Shabbat B’Midbar 5779, 31st May 2019
One of the most striking sights in our tour of Israel and Palestine last year was St. George’s monastery in the Judaean desert. It was built in the 5th century CE and re-inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks in the 19th century. It clings closely to a steep cliff, almost seeming to be part of the desert rock, and is accessible only by a single bridge across a wadi. To live there is to cut oneself off from the world and commit oneself to a hard, austere life.
This week’s Sidra is called ‘In the wilderness’. This suggests the sort of isolation that St. George’s monastery typifies. The wilderness is a place for quiet contemplation, away from the world and other human beings. It represents the sort of retreat that is found in the Christian tradition. Jesus spent forty days in contemplation in the desert. We have examples in Judaism too - Elijah fled to the desert and found time there to reflect. The mystic sage Simeon bar Yochai spent ten years studying in a cave in the desert with his son. But they are the exceptions and Judaism generally discourages such isolation. In Christianity, on the other hand, monasteries and convents are often places of retreat But it is not always so.
Last week, I attended the funeral of Sister Ita Keane, who belonged to the Sisters of Mercy convent in Lozells. This was very far from a desert retreat and Sister Ita, rather than cut herself off, found her calling in the inner city amongst the poor and disadvantaged. Her funeral was deeply moving and in spiring. I knew Sister Ita through Citizens UK, and had always been touched by her warmth, her friendliness and her evident inner strength, but as so often happens, I felt I didn’t really know her until her funeral. She was from a large Irish family and had become a nun over fifty years ago, spending most of her working life teaching in London, in some of the most deprived areas. She had come to Birmingham in 2011. Her educational expertise had helped her in her work with school children, but she had also become passionate to help the families and individuals in Lozells who lived in sub-standard accommodation and on very little income and were often refugees and asylum seekers. Sister Ita’s work was very far from a quiet retreat. She worked with people, often desperate and outcast. She reached out to them and became their friend. Her very last act was to find housing for a family in need. She was killed in a road accident just as she was returning from taking the family to seek re-housing - something they were granted after she died.
I have been fortunate to get to know many nuns. Far from the stereotype, they are, like Sister Ita, women who are involved in the world, whether it be in the Philippines, in Jerusalem, or in Lozells. They have in common a dedication to their work, a way of reaching out to others and making them feel loved and valued, and they also have in common a great sense of humour and fun. In short, they are wonderful people to be with and to work with. The Catholic church has in recent years had terrible press, especially associated with child abuse scandals which have rightly tarnished its reputation. From the outside, it has much to criticise and disagree with, especially when it comes to its treatment of women. But it also does in so much good and it is important to recognise that too.
At Sister Ita’s funeral, words from the book of Matthew were quoted: ‘For I was hungry and I gave you food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’ And the passage concludes, ‘In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ The words of the gospel echo the words of Isaiah: ‘This is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked to clothe them and not to ignore your own kin.’ Jesus is drawing on words from his own tradition as a Jew, calling on his disciples to fulfil our ancient mission to care for the poor, the hungry and the oppressed.
Unlike Christianity, Judaism has never called upon its adherents to forego a family life in order to fulfil this role. It has always valued family life with a loving partner and the raising of children and considered them to be a great blessing. But this in a way makes it harder, for we have to balance those duties and blessings with our duties outside our partnership and families if we are fortunate enough to have them. Somehow, we have to find the balance, as expressed by Hillel: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?’ We do have to care for ourselves and our families, but we also have to reach beyond ourselves to others. Sister Ita Keane’s life was an inspiration to all who knew her, through Birmingham Citizens and all the other aspects of her life and work. Let us learn from her example to reach out to those in need, to extend a hand in friendship to those who are lonely and to be God’s servants in all that we do.