Sir Terry Pratchett, who died yesterday and whose books have given me a great deal of joy over the last 20 years, expressed my gut reaction to crowds very well when he said that: “[t]he intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.”1 While I don’t have a phobia of crowds, I’d always prefer a walk in a forest over “relaxing” on a packed beach, a stroll around good architecture to queueing at some movie-themed attraction, or a chat with friends in a quiet pub over a party in a sports bar.
These preferences (and prejudices) of mine were again reinforced when I recently spent a weekend at a holiday camp. There was a lot to like about it, no doubt - spending time with my family, a change of environment, clean air, eating out ... But it also came with an ample and ready supply of that “creature known as a crowd.” The place was packed to bursting point! My aversion to such an environment was particularly heightened when, at one point, my spouse and younger son left me in a large “leisure pool” and set off to go down some slides.
As I stayed behind in the pool I felt like a sardine who had to be oiled to be squeezed into a tight tin. And I didn’t feel any bonhomie towards my fellow sardines either, I can tell you that for nothing.
Floating there, my mind started wandering and I went back to Cardinal Ravasi’s beautiful piece of thinking on secularity and secularism, and landed on his declaration that Christianity “doesn’t call us to detach ourselves from reality towards mythical or mystical heavens.” The truth of his statement struck me and reminded me of the importance of living neither in the good memories of the past nor in the promises of a potential future, but right here, in the present. As I looked around, it was still the same “creature known as a crowd” that surrounded me, but its individual members now presented an invitation and challenge to me. Can I see them as my brothers and sisters, as the presence of God, or do I let myself be enslaved by my prejudices?
I felt like I was on holy ground (like Pope Francis said to confessors yesterday: “We are ministers of mercy thanks to God’s mercy, and we must never lose this view to the supernatural that makes us truly humble, welcoming and merciful towards every brother and sister who wishes to confess. … Every faithful penitent who approaches the confessional is ‘sacred ground’.”). Ashamed of my self-centeredness, but encouraged by the open arms extended to me in the present moment.
At that point, my mind turned to that extraordinary meditation by Chiara Lubich, the seventh anniversary of whose death it is tomorrow, which she entitled “The great attraction of modern times” and where she wrote:
This is the great attraction of modern times:Thinking about Lubich’s and Ravasi’s words made me realize: Yes, we are not called to a detachment from reality in favor of some heavens in an ephemeral beyond, but to a discovery of those mystical heavens in the reality around us. To a discovery by participation and a facilitation of others’ participation in it with us.
to penetrate to the highest contemplation
while mingling with everyone,
one person alongside others.
I would say even more:
to lose oneself in the crowd
in order to fill it with the divine,
like a piece of bread
dipped in wine.
I would say even more:
made sharers in God’s plans for humanity,
to embroider patterns of light on the crowd,
and at the same time to share with our neighbor
shame, hunger, troubles, brief joys.
Because the attraction
of our times, as of all times,
is the highest conceivable expression
of the human and the divine,
Jesus and Mary:
the Word of God, a carpenter’s son;
the Seat of Wisdom, a mother at home.
1 Not wanting to nitpick, but I’d adjust Sir Terry’s words along the following lines, to impose a mathematically more severe expression of prejudice against crowds: “The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is one over the square root of the number of people in it.”