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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 29 November 2013

On the Sin of Envy

When I agreed to speak to you tonight, we were probably at the lowest point of the recession.  At that time of despondency, it did not look likely that the economy would show signs even of the beginnings of recovery before the middle of next year.  Now, the financial environment appears to be a little less gloomy, and analysts are daring to talk about ‘green shoots’.  I am no expert, so I can’t judge whether such hopes are well-founded.  In north-east England, there has been considerable attrition as a result of this tsunami and I expect it is the same here.  It will be years before we see manufacturing industry in the north-east revitalised, if it ever is, employment levels back to where they were earlier this decade, and inward investment in our region once more flourishing.

A disaffected public continues to ask why so little regulation has existed to check reckless speculation and the cynical exploitation of the markets.  We all hope, though we do not necessarily expect, that out of this debacle will emerge a more disciplined, more accountable culture that will begin to restore trust.  But a better managed economy will not necessarily address the underlying causes of this crisis.  These are, I am sure we agree, human, moral and spiritual in character.  Religious leaders are right to ask for some serious reflection on what the recession is teaching us about ourselves and our society.

One book to do this is remarkable for having been written by the chairman, formerly the chief executive, of one of the major world banks.  So it is an insider’s view on the crisis and a refreshingly honest analysis of its roots.  But its author, Stephen Green, is also a non-stipendiary priest of the Church of England.   He is not ashamed to identify what he sees as the underlying malaise in western society that he describes as its Faustian deal with Mephistopheles.  To simplify, this amounts to the selling of our collective soul for the sake of short term material gain.  There is nothing new in this, as the power of the Faust legend down the centuries illustrates.  What is new is the global scale on which this age-old drama is acted out in the world’s financial markets.  The near-failure of the world banking system last year was as near a miss from global disaster as the Cuba Missile Crisis.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has focused on the erosion of public values and regretted that there have been few signs that the powerful financial institutions and their leadership have begun to reflect on the moral and spiritual causes of this financial debacle.   He has called for repentance.  Repentance, as we know, means a change of mind.  It is close to what the third Benedictine vow calls conversio morum, the conversion of life.  It looks for a new way of living, a new set of attitudes and ambitions, a life that is focused not on our own selves but on God and what he looks for in humanity.  In a renewed, God-fearing society, there would still be accidents and they might be damaging, even catastrophic, but perhaps there would not be economic crises so patently traceable to basic faults due to the relentless pursuit of self-interest.  Such a society would be marked by caritas, generosity, mutuality, collaboration, self-giving and service.  The church is called to model precisely this vision of human beings living together in genuine koinonia.

But what are the sins which we should repent of, and from which we should want to be delivered?  The usual candidates among the seven deadly sins are gluttony (which is over-indulgence) and
avarice or greed (which is the inordinate hunger to acquire and possess).  These are both, like lust, sins of excess.  There is a long Christian tradition that understands these in relation to acquiring wealth.  What makes greed sinful, says Thomas Aquinas, is that it is the abandonment or collapse of spiritual desire for what is material and temporal.  Dante illustrates this in the Divine Comedy by depicting the greedy as tied up and laid face down on the ground because they concentrated too much on earthly things. (It is a good example of what is called contrapasso, literally ‘counter-suffering’: you are punished by the very thing you practise.) Stephen Green’s book suggests that the Faustian bargain so many wage their futures on is a symptom of precisely this symptom.

However, I want to suggest that Green doesn’t go deep enough into the human spirit.  All the sins of excess are disorders of desire, as Augustine so profoundly understood: it is not that we don’t love, but that our love is wrongly directed.  And if we ask where the origins of disordered desire are to be found, the answer is in the two fundamental sins of all.  The first of these is, of course, pride.  Pride is usually regarded as the worst of all sins because it is the most far-reaching in suppressing or perverting the love that should be directed outwards to God and to our neighbour.  It is, as Augustine says, ‘turned in on itself’.  And this obsession with ourselves is, says the tradition, nothing short of idolatry because there is no place in it for God.  (There is another graphic example of contrapasso in Dante where he shows the proud condemned to wander round for eternity bent double under the weight of their gorgeous copes which are made of lead.)

But there is another perversion of love which is turned outwards, or at least looks as if it is, and that is envy. I want to focus on envy this evening because I believe it is the besetting sin of our age, and because apart from texts on moral theology, it is not given nearly enough attention in Christian reflection on our human state.  I don’t know, for instance, when you last heard a sermon on envy or when I last preached one.   But the Bible focuses on it a great deal as I shall illustrate, possibly more than it does on pride.

What is envy?  It is an inward state of mind and heart.  I am careful not to say it is merely a feeling or emotion, though of course we experience it that way.  We could say that the seedbed of envy is our awareness that we lack something that someone else possesses.  This could be their material possessions, their human qualities, their successes or status in life, their religious faith, their personal relationships, their happiness.  All these can be the focus of envy.  But envy is not by itself knowing that someone else has something we do not possess.  Our chairman has the name Richard.  I do not have that name myself.  I recognise this lack.  But it does not make me envious of him.

Envy is born when I want what the other person has for myself, or simply wish that the other person could be deprived of it (which they would be if I took for myself what belonged to them).  

We need to be clear about the difference between envy and jealousy and resolve that we shall use these words accurately.  Jealousy is the fear of losing someone we love or who is important to us to another person.  Envy is the frustration caused by another person having something that I do not have myself. So envy involves simply two people, myself and another, and is focused on a thing, while jealousy involves three (or more) people and focuses on a threat posed to a significant relationship.  We use that word accurately when we say, ‘I love her jealously’, meaning ‘I will not let her go to another person’.  It is exactly in this sense that Yhwh is a ‘jealous God’ according to the Second Commandment, because he will not ‘lose’ his chosen people to the worship of idols and graven images but shows ‘steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Exod 20. 4-6).  Try substituting ‘envious’ for ‘jealous’ in that command, and it ceases to make sense.

Aquinas says that envy as sorrow on account of another person’s benefit or good, drawing on Aristotle’s definition of it as the pain caused by other peoples’ good fortune.  In this tradition, Dante says that envy is the love of my own good and resolve to pursue it perverted to a desire to deprive other people of theirs. In his Purgatorio, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. This tells us straight away that the other side of envy is Schadenfreude, the pleasure we get at other peoples’ misfortune.  They belong together because the usual way of dealing with envy is to damage or destroy the object of my envy, or to deprive the other person of it (possibly, though by no means necessarily, by taking it for myself).  In the last of the Ten Commandments, the prohibition against coveting what belongs to my neighbour is not forbidding me from admiring his house or his wife, his slave, his ox or his ass, nor acknowledging that I am not as well-endowed as he is.  It prohibits any
action of mine that could spoil his enjoyment of them, what the French call jouissance, a legal term meaning the ‘proper enjoyment of possession’, either by stealing them, damaging them, violating or abusing them, disparaging them, or (and this is the inward attitude the torah wants absolutely to guard against) becoming so fixated on my neighbour’s fortunes that I lose sight of him as a person and destroy myself in the process.  The moral and theological point is that envy dehumanises.  It degrades the image of God in us.  It robs us of our dignity and worth because it deflects us from a person-centered relationship with God and with other people, which alone is the way towards human flourishing, into an idolatrous concern with what is material and impersonal.

This dynamic of envy as emptiness or need allied to the instinct to ‘spoil’ the good that others have is studied extensively in the Bible,.  I should like to explore this theme in three Old Testament texts, the third of which begins to suggest how envy can be addressed as a spiritual problem.  I shall then comment on some New Testament texts that develop these themes before returning to our own day and asking what these biblical insights might suggest to us as we try to read the signs of the times and understand the human hungers and longings that permeate our society.

My first text is a locus classicus of envy, the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21.).  It is a simple enough narrative.  Naboth has a vineyard up against the royal palace.  King Ahab wants it: when it comes to real estate, location is everything.  Naboth will not sell his patrimony, whereupon Ahab goes to bed and sulks.  Jezebel devises a scheme whereby Naboth is accused of sacrilege for resisting the royal, and therefore divine, will.  Naboth is stoned to death and Ahab takes possession of the vineyard, only to find Elijah already there to pronounce judgment for his contempt of his subjects and of his God.

This looks like a story of avarice, inordinate desire, and so it is.  Ahab wants something so desperately that it occupies all his waking thoughts.  In his emptiness of spirit, the ennui that so many rich and powerful people know, he obsesses about something he does not need.  But there is an important clue about his deeper mental state.  ‘Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it as a vegetable garden”.’  In other words, the wanting is accompanied by a destructive impulse.  The vine, like the olive and the fig tree, symbolises the best and most productive that the land is capable of.  To degrade a vineyard into a vegetable patch is to spoil what has been handed down in an ancient family for centuries. What is spoiled is not simply a vineyard.  It is part of a family’s sacred geography.  It is terrain that holds long-cherished memories that are not transferrable to another place.  It is the patrimony not only of a man’s ancestry but of a people to whom the land was a divine gift and the charter of their freedom from tyranny.  Tyranny, always deeply implicated in envy, is precisely what Naboth resists.  A tyrant’s envy costs him his life, though as the story goes on to relate, the envier meets an altogether more ignoble end.

My next text is more complex.  It is the story of Saul and David in the First Book of Samuel, one of the finest tales of the ancient world.  Its greatness as tragedy comes from recognising the need to ‘speak what we feel; not what we ought to say’, as Edgar puts it in the final speech of King Lear.  Like Lear, Saul is ‘every inch a king’: not ague-proof, but for all that, a man whose flawed dignity elicits our compassion and even our regard.  He starts out so well, the young, charismatic hero whose prowess with the sword wins him acclaim from the tribes of Israel longing, in their fragile bond, for some unifying symbol of their kinship that will offer stability in the chaotic, uncertain world of the 11th century BC.  But Saul’s problem is that he is never given the space to develop as king and as human being in his own right.  The scenery is always populated with others who surround him, in particular Samuel the prophet, Jonathan his son and heir, and David the bright-eyed youth whose magnetic looks and personality pulls all three of them into his orbit and whose sunny presence casts Saul into ever deepening shadows.  We have only to recall how Saul takes a rash oath to kill anyone who breaks a needlessly imposed fast, only to find that it is his own son Jonathan who is implicated, and how the people turn against Saul so that Jonathan may live; or how Saul is bowed down with melancholia and is soothed by David’s music; or how he frets about David’s absence from the feast, inventing every kind of reason why he has not come, then hurling a spear at his son because of his friendship with David; or the exquisitely crafted scene in the cave where David calls to Saul and delivers a long self-righteous speech, to which Saul listens and simply replies, ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’ and weeps; and at the emotional climax of the tragedy, the worn out king going in disguise by night to the woman at En-dor and learning from Samuel’s ghost that the coming day will be his last.

Tragedy, in the strict sense, is a story told about greatness that is brought down by some failure in character, some ‘basic fault’.  What is Saul’s?  I propose that it is envy.  His obsession is not his own grandiosity (this was Solomon’s fault).  It is his preoccupation with what others have that he himself does not (or, if he has had it, he becomes deprived of it).  Again, we sense the void in his life, the emptiness that gives birth to envy.  He is envious of Samuel (even after he is dead) because of his direct access to the word of the Lord, something Saul has once enjoyed but now lost: ‘Is not Saul also among the prophets?  He is envious of first of his own son Jonathan and then of David for their military success and popular acclaim, qualities that fitted them so well for leadership, an art in which Saul for all his good beginnings, progressively fell short of Israel’s aspirations for what was required in a king.  There is a telling moment in the story when David returns from killing Goliath.  The women turn out (‘to meet Saul’, the text says carefully, not to adulate David directly) dancing and singing: ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’.  It is meant, I think, as a celebration of them both, with the thousands-ten thousands comparison meant simply as a dramatic figure of speech to intensify their adulation: common enough, in Hebrew poetry.  But Saul takes it literally and is ‘very angry… “They have ascribed to David tens of thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?”  So Saul eyed David from that day on’  (1 Samuel 18.6-9).  This malevolent ‘eyeing’ (or, we could say, the ‘evil eye’) is envy in its purest form, with all its destructive intention laid bare.

Most powerfully of all, in the way the story is told, he envies the love between David and Jonathan.  It is true that here we are dealing with a story about jealousy as well as envy, for both David and Jonathan pose a threat to Saul’s own attachment to each of them: each of them, he thinks, is taking the other away from him.  There are shades of Othello in this sad and beautiful tale.  But I think we can safely say that overshadowing his jealousy of his double attachment is his hard-edged envy of what existed between Jonathan the heir, and David, Saul’s friend turned (as he supposes) supplanter.  Such a friendship is what he does not have, and imagines he can never have.  And this, reinforced by his envy of David’s military success, is what he is determined to spoil by killing David and thereby destroy the very thing that animates and gives life to both his son and to himself, the love David is prepared to offer to them both.  There is only one way the mental distress of despair can end.  Saul falls on his own sword on Mount Gilboa, defeated by his own demons.  Who is to say whether, in the complex mysteries of the human mind, envy is the symptom or the cause?  But the symbolism is clear.  Envy always has the tendency to destroy.  In the end, say both the stories we have looked at, it visits destruction at home, in the very seat of the human soul.

I spoke about the symbolism of Saul’s mental collapse and suicide.  This is a layer of the story we should pay attention to.  I said that envy always has the propensity to spoil.  In the psychoanalytic literature, this insight is associated with Melanie Klein whose work Envy and Gratitude (1957) proved ground-breaking in post-Freudian theory.  She says of envy that it entails an attack on the ‘good’ object because of its goodness, because the awareness of being separated from the ‘good’ which arouses envy becomes intolerable.  So acting out envious impulses is to relieve the tension between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects.  Klein develops this theory in the light of her observation of infant behaviour at the mother’s breast, and the tendency of the infant to ‘split’ the ‘good breast’ from the ‘bad’.  What I want to stress is her insight that envy attacks the good object because it is good.  And this perfectly explains Saul’s erratic behaviour towards David.  The good that is ultimately spoiled by his own envy is not external but internal, his love for David and the wholesomeness that comes from it.  More than that, the clarity of his moral vision, the integrity of his own motives and attitudes becomes increasingly clouded and compromised through his envy.  In this sense, Saul has already ‘died’ as a human person long before he throws himself on to his own sword.  The seven sins, of which envy is perhaps the most potent, are rightly known as ‘deadly’.

My final text from the Hebrew Bible is one of the psalms.  Envy is a frequent theme in the Psalter, particularly among the wisdom Psalms.  Psalm 37 warns the feverish complainant against the destabilising effects of envy: ‘Fret not thyself because of the ungodly, neither be thou envious against the evil doers’.  The antidote here is a calm and equable spirit, for the evil doers will soon be cut down like the grass.  Psalm 49 is more probing.  ‘Be not thou afraid, though one be made rich: or if the glory of his house be increased; for he shall carry nothing away with him when he dieth; neither shall his pomp follow him.’  There, the argument turns on human mortality: there is no point in being consumed by envy when death is the great leveller of high and low, rich and poor.  It is a bleak way of dealing with envy, though undeniably potent.

However, the Psalter’s most searching anatomy of envy is to be found in Psalm 73.  It is unique in the Old Testament for its acute psychological and spiritual perception of human envy, not least as a meditation that autobiographically charts the landscape of the psalmist’s own life.

The Psalm begins with what looks like an orthodox statement of belief: ‘truly God is good to the upright’ (or to ‘Israel’ depending on how we read the Hebrew) (1).  Statements like this (perhaps meant to be read in implied quotation marks?) are very easy to make, but the theme of the Psalm is to test whether the credal assertion matches experience.  So, without further ado the psalmist launches out on his story.  ‘As for me, my feet had almost stumbled… for I was envious of the arrogant’ (2-3).  Psalm 37 may warn against futile worry, but here the psalmist could not help himself.  The prosperity of the arrogant is described with striking imagery as if the psalmist has personally had his nose rubbed in their graceless affluence.  He sees them gliding around ‘sound and sleek’ (4), wearing their pride like a necklace and violence like clothing (6), a kind of second skin.  Porcine eyes  bulbous with fat (7), mouths gaping open to the sky and tongues greedily scouring the earth for fodder (9) build up the unpleasant image of a grotesque self-inflated beast – for such people, to the psalmist, have forfeited their right to be called human.  And this is the symptom of their deadly underlying disease, the functional atheism we have already met in Psalm 14.  Like the fool who says, ‘there is no God’, the arrogant proudly defy their Maker with the question that most characterises the arrogant: ‘How can God know?  Is there knowledge in the Most High?’  What does a remote, transcendent deity know or care about anything (11)?

After this graphic and colourful portrait of hubris the psalmist returns to his testimony.  If the arrogant are so favoured, what is the point of being wise or good or religious – this is the heart of the psalmist’s dilemma.  ‘All in vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence.  For all day long I have been plagued and am punished every morning’ (13-14).  The inward struggle between the faith of verse 1 and the experience of the following verses is an unbearable burden, for there is simply no answer to this conflict (15-16).  The circle of theodicy cannot be squared.  Until, that is, the great turning point of this Psalm.  ‘I went into the sanctuary of God’ (17).  In this life-changing moment, illumination happens; there is a sudden disclosure of how things truly are.  ‘Then I perceived their end’ (17).  It’s as if the psalmist has been given spectacles so that where previously there had only been hints and nudges of reality, now at last everything comes into focus.

Something very striking happens to the psalmist’s discourse here.  Up to now, the story has been told in the 1st and 3rd person: this is how it is with them; these are the consequences for me.  But no sooner has he experienced this sudden reorientation of perspective than he turns to address God himself.  ‘Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin’ (18).  Narrative turns into prayer, and remains in that mode for the rest of the Psalm.  In other words, it is as the psalmist turns towards God that everything else begins to make sense and his envy begins to subside.  He understands now the truth already sketched out in Psalms 37 and 49.  Above all, he recognises that good fortune is a chimera, an insubstantial dream (20); once seen for what it is, those favoured by it are to be pitied, for it blinds them to the infinitely better, more lasting rewards the psalmist has now discovered.

What are these rewards?  The psalmist likens his earlier, pre-enlightened state to that of a ‘brute beast’ (22).  So while the arrogant had become bestial through their pride and avarice, there had been a comparable risk to the psalmist: that he too would be brutalised through the sin of envy (3).  But what he now describes is how the corrupting effects of envy are transfigured by humanising desire.  This is no longer the destructive envy of others’ wealth and success but the life giving hunger for God.  Where envy had poisoned his vision, desire for God transforms and renews it.  And so the Psalm rises to a magnificent climax of faith: ‘Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel and afterward you will receive me with honour.  Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever’ (23-26).  So the journey ends with an elaboration of the opening credal statement, but this time without quotation marks, for the conventional rewards-and-punishment formula he had trotted out has become his personal confession of a lived faith.  ‘But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge to tell of all your works’ (28).  He has made the pilgrimage from the words of religion to the inward experience of it, the most important journey a human being can ever make.

Melanie Klein’s work was entitled Envy and Gratitude.  Her thesis was that gratitude is the polar opposite to envy and the antidote to it.  She defines gratitude as our response to what we experience as the true ‘good’.  She means by this that when we experience something as gift, our response is not the envious instinct to attack and destroy but the loving instinct to care, appreciate and give in return.  It awakens a life-instinct that is generous and transformative and that is the antithesis of the death-instinct that gives birth to envy.  This is because contentment is the hard-won realisation that we are not empty after all: the good permeates our lives, if we can only see it.  And the recognition that our cup is, so to speak, full of what is good, and the gratitude that flows from it, drains the poison out of our propensity to envy.  I think we can see this transformation happening in Psalm 73, which provides us with a happier ending than the stories of either Naboth’s vineyard or King Saul.  The psalm’s turning point marks the threshold at which the psalmist crosses over from envy to gratitude, from destructive impulse to the opening up of the self to all that will be integrative and healing.

For a Christian theologian, this Kleinian language has strongly eucharistic overtones.  Eucharistia, thanksgiving, is of course a liturgical act commanded in the gospel in memory of Jesus on the threshold of his passion.  However, the eucharist is what it is in the larger sense that it expresses the offering of all of life to the Creator and Redeemer of the world.  To be a disciple is to live eucharistically.  To be the church is to be the community of disciples who are shaped by gratitude as the fundamental Christian virtue, and who are thereby being humanised by the transformative gift of grace.  So I want to say that in a fundamental sense, the antidote to envy is the eucharist, because it is in the eucharist that the human race does what it was created to do, to offer God its praise and thanksgiving, to ‘glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ as the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it.  And the consequence of this is as the broken, disordered fragments of our lives are gathered up, like the broken fragments of the eucharistic bread, and put back together again and healed.  Eucharistia is the answer to envy because it takes us out of our narcissistic self-absorption with our own envious desires, and instead invites us to gaze on larger things until, as the hymn says, we are ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’.  This integrative, individuating journey into divine lostness is envy’s ultimate anthithesis.

There is one passage among many in the New Testament that encapsulates this perfectly.  Writing to the Philippians, Paul constantly underlines the life-giving, transformative effect of gratitude and joy on the believer and the church.  Towards the end of this most beautiful of his letters, Paul captures his major themes.  His final chapter reiterates the command to rejoice in the Lord always, and promises that because of God’s goodness, believers do not need to worry about their needs (‘fret’, in the language of Psalm 37).  It is the peace of God, passing all understanding, that will guard against anxiety.  Therefore, believers are to focus on the ‘good’: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’  Paul elaborates on his own circumstances.  ‘Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty,  In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me… My God will satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4)

The key word here is contentment.  Autarkeia literally means ‘self-sufficiency’, being able to support oneself without being dependent on others.  By extension, it came to mean in Stoic philosophy being free of my own inner desires, a state of equilibrium in which I am no longer driven by my needs and drives and envious desires, in other words, ‘contentment’.  We could say this equates in a theological sense, to not being empty. This is, I think, what Paul means here.  He is saying that only when we have begun to transcend our envy with all its destructive tendencies can we experience true liberation.  In Stoic philosophy such a state is achieved by the discipline of living contemplatively.  It would be tempting to say that for Paul contentment is God-given, arising spontaneously in the heart of the believer because of his or her free justification by faith in Jesus Christ.  It is, of course, but not in a simpliste way that excludes the contemplative way we have explored in the Hebrew wisdom literature.  It is I think a subtle marriage of gift-and-response: gift, because salvation cannot be earned by anything that we do, even contemplation; response because the gift is nothing until we do the lifelong ‘work’ of making it our own and inhabiting it. ‘I have learned to be content’ he says.  It is spiritual askesis, part of the artistry of being formed in the image of Christ that is both God’s and
ours.  It begins with gratitude, for contentment means, theologically, that state of spiritual balance (to use a Benedictine idea) that comes from knowing that we are loved by God and are on the way to salvation.  Only then, as Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, can we offer our lives as as ‘living sacrifice’ (Romans 12.2).  With gratitude, it is an act of grace.  Without it, it is merely Pelagian effort.

Envy infiltrates every aspect of modern life.  The reckless competitiveness and bonuses on a scale that beggars belief that have driven our financial institutions to the brink of ruin are a clear symptom of it.  On a smaller scale (but not always so small in the context of modest domestic finances) the advertising industry cleverly plays straight into our envious propensities, and largely encourages them in the young, whether it is electronic games, fast cars, must-have gadgetry or the cult of youth and the body beautiful.  It is perhaps futile to expect society to change very much, for its values have been formed now over many generations.  I do not think we should be too quick to blame post-Enlightenment economics for this: Christians flourished in the 19th century market place by developing the virtues of thrift, prudence and an ethic of hard work.  Is it too much to ponder whether this was because our forebears had a deeper awareness of the importance of gratitude and contentment than we?  If so, then the cultivation of these virtues would seem to be a high priority if our society is, like the prodigal son, ever going to come to its senses and understand the life of a human being in a larger context than simply the gratifying of needs and desires.  I have argued that if envy is the besetting sin of our day, its greatest need for moral and spiritual health is to recapture the life-enhancing generosity of eucharistia and autarkeia, of gratitude and contentment.  With these given house-room as fundamental values in our society, we might perhaps lose interest in even considering, let alone embracing, the Faustian bargains that put our souls in such danger.

October 2009

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Finding a Voice: a sermon on St Hild's Day

What’s your recurring nightmare? Falling off a cliff? Taking that exam? Having a tooth out?  One of mine is a dream quite common among clergy, apparently, being strangled by my own priestly vestments as I try to get out of them after a service.  Today’s gospel reading reminds me of another of my nightmares. When I hear Jesus’ parables about great feasts, I imagine myself at a party finding that I’m expected to do a ‘turn’.  There are two kinds of people: those who seize the main chance glimpsing celebrity just minutes away; and those who shrink from the awful certainty of public failure, embarrassment and shame. They know how to take the lowest place. We all know which class we belong to.  And even if there is some chance of faking it, you still feel in your heart of hearts that everyone is seeing through you. 

The Venerable Bede wrote about just such a shrinking violet in his History of the English Church and People.  It was late in the 7th century.  He says that when the guests at a feast were asked to entertain the gathering, a lay brother saw the harp coming his way, and got out as fast as he could, fleeing outside to a stable to sleep.  And his worst dream came back to haunt him: someone standing beside him telling him to sing something.  ‘I can’t sing’ he replied, ‘that’s why I left the party and came out here’.  ‘But you shall sing’ persisted his visitant.  ‘What about?’ asked Caedmon. ‘Sing about the creation of all things’.  And this untutored man who had never written or sung a verse in his life broke into the purest song of praise.  Next morning, he was brought to the abbess of the double monastery where there were both women and men.  She saw at once that divine inspiration had taken hold of him.  She had him admitted as a monk, and taught him the scriptures which he turned into verse and, says Bede, through his gift, inspired his hearers ‘to love and do good’ and prepare for the joys of heaven.  We sang about this in Canon Brown’s hymn.

Caedmon was the earliest English Christian poet.  I am telling you about him because of that abbess who recognised his gift: Hild, as the Saxons called her; Hilda in Bede’s Latin.  She was one of the great leaders of the Saxon church in the 7th century, born 1400 years ago next year, a princess called back to Northumbria by St Aidan, admitted to the religious life and associated since then with three places in the North East commemorated on the kneelers executed by our broderers at the Hild altar in this Cathedral. The first is South Shields where the parish church in the town centre plausibly stands on an ancient Saxon place of worship. Next comes Hartlepool where one of the North East’s great churches, the grand gothic pile of St Hilda, stands on the numinous windy headland near the medieval sea wall where a plaque tells you that you are not far from the monastery where she was abbess.

Finally comes Whitby which is properly Yorkshire but for today an honorary part of North East England and definitely Northumbria.  The marvellous abbey ruins on the cliffs above the town stand on the original Saxon site. Here too, Hild was abbess and hosted the Synod of 664 AD at which the Northumbrian church made the difficult choice to follow continental Roman customs for calculating the date of Easter rather than the Irish traditions of Lindisfarne in which she herself had been schooled.  I see her trying to find reconciliation between those two ways of being Christian, for unlike others, she did not abandon England when the decision went against Lindisfarne. 

I love the story of Hild taking in the unknown Caedmon as the midwife of his gift so as to bring it out into the open.  There is always a risk in this, discerning and nurturing what perplexes other people, recognising the work of God in the life of another human being.  In the gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the importance of invitation: it is the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind who should be welcomed to the banquet.  And this is what Hild did for Caedmon, recognising his gift of poetry and song, a gift not only of versification but of interpretation: understanding the ways and works of the Creator and speaking about them. It’s a lovely picture of how human beings grow and flourish when they are, so to speak, brought inside and their gifts and talents are celebrated.

Some of you have recently seen the film Little Voice. Jane Horrocks plays an ultra-timid daughter who is so dominated by her overbearing mother that she can’t speak above a stage-whisper.  She spends her days in her bedroom listening to LPs of songs from the shows: Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey.  And she sings along with them, sings as them, for she can sing – not just hum or whistle but really sing.  One evening Little Voice is overheard by a seedy, dead-end talent scout, Michael Caine, who recognises her gift and realises this is his last big chance for a big prize. So he puts her on the stage.  It’s not a straightforward rags to riches story.  But it is a picture of finding one’s voice, and through it, finding herself. Through Hild, Caedmon, a 7th century Little Voice, found his gift, found his voice, found his God, and found himself.

I see in this a metaphor of Christian ministry.  I don’t mean what the clergy do, but what we all do for one another as the people of God, our companions in the church. Isn’t the task of ministry to try to recognise what God is doing in the world and in those around us, and help make it conscious, articulate, so that they find their God, their voice and their gifts?  That is much harder than baldly stating the truths of Christianity or pressing home moral certainties. As I read the gospels, I find Jesus gong about his work in a way that brings out the possibilities inherent in ordinary men and women, enticing them into responding more fully to the love and grace of God: piping so that people not only listen but dance. It’s suggestive rather than insistent.  It offers people the freedom to say yes, or no, or maybe, or it’s hard, or I wish I could; but this is how to draw out of them the song they alone can sing.  Oscar Wilde said that what makes Jesus a poet is that he makes poets of us all.  Precisely this gift of opening the lips of others to proclaim the words and works of God is how I read Hild’s act in bringing another person to life. 

There are few things more important than to do this for one another.  We can never know how much a little word of encouragement can mean to someone else: ‘thank you’, ‘that touched me’, ‘God spoke to me through what you did for me’.  Words and gestures like these are so often how God gives us the gifts and the strength to carry on serving him as followers of Jesus.  It means being open to other people, responsive to them in their tentativeness and lack of confidence, glimpsing what God is doing and could do through them, as Hild discerned with Caedmon. There are those who have done this for us.  We must do it for others. 
This is how the church is built up as we respond together the to ‘one hope of our calling’.  Who knows whether there is a Caedmon somewhere waiting for us to prompt them, nudge them, encourage them to find their voice, open their mouths and sing?

Durham Cathedral, St Hild’s Day, 17 November 2013
Luke 14.7-14

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Stones to Remember By: a sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Next year we mark the centenary of the Great War. This year I took part in a ceremony to mark the anniversary of a conflict much longer ago. The Battle of Flodden was fought on the border between the English and Scots in September 1513. It ended with terrible loss of life on both sides; for Scotland it marked a day of attrition that changed its history for ever. There is a granite cross on a hill where the battle was fought. Here many people both Scots and English came to mark the 500th anniversary and lay wreaths in memory of named families who are known to have fallen. The cross has a simple inscription: TO THE BRAVE OF BOTH NATIONS.

That lonely cross stretching up to the sky has power to evoke a distant memory. Here in Durham Cathedral, we have a war memorial that takes us back even further, the screen behind the high altar that John Neville gave to commemorate victory in the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. From the more recent past, the Durham Light Infantry battle-honours include the Peninsula wars of the early 19th century. There are plaques that honour the fallen of the Crimean War of 1854-56 and the Sudan campaign of 1885-7. A tall cross on the mound outside the north door commemorates those who fell in the Boer Wars at the turn of the 20th century. The Great War is remembered in the pillar outside the Cathedral on the Bailey; in the DLI Chapel the wooden cross of Warlencourt is a relic of the Battle of the Somme of 1916. The garden by the cloister recalls those who fell in the 2nd World War, among them Patrick Alington, the Dean’s son killed at Salerno in 1943 and remembered in a stained glass window at the west end. Opposite is the 2nd World War memorial to the fallen of all three services where we shall lay wreathes today.
That long inventory of war memorials shows how war and the memory of it is embedded in the stones of this place. We can’t get away from these solid memory-markers. But our reasons for remembering have changed over the centuries. The Neville Screen is in memory of a victory won: then, it was normal to erect a monument to celebrate a triumph. But in the 19th century as war became more mechanised and destructive, a new dimension began to creep in.  This instinct was the need to remember individual men and women who had fallen in conflict. For the cost of war is the loss of human lives, each remembered not only by families and friends but also those they fought alongside. When the unknown warrior was interred in Westminster Abbey in 1920, it was said that ‘we were burying every boy’s father, every woman’s lover, every mother’s child’. Remembrance Day puts this human cost to us every year as we listen to our memorials and to the fragile texture of human lives that they honour with both grief and gratitude.
In the reading from the Old Testament, Joshua has led the people of Israel across the river Jordan into the land of Canaan. It’s a threshold they must never forget. So they set up a stone monument at the site; not a war memorial exactly, but it has something in common: the need to remember, and to erect a visible reminder of the journey that has brought them to this point in their history. This is what war memorials and the rituals of remembrance do for us: they help us pay attention to the thresholds we cross as nations in war and conflict; they remind us how, when a people commit to war, it is also to a via dolorosa of grief and loss. Even in victory, life is not the same as it was before. Wars have shaped our world, changed the maps of nations, affected millions of human lives through death, bereavement, injury and unhealed memory. We can’t be indifferent to this cost if we have any feeling for history and compassion for suffering women, children and men. 
In stopping to create their memorial, the Hebrews had come to a point of recognition and reflection. Its purpose was so that they would not forget the hand of providence. I have been reading a book about men who served in the Great War. Its title is Six Weeks, the average life expectancy of junior officers who led their men over the top. As I read the diaries and letters of those men, I am struck by how many speak about God, invoke a childhood faith, have a strong some sense of One who holds destinies in his hands. Mostly, they did not believe in a god who crudely takes sides in conflict: good people of all faiths have served on every side of war. The Flodden memorial ‘to the brave of both sides’ speaks wisely. God honours the virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude, as do we wherever we find them, and we do not claim them only for ourselves. Together with faith, hope and charity, they show how honourable human character is formed and shaped. That comes across strongly in the motives and attitudes of the young men in Six Weeks who knew that life was likely to be short. We should use the word ‘heroic’ sparingly. Better to speak of ‘goodness’, loyalty, doing what is required. These virtues exalt a nation and equip it to face the time of trial. Without them we are lost.
The unspoken message of war memorials is a warning about the danger of living without virtue, about the folly that gets us into war in the first place: wrath, greed, envy, lust, sloth, gluttony and pride. The seven deadly sins belong to nations as well as individual people. Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazi Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’ when Jewish business and homes across Germany and Austria were brutally attacked. Many lost their lives. It is one instance of how the power of evil erupts into visibility: how many times such stories can be multiplied right up to the present day. These memories haunt us as we lay before God all the wrongs inflicted by humans on humans. We recognise that we need to be delivered from forces greater than our own by a power that is also greater than we are. We know we must work for a world that is wiser, more self-aware if we are to survive as a race. The question is: how do we free ourselves from our demons so that our virtues may heal us? Leaders, politicians, peacemakers and opinion-formers have a vital part to play. But there needs to be a radical change of attitude and will. This is where intelligent faith can make a difference by turning our ambitions towards the wise and the good.
Earlier we heard St Luke tell of the place where Jesus fell, a victim whose body was pierced and whose blood was poured out like those we remember today. His battle was with all that is cruel and destructive in our world. Its memorial is the cross that tells how a crucified God absorbs human wrong by becoming its victim. It gathers up our memories of those lost to us in a larger story. It proclaims a death and resurrection that point to a new order where peoples are reconciled and nations are friends. It helps us to see that all that we lament today was not in vain. It helps us not to lose heart in a future worth living for. As we stand silently among these stones and memorials, we know we can safely bring to this place not only our sorrow and our grief, but our pride and gratitude, our prayer, our longing and above all, our hope.

Durham Cathedral, Remembrance Sunday 2013
Joshua 4.1-14, Luke 23.39-49
Six Weeks: the short and gallant life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel, 2010. One reviewer says that it is 'the single most moving book I have read on the Great War'.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

What is education for? Celebrating 750 years of Balliol College Oxford

I am honoured to be speaking to you at this service of celebration. It is exactly 40 years since I left Balliol, armed with degrees in maths and philosophy, and in theology. In those far-off years, I did not give much thought to the events of the 13th century that brought our college into existence. In particular, I did not think at all about its northern origins. To me, a Londoner, the north of England was an unknown region, a distant, cold and sooty place, not blessed with the mild climate and mellow limestones of Oxford. It was not until I went to live and work there as a Northumberland parish priest that I began to appreciate its beautiful landscapes, its heritage and its genuine, hospitable communities.

Ten years ago I went back to the North East, this time as Dean of Durham. The whole world seems to love Durham Cathedral, and with good reason. My interest in the college’s North Eastern origins was awakened. The name Balliol is everywhere around Barnard Castle County Durham, for the family had large estates there. The neighbouring landowner was the Bishop of Durham whose palatine powers made him a not-so-petty monarch in the lands between the Tees and the Tyne. Somehow, these two got across each other. The story goes that in the 1250s, some of John Balliol’s retainers seized estates claimed by Bishop Walter de Kirkham. He in turn excommunicated them whereupon Balliol laid an ambush for him, subjected the kidnapped bishop to unspecified indignities and carried off part of his retinue. The bishop, supported by King Henry III, demanded reparation. So Balliol had to prostrate himself before the bishop dressed in penitential garb on the steps of my Cathedral. And here is where today comes in: the bishop required of Balliol a substantial act of charity: to endow a house for scholars at Oxford. This he did 750 years ago, in 1263.

The bishop died in 1260 and is buried under the floor of the Norman chapter house at Durham Cathedral. Several times a day, I walk across him as I process into services. I trust I do this in a spirit of piety, thankful for the penance that led to the founding of our college, one of Oxford’s oldest and, I need hardly say in this company, one of its greatest. By 1263, the year of the college’s foundation, universities in the sense we understand them had been established across Europe. But since the 11
th century, Durham Cathedral Priory was itself acquiring the reputation of being one of England’s great centres of learning with its legendary library and its large scholarly community of Benedictine monks. Bishop Kirkham himself patronised these developments. So Balliol, with its next-door neighbour which, to avoid the T-word I had better call Durham College because it was originally founded under that name by the monks of Durham, were both communities of learning that originated in the North East with links to its proud scholarly traditions.
The rest, as they say, is history, an honourable and at times glorious one. We have been right to celebrate it during this anniversary year and coming here to thank God for it today. The contribution our college has made to the intellectual life of the nation, especially since Benjamin Jowett’s mastership in the 19th century, is something I don’t need to rehearse today. Instead, I should like to ask what it means to be a ‘community of learning’ in today’s era, so different in every respect from that that of our founding father and mother (for we must not forget the vital part played in the early history of the college by Devorguilla, John Balliol’s devoted wife).

The academy is of course a community of research, and of teaching and learning. In our knowledge-based economy, these things count for a very great deal. In particular, university education in a research-led environment inculcates the values of lifelong curiosity and rigour without which learning can never make a real difference to the way communities and individuals learn how to think. If anyone asks me what use a degree in maths and philosophy has been to my chosen vocation as a priest in the church, I reply at once that it taught me how to think well, how to express myself coherently, how to be at least semi-articulate in the different thought-worlds my work has taken me into, how to show an intelligent interest in other disciplines where my actual knowledge is little or non-existent. I doubt if I have often  invoked formal logic, topology, recursive function theory or Abelian groups in my day-job. But I owe them an incalculable debt, as I do to those who did not so much instruct me in them as helped me to learn them – yes and love them - for myself.

But I believe we need to understand the academy in more holistic ways than simply the training of the intellect. The medieval disciplines of the trivium and quadrivium which Balliol scholars learned in the college’s medieval centuries, cast their net wider. The study of grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music together imparted the perspective that human beings inhabit a large, mysterious and complex universe, and the properly educated student, on taking a degree, becomes, so to say, a grown-up citizen of that world, at home in its mystery and complexity. And one of the lessons that the study of theology in the middle ages inculcated was that to find our place in an often baffling world, what is needed is not just knowledge but wisdom. And wisdom, in the spiritual traditions of all the world faiths, is not only a matter of the mind, but of the whole person, or as the Bible speaks of it, the heart. It is about the formation of identity and character in both people and societies.

So what heart-work, as Rilke called it, do we need to do as a college and as its members, in which of course I include all of us who are proud to be alumni?  In other words, what is education ultimately for? Our founding traditions suggest that it is this cultivation of wisdom. As it says in Benjamin Jowett’s translation of his beloved Republic, ‘first among the virtues found in the state, wisdom comes into view’. Christian moral theology sees wisdom as the summation of virtue, expressed in the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence temperance and fortitude and in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These shape what it means to live well, for the wise understand what life requires of them and charts a course that will enhance human dignity against all the corrosive forces that would diminish it. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks about the values that belong to the kingdom of heaven and which he calls his followers to embrace now. In the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon prays at the outset of his reign for a ‘wise and understanding heart’ so that he will know how to govern ‘this great people’, discern what it means to be a guardian of all that ennobles human life. And when those same scriptures, in a classic wisdom text in the Book of Job, asks where wisdom can be found, it embarks on a long search that scans the ends of the earth before concluding: ‘the fear of the Lord is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding’. Find your place in creation, he says, by letting it teach you humility, reverence, worth, a good conscience, a sense of the divine.

Humanity faces huge challenges if our race is to prove capable of surviving the threats that face it. Climate change, simplistic politics, radical fundamentalisms and the terrors they spawn, the risk of collapse in our global financial systems not to mention the poor who are always with us: even far-seeing leaders like Jowett could not have glimpsed these futures, let alone John Balliol, Devorguilla and those who bequeathed us our college.  But perhaps the values of self-awareness, moral and spiritual intelligence, the ability to see into the life of things and understand the vicissitudes of human existence, in short, wisdom - perhaps these may yet save the world if we succeed in embedding it into our social, political and personal lives. As a person of faith, I believe these values to be ultimately God-given: Christ himself is called in the New Testament both 'the power of God and the wisdom of God'. Which is why, when the big storms break against the shores of our complacency, we need to cry, like the sailors at the beginning of The Tempest, ‘to prayers, to prayers!’.

In its first seven and a half centuries, Balliol College has added incalculably both to the world’s intellectual capital and its social, ethical and spiritual capital too. It has helped make it a better informed, a more deeply aware, a more compassionate, in short, a wiser place. This God-given work that builds up nations, societies and people in wisdom continues confidently as the college moves into the next three-quarters of a millennium. We gather today to celebrate the lasting achievement of our founders who came out of the north 750 years ago. On All Souls Day we remember them and our benefactors down the centuries since, and all who have helped make Balliol College the flourishing institution it is today.  More personally, we recall with gratitude all in this college who have played a part in forming and shaping us as human beings, helping to train our minds and hearts for the service of his kingdom of justice, truth and peace. It is right and good to celebrate today.

St Mary’s University Church, Oxford, 2 November 2013
1 Kings 3.3-14; Matthew 5.1-12

You can see a video recording of this sermon at