The opening lines of Saki’s short story arrested me:
… Sophie had very advanced and decided views as to the distribution of money: it was a pleasing and fortunate circumstance that she also had the money. When she inveighed eloquently against the evils of capitalism at drawing-room meetings and Fabian conferences she was conscious of a comfortable feeling that the system, with all its inequalities and iniquities, would probably last her time. It is one of the consolations of middle-aged reformers that the good they inculcate must live after them if it is to live at all.Saki (H.H. Munro), “The Byzantine Omelette”, in The Complete Saki (Penguin Books, 1982), 315
I recognize myself in the middle-aged woman contemplating revolution from the safety of well-established routines and ritualized guilt. I recognize her in the world, and in the church, and in myself, raised to a certain privilege that rails against the state of the all things while benefitting from it.
I came to ordination at the same time as I reached what might be considered a genuine middle age. My call grew out of childhood devotions and their reward. It included, if I am honest, some nostalgia for the sense of escape, the security of escape that I found within the large and imposing structure of the church – both its building and its liturgy. Of course, I had matured at least a little in the intervening decades (or so I like to think), and learned a few things that were obscure to me as a child of a certain province, class, and culture. But I was not as young as I used to be, and I was never exactly on the cutting edge of societal change back then.
Ten years into this still-new life, and as shaken as the next sheltered person by the events of recent years – pestilence, violence, hatred, relentless revelation – wondering how it all will shake out, I have a new understanding of the woman in the story, and not a little contempt for her assumptions and presumptions.
That is, I recognize in myself the ego that says, “But I came to this so late, I have hardly had any time to make my mark,” striving against the voice of reason that says, “The next generation must overtake me if they are to show me the future.” There is a genuine grief that mourns what has been left behind, forever constrained to the past, in some of the ways that we organize ourselves around work, around worship, amidst the world, set against the grim joy of revolution, knowing that there were so many problems swept under those old carpets, and too many people buried in their dust.
John the Baptist is written to have said of Christ, born only a little after him, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
There is little harder than to intentionally decrease one’s influence, since even that might be seen as an example, and pride will continue to puff up the gesture of withdrawal into something grand. Still, I am trying to become deliberate in my occupation as an observer, ready to respond still if needed, especially to bolster the voices of those crying havoc in the wilderness, but spending more of my attention as I age in place waiting and watching, wondering (to counter-paraphrase one of Saki’s longer-lived contemporaries) what new and un-tame beast ambles toward Bethlehem to be born, and scrambling on aching knees to get out of its way.
The Reverend Rosalind C Hughes is an Episcopal priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. Active in gun violence prevention conversations, her most recent book, Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, published earlier this month. She is also a contributor to the RevGalBlogPals book, There’s A Woman in the Pulpit, and blogs at rosalindchughes.com.
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