Ifeel at the moment like a particularly gnarled piece of clerical flotsam just carried along on a tide of things to do, all of which are absolutely essential. I move from one task to the next and still the current seems stronger than ever. I know all the accepted wisdom about making sure you take your day off etc, but how do you tell people that you will not have Mass on All Souls evening because you are off duty, or that you will not attend a memorial service for neo-natal deaths?
For four nights in a row I have found it very difficult and very unpleasant to celebrate Mass with a hail of explosions and crashes outside. I must say it felt absolutely horrible, because of the incessant noise and ferocity of the fireworks. Though the noise distresses me, I have long felt that fireworks have become so much part of English folklore that no one seriously thinks that letting them off is meant as anti-Catholic, especially since a survey demonstrates that the majority of people don’t know anything about Guy Fawkes. Nonetheless, the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot seems to have alerted some in the media to the potential discrimination implied by fireworks on November 5. After 400 years I find it hard to get worked up about such discrimination, but in a modern rights culture it will doubtless soon qualify for that increasingly subjective crime label. Like the apparently laudable positivist principle of rights, that of respecting every minority’s sensitivity is bound to involve us in a “some sensitivities are more sensitive than others” conundrum.
On the other hand, I did seriously object to the equivalence made in some of the media between the Gunpowder Plot and the attack on the Twin Towers. Has the United States claimed rights over people’s consciences in a way that the Crown had in the 17th century? Has it seized mosques, forbid den Muslim services and proclaimed that all imams are traitors who must be executed if they set foot in the country, as must anyone who shelters them? Was Guy Fawkes attempting to blow up Smithfield market? The similarities are pretty superficial, beyond the fact that they were both acts of terrorism, of which, in case you hadn’t realised, one “succeeded” and one didn’t.
None of which has any bearing on the fact that I braved the awful barrage to preach on All Souls about something the Holy Father said almost as an aside at World Youth Day: “Christ will take nothing from you.” It says everything about me that this struck me so forcibly, but I suspect I am not alone. Somewhere in our mental landscape, perhaps so habitual and familiar we no longer even notice it, is something which feels that God is in the business of taking things away. For example, we become attached to our sins and our mistaken perceptions and want a sort of room for manoeuvre for them. We, in a pious and well-meaning way, speak of illnesses and disasters as tests from God; we speak of God “taking people” when they die.
We predicate all this on some crazy rationale that God is a sort puppet master trying to steal our show, and that without his intervention there would be a natural life chugging along nicely, thank you. We see his intervention in mechanical terms, rather than the real and definitive intervention which is the gift of life itself – and more, the offer of redemption. We forget that God will take nothing from the real me – which is the one which welcomes his redeeming love.
God is not in the business of taking things away. What he is doing is offering me, at every turn, in every moment, a chance to choose him or me; to reach out into divine life or to cling to the will-o’-the-wisp certainties of the human ego. God does not so much take things away from me as ask me to leave behind this false self I have created in order to find freedom and love. Purgatory is the final stage in this process. It exists to purify me of what has not made this transition; of attachments to the things of earth, that false self. Again, it is not a case of God taking something; nor even of some mechanical process. Purgatory is a further invitation to discover that there is no reality worth my devotion outside of God’s love. Its suffering, I believe will be in its intensity of longing to be rid of the false self.
All this is put more succinctly and beautifully by Francis Thompson: