Sermon at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin on Sunday, 28th August 2011 at 11.15
‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ Matthew 16:26
It is harvest time in my parish in the Irish midlands. It is an important time—we held open air services on two farms at the end of May, asking a blessing upon the crops. The summer has been favourable and there is hope of a good yield this year.
The farming life has much changed since the days of my childhood on my grandfather’s farm in the West of England. My grandfather’s greatest ability was in making something from nothing. He was a master of recycling before the word was invented. Everything was stored away, every piece of twine, every nut, screw and bolt, every box, every sack, nothing was wasted; nothing was disposed of without thought. His neighbouring farmers were as frugal in their ways; every bit of machinery was fixed and re-fixed and coaxed along years after its reasonable life expectancy. There was no money to pay for new things and no-one would have contemplated going into debt, if it couldn’t be paid for today, it couldn’t be paid for tomorrow.
The farming life was hard and unrelenting, yet not once did I ever hear him complain, it was a life lived in a community where hardships were shared and where there was a common understanding of what daily life was about.
I never saw the men who came to help out at harvest time receive any payment other than their dinner and I guessed it was the same when he went to other farms. It is all changed now, what farming there is left is business.
Perhaps the world has been gained in the growth of the material wealth of the community, but the soul has been lost.
Writing in 2006, in a time before the economic crash, the journalist Polly Toynbee described my sort of nostalgia, as ’miserabilism’ “Let’s get one thing clear.’ she wrote, ’This is the golden age – so far. There has never been a better time to be alive . . . than today, no generation more blessed, never such opportunity for so many. And things are getting better all the time, horizons widening, education spreading, everyone living longer, healthier, safer lives. Unimaginable luxuries and choices are now standard – mobile phones sending pictures everywhere, accessing the universe on the internet, and iPods with all the world’s music in your ear. Barring calamity, there will be better.”
Yet what happened to our soul during those boom years? If it was a golden age as Ms Toynbee contended, if everything was supposed to be getting better and better, what was happening that David McWilliams wrote that same year:
“The new face of Irish politics is Wayne. He is fourteen; hair gelled forward and dressed head to toe in a white Diadora tracksuit. His Nike Perseus runners are a bit scuffed. He snarls at the cameras with his middle finger raised contemptuously at the lens. He doesn’t bother to cover his face with his Celtic scarf. He is afraid of nothing, has no self control and knows no discipline. For him, this behaviour is normal. He spends his time mitching school, hanging around and terrorizing passer-bys outside the local Tescos. His heaven is cans of Dutch Gold, a bus shelter and a few spliffs. He gets his kicks from threatening and abusing locals, particularly older people. He is the neighbour from hell”.
Those boom year perceptions described by Polly Toynbee and David McWilliams were of one and the same world. The character of Wayne was not poor by any standards of material poverty; nor are his counterparts five years later poor in a sense that would be meaningful to most of the world’s population. His shoes would have cost €100, his tracksuit a similar price, as Polly Toynbee said, “Unimaginable luxuries and choices are now standard”.
The poverty in our society, in the boom years and in the crash years, is not about what things we have or don’t have, it’s about meaning in life, about a sense of purpose, about the feeling that you count for something; it’s poverty of the spirit.
‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ asks Jesus, and what has happened is that we have lost our soul.
People increasingly lives where the only activity they do outside of work is to shop. Community ties, social networks, all the things that gave life meaning and purpose, have been slowly disappearing; it is a phenomenon as much perceptible in rural Ireland as in the city.
Even religion is about what suits people now, look at the new churches offering their tailored brands of spirituality. It’s not about our duty towards God and our duty towards our neighbour; it’s about what makes us feel good. We’re all consumers now.
The world my grandfather inhabited, with neighbouring farmers supporting each other and payment never being considered; with the simple life of the farming year; with the families remaining in one place from generation to generation; was probably closer to the First Century world of Jesus than it was to the 21st Century world of Wayne outside of Tesco. The soul has been lost.
Why are we surprised? Jesus warns in very plain terms in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that if material things become a priority, then spiritual things are lost. In very clear words Jesus explains during the Sermon on the Mount that the things that really matter are not the things that you can buy. Isn’t life more important that what money buys? He asks the crowd in Matthew Chapter 6.
The loss of our soul is not going to be addressed by any political party, neither social workers nor the free market are going to answer the problem of a spiritual emptiness.
‘What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ asks Jesus, and the answer is, of course, nothing. What is there that can replace your soul? You could win every lottery and buy every house and drive every car and wear every label and eat in every restaurant and meet with ever star and appear in every magazine, and it’s all nothing if you have lost your very self. My grandfather standing knee deep in mud going out to check his cattle on a cold and wet winter’s night would be happier.
‘Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it’, Jesus warns. Life lived as God intended is true life. Life lived without God is a pale imitation.
‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’