Persecution Great and Small: St Agatha’s Day 2015

To persecute is to follow someone to the very end with ruthlessness and malice. It is an ugly word for an ugly concept. Sadly, it is as much a feature of life in the twenty-first century as in any other. Today, on the feast of St Agatha, we may think of the stately procession of virgin martyrs along the north wall of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo or the gruesome details of her martyrdom safely contained in the Latin of her passio or the antiphons at Vespers of her feast. We do not think of the blood or the torment or the sheer brutality of her end. In effect, we sanitise the account of her death.

St Agnes and St Agatha from Sant' Apollinare Nuovo: image copyright © Genevra Kornbluth
St Agnes and St Agatha from Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

I wonder whether we do something of the same with the contemporary persecution of Christians. Occasionally, the media will alert us to the horrors of what is happening to the Christians of Mosul, say, or to an individual such as Asia Bibi; but apart from a few fleeting images and a temporary place in the headlines, the subject is quickly forgotten. We dutifully pray and do our best to lobby those who could actually do something to help, but we do not like to dwell on the details of what life is like for those for whom we are praying. We may even reflect that we are virtually back in the days of the Decian Persecution, where Christians are of no account and often enemies of the brave new world others seek to create. We are hopeless and helpless (though we would never care to admit as much).

Personally, I don’t feel either hopeless or helpless, even though I have no power to influence anyone of any political consequence. I feel a great responsibility for my fellow Christians undergoing such agony. The problem for me, as for many others, is what can I do in addition to praying?  I would suggest we can learn from today’s martyr the importance of living a life of great purity — not in the narrowly sexual sense, but in the sense that we try to live the values we proclaim. If we decry persecution, we must examine our own consciences. Is there anyone we are hard on, whom we treat with less courtesy or consideration than another? That may not sound like persecution to you, but we can only persecute those we consider to be less important than ourselves. The origin of this particular evil of persecution lies in contempt. How easy it is to slide unknowingly into a contemptuous attitude towards others, and how quickly a small sin can become a large one!

Note on the illustration
Photograph of part of the north wall of Sant’ Apoliinare Nuovo © Genevra


Grudges, Grouches and Grumbles

The three ‘g’s — grudges, grouches and grumbles — are best avoided if we want a long and happy life. Constantly harping on old hurts or finding the proverbial fly in the ointment is a sure way of distancing other people and making oneself miserable at the same time. St Benedict’s frequent exhortation to avoid grumbling was not a matter of quietistic ‘put up and shut up’ (which could lead to the perpetration of the most hideous wrongs) but recognition of a psychological and spiritual truth. Memory and will are closely linked. A sense of grievance often has the unhappy effect of binding us in the past, in a situation we cannot change (because it is past) but which determines our present and future. It is a kind of moral blight, stunting growth.

Yesterday many people in Britain remembered the events of World War I in moving ceremonies redolent of Holy Week Tenebrae services. There was regret, penitence even; gratitude and pride; predominantly, perhaps, a poignant sense of waste — so many lives lost, and ultimately, for what? I very much doubt whether anyone used the language I occasionally heard from the lips of my grandparents’ generation about ‘the filthy Bosch’ or ‘the Hun’. Yesterday’s insults, like yesterday’s enmities, lay silent in death.

This morning, however, we must face the reality of today’s hatreds and fears. What will become of the Christians forced to flee from the Middle East, most recently from Mosul? Will the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel lead to anything like peace? Nearer home, how will the preparations for the Scottish referendum proceed? It is easy to say, let go of your grudges, forget the ancestral myths, don’t be chained by your history, real or imagined. Easy to say, but not easy to do. I take heart, however, from this fact: we may not forget the past, but we can allow it to be redeemed. What works at the individual level can work — if we are willing — at the level of peoples and nation states. If yesterday’s commemorations taught us anything, they taught us the price to be paid for human folly and malice. A grudge may seem a very little thing, but it can set the whole world on fire.