Robert Ladds hopes for catholic witness in difficult times
The recent See of Fulham Epiphany Festival was a cameo of what our catholic constituency is, and under God, shall be. Priests and people gathered around their Bishop from across London for the worship of the Mass, study, interaction, prayer, eating together and enjoying each other’s company. For those within, a perceived and conscious energy and assurance; a joy in God and appreciation of one other.
Each in their own way and time, Madame de Staël and Colin Thubron write about the Russian people and their character under duress and persecution.
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766–1817) was a woman of letters and intelligence, whose considerable influence on thought and politics extended through the period of the French Revolution. With others, she was early in recognising the tyrannical plans and strategies of Napoleon. In observing the response of the ordinary Russian people, de Staël was to comment: ‘In every way there is something gigantic about this people, ordinary dimensions have no application to them’. Seeing in them characteristics of an insurmountable faith and resilience in circumstances that might appear overwhelming and seemingly relating to a former time and a very different environment.
Colin Thubron (b. 1939) is a travel writer of exceptional perception and fluency of description of people and landscapes. In Among the Russians (1982) he tells of a journey across that country before the breakdown of Soviet communism. He tells of the interplay of the changing geography and embedded cultures of those he met on his journey. Relating this with that of the varying but universal application of the all-powerful, yet not entirely, self-confident dogma of the prevailing regime.
Picking up the thought of de Staël, Thubron writes, as a summation of the various national and cultures he has seen within Russia:
As I walked through the aisles of faded certainty, it seemed that after even the most tragic failings had been counted, despite the public tyranny and private dissimulation, the travestied history and the sallow men on the edge of the crowds, there yet remained a bruised grandeur about this race who could still dream, however faintly, of a perfectible community on earth.
The Christian and spiritual journey can be demanding, keeping and living out the catholic faith has never been taught and lived as an easy option. In these times of the world, society and of the very Church, being faithful to catholic teaching and practice can be exceedingly demanding; finding sacramental assurance and even a local church to attend is hard for some and will get no easier.
It is not too much to imagine, hope even, that someone observing those ordinary people taking part in the Bishop of Fulham’s Epiphany Festival, might just, with Madame de Staël, have observed that ‘There was something gigantic about this people’, that the loss of faith and integrity going on within the Church of which they are a part has ‘no application to them’. And, perhaps, with Colin Thubron, they might just have glimpsed ‘however faintly’, that these catholic Christians ‘could still dream of a perfectible community on earth’.
The Rt Revd Robert Ladds SSC is assistant priest
at St Peter’s, London Docks.