The great

Jun 19th, 2011 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

A friend from the North who is a hospital consultant tells of going for dinner with a Nobel prize winner.  There were candles on the table and at some point he must have reached across one of them.  Sitting in conversation with the Nobel laureate, he said he suddenly became aware that he was not only talking to one of the world’s great writers, but that his right sleeve was also on fire.  He does not recount the laureate’s words, but the incident was not allowed to spoil the evening.

The moment seemed a contrast with what one might have expected if, instead of a Nobel prize winner, one was in the company of a ‘celebrity’, accompanied by minders and constantly seeking to be noticed.  The incident would have made the pages of the tabloid press and would immediately have been posted online so their Facebook and Twitter followers could at once see what they as a celebrity had to endure.

There is a humility that goes with true greatness.  Perhaps it’s like ‘old money’ driving a battered twenty year old car and wearing jackets with frayed cuffs and worn through sleeves; there is no need to prove anything.  There is something more than that though; it’s about seeing things in perspective.  Minor things, even burning right sleeves, become insignificant in the big picture. In true greatness there is perceptible a sense of things as they are, of what matters and what does not.

Flicking through a graphic guide to quantum theory, the cartoon images of Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century recall a man who would have been a nightmare to image conscious advisers.  It is said that there were moments when Neils Bohr and Einstein were so caught up in their discussions that they might part without bidding each other ‘goodbye’  and when meeting again would forget any conventional greeting, simply resuming the debate at the point where they had adjourned.  Candles on a restaurant table might barely have been noticed, unless their flickering was useful in making a point about the nature of light.

Greatness seems to bring a detachment from the very things that wannabe greats hold dear; the money, the clothes, the cars, the houses, the parties; the creation of an image, each is irrelevant to the truly great.  Celebrity culture and the land of laureates are a long way apart.

It would make you wonder at the propensity for church leaders to dress in ever more exotic outfits.



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  1. Old jacket with frayed cuffs reminds me of a gentleman who introduced me to rowing. He won a silver medal in the 1912 olympics in the coxed fours, was all his life known as Bean, he was still racing at the age of 71, was a chartered architect in County Hall London, but you would not have thought he had two half-pennies to rub together, a real old time gentleman.

  2. Secure in himself, he didn’t need to prove anything to anyone.

  3. They’re a mixed bunch – not surprisingly.
    I suspect the Nobel laureate in your story was the arsonist hiding under a halo of Nobel-ity.

    I’ve encountered a few. One used to make tea for me and others. Lovely. I had to apologise shamefacedly to another having made a bit of a rude phone call to the wrong hotel room – I thought it contained a mate of mine at the unfortunate moment. The response was nobly forgiving and understanding. A third was prone to displays of odd hopping dancing, finger wagging, crimson-purplish complexion changes and general crossness. I wonder if you know them too?

  4. The best bishops used to have that quality about them. Such behaviour is rare now.

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