Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study

Chancing the Arm

I begin this homily standing over a grave. Imagine we are standing together in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. Below us is buried the Dean of St. Patrick's from 1713-1745, Jonathan Swift. Perhaps you remember him from Form IV English, Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal. His grave's epitaph is famous: Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where fierce indignation can no longer rend the heart. Go, traveler, and imitate if you can this earnest and dedicated champion of liberty.

I would like us to focus in particular on the phrase "where fierce indignation can no longer rend the heart." This afternoon I also wanted to introduce you to a phrase you might not know. It is "chancing the arm." It means to take a risk. In England it is often used by sports broadcasters, when in cricket a batsman runs for an additional base, to use only one of many examples. "Chancing the arm," taking a risk.

I want to tell a story, but in order to understand it you need to know two things about a Cathedral Church. The first concerns a Chapter House. When you walk on the north side of the Cathedral, from NCS down Woodley Road toward the Underwood Athletic Center, you will see a long passageway that leads from the Cathedral itself to the Administration building. Beyond that passageway is the Garth, a courtyard with the fountain in the middle. In many medieval churches, that area is not Administration but the Chapter House, which is often a spectacular architectural structure—many times an octagon—where the leaders of the church (mostly monks) would sit around the octagon and legislate on Cathedral business. In other words, this School has trustees, a Cathedral has a Chapter.

A concept to understand is that of sanctuary. It has contemporary importance. In our current debate over immigration in this country, you might hear of priests or ministers allowing illegal immigrants to live inside their churches in order to stay away from the authorities trying to deport them. This practice has a long tradition. In medieval times, the secular law—in other words, the sheriff as the agent of the King—could not barge into a Cathedral and arrest a person who had sought sanctuary. Sacred law forbade such an intrusion. The moment that person stepped out of the Cathedral, he was back under the King's law. As you can imagine, there are a number of exciting stories about the tensions between the monks and their protected outlaws inside a Cathedral and the sheriff and his men waiting outside.

Now - the story.

In 1492, two famous Irish families were bitterly feuding with each other—the Ormonds and the Kildares. James Butler, Earl of Ormond, was forced to seek sanctuary in the very St. Patrick's Cathedral I began this homily with. Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, and his men besieged the Chapter House where Butler was hiding. Several nerve-racking, terrible weeks passed. No one now knows why, but for some reason the aggressor Fitzgerald began to have a change of heart. He was known to spend hours on his knees. Later, he explained: the two families worshipped the same God, they lived in the same community, and even worshipped at the same church, but they had grown to hate each other with such bitterness they were ready to kill each other. We know our own hearts well enough to believe this is a true story.

But one day Fitzgerald stood outside the Chapter House door and shouted to Sir James that, on his honor, he would not harm him if he and his family came out of the Chapter House. The Earl of Ormond, understandably so, said no way.
Fitzgerald then did an odd thing, which turned out to be legendary. He took his spear and slowly hacked a hole in the middle of the door. When he had done so successfully, he got down on his knees and thrust his arm through the hole, offering his hand, on his honor, to his enemy.

Imagine. Please pause for a moment and put yourself in both men's position. If you are the Earl of Kildare, Gerald Fitzgerald, you decide to risk your life by chancing the arm, pushing your hand through the hacked-out hole. If you are the Earl of Ormond, James Butler, your enemy has made himself totally vulnerable by blindly and foolishly sticking his hand through the opening. You can destroy this man you have hated if you wish.

Two weeks ago Dr. Morse introduced us to Robert Alexrod's Evolution of Cooperation and Stephen Jay Gould's The Great Asymmetry, both of which help us to understand how easy it is to tear down—to feud—and how hard but essential it is to build, or in this case, to forgive. And yet Axelrod and Gould have shown it is in our own interest so to do.

In 1492 the Earl of Ormond decided to take the outstretched hand and shake it. Game, match, set over, but not for war, but peace.

There are two of God's ironies to this story. The first is that no one remembers what the feud was about in the first place. Of course, I say, most reasons we fight with our friends or even go to war as a nation, after time passes, make no sense. Think about it. In a famous fight you had years ago. Why were you so angry? The second of God's ironies is that St. Patrick's Cathedral is also where one of the most famous graves in the world resides. Each of us, like Jonathan Swift, burns with fierce indignation, but usually not as champions of liberty for other people, but as human beings indignant about injustices done to ourselves. We usually seek revenge against others.

Can we find the moral courage to chance the arm?

If we are given the hand to shake, do we have the moral courage to say yes?

Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Headmaster Wilson delivered this homily on October 24, 2007.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435