Recently I was going over one of my favourite authors, Khalil Gibran. Confined to quarters as I was, it was either pressing the refresh button on my email every 10 seconds for the results of my COVID-19 test or lose myself in the seductive poetry cocooned in, this time, his quasi-autobiographical ‘Mirrors of the Soul’. Since the former was yielding panic attacks, the latter was ultimately a better option. And once you start reading, the world around you recedes: Gibran is a bit like Dr Who in that.
I came across this quote: “I use hate as a weapon to defend myself; had I been strong, I would never have needed that kind of weapon”. How apt, I thought. For defence is indeed the hallmark of weakness. Strength proposes. Weakness creates barriers for defence. A couple of days later I smiled as I read the sermon for Independence Day mass by Archbishop. Funny how thoughts converge, I thought.
For the uninitiated, Archbishop Scicluna’s sermon on Monday 21st September was based on Pope Francis’ catecheses for ‘Healing the world’. In his sermon, the Archbishop looked at Malta’s great and arguably good in the eye and translated without blinking the Pope’s precepts into local situations. The leitmotif in his sermon was inter-dependence. Cool, I mused, on a day when patriotic chests are bursting with self-determined righteousness.
Archbishop Scicluna reflected on the principles enunciated by Pope Francis: The rule of law, solidarity, the common good, respect to life and human dignity, being of service, making the poor a priority and the environment.
In all his reflections, the Archbishop is pushing us to dismantle our ingrained self-defences. His robust defence of human life “of every individual from the beginning of human existence, from conception to natural death” re-affirms the belief that all life is sacred. He prods us to put aside our natural inclinations, our almost innate dualistic approach that there are two goods: one for me and the other for the rest of the world. He does this by stressing on the need for respect, respect for dignity and respect for conscience. The Archbishop here is not looking at conscience as a final bastion of refuge. Rather, he is referring to a well-formed conscience which discerns right from wrong. For that, one needs integrity and honesty, not simply in dealings with others but, primarily in dealing with oneself. It is an invitation to constantly ask “Why am I doing this?” Can we honestly say that we never delude ourselves?
Egoism breeds corruption
This honesty, this demolition of defensiveness, is a dismantling of fear and hate. As the Archbishop so keenly puts it, it is “a remedy for every kind of egoism which may contaminate and corrupt an authentic approach to politics”. If we can look ourselves in the eye and say that we are doing what we are doing, in both public and private life, for the common good then, like Brutus we can say “If it be aught toward the general good, set honour in one eye and death i’ th’ other, and I will look on both indifferently”. Well, perhaps not death, no need for drama queens, but you get my drift. But can we? Archbishop Scicluna smoothly cuts in: “If politics is to serve as an expression of service and love, it needs to be detached from every motivation of personal gain”.
Who is my neighbour?
As Catholics, said the Archbishop, we are called to help the poor, the sick and the vulnerable: migrants and refugees who also have a right to life, dignity and are also made in His image. It is here, that my thoughts latched on to Gibran. How much hate-speech goes on online? This is the classic use of hate as a defence-mechanism, a call to the barricades, an us-against-them mentality born out of fear. Fear of what? Our inability to care for everyone? We fared well when our economy was not our own. Now we are doing splendidly. Have we forgotten how to share? Or is it perhaps that we do not want to revert to a make-do-and-mend society, preferring instead a disposable mentality? “The preferential option for the poor is the remedy against the temptation of embracing a throwaway culture where a person’s worth depends on his or her strengths or how useful he or she is to society,” said Archbishop Scicluna, adding that “While maturing as a sovereign, autonomous and independent nation, we are called to care for one another in the way in which we express ourselves, including towards foreigners, particularly in our comments online”. He is kind, our Archbishop, certainly much kinder than me. He attributes these lacunae to lack of education.
Education – a basic need
Education has a major role to play in the dismantling of defences but so has an equal distribution of wealth. We are going through a phase of unabashed consumism. Just look at the number of ‘boats’ (oh, I just love the pseudo-posh pronunciation), the rape of the land, everything must be bigger, better than the Borges. And then you start hearing of non-payment of taxation, money-laundering, corruption. Where is the equal distribution of wealth when the homeless look for safe shelter in someone’s front door while others swan around affording expensive holidays? Where is the equal distribution of wealth when a single parent struggles on the verge of poverty while another receives thousands of euros from dubious deals? This is worrying now but is also a cause for concern in the near future. Take the COVID vaccine: the question is: who will get the vaccine? Will money speak louder than human dignity? Are you shocked that I ask this? Now, our COVID numbers are rising exponentially but the voice of money is still louder than that of the health authorities. Archbishop Scicluna reminded those present that showing solidarity also means caring for each other and following the measures issued by the Health Authorities. This is another sign of strength: our care for others through solidarity. Not the weakness of doing what I think is good for me but doing what is right for all.
Healing myself through you
Archbishop Scicluna’s invitation is not one of independence. It is one which underlines the need for inter-dependence. For in stressing our reciprocal care, we share the important role of governing the state. Not once every five years or so, through a vote but daily through our choices. Like Gibran, he pushes us to grow strong and to dismantle the bastions wrought by egoism and hate. Then, on these lines set out by the Archbishop and the Pope, we can start to heal.