Apparently there is a pelican in St James’s Park which objects to Selfies. If he is part of the background of someone’s old fashioned photo he is content, but if anyone tries to co-opt him into a picture of themselves he takes umbrage and runs away.
The novelist Howard Jacobson told this story on the radio last week as an intro to a diatribe against modern varieties of egotism, which targeted all those who wish to plaster their own mug-shot across the nation to publish later on face-book( his words not mine) and those readers who grumble about novels which have characters in them who are too strange or different from themselves.
It is not all about me was his heartfelt cry.
Now consider these words, which come from a meditative prayer written, well I won’t say at this point how long ago.
Come now, you ordinary person,
Turn aside for a while from your daily employment,
Escape from the tumult of your thoughts.
Put aside your cares.
Leave your heaviest worries to one side,
Make space for a time for God
Enter the inner chamber of your soul,
Shut out everything except God,
And that which can help you in seeking him,
And when you have shut the door, seek him.
Now, my whole heart, say to God,
I seek your face,
Lord, it is your face I seek.’
A bit of a contrast to a world which people are very anxious to locate their own face.
I have every sympathy with that Pelican, and I think St Anselm, who wrote those words about 1000 years ago, would have too.
There is a huge amount of good in our world today, much of which we don’t notice because of the way bad news grabs our attention. Between 1990 and 2010 , for example, the number of people living in absolute poverty on our planet reduced by 50% and during the same period the number of children who die every day fell by 16,000.
Imagine that news reversed and we would be horrified-16000 extra children dying in a tragedy everyday- so why aren’t we rejoicing?
Aid, trade, medical science, political activity have all contributed to an unprecedented improvement in the lives of millions around the world in 2 decades and yet we still easily fall into despair , cynicism and nostalgia in the face of small challenges and immense ones ( such as Climate change and terrorism).
Maybe filling the world with pictures of ourselves is just one more symptom of fear and anxiety? If we only gaze transfixed at ourselves we won’t notice all the troubling and challenging reality out there.
But if we don’t look away from ourselves we can miss much.
We won’t for example pay any heed to those such as St Anselm who lived so long ago. They are so utterly different from us- what can they possibly have to say?
Well I have already given one example with that quotation. We can contemplate the possibility of turning away from our own obsessions, habits and activities, for a moment and go looking for God. Listening, paying attention, being mindful.
All ways of closing the door, however temporarily, against gazing at our own reflection.
When I was reminding myself about St Anselm last week I found myself smiling inwardly.
This man who was born in Italy, 33 years before the battle of Hastings, into a world far more horrid than ours, in terms of violence, want and suffering; who because of the prevailing world view spent even more time worrying about the wiles of the Devil than we do about the duplicity of politicians, is a heart -warming and admirable figure.
In an age when it was a convention that anyone appointed to high office in the church made great protestations of unworthiness- however keenly they may have preened themselves for the post before-hand- St Anselm seems to have been genuine in his lack of ambition.
When he was made, and I do mean made, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093- at the age of 60 – so he was for those times already a very old man- he had to be ambushed at Gloucester by the then king, William Rufus, who thrust the Archbishop’s staff at his closed fist. If Anselm opened his hand and gripped it that would have been a sign of acquiescence.
When he eventually accepted that he was now Archbishop he soon found himself exiled for not knowing his place. It being a feudal society he was vassal now to the king. As his lord, William Rufus was entitled to demand £1000 from the Archbishop so he could go and wage war in Normandy.
Anselm refused to hand over more than half that sum because he didn’t want to put financial pressure on his tenants. It didn’t help that Anselm also criticised the king’s life-style and the corruption of his closest allies. I am sure some recent political leaders wished they could so easily get annoyingly critical archbishops out of the way.
But the most striking thing about St Anselm is that he was fundamentally a spiritual man. He had become estranged from his father decades earlier because he wanted to ask questions and dig deep into things.
His father would have been happy for him to become a monk at a nearby monastery where he could become a man of status and distinction. But Anselm felt that he could not follow that path and so spent the next few years wandering north in the search for wisdom and a teacher who he could respect.
Eventually he found that person, Lanfranc, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy. It was that geographical accident that resulted years later in his being dragged into power politics. He wanted to do nothing but pray, and think and write. How was he to know that William of Normandy would soon set his heart on conquest?
We still have Anselm’s prayers, and his theological writings, which were probably the most influential in the whole of the western church before the Reformation apart from those of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.
We owe to him one of the most searching reflections on why God had to enter fully into the human realm to redeem it,; a big part of his answer being compassion- God not being a wise bystander but a seeker after the lost in all the mess of life.
He also wrote many loving letters of spiritual advice to other monks and anyone else who wrote to him. Much of it probably far too stern for our taste, but because of that more likely to give us pause for thought; Like in Hindu culture to this day, in his time, many married couples who had seen their children to adulthood wanted to enter religious communities- now freed from parental responsibilities. He counselled them.
Above all was his focus on God, and his love and majesty and our littleness in comparison. He didn’t seek his own face but God’s.
A final prayer which was written for friends might be helpful, as it also acknowledges our own inability to feel the right emotions and find the required words.. Think of someone you know or one of those stories of suffering that move us so powerfully- kidnapped children, people risking their lives in fragile boats to escape war zones, persecuted Christians: Your choice
My prayer is but a cold affair, Lord,
Because my love burns with so small a flame,
But you who are rich in mercy
Will not give them what they need
According to the dullness of my energy
But as your kindness is above all human love
So let your eagerness to hear
Be greater than the feeling in my prayers.
Do this for them and with them, Lord,
So that they may thrive according to your will, and thus guided and protected by you,
Always and everywhere,
May they come at last to glory and eternal rest,
Through you who are living and reigning God,
Through all ages. Amen.