Lenten reflection for diocesan staff given at Vaughan House on 27th March 2019
These are difficult times. A glance at any news outlet shows that clearly: knife crime here in London spreading death and fear; terrible shootings in New Zealand; the murder of 200 Christians in Nigeria a few days ago; and, of course, the confusion, anxieties, deep disagreements and anger over Brexit, seen not only in the Palace of Westminster but also in families and communities. It is not difficult to come to the view that we have forgotten how to live together, forgotten how to be different without those differences leading to a breakdown in relationships. That is precisely what some point to as the key challenge we face now as a society: a profound breakdown in relationships.
In recent decades much has been said, and rightly so, about the importance of tolerance and respect being key qualities for our society: respect for one another and for the rule of law. Yet it has always struck me that these qualities, tolerance and respect, are a fruit of something far deeper. They are, as it were, a fruit provided by a tree, a tree nurtured by deep roots. Tolerance and respect are a fruit that our society needs for its coherence and nourishment. But they are not a root. Tolerance and respect arise from deeper, more radical qualities. It is these that we are neglecting and therefore the fruit is now in short supply.
So I ask: what are these deeper roots of mutual respect and of deliberate tolerance of legitimate differences? This is a question that goes to the heart of how we understand ourselves as human beings. That is a heavy question for early on a Wednesday morning. But let me try to make some sense of it.
This is a Lenten Reflection so I can go to Lent to help us find an answer.
Lent began with Ash Wednesday and the placing of ashes on the foreheads of those who came forward. The Communications team, and other contributors, have made a media event of this ceremony, under the heading of #Ashtag, with photos circulating quite widely. Thank you, to all involved.
One of the roots of this ceremony is, of course, the Book of Genesis, an early attempt to answer our question about how we understand ourselves. Genesis tells us, in its unique way that the human being is formed from the dust of the earth. In fact, the name Adam comes from the Hebrew word adamah which means 'ground' or 'soil'. But Genesis also tells us that God took this soil into his hands and breathed into it, giving it a unique form of life, a life that is made in the image and likeness of God himself. In the account of Genesis, the rest of creation comes to life through the word of God. Only the human person is formed by the hand and breath of God.
So the insight into ourselves that we are offered here is that, in the vivid language of Genesis, we come from the dust of the earth yet we are enlivened by the breath of God. This makes sense because we experience both these aspects of our make-up every day. We have great hopes and dreams, dreams of a better life, of a better world, of better relationships; yet we live through disappointment, failure, hurt, anger, resentment. We human beings are capable of the worst cruelties, whether written in huge capital letters or in the small script of our daily lives. And we are capable of the most sublime goodness, courage and generosity. This is the drama of our lives: we are dust of the earth yet filled with the breath of God, limited and fallible yet always reaching for more. This drama of who we are leads us down many different pathways, as we try to identify which one will give us the satisfaction for which we crave. Sometimes we take wrong ways, seeking lasting fulfilment in fleeting benefits such as the dominance of others, or reliance on wealth or fame. Yet no matter how mistaken the ways we may take, leading us into blind alleys, the breath of God in us is never extinguished. It does not die out. We are always searching for that true way of life that will 'put things right'.
There is another word, this time a Latin word, which also means 'the earth' or 'the soil'. It is the word humus. And the word humus is the root of the word 'humility'. Humility is that virtue by which we keep hold of a true estimation of ourselves, not deceiving ourselves that we are more powerful or important than we actually are. Humility enables us to relate correctly with other people because it helps us to recognise our need of others, just as it helps us to recognise our need of God, whose breath within us spurs us on to great things, which only God alone can truly fulfil.
The words of the simple Ash Wednesday ceremony are a proclamation of these truths and of our need for humility: 'Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust, you shall return.' Yes, dust, and left to ourselves we remain just dust. But we are also dust made for glory, made for eternal glory!
If this is a glimpse into our shared human nature, what does it mean for the work that you and I strive to accomplish?
Here is a way of thinking about our work which arises from these Lenten themes. We are here in order to nurture this humus, this adamah, so that we human beings can prosper and grow into our true greatness. We are to nurture those conditions which favour this growth. We are to provide the nutrients which enrich the humus, the ecological system which favours true growth and enrichment for all.
With this in mind, think of all that goes on in these buildings, these offices, all the service that we strive to give. Let me take a few examples.
Administration, finance, buildings: this is the provision of the framework and resources for the nourishment of all who come into the circles of the Church. Good administration is a work of making processes clear, prompt and fair. It is absolutely crucial to stable relationships and good cooperation.
Communications and IT keep us in touch with modern means of speaking to one another, mediating relationships and helping us to avoid false news and the corrosive gossip which these means often propagate.
Think of safeguarding: this is clearly the work of providing good soil, free of toxic elements, which kill innocence and trust.
Education seeks to open hearts and minds to the very vision I have sketched. A sound self-understanding is essential to good living. If we are taught that we are only as good as the economic success we achieve then unhappiness most surely lies ahead.
Our social outreach in all its forms serves to correct the gross imbalances in provisions and opportunities experienced by many. Our present emphasis on food poverty is a realistic response to a pressing and distressing problem, often hidden. The number of people living with food poverty is rising and we are becoming increasingly aware of 'school holiday hunger', too. Food prices are not going down and, in all likelihood, will rise steadily in the months ahead. As well as trying to ensure we play our part in this challenge we also want to promote food resilience, or how to do better with limited resources. This is great work. Thank you.
Evangelisation is the work of telling the story of who we really are, from where our lives arise and the destiny we are invited to grasp. This is an essential nutrient for the humus we need for our growth, both the soil of our lives and the humility of our hearts.
In all these ways, and many more, which lie at the heart of every parish, we are nurturing the soil and the tree of true human growth. It is only this tree which provides the fruit of tolerance and respect. It is so important that it is courageously nurtured. Otherwise, those qualities in life will recede even further, leaving a rough and uncompromising world in which demagogues will thrive and violence burst out more and more frequently.
Two images to provoke our imagination and efforts.
In the last book of the Bible, in its last chapter, as far away from Genesis as we can get, there is a lovely image of the growth of trees and of virtue:
'Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life, which bears twelve crops of fruit a year, one in each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations' (Rev 22.21).
And to return to Ash Wednesday, to Adam and to the adamah, the dust, it is no coincidence that when we receive the dust on our foreheads, it is traced in the form of the cross, the cross of Christ. He is the one who shares our human state, our dust, and yet also opens the way in which the breath of God within us finds its full expression, its full strength, its full lung-power. When we realise this, in the gift of faith, then we cry out, with that same breath: 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'. We give thanks and we serve him joyfully.
So, thank you, everyone, for all you do. May this time of Lent, between now and Easter, be a time of focussed joy for you all as we strive to rediscover the nobility and greatness of our humanity and serve it in all we do, as best we can, with sure peace and joy.