Trivial Reflections

Yesterday I spent a few minutes studying the features of a man who lived and died more than 4,000 years ago — one of the amazing reconstructions made possible by developments in forensic anatomy. As I did so, I wondered whether he had ever seen his own face with the clarity with which I was able to. I know next to nothing about the history of mirrors but have a vague idea that, in these islands, polished stone and discs of bronze were used quite early on. They were better than staring into a pool or bowl of water, but I don’t know whether such mirrors were the preserve of the rich or more generally available. The image reflected back by any of these methods would probably have been dim, perhaps distorted by the wind in the case of water, or flaws in the surface or angle of the light falling on it in the case of stone or bronze.

My 4,000 year old man did not see daily, and in close-up, the changes to his face as we can see the changes to our own. Did that affect his sense of self, I wonder? Did not knowing what he looked like in detail affect the way he viewed the world and his own place in it? My blind and visually impaired friends vary in what they say about not being able to see themselves as I am able to see myself, so I am left pondering. We take a modicum of self-knowledge for granted, at least at the physical level. Delving below the surface to our thoughts and feelings is infinitely more complex. As we grow older, we may grow in insight; but not always. Like St Paul, we can find ourselves wanting to do the right thing but failing again and again.

We do not know what our 4,000 year old compatriot thought or felt. We have only his skeleton, a few grave goods, and his reconstructed head. He lived a hard life and died in his late teens or early twenties, perhaps from malnutrition. We do not know whom or what he worshipped, whether he had children, how he was perceived by his contemporaries. But we do know the most important thing of all. He was a man. He was human like us. And on a day when the popular press was howling with rage about Peter Sutcliffe and his unspeakable crimes, it was good to remember that. I prayed for my unknown man, as I prayed for Peter Sutcliffe, his victims, and all who bear the scars of his monstrous behaviour. Judgement I’ll leave to God.

Audio version


12 thoughts on “Trivial Reflections”

  1. Thank you Dame Catherine.Such a rich reflection ( no pun intended) and so important at a time when respect for the complexity of the human mind and heart seems in short supply. Thank you for your prayers for these two people, our brothers in Christ.

  2. I bear scars (one of his victims was my best friend at University) and am eternally grateful for your prayers. The ricochet in my own life of his actions then continues to this day, 41 years later. I will try again to pray for him. I have tried and failed to date and that failure feels like another way his actions continue to affect all his victims.
    P.S. my low opinion of the press also stems from experiences then. Howling indeed, now as then. For all the wrong reasons. Sad.

    • Praying for you, Gaye. I think the fact that you try to pray for him as well as for his victims is a great grace. Please don’t judge yourself if you feel you can’t. The willingness is the important element, and the fact that others (like me, for example) can pray is important, too. We are members of the Communion of Saints, which means I can pray when you can’t; and you can pray when I can’t. We go to God together.

  3. Much away here from the topic of your blog – but I always feel a little uncomfortable about these people dug up, reconstructed, and in some cases, put on display – when presumably they thought they have been forever laid to rest. It’s one of the reasons I want to be cremated: so that nothing unexpected can happen to my remains, when I no longer have autonomy to give consent.
    I try to reassure myself that these people, are, well dead – and beyond such cares, but… they were still people. If the idea of being dragged from my grave bothers me so much, maybe it would bother them and whatever beliefs they may have held do.

    Naturally, you can imagine how this gets my knickers in a twist if I imagine too much what the resurrection of the dead might be like! I try to assume that us one of those things best left just to God to understand… and try not to think about it too hard. (Being a scientifically minded Christian is sometimes, so hard! :D)

    • I’ve never liked it, either. Have you read Carolyn Walker Bynum on the subject of the resurrection of the body? There’s a new, expanded edition of her The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (American Lectures on the History of Religions) that we’ll be getting for the library as the earlier edition was so worthwhile.

Comments are closed.