One afternoon in west Kerry in early August I stopped my motorbike to talk to a man. Our chat ended and I went to restart my bike. Nothing happened. While I was waiting for the AA Roadside Assistance to come and restart my bike, the man and his wife brought me into their house, where I was made welcome and drank their tea and ate their cheese. I have spoken to this man on previous occasions over the years. One thing I have come to notice about him is that he listens, takes in what is said to him, rather than just waiting an opportunity to have his say, as many of us do.
In doing this he gives worth to the other person. I have always felt that he respects and considers what I’m saying. Being in his presence is a wholesome moment. We certainly know when we are being respected. It puts a spring in our step.
I have to admit that I was at “sixes and sevens” as to the meaning of tomorrow’s Gospel. Those lines in St Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tells us he has come to bring fire to the earth (Luke 12: 49-53) do not make for easy reading. But further study of all the readings in tomorrow’s liturgy has shown me that it is rooted in a thoughtful and gentle concern to make us aware of how important it is for us to respect one another and to respect what is right and just.
In the reading from the Prophet Jeremiah (38: 4-6, 8-10) we see how the so-called important and leading people in the society call for the death of Jeremiah but then a man comes forward and disagrees and says no, Jeremiah must be saved. In the Psalm we are told that Yahweh steadies our step and puts a new song in my mouth. (Psalm 40). And that fire spoken of in the Gospel is an analogy about purifying us and giving us a sense of what is good and best for us.
Last Tuesday, August 9th, was the anniversary of the murder of Edith Stein, who was gassed in Auschwitz in 1942. Stein was born in 1891 into a Jewish family and was baptised into the Christian community in 1922. She wrote to Pius XI asking him to denounce the Nazi regime so as “to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name.”
Stein, who straddles the Jewish Christian faiths, is one of the six patron saints of Europe.
And tomorrow is the anniversary of the death of Maxmillian Kolbe. He died on August 14th, 1941, also at Auschwitz. He was a Franciscan priest, who offered to take the place of another prisoner, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who was one of ten chosen to be starved to death in reprisal for the escape of three prisoners. The camp authorities agreed to the exchange and Kolbe died some weeks later of starvation.
Both Stein and Kolbe objected to the evil of the German regime, its lack of respect for the human person.
On this day, August 13th, 1961, the East German authorities began the building of the Berlin Wall, which meant forcefully dividing friends and families. Another example of crass inhumanity and appalling disrespect for people. The Wall ultimately failed because of people’s inherent desire to be in solidarity with one another. Another telltale sign of the importance of human respect.
Without restating the rights and wrongs of what is happening in Ukraine it’s glaringly clear that when human beings are being killed, maimed and tortured people are not being respected. War is the ultimate version of the loss of respect. It is the collapse of civilisation.
The Christian message can be a guide or pointer to us to respect our fellow human beings. Sometimes we can glibly talk about the presence of God in the world. I’m never too sure exactly what it means. Yes, believers in God might say that God’s presence can be made known to us in the world about us. I know that the beauty of the world can prompt us to ponder the existence of God. The majesty of the Irish countryside can be a moment for us to stop and think of the mystery of God.
That man I met on the day my motorbike broke down most likely may never know that sense of respect he exuded. For me it was a grace-filled moment. Respect begins with the small things and goes a long way, as I was reminded on my enforced “pitstop” on the roads of west Kerry.