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.