Sunday, January 20, 2008

Burning hearts

He wore a wide, leather belt over his tunic and short leggings that came to just below his knees. His sleeves were hidden by arms that extended across his chest and face, a futile act of self-protection that ended in his inevitable death almost 2,000 years ago when Vesuvius erupted and buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He wouldn’t know that, in Herculaneum, as the population sheltered, safe, or so they thought, in the warehouses dotted along the shore, the first wave of hot air, escaping from the volcano crater, would sweep down the slopes, dessicating everything in its path. Scientists two millennia later, would conclude that it took less than five minutes to kill and skeletelise more than four hundred people as they slept, unaware of their impending doom.

Not so in Pompeii. Even today, the figures, carefully excavated by archaeologists, show the horror of those who had tried to escape but couldn’t avoid the torrent of hot ash and stones that hailed down upon their thriving city. For sure, the unexpected end of a heavily populated, affluent centre of commerce that housed the rich, the very rich and the very, very rich just as much as those who lived at the opposite end of the economic scale, preserved the records of daily life. Visit the museum in Naples and glory in the vivid colours of mosaics that might have been created this morning. See the magnificent sculptures, enshrined forever in newness and it is hard to visualise the contorted bodies of their creators, huddled over, vainly trying to save themselves from the volcano’s wrath.

Pompeii, Herculaneum and London are far apart, but are they?

Yesterday, I stood on the Thames embankment, across from St. Paul’s Cathedral as the sun was vainly attempting to break through impossibly heavy layers of grey clouds.

To the left of Wren’s masterpiece, the memory of our first three martyrs of the Reformation live on, Carmelite friars, who went to a horrific end in …. because they refused to accept Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his wife and marry his mistress, Ann Boleyn.

Yet, looking at St. Paul’s, there is also another story, one that dates back to a bakery fire in Pudding Lane and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

What was it like for the people of the time to stand exactly where I stood yesterday, across the river, watching the conflagration on the opposite bank? Were it not for the Thames, Fleet Street and St. Paul’s could be reached within a few minutes. How many watched from the embankment, knowing that there was little or nothing that they could do to help those whom they knew and perhaps loved, who were caught in the fire? Were they also showered with dust, hot ash and scorched splinters of wood from the burning buildings? Were the flames reflected in the sluggish waters of the Thames? Did they feel helpless, not knowing that the fire led to the end of the Plague and the establishment of the first fire insurance? Would that knowledge have mattered in any case? What value did the later benefits hold in comparison to the lives of people they loved and for whom the bystanders had responsibility? Samuel Pepys could write as an eyewitness, to some measure dispassionately and with some humour, but for most of his contemporaries, they were watching the end of their lives as they knew them to be.

But there is no need to go back in time to understand the feelings of helplessness of individuals who must watch the sufferings of those who are precious to them. It happens today and in situations that are not confined to nationality, culture, creed, gender or religious belief.
There are also people today, across the world, who are helpless in the face of violence and threat to their lives, whether from natural causes or from others who cannot find peaceful ways to eliminate conflict.

Helplessness is not limited to ages past. That is why, in the hymn, we sing, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come…”

God bless,
Sr. Janet