The Personal v. the Communal

I have been re-reading Richard Ford’s Gatherings from Spain with great enjoyment, nodding in agreement over his observations and relishing anew the many proverbs that adorn his pages. Inevitably, I have been thinking about St James the Great, the legendary Santiago Matamoros, patron, not of the country, but of the people of Spain. (Clement XIII ended an unseemly dispute about who should be Spain’s patron saint by declaring the country of Spain to be under the protection of the Immaculate Conception, the people under St James the Great.) It is a nice distinction, rather like Napoleon’s title — Emperor, not of France, but of the French. It highlights the importance, in many contexts, of the personal over the abstract. I am tempted to ask, however, whether we are not in danger of so exalting the personal and individual that we have no conception of the whole, of the community truly so-called.

It is not difficult to see in reaction to current affairs a very individualistic approach. We may not have any real information about something, but we have an opinion. Social Media, in particular, allow us to express our opinion with an immediacy and often a violence that would have been impossible even a decade or two ago. With new possibilities come new responsibilities, but, being human, we tend not to pay them much attention. This morning I was reading the passage of the Rule of St Benedict allocated to the day, RB 45. 1–3, On Those Who Make Mistakes in the Oratory, and was struck, yet again, by the immense care Benedict takes over every detail of monastic life. If we stumble in a psalm or sing a note wrong, we publicly acknowledge that we have been careless. That goes against the grain of contemporary life. If we make a mistake in anything— if!— we pass over it silently or with a show of bravado. The idea of repairing through humility a fault committed through carelessness is alien; and I think it is alien because we have lost that sense of belonging to a greater whole. It is not my devotion in praying the Divine Office that counts; it is our devotion as a community, as part of the Church. But for many, that is hard to grasp. We have made ourselves the centre of our worlds.

Today, if you have a moment, why not spend a minute or two thinking about the various bodies to which you belong, some of them more abstract than others no doubt, and the role you play in each. It can be a humbling experience but, as St Benedict assures us, it is the necessary beginning for all that follows.


St James, Spain and Anger Management

One of the nicknames given to St James, the son of Zebedee, was Boanerges or ‘Son of Thunder’. I have often wondered about that. He and his brother John were among the first disciples of Jesus and always close to him. They had a pushy mother and a reputation for temper, wanting to call down fire and brimstone on a Samaritan town which would not accept them. James is thought to have been the first of the apostles to die for his faith (cf Acts 12.1), and I am not alone in suspecting that fiery temper of his had something to do with it.

So far so good. Where do Spain and anger management come into things? The twelfth-century Historia Compostellana records the legend that St James preached the gospel in Iberia and that after he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa, his body was taken to Galicia and buried at Santiago de Compostela. There is not time enough to go into all the details of the story, nor to examine all the subsequent legends which grew up around it (nor all the doubts which have been cast on it from early times to the present). It must suffice to say that St James in Spain became a warrior hero. Cervantes puts into the mouth of Don Quixote the common opinion:

St James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had . . . has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.

That is the power of St James in Spain, and you need to understand something of the vulnerability of the Spanish peoples throughout the Middle Ages to understand its force. There was always a kind of liminality, a trembling on the edge. The fluidity of the religious situation, with Christian bishops sometimes becoming converts to Judaism or Islam, as well as Jews and Moslems becoming Christians, is difficult for us to appreciate. The Reconquista must have looked very different when one was in the midst of it. Today, when we read accounts of what we would now call ‘hate crimes’, we need to remember this uncertainty and the fear it engendered.

Where there is  great fear, there will often be great anger, too. St James makes a wonderful patron for people with hot tempers for the simple reason that his temper was his glory. He took something that most people, certainly most religious people, would condemn, a capacity for anger, and allowed grace to transform it into energy for good. The hot-headed James we see in the gospel, a man who was probably a bit defensive and unsure of himself, became fearless for God, valiant for truth, a mighty champion of the Lord. He reminds us that God makes saints not in spite of our flaws but through them.

St James, pray for us!