October 28, 2018

28th October 2018 SMC


There’s been a great shift in British society about how we deal with our emotions. I was brought up in a rather old fashioned way where we didn’t talk about our emotions very much. For example, people often ask whether my grandfather, who is also a priest, is proud of the fact that I am a priest. To which my honest answer is that he has never said he is proud, but I’m absolutely sure he is. He’s never said it, I believe, because of the age in which he was brought up. Contrast that with now where our emotions have been elevated to being a crucial part of who we are. The Facebook status, the twitter update, the new language of the emoticon reveal how much significance we place on our emotions. I’m not sure one way is more morally wrong compared to the other but there has been undoubtedly this shift.

God has no such emotions because they are part of a changeable nature and God, being perfect, cannot change, He is immutable. When we read of God being angry or happy (Deuteronomy 9:8; Isaiah 62:5) it is not a passing emotion but a human attempt to describe the compatibility of God’s nature with what we do, be it sin or act of charity. Jesus, being true God and true man, has emotions because of His human nature. He wept when His friend Lazarus died (John 11), He was angry with those who behaved wrongly in the House of Prayer (John 2), as the Christmas hymn puts it, “tears and smiles like us He knew, and He feeleth for our sadness and He shareth in our gladness.” The bit from the letter to the Hebrews that we heard this morning is glad that priests too, acting on behalf of humanity and Christ’s Church, share the emotional fragility of human nature.

This range of emotions is hallowed by the psalmist in the psalm we heard this morning. “When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage, it seemed like a dream.” This is one of the many psalms that rejoices in the salvation God brings to His people, those who suffer captivity and oppression. “Those who are sowing in tears will sing when they reap,” the whole range of emotions embraced and redeemed by God’s love, the whole range being part of God’s plan. One of the great things about the psalms is that they evoke a wide variety of emotions and we oughtn’t simply read happy ones when we’re happy or sad ones when we’re sad. One of the great things about a lectionary, meaning the universal church chooses the readings we have at Mass, is that we will indeed listen to sad readings when we’re happy and vice-versa.

This teaches us the importance of the gift of empathy, something St Theresa Benedicta was particularly keen on and I just want to explore a bit about that now. Empathy is more than sympathy. With sympathy we recognise that someone is sad and maybe try and sympathise with them because someone they know has died or whatever it might be. Empathy is more than that: it’s actually experiencing it too, as if in their shoes. Theresa Benedicta, the twentieth century philosopher, convert from Judaism and Christian martyr, was particularly keen on this quality of empathy because it asserted that there was such a thing as truth, someone else’s emotions were important because they did actually exist. She was greatly concerned, even before her conversion to Christianity, of the problem she saw in 1920s Germany of the young and the old not getting speaking to each other, not taking each other’s problems seriously, not seeking to learn from each other.

For Theresa Benedicta, the first part of the Christian’s call to be empathetic is to deny our own emotions at some level. The things we worry about can become all-consuming, be it our home, our job, our family, individuals we know, our health. In such a frenzy we block out other things in a survival technique that works very well But the danger is that we block out God and our commitments to the Church. We see this in Bartimaeus in this morning’s Gospel. Last Sunday we heard from earlier in Mark’s Gospel with St James and St John, the sons of Zebedee asking for seats of glory in response to the Lord’s question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks exactly the same question in today’s passage to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus articulates a much humbler request. He begins by asking for pity, for mercy. He shows he doesn’t need anything but Christ for he throws off his cloak. Would we be tempted to put our trust in that cloak, especially if we were blind and would therefore find getting another one difficult. Bartimaeus throws off his own comforts and concerns so as to be healed by Christ.

St Theresa Benedicta says the second part to empathy will be to have a greater awareness of the needs of others. Prayer is an excellent way to do this. Through our prayer for other people, we seek to appreciate their needs as we bring them before the throne of grace. And through our communities we encounter others, we become involved in the lives of others, we are impacted by the lives of others. That can be challenging at times, when people annoy us or we see people not at their best. But across this whole range of emotional responses to people, we are to try and know them. Christian communities can be very bad at this: there’s a sort of “Sunday best” persona where we don’t let anyone in and only come to Church when we’re sorted or feel at our best. Denying our own emotions as I was chatting about just now, doesn’t mean we don’t talk talk about them or share. “Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 12:27).

St Theresa Benedicta knew the pain of considering others’ feelings and struggling to reconcile them with her own. Her mother was a devout Jew. When Theresa Benedicta converted to Christianity in 1921, she knew she needed to tell her mother, which wasn’t going to be easy. She visited her, knelt down and said, “Mother, I am a Catholic.” The bond must have been particularly strong, Theresa’s father having died when she was just two years old. Theresa’s mum burst into tears at the news and then Theresa Benedicta did too. But the bond was not diminished; Mum and daughter still loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company.

St Theresa often marvelled at how wonderful it was to be a woman because of the joy of being a mother. Theresa was never to have children herself, being a Carmelite nun, but she still felt this maternal care was part of her feminity: she cared for the students at the university where she taught and those who would discover from her the truths of the Gospel. She was inspired by her own mum, but also by Mary, the Mother of God, who brought together all the children of Eve to Christ. The soul of woman must be expansive, St Theresa wrote, “quiet, so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile buds; clear so that no vermin will settle in dark corners and recesses; … mistress of itself and also of its body so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call.”

Bartimaeus in our Gospel today recognises this same expansive care in Christ, whom he greets as, “Son of David.” The title Son of David reminds us that Jesus is the fulfilment of the promise made to David, began as God makes clear by appointing David a ruler of His people (II Samuel 11:7), a pastor to the flock. So it is within the community of the church that we are to discover a whole range of emotions with which we can follow Christ. By taking each other’s emotional welfare seriously, we recognise that there is such a thing as objective truth - life isn’t all fake news  - and we honour each other and so praise God for creating our neighbour. Strengthened by the prayers of St Theresa Benedicta, may we then know our own emotions and deny ourselves of them so that we might be better emphasising with others - especially those who are of a different age to ourselves - and so bring all people to know the supreme love of Jesus. Amen.