Chris McDonnell, UK

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February 15, 2017

Things fall apart

 One of W B Yeats’ most celebrated poems, ‘The Second Coming’, has these lines in the opening stanza:


    ‘…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.’


It was written in 1919, in the aftermath of the Great War, when the privation and suffering of that conflict were still vividly fresh in the life experience of countless millions of people across the torn continent of Europe .  

There is something of unremitting despair in that first line, the dissolving of certainty, the break-up of once cherished options where the furniture of lives, once secure, has been shattered by circumstance.  

The New Order that was to emerge coloured the pattern of relationships for the rest of that violent century and continues to do so in our time. Only now, some of the safeguards and sureties that framed the later 20th century years have become questionable.  

Politically this is self-evident, with our own country set to leave the EU for we know not what, turmoil and protectionism rampant in a new US administration and numerous conflicts world-wide fed with the potent fuel of terrorism and bigotry.

 Our Church has not escaped the secular storms that we have all experienced, a fact that should not surprise us for though we carry the name of ‘Christian’, we too are part of the huge social movement that has been the soundtrack of our life time.  

It has been a time of challenging questioning, when asking ‘why?’ or even ‘why not?’ has become acceptable. For some, that has been a matter of concern, unfamiliar with asking questions, but well-experienced in receiving answers. I have often said to my grandchildren, ‘ask me any question you want but don’t always expect a neat and tidy answer’. It would be foolish to ignore the stress that has been felt in consequence of this changed culture.

 But for others, it has been a liberation, an opportunity to share, a chance to understand through a deeper appreciation, an experience of open hands that share, rather than the semi-closed fist and pointed finger of instruction that tells you how to think.

 We have seen a movement within the Church that, in some ways, reflects the line of Yeats. ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’, but not completely. For our centre, Christ incarnate, is secure and will always remain. What will change with each generation, and I would suggest, must change, is the manner in which we respond to this eternal experience of the loving God. 

 When the signs of strain are such that cracks appear in a structure, there are three immediate choices. Ignore the evidence and trust that all will be sorted, make-do with some sticky tape until a later, more convenient date, or attend to the issue before there are more serious consequences.

 It is heartening to see the manner in which Francis has approached difficult and serious issues. Above all, he has listened, not just to those appointed to high office but also to the poor and ordinary folk in our pilgrim Church . He has met with the outsider, the one who doesn’t quite fit the mould, the expected pattern. He has made it clear that he feels more comfortable with his Christian mission being expressed in this way than with an ostentatious way of life that we had come to accept in a hierarchical Church. It is that ‘centre’ that has begun to crumble and which ‘cannot hold’.

 When the centre of something has been so strong, it is not surprising that ‘that things fall apart’ when there is change. Each of us in our ‘safety zone’ feel secure until the challenge comes and we are called to make our own informed decisions. That’s the time when ‘our centre’ is truly tested, when we are asked that personal question of our allegiance to the Risen Lord and not to the ephemeral lifestyle that it has often been our lot to experience. That is the time of facing a reality which we cannot ignore.

 The example we have been offered, of a Bishop of Rome who listens to his people, who helps with the reality of their daily lives, who seeks a relationship of understanding and not one of misplaced condemnation, is one that should be replicated across the Church, for he is truly prophetic person.

 If only it were so, if only there was such an acceptance of his wisdom.

 The Yeats quote will soon be 100 years old. The events of the intervening years reflect our inability to learn from experience. Don’t let’s give up, just yet.