Quiet virtues - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Quiet virtues

Galatians 5: 1, 13-25

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1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.

14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.

16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,

20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,

21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

24 And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.

25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

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Some years ago, I was asked to help conduct the wedding service of a friend of mine in the chapel of Girton College, Cambridge, where she had been a student.

Now, although I used to live in Cambridge, and have preached in most of its college chapels over the years, I had never previously visited Girton - partly because it is miles out of the city centre.  (Its remote location, was, by the way, quite deliberate: although it is now fully co-educational, when it was founded in 1869 as the first residential women's college, it was built as far away as possible from the seething mass of male undergraduate hormones in the centre of town, in order to protect the honour of its young ladies!)

As a college, Girton has educated some of the finest, most academically able, and most gifted women of their day, many of them absolute trail-blazers.  Its corridors are lined with their formidable portraits, and the walls of the chapel are full of memorial plaques recording their extraordinary achievements: every single one of those monuments commemorates a woman who was outstanding in her field, whether academic, or political, or in the world of education, or medicine, or social responsibility.  You can tell a great deal from their titles alone: Professor This; Baroness That; Dame the Other.  I rather liked the fact that one woman, was commemorated for having been 'His Majesty's First Lady Inspector of Factories'.  Another was a former Mistress (Principal) of the College, whose tenure was regarded as particularly outstanding - but they are all amazing.

The wedding reception was held in the college dining hall - which was lined with yet more portraits of yet more terrifyingly able women, including some wonderfully lively modern portraits alongside those depicting redoubtable Victorian spinsters clad in black.

On the wall immediately above high table, and dominating the entire hall, was a memorial that was easily the largest, the most elaborately carved, and the most impressive that I had seen anywhere in the college.  It was of a size that dwarfed everything else by comparison.  In a college like that, which was packed to the rafters with memorials to outstanding women, I was keen to find out who on earth could have been so important, so eminent and so influential, to have earned a memorial of that scale, displayed in what was arguably the most prominent place in the entire college.  Curious, I decided to have a closer look.  And what I discovered was so totally unexpected that I wrote down the inscription on the back of my menu card - so I can tell you exactly what it said.

That monument had been erected in memory of one Eleanor Margaret Allen, who lived from 1867-1929.  And who was she?  What was so phenomenal about her life and achievements that she warranted such an extraordinarily impressive monument?  Let me tell you.  Eleanor Margaret Allen held office in Girton College as (quote) 'Junior Bursar, Librarian, Bursar, and Vice Mistress'.  In other words, she was a college administrator, and for at least part of her time, a fairly lowly one at that.  But then we come to the important bit.  Because her memorial inscription concludes with these words, and again I quote:

Those who knew her have thus marked their gratitude for her long and unsparing devotion to the college, and the love and admiration she inspired by her unfailing courage, wisdom, and kindliness.

In other words, in that high-powered and ferociously intellectual college, replete with portraits of, and memorials to, the most able and influential women of their day, the biggest and finest memorial of all was reserved for a woman whose memory was honoured, not because she was eminent, or powerful, or brilliant, or successful, but because she was loved.  She was remembered, not because she was exceptionally gifted, or for any outstanding achievement, but because her life was a life of 'unfailing courage, wisdom, and kindliness'.  Kindliness!  Hold that thought. 

If I were to ask you how one could discern someone who is empowered by the Holy Spirit, you might well think about the special gifts they had been given: the gift of prophecy; the gift of healing; the gift of inspirational speech; or even something more dramatic than that - in our Old Testament reading this morning, Elijah manages to part the waters of the river Jordan by striking it with his mantle, which is a fairly nifty party trick.

But that is emphatically not the answer that St Paul gives us in our reading from Galatians this morning: 'The fruit of the Spirit,' he tells us, very explicitly, 'is love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.'  Kindness?  Generosity? Self-control?  Aren't those rather ordinary human qualities - and not even particularly striking ones?  Indeed, in our present-day achievement-driven culture, far from being regarded as gifts, qualities such as patience and gentleness can easily be misconstrued as weaknesses.  But St Paul reminds us that it is precisely within the apparently unspectacular qualities of human beings such as Eleanor Margaret Allen that we can find the Spirit of God truly at work, quietly changing the world  by the way in which they touch the lives of those around them day by day.

Today's Gospel reading describes the encounters Jesus had with three potential followers.  If there is a connecting theme linking all three of these interactions, it is perhaps that of wholeheartedness.  The first man boldly declares that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes - Jesus responds by querying whether he fully understands what that kind of commitment will really mean.  The other two declare themselves willing to follow Jesus, but they have pressing domestic duties that they wish to attend to first - Jesus's response to them appears stark and uncompromising.  But as is so often the case, his words are deliberately provocative because he exposes the true priorities of those to whom he is speaking.  Is their commitment really wholehearted?

For Eleanor Margaret Allen, Girton College Cambridge was her life.  She went there as a student, and stayed there for another forty years - which was why her memorial honours her 'long and unsparing devotion to the college'.  She never married; the college was her whole world.  And yet, within that very restricted life, she had a profound impact upon all whose lives she touched. 

Thinking about her life, I found myself reflecting on the nature of Benedictine spirituality. One of the distinctive vows that Benedictine religious orders take is that of 'stability'.  Because unlike other monastic orders, where it is common for monks and nuns to move between religious houses, the vow of stability binds the individual to remain in the monastic community he or she first enters, and to do so for life.  Other than in exceptional cases, this is adhered to.  The significance of that vow is that it requires each individual to grow in their faith and discipleship exactly where they are.  They cannot fool themselves that it would all be so much easier if only they could transfer somewhere else, or not have to deal with that particular individual  who drives them up the wall.  They have no choice but simply to get on with it, and therein lies a crucial part of their formation and transformation.

One thing that the qualities that St Paul identifies as the fruit of the Spirit have in common - 'love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control' - is that they are all largely hidden from view.  Because what God values most in all of us are not grand, spectacular gestures of religiosity, but rather the simple, quiet, hidden virtues - the qualities that we should all strive to nurture within ourselves, because they can and should be the possession of all of us. 

Because if those qualities really did characterise each one of us here today - if each of us were to aspire to that which Eleanor Margaret Allen so clearly reflected in her own life - then we really could begin to discover what it means to live as a true community of faith, and in turn play our own small but essential part in transforming the world.


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