Sunday, October 01, 2006

Servanthood

One of the blogs I regularly read is Ben Witherington. Today he has this parable.

The Holy Man and the Lord

A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day
and said, "Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like."
The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and
the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round
table.

In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew which smelled
delicious and made the holy man's mouth water. The people sitting
round the table were thin and sickly.

They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with
very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it
possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but
because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the
spoons back into their mouths. The holy man shuddered at the sight of their
misery and suffering.

The Lord said, "You have seen Hell."

They went to the next room and opened the door. It was
exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with
the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water.

The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons,
but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.

The holy man said, "I don't understand." "It is simple" said the Lord,
"it requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves."


It is a parable about servanthood. I thought about it while reading Brideshead Revisited. Many of my readers will be familiar with the story, either having read the book or seen the excellent television production that starred Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons, Clare Bloom, Diana Quick, Jeremy Sinden, John Gelguid and Laurence Olivier. But for those who don't remember, a brief synopsis: Charles Ryder, the narrator, is taken up, at the Oxford of the 1920s by Sebastian Flyte, a younger son of an impossibly rich English Lord. For two years at Oxford they are bosom chums (no they are not homosexual) living a dissolute life characterized by ever more drinking of fine wines. Charles is gradually seduced by Sebastian's family, a dysfunctional Catholic entity, where the parents are separated and the children idiosyncratic. Sebastian sees this as betrayal on Charles' part and sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism.

Eventually we find Sebastian living in Tangiers in a terrible state. His alcoholism is far gone, but at last he has found a purpose in his life. He is living with a young German (no, they are not homosexuals). This young man is a useless wastrel, who shot himself in the foot to be invalided out of the French Foreign Legion. He has secondary syphilis. His foot will not heal. Sebastian acts as his servant. Although unwell himself, he struggles to fetch his cigarettes for him. He cleans and dresses the wound. He cares for him. "Someone has to be pretty bad to need me to help him," says Sebastian. Somehow in his degradation he has found the fulfillment that was missing amongst all the opulence.

Evelyn Waugh was a strange man; one of a string of English Catholic writers. Nowadays, it is rare for novelists even to bring God into the conversation, but Waugh wrote at a time when religion was real for most people. Catholics had a strong feeling of guilt. They might well be the greatest of sinners, but they couldn’t be comfortable in their sin. They knew that payment came later.

2 comments:

Exiled in mainstream said...

Glad you're enjoying Brideshead, Dad. One of my favourite novels, and probably Waugh's pivotal work. Interesting to compare with Elliot's post-conversion work - a move from modernism to faith?

I remember Paul Beardshaw (remember him) telling the heaven/hell story in a school assembly. Horrified to realise that this will have been more than 20 years ago.

Love
R

Urs Nydegger said...

Dear Terry Hamblin
I read your texts with great interest. Towards the culmination of a career like yours, we need to intermingle with philosophical thoughts like the ones you let us share with you. At least, I will go and buy Gaurds! Guards! and look up what excites you.
Kind regards from Bern, Switzerland
yours, as ever
Urs E. Nydegger, MD
p.o.box 784
CH-3000 Bern 9