers.
This prioritising of the ethical relationship over the ontological and phenomenological may be the way forward. Perhaps humanity can rediscover its sense of belonging and its significance. We can claim to belong before we have established our right to belong. We belong simply because we are here - in the powerlessness of our first cry.
‘ The moral priority of the Other over myself,’ says Levinas, ‘ could not come to be if it were not motivated by something beyond nature. The ethical situation is a human situation, beyond human nature, in which the idea of God is the other who turns our nature inside out, who calls our ontological will to be into question....God does indeed go against nature for He is not of this world. God is other than Being.’

Monday, 5 July 2010

I buried the cat in the garden

I buried the cat in the garden

This was the phrase that Fr. Tigar had us recite when we were having elocution lessons at Osterley. Osterley is in West London and it was a place where late vocations to the priesthood could be vetted and introduced to the mysteries of Latin (essential in the fifties), reasonable English and even Greek. It was part of our initial training in preparation for subsequent ministry. We had to recite the phrase again and again, each time emphasizing a different word in the sentence. This was a clever exercise and designed to show how a change of emphasis could change the meaning of a statement. Try it and see! To an outsider who didn’t understand what we were up to, it was a crazy exercise because we were made to stand in various parts of the large garden to ensure that our voice could carry good distances. Unfortunately part of the garden ran alongside the rear of a row of suburban houses. On at least one occasion the patience of one of the neighbours in an adjoining garden, reached its limit and he shouted some extremely rude words at us! He probably thought that we were all detained under the Mental Health Act.
Anyway that is not the subject that I want to talk about. Burying animals in the garden is my chosen topic!
Since I have always had a fairly large family, sometimes larger than others, for one reason or another the demise and disposal of pets has always presented problems and of course opportunities; but more about that later. In my time, the duties of parenting have included the burial of three cats, four hamsters, one rabbit and a fish. Each interment involved simple and respectful rituals, designed by myself – I got quite good at it. They all died with dignity I am proud to say! Even when the Vet offered to dispose of the remains the answer was always a horrified No! A suitable period of mourning was always allowed. It also provided an opportunity to increase the number of flowering shrubs in the garden since each grave must be suitably marked. I ought to point out here that we have had the pleasure of at least three gardens over the years so our present fairly small garden does not qualify as a crowded cemetery!
I think I would like to tell you about the most recent committals and what led up to them. Some thirteen or so years ago my wife and I were married. We had both been married previously and both of us had been widowed. But that is a story of its own. Suffice to say, it meant that our still youngish joint family suddenly increased to nine, five girls and four boys. A thoughtful friend, in order to provide some comfort to four of my wife’s daughters on the loss of their father, gave them a pair of kittens.
These were a couple of extremely interesting cats. One, black and white, was christened Charley, and the other, white and black, was called Ceri. The distinguishing thing about them was that they were twin sisters. Ceri boasted a very unusual crooked tail. This I was assured was not due to overcrowding in their mother’s womb, but personally I have never been so certain of that. As you will see, they presented an interesting contribution to the nature/nurture debate. In the early days, they both had the loathsome habit of trying to mark out their own personal territory and this indoors! It was usually the television set that drew most of their competitive attentions. They must have assumed that since it was a centre of concentrated attention by all, it was an important object of some kind of worship. Anyway they were clearly of the opinion that whichever one of them could spray on it first enabled some kind of dominance over the sister! If left unshielded overnight this led to serious consequences for the electronics of the TV set and/or the video machine. Not to mention the typically pungent smell of cat piss.
Anyway to proceed with Charley’s and Ceri’s contribution to the nature/nurture debate. Charley, the black and white cat, had ostensibly a very affectionate disposition. She seemed to thrive on physical contact. She did not like leaving the house and had to be persuaded (occasionally physically!), to perform the whatsits in the morning. She had a highly sensitive disposition, being scared stiff of anything and everything. I remember an occasion when I discovered them both at the back of the house. They were both concentrating their attention at each end of a long wooden plank leaning lengthwise against the wall, Charley at one end Ceri at the other. I realised that a poor little mouse was trapped in between. Eventually the mouse must have recognised that its future was uncertain and made a dash for freedom; fortunately for the mouse, at Charley’s end. When the mouse shot out, Charley leapt a good two feet in the air with shock and the mouse made its escape. Ceri registered appropriate contempt.
The two cats seem to have had little affection for each other and would often engage in quite vicious battles if they passed each other in a confined space. Although when they were very young they had sometimes been seen to snuggle up to, and even wash each other.
For most of their life together the two cats could hardly have been more different. Ceri was the complete extrovert. She spent as little time in the house as possible and occasionally could be found wandering some distance away. On those occasions she would studiously avoid recognition of any relationship with us! She was an adept at climbing any accessible roofs in the neighbourhood. She had no hesitation in engaging in vicious combat with any local cat entering her duly marked territory. Much to our displeasure, she would very occasionally attempt to catch small birds. Once or twice she succeeded. Indoors, she avoided physical contact with the human incumbents and didn’t particularly enjoy being stroked.
However all this was to change!
Charley at an advanced age (for cats anyway), began show its inevitable debilitating effects. She began to look for dark corners in which to nestle. It was plain that the end was near. The vet said her kidneys had failed. The kindest thing was to let her go with an injection. Even those in the house who were not too keen on cats, felt a little sad. The body was carried home in a suitable box, a last photograph was taken and a sensitive rite prepared for the interment in a corner of the garden. A flowering bush was planted on the grave (which presently draws comment on its fecundity!).
Ceri was on her own.
And so begins the most interesting period for the student of feline behaviour. Ceri was no longer interested in wandering outdoors. She was reluctant to leave the house. In the days after her sister’s death it was as if she was entering a state of deep grieving. She seemed to be looking everywhere for what was no longer there. She became unhappy and unsettled whenever she was left on her own and would yowl loudly if there were no one about. She survived her sister by another two years or so. Throughout that time it was as though she was experiencing a complete and fundamental change of personality. Always she needed to be touched and to nestle on anyone’s lap, even mine! She had tended to avoid me sedulously before this! Finally she began to submit to the encroachment of old age. She probably outlived Charley because of her previous healthy active life outdoors.. She grew increasingly thin. Her diet was limited to a most expensive menu! She had difficulty even in climbing up onto the settee. There were times when we thought she had gone to join her sister already. Eventually we all agreed it was time to help her on her way. However she died naturally, without any assistance, on the vet’s table.
Another grave to be dug. Another ritual to be composed. Here is the combined adieu we made to them both:

We are grateful for the life of Charley, our cat. She loved to lie on laps and to be touched.
We are also grateful for the life of Ceri, her sister. In her earlier days she loved the outdoors and was quite independent. As she grew older she needed company and touch. They brought to our family joy, companionship and comfort in our grieving.
One day may we all meet each other again in a life of never ending happiness and peace.

Friday, 25 June 2010

unusual encounters

Unusual Encounters Andrew Bebb

Reading an editorial somewhere on ‘Respect difference, teach unity’ has set me thinking. Perhaps the way forward is not so much elaborately constructed formal self-conscious meetings. Maybe a more informal and unexpected encounter is more effective. It is often readily available. We do not often have to look too far to come across it.

I had been attending a Theology Conference at Ushaw College a few miles outside Durham. It was an enriching experience and also quite a nostalgic one for me, since I spent 6 years in the fifties studying there. The train journeys have on two occasions surprisingly involved unusually memorable religious encounters.
If you are familiar with travel to the North East, you will know the anxieties engendered by having to change trains at York. You sit in the train regularly checking your watch hoping that you will be on time. York Station is quite huge, with platforms almost a mile long. Usually your train arrives at one end of an enormous platform. Your connection is then due to leave at the other end. This means a gallop of two hundred yards, down to the other end with only minutes available.
On one occasion, I was starting the usual gallop pulling my bag, when suddenly beside my side a young Buddhist monk appeared clad from head to foot in saffron robes. He shouted “Come on, I’ll help” and he ran beside me pulling my case. I got the connection. Ever since I have harboured a warm affection for Buddhism.

The other occasion happened quite recently.
This time, the train from Durham was on time and I was able to board the Liverpool train in comfort. Indeed there was a surfeit of unreserved seats. I chose a window seat and waited for the carriage to fill. To my surprise and indeed delight one of the last to board was a Rabbi. He entered a little uncertainly. I suppose it was because his personal appearance was a little unfamiliar to our eyes. He clearly belonged to the Orthodox tradition in Judaism He wore a long black thick overcoat and on his head above his zucchetto, a beautiful black round homburg-type hat. The most striking part of his appearance was his long straggly beard and hair. As he approached, I patted the aisle seat beside me and invited him to take a seat. Which he did, I hope a little gratefully. What followed was for us both a most delightful experience. I have never known the journey from Durham to Manchester pass so quickly.
We began by telling each other where we were coming from and why. He told me that he had been visiting Newcastle and was on his way back to join his community at Crumpsall in North Manchester. I explained that I had been attending a Theology Conference at Ushaw. He asked me what the subject of the Conference was. I told him it was on St. Paul, which interested him. He, he told me, had been visiting the Rabbinate in Newcastle to speak to the students. He had written a book to help with their studies and was leading them through it. He asked me since I was a theologian whether I was a priest. I told him that I was but that I had been allowed to resign the active ministry in order to raise a family. He knew that Catholic priests were not normally permitted to marry and to continue in the ministry. He told me that he had 15 children so I told him that I had 9. Quite a lot between us!! We didn’t go into the issue of grandchildren in case the discussion became competitive!
He told me that his ancestors had come to England from the Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th. Century fleeing from persecution. He was grateful for the toleration which English people had shown to his community over the years.
From that point on, our conversation focussed on the scenery outside the window of the train. He was full of questions. He wished to know the names of all the Yorkshire Rivers. Fortunately I had learned them as a rhyme as a little boy at school. He was also very interested in the canal system in the North of England., especially the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. I told him off once for asking a question of which I had already given him the answer, He laughed and scolded himself. His other area of interest was the purpose of the large disused buildings in the valleys. I explained that they had been woollen mills and in Lancashire, cotton mills. He wanted to know something of the history of the woollen and cotton trades. It made me realise that much of his experience of the wider history of the North of England had been from within his own local community. He became a delightful student and the miles outside the window passed away so quickly. Soon we were approaching his destination and the time to part. He disappeared for a while and returned with a bottle of Coke and two plastic glasses. He intended to cement our newly found friendship with a toast. Which we did. As we touched our glasses, he said “cheers” and I replied “shalom”.
I was very sorry to see him go. As he left he shouted back from the open door:” Goodbye, Andrew”. I shouted back: “Goodbye, Abrahim”
A number of our fellow passengers looked a little puzzled.