The Gift of Encouragement

One definition of the verb to encourage is to give active help or to raise confidence to the point where one dares to do what is difficult. On the feast of St Barnabas, the Son of Encouragament, it is worth thinking about this, and the different words we use to express different shades of meaning. We embolden others, for example, to overcome shyness or diffidence; we hearten others in an effort to inspire them to fresh endeavours; and those we try to hearten or inspire, we usually try to foster or nurture as well. What is common to all is the need for us to do something in the service of others. We can’t encourage by sitting mute and doing nothing. We must ourselves risk failure if we want to help others. We can’t embolden others if we lack the courage to tackle their shyness and diffidence; and we certainly can’t put fresh heart into anyone if we are quailing at the thought of doing so.

I think St Barnabas, ‘the apostle no one talks about’, is a splendid example of an encourager. His life was so completely focused on his mission that we have almost forgotten him in our remembrance of what he achieved; and what he achieved was the building up of the young Church in circumstances that were indeed daunting. Most of us need encouraging at times. What we often forget is that we also need to encourage others. Let us ask the prayers of St Barnabas that we may learn from him the art of giving encouragement.

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Encouragement

St Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, gets something of a raw deal from the Church. His feast is kept as a memoria rather than a festum, and his (presumed) mortal remains are kept in a basilica in northern Cyprus* (looked after by a Muslim caretaker) rather than in some grand church in Rome. No doubt it is my quirky sense of humour, but that strikes me as being very fitting for someone who gives encouragement. To encourage another, we have to have a very just (= modest) opinion of ourselves and a very generous (= hopeful) opinion of the other. The liturgical reticence of today’s commemoration reminds us that what attracts society’s notice may not be what attracts God’s, that our human values are not always the same as his. Barnabas was to be eclipsed by his disciple, Paul; and the Church remembers the dispute between them chiefly because Paul won his point; but I have a suspicion that in the court of heaven, Barnabas occupies a very high place from which he continues to encourage us still.

* The basilica in Cyprus is very beautiful, with hundreds of magnificent icons. It is certainly not a ‘second-best’ resting-place; my point is that in Rome St Barnabas is hardly mentioned, unlike the other figures of Apostolic times.

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The Humility of St Barnabas

When I was a novice we used to remark on the fact that St Barnabas was always celebrated liturgically as a Memoria. (In simple terms, that means he got four candles instead of six, and no gloria.) Yet, if one reads the New Testament attentively, it is clear that Barnabas was a man of considerable spiritual authority in the early Church. Whether or not we believe Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, that he was one of the 72 disciples sent out by the Lord, he was obviously an early convert and was placed first among the prophets and teachers of Antioch. It was he who stood surety for Paul in Jerusalem after the latter’s conversion. When the mission to the gentiles was inaugurated in Antioch, Barnabas set out for Tarsus to persuade Paul to join in the work of preaching.

We can chart the course of the next few years: Cyprus, then Perga, where John Mark departed (‘deserted’ according to Paul), Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, back to Antioch again and the debate about circumcision, and finally, the parting of the ways, when Barnabas went with John Mark back to Cyprus and Paul and Silas revisited the churches of Asia Minor. Somewhere in the course of these years the disciple began to eclipse the master, but the friendship between the two persisted (see 1 Cor 9. 5 to 6). There are many contradictory traditions about his last years but his best epitaph is that given him by Luke, ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.’

Why, then, do I talk of his humility? His openness to the Greeks, his readiness to lay aside many of his most cherished Jewish traditions, cannot have been easy for him; nor can it have been easy to see his pupil and protegé ‘overtaking’ him, so to say, in influence. He was a man who inspired affection and whose nature enabled him to remain friends with both Paul and John Mark, despite the quarrel between them. I think he must have been essentially modest. Perhaps the lack of a gloria on his feast is as it should be. On the eve of Pentecost it is good to be reminded that the Spirit blows where he wills and allowing ourselves to be guided by him is our greatest glory.

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