By Canon Gerry Conroy
I’ve just started reading the notebook of Madeleine Delbrel. She died in 1964 and she thought that to be a Christian meant to be a missionary. She moved to Ivry, a strongly atheistic Marxist suburb of Paris in France where she was well liked and respected and was even elected to the Marxist town council. Some of her best friends were atheists. But she always found a way to witness to her faith to everyone, especially to atheists. Perhaps she felt strongly attracted to her fellow travellers because as a child growing up she had no faith. As a young woman she even wrote a tract entitled, ‘God is dead, long live death!’. But then when the emptiness of life struck her, she found faith, or as she said, God found her. One of the things that struck me in her writings was the phrase, ‘Once one has lost “a sense for `God’s gift,’ the gift of his revelation, the gift of his life, we cannot have a sense for who the atheist is.” I think what she means is that an atheist is someone who has lost a sense of the ‘gift’ that everything is, that everything is a gift from God, a sign of his love and mercy. To lose sight of that is to be an atheist.
The longer this pandemic continues to impact on our daily lives, the more I am coming to realise how much we have taken for granted, perhaps even how much we have presumed to be our right. We have become so accustomed to our freedoms, to our possessions that when freedom is taken away from us, or restricted, when our usual retail therapy is denied us, when the usual distractions to our routine are denied us, we feel it all as a wrong, perhaps even an injustice, something we resent. Even life itself has become something we have a right to and have taken for granted as belonging to us. Our fear is of losing these things that we think should will always be ours; we fear losing what we have come to know as our life, because it is ours. And strangely, even with so much, we seem to be the poorer for it.
Madeleine, asked How could such a Christian be a missionary? Once we have lost that sense of that abundant free gift that St Paul spoke of, what have we got to offer anyone that is any different from all the other things that are on sale in this world. And we are asked to be missionaries as Christ made clear in that Gospel. Once we have lost that sense of the gift of God’s love and mercy, how are we any different from someone who does not believe in God? Are we more just? Are we more loving? Do we work harder for the poor or oppressed than the atheist?
Perhaps if we listened to what Christ said, there would be a difference, after all it was once noted of Christians that they were different from those around them because of the love they showed to others. Perhaps not so much now. Perhaps the atheism, that failure to recognise and celebrate God’s gift of love and mercy has found a home even in us. We have lost sight of the love and mercy that God has for us and, seduced by the powerful creed of the modern world and fearful of losing what we now regard as our right and as our own, we have ended up the poorer for it. So what does it mean for us to believe? Is it the freeing joy that comes from knowing we are loved, a joy to be shared, a hope to give to others? Without that we only have a list of dos and don’ts, we have lost the heart of it all. Maybe we will be lucky and find a blessing from these days in a greater realisation of the love and mercy of God, of the joy of knowing the gift of life he wants to share with us. Do not be afraid, Christ has told us. Do not be afraid to rejoice and trust in his merciful love.
Canon Gerry Conroy is the parish priest of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton