This month’s Bloggers for Peace topic asks us to consider our relationships. My brain ferments such questions. Today I uncork for you some early brewings.
You know how it goes: one minute in the privacy of your head you are thinking deep and meaningful thoughts; the next, someone else, outside your bony skull echoes them in public. It happened today.
To start at the very beginning: I am reading a book. I know, who’d have thought it? It’s about the Civil War, by which I mean the English Civil War in the 17th century. The book itself is a peculiar mix of history text book and historic fiction. It’s a bit peculiar but fascinating.
As you will no doubt be aware, there is nothing civil about a Civil War, and the English variety was no exception. It tore apart the country, respecting no person, destroying trade, harvests and cities, families and friendships. It was as uncivilised as war can get, with civilians being used as human shields or hostages, or just target practice. Your immediate neighbours, with whom you had lived cheek by jowl all your life, might suddenly mutate into the Opposition. One man was for the King, his brother for Parliament, and they were followed for better or worse by daughters, wives and children. Both armies, and their camp followers, slogged through ice and snow, rain, sun and mud, starved, died of fever, disease and trench foot (this war was fought in trenches in some cases, just like the calamity in the Somme in the early 20th century), as well as wounds and quaint medical practice.
At the end of it all we, the people, killed the King for treason. We had a contract, you see, where in return for his life of privilege and riches, we could expect his service through good governance and a dedication to our collective welfare. He believed he had a Divine Right, but it turned out he was mistaken, fatally so.
The execution of the reigning monarch would have sent shock waves through an already fractured society and across the Channel throughout Europe. As everyone returned wearily from the years of war to try and rebuild their lives, it would have been hard to trust their neighbours again. During this period a number of extravagant and radical religious groups flourished, in part by offering to replace the lost trust and sense of community desired by a shocked and stricken populace. Among them were Quakers.
It didn’t last, of course. In the end we brought back the king, a new one, whom we held to account. Well, it was that or give up Christmas, and as Narnians will tell you, that is not much fun. The English reserve as their inalienable right the opportunity to celebrate a mid-winter festival. It’s the long, dark nights, you see. You have to take your mind off them, preferably with alcohol.
In my more old-fogeyish moments I sometimes feel we are experiencing similar upheaval today, as communities fracture under the pressures of modern life. There seems to be a lack of connectedness which, I think, can result in the total lack of love for others evidenced by bankers, care workers and certain celebrities. Obviously, many bankers, care workers and celebrities are kind, nurturing people; it’s just we hear about the others. Equally these behaviours are not new.
Whatever the causes, or not, and whether it’s true, or not, people do like to feel part of a community. Some communities may be closer than others, but no one likes to feel alone always and forever.
So there I was, sitting in Quaker meeting and thinking about how we are the same as those distant forebears of the 17th century, when someone stood up and said:
How can we make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other’s failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.
Well now! There’s a thing. Because I had been brooding over Isaac Penington’s letter from 1667, which begins like this:
Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall
Isaac lived through a terrible period of history and he, like others, wanted to leave behind all war and occasion for war. He was a religious man, and saw love and peace and tenderness as a calling from God.
These times are not as religious as then, although it seems superstition is rife instead. We have learned so much and most of it is magnificent, as Professor Brian Cox likes to point out in excited tones.
Reason is a mighty instrument, but reason without love is empty. Reason does not soothe tears or smooth away bad dreams. Compassion and wisdom, as some might say, are the way to enlightenment. Or as Bill and / or Ted would have it:
Be excellent to one another