"What is frail man that you should remember him, and the son of man that you should be mindful of him? Yet you have made him but slightly less than the angels, and crowned him with soul and splendour. The Lord, our Master, how mighty is Your Name throughout the earth!" Psalm 8:5-10
There is a building so shockingly incongruous that the mind boggles at those that constructed it. The Colosseum. One wonders at a culture that invested so much time, and some quite obvious skill to create a beautiful edifice, breathtaking in its aesthetic qualities all for the purpose of entertaining the public with the suffering and death of human beings (and countless animals). The inhuman acts that took place in its arena are stomach-churning and horrific, so is it really possible for us to regard the building itself as beautiful?
Is it possible to separate the aesthetic from the moral? Can we regard the temples of the ancient world, in which men and women were prostituted, as examples of beauty? Can we regard the music of Wagner as works of art considering what we know of his disgraceful and bigoted views? Are Hitler's paintings worthy of display on our walls? Are those modern songs that glorify violence and misogyny harmless music?
Personally I believe not. To me external beauty is worthless if its purpose or essence violates human dignity and distances people from God and His image housed in each and every one of us. To borrow a metaphor from King Solomon, it is like:
"A golden ring in the snout of a pig" Proverbs 11:22
In fact it is the pig's external kosher signs (its hooves) coupled with its inner non kosher nature (it doesn't chew cud) that marks it as the symbol of "uncleanliness" amongst our Hebrew brothers and sisters. Don't flaunt holiness when you know you have much to improve.
Our teacher Jesus had plenty to say about those who focused on maintaining the external imagery of piety and goodness, while distancing their hearts from both the Almighty and His creations. He was certainly not a disciple of that Hellenic disposition, which viewed the aesthetic as virtuous in its own right. Can beautifully crafted poetic prayer, and elegant hymns really be considered worthwhile if they are not for the purpose of closeness to the Divine?
"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men." Matthew 6:5
"Moreover when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting." Matthew 6:16
"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" Matthew 23:23
Instead Jesus bids us to have only the watching gaze of God in our minds when we perform any act of worship or kindness, to limit the external so that we can focus on our inner motivations. Inner motivations are considered by him as fundamental to all moral and spiritual success,
"What comes out of a man, that defiles a man, for from within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness and evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man." Mark 7:20-23
The phenomena of external piety and inner failing is very common and I am sure we have all at some point in time come across people who exhaust themselves in promoting an image of religiosity and holiness, while often exhibiting behaviour that contradicts their claimed allegiance to our Father in heaven. Certainly it is often those who know that their private lives harbour less than elevated behaviour, who mount campaigns of righteous indignation against those others who are viewed as deficient in one way or another. This attitude exemplified in my parents land of Galicia by the "Beatas Gregorias" (the pious women who never miss church, and take great relish in pointing out everyone else's failings), is such a common phenomena in religious circles that I am sure each and every one of us has on occasion behaved in similar ways. Of course this is not a religious phenomenon as such, but a human one. It is often demonstrated by those in political circles who bend over backwards to promote an image of themselves which is for public benefit only castigating others who do not agree with them, but who betray their promoted principles in their own personal lives. John Major's "Back to Basics" drive springs to mind! Politicians bemoaning the lack of social mobility, while happily feathering their insulated nests is another example that springs to mind.
One person who rejected such a dissonance was Lady Byron known also as Anne Isabella Milbank. Her life was lived with the constant knowledge that a small, mortal and limited life can become a tool in the eternal work of creation when it is devoted to God, and His image discovered in each and every person. For as the Psalm says "what is man"? The ancient Greeks and Romans put a great deal of emphasis on the human body, revered it so much that they projected their idealised forms onto the heavens, conceiving their gods as having human forms that would not be out of place in the Greek gymnasia, quite unlike many other ancient mythologies. But in reality our external form is nothing too special, many animals run faster than us, have sharper teeth and claws. Some can fly and almost all of them are better adapted to survival than our own naked and vulnerable bodies. In addition we have more than our fair share of faults, something that can't realistically be said of the animals, and yet external appearances can be deceptive as each human being is capable of immense holiness and perfection. Such "nearness to angels" inherent in every person led many people to preserve their higher conscience, even if it lead to their deaths at the teeth of lions or men's swords in buildings radiating external wonder but inner wickedness.
Born as an only child into a privileged family in May 1792, Anne really did not lack for anything. As soon as she was of age she would spend much time with her family immersed in highly fashionable London society (the very definition of meaningless external show). Despite being surrounded by wealth and social expectations, and blessed with considerable beauty, Anne valued inner values, moral, spiritual and intellectual over the ephemeral. Her husband to be, that quite difficult character Lord Byron, wrote about her:
"She is a very superior woman, and very little spoiled; which is strange as an heiress, a peeress that is to be, and an only child who has always had her own way. She is a poetess, a mathematician, a metaphysician; and yet withal very kind, generous, and gentle, with very little pretension. Any other head would be turned with half her acquisitions and a tenth of her advantages"
We should all aspire to such a description! Sadly her marriage did not exactly work out, and soon after her wedding she began to struggle with Byron's difficult personality, worrying incessantly about him until they became separated a year after their marriage in January 1816.
Lady Byron threw herself, despite her troubles, into the service of others fuelled by her passionately held Unitarian faith, and like so many in her era she focused on the welfare of children, prison reform and anti-slavery. Several schools owed their foundation to her beneficence, including a training school that also served as the place of refuge for two escaped slaves that she housed there. Strongly believing that she should share those gifts with which she had been so blessed, she worked to better higher education for women, wanting them to have broad knowledge of the arts and sciences. People from all walks of life, with all sorts of problems knew that they could turn to her for help, always given in that quiet and unassuming way that was testament to her desire to promote human happiness.
Devoted to her daughter, she suffered greatly as her beloved child suffered, the victim of a long and painful illness which added to the pain she no doubt felt as a result of Lord Byron himself, and the plentiful calumnies stemming from his circle of friends who worked to label her a cold and unsympathetic wife. Most people in her position would be consumed by the unfairness of the situation and retreat inwardly, dismissing the needs of others. She broke the bonds of human nature and continued to devote herself to others. She was also instrumental in providing the building that would provide the location for a very successful girls reformatory, which she placed under the control of that other splendid woman Mary Carpenter.
Braving the disapproval of the semi-aristocratic class she inhabited, she publicly supported the institutions of her Unitarian faith and was a regular member of the congregation of Essex Street Chapel. She always saw opportunities to learn and deepen her understanding of faith and its obligations and would take many notes when visiting ministers would deliver their sermons.
Her love of God, and her adherence to Jesus' example shone from her and were evident in all her actions. A Trinitarian Christian friend of hers wrote "There was in her so much of Christ, that to see her was to be drawn near to heaven".
For me Lady Byron's example is a triumph of substance over superficiality, which I think is something sorely lacking in our glitzy times, where often the pretence of wisdom, kindness, humility and justice is more important than the thing itself. During these days of Advent the growth of superficiality grows and grows. Shops become crowded by people purchasing more and more gifts they can barely afford in order not to lose face with friends and relatives, while speaking badly about those same friends and relatives behind their backs, and missing completely the cognitive dissonance this illustrates. Shoppers laden with gifts to celebrate the season of goodwill walk unfeeling past destitute people sitting at the side of cold streets. Groups of drunken people celebrating the time of peace to all men, beating each other to a pulp at the end of the night, and husbands and wives betraying each other with others at Christmas parties during the season of the family, that commemorates the creation of the holy family. All this surounded by the illusory glow of twinkling lights and decorative tinsel.
Thankfully however there are so many more who are coming into their own at this time of year, working to ensure that all can have the best Christmas possible. That unrecognised army of volunteers, in the spirit of Lady Byron, who visit hospitals and hospices to bring cheer to those who need it most. Those manning soup kitchens and shelters, to ensure that all have food in their bellies and a warm place to lay their heads during the festive season. And each and every one of those people should inspire us to do something, even if only a little something, before Christmas to help out our brethren, whether neighbour or stranger, perhaps by purchasing a few extra food items to donate to your local shelter. This army of kindness so often ignored and drowned in a sea of ephemera, is the binding that holds our society together.
And at this time of joviality and celebration our churches and chapels should embrace substance. It is easy to empty faith of content in a bid to accommodate everyone, but this runs the risk of not speaking to anyone at all. Let our places of worship buzz with intellectual and spiritual substance, embracing also the practical sphere of life in the community, and not drift into "vanilla" options in order to become distant from controversy. We don't have to agree with each other on everything in order to love each other and embrace fellowship. A church will only grow when it becomes a family and family will always contain a multiplicity of views.
It is a perfect time of year to define what it is our congregations stand for. What are the values and principles that the congregation sees as central, and how can these be further strengthened so that they pass from the wished-for and become real. What is our message, or what do we have in common that can become our unifying message that we are ready to witness? After all if you have nothing to say, then you will find it very hard to attract others to listen, and to have a grand, ornate and beautiful building that is mute, that projects no voice out into the world to inspire others is simply and tragically to have a mound of dry bones, but even still with focus and dedication God may say unto that congregation:
"I bring a spirit into you, and you will come to life" Ezekiel 73:5
If we succeed in rooting ourselves and identifying ourselves with something profound, rich in meaning, then the fairy lights and baubles become jewels in a weighty crown, and people will leave our services and our presence enriched.
Is it not wise however, to consider if there is not at least some small implicit value in the external? Do actors not say that putting on a costume makes them feel completely different and better able to assume the personality of the character? Surely now that the bloody games have ceased, the ruins of the Colosseum serve to beautify a city that would be diminished if it were not there? Surely the music of Wagner now inspires and gladdens the hearts of countless people who repudiate and despise all the views the composer held? Even in our own lives is it not sometimes necessary to promote an external image somewhat different from our inner reality, such as an air of confidence in a job interview when inside we tremble with nerves? I am strongly inspired by the teaching of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) who believed that actions done for ulterior motives with the intent of eventually achieving pure motives can be a useful stepping stone. To promote externally an attitude that we honestly wish to embody can help to direct our strivings. So perhaps giving to charity in order to make yourself feel good and look good to others, will eventually lead to a genuine love of kindness in which ego plays little part, in a person who might never embark on the path of charity if this "support" were not present.
I think the key to all this is honesty, specifically honesty with one's self. Only we know what our motivations are. Only we know if our actions are directed towards noble ends, and we must push aside all rationalisations and justifications and shine the light of truth on ourselves. Only then can we strive to close the gap between the external and the inner.
"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" John 8:32