Added on 08/10/2012
There is a poignancy and even some irony in that what I want to say to you today was, to all intents and purposes, written before the events of the past few days, and yet I found that I have had to change virtually nothing. And yet in other ways the meaning has become subtly different for us all.
One of the great paintings of European art (although now housed in Boston Massachusetts), and one that has long exercised a real fascination for me, is a huge canvas by the great French artist, Paul Gauguin. It was painted by Gauguin in 1897, just a few years before his death, and has an intriguing title, but one that even my very limited French can manage – D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous.
D’où Venons Nous? Where have we come from?
Que sommes nous? What are we?
Où Allons Nous? Where are we going?
The painting makes clear that we are in a way asking the questions both about the individual and about the group.If you could visualise the painting, to the right you would see a group of women with a child.In the centre there are young–ish people going about their everyday life. And to the left, an old woman, standing slightly apartfrom a group looking contemplative about her future.
In one sense Gauguin’s questions are not three questions but one question. And we are asked this question – or these questions – of ourselves not only as individuals but also as community, whether by community we mean family, neighbourhood, diocese, church, country or humankind itself.
And where have we come from? As Christians we believe that we come from God, in whatever mysterious way, and that we go back to God. What you and Iareas human persons between theses events is limited, tentative, at times uncertain,and so we need to acceptone certain thing about ourselves.
We need help to become what God wants us to be. I love afamous piece of old Jewish wisdom on this. It comes the Rabbi Zusya, who said, “When I come to die, God will not ask me why I was not Moses, he will ask me why I was not Zusya..” This is becoming what God wills us to be, not the same, not even alike, but nevertheless the very best, as individuals, that God made us to be. This is what we are to seek as Christian disciples. And so we are to recognise that we are of ourselvesincomplete,and we are to acceptalso our inbornand universal capacity as human beings to do real damage to others and to ourselves. We often do that damage in small and subtle ways until perhaps we realise that the cumulative effect has been catastrophic and that we have destroyed a life, our own and also perhaps another’s, and that we have been left with nothing of value ever to hand back to God. We need help – help directly from God, and help from all others around us. We need humility, we need perseverance and we need a sense of constant – daily and hourly – reliance upon God. And we need to help others to be the best rather than the worst that they can be.
What we say of ourselves as individuals we must say also of ourselves as people who are of community. So – for example –here, as the dioceses of Meath and Kildare, we are in part what the past has made us as a community. This part of God’s Church – these dioceses and its parishes – was placed here, through human agency but ultimately by God, to serve Him and others in His name, and to proclaim Him to the world. The purpose is the same for the Church in any place and in any age of Christian history, even if the context may vary.
In our context of today, we have been given precisely the same tasks. However we must be certain that we are regarding our past, not as a museum of cracked artifacts but as that from which we have derived our identity and our“belonging”, andthat we must now interpret in keeping with our own times. To live in the past is as appallingly dangerous as to forget the past and imagine that we can invent ourselves from nothing.. How we use what we have been given from previous generations is a mark of spiritual maturity and of Christian commitment. As I have said repeatedly through my ministry here,
Everything we do should be benchmarked against whether it is potentially advancing the Kingdom of God, in which case we must retain and develop it..
If it is in fact now damaging the witness of the Kingdom, we must – however reluctantly and unenthusiastically – consign it to the past..
If it is what I might describe as “Kingdom–neutral”, we should ask seriously whether or not we should be spending time or money on it..
Where then are we going? I hope and pray that, wherever we may be (and you and I are soon to follow different paths in our earthly pilgrimage although I firmly believe towards the same destination – the loving welcome of God), we will always retainChristian hope and vision. To return to another piece of simple French, let us never stagger on with no higher aspiration than those famous words of Madame de Pompadour, “Après nous, le Déluge” – after us, the flood.. In other words, let us hold it together to see us out, but not bother beyond that. We are not holding the Church together to lastfor our time, and barely that. We are the custodians, not of a fine but crumbling old monument to a dying civilization, but rather of the immense riches of Jesus Christ that we have received and that we must hand on to generations who are still to come.
We live in a world that has lost its compass, a world of individuals who no longer dare to ask questions of any depth, seriousness or consequence. As Christian disciples, you and I can dare to ask these most basic of questions, “Where have we come from?What are we?Where are we going?” The answers are ones that may take a lifetime to unravel and disentangle, but that is what the Christian pilgrimage demands of us. And it is a journey we take in the daily company of Jesus Christ.
For further information please contact:
Diocesan Communications Officer
Meath & Kildare