Some years ago I attended a wedding service in the chapel of Girton College – which was founded in 1869, as the first residential women’s college in Cambridge. It was deliberately built miles out of town, to protect the honour of its young ladies from the seething mass of male undergraduates in the centre of Cambridge. And since its foundation it has been responsible for educating some of the finest, most gifted, and most able trail-blazing women of their day.
The corridors of Girton are lined with their portraits; and the lives of many of the most gifted and talented of these remarkable women are commemorated with memorial plaques in the college Chapel, every single one of which commemorates a woman who was outstanding in her field, whether academic, or political, or in the area of social responsibility. You can tell their status from their titles alone: Professor This; Baroness That; Dame the Other. There were some truly formidable women amongst them.
Following the wedding that I attended in the chapel, the reception was held in the College dining room – which again was lined with yet more portraits of yet more redoubtable women, some of them severe in Victorian Black with starched collars – alongside some colourful and very lively modern portraits.
Situated immediately above high table, dominating the entire room, 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 dwarfed everything else by comparison. So I was intrigued to find out who on earth could have been so important, so eminent, and so influential, to have earned a monument of such impressive scale – so I went to take a closer look. And what I discovered left me so surprised, and so moved, that I copied the words of that memorial onto the back of my menu card – so I can tell you exactly what it said.
It had been erected in memory of one Eleanor Margaret Allen. And who was she? The College’s founder, perhaps? At the very least a world-ranking academic, or scientist, or political figure? No, she was none of those things. Eleanor Margaret Allen was in turn, I learnt from the inscription, Girton’s ‘Junior Bursar, Librarian, Bursar, and Vice Mistress.’ In other words, she was a college administrator – and for much of her time there, quite a lowly one at that. But then we come to the important bit. Because the inscription concludes with these words:
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 a college that is replete with portraits of, and memorials to, the most powerful and exceptional women of their day, the biggest and finest memorial of all is reserved for a woman whose memory was honoured, not because she was eminent, or brilliant, or influential – but because she was loved. She was remembered, not because she happened to be exceptionally gifted, but because her life was a life of ‘unfailing courage, wisdom, and kindliness.’ Kindliness!
The world of academe is notorious for being a very challenging place, that is always highly competitive and, at its worst can be an absolute snake pit – a veritable jungle of rampaging egos. So the fact that a college like that, should honour a woman like that, for reasons like that, to me speaks volumes.
By her life, and her example, Eleanor Margaret Allen demonstrated that, however important the striving for excellence or achievement might be, even in an institution like that, there are some qualities that are more significant even than those. It is self-evident that her very presence within that college made it a different kind of place. Which is why her memory was honoured with a monument that embodied the overwhelming respect, and affection, and love felt by those who knew her.
Our Gospel reading this morning tells of John the Baptist, who appears in the Judean wilderness offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He goes on to describe the earth-shattering consequences of the coming of the Lord that he foretells: valleys filled in; mountains laid low, crooked paths made straight – highly dramatic stuff!
But what will be the consequences of that astonishing event upon the human heart? For an answer, we need look no further than our first reading from the prophet Malachi, when he speaks of the searing heat of the refiner’s fire, declaring that: ‘he will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver and he will purify the sons of Levi.’ Both of these biblical passages speak to us powerfully about the judgment of God.
Judgment, properly understood, is about exposure. It is the relentless stripping away of all the devices we try to employ to conceal the truth about who and what we really are – in our vain attempts to conceal that truth from others, from ourselves, and from God. The judgment of God is a burning away of all that is dark and destructive within our hearts: envy, jealousy, resentment, pride. When we give in to such emotions, and allow them to govern our behaviour and our conduct towards others, we not only degrade ourselves, but we also dishonour God. Just as, when we are driven by the desire for success, or achievement, or power, or control, or the desire to dominate or to punish, it is we who are demeaned; and it is our relationship with God that suffers. Yet, when judgment comes, all of that will be exposed by God, and burned away by the refiner’s fire.
Which is why our second reading from Philippians emphasises the importance of our being ‘pure and blameless for the day of Christ.’ We are all, of course, frail and fallen creatures, who can only begin to strive for such purity of heart through the love and grace and forgiveness of God. And such striving also requires of us an immense amount of courage.
Because to aspire to a life of true transparency – true purity of heart – is a hard, hard calling – because it requires of us a level of honesty, and a capacity for self-reflection and self-examination, that can be uncomfortable both for us and for those around us. The unwillingness to collude with gossip or unpleasantness, because it is destructive and wrong, can make one deeply unpopular – because it exposes the truth of that kind of behaviour in others, and people find exposure threatening, particularly when uncomfortable truths are revealed in the process.
However, courage by itself is not enough. We also need wisdom to help us discern what we should say and when it is appropriate to say it. Otherwise we may cause untold hurt or damage without even realising it.
And courage and wisdom, by themselves, are not enough either. We need something else as well. A more human quality. A readiness to meet people where they are, and for who they are; to do our very best to try to understand, and to value, and to feel compassion for them – particularly for those whom we find it most difficult to love. To learn to be patient with those by whom we feel misunderstood. How might we sum up that kind of quality? How about a word like kindliness?
I don’t know whether Eleanor Margaret Allen lived a life of exemplary purity of heart. I know very little about her at all, aside from those few words immortalised on her memorial in Girton College dining room. But the qualities for which she was honoured – and, much more importantly, loved – her courage, her wisdom and her kindliness, were valued beyond price by those whose lives she touched. She transformed the life of the institution that she served, simply by being part of it.
Judgment is one of the major themes of the Advent season, and one of the most important. And for me, one of the most challenging aspects of what that means, is that very often it is not so much the big events of life that reveal who and what we truly are – but the small, insignificant details: how we conduct ourselves in the presence of those who are closest to us. How we deal with those whom we find it most difficult to love – whether at home, or at work, or in church. Because those are the aspects of our behaviour that shape the communities of which we are a part. And it is upon those responses – the small and the insignificant – that we are judged.
The theologian and former Bishop of Winchester, John V. Taylor, once wrote that:
The real direction that a soul takes towards heaven or hell is mainly determined by an infinite number of almost infinitesimal choices, any one of which may be of ultimate seriousness.
And if that thought does not give all of us the occasional sleepless night, I suspect that it probably ought to. Amen.