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.

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Unholy Glee

Yesterday the BBC published a report about two, or possibly three, rhino poachers who had been killed and eaten by a pride of lions in the Subaya Game Reserve, South Africa (see Most commentators treated the matter with some levity: the poachers had got their just deserts, and there was much gleeful repetition of some of the details, like hats being found together with an abandoned rifle and an axe. I must admit to having been made uneasy by the reaction. I don’t condone poaching, and although I can see that there might be a glimmer of humour in finding those empty hats because it is the stuff of story-book and fable, it is a macabre humour at best and out of place in real life. We are talking about human beings who met a terrifying death. The fact that they were poaching an endangered species is not really the point. My guess is that the men were poor, driven by the need to feed their families in any way they could and lured by the money the traffickers in rhino horn promised. Even if they were big game hunters — the kind who go to Africa to plunder her wildlife, then pose next to their kill with sickening self-importance, as though they had done a good and brave act — even if they were such, my response would be the same. Human life is precious. We do not rejoice in death. Maybe something died alongside those men yesterday, a little more of our humanity. I hope I am wrong. Let us pray for them and for their families who face an even bleaker future now that they are gone.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Eco Approach

Anything and everything (except sin, of course) can reflect the beauty and holiness of God. The trouble is, we tend to substitute the beauty and holiness of things for the beauty and holiness of God. Even in a monastery, you can find people so determined to save the earth that they overlook or undervalue the importance of persons. I find that troubling. It is a reminder that any good cause can take over our lives, giving us a lop-sided view of things. Yes, let us do all we can to preserve the beauty of earth and sky, rivers and seas; let us do all we can to preserve the biodiversity of the planet; but let’s not forget that there is only one creature made in the image and likeness of God.

To preserve our humanity in the face of all that militates against it is also an ‘ecological endeavour’, one on which much of the future of the planet depends. If that sounds a bit pompous, this question may make my meaning clearer: unless we work together to roll back the consequences of some of our more stupid actions, can the earth recover of itself? We (most of us) accept that we are the problem. May we not also be the solution?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Heritage Security

People matter more than things, agreed; but no one watching the turbulence in Egypt can be indifferent to what has happened at the Cairo Museum. The damage to the mummies and the loss of precious artefacts recalls the terrible loss of material in Iraq or, a couple of decades earlier, in Lebanon. Yet, to many of our commentators, the effect on oil prices and speculation about the political consequences of what looks increasingly like the fall of the Mubarak regime is what matters.

For much of the twentieth century we in Europe thought of security in military and political terms. Defend ourselves against aggressors and all would ultimately be well. In the last twenty years or so, we have come to recognize that food and water security are even more essential, something our forebears understood but which we in our increasingly urban lives could easily forget. Looking at what is happening in Egypt, I want to ask if there isn’t another kind of “security” we need to think about, heritage security.

When I was a child, my mother used to go once a week to visit someone I’ll call Hedwig. Hedwig had escaped one of the German death camps but she had lost everything she valued. Pretty well all she had was contained in a carrier bag which she carried with her everywhere. What she most lamented was the fact that she had lost every physical remembrance of her family and culture and was adrift in a land where she didn’t speak the language very well and could share nothing of her inner world of memory and reference. She had been robbed of her heritage, which also meant for her a loss of identity.

We define ourselves in many different ways, but our sense of belonging to a group (be it family, nation, Church or whatever) is largely expressed through our ownership of places, language, artefacts and rituals. We can survive the loss of some of these but not all. Even losing some can do enormous damage. There are still Hedwigs in the world, and because what they suffer isn’t tangible, we tend to dismiss its importance. Perhaps we need to value our heritage more, not just because it is beautiful or interesting, but because it is intimately bound up with our sense of being human.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail