Wednesday, 15 September 2010

On the inside, looking out - moving on

I need to re-post this, published first two years ago, because, having made a decision to leave my studies of Moral Theology behind for a more practical approach to the 'good life', I am trying to keep in perspective my central purpose - to work for solidarity amongst people and nations. Fr. Neil who wrote to me here, is still working and teaching in Burma, everyday giving of himself for the well being of others.

I should be working, but I have not written any thoughts down about coming to live in Oxford, and now nearly two weeks in, it is beginning to bother me.

I have always been an observer of this place, watching closely (and critically) its every move. I wanted to come here, but I also had a deep desire to keep my distance. There are aspects of Oxford that make my skin crawl and I didn't want to be drawn in. When there are teams of people dedicated to ensuring that you are comfortable, well fed and have enough clean linen it is easy to become detached from the real world. The spires of Oxford turn to ivory very quickly if you do not keep your guard.

The homelessness of this flamboyant city shocks me. There are so many truly vulnerable people sleeping on the streets yards from our banquet halls and cosy student rooms. It seems as if this city just doesn't have enough services out there to help people who have gotten a bit lost. In the coming days I am planning on seeking out a way to offer a hand to help an organization that helps people with what they need. I hope they will let me on board.

I think I could liken living here to residing in a goldfish bowl. Not in terms of monotony, because every day is new, exciting; every moment is a privilege. It is neat around the edges though, refined, contrived. There are many people looking at you: tourists, tutors, supervisors, new found friends, travelers and street people. People taking note: you have this opportunity - you owe it to everyone to make the best of it, and give it everything you have got! On the inside, looking out, I just hope I am up to the job.

I received an email from a friend a few days after I arrived here. He is a Columban Missionary working in Burma. For sometime last year I thought that he, and the people he works with, had been lost to this world. The words he sent in an email are special to me because they touch on the purpose of study: knowledge is only useful to the extent it serves those in most need. If it fails in this respect then other work is both more valuable and more honorable.

Here is the message that was sent to me (words with stars are censored for the safety of N):

Dear Elaine,

It was good to hear from you. Thank you.

Congratulations as you begin your D Phil in Moral Theology. I know you, with your sharp mind, will enjoy it. We need people like you who will write and research such vital issues. Do not be afraid.

It was very kind of Anna and you and all at Heythrop to donate to the survivors of the cyclone. It brought relief and hope to so many poor people as we were able to buy food and clothes, cooking utensils and build temporary shelters for them. It was a terrible disaster and then turned worse as a man made one. It will take years to recover.

I started a soup kitchen and we are feeding up to a thousand hungry people daily. Unfortunately, we are only touching the surface as we would need thousands of soup kitchens. Anyway, it is a start. I am very happy here and enjoy te*ching s*ci*l j*sti*e. I got food poisoning last month and it really set me back for a few weeks, but I am fine again.

Elaine, I wish you all the very best in your D Phil studies and I know you will enjoy it.

All good wishes,


Studying cannot be a selfish activity, and neither can academics afford to closet themselves in ivory towers. The real world does not have three meals a day and sleep in a cosy bed by night. What work is done here needs to bring to public attention, my attention, the needs of all those whose voice is never heard in the corridors of power.

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