Dodging the cynics

Jul 3rd, 2012 | By | Category: Spirituality

Spending some five hours writing a sermon, the thought occurred as to whether the time had been well spent. Written for a midweek evening service in a rural parish at which the congregation will number around fifteen, the cynical attitude would have been not to bother, in fact, probably not to have the service at all.

Canon Jim Hartin, the gently unworldly priest who presided over the training of Church of Ireland clergy in the 1980s would have waved his finger in rebuke at sharp thoughts. ‘Cynicism is the enemy of spirituality’, he would say, ‘become a cynic and you have nothing to offer anyone’.

Envy is the mother of cynicism. The muttering about people who tried things that were new or different, or, even worse, who succeeded at anything that was new or different, is always loudest amongst those who have never tried anything and dislike the idea that someone might have shown more endeavour than they.

Adverse comment about anyone who tries harder than the crowd ranges from petty nitpicking to maliciously cynical gossip; no-one can do malicious gossip like clergy. Of course, it is never couched in terms of gossip, no-one would be so crass as to say, ‘Did you hear about so and so?’ No, clergy gossip is always much more nuanced, ‘I am very concerned about so and so because . . . ‘ or, if they are particularly sanctimonious, ‘I think we need to pray for so and so, I heard that . . .’

Jim Hartin would have recoiled at things said amongst some of those in holy orders. Lines from Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game, might have provided suitably stern terms of rebuke.

Envy is the religion of the mediocre. It comforts them, it responds to the worries that gnaw at them and finally it rots into their souls, allowing them to justify their meanness and their greed until they believe these to be virtues. Such people are convinced that the doors of heaven will be opened only to poor wretches like themselves who go through life without leaving any trace but their threadbare attempts to belittle others and to exclude – and destroy if possible – those who, by the simple fact of their existence, show up their own poorness of spirit, mind and guts. Blessed be the one at whom the fools bark, his soul will never belong to them.

Jim Hartin would have believed mediocrity was a matter of choice, not of ability, nor of opportunity. Everyone could use the abilities and the opportunities they were given; they might not be academically gifted, they might not be blessed with great resources, but they were expected to make the most of what they had. Mediocrity was the state of those who could just not be bothered.

If envy is the religion of the mediocre, then cynicism is the creed through which that religion is expressed. The story of the murder of Abel in the Old Testament book Genesis comes closer to understanding human nature than an approach that says that such attitudes must spring from some deprivation or injustice suffered by the cynic. The first murder in the Bible stems from the envy of Cain towards his brother.

Canon Hartin was right, become a cynic and you have nothing to offer anyone.

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