Some years ago, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Louvain took an interest in how people feasted and celebrated. As part of his research, he asked one of his students to write a thesis on the following subject: ‘how do children, from the ages of 9-11 years of age, experience the phenomenon of feast?’. The student approached the subject in a number of ways, and one of these consisted of showing a controlled group of 100 children three drawings of a different birthday feast.
In the first drawing, the picture depicted a child alone, but before a mountain of gifts and presents waiting to be opened. In the second drawing, the child was not alone, and was surrounded by just a few members of their family, and some food – a birthday cake, ice-cream, and other treats. But there were many fewer presents to open – in fact only one parcel, and not very big at that. In the third picture, the child was surrounded by wider family, friends and neighbours, and there was more food. But there was no gift or parcel in the picture at all, so nothing to open. The question the children were asked was simple enough: which of these birthdays would you rather have for yourself, and why?
Seventy percent of the sample chose the third picture. And they explained, as children might, that this was the real feast. Others said ‘because in the third picture, everyone is happy – in the first picture, only I am happy, and in the second picture, not enough people are happy’. The children, in other words, grasped something authentic about humanity and sociality. That by being together, and only be being together, can we be truly happy. True, this takes organisation, and can be headache for the organisers. But a feast, to be a feast, needs people. A feast is not about ‘what’s in it for me’ or being self-fulfilled. It is about others, as much as ourselves.
We have been thinking today about prosperity and flourishing. ‘Flourishing’ comes from an Old French word, meaning “to blossom, grow, flower, bloom; prosper” and is rooted in the from florere “to bloom, blossom, flower,” figuratively “to flourish, be prosperous”. Likewise, ‘prosperity’ comes from the Old French prosperer (14c.) and directly from the Latin prosperare “cause to succeed, render happy”. Happiness and hope, then underpin flourishing and prosperity. To enable someone to prosper and flourish, one has to know their hope, and also to invest in their welfare and happiness.
Perhaps, like me, you have despaired – and even been depressed – in recent years over the quality and character of debate on whether or not Britain should stay in Europe. Throughout our ‘Brexit’ debates, I have mourned how easily the word ‘community’ and ‘union’ – two fine words and concepts that remind us of our bonds with our neighbours – have been neglected. We seem to have gone out of our way to make a virtue out of being un-neigbourly; told ourselves that sharing – giving and receiving – is risky.
The debate, at times, has felt like an advocacy for the first two birthday pictures I described earlier. We are better off on our own; or better off with just a very few friends. But if we can’t control the numbers at the table, perhaps the answer is not to feast. But the feast that Jesus regularly refers to and refrains – that of the Kingdom of Heaven – is an inclusive, widespread and open affair. The early church practised this liturgically, and also in social and political terms too.
Now, as a theologian, and someone who writes on spirituality too, I hope you will not mind me commenting here that a true feast, in Christian terminology, is a communion with God, and a communion with people. The two are indivisible. We cannot share at the common table and only be self-interested. Because God’s love is shared. God’s feasts are gracious in character; sublime in their fullness, greatness and capacious vision. They draw folk in; and they send folk out. They are profoundly communal. Time and time again, Jesus tells stories about feasts that welcome everyone, and are fundamentally inclusive in character. This theology leads to a reified social polity.
So the first Christians looked after the widows, orphans and poor. And they treated them not as objects of charity, but as equals. They did this to foreigners, friends, neighbours, slaves, free, male, female, children, adults… As John Chrysostom wrote, ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas: ‘where charity rejoices, there we have the feast’. The early church was committed, as a matter of course, to that third picture. The birthday of the church was Pentecost: many nations; many tongues; one Lord; one faith; one hope; one union. Europe is a profoundly spiritual, indeed, Christian project.
The church, in other words, was always for others. And perhaps, we might say, Europe is not only there for what individual groups can get out of it. It is there for others too. It is a shared enterprise, built on profound notions of prosperity, reciprocity, giving and receiving. We have not always lived up to its calling. The divisive strident nationalisms of two world wars, and more recently in the Balkans, shows us what can happen when naked nationalism asserts itself over the common good.
Indeed, that phrase, ‘common good’ is something that has been used by modern catholic theologians over the course of the last twentieth century, and this one. But of course, its origins are rather older. It is rooted in fundamental ideas of flourishing and mutual prosperity. Mutuality is key. So I declare an interest here, as a sometime lecturer and tutor at the Said Business School – an association I enjoy and find immensely enriching. But when I teach, I like to tease a bit, as is my wont. So here’s a question I ask students: ‘what is the oldest constitution in the world that people still live by today?’.
Many students approaching this assume it might be somehow British – the mother of all parliaments, and all that. Some braver souls suggest Iceland – that is the world’s parliament, by the way, formed in 930 AD – the Althing. But no, it is not that either. No, the answer is The Rule of Benedict, written around 540. So yes, catholic, European, and designed to regulate life and how we live together. It begins with a simple word: ‘hearken’, or ‘listen’ – and goes on to tell us that if we want to lead a body or a group, we must first of all listen to it. It advocates charity, compassion, grace, hospitality, hope, holiness. It preaches regard and respect for neighbours, and for the poor. It tells us how to live together, despite our differences.
The essay I then set on the basis of this is simple. Write a book review on a text that teaches us about leadership. But there’s a catch: a stipulation. You can only write a review of a book that has been in continuous print for at least 300 years. This cuts out all the modern dross at a stroke – those tiresome books at airport bookshops that brashly claim to be the latest fad and breakthrough in leadership studies or management theory. They are all deleted from this exercise. Hurrah!
So what can you write on? Well, Machiavelli’s Prince. Shakespeare’s King Lear. Benedict’s Rule. Gregory’s Pastoral Rule – the text book on how to be a bishop, translated by Alfred the Great – mostly unknown to and unread by today’s bishops. Goodness, its only 1500 years old…what could people possibly know about being a bishop in the sixth century? Or you could read the Bible. Or you could try some other texts.
These are some of the treasures of Europe, and they are shared. The essence of the problem today is just that: sharing. So I am back to my three birthday pictures. In an article for the Wall Street Journal (15/04/16), the analyst Michael Barone pointed out that President Trump’s support came disproportionately from those low in what the scholars Robert Putnam and Charles Murray dub ‘social capital’ or ‘social connectedness’: people who are less likely to participate in civic activities, or regularly attend church or social clubs.
This is ironic, when you think that research consistently shows that joining groups and participating in them – whether as a volunteer for a charity, or indeed as a church – improves your health. It may matter more that you participate together, perhaps, than what you believe. And health experts and other researchers suggest joining a group and participating in voluntary work adds two years to your life. How interesting. That helping others to be prosper and flourish actually makes us feel happier.
Our vision of Europe, then, is about being and belonging together. And to know that our resources – whether land, food or wealth – are for others too. That it is in the act of expansive sharing that our hearts and minds are also expanded, and we then become communities and peoples of welcome, rather than agents of alienation and rejection.
In Christian and theological terminology, this is the true feast: striving to create the common good. That is why shared food, shared meals, gracious and intentional hospitality, proper charity and love and regard for our neighbour, aliens and strangers lies at the heart of most of the world’s major religions. These are the “economics of God”, and they are the fundamentals of any civilised society.
So let me return to that early experiment with the child psychologist in Louvain, and ask you, perhaps, to draw in your mind, what is the best way to make your own birthday feast? It is not better to be on your own; we are better together – we are mutually interdependent, and need each other. How could you share your prosperity so others may flourish?
As a colleague of mine recently remarked, he really thought it would be good to be important in life, and indeed, he had strived for that goal of individualistic elitism. But life, he reflected, has now taught him something quite different. It isn’t necessarily good to be important; it is much more important to be good. So let us put the flourishing and prosperity of others at the heart of the European project – back where it belongs.