Monday, 21 July 2014

Daleks never tried to replace their human heart

Do newspaper headlines sometimes get it wrong? Advertisers proclaim “Monster sales”, which mean they are big, cheerful and (hopefully) filled with bargains. Those in charge of the media and also the police, regularly describe violent criminals as “monsters”. So who is right and who is wrong? Can somebody or something be big, harmless and beneficial whilst the same word, applied to wrongdoing, implies that an individual and/or their deeds are intrinsically evil? How can a few bargains on a shop shelf equate with a mass murderer – and yet both are described as monsters?

Then again, how can a mass murderer, King Kong and colourful, misshapen cartoon characters all fit into the same category when one is human, one is described as a “colossal” gorilla and the rest are cute and cuddly? What happens if a mother describes her baby as “a little monster”? Does she really think her child resembles the massive two-ton crocodile caught and photographed in the Philippines or the 15metre-long giant squid found off the coast of New Zealand?

Is this just another example of a word’s meaning depending on its usage being changed so that people are meant to understand its meaning by its context?

One online dictionary definition describes a monster as “a large scary creature in fiction. They are usually found in legends or horror stories. They are often ugly and may make people scared.”

Do you remember the first monster that you ever saw? The earliest that I remember was a Dalek. There might have been earlier monsters, but there was something scary and exciting about the metallic creatures which rolled along the floor, waving something that vaguely resembled a gun barrel and declaring, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” The novelty of the Daleks captivated small children. Suddenly their play areas were dominated by little ones who extended a rigid arm at the level of their nose, clenched their fist and approached their friends with the words, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” As the juvenile would-be Daleks attacked, so their “victims” made weird gurgling noises, clutched their stomachs and, with great melodrama, rolled over and pretended to be dead.

Daleks kill. Daleks are monsters. Therefore monsters kill... Except that an interview with the late Terry Nation, who invented Daleks for the Doctor Who television series, revealed a different story. His creations needed to be of a shape which would allow someone to sit inside its iconic conical casing. Even a monster, it seems, may have a human heart. Even King Kong had moments of vulnerability: he was not totally evil.

We generally think of monsters as dangerous and evil – yet what about the many smiling, friendly cartoon characters which are also called monsters although they are harmless? Somehow, their long teeth, bright colours, multiple eyes and misshapen ears, antennae, hands or feet are not particularly upsetting. It would be hard to imagine them doing anything evil. They are more like children in fancy dress: look inside and there is a mischievous giggle waiting to burst out.

So what happens when there is a man, woman or child who is described as a monster? Do such people not also have their soft spots and moments of innocence? Gilbert and Sullivan once wrote:
“When a felon's not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plans
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man's...”

Problems arise when the word ‘monster’ is applied to a human being. Suddenly that person becomes something other than human, with no redeeming qualities.

To call someone a monster implies that he or she is beyond rescue, can never reform and can never be readmitted to ‘normal’ society. Suddenly such a person is put on the same level as, for instance, the Kraken, a legendary sea monster reputed, since the fourteenth century, to dwell off the coasts of Norway and Greenland. The Kraken can never become a goldfish, peacefully swimming in an aquarium. By contrast, the mother who describes a naughty child as a “little monster” does not intend to say that her little one is beyond hope, personifies evil and can never change. Instead, she sincerely hopes that a nap will transform her fractious toddler into one who is full of smiles and fun.

Might it be more accurate if, instead of attaching a monster label to someone, we were to describe their behaviour as monstrous? There is a difference. Look up “monstrous” in a dictionary. There are at least forty-nine words which describe “monstrous” behaviour in a human being. They include such words as appalling, abhorrent, heinous, evil, wicked, abominable and vile. I suspect that none of us knows somebody to whom all of the forty-nine words apply, even in their worst moments. The dictionary definition of monstrous behaviour implies purpose and a choice which has been made but which could be un-made. There is always room for goodness to slip into someone’s heart: St Paul’s fanaticism made him a very nasty character before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. By the end of his life, people wept when he said goodbye at the end of a visit!

We have recently seen in the media, the first reaction of a father to the discovery that his son had become a mass-killer. In California, in May of this year, 22 year-old Elliot Rodger murdered six people and then himself. Inevitably, the world’s media had a massive story and collected eyewitness reports, scene of crime photographs, aerial images and the reactions of neighbours, police, public officials and psychiatrists. Several hours of interviews debated the US gun laws and whether or not they should be repealed. It seemed that, once again, a killer and a monster were one and the same thing. Elliot’s film director father, Peter, gave a different picture. "When you go to sleep normally, you have a nightmare and you wake up and everything is ok," he said. "Now I go to sleep, I might have a nice dream and then I wake up and slowly the truth of what happened dawns on me and, you know, that is that my son was a mass murderer... There's no way I thought that this boy could hurt a flea... What I don't get is we didn't see this coming at all." Perhaps the reason is clear: the father saw his son. He did not see a monster. He is a father whose son’s actions broke his heart. Just as the victims’ family life will also never again be the same, so also with him, but his grief will be compounded by guilt and the unanswered, “Why?”

Of course the media will use banner headlines to maximum effect in order to boost sales. The problem is that there will then be a search for an even more dramatic term as an earlier one loses its impact on the general public. Categorising someone as a “monster” declares them as beyond even God’s influence. Once the word becomes banal, what lies beyond it? If “monster” is applied to a fizzy drink, what happens with the latest atrocity perpetrated against innocent people? To be human means engaging in mindfulness, not in mindlessness. We are not pre-programmed robots. 

Even Daleks never tried to replace their human heart beating inside them.

The results of hard work can be spectacular

“I can honestly say that I have never worked a day in my life.” The elderly horticulturalist, standing surrounded by the multicoloured flowers of his garden, gestured towards their loveliness. “How can I say that looking after these flowers is work? It is sheer pleasure. It is for these that I wake up in the morning, hurry to get dressed and have my breakfast so than I can be in the garden as early as possible and for as long as possible. Ever since I was a child I have loved plants and so, as an adult, I do the same sort of things that I did many years ago: I play in the garden. That is why I say that I have never worked a day in my entire life. Planting seeds and watching them grow is not work. Clearing a patch of soil so that it produces flowers is not work. Digging the soil, even when it is hard, is something I did from my earliest years. I do not work: I play - and I play from morning till night.”

Sadly, not everybody finds such joy in their work. For many people across the world, work is drudgery and far below their potential. A lack of education, skills and opportunities limit countless numbers of individuals from finding a worthwhile occupation that will give them peace, happiness and an income adequate to support themselves and their families. In developing countries where subsistence farming alone provides the next meal, people often have time for leisure, but only after backbreaking work with rudimentary tools. A mission doctor working in a remote area of Zambia, for instance, found as a result of her studies that for many of the families for whom she cared, the possession of a bicycle made the difference between subsistence and enough. “Having a bike”, she commented, “means that a member of the household has transport to buy and carry seeds and fertiliser more efficiently than when the only means of leaving the village is on foot. Frequently, the bike is also used, especially during the dry season, to carry water to the field and also to the house. At harvest time, crops can be taken to more distant markets than when they have to be carried in small bundles on the heads and backs of family members. This means that a family can grow some crops for their own use and some as a means of income.”

In countries such as India, where the caste system is often the overriding factor, many occupations are limited by social status. It is extremely difficult, for instance, for an adivasi (a member of an indigenous ethnic group) or a dalit (lowest caste or ‘untouchable’) to progress beyond the most menial occupations.

Yet it is not long ago that, in this country, people from the lower reaches of society were described as “not knowing their station” if they tried to find a better way of life. Even education was limited, so that they would “know their place”. Their “betters” worried lest literacy give them “ideas”. Those who followed the progress of the characters of Downton Abbey will recall the horror of some members of “the family” when a maid wanted to find work as a secretary rather than to continue looking after the people “upstairs”.

Work is a real value of our society. It confers dignity, self-respect, status, interest and provides an income. We expect people to work and earn their living. Even St Paul wrote, “If they will not work, let them not eat”. In times past, much was made of the “deserving and undeserving poor”. Poverty was often seen as culpable. If someone was hard-up, it was their own fault. This attitude led to the establishment of the workhouses where many thousands of impoverished families were consigned when they had no other resources to keep them together. The hard work to which even small children were subjected was slavery. It was no different to the plight of those people who were forcibly transported from their own homes, often to other countries, to work for others for little or no pay. Slavery continues today: witness the current efforts to address issues of human trafficking.

Our society regards employment as of such high value that to be unemployed can be excruciatingly difficult. Of course there are families where laziness and benefits are transmitted from generation to generation, but they are in the minority. To be unable to find work can be totally demoralising for the individual and for the family. That is why we have recently heard that first-year university students begin searching for a job rather than waiting until their final year. Many graduates, even a couple of years after leaving university, have still not found an opening in their chosen field.

Many of us also know the sickening feeling which accompanies the discovery that a job has been terminated, perhaps by redundancy or illness or some other cause. The future becomes a complete unknown and a nightmare as seemingly secure ground slips away. Uncertainty about the future accompanies every waking moment and disturbs every hope of a good night’s sleep.

For some migrants, the laws of their new countries limit their possibilities of making a new life. I well remember a situation in Melbourne many years ago, when a Vietnamese doctor and a psychiatrist could only get jobs as a bus conductor and driver. Having risked their lives as boat people to travel to Australia, the chances of eventually practising their professions depended on their willingness to take up work far below their capabilities for a government-specified period.

The poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote that, “all work is empty save when there is love”. True, but what about the times when it is only love that enables someone to continue working, day after day, when what they are doing is mindlessly boring and perhaps a cause of great suffering? Is that work “empty” or martyrdom? What happens when those for whom the hours of “hard labour” are spent  do not appreciate such self-sacrifice, determination and perseverance?

Gibran also said that, “When you work with love, you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God." One’s occupation can be a wonderful way of self-discovery. It can also be an amazing opportunity to find meaning in life through a developing relationship with workmates and with God. It is not surprising that the Psalmist once prayed, “Give success to the work of our hands”.

When Gibran reflected that, “Work is love made visible”, he was speaking of the ideal. Not all of us are as fortunate as the horticulturalist who so loved his occupation that it was like playing. To a certain extent, he was being facetious: he knew full well that to bring his garden to its perfection had required considerable hard work. There were probably days when he would also have preferred to turn over in bed and sleep for another hour. There must have been times when the last things he wanted to see were his gardening tools. Yet his success lay in the fact that he tried, tried and tried again - just like the rest of us - and the results were spectacular.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Pope Francis denounces the Mafia

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who blesses with the Mafia is likely to end up dead – or, at least, considerably the worse for wear.”
Sadly, the misquoted opening line of Pride and Prejudice is frighteningly true. During my time in Rome, I knew an Italian accountant whose English was as bad as my Italian. We saw each other almost daily, exchanging our limited greetings and pleasantries. Our conversation never progressed beyond one or two sentences. My impression, however, was of a friendly man who knew his business and would probably not have suffered fools lightly. To my surprise, I discovered that he was influential in the Mafia, or, to be precise, the Camorra, since he came from Naples.

Working in Vatican Radio and being a keen walker, I also daily encountered street vendors as they sold their fake Gucci handbags along the banks of the River Tiber. Tourists thought they were buying a bargain, probably knew that the handbags were probably not genuine, but did notice the extent of their shoddy workmanship. An Indian Jesuit who had some contact with some of the Bangladeshi vendors explained. “They come over to Italy and look for accommodation. They are directed to a landlord who offers them room in his property. The men sleep in bunk beds, perhaps as many as ten to a room. They take it in turns to stay behind for the day in order to cook for their companions. The landlord charges exorbitant rents, but the men have no choice because they are often illegal immigrants. In order to have even a small space on the roadside where they can spread a sheet and display their wares, up to forty percent of their income is paid as protection money to the Mafia. If they do not pay, they have no way of earning a living, have little or nothing for their own survival and earn nothing to send back to Bangladesh for their families. As it is, many cannot afford to pay rent to the landlords and end up sleeping, homeless, under a bridge along the Tiber. They dare not tell their families back home that they are destitute. Some of the police are also in the pay of the Mafia.”

Pope Francis recently visited the town of Castrovillari in southern Italy and denounced the Mafia in strong terms. His words were picked up and broadcast by the world’s media. The general feeling was that the Pope was either extremely brave or extremely foolhardy. Few seemed to doubt that he had put his life on the line. Before his journey to the town where a three-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire between rival gangs of mafiosi, he had declared, “At my age, what have I to lose?”

Those who stand up to Mafia violence and extortion become victims. In March, a kindly parish priest whose Bishop described him as a "discreet martyr of charity", was murdered with an iron bar for refusing to pay extortion money. The body of Fr Lazzaro Longobardi was discovered alongside the murder weapon, presumably as a warning to those who might also think of not paying the “pizzo”, as the Mafia call their “tax”.

The trouble is that mobsters who call themselves Catholics, possibly object to having a Pope tell them that they are involved in “adoration of evil and contempt for the common good.” They might also dislike being informed that “Those who in their lives have taken this evil road, this road of evil, such as the mobsters, they are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.” During his recent visit to the Holy Land, Francis did not speak so bluntly to the members of Hamas and Hezbollah. Perhaps, as a result of his experience with Buenos Aires gangsters, he felt that he could speak as someone for whom the Mafia have at least some respect.

More than 200,000 people attended the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in the small Calabrian town of Sibari. Although his words received applause from the majority, there is no doubt that some of the crowd were sufficiently angered so as to consider some form of retaliation. Only time will tell whether or not the courageous stance taken by the Pope will have earned their respect and, perhaps, a change of heart.

The Mafia is particularly associated with Italy, but because of the massive Italian diaspora, they are also represented within Italian communities around the world. An American commented, “My brother works in the construction industry in New York. If he does not pay protection money to the Mafia, that is the end of his business and, possibly, his life.”

Pope Francis is the son of Italian migrants to Argentina. In his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was no stranger to gangs and to the violence and extortion which he denounced whenever he could. Has his past experience with mobsters who call themselves Catholics shown him how far he can go in standing up to their evil? Is he just someone who is so appalled by gratuitous brutality that he is completely forgetful of his own safety in his desire to protect others? The same Jesuit who spoke of the Bangladeshi vendors in Rome, also commented that, “Our Jesuit training is such that, if necessary, we can stand alone.” Certainly, Pope Francis has shown himself to be “a man for others” of the calibre of whom St Ignatius of Loyola would feel justifiably proud.

There is growing rejection of the mafiosi in some parts of Italy. Even in Sicily, some individuals take their lives in their hands and refuse their demands. What has been needed has been somebody “at the top” to speak out on behalf of the many who are often both powerless and voiceless.

We have just witnessed yet another example of the exemplary leadership of Pope Francis. In denouncing the Mafia, he has done something that many people across the world and the years have longed to do, but have not felt sufficiently brave. A Catholic group called Libera, founded by a priest by the name of Don Luigi Ciotti, is one of many anti-mafia organisations active in Italy. Yet real effectiveness in confronting such a powerful and evil an organisation as the Mafia, requires an extraordinarily inspirational style of leadership; one which unites these small, courageous groups in a global renunciation of their power and violence.

In March 2014, Pope Francis met with a group of victims of Mafia violence. At the time, he declared of the Mafia, “This life you have now, it will not give you pleasure, it will not give you joy, it will not give you happiness. The power, the money you have now from so many dirty deals, from so many Mafia crimes, blood-stained money, blood-stained power – you will not be able to take that with you to the other life.”

“There is still time not to end up in hell, which awaits you if you continue on this road,” Pope Francis said. “You had a papa and a mamma. Think of them, weep a little and convert.”

Friday, 20 June 2014

When will humanity appreciate creation’s loveliness – in peace?

Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction. A recent episode of Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4 described the way in which soldiers in the trenches during the First World War frequently passed their time by growing flowers and vegetables. Whilst soldiers received medals for bravery, they were also awarded medals for their allotments. The gardening provided the embattled combatants with a source of fresh vegetables and a distraction from the horrors which surrounded them. Seeds sent from home ensured a continuing supply to satisfy the constant demand for their life-giving greenery. Competitions for the best home-grown produce guaranteed its quality. Apparently one long trench on the edge of no-man’s land was also known for its excellent celery. How many of the men who went “over the top” carefully watered their plants before they left for a fight from which many never returned? How often did a withering stick of celery indicate that the chaos of no-man’s land disguised the remains of someone for whom a vegetable had been a symbol of a vanished normality?

Still amidst the trenches of WWI, in May 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae, an army doctor, prepared the battlefield burial service for his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, an artillery officer killed at Ypres. McCrae commented, not on the manner of his friend’s death, but on the scarlet poppies which grew everywhere, defying the violence and bloodshed. Amidst the terrible scenes which McCrae had witnessed, he had also noticed the flowers and the bird song. In the squalor, suffering and carnage of the trenches, it took a special kind of insight to see the loveliness of a world beyond. As he marked a tragic loss of life, McCrae gave us a poem which has become iconic as we remember the sacrifices of the First World War.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

Less than three years later, poppies also marked McCrae’s grave. In fact he died almost seven months to the day after my great-uncle, Austin Owens, and is buried in the same cemetery in Wimereux. Both now receive the care and attention of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

John Bradburne was an officer with the 9th Gurkha Rifles who was subsequently murdered by guerrillas in Zimbabwe in 1979. During WWII, he fought in Malaya and Singapore.  In Burma, as a member of a special force called the Chindits, he was specially trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. His courage earned him the Military Cross...but he was also remembered for his awareness of every flower, insect and bird in the field of battle. In Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known, and working with the leprosy patients for whom he was killed, Bradburne wrote more than two thousand poems, many of them about the beauties of the natural world around him.
“Nature is wonderful, worthy of praise –
stars in the night and sun in the days,
snows on the mountains, streams in the vales,
birds of the forests and seafaring whales,
horses and elephants, fishes and snails...”

We are still learning of the monumental preparations made for the apparently inevitable invasion of Britain during the Second World War. The strength of the German army appeared ready to overwhelm Britain’s rapidly diminishing resources. Men and women were secretly enlisted to create a partisan force which would hopefully delay an invasion for at least two weeks. Vowed to silence, they dug trenches and positioned booby-traps, knowing that, should the German occupation occur, their life expectancy was very limited. In the midst of life, should the need arise, they prepared to lay down their own lives for the survival of others. Such was the secrecy with which they worked that their heroic efforts are only being revealed 70 years later. Yet, some years ago, surrounded by the beauties of the Surrey countryside and the silence of a summer afternoon, as the sound of horses passed by on the nearby road, it seemed incredible that this was also a hidden training location for these valiant members of our own Resistance. What stories might the trees have told had they been able to speak?

Elsewhere, on the banks of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, a hexagonal pillbox is today smothered with dandelions, rosebay willow herb, campion and meadowsweet. There, too, soldiers were concealed, ready and waiting lest their guns must find and larger victims than the occasional rabbit or pheasant.

During my recent visit to the Holy Land, our group of four Catholic journalists visited the ruins of Bethsaida, a town whose name is so familiar to Christianity. As we trod the ancient road which, surely, was well-known to Jesus and his disciples, our guide pointed out a flowering bush: “This was possibly the type of thorn used for the crown of thorns”, he explained as he indicated the inch-long protruding spines.

The loveliness of creation held other stories, some ancient and others, more recent. Those same hills where Jesus once walked were pitted with Syrian bunkers from which snipers overlooked the tranquil beauty of the Sea of Galilee. Before Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights in 1967, the beautiful hills were dotted with such deadly emplacements. One concrete bunker in particular resembled the ideal hide for any birdwatcher. Its uninterrupted view of the surrounding countryside is, today, an ornithologist’s dream come true. Yet, when it was built, a good sniper with a high quality lens could apparently see into houses at the edge of the lake. Tangles of grasses and a profusion of colourful wild flowers could not totally hide a barbed wire fence with its warning of undetected mines. In Belgium, too, ordnance from the First World War is still being found and defused almost 100 years after the war ended.

The natural world is able to overcome many of the worst effects of humanity’s attempts at apparent self-destruction. Chernobyl will be off-limits to most people for countless years to come. Yet naturalists report a flourishing wildlife, which thrives in spite of the high levels of radiation.

On 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, approximately 15,000 British troops died in what is still a world record for a one-day engagement. During a period of six months, British and French troops advanced about 8 miles from their original positions. There were an estimated 420,000 British casualties, including my great-uncle and many of his Liverpool Pals Battalion. There were a further 200,000 French, and approximately 500,000 German, casualties. Today, the peacefulness of the multinational war cemeteries hides the personal trauma of the individuals and families concerned. Flowers have replaced the craters made by exploding shells and bombs.

Yet the world seems to have learned little. Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria, Sudan and the Central African Republic are only some of the places where people currently confront each other in anger. Millions search for peace, but at a price. For some, it means peace on their terms and the word become synonymous with oppression, rather than freedom. People do not have to die in order for poppies to grow and look beautiful. When so many people long for peace, why is it so difficult to achieve? When will humanity appreciate creation’s loveliness – in peace?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Together in peace

The visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land would only ever make sense in retrospect. When he, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s President Shimon Peres prayed together in the Vatican Gardens, it was proof positive that “Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims... can express his or her desire for peace for the Holy Land and for all who dwell there.” Praying in Hebrew, English, Italian and Arabic, the representatives of millions of men, women and children expressed “the desire of their respective peoples to invoke to God the common longing for peace”.

On his arrival in Rome, President Peres declared, “I have come to the Vatican from the State of Israel, together with the representatives of the main monotheistic religions in Israel for an extraordinary event for peace.” He expressed the thoughts of countless people across the world when he continued, ““I hope that this event will contribute to advancing peace between the parties and throughout the entire world.”

Pope Francis is realistic. Bringing together the two Presidents is unlikely to bring about instantaneous peace between Israeli and Palestinian. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscan Order in the Middle East, organized the historic joint prayer event in the Vatican Gardens. He commented, “The Pope wants to look beyond, upwards. Not everything is decided by politics.”

The prayer session took place in the quiet and neutral space of the Vatican Gardens. Amongst the representatives of Judaism and Islam, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim Professor Omar Abboud were also present. These two friends of Francis’ from Buenos Aires also accompanied him on his trip to the Middle East, Divided into sections for each faith, Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders read texts relating to peace from the Bible, the New Testament and the Koran.

Addressing people of all faiths and none, the Pope declared, “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare.  It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict...” In his own message, Peres departed from his prepared text to say, “I was young. Now I am old. I experienced war. I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families — parents and children — who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for generations to come.” For his part, Abbas prayed, "O Lord, bring comprehensive and just peace to our country and region so that our people and the peoples of the Middle East and the whole world would enjoy the fruit of peace, stability and coexistence."

The three leaders then jointly planted an olive tree as a sign of their commitment to peace.

When Pope Francis recently travelled to the Holy Land, he knew that he walked a spiritual and political tightrope between conflicting sensibilities. His was no pleasure trip. Every word was weighed in advance. Every syllable and gesture could have consequences which could further or disrupt any movement towards peace and reconciliation. Commentators across the world debated the effect of his three-day visit to the part of the world so sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and yet so torn by differences of outlook and understanding. Inevitably, his words and actions pleased some and irritated others.

High security surrounded his time in Israel. There were no walkabouts as in Jordan. The Pope’s journeys between venues were not surrounded by large and enthusiastic crowds as in Bethlehem. It is, perhaps, a backhanded compliment that one Israeli official wryly commented as the papal entourage left Israel, "I suppose we must count his visit as a success because he managed to irritate and to please both the Palestinians and the Israelis." By this, he referred to Francis’ unscheduled stop at the controversial security wall which divides the West Bank from Israel. Then, hours later, he visited the memorial for those Israelis who had been killed by Palestinian attacks. His words at the Holocaust Memorial of Yad Vashem must rank as some of the most sensitive and personal ever to have been uttered by a Pope. Nobody could have remained unmoved by the depth and urgency of his plea, "Never again, Lord, never again!"

On landing in Israel, Francis knew that he would meet, not only President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but also Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Their encounters would hold momentous significance for the future of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The meeting between Francis and Bartholomew in Jerusalem recalled the fiftieth anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenogorus. After the subsequent half-century of discussion and rapprochement, this get-together between Rome and Constantinople in the persons of Francis and Bartholomew was always to be highly significant. It turned out to have been more important than anybody could have realised. At a press conference a few hours later, Father Federico Lombardi SJ declared that, “It was a wonderful meeting that nobody wanted to end”. In fact, it over-ran by an hour.

In the days following that engagement, hopes have been expressed by the Pope and the Patriarch that 2025 will see another unique event: a joint and truly Ecumenical Council between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The proposed Third Council of Nicaea will mark 1700 years since the First Council in 325. One outcome of the First Council was the Nicene Creed, described as "the earliest dogmatic statement of Christian orthodoxy”. The Second Council of Nicaea differentiated between the worship and the veneration of holy images, condemning the first and supporting the second. Perhaps a Third Council might lead to the reunification of Catholic and Orthodox?

The Pope’s suggestion for such a high-level prayer meeting between a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim was groundbreaking. Francis made it even more historic by subsequently proposing to Patriarch Bartholomew that he also join them in the Vatican. The announcement that it would take place on the feast of Pentecost could scarcely have been more favourable. Whereas Christians celebrate the feast this year on 8 June, Judaism celebrated the same feast (Shavuot) on 4 and 5 June. For Christians, Pentecost marks the birth of the Church with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. The Jewish feast recalls the day that God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, in other words, the formal foundation of Judaism.

It speaks volumes about the credibility of Pope Francis that, in bringing together Peres and Abbas, he prayed with two men who long for peace but whose people are so often embroiled in violent conflict. There is no easy solution to the troubles of the Middle East. It is perhaps telling that John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, remarked, “This Pope knows he probably won’t be able to make peace. But preventing war – that he can do.”

 “An epidemic of peace” is unlikely to break out in the Middle East. Yet the joint time for prayer in the Vatican Gardens showed that it is entirely possible to come together and to talk about peace. The presence of Patriarch Bartholomew also demonstrated that the rift of many centuries between East and West can be healed. Mutually-inflicted wounds do not need to be picked at until they fester. The world CAN unite itself with the prayer of Pope Francis:  "Keep alive within us the flame of hope, so that with patience and perseverance we may opt for dialogue and reconciliation.  In this way may peace triumph at last, and may the words 'division', 'hatred' and 'war' be banished from the heart of every man and woman."

Willpower and the determination to work for peace will see that prayer granted.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Peace begins with the children

“We believe that in order to nurture peace and understanding, we must start very young. We must start with the children.” Amanda Weiss, Director of the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, is very clear about her responsibilities. “We bring the children together to the Museum and give them the opportunity to talk about their shared heritage in Abraham. Unlike some of their parents, they do not see whether their friends are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. All they see is other children and an opportunity for fun. In that way they do not realise that, from their earliest days in school, they are actually listening to each other, sharing and creating a foundation for the future.”

Laughing and excited, a group of about fifty small children of primary school age charged recklessly down a flight of stone steps, happily ignoring adult warnings to take care. Some of the boys wore the skullcap or yarmulke, which identified them as Jews. Of those, a proportion also had the side locks or payot of the Orthodox Jews. As for the others, their religious origins were not immediately identifiable.

As the wriggling horde of young visitors reached the bottom of the staircase, teachers and museum staff divided them into manageable groups. A few minutes later, a little boy of about six gloried in his shining scarlet cloak with its fur trimming. As he adjusted his impossibly high crown, he tried to look regal and commanding but failed. Clustered around the throne, his “subjects” giggled to see their new king and teased him unmercifully. Nearby, wearing white hoods decorated with floppy ears, other children attempted, equally unsuccessfully, to be sheep. History was about to come alive.

“In this museum, we arranged the exhibits chronologically rather than according to their place of origin”, Amanda commented. “This gives us the opportunity to show what was happening at any one time in this part of the world which is so sacred to so many people.” She continued, “The Bible is our history book. The Bible is ours and by ‘ours’, I mean all of the monotheistic faiths, from all directions and all streams - and there are so many that I cannot even count all of them. Even in Judaism, there are numerous streams. We are called the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. We are about the journey of Abraham, the archaeological and historical basis which the lands of the Bible give us.”

Amanda Weiss is the daughter of Elie and Batya Borowksy, the two founders of the Museum. She described the moment when her mother’s inspiration led to its founding in Jerusalem in 1992. Elie, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, planned to house his collection of Near-Eastern antiquities in Toronto. Batya looked at (unknown to her at the time) her future husband. “If your collection is, as you say, the most important collection for the Jewish people and for the Judaeo-Christian heritage, for understanding from where we came and why we are here today, then it belongs here and no place else other than Jerusalem. A place for all faiths to visit must be in Jerusalem.” Batya won the day. The Bible Lands Museum was built in Jerusalem, rather than in Toronto. Today, as its website declares, it “houses one of the world’s most important collections of ancient Near Eastern artefacts, illustrating the world of the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the civilizations of Greece and Rome and the importance of Canaan, Judea and Israel at the cross-roads of the ancient world.”

Amanda continued speaking. “Biblical quotes throughout the Museum help us to orientate ourselves to our history, time and place. We do not just look at the Old Testament. We look at Christianity as well and Coptic Egypt... The intention behind creating this institution was so that it would be a universal institution for people of all faiths to come and to understand the history of the lands of the Bible because the Bible is our history.”

The noisy group of children enjoying their Museum visit was not unusual. “What kept me here was the potential, the power and the capacity of this museum to impact the lives of the people around us. We have educational programming for children from kindergarten through to adult. We have a whole Arab education department, run in Arabic by Arab staff because this is our shared, common heritage. It is not a Jewish story. It is not a Catholic story. It is not a Protestant story and it is not a Muslim story. It is the story of the development of civilisation from a biblical perspective and from a monotheistic vision.”

“We have one amazing project. It has been running for seventeen years non-stop and is called The Image of Abraham. We bring together Arab and Jewish children, their teachers and, in the end, their parents join in too, to learn about our shared common heritage of the journey of Abraham. They create an art project together so that they can take back into their schools something large which they all worked on together as a group project. Every one of these schools gets a project, which they can then put on display to show what they have done together. It is in Arabic in the Arab schools and Hebrew in the Jewish schools. It is a wonderful source for teaching, learning and for understanding.”

How does Amanda, as Director of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem see, not only the role of the Museum, but also her place within it? “It is a passion, but it is also a mission for all of us who work here,” she said. That much was completely obvious. Everything about the Museum spoke of love. Across the world, any Museum worth its salt goes to extraordinary lengths to reach out to its visitors. These days, as anybody would know who has wandered around museums in Britain and elsewhere, children are engaged in interactive events from the moment they hurtle through its entrance. A huge amount of time and effort goes into providing little ones with colourful displays which require buttons to be pushed, handles to be tugged, lids to be lifted and scents to be smelled.

Museums are meant to be exciting places for people of every shape and size. They are intended to provoke thoughts and to ask questions. It is important to know and understand the past in order to make sense of the present. It is difficult, if not impossible, to work towards a hope-filled tomorrow if today is filled with misunderstanding, division and prejudice.

An overriding memory on leaving the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, is the impression of sunshine that has little to do with its architecture and lighting. Some of the parents of the children clustered so happily on the Museum floor would normally have little positive interaction. However, just as in Britain children needing parental help with homework inspired an awareness of, for example, climate change so too, the young visitors to the Bible Lands Museum are building their own tomorrow. They see no reason why tomorrow should not be filled with peace, understanding - and fun! If they can bring their parents to see the value of listening to those of a different background, then it is all the better.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Sunshine and shadow

“That’s a big, fierce dog you have with you!” The young couple laughed. “Yes. He terrorises the whole neighbourhood.” With that, their tiny puppy squirmed and wriggled with delight at being the centre of attention. He could not wag his little tail faster or more energetically if he had tried. Even jumping up to lick the offered hand did not lift him far above the short grass. With another laugh, the puppy’s owners led him away to another new and exciting adventure.

“I do not know what it is,” the elderly man commented, “but there always seems to be a different type of walker in the early morning.” He watched as his two golden labradors fossicked amongst the fallen leaves, searching for the source of interesting scents. “Do not get me wrong. They are all nice, but somehow, early in the day, people are more relaxed and willing to spend time chatting. I come out at this time every day, not always taking the same path, walking the dogs and talking to the people I meet.” Adjusting his glasses, he continued speaking. “Every morning is beautiful. Every day is a good day. When I was 50, I thought life was good. In my 60s, life was better. In my 70s, life was better still. Now, in my 80s, every day is a gift and every morning, beautiful and to be treasured. I have cancer and do not know if my prognosis is accurate. I am receiving chemotherapy, but that is alright. The nurses at the hospital are great. I am happy to go there and, in between my bouts of chemo, I walk the dogs and enjoy my life, however much or however little of it still remains to me.”

Alongside the lake, a fisherman pulled in his heavy line, the rod bending and moving from side to side as the fish tried to escape. With infinite care, he drew the orange-bellied fish into the net. It was big. No doubt the man’s wife could have prepared at least one and perhaps two meals. She would not have a chance to attempt such an exercise: her husband bent down to remove the hook and release his catch back into the lake. He resumed his seat and picked up his preferred breakfast of a bowl of cornflakes.

Further along the same lake, a magnificent male swan swam gracefully and silently towards the water’s edge. Watchful and protective of his mate on her nest, he prepared for the unnecessary likelihood of defending her and her precious eggs. For her part, she sneezed and buried her head underneath her wings. She was safe and knew it. Soon, the male relaxed and resumed his guard duty, a responsibility which would remain his until the eggs hatched and the cygnets were themselves ready for independence.

The elderly man was right. There is something special about an early morning woodland walk.

The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, asked the question, “What is spring?” He answered himself. It is “growth in everything”. There is something wonderful and almost magical about a country walk where young lambs skip beside their staid mothers and heavily pregnant mares wait in anticipation of giving birth. In this part of the world, it is hard to think of a better symbol of Easter and its new life than the glorious beauty of our countryside. Even in the city, amidst the busy streets and bustle of traffic, wayside trees stand with swelling buds and leafy mantle. “What is spring? Growth in everything.” Primroses are making way for bluebells. Yellow dandelions have replaced the white snowdrops, daffodils and colourful crocuses. In the early morning sunlight, as one dog walker remarked, “We are truly blessed with unique beauty and an unmatched countryside.”

Yet, in spite of the sunshine, there is also darkness. Out of sight in the Central African Republic, Christians and Muslims try to eliminate each other, usually with great brutality. An Archbishop and his Iman friend tour the country in an effort to show both sides that they could live in harmony and understanding. Nigeria has once again witnessed bloodshed as Muslim extremists detonated a bomb in a busy bus station in Abuja, the country’s capital. Syria somehow continues to exist in the middle of appalling violence, its victims disproportionally innocent children. A Pakistani court recently dismissed the case of a nine-month-old, who was charged with throwing stones and attempting to murder a policeman. At the time of writing, Ukraine is frighteningly close to becoming the border of a major war between Russia and the West. Search and Rescue ships and planes still scour the waters of the Indian Ocean as they look for the vanished Malaysia airlines plane. Close to the shores of South Korea, divers desperately search a capsized boat, hoping against hope that they might find a child hanging on to life in an air pocket.

Sunshine and shadow. On Palm Sunday, Pope Francis celebrated Mass and toured the vast crowds assembled in St Peter’s Square whilst carrying a wooden cross made for him by Italian prison inmates. His action echoed his visit to the town of Lampedusa after a boat, laden with illegal migrants, sank, drowning most of its passengers. There, his cross was fashioned from pieces of wood salvaged from a shipwreck. On both occasions the joy and celebration of those present at the Mass was touched by sadness. On the one hand, however culpable the prison inmate might have been, incarceration divided a family. On the other, unrealised hopes of a new life caused a family to pay perhaps everything it owned to unscrupulous traffickers with little care for the seaworthiness of the boat to carry them from North Africa to Lampedusa.

Good Friday led to Easter Sunday. Without one, the other could not have happened. Sunshine and shadow, light and darkness. Some of us have the freedom and the time to appreciate and to cherish the world around us. Others wonder when their pain and suffering will end. Nothing matches the agony of a parent when a child’s life is endangered. It is all easy to see Mary at the foot of the cross and, somehow, to think that, for her, everything was different; everything would be put right because of the resurrection. For the rest of her life, she would relive the sights and sounds of her son’s suffering and death. The joy of Easter Sunday would never obliterate the memory of preparing Jesus for his burial. Good Friday changed Mary. We can glibly say that it was an experience which taught her compassion and understanding. That is true. However, for all time, she is a mother who suffered, who shed tears and who found herself in a place where, left to herself, she would willingly have escaped. It is unjust to her to explain her journey in terms of salvation history and to ignore the reality of her motherhood. Yes, Good Friday prepared for Easter Sunday, but Easter Sunday somehow included Good Friday.

The people of the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria and Ukraine, the relatives of the plane crash, shipwreck and the prison bars will never be the same. Please God, their Good Friday will become an Easter Sunday.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Brad, a little boy who gave as much love as he received

“When Brad was born, the hospital staff told me to go home and forget about him. He said he would not live longer than six months and that it was best for my husband and me to get over his birth and to have another baby. That was 14 years ago. Now, he is the longest-living child in this country with his condition.”

Liz stared reflectively at her cup of coffee, knowing that it was only his family’s love and care which had made Brad’s survival possible. She continued speaking. “Apparently his disability was the result of my having something like flu when I was pregnant. I was not particularly ill and thought that I recovered quickly. How could I have known that the virus attacked my unborn baby and caused such devastating effects?”
While we spoke, the subject of our conversation lay on a mattress on the floor. Brad rolled his head from side to side, his arms clenched under his chin and a big grin on his face. Even if he could not tell his own story, somehow he knew that we were talking about him. Every so often his gurgled laugh interrupted us. Liz carried on with her story. “My husband Colin is a policeman and has to work shifts. It has been very difficult for him, especially when Brad has been ill and when he has had to leave us to go to work. His sergeant has been fantastic and, wherever possible, has adjusted the rota to help us. Colin’s colleagues have also been wonderful. It has been an amazing experience to have a succession of big, burly policemen coming into the house just to say hello. They have also fallen in love with Brad’s laugh. Without exception, they have left the house, smiling, feeling better about their own day, whilst I have also benefited from their support.”
Liz and Colin had two other children, both born after Brad. How did they respond to their severely disabled brother? “Although he is now 14, Brad has never functioned beyond the level expected of a three-month-old baby. When he was born, his legs and hips were so rigid that we needed to have his hips permanently dislocated. This might sound cruel, but it was the only way that we could change his nappy. We had been advised that he would never be able to sit up, so this really was the best option for him. The children have been wonderful and, right from the start, have been fully involved in his care. They know that Brad is very different from other children, but he has always been the centre of this family. Colin and I have been constantly amazed to see how, when they come in from school or from playing with their friends, Brad is always their first port of call. The children tell him about everything they have done. When they are happy and when they are sad, they go to Brad and talk to him. He can be serious for a few moments, but he always laughs and they laugh too. At a recent parents evening, a teacher commented that caring for Brad has made our other children compassionate and understanding. Even with his limitations, Brad is the girls’ big brother: he has taught them to care for others before looking after themselves. That is his gift to the family.”
With his severe disability, is Brad able to recognise his family? “Colin and I believe he can. Do not ask us how, but there is something different in his response to us and to outsiders. I talk to him and know that he is listening and that he understands. We have always known that Brad has a limited life expectancy. These days, he is ill more frequently than ever. I have told him not to hang on for our sake; that he is to feel free to let go. When I told him that, he became serious and I saw a single tear run down his cheek. That had never happened before. I really felt that he appreciated what I had said and I loved him all the more. I do believe that my words made the difference. We all love him so much and do not want to lose him but I know that Jesus loves him even more than we do. I have always believed that my son is very special to Jesus. That is why I do not think that we will have Brad with us for much longer. He has been our angel on earth. Soon he will be our angel in heaven.”
When Brad died, the local church was filled with people whose hearts he and his family had touched. Somehow, Brad made others feel that they could keep on going when life was difficult. He could not judge and therefore people approached him without any pretensions, becoming gentler and more vulnerable. There was no point in putting on a show before a boy who listened, but could not speak; who heard and responded with laughter to the most serious story. In fact, they talked to him simply to hear him laugh. It was impossible to be with Brad without joining him in his smile. When someone was asked why he was so important to her, the woman shrugged her shoulders and stretched her hand towards him. “I cannot take myself too seriously when I am here. His laugh always makes me laugh and brings the sunshine into the darkest moment.”
When Brad died, his family moved to a smaller house and I lost contact with them. Yet, many years later, I think of that family and see Mary at the foot of the cross. Jesus, fastened to the wood with nails through his hands and his feet, was, in a sense, helpless. It was, however, at the moment of his greatest incapacity that he achieved a miracle beyond all imagining: the resurrection. 2000 years later, a child born with profound physical and intellectual disability changed the lives of his family and of all those who met them. Their quiet faith and heroic care for a child they refused to reject, transformed Liz, Colin, their other children, the local community and its police service. Their GP, himself the father of a child with Down’s syndrome, found the courage to extend a similar all-embracing love towards his daughter and to other families with a disabled child.
Holy Week is, in one sense, a journey accompanying a mother and a son to an inevitable conclusion. Both Jesus and Mary knew that, if he continued challenging the Jewish authorities, they would take their revenge. Yet, through his death and resurrection, we find life and hope. So also, through the most unexpected encounters, perhaps through meeting our own Liz, Colin and Brad, we find a depth of meaning which, without them, would never have been ours.

Perhaps the song was written for Brad, which said,
“He won't ask for your pity or your sympathy,
But surely you should care.
Scorn not his simplicity
But, rather, try to love him all the more.”

This little boy gave as much love as he received.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Will kindness heal their memories?

Would we be justified in thinking that the jury might possibly have been prejudiced? Twelve “good men and true” - all-white, of course - found the man guilty. In 1983, in the American State of Louisiana, a black man, Glenn Ford, received the death sentence, found guilty of the murder of jeweller Isadore Rozeman. In spite of his plea of innocence and several appeals, Ford spent the next 26 years on Death Row. Recently new evidence caused a judge to throw out the case altogether, rule on Ford’s innocence and order his release. Now aged 64, Ford walked free from prison. When journalists asked what were his plans, he simply said that he was going to get something to eat. Poignantly, he also remarked that when he was first imprisoned, his son was a baby and is now himself a father. That said almost everything. Thanks to what appears to have been a prejudiced verdict, Ford has, in many ways, lost his life without needing to go to the electric chair.

During his many years in prison, an innocent man will have seen many of his fellow prisoners walk that final walk towards execution. He will have wondered how long it would take before he himself would make same journey, his final appeal rejected. His family and friends shared his anxiety. The difference was that they anticipated the death of a family member whereas, for Ford, he expected, in full health, to be dispatched by the State Executioner. Now that he is free and exonerated of all guilt, how many times that he think of “what might have been”? Will he feel resentful and angry? How will he return to a normal life when his normality for so many years has been limited by iron bars and the keys of his jailers? Can society possibly give him adequate compensation for all that she has lost?

Take another scenario. This time it is in Syria. A journalist was recently released from prison after being held for more than a year and, during that time, tortured on more than one occasion. His crime? He tried to take photographs of government troops brutalising civilians. We speak of the freedom of the press: he had been trying to do his job, trying to tell the world of injustice and to bring about peace. That, however, was insufficient. In a gross miscarriage of justice, this unnamed journalist received no trial and no apology when the prison doors opened. It was only in leaving his country, that his tale was told.

Yet another scenario. This was also an occasion when a young man rocked the proverbial boat and upset the authorities. He was probably aged around 30 and had gathered a small group of followers. An itinerant preacher, he attracted attention for challenging the political and religious leaders of his day. Interestingly, his words were never directed towards the occupying power which held his country in thrall, but only towards his own people. It was they watched and eventually arrested him on the word of a traitor. We know the story - or think we do. Jesus was arrested during the Jewish celebration of Passover, the sign of his betrayal being the supposedly affectionate greeting of a one-time friend. Every year at this time we hear and reread the story of his passion, death and resurrection. It is so familiar that the reality is often overlooked.

It seems that the soldiers based in Jerusalem were not the elite troops who were the glory of Rome. They seem to have been a mixture of conscripts and mercenaries, possibly from Syria and the countries around Israel. Poorly trained and many of them antagonistic towards the Jews, they were not over-concerned about gentleness, justice and integrity. Possibly they welcomed the occasional opportunity for unsupervised brutality towards the people they controlled and who resented their subjugation by Rome. Capturing a young man who made no effort to fight back, it was easy to mock him in ways which went beyond their immediate remit. Pontius Pilate had ordered that Jesus be scourged, not that the troops responsible for his “chastisement” should then drape him in a cloak, adorn him with the crown of thorns and then further humiliate him. This is, of course, a scene with which we are familiar in our religious setting, but how often, in reality, will bored guards abuse the vulnerable captive for whom they are responsible? Jesus was simply one in a very long line of victims. We know about him simply because he was important to us: there are many of whom we will never hear and whose fate might remain unknown even to their families.

Pilate was a small-time official in an insignificant State of little importance to Rome. It seems that he resented his responsibilities in Jerusalem and was certainly disliked by the Jews whom he governed. Fearful of higher authority and not exactly outstanding in his practice of mercy and of justice, the loss of one life, even that of an innocent man, was not very important. Concern for his own position and comfort, he made little effort to stand up to the High Priests and their machinations-and so, Jesus died. We know the story. We hear it every year.

Yet the miscarriage of justice which led to the crucifixion is replicated time and again today. In this country, we pride ourselves on the independence of the judiciary. Compared to certain other countries, the integrity of our legal system is outstanding. Yet here, too, mistakes are sometimes made and the innocent can suffer as a result. The hen-pecked Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, declares, “The law is an ass! It is an idiot!” It is blunt, but, sadly, sometimes true.

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Portia, disguised as a lawyer, speaks eloquently of the quality of mercy. She declares that, “Earthly power is most like to God’s when mercy seasons justice”. Yet the play also includes a plea for understanding from an unlikely quarter: Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?” It seems that Pilate could not overcome his own blindness and see that Jesus deserved both mercy and justice. In the case of Jesus, justice would have meant freedom, a physical freedom which he was denied although spiritually, he was supremely unfettered.

Nelson Mandela realised that unless he forgave the injustice he had experienced, he would remain imprisoned for the rest of his life. Will Glenn Ford and the unnamed journalist be able to practice such magnanimity? Will the kindness and goodness of those around them heal their memories? On the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How did those who hear him respond to his words? We do not know. We will probably never learn of the official reaction to the freedom of Ford and the journalist. May their new life also be one of resurrection. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Three Jews who went from death to life

Sometimes, the only possible reaction is one of amazement and profound awe. Within the space of a couple of days, the BBC broadcast two interviews with women who survived the Holocaust. The first was with an 84 year-old Eva Schloss, the sister-in-law of Anne Frank, famous for her diary, written before her death in Auschwitz. As children, the two girls had played together. Eva’s mother, after the war, married Anne’s widowed father, Otto Frank. By that time, just as he had lost his wife and daughter, so too, her husband and son had long been victims of the Holocaust which took some of Judaism’s finest and condemned them to a horrific death.

The second interview was recorded several years ago with the eldest of the Holocaust survivors. Alice Herz-Sommer, who lived in London and was originally from Prague, died recently at the age of 110.

At first it would seem that the two women had little in common. Certainly, the two interviewers had not planned that their broadcast conversations would be separated only by a few days. Yet they enabled their listeners to enjoy an unforgettable moment which celebrated the true meaning of freedom.

Eva, a former concert pianist, described the loss of her father and brother after she and her mother were separated in Auschwitz, surely devastating moments for all. When asked what music held special memories for her, she explained how, on Saturday nights before their arrest, the whole family would lie on the floor, in the dark, listening to the exquisite music of Schubert’s Trout Quintet as their “preparation for sleep”. This music, many years later, still conjured up the peace, tranquillity, and happiness of their family’s love and togetherness. No wonder this precious memory would, in decades to come, still bring joy to the only survivor of those evenings.

The surprise came with the second inheritance track. She, who had lost so much, explained that what she would like to pass on to the world is the message enshrined in Louis Armstrong’s song, What a Wonderful World. Instead of learning bitterness, Eva had learned to appreciate life and its immeasurable capacity for all that is good. In seeing the horrors of the death camps, she saw life and learned to value things that perhaps would remain unnoticed by those who had not faced the ultimate in human brutality. She finished her radio interview, repeatedly saying, “It is a wonderful world!”

Days later, when Alice Herz-Sommer died, the BBC replayed an interview recorded several years ago. When Alice was taken to Theresienstadt, she was a musician with a young son. Just like Eva, Alice lost most of those who were dear to her. Often starving, she declared that what kept her alive was her love for her son - and her music, “For in music I found God.”

The inmates of Theresienstadt included many musicians and other talented people simply because they were regularly displayed to visitors in an attempt to show the “humanity” of Hitler’s concentration camps. Some would describe the good food which would be placed on the tables in front of the prisoners, who knew only too well that, immediately the visitors left, they would be starved in compensation for the meal that they almost ate. Musicians would be required to give concerts to an audience of their fellow prisoners, again a facade to mask the reality of their suffering and deprivation. Alice, a gifted pianist, was also required to perform from time to time. She herself said, “We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year. The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”

The amazing thing was, in the interview, to hear the number of times that Alice said something to the effect of, “It was beautiful”. She appeared to have not an ounce of bitterness or resentment towards those who had done all that they could to make her life miserable. Her piano gave such joy and meaning to her life, that, until her death, she spent at least three hours daily at the keyboard, making music.

Alice and Eva had one important thing in common, their reason for living, the strength which allowed them to survive the concentration camp: they both had someone to love, someone who needed their care. For Alice, it was her son, Raphael, who died in 2001, but was one of the very few children to survive Theresienstadt. Eva had her mother and of her she wrote, “Her presence helped me a lot, and then of course, she very often gave me her bread ration.  She gave me courage and I gave her courage as well, so being together was a great help for us... But, in the camp, there came a time when the things reversed suddenly.  Suddenly I was looking after her, and I grew up, this was for me a very important moment that I felt.  You know she [was] not able to look after me anymore; I [had] to look after her.”

The two Jewish women, who might or might not have met each other during the course of their post-war experiences, were also supremely free. Their memories, however painful, however dark and beyond the stuff of nightmares which most of us can never imagine, did not destroy their lives. Rather, they found new life and new hope in the realisation that having been to the limits of all that might have destroyed their humanity, had they lost hope, had they lost love and the determination to keep on caring for someone else, they would really have lost everything.

When he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela declared that unless he was able to forgive his captors, he would remain in prison and their victim for the rest of his life. In forgiving those who hurt him, they had no more power to consign him to the iron bars and hard labour which destroyed so many others. So too, Hitler, Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, the Holocaust and the worst excesses of the Third Reich were powerless when confronted by the power of love and two women who refused to stop loving. In that love, regardless what the outside world might have said or seen, they retained their dignity and sense of self-worth. They learned what was most important in life and celebrated it. This is exactly why some people would say that, on the cross, the heart of Jesus burst with joy. It was not a denial of evil or of pain, but of rising above it. In their suffering they found redemption and experienced the resurrection. Whether or not Alice and Eva, as Jews, would acknowledge the part they played in the history of salvation, Alice, Eva and Jesus were three Jews who went from death to life.