Follow the teachers of tenderness

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Next week is Catholic Education Week, prompting composer James MacMillan to reflect

have loved music since I was a little boy. Nevertheless, even then, I was aware that the object of my obsessive affection was peripheral to what many in society saw as being important - I mean, really important.

Our society is in love with money. We are motivated by material success, power, influence, rank and control. We worship The Market, describe ourselves as Consumers, stick to the rules of Competition and perform our obeisance to the relevant Priesthoods that serve these Gods. Compared to all this, the immaterial and apparently useless pursuits of the Arts can seem foreign indeed.

Because of this early awareness, I have been drawn to people who, in their different ways, could be said to harbour similar counter-cultural doubts.

In artistic, political, public and spiritual life, I have been attracted and impressed by those who see our current obsessions for what they are - of secondary importance.

We have raised these warped priorities up on a pedestal. We pay them homage, and the main casualty is our basic understanding of what it means to be human.

Over the years, I have developed a special admiration for those braver and stronger souls who decide to share their lives with those who have suffered as a result of these warped priorities. They align themselves with the marginalised, the excluded, the different, with people deemed to have failed in the eyes of the world, and have suffered discrimination and prejudice as a result.

To prefer these is profoundly counter-cultural, because it presents an inspirational glimpse of how different our culture could be. To choose the marginalised and damaged is to choose the path of compassion which, in turn, brings hope to the hopeless and love to the unloved.

A clumsy clutch of half-remembered, half-digested fragments from St Luke has been swirling in my head: "When you give lunch, or dinner, don't invite your friends or family, or relatives or rich neighbours, so that they might invite you in return, and you would be repaid.

"But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the marginalised, the excluded, the blind, the lame, people with complex support needs, people with learning difficulties, (I did say it was half-remembered) and you will be blessed, precisely because they cannot repay you . . ."

In political terms, this is a manifesto suggesting a way of life at odds with the values of a competitive, materialist society. Those of us lucky enough to form a friendship with a peripheral member of our society, such as someone with learning difficulties or who has Down's Syndrome, will have found certain qualities of the heart that one finds less often in those who have devoted their energies to success. One discovers the great gift of simplicity in relationships, and the ability to express emotion directly.

The rest of us can make a terrible mess in these departments. Social conventions get in the way. Those whom society once called the mentally handicapped teach us that such conventions are meaningless. In their welcome, there is no distinction based on importance. They are not interested in profession or rank, but they are perceptive about people's hearts. They do not wear masks; they express both joy and anger quite naturally.

Artists like myself can learn a lot from them. But the world itself can learn from these teachers of tenderness, these mentors of the moment. It is said that it is easier for them to forgive and make peace.

This is a thought explored by the great Christian visionaries of our time, such as Jean Vanier, which turns round the relationship of the teacher and the taught, the able and the disabled. In our culture of despair one can almost hear the triumphalist cry: "We are all eugenicists now!" A visible sign of resistance to this can be seen in one of the few places we are still likely to encounter a person with Down's Syndrome - at the celebration of Mass in a Catholic church.

If our young people are not to succumb to what the educationist John Hull describes as "the spirituality of money", they need to be grounded in an ethos which seeks to inspire them to live for others.

In our society, the spirituality of the money culture and the spirituality of the culture of grace confront each other. In our private and public lives, we all face the prospect of a lifelong engagement in an elemental war. On one side, there is the overwhelming dominance of the money culture, but John Hull encourages us to seek the means of resistance:

"There are several areas of human life which still stand as pockets of resistance against the domination of the money culture. One of these is the freedom and spontaneity of human sexuality, without which love would give way to universal prostitution.

"Another pocket of resistance is created by children. Very young children are immune to money; they live in simple trust and dependence for their daily bread upon those who love and support them. It is in this sense that they represent the Kingdom of God and its values. Those of us enmeshed in the money struggles of adult life can no longer find such innocence.

"A third pocket of resistance lies in religion."

Against the money culture, there are still, small voices capable of offering an alternative of loving self-sacrifice: "Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price," in the words of Isaiah.

The spiritual education rooted in this ethos, rooted in the teachings of the Christian church, rooted in the very words of Jesus, is the education which seeks to encourage children to live for others. During Catholic Education Week, many will be celebrating the inspiring potential of this resistance, still clearly at work in Scotland. It springs directly from the counter-cultural message of Christ, and is alive in the aspirations of the Catholic school.

James MacMillan is a conductor and composer.

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