St Bride's: Sermons

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players."

shakespeare.jpg"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms;
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

The opening line from Jacques speech in Shakespeare's As you Like It. He goes on to describe the seven ages of man as a journey from infancy to old age and then "mere oblivion." This image of the journey, of being on the way, trying to make sense of this confusing world and yet being bound together as we travel along, is one that has always spoken powerfully to me. And I suppose particularly so when one reaches a milestone along the way, as I did recently when I celebrated my 60th birthday. So forgive me if I speak personally, but I hope not self-indulgently. I'm not sure if, in Shakespeare's terms, I've reached the 5th stage, "in fair round belly with good capon lin'd" or the sixth stage, "with lean and slipper'd pantaloon, spectacles on nose and pouch on side", or somewhere between the two. Whichever it is, Shakespeare takes it for granted that life is a one-way street, a journey punctuated by different stages or phases, each one involving a certain amount of letting-go of the past, as well as looking ahead to the future. And it is lovely today to welcome someone who is celebrating the first stage, James Wills "mewling and puking in his nurse's arms" as he comes to his baptism and looks ahead with hope to the future.

When you get to sixty, however, you realise that you're over halfway through those seven stages, and that realisation powerfully focuses the mind. You realise for instance that you simply haven't got the same energy you had at 30, you're more conscious of the things you haven't achieved, the goals and ambitions that probably won't now be realised. You accept that there are aspects of our lives that can't be changed, but that that's ok, and also that it's important to make the most of all the blessings which you do enjoy, the people you love and the friendships you've made.

newman.jpgSo for all of us, as we grow older, there is a reassessment of what really matters and what we want out of life that can actually lead to a greater serenity and contentment and yes, openness to the spiritual dimension and to God. The great Cardinal John Henry Newman once wrote "Here below to live is to change, and to be made perfect is to have changed often." As we move through the stages of life we change and hopefully we grow in wisdom, understanding, in tolerance, in openness to others and to new ideas. And in the process we pray that we become more truly the people that God made us to be, shedding our false selves and allowing God to mould and remake us, so that we become more fully human, more generous, more full of grace.

I don't know if you've read the novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris - It's the story of a young single French mother Vianne who comes with her daughter to a French village to set up a shop that sells chocolates. The shop is opposite the church and the local priest is immediately, implacably opposed to both the shop and its owner. Vianne sells her chocolate all through Lent and plans a Grand Chocolate Festival for Easter Sunday. She's very much a free spirit and not much of a churchgoer, but she does help and support people in the village. She's generous, warm and liberal, but the sanctimonious Father Renaud sees her as a dangerous subversive, undermining the moral fibre of the community. In spite of this it is Vianne who earns the affection and loyalty of the villagers, rather than Father Renaud.

Father Renaud hates to see people enjoying themselves and he sees chocolate as a moral issue, a distraction from religious observance. While Vianne exudes joie de vivre, the priest is a sad character, imprisoned in his closed and bigoted world.

The irony of the story is that Vianne's character shines with real generosity and grace, while the priest is trapped in his life-denying religiosity. The moral for me and for all of us, on our journeys through life, but especially when you reach the milestone of 60, is that we need less narrow and sanctimoniousness, the worst kind of stale religion, and more real generosity and grace and authentic enjoyment of life; in fact - more chocolate!

Adapted from a sermon given at St Bride's on Sunday 1st July 2007: Luke 9: 51-62

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