The Imitation of Christ

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My headmaster at school was a quiet man.  Not that he never got angry.  It was just that the angrier he got, the quieter he became.  On one occasion we were all gathered together in assembly, and he was reprimanding the whole school for some naughtiness that I have long forgotten now.  The summit of his speech arrived: the climax, the moment of greatest trepidation for us apprehensive young students.  “If it continues, they will be EXPELLED… without… (mercy)!”

We respected our headmaster so much that the room was completely silent enough to hear his every whisper.

Not my school

So when he spoke, we listened.  Which was greatly worthwhile, because our headmaster was a scholar, alive to the transformative power of the things we were learning.

“Boys,” he would say – and to be fair to him, we were all boys, for it was an all boys’ school – “Boys, you must read such and such.”  He would produce a classic book of devotion or literature, and his method of persuasion was the great impact that reading it could have on our lives.  I must admit that I didn’t rush straight to the library for these books.  But I remember some of his recommendations, and now as an adult I have finally sat down to read them.  I really must thank him for the assembly that belatedly introduced me to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and for the off-topic lesson on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment which single-handedly prompted my love of Russian literature.

I am nowhere near as worth listening to as my old headmaster.  But in some weak shadow of his spirit, I would like to introduce you to a very short book that really could change your life.  I know that most of you won’t read it.  I’m not silly enough to imagine you bursting into WHSmith with shining eyes, clutching your book token in both hands as you pirouette towards the theology section.

No – maybe some of you will read this in a few years’ time.  In which case, maybe you will retrospectively thank me for the temporary tedium of this piece.  And for those who will never read this book, I hope you can absorb some of its brief lessons below.

What is the book, then? I promise you have never heard of it.  The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis.  Written by an unworldly German monk in the 1420s, it is perhaps the second most influential Christian book after the Bible.  For centuries it inspired popes, statesmen, missionaries and Christians more generally to live a full and satisfying life, directed away from the distractions of the world and towards Christ.

Frontispiece from 1617 edition

Why should you be interested in all that? Two reasons, I think.  First, Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ is actually not just about how to live a Christian life.  Kempis developed a deep understanding of human nature, and you can read The Imitation of Christ  to discover how to live a happy, good and worthwhile life whether you are a believer or not.  Second, we live in an age full of noise.  Through our smartphones we are constantly caught up in the opinions of others about the issues of today which seem so immediately important the more we hear about them.  Surely it is worth stepping back from this busyness, and hear how someone from 600 years confronted the universal issues of the human experience.  That will help us avoid the danger of assuming we have got things right in this modern age, just because no-one says any differently.

Because Thomas à Kempis actually spotted a danger that affects us now just as much as it did in the 15th century.  He writes,

We ask how much a person has done, but from what degree of virtue they act is not so carefully weighed.  We enquire whether they have been courageous, rich, handsome, skilful, a good writer, a good singer, or a good worker.  But how they are in spirit, how patient and meek, how devout and spiritual – of this most men are silent.

This seems to be true.  To reach the next rung of the ladder in life we are typically judged on outward things: our CVs, our personalities, and our track records.  But what matters when we reach the next rung is the kind of person we have become.  The way we treat others, the resilience we have to push on, and the inward joy we can find in life.  These inner things will then have a greater impact on our lives, but it is up to us to develop them with little thanks from the world around us.

There ought to be much more within,” Kempis says, “than is perceived on the outside.  We must diligently search into, and set in order, both the outward and the inner self.

In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis teaches us how to live a happy, good and worthwhile life – on the inside as well as the outside.  Happy, good and worthwhile.  And on each of these points, he differs from our modern ideas.

  1. A HAPPY LIFE
Apparently this is now the basis of a popular meme. Generate your caption here.

Nowadays our search for happiness is shown clearly all over social media.  We want the recognition of others when we share our achievements and the carefully-curated Instagram versions of our lives. But for a happy life, Thomas à Kempis begs us: Don’t let your happiness depend on how others see you.

Don’t let your peace depend on the tongues of men.  For whether they interpret you well or badly, you do not therefore become another person.

How others see you does not actually make you a better or worse person.  It does not make your achievements any more or less valuable.  It should not make you any different within.

Even more importantly, don’t let your happiness depend on material things:

The proud and covetous are never at rest. The poor and humble in spirit dwell in the multitude of peace.

Well, I can’t persuade you of the truth of that. You will have to experience it to know it.  But I once saw it in another man.  A Buddhist monk who owned nothing except the clothes he wearing. He had shaved his head to avoid the desire for shampoo. He did not even celebrate his own birthday. But he seemed so happy. Humorous, kind, lively. I have never, in all the wealthy and successful people I have met over the years, seen such deep happiness. This monk was distracted by nothing, and in himself completely content.

It seems like a paradox: stop seeking the things that you want, and you will be happy. But this is the same insight that you find across the world’s religions and philosophies:

Keep this short and perfect word: Let go all and you shall find all. Leave desire and you shall find rest.

For Christians, Thomas à Kempis goes further. He remind us that the things we desire in this world are only temporary anyway.

Man’s welfare lies not in obtaining or multiplying any external thing…  And this must be understood not only of income and riches, but of seeking after honour too, and the desire of vain praise, all of which pass away with this world.

God is the only lasting thing of value, the only eternal happiness.

2. A GOOD LIFE

Beware: this is what happened to the first ‘utilitarian’

Next, Thomas à Kempis teaches us how to live a good life.  Nowadays I think we tend to judge morality by people’s actions.  Most of us are instinctively utilitarians: saying the best actions are those which have the better consequences. But Kempis disagrees:

Man considers the deeds, but God weighs the intentions,” and “Often in God’s sight is found worthy of blame, that which in the judgement of men is thought worthy of praise.

Throughout The Imitation of Christ Kempis focuses on following our consciences as the measure of goodness. He also points out that a good conscience is not necessarily one that is pure and innocent. Writing as if God himself is speaking, he says,

My will is that you seek not that peace which is void of temptations, or which feels nothing bad.

Goodness is making the choice that you know in your own heart is the right one, and overcoming your natural urge to do the easier or the more selfish thing.

For Christians, Thomas à Kempis again goes further. He reminds us that this approach brings us closer to God.  He says,

Of true contrition and humbling of the heart is born hope of forgiveness.  The troubled conscience is reconciled; the grace which was lost is recovered; man is preserved from the wrath to come; and God and the penitent soul meet together with a holy kiss.

3. A WORTHWHILE LIFE

Surely he read this book

Finally, Kempis teaches us how to live a worthwhile life.  Nowadays we tend to think a worthwhile life is one that others would consider ‘successful’.  But he warns,

Be not careful for the shadow of a great name, nor for the friendship of many, nor for the private affection of men.  For these things cause distractions and great darkness in the heart.

Instead, focus on what you do for others.  Love. THERE IS POWER IN LOVE, to paraphrase a recent wedding speaker. Thomas a Kempis explains,

Love feels no burden, thinks nothing of labours, attempts what is above its strength, pleads no excuse of impossibility.  For it thinks all things possible for itself and all things lawful.  It is therefore strong for all things, and it completes many things, and brings them to effect, where he who does not love just faints and lies down.  Love is watchful, and sleeping it slumbers not.  Though wearied, it is not tired.  Though pressed, it is not straitened.  Though alarmed, it is not confounded.  But as a lively flame and burning torch, it forces its way upwards, and securely passes through all.

And you might notice the pattern, that again Kempis goes further for Christians. Christians should seek God as the only reward, saying,

Nature manages everything for her own gain and profit.  She cannot do any thing without payment, and for every kindness she hopes to obtain … praise and favour, and is very eager to have her works and gifts and words much valued.  But Grace seeks no temporal thing, nor desires any other reward than God alone for her wages.

A happy, good and worthwhile life in the eyes of Thomas à Kempis.  If you like the sound of it, I hope you will seek out this little book, The Imitation of Christ. 

Epilogue

Martha and Mary with Jesus

Martha complains to Jesus

For those who follow Thomas à Kempis’s guidance to the utmost, the prize is great:

A pure, sincere and stable spirit is not distracted in a multitude of works, for it works all to the honour of God, and inwardly strives to be at rest from all self-seeking.

When I first delivered this piece as a chapel talk, our reading was from Luke 10:38-42. You’ll know it off by heart, of course.  The story where Jesus stops by at Martha’s house, where she ends up burdened with all the catering admin while her sister Mary just sits adoringly at Jesus’ feet.  Well, Martha who was ‘distracted by her many tasks’ is long dead now.  Those unnamed tasks that she was worrying about don’t matter any more.  They haven’t mattered for 2,000 years.  From this perspective, our daily tasks and worries are not of enduring importance either.  Mary, on the other hand, chose to centre her efforts on Jesus himself.  Ultimately, on God: the creator of her whole existence, and her eternal destination.  Her efforts echo throughout the landscape of time.

Thomas à Kempis would approve.

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The unavoidable leap of faith

I offer you a break from Advent, in the form of some light philosophy.

Alister McGrath makes a neat distinction in this piece. That we should all be epistemological agnostics, admitting that science and logic can never tell us whether God exists. But that is separate from our practical choice. In our daily lives we must choose to live either as an atheist or as a theist, despite both of those options requiring faith. Bertrand Russell was a good demonstration of this: he was humbly an agnostic, but lived practically as Britain’s foremost atheist.

“Existentially significant beliefs lie beyond proof, no matter what those beliefs might be. As philosophers of religion have emphasized throughout the history of their discipline, we have to learn to live with probable, not proven, beliefs.“

Link: Faith, Scepticism and the Limits of Proof

Perspective on examinations

At a time when Year 11 and 13 students start worrying seriously about exams, here are three doses of perspective to help them remember what really matters.  This piece was originally delivered as a school chapel talk.

Finding a different perspective just means finding a different point of view. Looking at the same thing from a different angle. Sometimes it helps you feel better.

A lot of you are going through the trauma of mock examinations at the moment. Others are worrying ahead to exams next year. All of you will face them at some point soon.

There’s no getting around it: exams are frightening. Your grades could choose whether you get the jobs you want, your university place or your college place. They will stay on your CV forever.

I took major exams every year for nearly a decade. I know how you feel. Right now, all that worry about how your grades might affect your future is all you can think about as you try to cram your brain with last-minute, life-saving facts.

If this is you, then what you need is a better perspective. Here are three that might soothe your worries.

1. Education is really about life, not exams.

One kind of perspective is to remember the greater scheme of education. The reason you are learning. So often we teachers imply that the main point of learning is to get a good exam grade. A good examination grade will prove that you know certain things, and perhaps help persuade someone to give you a job or a place at college or university.

But the value of learning is much bigger than that. It is meant to open up the world for you. Some things in the world you can enjoy easily, like television and social media. Other things are harder to access, because you need background knowledge before you can appreciate them. So a good education reveals more of the world’s joys to you – if you want them. You can recognise the history all around you. You can find pleasure in the beauty of mathematics. Be moved by the intricacies of nature. Find the profound music that will lift you up. Understand the most deeply moving poetry. Decide whether God exists, and how to live your life. If you focus just on the exam grade, then you have missed the point of learning!

this-flights-cuckoo

“O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird?”

To illustrate how a strict focus on exams can stop you enjoying the newly-revealed world, let me share a humorous dialogue allegedly penned by A.E. Housman. It shows two academics strolling through the countryside. The first academic bursts forth with poetic joy: “O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird, or but a wandering voice?” The second academic completely ruins the moment by interrupting his joy with an exam-style question: “State the alternative preferred, with reasons for your choice.” So exams are important, but they can make you forget the point of learning. Don’t forget to seek that joy. Sing an ode to the cuckoo. Because the things you learn here can change your life, if you want them to.

 

2. Even the greatest suffer from fear and doubt.

When I’m facing challenges in life, I love to read the autobiographies of people who seem to have succeeded. Not so I can copy them, but because it usually turns out that they were a bundle of nerves just like I am. For example, you probably know Tony Blair. That former Labour Prime Minister who was famous for speaking and debating so confidently that he easily won three general elections in a row. Under the surface everything was not so easy. In his autobiography he admits that taking questions in the House of Commons  filled him with fear. He prayed to God, superstitiously wore the same pair of shoes every time, and couldn’t eat or sleep beforehand. To everyone else, he looked confident and assured. But inside he was scared. He writes, “Even today, wherever I am in the world, I feel a cold chill at 11.57am on Wednesdays [just before PMQs would have been], a sort of prickle on the back of the neck, a thump of the heart.”

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Winston Churchill, by Sir William Orpen (1916). Churchill said the painting ”revealed his soul during one of his darkest hours.”

Ask anyone for a list of British heroes, and Winston Churchill will surely come near the top. A man so great that he now adorns our £5 notes. But in his autobiographies, Churchill admits that he was rejected from Sandhurst twice. He couldn’t pass the exams until his third attempt. Later on, the First World War was disastrous for him. As a member of the government, Churchill had the idea of winning the war sooner by invading modern-day Turkey. This was the Gallipoli campaign, and it was a complete failure. 46,000 men went to their pointless deaths. Churchill cried to a friend, “I am finished!” and fled government to fight in the trenches as a normal infantry officer. The National Portrait Gallery has a great painting of Churchill at this time. Not the solid and determined man that we have come to know on our banknotes, but a thin, pale figure – full of doubt and shame. Later in life he became a national hero, leading our nation safely out of World War. But I like to look at that painting more than any of his more popular portraits, because it reminds me how even Winston Churchill had his own dark days too.

Marcus Aurelius was a great Roman Emperor – he defeated the Parthian Empire abroad and kept stability at home. He was the kind of figure who would usually be difficult to understand because of all the propaganda and legend that built up around their memory. But Emperor Marcus Aurelius left a personal diary behind. Something that he never expected anyone else to read. So he is completely honest about his worries. He laments that “nowhere in his wanderings has he found the good life. …Not in wealth, not in glory, not in indulgence: nowhere.” He has to work hard to stop himself falling into fear and despair. To get through life, he has to remind himself of a bigger perspective. He says, “Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” … “Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of.” One of Rome’s greatest emperors had to remind himself that in the long run he is nothing. That’s the only way he could get through his day.

I have just told you about three people who I happened to know about. But there are thousands more for you to find. The library is a good starting point. Just remember: even our greatest heroes suffered from fear and doubt. They are just like you – not magic, not heroic, just normal. You can do it too.

 

3. There might be a greater perspective than any of us can imagine.

If God exists, then you are not wandering fearfully alone in the darkness.

If God exists, then we are sitting in the presence of an all-powerful, all-loving being who has a plan for your life.

If God exists, then perhaps this life, this world, is not all there is. In fact, it might only be the minor prelude to much greater existence.

That would change everything. Getting right with God becomes more important than earning money, power, fame, love – even getting great exam results.

total-perspective-vortex

The passage so beautifully read earlier becomes shows us the Christian perspective of hope.  We might be “hard pressed on all sides,” but these “light and momentary troubles” we experience here on earth “are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” So we should not fix our eyes on our earthly troubles, even though they might seem huge right now. Instead, fix your eyes on what is unseen: God. God is your eternity. Everything else will fall away and stop mattering.

—–

Don’t let any of these perspectives stop you from working hard. You owe it to yourselves, your teachers, your school and your family to do the best that you can. To gain some tangible evidence of all your hard work in recent years. But do use these perspectives to reduce your stress. When it all seems unbearable, and like the world might end for you, remember the bigger picture. And if you believe, remember the biggest picture of all.

Tradition

“Social traditions, Burke pointed out, are forms of knowledge. They contain the residues of many trials and errors, and the inherited solutions to problems that we all encounter… Destroy them heedlessly and you remove the guarantee offered by one generation to the next… In discussing tradition, we are not discussing arbitrary rules and conventions. We are discussing answers that have been discovered to enduring questions.”(Roger Scruton, ‘Conservatism’)

Photos:

1. Sanctuary of the Public Lares, Pompeii (1st century)

2. Banqueting House, London (17th century)

The Leonard Bast generation

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The BBC’s adaptation of Howards End, starting at 9pm tonight, is sure to be more than a niche period drama. For this novel speaks to us now just as pointedly as it spoke to England in 1910.  It was written for a nation where the opportunities of global expansion, business and material growth seemed to dominate – and for a society too busy to value anything else.  Sound familiar?

Male office worker eating lunch at computer

Office worker eating lunch at computer — Image by © David Burton/Corbis

If so, then pay close attention as E.M. Forster’s novel unfolds on the small screen.  It shows a cultural void that was opening then, and is even wider now.  For in a society that allows itself to value nothing more than commercialism, and interprets success in that light, human existence becomes grey and empty of what really matters for human flourishing.  And it happens without us noticing.  The cultured character Margaret Schlegel complains how easy it is to get sucked into the mindset: “I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.”  Margaret sees the danger and can avoid it, because her eyes are open to greater things.  She was lucky to receive through her education “a heritage that may expand gradually,” helping transcend the world’s utilitarian hurry.

Others are not so lucky, and in one particular character we should see a timely warning.  Leonard Bast is a tragedy of frustration. He senses that there must be more to life than work.  Yet, unversed in culture and ideas, he cannot put this sense into words. He desperately turns too late to self-education, but only fills his brain ‘with the husks of books’, unable to ‘go to the real thing’.  He continues a dull life, unfulfilled in spirit and ultimately rejected by a society that values utilitarian means and material outcomes.

Leonard could have been saved from a dreary existence – if only he had been educated earlier and deeper in what matters. Too late in life, he finally seeks culture and ideas to “push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe,” but “with an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood?  His brain might be full of names, he might even have heard of Monet and Debussy; the trouble was that he could not string them together into a sentence, he could not make them ‘tell’.” It is not enough for education to help us achieve outward, material comfort. It must improve the inner life too.

Thus E.M. Forster reminds us of the importance of an education full of meaningful art, moving literature, inspirational history, enlightening science.  Through which “by collisions of this trivial sort the heavens may be shaken open.” This is the kind of schooling promoted by liberal educator Matthew Arnold.  He wrote in Culture and Anarchy that students should know “on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” With this basic literacy of ideas and culture, they are free to flourish in personal as well as economic life.  They can avoid the fate that Forster warns us about: that of the businessman who is “eternally tired.  He has worked very hard all his life, and noticed nothing.” Or worse, the grey existence of Leonard Bast, “one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit.” And while we are at it: the fact that all this can be explored through the medium of a century-old novel surely proves the mind-expanding potential of a liberal education.

We have already seen that Leonard did not receive any of this.  Worse, today’s youngsters are not getting it either.  Our state education system seems completely caught up in the utilitarian hurry that Forster described in Edwardian England, and that we see all around us in the computerised information age.  It is at all levels implicitly directed towards material ends.  Parents, Ofsted and government understandably expect students to reach their academic potential as a preparation for gainful employment.  This expectation is enforced by the influence of league tables on parental choice, and the power of Ofsted to damage a school’s reputation or even to put it in special measures. School leaders therefore cannot afford to ignore what is measured: examination data.  And so they gear the entire school machine to ensure this data shows progress. In many schools, teachers’ jobs depend on the performance of their students at GCSE and A-Level.  Whatever their personal ambitions to enhance general flourishing, teachers find themselves forced by circumstance to point all their time and effort at exam proficiency.  And the eventual goal of all this?  The reductive, utilitarian push towards employment is inescapable.

The difference between these two approaches is subtle. A utilitarian history lesson on the Peasants’ Revolt might still include a dramatic narrative to pick out the most exciting moments. Maybe pupils will get to enjoy John Ball’s revolutionary speech in full, asking “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” But they will too quickly have to turn to analysing the mark scheme at every point, practising the skills of source analysis, or re-writing parts of their last essay in green pen to prove to a senior observer that examinable progress has been made. Adding more or wider knowledge is not valued in itself as precious and life enhancing – only insofar as it will gain more marks.  In many schools it will not be valued very highly at all: in the most ‘progressive’ classrooms, ‘teacher talk’ is frowned upon. Students are encouraged to discover information (inevitably less effectively) for themselves, or have it imparted in roundabout ways designed to develop generalised skills. Young people might be better prepared for the workplace this way, but it comes at the cost of a deeper and more coherent grasp of the web of humanity.

Not to say that examination grades are unimportant. But they should not be the goal. We can see a good analogy of this in the way Leonard Bast tries desperately to make meaningful conversation, but succeeds only in naming books and authors. He knows the minimum to get by, but has such a generally impoverished general understanding that he cannot grapple with the writers’ ideas.  “No disrespect to these great names.  The fault is ours, not theirs.  They mean us to use them for signposts, and are not to blame if, in our weakness, we mistake the signpost for the destination.”  In our weakness, we have fetishised measurable exam outcomes so much that grades are now the destination. In fact, they would be better seen as signposts, to signal a certain standard on the route to a full education in the things that matter.

In their hurry to signal exam competence to future employers, today’s students “collect facts… but which of them will rekindle the light within?”  They are at best only vaguely aware of ‘the best which has been thought and said’: the great human conversation through the ages. They are likely to finish their schooling ready for employment, but grasping unaided for deeper personal fulfilment. For as long as we continue to treat exam grades and employment as the primary goal of education, we risk creating a whole generation of Leonard Basts.

All the wisdom not on Google

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It is often suggested that we now have access to all the world’s knowledge through the internet.  This is said or implied so frequently that I find myself seeing Google not as a supplement to my once-favoured libraries, but as an alternative to them.  The information and wisdom that previously would have been found within books is now available at the click of a mouse.

A happy afternoon of serendipitous discoveries in the British Library reminded me why this view is wrong.  This huge institution receives a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom: about 184,000 each year.  The contents of these books largely do not exist on the internet.  A Google search will not reveal the full information they contain.  So if you think we can rely on finding everything we need online, then you will miss most of the conversations between author and reader that are happening every day.

The British Library, in London’s St. Pancras

You might argue that this does not matter, because the most important ideas will be brought out of those books and discussed elsewhere too: in newspapers, magazines, blogs, television and radio.  You could find evidence of all this on the internet, and therefore do not need to worry about missing the books themselves.  Surely this is enough for the lay person.

I disagree, because it is not just the current conversation that you would be missing.  The British Library’s total stock comprises more than 25 million books.  The further back in time a book was published, the less you are to find its contents on the web — even with the laudable efforts being made to digitise the most venerable of our ancient tomes.  These books, accessible in libraries but not via Google, let you see the world from long-forgotten perspectives.  They can lift you above the inward-looking concerns of the 21st century, and let you see our modern life again, as if from the outside.

This post is partly an excuse to share an example which I think neatly illustrates my point.  In today’s 180-character political arguments, we tend to regard patriotism as the hobby of jingoistic reactionaries who wish we could return to a fantasy past of red phone boxes, grammar schools and imperial measures.  But during my afternoon in the British Library I happened upon a speech that is more helpful.  It shows how we might channel patriotism and tradition to help us flourish in changing circumstances, without getting stuck in the ways of the past.  It is a view that we do not tend to hear in our daily peregrinations across digital and social media.  Nor is it a speech that you could have found online; at least I could not find it even by entering direct quotes into Google, or by searching with related terms or exact details.  Yet it is hugely relevant for us now, as we rethink how Britain should re-form itself as an independent nation after Brexit.

By typing the speech into this blog post, I am immortalising it for our internet age.  In future, a lucky browser could find these words.  But I also hope that this entry will inspire you to wonder what else might be found in those dusty old books beyond the internet.

Extract from a speech by Lord Rosebery to the Seaforth Highlanders, circa 1931*:

A great past is the inspiration of the present.  Memories are among man’s finest possessions.  A splendid achievement never dies.  It lives on in the memory of one generation after another, and it fructifies in the hearts of men, becoming the parent of other fine deeds.  

A boy goes to school and a man joins a regiment, and at once they are faced with the obligation to carry on the traditions.  To allow today to be unworthy of yesterday is shameful.  If their admiration is stirred by recalling what has been done, their ambition is also roused to be worthy to be counted among the giants of the past.  It is for them to hand along the record to the next comer unsullied, and maybe with added lustre.  

Tradition is the basis of patriotism.  Great Britain is no mere island on the west coast of Europe.  It is not only the place where we ourselves happen to live.  It was the birthplace of mighty heroes, great poets, splendid statesmen, who made England and the English famous in the world.  It is for us to maintain what our forefathers have won.  It is for us to be jealous for their and our country’s good name.

But traditions may be a hindrance as well as an inspiration.   It is the spirit that matters.  Rigid adherence to the letter means disaster.  Each generation must discover its own methods.  The lives of those who have gone before teach us that success depends on thoroughness, industry, enterprise, experiment.  

These all remain necessary.  But if we stand content with the out-of-date machinery of life, urging as a plea that it was ‘good enough for our fathers’, we are making failure certain and are prostituting their memory, because we are using tradition to cloak lack of courage, lack of initiative, lack of persistence!  When the next naval battle is fought, if it ever be fought, it will be splendid to recall the spirit of Nelson and Nelson’s men, but it would be absurd to fight it in Nelson’s ships.

* Quoted in Lewis C. Rudd, 1935: The Duke of York’s Royal Military School: Its History, Aims and Associations.  This Lord Rosebery was Harry Primrose, 6th Earl of Rosebery (lived 1882-1974) – son of Archibald Primrose, the 5th earl and Liberal Prime Minister from 1894-1895.  He served in WW1 as a Grenadier Guards officer, played as a professional cricketer, represented Edinburghshire as a Liberal MP, and served as Secretary of State for Scotland.

Silence

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For twenty seconds now, try doing absolutely nothing. Don’t move. Don’t speak. Don’t fiddle with your phone or with your keys. Absolutely nothing. Experience complete silence.

Difficult, isn’t it? If that’s the first time you have experienced silence in a while, then this piece is for you.

I first shared these words as a school chapel talk, where our reading was from 1 Kings 19.  That chapter illustrates the power of silence amid chaos. The story begins with Elijah standing alone on a bleak mountainside, awaiting God.

Think about the terror this implies. Nowadays we are more used to regarding Christianity as offering some kind of comfort. C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity reminds us otherwise:

“[God] is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again… Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger.”

Meeting God, when you really think about it, is a terrifying prospect. If Elijah was expecting God to be terrifying, then what came next matched the description. Waiting for God, nature around him suddenly burst into chaos. He cowered to witness a hurricane, an earthquake and a firestorm. Rocks broke before his eyes, the very earth shook, and flames raged onwards.

And then nothing. After the fire came “a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah realised that powerful though God was, he could only be heard in the silence.

I think we can treat Elijah’s story as an allegory: one that applies to our lives today.

Sometimes we allow rage to drive us. Like the wind and the quake and the fire, we let our anger out and expect that whirlwind to change things. I’m sure you can think of such a situation in your own home or school life.

Those who believe in God find themselves railing against the injustice of the world too: why doesn’t God stop all the suffering? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that he feels the same. Indeed, that rage is a regular part of his prayers. He explained, “You see psalms where the psalmist cries out against God with an anger that we would never dream of in our churches. And it’s right, it’s the right way to talk to God in those moments.”

But then, just like Elijah found, after all the raging comes the silence where God is found. Justin Welby says, “When that happens, God is there…. In the moments when I’ve wanted to get away from God, like a child running away from a parent I find myself embraced in arms of love that are more powerful than I am.”

In modern life we certainly have the rage. But do we have enough of the silence that follows it? What can we learn from Christianity?

Christianity has a long history of seeking God in the silence. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book Silence: A Christian History tells us of those who quietly looked inward before advancing into the world around them. Some early Christians perhaps went too far. For example, the hermits who retreated deep into the Saharan desert. Or the Syrian stylites, who actually lived their whole lives sitting alone on top of a tall pillar.

Some ancient non-Christians took silence to extremes too. The Athenian philosopher Diogenes the Cynic spent much of his time living a life of contemplation inside a barrel. His reputation impressed Alexander the Great, who was at that time king and leader of the world’s biggest empire. Alexander came to visit Diogenes, and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Imagine that. A military conqueror so great that we still remember him nearly two and a half thousand years later. Visiting one poor and humble philosopher. And do you know how Diogenes replied to this dream offer? “Yes,” he said. “There is one thing. You can get out of my sunlight.”

Even if some take the notion of silence too far, that just goes to emphasise its spiritual power. Silence is where spiritual growth happens. In the fourth century a Christian theologian Evagrius was caught sleeping with the wife of a senior official in Constantinople. He fled the city. This Evagrius certainly had a lot of turmoil to think about. He later wrote that silence helped him explore those troubling inner thoughts: first it gave him serenity, and then knowledge. In that silence, he was redirected back on to the right path. He is now remembered in history by the name ‘Evagrius the Solitary’.

I recently spent a year living in a theological college, where priests are trained to join the Church of England. For a few days in Advent, we ‘retreated’ – not away from each other, but into silence. It was silence together. We ate together, prayed together, and enjoyed each other’s company while sharing the life of contemplation. Silence need not be lonely. We all came out of the Advent retreat closer, humbler and more thoughtful about our beliefs and actions.

I think all of us can enjoy the benefits of silence. It challenges you like the stereotypical psychiatrist in his chair, patiently just listening while we reveal not just our thoughts but our thoughts about our thoughts. C.S. Lewis again, in his satirical Screwtape Letters warns of all those times we mistake our own motives: when what we told ourselves were good deeds, actually turn out on closer inspection to be self-serving. Only where we have the space and time to carefully study our thoughts can we possibly realise this. While the hectic world is spinning with all its rage and busyness, there is no time to look inwards at ourselves. But we need it if we are going to do the right thing.

Silence can be disturbing. Last year I taught in a school where an unusually high proportion of the students came from deprived backgrounds. Usually we teachers ask for periods of silence in the classroom, because it helps you think clearly without distraction. But in that school, I was advised not to risk silence, because the students were not used to it. Being left alone with their troubled thoughts for the first time might panic them.

It sounds unbelievable that those students had really never dwelt in silence. Bur we know that in modern life it is increasingly difficult to obtain it. There is always something to occupy our minds. Even when we think we have silence, say when we are alone in our rooms, or even out in the fresh air, still we feel the urge to check our phones and our social media – a kind of inner noise caused by our impatience.

You do not have to be a Christian, or even a believer in God to benefit from silence. Taking the time to judge our own inner motivations, and to think carefully helps us choose the right path whether God is there or not. Mindfulness, a kind of meditation, is increasingly popular in business and schools, and enthusiasts report benefits that continue long after the silence ends.

By the way, silence does not stop us seeking positive change in the world, or for ourselves. Elijah is spurred into action after his silent encounter with God. He takes God’s message back out into the world. But before he did that, he needed silence. Only once the raging terrors had stopped was he able to hear God speaking to him, to find out what was right.

So whatever you believe, silence is the place where we find answers, see our real selves and prepare for what needs to be done. And maybe it is the place where we meet God.

Bach’s passionate challenge

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Lots of us find Bach enchanting. His mathematically complex music seems to satisfy a dual need for order and feeling. So I booked a ticket to hear his St John Passion performed in the glorious Sheldonian Theatre last night, fully expecting to be moved.

I got something more. It was the first time that I have really paid close attention to the words. I heard that familiar story of Jesus’ trial and execution, but found that the soaring music amplified its meaning to send a shiver down the spine. A spiritual challenge, but a joy too.

If you have time today, then ignore all other distractions and join Bach to meditate on some of this:

“My soul, think how a heavenward-guiding flower springs from the thorns that pierce the Saviour’s head. Consider in anxious relief, in bitter joy, with a heart torn between grief and consolation, how his suffering is your most precious treasure.”

History is valuable. Don’t let students censor it.

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History. That shared memory, sustained by the written word and whispered back to life by its remnants all around us. Did you know, as you stand with your Friday pint of craft beer upon the pavements of Southwark, that William the Conqueror’s men were burning, raping and killing on that very spot nearly one thousand years ago? Or that another thousand years earlier, Roman settlers prayed and traded and loved on a crossroads where you now ponder your own week? Do you think about how the Elizabethans – not so different from us – enjoyed the darkly unsavoury life on this freer side of the Thames? These people lived in the past, but they are right beside you. What does the separation of time matter, when you share the same space with your ancestors?  If you are aware of history then you can enjoy the present even more.

Bomb damage to Bank tube station.

Bomb damage to Bank tube station on 11th January 1941, which killed 111 people. Here it is merged with the same spot today.

Yes, I am being romantic. But not too romantic. This aesthetic experience of the past is a real phenomenon. In his book The Aesthetic Brain, neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee describes how “bringing knowledge to bear on whatever we are looking at has a huge impact on our experience of seeing.”  Specifically, we find the experience more rewarding:

“Late visual processing recognizes objects and the meanings and memories and associations triggered by these objects. Along the way from sensations to meaning, emotion and reward systems are activated.”

Antler comb, 10th-11th century. British Museum

Antler comb from the British Museum. 10th-11th Century.

History adds this meaning, and we love it. The British Museum attracts seven million visitors each year, yet it contains mostly everyday objects. We do not usually take much interest in combs, but the one pictured above is different. There is nothing visually exciting about it. Its aesthetic value lies in its provenance: it belonged to someone living in the 11th century. And so this comb sits proudly inside a glass case at the British Museum, to be viewed at our pleasure. We find it rewarding to see simple objects knowing they passed through the hands of our forebears.

Portrait of John Ruskin

Portrait of John Ruskin in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

Even things which are beautiful in themselves can gain added value from historical meaning. For example, look at the little portrait pictured above. It depicts Victorian art critic John Ruskin, and holds two levels of fascination. First, examine its surface features, and it is a beautiful painting. The artist, John Everett Millais, took care not just to represent Ruskin himself, but also to achieve absolute realism in his rendering of the rocks and water that make up his surroundings. The result is perhaps more pleasing than reality itself. This is not all, though. It gets better. The second level of fascination lies in the peculiar history of this portrait. The artist described painting it as “the most hateful task I have ever had to perform.” The reason? During the many hours spent finishing the fine details, the artist Millais had fallen in love with John Ruskin’s wife, Effie. Sitting in the same room as this man who had vocally and financially supported his struggling beginnings as an artist, Millais was left to ponder the dark betrayal he was about to inflict by destroying his marriage and taking Effie for himself. Everyone involved in the affair is long dead, but this portrait remains. It was there, its very brushstrokes moved by perfidious hands. We are left viewing the same portrait as before. But this time mere historical knowledge has enhanced our experience of it.

Being near the objects our predecessors touched is the closest we can get to meeting them in person. Places too. The Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy once described himself as a kind of ‘ghost-seer’. The same expression appears in his writing, to describe those who dwell in romantic connection with the past. Reading the way Hardy renders yesteryear into near-poetry, it is hard to resist becoming a ghost-seer oneself. He describes the experience of first seeing Oxford’s medieval architecture:

“The saints and prophets in the window-tracery, the paintings in the galleries, the statues, the busts, the gargoyles, the corbel-heads – these seemed to breathe his atmosphere. Like all new comers to a spot on which the past is deeply graven he heard that past announcing itself with an emphasis altogether unsuspected by, and even incredible to, the habitual residents.”

History is everywhere. As Peter Ackroyd writes in his new history, “There is scarcely one spot in England that does not contain memorials of an ancient past.”  But knowledge is the thing. We need knowledge to experience its allure. The late historian Arthur Marwick underlines the importance of history by appealing to the emptiness of life without it:

Without knowledge of the past we would be without identity, we would be lost on an endless sea of time. The simplest answer to the question, ‘What is the use of history?’ is: “Try to imagine what it would be like to live in a society where there was absolutely no knowledge of the past.’ The mind boggles.”

None of us has a comprehensive historical knowledge which would enrich our experience of every place we visit. That is why we have statues, memorials and blue plaques. They gift us that knowledge, adding meaning and enhancement to otherwise plain spaces. We are enriched.

Must Rhodes fall?

A disturbing student movement puts this enrichment at risk. With a 2,500-signature petition, the group Rhodes Must Fall seeks to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. They claim that its presence is “an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism… As long as the statue remains, Oriel College and Oxford University continue to tacitly identify with Rhodes’s values, and to maintain a toxic culture of domination and oppression.”  The principle is that we should censor these representations of history to prove we have moved on from it.

Oriel College Oxford High Street facade

The statue (top) which ‘openly glorifies’ a ‘racist and bloody project’.

It would be a dangerous precedent. History is full of imperfect characters who deserve destruction under the same principle. We commemorate them with statues, memorials and plaques all over the country. But for the most part these statues were erected by admirers long dead. So their survival does not imply continued endorsement of their actions or philosophies. Instead, they serve a different purpose now. Even though those men and women who were respected in their own time might look bigoted to modern eyes, knowledge of them adds depth and texture to our experience of the history-infused world around us.

We have lived through a period of censorship not dissimilar to the kind proposed by Rhodes Must Fall. During the 16th Century Reformation, churches were sacked to enforce conformity with the new theology. Gloriously coloured windows smashed, sublime artwork burned, and precious tombs vandalised. We mourn that destruction now. Just when we could be enjoying a profound link with the beauty of our ancient past, we find that long-forgotten politics has snatched it from us.

Much better to live with our history. Today’s peaceful and prosperous existence is the unlikely result of a long, juddering journey. Representations of our imperfect past remind us of that, and enhance our present. Leave Rhodes standing. And everyone else for that matter.

The inequality of Facebook?

Here’s a dilemma. Why do we worry about economic inequality? Some argue that it is psychologically harmful to have a large gap between the richest and the poorest. It causes status anxiety. This kind of anxiety leads to social problems too. (See the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone for this argument.) So what matters is the size of the gap, not just whether the poorest have their basic needs met.

Does this gap have to exist in reality for it to be harmful? What if it is only perceived? If we think that other people have a higher status than we do, then we become anxious about it. We might turn out to be wrong, but at that point it is too late to avoid the anxiety we felt earlier.

Look at your Facebook news feed. All those photographs of expensive dinners. The weddings, engagements and babies. Parties and perfect-looking friendships. Facebook presents a polished version of our friends’ lives. The reality is probably more up and down, but it is mostly the ups that are posted on Facebook.

We therefore perceive a wider inequality. Unequal because our Facebook friends seem happier, more successful, less troubled than we are. It is irrelevant that they are not the same in reality. It does not matter if in secret they live lives more like our own. We feel status anxiety nonetheless.

Below I link to a study that suggests this effect is real. People are happier without Facebook, and it seems to be because they stop comparing their own lives with the synthetically polished lives of their friends. So should we start worrying about social media inequality alongside economic inequality? If not, then to be consistent do we need to drop the ‘status anxiety’ argument as a good reason for fighting economic inequality?

The study: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/health/mental-health/article4610644.ece