In the Name of These Refugees

“Take the child and his mother and flee.”  –Matthew 2:13

When Mrs S was a child, her mother did a great deal of volunteer work teaching English to Russian and Ethiopian refugees. These people were forced to leave their homelands for fear of political or religious persecution, or were displaced due to war and famine. Some of them escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and when they arrived in the United States were initially wholly dependant ont he compassion of strangers for survival. Theirs was not a planned and careful emigration, prepared for with language lessons, realestate purchase and job interviews. They left in fear, furtive and hurried, and carried with them worries for loved ones left behind heavier than any worldly goods abandoned in flight. Mrs S didn’t know what all their stories were, but she does remember how difficult it all appeared to be: arriving in a country where you couldn’t speak the language, and few spoke yours, where you had no money, no status, and many people thought you were an intruder. And yet they seemed so glad to have these hardships over the ones they had left behind, that one knew immediately what they had run away from must have been very bad indeed.

To this clear and persuasive example of charity and mercy, Mrs S’s mother added this formative image. Though the poster was tucked away in a corner of the home library, it made an impact on Mrs S such that she cannot hear of a new tragedy afflicting refugees without it springing instantly to mind:

Be not deceived that this image of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous jealousy of Herod speaks only to Christians. Admittedly, it speaks most clearly and accessibly to Christians in the manner of a short sharp clip upside the head: “Your Lord and Saviour was himself a refugee. When you fail them you fail Him.” But behind the religious maxim is a principle that ought rightly to be at the heart of western democratic Liberalism: the universality of humanity. Hardship and suffering do not strip away the essential human dignity of any person. 

The BBC is stubbornly sticking to the allegedly neutral term “migrants” to describe those fleeing from Syria and elsewhere in that part of the world. (They explain why here.) How ridiculous: as though these desperate, displaced and war-ravaged people are casually strolling into non-native lands by preference. When thousands upon thousands of people flee with nothing but what they can carry and show up at a foreign border, en masse, they are not just merely migrants. When they are willing to risk not only their bold young men, but their elderly, their women, their children, and their babes in arms, to leave their homes, to climb onto a boat that is little more than a raft, you can be sure that it is only because this fearful journey is less terrifying than what they are leaving behind. When people are fleeing an evil greater than all the perils of escape, they are not ‘migrants.’ They are refugees.

There are times when Mrs S feels called to polemic, and this is one of them. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is suddenly getting a lot of press, probably because Syrians are not just suffering at home: they are drowning in the Mediterranean, right on the doorstep of the Western first world. (Though more drowned in April than in August, so the timing is still odd.) They are dying in the trucks whose drivers were bribed to smuggle them across Europe. They are living in tents on the streets of Greece — Greece! where we were all directing our pity so few months ago. And all of this to avoid being slaughtered in their homeland. But the situation in Syria and the broader Middle East  and north Africa is neither new, nor unforseen. And for every poor soul who escapes, many more suffer violence, persecution, acute deprivation, and death in their native land. For any rich Western government to be caught unprepared, when there has been ample time to take action to avert this humanitarian crisis, or, failing that, prepare to do what is necessary cope with it, is indefensible. For those fleeing from terror and atrocity to arrive and find their place of refuge unready is inexcusable. For them to arrive and find the borders closed is criminal. It is certainly hard to know how to house and care for large refugee population, both in the short and the long term, but unfortunately they do not have the luxery of time to wait for us to figure it out. However reluctant, unprepared or unequal we feel when faced with this necessary act of mercy, now is not the time for political posturing and hand-wringing. Whatever economic or practical concerns arise, they are trivial in comparison to the plight of displaced peoples. It is not a question of resources, for Europe has the money, but of willing. We just have to take them in. There is no moral way around it.

Mrs S has written and rewritten an uncharitable rant about westerners who are not willing to share from out of their vast resources, who place finances and convenience before the moral demands of humanity. But the fact is a large number of Westerners are concerned — more than concerned — about the plight of refugees. There are prolific efforts to raise awareness and form the consciences of those who still lack passion for the welfare of their afflicted brethern. Some of these come in the form of highly sensational, and hugely distressing, images of brutalised, maimed and even drowned children. Mrs S spent rather a long time trying to figure out why she was upset by this tactic. She thinks of herself as a realist, meaning that she does not imagine that facts wait upon her pleasure or approval. Photographs of this kind are deeply upsetting, but they are a vivid depiction of the nature of the evil that is stalking so many of the most vulnerable. But do images like this form a conscience to fight evil and eagerly safeguard its victims? Mrs S is concerned that the more natural response is to recoil, first from the image and then from the atrocity itself, to turn away and refuse to see what cannot be born. Those sharing the image want to ignite the moral fervour of those who disparage the “migrants” and wonder why those troublesome people don’t just stay where they are. The pictures offer a forceful proof of harm. The message of the picture is “Without our compassion more children will die like this.” But someone seeing such a picture, perhaps caught unawares (Mrs S certainly was, several times, on Facebook), may instead be brought to despair that this child had not been saved. Conscience, instead of being nurtured, is paralysed, seeking refuge in willful ignorance or desensitisation. Better, if possible, to form conscience through diligent example, tireless witness, and, bluntly, making a nuisance of oneself to show that the truth and the urgency of this crisis are more than passing media fads. 

So, what witness should this be? Well, if you are reading this you clearly have internet access, and a very little time with a select few search terms will uncover reputable organisations dedicated to helping refugees and the afflicted. For many, donating to these causes is the most effective way to help, so long as it is not viewed as buying insurance against future obligations. But Mrs S thinks the simplest and best council is to be guided by the works of mercy ennumberated by the Church (and, Catholic or not, it is hard to argue with this list). There are seven corporal works of mercy, which care for the body: 

feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead

and seven spiritual works of mercy, which care for the soul: 

admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, council the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead. 

For those who want a simple rubric for virtue, there is no truer guide. In everyday life, do these things. When you encounter great need, do these things. Wheresoever you go, do these things. In the name of these refugees, do these things. 

First Blessing


 Thou didst call and cry to my and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do not pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace. 

              -St Augustine of Hippo (Confessions, 10.27)

Mrs S kneels at the altar rail in the little wooden chapel where Latin chant reverberates even in the silence and a cloud of incense lingers like visible sancity. The mass is over. Ite missa est. But at the altar rail, shoulder to shoulder, the faithful kneel as the young priest, newly created, walks slowly up and down the row, stopping at each bowed head. He exends his hands, speaks holy words. Some kiss his hands in gratitude, laying chaste lips upon the palms whose intact skin hides the wounds of Christ. 

The blessing of a priest in the first year of his Holy Orders, a First Blessing, is thought to bring with it a share in the rich graces of his new life in the sacramental ministry of Christ. This is why the faithful knelt, or stood in the queue that at first stretched from the crowded altar rail to the back of the sanctuary.  Each blessed congregant rose in turn, giving his place to another, who waited in prayer for the priest to come with a silent sweep of his cassock. The imposition of his hands would tug aside one tiny corner of the veil, uniting heaven and earth in one otherwise unremarkable point in space and time, and his words call forth grace divine.

Mrs S’s faith is at times a heavy, earthbound thing.  She is blessed with certainty, clarity and every assurance that intellect can give.  In this peculiar spot of cultivation, this safe and ordered refuge amongst the tangle of indiscipline, intemperate desires and the unpruned bramble of fantasies, she is not a slave to passion. She does not grasp at the sensational or make a virtue out of strength of feeling. In faith — such a tiny patch of order in her soul! — she is impassibly serene. She knelt now not in hope of a sign or miracle, but in determination to be humble and obedient. This blessing she awaited was one small activity in the larger economy of grace, nearly meaningless in isolation. There is no magic in a blessing, nor, indeed, in a priest. But still, there is grace to be had, faith to be lived, obedience to be practiced: for it is in the greatness of God that he can be glorified through the humble just as through the magnificent. Touch the hem of Jesus’ garment in quiet faith; or wash his feet with your tears, dry them with your hair and annoint them with costly perfume and his grace will likewise be yours. Mrs S knows this, but she has never felt grace as it enters her soul, never been given to rapture or irrepressible exaultation.  And this lack of feeling has seemed more a freedom than a loss, for she can practice her faith without reliance on the great emotions to confirm the truth of her beliefs, and continue without despair in their absence. 

The priest placed his hand upon her head. He spoke her name and she felt a breeze on her face like feathered wings disturbed the air. His voice was deep and gentle, like the swell of a calm sea, quiet enough that only she could hear: “…may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” the soft breeze became a wind, audibly bowing all around her. Mrs S caught her breath as the priest continued to speak slowly and reverently, oblivious to the whirling tumult that his words brought with them. “…descend upon you and remain with you forever…” 

Her scalp tingled as the wind caught her hair. Every nerve reacted as it tugged at her clothing, blew cool and fresh on her face. The only still point in the room was where the priests hands rested on her head in benediction, barely touching her, but solid and real as Earth is not. “Amen,” said the priest, and Mrs S looked up, engulfed in an unrelenting gale. But while every palpable sensation testified to the reality of the wind, the incense lingering above the altar did not stir and the priest’s alb and cassock hung in elegant, unmoving folds. He lifted his hands from her head and the wind stilled. 

As she had stood waiting for the blessing, Mrs S had resolved not to kiss the hands of the priest, believing that this could never be anything but an empty pantomime piety, and knowing that if she kept her head bowed he would simply move on to the next kneeling congregant. Now, as she looked up, the priest extended his hands and without needing to reflect she kissed each one, not merely knowing that reverence was proper, but feeling reverent, grateful and exultant. There was no awkwardness or anachronism in the ancient gesture of gratitude. The priest inclined his head and smiled benignantly.  Then he was gone, standing before another kneeling supplicant, speaking the same words of blessing.

Mrs S rose reluctantly to relinquish her place at the rail. She paused before the altar in a moment of unplanned adoration. And as she drew in a deep breath it was as though she inhaled the whole of the gale that had moments before swirled about her. She felt it race through the wild untamed parts of her soul, shaking loose stubborn attachments, blowing away limp tepidness and preparing the passions for cultivation. Her chest swelled with joy and she felt her limbs vibrate with an unknown energy. Her mind rang in single voice with words from Scripture that she did not know she knew — “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” — and she trembled to hear them.