“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 31 August 2012

Spiritual Nourishment

Maybe it's because I've spent so many years involved with education - both my own and my my children's - but for me, September always feels like the beginning of the new year. The long lazy days of Summer are over, and I can scent the fresh-baked bread smell of new beginnings in the air.

photo: livingforgod.net

September is the time for feeling energised, and for making plans for the year to come. Luckily for me, it also comes just after my spiritual batteries have been re-charged by spending a week at Hucklow Summer School. This wonderful Unitarian institution gives a few lucky people the opportunity to spend seven precious days at the Nightingale Centre in the Peak District, living together, worshipping together, re-connecting with old friends and making new ones, caring and sharing, and growing spiritually. Going home at the end of it feels like a little death.

A prayer written at Summer School this year:

Dear God,
Thank you for the annual blessing that is Summer School.
May it be a week of deepening old friendships,
And creating new ones.
May it be a time of spiritual stretching and nourishment.
May I be open to new light from whatever source it comes,
And may I be open-handed and open-hearted in all my dealings here.
Thank you,

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Tragedy of Idealism

As we have spent the last ten days in Poland, I thought it fitting that my holiday reading should be Nostromo by the brilliant Polish-born author, Joseph Conrad. I studied it for A level many years ago, and hadn't read it for years. I had forgotten how brilliant it is.

image from Amazon UK

It is a story on the grand scale, whose main theme concerns the (generally tragic) consequences of idealism, either in oneself or in others. Most of the main characters suffer on account of their own or somebody else's devotion to an ideal.

What hadn't struck me until two-thirds of the way through the novel and the end of the holiday was how it fitted in with our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. The Nazis too were obsessed by an ideal: the supremacy of the Herrenvolk, the German race, and the elimination of all others. And this ideal, like many in Nostromo, led to death and destruction on a large scale.

It seems that if we allow ourselves to become obsessed by an ideal, its skews our judgement and corrupts our reason. If we idealise something or somebody, we don't see it / them straight. Examples of this are littered throughout history (and sadly, very often have to do with one party's religious ideals conflicting with another's).

Think about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Great Ejection 350 years ago this month; and in more modern times, Hitler's Final Solution, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the Rwandan massacre, 9/11 and so on. And if you strip every example back to basics, they all happened because one group of people stopped recognising their essential commonality with another group of people (that of being fellow human beings) and got carried away by the idea that their point of view or ideal was the only correct one, and that therefore people with different points of view should be eliminated.

It is only by the exercise of compassion, by being open to the hearts and minds of others, by recognising that each of us is "unique, precious, a child of God", that the closed mind and consequent intolerance can be avoided.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Power to Choose

Our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau yesterday reminded me forcibly of the power of evil. The sheer scale of the suffering undergone by the Jews, Poles, gypsies, Communists and other prisoners was horrendous. And it was part of a deliberate and evil (that word again) plan to "free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies", in the words of Otto Thierach, Hitler's so-called Minister of Justice. Jews in particular were to be totally exterminated, being seen as sub-human vermin.

It was a task undertaken with meticulous and horrifying efficiency, carefully documented every step of the way.


But I don't believe in evil as an independent power in the world. No-one is born evil - there is no such thing as original sin. I believe that every human being has the power to choose between good and evil. However, the choices that each person makes will set them on a path towards a life filled with good deeds or evil ones, and the farther one walks along the chosen path, the harder it is to turn aside. As the Native Americans believe, "it depends which wolf you feed."

I have to believe that there is a divine spark "that of God" in everyone, but perhaps those people we call evil choose to ignore its promptings. And there are many degrees of evil; for example, I do not believe that the majority of German people during Hitler's Reich chose evil consciously, although the dyed in the wool Nazis certainly seem to have done. But the Nazi propaganda machine awakened the latent anti-Semitism in many German hearts, giving them someone to blame for their hard lives, and enabling them to believe its lies, and close their eyes to what was going on.

Yet there were some who turned their backs on the temptation to evil, and chose good. For example, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, the Catholic priest who took someone else's place in a starvation cell in Auschwitz - we saw the actual cell yesterday. Or the brave Poles who risked their lives to help the Auschwitz inmates by providing them with food and medicine, and organised escapes. And of course, Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews, as famously portrayed in the Spielberg film Schindler's List.

We all have the power to choose, every day, between acts that will make the world a better or a worse place for its inhabitants, not only our fellow human beings, but all living things.

I pray that when I am put to the test, that I will have the courage to stand up for the good, and deny the evil. Amen