Midsummer’s Day in the monastery is what we call a dies non. The only obligations on us are to pray, read, eat, sleep, and do whatever is necessary to make the first four possible. It is the nearest we come to a holiday and is meant to ensure a little leisure to enjoy the sunshine. In practice, I have to admit that we often spend the time catching up on tasks we have not yet managed to finish or trying to meet sudden, unexpected demands. The principle is sound, however: we slow down and substitute a little sanity for the mad rush that seems to affect even monasteries these days. The strong, bright light of midsummer allows us to reflect on what really matters and see things more distinctly, or so we hope. How disheartening, then, to wake up to the news that, while President Trump has signed an order that no more children will be separated from the parents, there is no provision to reunite those already separated, and in Hungary it is now a criminal offence for lawyers and activists to try to help asylum seekers (the so-called ‘Stop Soros Law’). We also read that some of the Médecins Sans Frontières aid workers (not doctors or nurses, please note, but logistics staff) are alleged to have regularly used prostitutes, like their Oxfam colleagues. It makes Refugee Week seem rather grim. Where is the sanity in all this? Do we lack compassion and integrity utterly?
Unfortunately, it is not a problem ‘out there’. It strikes nearer home, too. It is easy to weep sentimental tears over children ripped from their parents while condoning the ripping of children from their mothers’ wombs in abortion; it is also easy to lament the criminalisation of help for migrants in other countries while ignoring the effects of strict border controls in our own. We know that, deep down, even if we are reluctant to admit it. Most of us chart a very uneasy moral course, trying to do what is right but not always succeeding.We want to live lives of compassion and integrity but somehow compromise or fudge marks them more than we would like.
I was thinking about this in the context of today’s liturgical commemoration of St Aloysius Gonzaga, the Jesuit novice who died at the age of 23 after nursing the sick and the dying in plague-stricken Rome. He is usually presented as a bit of a wimp: the perfect novice, lily in hand, gazing up to heaven. In fact, he must have been a man of steel. He stood up to his father, a Mantuan nobleman, to resign his inheritance as eldest son and enter the Jesuits at the age of 16. He was remarkable for his fervour and generosity of spirit. Just think for a moment what it meant to nurse the plague-ridden! That took a courage and ability to master squeamishness I myself lack. He is an example of youthful leadership, of the way in which the young sometimes see things more clearly than their elders and hold to their course with a fixity of purpose that shames those of us who merely wobble along the path of virtue.Perhaps we need to use today’s midsummer light to re-evaluate some of our entrenched or even unconsidered positions. It may not be refugees and migrants that we personally need to focus on, but there will be other areas of our lives or of society’s mores that we need to consider more carefully. A dies non can spring suprises, and a little midsummer madness can reveal a layer of sanity we never dreamed existed. May we all find it today.