Evensong Sermon Series, Lent, Sunday 2 April 2017

the seven works of mercy 1607

The Seven Works of Mercy
Caravaggio, 1607

Preached by Julia Kilby

Mathew 25:35-36

35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.

When I was asked if I would like to talk at this service, I needed time to think. Could I identify a favourite passage from the Bible? There are many that I like, many that help me in my life, many that point the way to a better way of living. I initially thought that I might use a word or phrase and work on that.

Then my husband and I went to see the Seven Acts of Mercy at Stratford, a play based on the artwork by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and written by Anders Lustgarten. I was immediately inspired and decided to talk about this. I was further inspired when I learnt that Christian Aid are using these verses to promote their fundraising for refugees this year. As co-ordinator for Christian Aid week for this benefice, I felt these words were speaking directly at me, inviting me to think, reflect and discuss!

So first of all, what of the play? The stage is set on a scene from 1606, with Caravaggio in hiding after killing someone in a brawl. He is working in an unfinished church in Naples, on a huge canvas soon to become the famous Seven Works of Mercy. On the floor in front of him is a dead corpse and Caravaggio is painting this onto part of the canvas. In comes the Marchese di Villa, a benefactor of the church who is paying Caravaggio for his work while keeping him in hiding. Their dialogue is civil and caring from the Marchese, crude and disinterested from Caravaggio. It becomes apparent that Caravaggio is adding a seventh act of mercy – that of burying the dead. Caravaggio argues that burying the dead is an act of charity because failure to do so spreads disease and causes more deaths. He alludes to a plague affecting his village as a child. As more people died, the more frightened those remaining became and the more the disease festered. People died alone because they were too afraid to work together. Then his father came along with some friends and disposed of the bodies and the plague went away. The feet of the dead man, being carried away, express solidarity under duress, not from some theory but because there’s no other choice.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this picture is the way that no one deed stands out more than another. You see the feet to the R of the picture being removed for burial, as part of a fact of life.

The next scene: a council flat in Bootle, Merseyside. A retired dockworker teaches his grandson as around them a community is disintegrating under the pressure of years of economc and political degradation. With all he has left, a book of great works of art, he tries to open the boy’s eyes to the tragedy and beauty of the life he faces. After some meandering through the book, they land on The Seven Acts of Mercy, a work familiar to both of them. Mickey, the grandson, is able to recite instantly the verses from Mathew. Leon, the grandfather refers to it as a statement of a better world, full of human decency.

In the following scene, we see a something that is unfortunately all too familiar in these times – a food bank. A kindly lady giving out food parcels to those in need of it, including Mickey. The audience catches sight of the feelings of those coming in to collect their parcels. Pause for a moment and think how you would feel, or if you’ve needed a foodbank, how you felt, and imagine. Rather unfeelingly, Mickey is keen to take a picture of recipients and eventually finds a couple who allow him to.

As the play progresses, so does the painting. The image to the right of the painting is of the woman feeding her father from her breast. Caravaggio is using Lavinia, a prostitute as his model. It is well known that the artist frequently used people whose work was disapproved of by the church and as result of this, many of his paintings were destroyed. Caravaggio and Lavinia discuss the piece, Caravaggio explaining that it refers to the Carilas Romano, with Cimon visiting her starving father in prison and feeding him the only way she could – from her breast. Three acts of mercy at the same time – providing food and drink and visiting the imprisoned. Discussion of the rights and wrongs of this image follow.

So the play progresses, playing out across a gap of 400 years, referring to so much that happens day to day in our current world: homelessness, eviction, starvation, loneliness, desperation, relationships, one upmanship, personalities, gender inequalities, prejudice, corruption, disabilities, violence, contrasts, illness and death. Gritty scenes of life for those struggling to make ends meet. I can find many more words to describe the negative behaviours within the play, yet the pervading sense while experiencing it was of the stronger, positive behaviours of generosity, kindness, compassion, taking risks for the benefit of others, recognising the good in others, as the Marchese saw in Caravaggio.

As each act of mercy is played out in the modern day, Mickey wants to take a snapshot of it. He wants to please his grandfather and show that he has learnt from him how to live a worthwhile life. Yet on each occasion that he takes a picture with his phone or performs a good deed, such as giving away the expensive leather jacket that his own father gave him, one senses that while he is doing it not for himself, he hasn’t grasped the true meaning of these acts, and that he is doing it simply to please his grandfather and to show that he has learnt from him. Can we say that this is giving in a truly altruistic way? Should we always give with a view to pleasing God or others, or should we be generous simply because it is right to be so?

Half way through the play, Mickeys father appears, summoned by his grandfather, requesting a reconciliation before grandfather dies. They haven’t seen each other for a decade and Mickey refuses to acknowledge him, feeling deserted and unloved by his father and remaining loyal to his grandfather. This doesn’t bother Mickeys father, whose job, unbeknown to the grandfather, is to evict people from the council flats so that contractors can move in and build for profit. The father, too, had undergone the special education in the arts delivered by the grandfather, was fully aware of the Seven Acts of Mercy, and chose to reject that way of life, preferring to profit in other people’s despair. A tragic scene near the end of the play depicts the grandfather showing compassion and forgiveness towards his aberrant son, and then trying unsuccessfully to reconcile his son with his grandson.

The grittiness of the scenes in the church 400 years previously tell of a man with great talent, and supreme issues with life. He spoke up for the poor and the destitute. He understood the desperation of those in prostitution. He raged against the hypocrites. He had anger issues, for sure, and had committed murder. Yet he expressed himself with such passion, railing against the inequalities in the world, and speaking up for those in desperate and dangerous circumstances.

The Moseley benefice Night Shelter finished this morning. We have hosted the shelter for the past six Saturdays, providing a friendly welcome, a hot meal, a warm bed and a complete breakfast and packed lunch, to 12 homeless men. Many have taken advantage of the full 12 weeks of the shelter. Some have returned from previous years. The over-riding message is to provide a safe place to allow these men to rest, in the hope that they may find a way forward in their lives. Some do go on to find jobs and accommodation, others continue with their lives on the streets. But we hope that all have benefitted in some way. I don’t think there’s a single volunteer who has helped with the night shelter who hasn’t gained personally from it. The sense of teamwork, common purpose, camaraderie and giving pervades every aspect of the night shelter and I hope that we will continue to do this for as long as necessary. Although of course it would be lovely to dream that one day it might not be necessary!

My involvement in Christian Aid goes back a number of years and I love supporting a charity that does so much to improve the lives of others in desperate need. In previous years, the charity has fundraised for projects in particular countries. This year it is fundraising to help refugees. Men, women and children forced to flee from their homes and countries or face death because of their beliefs, orientation, lifestyle or heritage. Christian Aid is bringing its help much closer to home, making the issues very real to all of us. Small acts of mercy pass no judgement. It is simply doing the right thing in the moment.

This play brought Mathew’s words to life for me, confronting the dangerous necessity of compassion in a world where it is in short supply. Instead of feeling powerless when injustices are committed or when governments turn away from the needs of the most desperate, acting out the acts of mercy in whatever way we can, either collectively, as we do when we support charity or volunteer in the night shelter, or individually, by taking practical action, we can make this world a better place.