The ladies could not, for a long time, comprehend what the merchants did with small pieces of gold and silver, or why things of so little use should be received as equivalent to the necessaries of life.
(from Rasselas by Samuel Johnson)
Samuel Johnson’s ‘Rasselas’ of 1759 takes a Prince of Abissinia, Rasselas, from his luxurious captivity, escaping out into the world, accompanied by a female cousin and her maid, all guided by a wise man who had become weary of the place as well. He takes them to Egypt, where Cairo was already a bustling metropolis. The young people have a lot to learn.
And so do we. We have seen these tokens before: they were minted in German cities after the Great War when inflation impoverished many people. And they remind us that Judas sold his Lord for a handful of silver, and that Mammon will always ‘see a market’ and persuade us that things of little use are equivalent to the necessaries of life. We sometimes waste our money, but money has wasted many people around the world since the hyperinflation of Germany in the 1920s.
If money loses the trust of people it will no longer procure the necessaries of life. Can we help provide some necessaries during this Advent, beginning tomorrow?
78. Judaeo-Christian thought no longer saw nature as divine. But in doing so, it emphasises all the more our human responsibility for nature. If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.
80. Yet God, who wishes to work with us and who counts on our cooperation, can also bring good out of the evil we have done. “The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, including the most complex and inscrutable”. Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator. God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs. His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation”.
82. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. As he said of the powers of his own age: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26).
Francis invites us to take the long view, both in terms of time, and of space, including what used to be called outer space. I find it frightening that rich men should be unchecked in their pursuit of profit in the sky, not just with expensive joy rides into near orbit, but also the arrays of small satellites, launched, it seems, with little regard for what is already up there, doing valuable but not necessarily dollar-earning work.
From a homily of Saint Oscar Romero, 1978, as relevant now as then.
Today the universal church celebrates World Communications Day. Let me say a few words to make all Catholics mindful of the importance of using the media of social communication in a critical and conscientious way. Through these marvellous means of communication—such as newspapers, radio, television, cinema—many ideas are communicated to large numbers of people, but often the media serve as tools of confusion. These instruments, as creators of public opinion, are often manipulated by materialist interests and are used to maintain an unjust state of affairs through falsehood and confusion. There is a lack of respect for one of the most sacred rights of the human person, the right to be well informed, the right to the truth. Each person must defend this right for himself or herself by using the media critically. Not everything in the newspapers, not everything in the movies or on television, not everything that is heard on the radio is true. Often it is just the opposite, a lie.
That is why critical people must know how to filter the media to avoid being poisoned with whatever falls into their hands. This is the type of awareness that the church wants to awaken today as we celebrate World Communications Day. We want people to read the newspapers critically and be able to say, «This is a lie! This is not the same thing that was said yesterday! This is a distortion because I have seen the opposite stated!» Being critical is a vital characteristic in our day, and because the church attempts to implant this critical awareness, she is facing some very serious conflicts. The reason is that the dominant interests want to keep people half-asleep. They do not want people who are critical and know how to discern between truth and falsehood. I believe that never before has there existed in the world, especially in a setting like ours, such a struggle—a struggle unto death—between the truth and the lie. The conflict at this time can be reduced to this: either truth or lies. Let us not forget that great saying of Christ: «The truth will set you free» (John 8:32). Let us always seek the truth!
There is a saying of Saint Augustine that I believe is very appropriate for these times: Libenter credimus quod credere volumus, which means, «We gladly believe what we want to believe». That is why it is so difficult to believe the truth: often we don’t want to believe the truth because it disturbs our conscience. But even though the truth may disturb us, we must accept it, and we must want to believe in it so that the Lord will always bless us with the freedom of those who love the truth. We should not be among those who sell the truth or their pens or their voices or their media to the highest bidder or to materialist interests. How sad it is to see so many pens being sold, so many tongues being fed through the slanderous words broadcast on the radio. Often the truth produces not money but only bitterness, yet it is better to be free in the truth than to have great wealth in mendacity.
St Oscar Romero, Ascension of the Lord. 7 May 1978 Read or listen to the homilies of St Oscar Romero at romerotrust.org.uk
Universal Intention: – The World Of Finance Let us pray that those in charge of finance will work with governments to regulate the financial sphere and protect citizens from its dangers.
I guess Pope Francis feels he has had his share of being let down by those in charge of finance! It always seems to be the poorest who suffer most when finances go wrong, both at a personal and a national level. Company executives remain wealthy when their businesses go bust, while their workers lose jobs and the pensions they had been paying into. Indebted countries find their debts rising at the same time as opportunities vanish to earn more from trade and so pay off debts. And don’t ask about covid vaccinations!
Rich nations often owe part of their prosperity to exploitation of workers or other assets overseas; there is an obligation to restore fairness in trade and to protect citizens of this one world from the dangers of unfair trade, which may persist for generations.
The word that came to Jeremias from the Lord, saying: Stand in the gate of the house of the Lord, and proclaim there this word, and say: Hear ye the word of the Lord, all ye men of Juda, that enter in at these gates, to adore the Lord.
Thus saith the Lord of hosts the God of Israel: Make your ways and your doings good: and I will dwell with you in this place. Trust not in lying words, saying: The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, it is the temple of the Lord … you put your trust in lying words, which shall not profit you:
To steal, to murder, to commit adultery, to swear falsely, to offer to Baalim, and to go after strange gods, which you know not. And you have come, and stood before me in this house, in which my name is called upon, and have said: We are delivered, because we have done all these abominations. Is this house then, in which my name hath been called upon, in your eyes become a den of robbers? I, I am he: I have seen it, saith the Lord.
If Jeremiah was preaching at a gateway like this, he would get noticed; even if other preachers were getting pushed to the side by impatient passers-by.
Occasionally there are preachers around Canterbury Cathedral’s main Christ Church gate: mostly they seem to be ignored, as the churches themselves are much of the time. People say I’m too nice to them if I stop and chat, or engage with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Someone Else called the Temple a den of robbers, and drove the moneychangers out of the courtyard. They were no doubt raking in a tidy profit, in effect making Mammon, or money, at home in God’s House; going after strange gods, as we are tempted to do today. We may not be directly sacrificing children to Baal or to Mammon but there are many children whose all-but slave labour contributes to our comfortable lifestyle. Think of clothes and shoes made in Asian countries.
Willy-nilly we are caught in a web of sinfulness and can do little to escape it. At least there are some fair trade products on the market that we can buy, and we can hope that the shops we use do indeed check all the way back along the supply chain to see that workers are treated fairly.
There has been much complaint about ‘one law for us, another for them’ during the course of the pandemic. Nothing new about that, of course. Blaise Pascal identified the problem a century before Doctor Johnson. It’s easy to see how similar assertions about being born in the wrong place at the wrong time could be used to justify slavery.
In the letter of the law injustice can come in. The pleasantries of the elders who have everything: my friend, since you were born on this side of the mountain, it’s right that your elder brother should have everything.
But as Johnson said, you cannot argue with avarice – or unregulated capitalism. We just have to learn to live life simply, without unnecessary stuff, as to an extent we have had to these last months. As we come out of the infection and the danger of covid19, we could think more carefully about what we are buying, in particular about the costs of production in terms of human and environmental justice and peace.
Pope Gregory’s answer was not to argue with the slavers but to send Augustine to convert the English, including, no doubt, those men prepared to kidnap children and sell them on as slaves. But today we all need to convert ourselves from destroying our sisters and brothers, and destroying our common home, through what we buy. It’s not a task we’ll succeed in when life revolves around mobile phones that depend on exploited labour to extract the ores to produce the precious metals that power them. But we can do something if we reflect upon it.
Not long ago, we read John Wesley on the argument that slavers were using to justify procuring and abusing slaves: If it is not quite right, yet it must be so; there is an absolute necessity for it. Something along the same lines seems to be put forward to justify almost any environmentally destructive activity. Sin’s arguments are ages old: the Serpent in Eden had Eve believing that the forbidden fruit was absolutely necessary for her future happiness.
I needed a new phone: poor people dig out the scarce ores that are used for the inner workings; others in the manufacturing process are poorly paid, overworked and live in heavily polluted neighbourhoods. It must be so, or must it be so? I have two old phones that should be recycled to reuse precious metals.
Clothes: cotton production diverts water from growing food: ‘it must be so.’ Synthetic fibres cause pollution at every stage of production, use and disposal, even, apparently, poisoning fish in the open ocean. But ‘it must be so’.
Forests are destroyed, ‘it must be so’. Rivers polluted, flood plains built over: it must be so.
Well, no. Money need not rule. Time for some New Year Resolutions! Use less, discard less, waste less: reuse or recycle more.
I was warned about Manchester’s 2019 Santa well before I saw it. Now it’s difficult to unsee the thing. As a representation of a saintly bishop it leaves a lot to be desired! The little Kentish village of Barfrestone has a better one.
Here he is, recognisably a bishop, recognisably blessing his people (I doubt the Mancunian’s gesture could be so interpreted), with symbols of his generous charity: the three gold coins for the dowries he gave to three girls who might otherwise have been enslaved; the little boys he rescued from drowning, and a representation of the little church of Saint Nicholas.
We in L’Arche Kent called by during our community pilgrimage last year, for it was in this village that the community was born more than 40 years ago. I was on a sort of pilgrimage to Manchester, not to tip my hat to Santa by Piccadilly Gardens but to visit my mother and my daughter; two good reasons for the journey on a murky day in Manchester. Since my daughter has left town there’s only my mother, but she is isolating herself and outsiders are meant to keep away from Greater Manchester. So thank God for the internet!
Today, 6 December, is Saint Nicholas’ feast day. We can’t do much about the hijacking he has been subjected to by the forces of Mammon, but we can find ways to be generous, maybe in secret, as he often was.
And let us use this season of Advent to make straight the paths of the Lord, through marshland, mountain, or Mancunian murk!
There was an unexpected item on my shopping list, so I was taking my time, scanning the supermarket shelves. Before I found Mrs T’s ingredient, I overheard a conversation between members of staff: now this stand was empty, should they deck it out with their ‘back to school’ range, or would that be better on extra selves by the main door? – No, the floor there is uneven, the shelves will wobble and who knows what will happen.
On one level, an unremarkable and admirable conversation between three conscientious colleagues, on another a depressing indication of their employer’s world view. This was the morning of the last day of school for young Abel, and the store wants to sell his parents the back to school stuff before anyone else gets the chance to do so. Are we put on this earth to be customers/consumers/marketing targets? Is there more to post Covid 19 life than shopping? Miss Turnstone reminded me to pop something in the food bank; not everyone could even begin to think about new school gear when food is too expensive.
When Mrs T and I were visiting Germany and Poland, we had to change trains in Cologne. Since the Cathedral is right by the railway station and we had two hours to spare, our plan was easily made. And efficiently undermined by a delay on the Eurostar, which led to arriving in Berlin 6 hours late. Jerome K Jerome did visit the Cathedral between trains in 1890. You don’t have to agree with every word he says, any more than I do, but he has some insight into silence.
There is little to be said about a cathedral. Except to the professional sightseer, one is very much like another. Their beauty to me lies, not in the paintings and sculpture they give houseroom to, nor in the bones and bric-à-brac piled up in their cellars, but in themselves—their echoing vastness, their deep silence. Above the little homes of men, above the noisy teeming streets, they rise like some soft strain of perfect music, cleaving its way amid the jangle of discordant notes. Here, where the voices of the world sound faint; here, where the city’s glamour comes not in, it is good to rest for a while—if only the pestering guides would leave one alone—and think.
There is much help in Silence. From its touch we gain renewed life. From contact with it we rise healed of our hurts and strengthened for the fight. Amid the babel of the schools we stand bewildered and affrighted. Silence gives us peace and hope. Silence teaches us no creed, only that God’s arms are around the universe.
How small and unimportant seem all our fretful troubles and ambitions when we stand with them in our hand before the great calm face of Silence! We smile at them ourselves, and are ashamed.