‘So I draw a veil over Mr Ramesh who once, on the feast of St Simon and St Jude (Choral Evensong at six, daily services at the customary hour), put make-up on his eyes and bells on his ankles, and naked except for his little belt danced in the back room of the shop with a tambourine’.
Alan Bennett’s Bed Among the Lentils tells the story of Susan, a Yorkshire vicar’s wife who, caught between her husband’s appallingly glib piety and his parishioners’ fervent self-righteousness, turns quietly to drink. She disgraces herself over lunch with the Bishop, collapses while arranging flowers in the chancel, and only finds redemption, rather unpredictably, in the arms of the young Asian shopkeeper, Mr Ramesh, whose sad wonder at her perpetual inebriation steers her towards sobriety.
Why Alan Bennett chooses today’s feast as the date of a particularly memorable encounter between the vicar’s wife and the obliging shopkeeper is unclear. Bennett well remembers the eccentricities of his Anglican upbringing, of course, and it may be that Simon and Jude are simply names he recalls from some far-off Sunday evening spent flicking through the Prayer Book during a dull sermon. Or it may be that he relishes the sonorous resonance of the double celebration’s title, and the delicious contrast that is inexorably drawn between the solemnity of its Choral Evensong and the unlikely liaison that is taking place simultaneously in the upstairs storeroom of a little shop behind the Leeds Infirmary.
However I am enough of a fan of his to suspect that something else is at work. Alan Bennett has a sublime gift for taking the ordinary and making of it something extraordinary: the trams of his boyhood, his father’s butcher’s shop, the hellfire and damnation of his Sunday School, the genteel pretensions of his aunties. In the looking glass of his writing these become the narratives of our own lives and in his words we see ourselves as this remorseless observer of humanity sees us. As we shall see, he could not have chosen a more appropriate feast than today’s. Perhaps it’s a coincidence. Well, perhaps.
It is customary that the Collect for a Saint’s Day should at least name the saint who it honours. It is customary for the lectionary readings for a Saint’s Day to present some edifying glimpse of the said saint’s life and work. Yet cast your eyes over the Collect for today; scan the readings set, and you will find no trace at all of Simon and Jude. There are paeans to saintly virtues, and exhortations to us to imitate them, but the guests of honour are, as it were, absent from their own party.
This may have something to do with the uncertainty of those guests’ identity. They are honoured as Apostles, and both are probably both among the Twelve. Matthew and Mark list Simon ‘the Cananean’ and Luke ‘Simon the Zealot’, which tells us something about Simon’s Israelite nationalism. Jude is listed by Luke as the son of James. Matthew and Mark do not list him: they both name Thaddaeus, or Lebbaeus, instead. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, never fond of untidiness, honour a conglomeration of the two: St Jude Thaddaeus, a compromise of which Anglicans ought to be proud.
What seems beyond controversy is that both Simon and Jude had namesakes among their fellow apostles who were destined for greater fame – or greater infamy – than were they. Simon the Zealot, of course, was to languish in the shadow cast by Simon the Rock; Judas son of James in that cast by Judas Iscariot. The result is that today we honour third-tier apostles, bargain basement apostles, apostles of whom we know nothing but their names. In fact the Church’s nervousness about Judas Iscariot’s sin was such that it robbed the other Judas of even that small dignity, shortening his name and labelling him Jude for all eternity. It is little wonder that the poor man has ended up appearing in the columns of the Daily Telegraph as the patron saint of lost causes.
So why are we here? We have so little to go on, such tiny biographical detail, such tangled historical roots. Does celebrating unknown saints really matter? Ought we not be proclaiming the Gospel instead?
The reason that the saints survived in the Church of England through the rigours of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is that the Reformers saw in them useful role models for the instruction of the faithful. According to this standard, Simon and Jude are less than fit for purpose. We can point to no feats of endurance, no words of wise counsel, no selfless example that might shape our lives of faith. Yet if we honour only those who are of use to us; if we respect only those who give to us; if we celebrate only those who add value to our existence, then we do not see humanity as God sees it. We celebrate Simon and Jude because they are Simon and Jude, our distant and unseen forebears in faith. We need no other reason than that. Perhaps our celebrating them will affect our view of countless others around us, whose names we know, whose names we do not know, yet with whom we share this planet, this city, and this building, who appear to give us nothing.
Perhaps it will also transform our view of what we need to know about one another. We would all want to resist the notion that life in the West in 2007 is cheap, yet I wonder whether our resistance would withstand much examination. The voracious appetite for scandal is such that popular culture parades the lives of its celebrities in stomach-churning detail; the voracious appetite for gratification is such that poor women from Eastern Europe are trafficked in huge numbers to fill London’s brothels; the voracious appetite for global power is such that the blood spilt in its pursuit is fast losing its power to shock us. We constantly presume to know one another, to possess one another, to buy and sell one another. Perhaps our celebrating two names will recall us to the sanctity and the mystery of life; perhaps it will recall us to the holy ground upon which we tread when we approach another human being.
And lastly, perhaps it will also reawaken us to the extraordinary vision of the God served by Simon and Jude, the alchemical God whose touch turns the basest material into the purest gold. It is this God who chooses Simon Zealotes as well as Simon Peter; who chooses Judas of Lost Causes alongside Paul of many Epistles; it is this God who chooses us today; this God, whose choice knows no limits and whose imagination knows no bounds.
‘That’s the thing nobody ever says about God’ says Susan, vicar’s wife and reformed alcoholic ‘…he has no taste at all.’ She means it critically, and after her experience of his church, few would blame her. But in God’s tastelessness is our, and the world’s, salvation.
Rev’d Nicholas Papadopulos, Vicar of St Peter’s, Eaton Square
28th October 2007