Going back a few months, I was planning an assembly to give in school on the theme of “Compassion for Old People”. I found it a bit tricky at the time – how could I find anything to say that was not blatantly obvious, and maybe even dull? So, humour is always good, especially when working with teenagers. I thought that as the students enter I would play a nursery rhyme that is one of the first songs that small children in Scotland might learn:
And after introducing the theme, I would comment on how much we love our Grannies in Scotland and provide a short video clip as evidence to that effect:
I knew it would not be appropriate for me to show them this other clip, even though I really did want to, on account of it being a bit too fiery:
I did not do that assembly in the end, it was rescheduled for another week with a different theme. Given that this blog is about Spirituality and about “Finding God in All Things”, you might be wondering at this point:
Where is this coming from?
Where is it leading to?
Both good discernment questions.
I have been noticing recently, conversations with vulnerable people: people who are “poor” speakers by wordly standards, and we are not very patient with poor speakers in our world.
One little old lady, who is a Gran (but not my Granny), who has had a minor stroke and stutters now, and also finds it difficult to remember the words she wants to use. She gets frustrated. There may also be dementia there, because the conversation gets recycled several times on a loop. She knows her memory is fading: it scares her, even though she puts on a brave face.
One young man who is autistic, who functions in his own specialist realm on a high level that is unfathomable to most people and yet finds simple social conversation anything but simple. It is difficult and painful and has to be consciously worked at.
Some years ago I went on a student retreat with others from the Chaplaincy, and there was a PhD student there from Zimbabwe. We spent the first session talking about ourselves, introducing ourselves so that the others could get a sense of who we were. I remember feeling impatient to begin with when this student spoke, he seemed to be telling a rambling story and I wanted him to hurry up and get to the point. And then I had a light bulb moment: his story was the point. Here was a person who knew how to just be, how to live in the moment and to appreciate all that was around him; it is who he was, considered and present, not rushing to get it all done and trying to have a mic drop moment. I was at once full of admiration and awe, as I acknowledged my own vice of impatience and aggressive drive.
There is something in the nature of the world that demands aggressive drive to be successful at life. We see it in films, television, work: everywhere. Just look around at what is honoured and respected in the world and there you will see it, and it has always been there. The world is pushy, and if we are not pushing, we are failing.
Why am I pondering an aborted assembly plan here and now? Why Scottish nursery rhymes and why Grannies? Many of the daily readings recently have been from Isaiah, as was the guided prayer I posted the other week. We have been studying Matthew Chapters 6 and 7 in Bible Study, and of course, in the UK there has been a general election for a new government. Some of the rhetoric in the election campaign has been around what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to live in one where the desires of the wealthy to hoard their money in offshore tax havens dictate government policy and where lies and bullying of those who speak out are the means to achieve that?
St. Ignatius summarises what I am thinking of in the meditation of the Two Standards in the Spiritual Exercises:
The first step then, will be riches, the second honour, the third pride. From these three steps the evil one leads to all other vices.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
And of course in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says:
‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.Matthew 6:24
Even Wonder Woman in the trailer for the new film sums it up:
Nothing good is born from lies.
Or do we want to live in a society where government policy is based around the preferential option for the poor, where the wealthy contribute their fair share to the country and public services are maintained effectively for the benefit of everyone? Do we continue on this road where the treatment of the sick is in decline, where education and the mental health of our young people is deteriorating, where homelessness is on the increase, where people are working ungodly hours and are still unable to put food on the table without resorting to hand outs from the food banks and racial violence and violence against religious minorities is increasing? Do we all do what we need to do to fix it?
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Matthew 6:21
I am thinking about how we treat the vulnerable in society. In Jesus’ day, that was the widow and the orphan: those with no male kin to claim them and no status. Who are they in our own situation? The ones we are repelled by? The ones it takes too much effort to engage with? Do we even notice those feelings within ourselves? And when we do, how do we respond?
Sometimes I walk past the homeless person on the street, and I can hardly bare to look them in the eye; sometimes I give a small amount of money, and sometimes I give a generous amount that leaves me a little short, and I wish them well. All of it makes me uncomfortable and angry. I am angry that there are homeless people on our streets: I am not angry with homeless people for being there, I am angry with a society that has created the conditions conducive to homelessness, and that it is on the increase. It is a case of there but for the grace of God go I, because how many of us are just one unfortunate, catastrophic event away from such a situation? There was a young homeless man my daughter knew from school. He gave her his only five pounds late one night because she did not have enough money to get a taxi home and he was concerned to make sure she was safe. A few months later she heard that he had died alone in his tent, and had lain there for four days before being discovered.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;Matthew 7:12
After the results of the election, I have to say that I am ashamed to be British. I am incredulous at what the UK has voted for. It is certainly not the preferential option for the poor. I am reminded of the meditations of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, where we are asked to contemplate the sins of the world, and our own sin. The grace we ask for in the first week is:
…shame and confusion, because I see how many have been lost on account of a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal damnation, because of the many grievous sins that I have committed.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
I have to acknowledge that were I to place myself in the Exercises right now, it would be here, in this place of shame and confusion. I notice the movements in me where I am not responding, even internally, in a way that is more for the glory of God: I notice my anger and where it might move me to personalise it and lash out at others and I notice the pull of despair, which has the potential to shift me from this place of spiritual consolation of shame and confusion, the grace of the first week, into spiritual desolation, where it would be all too easy to feel that God has not answered the poor and needy, and lose some faith and trust in God.
If we are using pushing your elderly relatives off of a bus as a metaphor for how we look after the vulnerable in society, then Scotland knows that it is not the done thing: it is so obvious that it does not need explaining. A three year old child could sing it to you. After the general election I will say that I am proud to be Scottish.