28 Aug 22, 22nd of the Year
Before starting at seminary to train to be a priest, I spent two months at a monastery on the outskirts of Prague, thanks to a friend of mine who had introduced me to the monks there. I was there to help out in whatever way I could and in theory to learn something of the Czech language, though that bit didn’t go at all well. One of my tasks was to act as tour guide to the girls’ choir of Blackburn Cathedral who, by coincidence, were staying at the same monastery while touring the area and singing at Masses and some concerts. One day we were getting on the trams from outside the monastery and before we got on, I explained that if an elderly person got on there would be a clear expectation that the girls should stand up. While this is always considered good manners, in Prague they’d be told off if they didn’t. The girls giggled and thought, of course, I was exaggerating. Needless to say at the second stop of the tram, an elderly woman got on and the members of the English cathedral choir were yack-yacking away and hadn’t noticed her get on. They didn’t stand up for her or offer her a chair and nor did they notice my motioning towards them to do so. They’d been warned because said little old lady started shrieking at them in Czech and waving her stick at them and they quickly moved then.
Where you are sitting takes on an (unexpected perhaps) significance in the words of our Lord in today’s Gospel: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take your seat in the place of honour.” It seems silly almost doesn’t it? To make the choice of seat a morally significant question. “Father, forgive me for I have sinned because I sat in the wrong place,” doesn’t sound like a sensible confession. There is a danger, however, that we neglect these small decisions in life which are significant. There’s a danger that we read the Ten Commandments and think, “Well, I’ve never murdered anyone, I’ve never committed adultery and I only tell lies when I have to so I’ve never really done anything wrong.” The bottom up approach, beginning with the small things when examining our life can be fruitful, hence the Church bids us each day to examine ourselves, especially at the end of the day.
There’s a lovely tradition, which I understand is kept in Poland still to this day, of keeping a spare place at the Christmas table in case someone extra turns up. So if you knew you were going to be seven at lunch you’d lay eight places. It might need adapting to our situation of making sure there’s a place left on the sofa or even on the bed depending on where we eat. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without realising it,” (13:1-2).
As Christians we should have a mindset that is always thinking about who is the weakest person in our midst. When we walk in to Church it’s very good for us to say a prayer for whoever’s going to enter who is most upset, most in need, most worried, most in danger of being isolated. It’s not a competition, but if we have an awareness that there will be such a person and they may be unknown to us, it’s the first step to serving them. This mindset also prevents us from falling in to the trap of thinking we have the worst lot in life and no one else’s needs in life can possibly as bad.
One instance where people quite clearly forget about other people’s potential needs, and especially those of the weakest, is the bus: spritely teenagers right through to the spritely middle aged folk sitting in the front rows of the bus which should be kept for the elderly, those with mobility issues and those with young children. (There’s a great danger I’ll get in to a Victor Meldrew rant about this subject because it’s one that really does surprise and annoy me.) One excuse people have often reasoned through in their minds is “I’ll move if I need to.” Well, it’s not good enough: because when the person comes along they may just say, “No need,” or you may just not notice them. It’s also worth bearing in mind that we don’t just leave the front seats free if we’re strong enough so as to create material benefit for others, we do it so as to become empathetic, appreciating and oriented towards the needs of others.
Here in Church we face similar decisions: where to sit? It’s worth remembering no one has a seat which is their’s or “where I always sit.” When we walk in to Church it’s as if no one has ever been here before, this is a new encounter. Such earthly considerations should not feature in our minds as we enter the house of God, as we’re reminded in our second reading from Hebrews 12. It’s a beautiful reflection on our life when we come together as Christians: “What you have come to is nothing known to the senses,” this isn’t about bodily comfort, we don’t pass round choc-ices during the interval, this is coming to “Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of Heaven.” This isn’t some description of future Heavenly glory, the point is that this is what the Christian experiences here and now when gathering with other Christians to worship God. So, let’s not consider our own comfort when we gather: think of the needs of others, and think of the uncreated beauty we will observe, communicated through the things of this world. Practically this means that it’s helpful if those who are late can sit at the back so that they are not embarrassed by their late arrival and can just slip in without distraction. Equally it might be that someone who struggles to walk comes in after you and would be glad of a space on the back few rows to collapse in to easily.
Our Lord gives us useful practical insight, as always and that is to remember that someone more important might come in after us. There’s a great temptation, especially if we’re rushing around that we get on to bus or in to Church or joining queue at McDonalds and we think, ‘Right, I’ve arrived … Need to wait … Check phone … Don’t miss stop.” etc etc. We don’t stop to think, “Gosh, someone else might come after me. Some more important than me.” There’s an assumption that the party can start now I’m here, no time given to remembering to ensure the person who comes next is welcome too.
This awareness of the presence of others and an appreciation of the needs of others comes under the umbrella of empathy. St Theresa Benedicta, whom we celebrated in the Church’s calendar earlier this month, wrote a lot about empathy. Sympathy is when we say to someone, “There, there, it will be alright. How can I help?” Empathy forms a deeper union with others because it seeks to appreciate what it’s like to be that person. St Theresa was a university professor before becoming a nun and wrote her doctoral thesis on this subject. She reminds us that we are able to connect with human beings in a way we are not able to connect with others. We may love our cat or our dog but we don’t really have any idea what it’s like to be one, though we might joke they have an easy old life! A shared humanity, however, gives us a sufficiently solid shared starting point that we can begin to imagine what it might be like to be so-and-so over there.
It’s difficult though because there are differences to how we each think, to the experiences we’ve had and the assumptions we make. And it’s much easier for us just to think like us, to assume everyone else thinks like us, and to not bother with them if we discover they think differently. But this is not the example Jesus gives us in humbling Himself and emptying Himself for us so as to die for the ungodly. Labelling other people with tags is barrier to seeking to understand them because the label makes us think we know already what they’re like.
One way we learn whether we are empathetic or not is how we respond when others tell us good news or bad news which deeply impacts them but not us. Can we appreciate their feelings and start sharing in them or do we just mechanically say, “Oh, that’s great,” or “Oh, that’s terrible.” One barrier to emphasising with others in this regard can be our own loneliness and general wellbeing. When we fell unsupported or lonely or isolated or insecure it can be harder to reach out in compassion to others because all we can cope with our own problems. We end up not really giving a fig whether the person we speak to is happy or sad we just want to say how we’re feeling, what’s going on in our life. We can spend a lot of time with people and still be lonely.
Those who observed St Theresa Benedicta’s life believed it was her ability to be silent which meant she was actually empathetic with people. She could come across, it is said, as cold or stand-offish but this silence meant she could listen to others and the desire to listen to others meant she could in turn spend vast lengths of time in silent prayer. In this prayer she devoutly believed she became not only closer to her Saviour but also to His people. When we gather in private, silent prayer before Mass or after Mass or whenever we’re in church and able to do so, may we know that it is melting our hearts to know the will of the Lord but also the needs of others. May we be attentive to them and seek to be humble before the needs of those who will arrive after us. Amen.