Sharing the Load – 31/05/20

Sarah: Hello everybody and welcome to this Sunday message for our Kensington Unitarians’ community and our friends the world over. This message has the title Sharing the Load and I’m grateful to everyone who has helped create today’s podcast. Singer Corrina Dolso wrote and performed the chant we have just heard and sent it to us from Suffolk, Abby Lorimier, back home in Florida, wrote and played the arrangement of We’ll meet again to end our message and trustee and singer Harold Lorenzelli has recorded a fascinating account of a work written by Albert Camus and its relevance for us today. We all need a helping hand from time to time don’t we -and this need to share the load is part of what it is to be human.

We’ll hear the lyrics of Corrina’s chant and let’s focus on a lit candle, be it real or in our imaginations, the chalice flame that symbolises a free religious faith and our connections with communities committed to lives of integrity and justice the world over. We can take this moment to centre ourselves, to ground ourselves upon the earth that gives us life…..

Peace be with you
Love be near you
Seekers of the light
Hold us in it
Safely we sit
Always in your sight. (Lyrics by Corrina Dolso)

And let’s carry the beauty of those words with us into a reflective, prayerful moment where I invite you to consider all the ways that you have shared the load in life with others this week … the many people who will have made life possible for you one way or another … and those who you have reached out to and assisted … let us give thanks for the mutuality of our lives, let’s commit ourselves to the on-going task of building a society based on such values, let us stay awake to the individualistic tendencies that most of us have – thinking we need to do this on our own and shouldn’t bother other people, … and let us be vigilant in protecting structures and institutions in our own society and across our world that work to reduce inequality and overcome injustice. In a quiet few moments I invite you to speak out loud your own prayers for ourselves, for others and for our world …. that our care and our love and our passion can strengthen all that is beautiful and worthy and inspiring this day and all days, amen

Harold: Hello, and as Sarah would say, welcome to everyone who is tuning in to today’s podcast given by me, Harold Lorenzelli, erstwhile singer and proud member of Kensington Unitarians. If by some miracle what I have to say today strikes a chord with you, then my job is done. Are you sitting comfortably? I may be in charge of transmission but you, my friends, have the luxury of choosing how and when you listen to what I have to say. I like to think that each and every one of you has found time to pause from whatever you may or may not be up to, are sitting maybe in your favourite chair, composed, relaxed and perhaps just a little curious to know what I have to say to you that merits your attention and my labours….

I want to begin with a story that has little to do with our present situation. It concerns a young man to whom I have been giving English lessons. He works or I should say until recently, worked cleaning offices, earning a modest income. I made a decision not to charge him for the lessons. It was my way of lending a helping hand to someone who needed encouragement if he was to advance in his search for employment. When his job was frozen, I found him some work cleaning the flat above my own in preparation for the new tenants. When it came to paying him, he wouldn’t accept the money. He was, he said, doing it as a favour to me. It was his way of thanking me for all the free lessons I had given him. Well, you can imagine my feelings. I was overwhelmed by this simple gesture……but he had spent 4 hours working extremely hard and there was no way I was going to let him go without payment. He grudgingly accepted the money but insisted he would return when it was possible to my flat and clean the place for free. So you see, my gift of free lessons had been repaid to me a thousand fold by his generous gesture and a bond established between us that no money could buy. So by this and other routes, friendships are forged, bonds of solidarity are established and we find ourselves strangely linked to the destinies of others. In this way, we weave the great web of life, that fragile but, hopefully, enduring creation that binds us to each other.

But I have another story which I would like to remind you of, not of my own making but written by a Frenchman, Albert Camus in the 1960’s. I wonder if you can guess which one I am referring to…’s The Plague or La Peste, to give it its French title. In an odd sort of way it’s linked the story you have just heard. But wait, I hear some of you say, have we not heard enough about plagues for one day? …..and I must admit that was the reaction I got from a friend to whom I had suggested the novel. I can’t blame them for wanting something more escapist in content. The times we are living through are curiously ambivalent. We crave information on the one hand and at the same time yearn for a way out, an escape, however brief, from our situation. As someone once said, we human beings can only take so much reality…..and yet…. another friend who had read the novel could only find praise for the work. Despite initial apprehension, she was won over by what Camus had to say.

I read the book many years ago and taught it for several. I never thought for a moment that one day I would be living the novel. Fiction is fiction, life is something different, as I naively believed. But Camus knew that an essential truth can be delivered by fictional means. I was attracted by its lucid style, ironic tone, complex characters, emotional intensity and exalted themes. It tells the story of a town in northern Algeria cut off from the surrounding area by the arrival of a plague born by rats. The inhabitants are smug and bored. They cultivate mechanical habits to get through life and have no interest in anything but money and pleasure. They do not think about morality, religion or death. On one level the book is an allegory of the then recent Nazi occupation but also a grim account of how the inhabitants fight the disease that ravages the town and how they respond to the quarantine during the overwhelming disaster. The emphasis is on the separation of the survivors who are cut off from their loved ones. Initially the townspeople are unwilling to recognise the existence of the plague and the citizens suffers dire consequences including food shortages and restricted traffic, police surveillance and martial law.

It sounds all too familiar, does it not? The book conveys the sense of unreality and lack of readiness of the population, their denial and despair, suffering and isolation. We hear of cases of indifference and at the same time affirmation. There are characters who behave selfishly and others who display a measure of self sacrifice beyond duty. The doctor who treats the patients has no illusions about the scale of the tragedy affecting the town. He labours selflessly, claiming not to be driven by any profound philosophy. He is simply doing his job to the best of his ability. He displays a quality of quiet revolt against an order of creation where his only arms in the fight are a deep love of humanity and a will to prevail. He represents the spirit of revolt which Camus talks about in other works. The refusal to accept a creation where innocent children, amongst others, suffer horribly. Another character who has been trying to escape to rejoin his girlfriend decides in the end to stay and help, recognising that there is something shameful in choosing his own happiness above that of others. Someone once said that no-one can be really happy until everyone is. It is the powerful belief in the collective destiny of humankind. So people are drawn together albeit reluctantly to acknowledge a kinship with their neighbours.

Like his hero, Camus believes that the deadly crisis will encourage solidarity and bring out the best qualities in people, that endurance and courage will prevail. The town eventually returns to normal life with a clearer understanding of the precarious nature of human existence. For me the novel with its sober theme is both realistic and inspiring. It does not shirk unpleasant truths nor offer easy solutions. In life we find ourselves challenged by situations not necessarily of our choosing and out of the ashes of the conflagration that threatens to overwhelm us, we learn valuable truths about the human condition.

In another of his stories Camus recounts the myth of Sisyphus who because of his arrogance was condemned to push a boulder up a hill daily, only for it to roll back down at the end of the day. The task is repeated for eternity. The story champions the notion of dogged persistence in the face of what may seem unequal odds. Sisyphus is aware of his condition yet somehow manages to transcend it. You could call it blind optimism. You have, says Camus, to imagine that Sisyphus is happy. In the face of a hostile, indifferent world, essential truths become more evident. The fragility of our human destiny, the courage with which people face crises, the unexpected bonds that are forged between people of disparate backgrounds, the value of time spent with loved ones, the beauty of the natural world….we can all add to the list. Camus believed that what we learn in times of pestilence is that there are more things to admire in people than to despise….By refusing to bow down to pestilence, they strive their utmost to be healers. Camus did not seek to transform the world in his fiction but simply to illuminate those values without which life is not worth living. I hope I have managed to convey to you some of those values. I wish you well until, as they say, we meet again under more favourable circumstances.

Sarah: And so friends a closing blessing for us all, that healers all, we might in the days ahead find ever more ways to share our talents, our skills, our resources, and our needs, with the world – sharing the load that is living, with loving held as our true purpose, looking forward to the many ways we inventive creatures will find to meet again, though we may not yet quite know where or when.

Amen, go well and blessed be.

Rev. Sarah Tinker and Harold Lorenzelli

31st May 2020