When we were kids, we were raised on stories of the heroes from the Bible and the stories of the Knights of King Arthur. We used to sing a song in Sunday school “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm and dare to make it known.’
So for me the heroic is part of the scaffolding of being a Christian. You know “Who would true valour see… hobgoblin no foul fiend can daunt his spirit…he’ll with a giant fight.”
So it is bit of a come down to have to acknowledge that I’m a coward!
Of course this is not all that I am. I think that looking back on 35 years of being a priest, there have been some courageous and heroic things that I have done.
I was at the Archdeaconry conference this week, talking to them about the process of Christian initiation that I am committed to known as ‘The Journey’ or ‘The Easter Journey” but known from ancient days as ‘The Catechumenate”. When I talk about this process, a common response is “Well it is very energy intensive”. Well yes! It is not a course or the simple transfer of someone else’s compilation of information from the book to others. I am proud of the fact that I do this. This is a commitment that takes time and is a bit heroic.
But there are other matters that are on the radar screen as a priest that rise up and say to me “You coward. If you were any kind of a ‘hero’ you would…..” A lot of the time this accusation does not even find a voice. I just sits there as a persistent anxiety during the day.
Then I went to see Hamlet, and lo and behold, here is Hamlet talking about the very same thing. He puts it is a bigger context: that of death! Well I don’t think the issue is one of ‘dying or not dying’, but of the quality of life. None the less, I was struck between the eyes, and my unconscious anxiety was given words when Hamlet says.
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
It was a relief to admit this: I’m not the hero I think I should be.
So now comes some reflection. I was thinking about the story “The Lord of the Rings”. At the end, Frodo the ‘hero’ has to destroy the ‘one ring’ by casting it down into the volcano on Mordor. But the closer he gets, the more the ring has power over him. The weaker his own will and resolution become. Frodo is followed throughout his journey by Gollum, who found the ring originally and wants it back. Just as Frodo is about to fail, Gollum grabs his hand, and bights off his finger, crashing ring, finger and all into the fissure, thus destroying the ring and himself at the same time.
I used to be critical of Frodo and by implication, of Tolkein at this point. Surely the story should end with Frodo really discovering his ‘hero’ self and with his casting the ring into the fissure. Why does Tolkein ‘bail out’ at this point? Well now I think I know. I think that Tolkein is saying that to be a hero of this kind belongs to one person: Jesus. It is not given to us to do this heroic thing. Like the disciples on the morning of Good Friday, I run away. I know myself not to be an heroic disciple, but one like Peter, who constantly needs to be forgiven on Easter Day on the shores of lake Galilee.
I don’t want to remove or justify the accusation of ‘coward’ by appealing to something else so that the accusation goes away or I can say “Yes, but….”. The thing for me is to know and acknowledge this weakness. But this weakness is a weakness, a sin if you like “In Christ”.
Bonhoeffer talks a lot about becoming sinners in the process of life. He talks about ‘bold action, knowing that we might become sinners in the process”. Here, I’m talking about the sin of leaving undone those things that I ought to do.” Here I’m not Jesus. Bonhoeffer wrote a poem ‘Who Am I’ it concludes like this.
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
I used to be critical of this poem too thinking “Ah Dietrich! You should know who you are! You can’t just escape into saying “I am yours O God” without some sense of how you are growing or what your journey is.
But now, faced with the acknowledgement that there are some things that I think I should do, but that the ‘native hue of resolution…has lost the name of action’ I can only now admit the truth, and suspend judgement on myself, and say “Oh God, what ever else I am, I am thine. “
And then the Bunyan hymn comes back to me in my own words
“Hobgoblin or foul fiend may daunt his spirit. He knows he at the end will life inherit. Then fancies (may not) fly away! He (may) fear what men say
but he’ll labour night and day
to be a pilgrim. “