The Power Of Candour
I believe that Prince Philip was sincere when, to a journalist asking him “How do you think about yourself now”, he replied “I don’t” and then added, “I am just here”. Most of the accounts about his childhood and youth seem to confirm that this truly was the case: from very early on in his life, Prince Philip made the choice not to dwell on introspection but dive into action, live to the full, develop an eye for the comic aspect of any given situation, engage with people candidly, steadily divert attention away from himself.
Even with regards to one of his most celebrated achievements, The Duke of Edinburgh Award schemewhich he started in 1956, he would downplay the extent to which it had been shaped by his vision and thrived thanks to his patronage. This self-improvement program reflects the education Prince Philip received as a young boy at Gordonstoun, and was based on the belief that, in his words, “If you can get a young person to succeed in any one activity, then that feeling of success will spread over into many others." "These experiences-he said on another occasion- teach more general lessons and serve as a practical demonstration of what can be achieved through determination and persistence”. Some of the most heart-warming tributes I have heard in the past couple of days came from people whose life was transformed by the award.
In our days, we think that we know someone only when she tells us how she feels about everything. Generations of journalists and self-styled “royal experts” have been desperate to find out how Prince Philip felt about a childhood and a youth marked by exile, the separation from his father, the unstable mental condition of his mother, the premature death of his sister and of course the war.
Instead, Prince Philip was determined to give the impression that he simply didn’t think about it and just got on with life – and often commentators insinuate that this is the expression of unhealthy avoidance or denial. His profound humanity, however, the loyalty he inspired in everyone who came into close proximity with him, and above all the unfailing love, devotion, and support he showed to his spouse the Queen, tell another story.
Far from avoidance, he reacted to adversities through increased dedication and empathy. This is illustrated in the scene of his life that has always come to my mind first when thinking of him. In the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, Prince Philip was the soothing presence that more than anything else alleviated his grandchildren’ grief under the unbearable pressure of an almost hysteric public scrutiny. Thus we have this powerful image of him, walking behind Lady Diana’s coffin, at Prince William’s side. Only later it transpired that Prince William had been reluctant to walk behind the casket and that Prince Philip had told him: "If you don't walk, I think you'll regret it" and then added "If I walk, will you walk with me?". This level of thoughtful empathy denotes a long and patient personal elaboration of grief, something that, to give another example, also is striking in the personality of President Joe Biden.
His own deep faith is something that Prince Philip never hid from view and yet about this too he had a no-fuss approach and might have declared “I am just here”. So often in life, as in prayer, or in grief, whether ours or affecting the lives of the people we love, the best thing, the only thing we can do is this: “I am just here” or “I will walk with you”.
I cannot help seeing some similarities between Prince Philip and the character that takes center stage 8 days after Jesus’s resurrection and each year in the second Sunday of Easter time, that is dear apostle Thomas. They share something of the same ability to compensate for their blunders thanks to genuine candour.
Prince Philip’s irreverent jocularity constantly got him into trouble and yet was redeemed by the sincerity of his self-deprecating humour, as in his well known address to the General Dental Council in 1960, when he coined a new word for his missteps: "Dontopedalogy that is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which -he declared on that occasion- I have practised for a good many years.”
Some level of impertinence is not absent in Thomas’ ironic reply to what he perceived to be the other disciples’ unhealthy credulity: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." It was as if he had told them: “Do I have to remind you that he literally had holes in his hands, a gash in his rib cage, that actual nails pierced his body, and that we handled his corpse? He is dead. Face it!”. If Thomas really thought that his friends were delusional because they could not come to terms with the trauma of Jesus’ death, laying so heavily on the most painful aspects of that event wasn’t really the most caring way to go.
We all have our moments of insensitivity in our lives: sometimes we misjudge the temperature of a room, other times we react not so much to the situation but to its unexpected resonances in us, or -and this is basically my own case all the time- we simply are unable to calibrate humour properly. The borderline between wit, irony and sarcasm is exceedingly thin, it varies across generations and cultures, and personality is a decisive factor in it. Thomas might have thought that his blunt reminder of the devastation undergone by Jesus’ body was the shock his still traumatized friends needed to face the harsh and unforgiving reality of death. It is easy to imagine that this did not go down well with everyone and generated a certain amount of hurt.
When Jesus appears again a week later, Thomas is not spared a painful moment of reckoning with such an extraordinary display of tactlessness. On this occasion, Jesus does not simply show himself alive, but mimics Thomas’ extravagant requirements for meticulous physical verification: first check the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, then the wound in his side; use first the hands, then a finger; do not trust just the appearance of the wounds but inspect inside them. ‘Well -Jesus seems to say in reply- you are a bit demanding, aren’t you? But, as you wish: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side”.
From a literary viewpoint, however, the tension built by the irony, the insensitivity, and the hurt surrounding this dialogue is meant to emphasize its touching epilogue, that is Thomas’ utterly disarming and unfiltered acknowledgement: "My Lord and my God!”
There could or should have been an apology, some display of confusion on Thomas’ part, at least an attempt to justify his behaviour. Instead, what we have here is a much more effective resolution, made possible by an extraordinary level of candour. Its outcome is the most powerful recognition of Jesus’ divinity in the whole New Testament: "My Lord and my God!”
Authentic candour cannot be produced at will. It only belongs to people who are not prisoners of their egos, nor obsessed about how they will be judged or perceived. This explains its unique ability to elicit understanding and forgiveness.
In my ideal world there has to be at least one Thomas, or one Prince Philip. In a society dominated by social expectations, branding, and political correctness, candid disruption is salutary and a much needed warning against taking ourselves too seriously.
For this reason, and for countless others, Prince Philip will be very much missed not only in this country, but in the whole world.
We know that nobody will feel this loss more painfully and personally than his spouse, Her Majesty the Queen, and in a special way it is to her that our sympathy, our affection and our prayers go in today’s celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection.