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In Margaret Thatcher’s later life she often took a short break each May in Rome. She would regularly come to pray at the tomb of the late Pope John Paul II. On one visit, as we walked through the Apostolic Palace, she looked upwards at the Raphael Rooms, she stood and admired their beauty, and it prompted this observation from her, when you come face to face with this, it asks us what are we passing on to future generations. What will we leave behind?
From time to time I think of that question for it is one that asks us to look at our human existence quite differently from the often instant and immediate nature of our world. It sees us as a link in a chain of humanity and in the broader culture and civilisation. That can often be lost in a quick and frenetic world with all its pressures and preoccupations with the present. We can forget we are leaseholders and not freeholders on this planet. D H Lawrence summed it up with this observation, ‘We have fallen into the mistake of living from our little needs until we have lost our deeper needs in a sort of madness’.
Until recently, faith would likely have helped us answer or at least ponder the question. For it acted as one of the reference points for humanity, reminding us of our passing time on earth and setting our context in a much broader human and spiritual journey generation to generation. Faith still fulfils such a function for many, but today, especially in the West, with increasing secularisation, that particular chain of memory has been diminished. It’s why I believe we must all - whatever our beliefs -strive for that which reminds us of our human and temporal journey and its broader purpose beyond the material needs and the immediate.
Our generation is in the midst of greater shifts and inventions than any era before us. We are often dazzled by the latest technological design and how it will change the way we live. It can all be very seductive as it draws our focus towards the future and not the past. But the past is soon what we will be. An era gone and then judged by a new history. So it’s back to Mrs Thatcher’s question when faced with Raphael’s creation, what is our generation’s contribution to the future? What will we hand on and what will history make of us? Perhaps there are some answers in how we now look back on previous generations. Do we do so with gratitude or with superiority?