Today in church I spoke to someone who told me that her husband had left the service as he could not bear the noise the children were making – his sense of hearing was so good that the banging of a toy was unbearable to him. I immediately wanted to judge him for being unresilient and to leap to the defence of children who I regard as a intergral part of the congregation. But then I was suddenly reminded of the time a homeless man had wanted to give me a hug and as my rather good sense of smell picked up a number of distinctive odours, I flinched and stiffened, leaving him hurt and confused. ( I can’t tell you in how many services I have been distracted by the faint smell of ‘rat’ seeping through the ancient heating systems.)
Over a year ago I included this quote in from Evelyn Underhill in a sermon while preaching at Queens: “The true rule of poverty consists in giving up those things which enchain the spirit, divide its interests, and deflect it on its road to God–whether these things be riches, habits, religious observances, friends, interests, distastes, or desires–not in mere outward destitution for its own sake. It is attitude, not act, that matters; self-denudation would be unnecessary were it not for our inveterate tendency to attribute false value to things the moment they become our own.”
What has remained with me from thinking about this phrase is that I cannot afford to hold on to my distastes if I truly want to love God and my neighbour. I expect for many of you that is obvious but I had grown up thinking that good taste – and therefore a strong sense of distaste – was an important thing to cultivate. Surely its good to be able to choose wine that others will enjoy, create a sitting room in which people feel comfortable and blend spices to create a wonderful meal to noursish family and friends.
But I guess what ‘taste’ often does is enable you to belong to one group in society by understand and replicating the ‘taste’ of a particular culture and group. It becomes a way of dividing – of deciding who or what is ‘in’ and who or what is ‘out’ using arbitrary criteria that do not reflect God’s inclusive love for all people, all ethnicities and all cultures. Thus it enchains the spirit, divides it interests and deflects it on the road to God.
This Ramadhan I suggested to my husband that we should try and be vegan. We lasted about two days. I found it left me unable to accept hospitality that was warmly and generously offered and my self-imposed sort-of-but-not really fast seemed far less important than being able to accept hospitality. But I wonder if there is a question of integrity that is an issue. How do I appreciate with my daughter the latest band she is keen on when to my ‘taste’ it is barely music? What about fashion that reminds me of the awfulness of the 80s or modern art that is loved by a friend but looks meaningless to me? Does God see the good and creative in all these things or are there some colours that really should never be worn together, some notes so discordant and some painting so pointless that there is nothing to appreciate? How do I stop feeling pleased when a friend admires something I have chosen or a guest compliments me on my cooking (unlikely!)?
I remember when the children were toddlers, more than 10 years ago, one of them asking why God made knives when knives hurt people and my husband explaining that knives could be used to do good or to do harm and they were in themselves neutral. It was the way they were used that was either constructive or destructive. I wonder if the same is true of taste. Perhaps it does not matter what we instictively like or dislike as long we do not ‘attribute false value’ to those insticts of our own as if they are intrisically better than the instincts of another.