Saturday, 6 September 2014

Just Making Up Numbers - What A Liberty!

Some thoughts from a little homily for Saint Bartholomew's Day, at Fairacres Priory, Oxford

When I was, briefly, a student of Social Work at Ruskin College, we had a case study about a child whose father refused to name it. It turned out there was a cultural or religious reason for this, there had to be a ceremony, when the family had been gathered, and the name would be given then. The social workers didn't understand, considered not naming a child to be cruelty, and it was taken into care. Names, and the power of naming, are big themes in our cultural and religious history. The ancients thought that Adam and Eve must have been immensely clever because they were able to name all the animals. Names in the Old Testament - and, like the Saul who became Paul, in the New, too - change, when a new role or vocation arises. Popes take new names. Parents ponder and dither about the right name for their newborns - do they reflect the past, do they "name after" ("for" in American) or do they strike out and choose something original?

The response to "and who are you?" is very likely to start with your name. That's a pretty random thing, really, as you have sixteen great-great-grandparents, and bear the surname (usually) of only one of them (and with no guarantee that you are genetically, as opposed to legally, entitled to it). We come to a feast like Saint Bartholomew's and ask "and who are you?" and the answer is rather thinner. The "bar" part of his name suggests a patronymic, so a sort of surname, but who was he? He was one of the Twelve that Jesus chose. There's a theory that he might have been Nathanael, who appears only in Saint John's Gospel. If you add them up - I tried it once, before I had been taught to read the Bible less literally and with more intelligence - and found fifteen of the Twelve. The determination to identify Bartholomew as Nathanael reflects the desire to tidy that record up, to make it neat, to be sure that there really only were twelve, and we know who they were.

But the attempt fails, and we don't know. Saint Bartholomew is said to have been skinned alive (well, alive for a time) in Armenia. Nathanael, in John's record, had a taste for figs, and sardonic humour ("can anything good come out of Nazareth?"). But that is John's Gospel, and so, in the best possible way, not to be trusted.

What matters about Bartholomew is not who he personally was, but the group of which he was a chosen part. This goes against the grain of the modern mind. We are individuals, we matter, we strive for identity and self-fulfillment, and here's someone who only matters because of the number Twelve. If you or I were invited to a charming dinner party and in the course of it a fellow guest asked our hostess "were't you thinking of inviting those delightfully amusing So-and-Sos tonight?" and if your host said "Yes, but they were otherwise engaged, so we've got Muggins here to make up the numbers", well, we might be rather miffed. We'd rather be chosen for ourselves, not to make up the numbers.

But maybe there is a liberty in this. There is a madness in the modern world about choice and opportunity and that means we have 101 ways to succeed. But also 101 ways to fail. And that weight of failure, lost opportunity, personal diminution, is clearly implicated in the depression, and anxiety that afflicts our age. How liberating NOT to have to be ourselves, to be chosen, not for our wonderful skills and talents and reputation, but just to make up numbers!

And maybe it's in just making up numbers that we will be free to be ourselves, because in God's sums, we count, whoever we are.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2014

1 comment:

  1. Goring Heath Charities are proud possessors of Almshouses and Chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew; when I was Clerk there we had a special celebration on his Feast Day - but no-one really knew why.