5 November for Catholics

I don’t know whether they still burn effigies of the pope in Lewes (I imagine it now constitutes religious hatred and contravenes some law or other), but I know one Catholic who will thoroughly enjoy any bonfire or fireworks on offer tonight. Guy Fawkes is no longer a bogeyman. Historical distance allows us to smile at his misplaced zeal and make jokes about his having had the right idea about blowing up Parliament. Some try to make him sound more ‘relevant’ or ‘contemporary’ by calling him a ‘Catholic Jihadist’, but I think that is to misunderstand the politics and religion of the seventeenth century. Personally, I feel sorry for Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. I don’t approve of what they tried to do, but their deaths were ugly; and the legacy they bequeathed, that Catholics are not really to be trusted, has lingered long.

So, how shall I mark 5 November here in the monastery? It happens to be the day when we say the Office of the Dead for all our deceased relatives, friends and benefactors. In praying for the dead, we are asking for their sins to be forgiven, for them to be purified of any remaining imperfection. As far as I know, I don’t have any personal connection with Fawkes or any of the other twelve Gunpowder Plot conspirators, but I shall pray for the forgiveness of their sins; and I shall do so as a loyal Englishwoman, because at the heart of today’s commemoration is a painful paradox. Each of us has many loyalties that, to outsiders, may seem competing but which in an individual are resolved and unified.  5 November is a reminder of this complexity and a challenge to any simplistic categorisation of others.

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Prejudice and Fear

Last night I listened to part of the World Service and learned that another Catholic church in Nigeria had been burned to the ground by Islamist extremists. It reminded me that when I last saw Mother Charles of Enugu (a Benedictine community of nuns) she remarked, very quietly, that she was expecting her community to be martyred. Expected it! I think we in the west sometimes forget that our fear of a terrorist attack, though real, is light years removed from the daily reality of many Christians in Africa, India and the Middle East.

As the fireworks burned and blazed last night in memory of 5 November, I couldn’t help reflecting that very little has changed in over four hundred years. The name of the enemy may have changed, but we continue to be afraid of the ‘other’. Whether we live in Nigeria or New Jersey, London or Lagos, we feel our vulnerability. The only difference is that we in the west have security forces which devote considerable time and energy to trying to keep us safe, irrespective of our opinions and beliefs. Perhaps today we could remember all those who don’t enjoy that kind of security, who fear the corruption of police or army and who live with an ever-present fear of being bombed or butchered by their fellow citizens.

 

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