Nine-thirty, or thereabouts, I go outside to watch the orbiting string of Space X satellites. Turns out I’ve the time wrong, and they passed overhead an hour ago. But it’s a warm night, with a nail paring moon and Venus brilliant over the Downs. So I stand for a while, looking up at the stars. When my neck begins to hurt, I lie back on the grass, careful to avoid sheep droppings. And it strikes me, after a bit, how the branches of the beech trees silhouetted against the heavens look like cracks, like dark ‘spaces’ or depths, when of course they’re incalculably closer to me than the spill of stars beyond, way beyond.
I could almost reach out and touch the trees; stars and galaxies, on the other hand, are unreachable. And yet, who notices trees? Sometimes we’re drawn to what’s unreachable, intangible but twinkling, before we notice what’s just in front of us.
I share an enormous amount with this tree whose branches I’m looking up into: we’re both made mostly of water, our genetic material is all but identical; and although we go about it differently, we both live by oxidising sugars in order to release their energy through respiration; we are both entirely reliant on our relationship with the environment around us.
Yet it’s the stars, we feel, hold the key to our future; our past is locked in the rings of a tree’s trunk. Our loves are sometimes star-crossed; we wish on stars. Family trees are dead ancestors, done and dusty. Once, the movie of the night sky starred gods; we put stars on our flags; trees rarely.
Perhaps it’s their very remoteness that draws us to stars, while the proximity of trees renders them all but invisible. In our relationships with one another, it’s always easier to spot the glamorous and glaring differences than the humdrum similarities.
Archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory Nazianzen (329-390) wrote about our responsibilities to the poor and the sick in a sermon. He says we owe the poor, the destitute, or the ill our kindness, our charity, not because of the differences in our stations or conditions, but because of the samenesses, because of what we share. It’s not my having health or resources or position that requires me to reach out. On the contrary, it’s the radical sameness of our underlying humanity that matters, that demands my helping. For Gregory, that sameness resides in our being made – all of us – in the image of God, and saved through the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. He half-quotes Romans 12:5 and amalgamates it with Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:9-11, but gives them all his own slight twist:
For we are all one in the Lord, whether rich or poor, slave or free, whether healthy in body, or sick. And there is one head of all, from whom all things proceed: Christ. And as the limbs are to each other, so is each of us to everyone else, and all to all.Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 14
Modern philanthropy tends to start from another place altogether. It’s on account of the (economic) difference between us that there’s a duty on me to support you, help you, sponsor your exhibition, your play, endow your library. Or whatever.
To illustrate, I love this passage from Jane Austen’s Emma:
It was sickness and poverty together which Emma came to visit; and after remaining there as long as she could give comfort or advice, she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away,Jane Austen, Emma, Chapter 10
‘These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make everything else appear! – I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?’
Austen is able – almost as no other writer is able – to make us laugh at Emma even as we recognise ourselves in her. Austen is unsparing, yet humane.
Because, if I’m honest, I’ve found myself thinking like Emma recently. Every week I take my sons to help me deliver food parcels to vulnerable people in the parish where I work, people who are struggling to make ends meet, or who are isolating and unable to get to the shops. It’s good for the boys, I think, to see how different and difficult life can sometimes be.
See? Those are almost exactly Emma’s words and thoughts.
No, what the boys really need to to see is not that people are leading different lives or different sorts of lives, but that we all belong to one another in the one Life. We are not loved differently, valued differently or judged according to different criteria. God shows no partiality. (Acts 10:34)
Learn to do good;Isaiah 1:17
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
We are called ‘to care for orphans and widows in their distress.’ (James 1:27), to seek justice, defend and plead and care not because our neighbours in need are different from us, but because they are the same as us. They are us: for others to ‘vanish from our minds’ is for our minds to vanish.
We are all one in Christ.
One of the oldest titles for the Blessed Virgin Mary is ‘Star of the Sea.’ The title derives, it seems, from a series of scribal errors – from Hebrew to Greek to Latin. The title gives its name to a beautiful eighth century plainsong chant: Ave Maris Stella. Perhaps we could recast the movie of the night sky, and exchange Venus over the waves of the Marlborough Downs, for Mary over the sea of our lives.
God of all mercies,
our minds are restless, hunting out to the boundaries of experience and understanding,
we discern you there, beyond all things, drawing us on and on;
you created us curious – and we give you thanks.
Our hearts are restless, till they find their rest in you, our beginning and our end,
we discern you there, behind all things, drawing us deeper and deeper;
you called us to care – and we give you thanks
through your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.