London Encounter 2016

The city and the myth of the island

A verse by John Donne is the title of this year's event. Brexit, Astor Piazzolla and a keynote speech by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. An account of what happened on 11 June.
Luca Fiore

155 Bishopsgate is located next to Liverpool Station, in the centre of London’s financial district, what we call The City. Lots of steel and glass, few red bricks. It was here that the third edition of the London Encounter took place, the event organized by the CL UK community, and which this year got its title from a verse by John Donne: No Man Is an Island. A fascinating theme in itself, but addressed two weeks after the vote on Brexit, the UK's exit from the European Union, it became red-hot. Who is the man that the quote talks about? And what about the island?

Seven hundred people attended this year, fifty volunteers and another thirty people took turns to present the three exhibitions (on Etty Hillesum, Jacob and the "European dream"). Among the speakers were an Anglican archbishop (former Archbishop of Canterbury), a member of the House of Lords, a former president of the European Parliament and a Downing Street consultant. Also in the audience was Monsignor John Wilson, auxiliary bishop of the Catholic diocese of West London, who went back home to write about the Encounter on his Facebook profile. And if that were not enough: a cyber attack on the event’s website, which crashed for two hours the evening before, because of an Islamic cyber group.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Monsignor Rowan Williams, a friend of the CL UK community (the discreet presence of his white beard could be seen at Pope Francis’ audience with the movement on 7 March 2015), opened the day with a lectio magistralis on the Encounter’s theme. Forty-five minutes long, an exciting journey that managed to touch upon John Donne, Edith Stein, The Brothers Karamazov, Etty Hillesum and the Patriarch Jacob. Cultured, deep and accessible at the same time. Williams began by quoting the verse by the English poet, who begins saying that "no man is an island", but he says it in the context of a funeral, so that the poem ends with the other famous verse: "For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee".

No one can be considered an island, says the archbishop, because a common destiny unites us: we will all die. It is a question of simple realism to which so much modern thought has opposed the "mythology of the island", that is, the possibility of self-sufficiency that produces a false security. Using the example of Edith Stein, Williams explains that, in reality, the self needs someone else to realize it exists, and that even to think about our own bodies, we need to imagine someone watching us. The relationship with someone who is other than us is not only necessary to recognize ourselves, but inevitably it is a relationship of mutual responsibility. We are responsible for the other: if the other is not there or is in danger, our self is not at peace. And in this other, continues Williams quoting Etty Hillesum, we must also consider God: we are also responsible to Him. God needs men to make Himself known and our testimony, even inside a concentration camp, is necessary for God to be perceived as credible. It is only in this perspective, which is spiritual, religious and rational, that we can conceive of a system of relationships that allows people to live together and that can balance the rights and duties of the person.

At the end of the lecture, someone asks how can we learn to be realists. His answer: "We need to educate ourselves and our children to wonder at the things.” Someone observes that one cannot understand these things outside of a Christian gaze. His answer: "It is reality itself that shows us how we are structurally "in relationship". There is no need to add anything else." A young man talked about his own sense of loneliness and his difficulty getting out of a reality that is often the size of a tablet. His answer: "Touch things. Touch things with your hands to get to know them. And wish to get to the bottom of them. And know that you are wanted. Someone wants you."

In the afternoon, there is a meeting explicitly dedicated to the great theme of Europe and the European Union. The panel consists of Mario Mauro, Italian Senator and former Vice President of the European Parliament, Maurice Glasman, Labour member of the House of Lords, and Shamit Saggar, Professor of Public Policy and former consultant to the British Prime Minister. The latter, who says a lot about how things are done at the Encounter, was invited because he got in touch with Marco, one of the promoters of the event and who is a doctor, in a hospital ward. During a tour of the ward, Marco saw the cover of Time next to a bed, with the symbolic image of Aylan, the refugee child who died on the coast of Turkey, and with a question began a dialogue. This dialogue continued in the following weeks and months, with invitations to dinner until the event at 155 Bishopsgate.

The trio was well-matched: Mario Mauro showed his enthusiasm for the ideal that animated the founding fathers of Europe after the war. Lord Glasman, a Jewish Labourist with a passion for the social doctrine of the Church, instead, is one of the very few left-wing politicians in favor of Brexit. Why? The Union would have betrayed the original Christian social ideal, replacing it with the capitalist lust that made us slaves of the logic of finance. Professor Saggar, a third-generation Indian, who very pragmatically supports the inevitability of the reality of the European Union: whether we like it or not, the EU is what we have and there is no alternative. Both Lord Glasman and Prof. Saggar were confident at the end of the meeting that during the months of the referendum campaign, they had not yet taken part in a meeting where they could touch the heart of the European challenge and not just stop to look at the economic consequences.

In the evening, an evening dedicated to the music of Astor Piazzolla. A lot of people came by, more than in previous editions. A gesture that is becoming bigger and more and more important and that the British community is building with growing commitment. Someone pointed out that working on the theme of the Encounter has helped to unmask the "myth of the island". They said: "Friendships were born. We got involved. We were corrected." The bell rang. But it was not that of a funeral.