Dr Andrew Thomas Kania's commentary today is a reflection poignant to this Lenten time of the year and with a certain poignancy to today's editorial on Catholica [LINK]. It draws together insights from one of Australia's great writers, Henry Lawson, and marries them in with insights from one of the ancient seers of the Eastern Church, John Chrysostom. It's a reflection on our constant struggle as human beings with hypocrisy — paying lip service to what we really believe. In fact, Dr Kania titled the essay "Lip Service" and presents it as a reflection on these verses in Matthew's Gospel: Chapter 25 vs 31-46 [LINK].
Henry Lawson's poignant story: "Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock"...
In his collection of short stories, While the Billy Boils (1913), Henry Lawson (1867-1922), offered to the world one of the most poignant pieces of literature in "Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock". Set in late 19th Century Industrial Revolution Australia, Lawson's story tells of a young boy, becoming the breadwinner of his family after his father has passed away. Unable to have an education because he is working in a factory at Grinder Brothers, Arvie Aspinall is found one morning at four o'clock, by a police constable. Arvie has been sleeping on the threshold of the factory entrance. Terrified of being late for work, because he did not want to be sacked, (thus forcing his family into greater penury), and not being able to afford a clock; Arvie has been arriving at the factory, so early so that he could not be caught out. Each morning Arvie goes to work with a small parcel in his hand containing three slices of bread and treacle. All this information the police officer garners from Arvie, the constable then passing the human interest story on to the local newspaper, and the newspaper in turn publishing his report, as a "Touching Incident".
As 'fortune' would have it, members of a local benevolent society read the newspaper report and in response decide to assist Arvie and his family — by purchasing for the boy, a clock, a clock with a loud alarm. The clock is duly presented to the boy's mother, who when receiving the gift is overcome with gratitude. As Providence also has it, the President of this benevolent society is none other than the daughter of the owner of Grinder Brothers.
Easter arrives, and the workers are offered a few days respite from the factory. It is during this Easter holiday period, that Arvie develops a bad cold, courtesy of the early morning Autumn chill. Arvie lies in bed, struggling to recover his health, his mother offering all they have — sugar and vinegar cubes to assist his recovery. Fearing he will be sacked if he does not recover quickly, and anxious that his ill health will find him sleeping in, Arvie demands his mother to give him the clock to sleep with. Arvie sets the alarm to ring at five, and looks at the inscription that has been engraved on the clock for him: "Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise". After speaking to his mother, Arvie lies down to sleep. During the evening, his mother can hear him talking in his sleep — every few hours he raises himself from his bed, thinking the alarm has gone off. As his mother looks out the window she can see the lights and hear the din of the Grinder's Easter ball. Had she been fortunate enough to have been at the Ball she may have also heard the story repeated by the well-to-do, of her son and the clock.
Now let Henry Lawson complete his story:
"There was something wrong with the alarm-clock, or else Mrs Aspinall had made a mistake, for the gong sounded startlingly in the dead of night. She woke with a painful start, and lay still, expecting to hear Arvie get up; but he made no sign. She turned a white, frightened face towards the sofa where he lay—the light from the alley's solitary lamp on the pavement above shone down through the window, and she saw that he had not moved. Why didn't the clock wake him! He was such a light sleeper! "Arvie!" she called; no answer. "Arvie!" she called again, with a strange ring of remonstrance mingling with the terror in her voice. Arvie never answered. "Oh! my God!" she moaned. She rose and stood by the sofa. Arvie lay on his back with his arms folded—a favourite sleeping position of his; but his eyes were wide open and staring upwards as though they would stare through ceiling and roof to the place where God ought to be."
Lawson's beautiful and powerful story should be at the heart of any religious education in Australia or abroad, for the story is a condemnation of religious hypocrisy. We see a boy fending for his family, caught up in an unjust situation; and those who are wealthy, and capable of helping Arvie and his family, and who profess Christianity, and celebrate Easter, give him instead of solace, an instrument of torture — an alarm clock, something by which to perpetuate his suffering.
Countering religious hypocrisy...
St. John Chrysostom, in the fourth century delivered a series of homilies, aimed specifically at religious hypocrisy. Speaking from his Patriarchal pulpit, he appealed to his audience:
"We who are disciples of Christ claim that our purpose on earth is to lay up treasures in heaven. But our actions often belie our words. Many Christians build for themselves fine houses, lay out splendid gardens, construct bathhouses and buy fields. It is small wonder, then, that many pagans refuse to believe what we say. 'if their eyes are set on mansions in heaven,' they ask, 'why are they building mansions on earth? If they put their words into practice, they would give away riches and live in simple huts.' So these pagans conclude that we do not sincerely believe in the religion we profess; and as a result they refuse to take this religion seriously. You may say that the words of Christ on these matters are too hard for you to follow; and that while your spirit is willing, your flesh is weak. My answer is that the judgement of the pagans about you is more accurate than your judgement of yourself. When the pagans accuse us of hypocrisy, many of us should plead guilty". (Chrysostom, 1996, p. 10)
Chrysostom's homily points directly at what is a little spoken of truth; that the majority of people who subscribe to a belief in God — do not in fact seemingly believe in God. If a person did believe in God, and understood that this God was not only loving them and their neighbour, but watching them, would they behave as they do? Would these people place managerial practice, and cost cutting measures, ahead of charity? Would these people continue to pay lip service to those who work in their firms? Chrysostom's condemnation of the religious hypocrite may be correctly argued from the point of view that a man who feels that he is not accountable to anyone — human or divine, can lie, cheat and fornicate all they wish — for their actions have no import outside of the immediate satisfaction of their own: ambition, greed and lust. Arvie Aspinall will die a thousand times today, because few people believe in a living God — but the majority, daresay, rather believe like the pagans of old, in a rabbit's foot, whose is wished upon in order to bestow good things upon the person wishing — praying to the Great Easter Rabbit, who is demanded of, but requires nothing of them in return.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2008-11Dr Andrew Thomas Kania