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The Commemoration of Benefactors 2017

The Reverend Canon Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.  (Ecclesiasticus 44: 10, 14)

I begin with a question (or rather three questions).  How are we to remember?  How are we to be remembered?  And, finally, does it ultimately matter?

Some of you will know Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘An Arundel Tomb’.  It was inspired by the funerary monument of a fourteenth-century Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral.  The Earl left instructions that his effigy was not to be raised above that of his wife, and hence the sculptured figures lie together on top of the tomb.

First, Larkin describes what he and any other casual visitor sees:

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.

(Actually, one is a lion.)
But then his eye is caught by a startling and unexpected feature:

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

Like a bridal couple on their wedding day, Lady Arundel’s right hand lies gently in her husband’s palm.  Our initial response is to read it as a conventional symbol of marital fidelity.  But does it embody the remembrance of a particularly deep bond between the couple?  We don’t know.

Larkin’s theme is how the passage of time dissolves memory.  The world has changed around the two figures trapped in their stone sarcophagus.  No longer stirring the memories of friends, they become objects of uncomprehending curiosity to tourists. 

Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age …

as Larkin puts it, they are remote from us (beyond memory).  The one gesture that we understand is the clasped hands.  In Larkin’s words,

The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon …
What will survive of us is love.

That universal human experience of love is the one thing that speaks to us of our common humanity with these historically remote, and otherwise unremembered figures frozen in stone.

The Arundel tomb illustrates the limitations of stone as a medium for memorialising the dead.  Physical monuments are trapped in their own time: the societies and cultures that conceived them.  They cannot prompt memories in succeeding generations.

In a different way, John Caius (that ‘generous man, the greatest of all our Benefactors’, as the college Commemoration rightly and eloquently describes him) was tempted to use stone to solicit remembrance.  His gates of Humility, Virtue and Honour are physical embodiments of Caius’s aspirations for his re-founded college, and he seems to have had no compunction in claiming a prominent place in the chapel next to the altar for his splendidly-decorated tomb.  (The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner commented – somewhat unjustly, we might feel – that Caius ‘was always more interested in honour than in humility’.)  When the chapel was lengthened in 1637 the tomb was placed in its large niche in the north wall with only the two epitaphs (presumably chosen by Caius) to speak to us of the man and his beliefs: the prosaic ‘I was Caius’ at the base, and the possibly more revealing ‘Virtue lives on after death’ on the architrave.

Dr Caius was a man poised culturally between the Gothic and the Renaissance, the old learning and the new; he was a student of medicine and anatomy yet harboured a lingering attachment to traditional religion, and it isn’t always easy to navigate the complex geography of his mind any more than the intricate symbolism of his building projects.  That he wished to be remembered is beyond doubt.  He attached his name to the re-founded college, and it would perhaps have given him satisfaction that it soon became known colloquially as ‘Caius’, to the exclusion of poor Gonville.

Caius lived at a time when the whole mechanism of remembrance had been thrown into jeopardy by the Reformation.  With the dissolution of monasteries, chantries and guilds, and the outlawing of prayers for the dead, would-be benefactors had to find new objects for their generosity.  Protestantism’s emphasis on ethical behaviour and charitable endeavour encouraged the ambitious and self-made (of whom there were many) to direct their generosity into new channels: schools, almshouses, hospitals and colleges.

For Caius, the re-endowment of his old college was just such a venture.  Fired with enthusiasm for the new learning he had encountered in Renaissance Italy, as well as the classical texts to which he was devoted, he laid his plans for a college which would be an oasis of learning in an uncertain world.  Its boundaries would be delineated by stone gates heavy with symbolism, but this would be a living community within which learning and piety would flourish.  That the reality sometimes fell short of the ambition – not least, in the infamous quarrels between Caius and the fellowship – should not diminish his generosity or the sweep of his vision.  It still speaks to us today across the centuries.

But it is time to return to our opening text:

These were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.  (Ecclus 44: 10.14)

Jesus ben Sirach, the author or perhaps compiler of the book that we know as Ecclesiasticus, had much in common with John Caius.  Like Caius, he strove to preserve the memory of his forebears in the faith; like him, he was a respected teacher who presided over an academy for the young.  He lived in Jerusalem in the years around 200 B.C. when Greek culture threatened Jewish heritage and traditions.  His object was to demonstrate the superiority of Jewish to Hellenistic culture, and to strengthen the determination of his pupils to resist the interloper.

The climax of his book is a lengthy hymn ‘in honour of the ancestors’.  The prologue begins with the exhortation, ‘Let us now praise famous men …’.  It is followed by a roll-call of the heroes of Israel: seven chapters in which Ben Sirach celebrates the mighty deeds of the Patriarchs and Prophets, Moses and Aaron, Joshua, David, Solomon and Josiah.   

These are the men, Jesus ben Sirach reminds his readers, ‘whose righteousness hath not been forgotten’.  Their bodies may be buried in peace but they are remembered, not by their tombs, but for the record of their deeds; those who

… did bear rule in their kingdoms, [and were] renowned for their power …
Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning …
Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing …
All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.  (44: 4-7)

And undergirding it all was faithfulness: faithfulness to the traditions of the elders; to the maintenance of a particular set of values and a distinctive manner of life in the midst of an uncertain world.

But then there is a pause in Ben Sirach’s mighty eulogy.  He observes, almost in parantheses,

And some there be which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.  (:9-10)

Is he commiserating with these unremembered, forgotten souls?  The meaning is ambiguous, but it is at least as likely that he is calling attention to their shame.  For these are people who have sat lightly to their responsibilities to use their opportunities, their skills and their worldly goods to benefit those who come after them.  By their omission, they imperil their children’s place within Israel’s covenant with God; they abandon their claims to the only sort of memorial that really matters.

To return to the three questions with which we began.

How are we to remember?  Prompted not by stone monuments or pious inscriptions, but by the example of a living, thriving community dedicated to learning, scholarship and creative activity we are to give thanks to God for those whose generosity has enabled our college to flourish over many centuries.  From Edmund Gonville, our first founder, to those who today enable the college to embark on new initiatives as well as securing the precious heritage of the past, we honour all those moved by personal attachment, commitment to scholarship, or a desire to promote the education of young people to become benefactors.

Then, how are we to be remembered?  By following their example.  Many of us can look back on our lives and see how membership of this college or another like it expanded immeasurably our horizons and transformed our opportunities.  The time comes when we need to express our gratitude.

And finally, does it matter?  For ourselves, perhaps not.  Jesus’s words about practising discretion in our alms-giving come to mind.  But it matters enormously that succeeding generations benefit from the academic freedoms and the opportunities for intellectual discourse that we have enjoyed.  Following the example of John Caius, we should care passionately about that.  Virtue, indeed, can live on after death.