Sunday mass at the Orthodox church of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Sacred memory

Brits have lost the habits of respect and reverence

Artillery Row

I spent the Easter Weekend in Krakow, a city break turned pilgrimage. The city’s myriad churches were heaving with locals observing mass and attending confession round the clock. The songs of the worshippers were irresistible. I spent most of the weekend standing awkwardly at the back of churches, basking in the ritual, realising how starved I was of transcendent experience.

Despite being a believer myself, I was out of place in Krakow.

In the Christian nations of Eastern Europe over Easter, everyone knows what to do. I suspect the reason I was late to mass at Wawel Cathedral on Easter Sunday was because tourist information struggled to extract up to date information from priests who were keen to reserve pews for local worshipers. The verger eventually let me in after I promised to stay for the whole hour. Much as I tried to blend in, I had to concede that I was a tourist.

The mass was everything I hoped it would be: majestic, golden and still. While wandering the cloisters afterwards, I noticed the terrible exception that the church made for tourists like me. Signs in English instructed visitors to remove hats, refrain from taking photos during proceedings and kneel down at the ancient tomb of King Władysław I Łokietek who died in 1333.

We don’t know how to behave among Eastern devotees

This shouldn’t need to be spelt out with such exasperation (caps lock, exclamation marks and illustrations).

Western liberals suffer defective ethical sensibility. We don’t know how to behave among Eastern devotees because we’ve been infantilised at home.

Take the designated tube seats for those in greatest need. Instead of relying on passengers to look out for others, an exercise which requires attentiveness, Transport for London relieves us of this inconvenience by absolving those that sit in the non-priority seats of this responsibility.

A posture of respect — as exhibited by the Poles — cannot be prescribed by an impersonal agent of the state or corporation or in some manual of how to behave. To last, a cultural instinct must be modelled, reinforced and passed on to future generations. The signs in Wawel Cathedral appeared as a concession to help us avoid committing sacrilege abroad because we’ve stopped teaching one another at home.

I wish I could argue that religion has nothing to do with nurturing such cultural sensibility. But it certainly seems to me that God helps.

In 1979, a year into his papacy, Pope John Paul II toured his homeland of Poland performing open-air masses. On one occasion, over a million Poles turned up to observe the sacrament. Author of Poland, A History, Adam Zamoyski notes the unease this provoked among Communist rulers.

The militia looked on sheepishly as those who had come together realised the strength implicit in their number and spoke to each other with a new found confidence and sense of solidarity. The Pope’s homilies dwelt on the need to respect and demand respect for the innate dignity of man, and while the message was couched in religious terms, its relevance to the situation in Poland was lost neither on the listening crowds nor on the authorities.

It is surely not by coincidence that the most eminent religious leader in the world provoked this mysterious strengthening of solidarity and resilience in the face of Communist rule. Do we Brits have a similar story to tell? The coronavirus lockdowns certainly saw a spike in volunteering. Many cite the London 2012 Olympics as a cultural moment of sorts.

Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham has as much moral potency as Elon Musk

These flashpoints in our recent history mark a happy aberration from the norm, piercing through our otherwise detached way of living together.

This is no surprise when you look at our philosophical inheritance.

One of our most famous ethicists is the nineteenth century atheist Jeremy Bentham, whose trite platitudinal proverb — “the greatest good for the greatest number” — has as much moral potency as Elon Musk. Utilitarianism is a science, not a sensibility.

A great critic of this brutal approach was the twentieth century Jewish intellectual from Lithuania, Emmanuel Levinas. In his typically exuberant manner, he said that “do not kill me” is written on the face of every man through “defenceless eyes” set in an “impoverished face”. To be moved by solidarity cannot be reduced to a trite maxim but must be experienced, internalised and matured into an enduring sensibility.

The community spirit during lockdown and the 2012 Olympics reveal a latent love for one another in all of us. This must be harnessed if we are to soften our Western tendency to live as if we were strangers, rather than kin.

The reverent ritual of the Poles is a mark of a matured culture that knows itself. Some element of collective service to a sacred being has the power to bind us to one another without instruction. We need God to re-train us in the way of our devoted Eastern neighbours. Only then will I feel like less of a prat on my next visit to Krakow.

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