Monday, 11 November 2013

Barbarism and Civilisation

I went to a moving service for Remembrance Day on Sunday in London.  The minister gave a good homily about war and, by implication, peace… during which he said “barbarism and civilisation are as far from each other as a varnished sword is from rust”.  He suggested evil and goodness, virtue and human-failing, operate on a delicately poised scale and ready-to-swing pendulum.

His message was that to preserve our humanity, moreover to grow and improve, individually and collectively, we need to remain aware of our vulnerability to corruption and indifference.  And one doesn’t have to be religious to know that his observations of human nature and society are apt. 

At the more trivial end of the spectrum, do we push and shove and behave aggressively in peak hour?   For a few moments I had the moral high-ground on Victoria Station on Friday night when a guy with a bicycle pushed it through the crowd and slammed it into my leg.  I asked him to stop moving as my leg and jacket were hooked on his pedal, but he continued to push forward violently, dragging the metal deeper across my calf.  The expletive I called after him added unhelpfully to the agro of the commuter mosh-pit, not to mention fell on deaf ears.  What was the point of it all?  He didn’t get to his train any quicker than I got to the pub.

There are many moments when we have to choose between kindness and selfishness – regularly when living in a city surrounded by extremes of wealth and poverty – and even at the water-cooler we may not realise we are being asked to choose between judgementalism and gossip, and the opportunity to give people we encounter in our professional and personal lives the benefit of the doubt.

War and peace are extreme examples – strong juxtaposition aiding our ability to identify good from bad, courage from weakness.  It is right on so many levels that we ‘celebrate’ November 11th.  This consciousness is as important for the living as it is for the dead – even ninety-five years after the end of World War One.

And that brings me to my reason for writing: if barbarism and civilisation lie, at times, a mere knife-edge apart… how close is enrichment from loss, comfort from abandonment, and life from death?  Destruction in the Philippines in recent days is so deeply tragic… so widespread… it makes for a painfully vivid reminder that life (and what equates with civilised living) can be wiped out brutally and on masse if you simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

It is different to the suffering in Syria only because a typhoon is not of man’s making.  Similarly, George Orwell describes a slippery-slope from affluence to poverty and marginalisation eloquently in Down and Out in Paris and London – a small book everyone who can really ought to read – but that journey is a slow and inexorable one.  In the Philippines, it is the suddenness of the typhoon which shocks and overwhelms.  We feel numb and powerless in the face of such a large-scale ‘natural’ disaster.

Many tens, even hundreds of thousands, of people are dead and/or suffering in the torrential wake.  We don’t yet know the half of it.  Like the Boxing Day Tsunami it is too much to take in, and will surely take years to remedy their physical lives, let alone heal emotional scars. So I don’t mean to minimise the catastrophe by shifting focus from the whole to the particular, but I have lost a friend in this tragedy; in circumstances which are complicated and sad. 

Since I got the news I keep thinking of my friend.  I see him body-surfing happily in the ocean; laughing over a bottle of red; exploring the churches and monuments of Rome and Assisi; passing round beers while I rough up some dinner; listen to him comment on (or argue about) the rugby league, the news, the latest item of political interest; riding his motor-bike; surprising me with a bottle of lemon-cello because he knows I’m missing Italy; encouraging me to play the piano while he competes with his good friend, Ray, to win at billiards; eagerly talking to bunches of school children who look up at him with fascination; standing fervently on the Altar celebrating Mass, during the dedicated years he gave his life to the church; celebrating Mass in whatever intimate place he found himself with a few friends or parishioners; starting every sermon with a joke; raising money to build a new church or support an orphanage; sharing his Faith and compassion with all he encountered; praying often and long for people who were sick, troubled or deceased; caring about people; and only a very short time ago making decisions which were to separate him from many he loved, from a vocation he loved, and, most sadly, lead him to the place where he would lose his life in massive tides. 

Technically, the distance from life to death is a breath.  Whatever the prelude, ultimately the change occurs in a moment.  Our challenge is to fill our breaths, however difficult at times, with as much richness as we possibly can… so when that last breath comes we have as few regrets as possible.  Whatever else he did, this friend gave out an abundance of love and kindness.  He spent the majority of his life in the service of others.  His life has been cut tragically short, but it was a full life; a life which did not shirk many difficult questions.  He was not always right.  Not always prudent.  He stuck his neck out rather than sit on a fence.  But the majority of the time Kevin had available, he fought the good fight.  The fight to ensure forgiveness and love rises above the attitudes which take us closer to barbarism, to coldness and isolation.  Knowing that, knowing him, the nature of his passing - alone on the tropical island where he hoped to find a new kind of fulfilment - seems all the crueller. 

I’m certain many lives lost in the Philippines deserve their own story and reflection.  Yet in the end it is only the sincerity of one’s heart and conscience, and what we leave behind in the hearts and minds of those who knew us, which counts.  And this friend deserves to be remembered and prayed for, for the life in his life, the spirit in his Faith, his passion for social justice, his love of God and humanity, and his certain belief that, whatever our mistakes, ultimately we each earn the right to be reunited with and welcomed by our Maker.  He has left a lot behind.  He made a valuable contribution – perhaps most when he was least aware of it.  Many will miss him and feel the pain of his absence and loss.

Nevertheless, despite our tears, all we can do is follow his example and trust the best of what he told us.  So for Father Kevin and all those lost in the Philippines: 

Eternal rest grant to them oh Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. 
            May they rest in peace and rise in glory.  Amen.