Stories

Stories. Mostly, as it happens, women’s stories.

One writes: ‘When I was forty-one I lost the ability to read. … I was trying to get myself and my two children free of a husband I had been with for twenty years who had become dangerous to us.’

Another talks about her sister leaving her friend’s house one night in order to take the bus home from Cheltenham, a bus she would never catch.

The third gate-crashes a party, having heard that Jesus would be among the guests, and she brings along some expensive perfume. [Click here, if you wish to read that story for yourself.]

What do these women have in common? Let’s find out.

The first is Wendy Farley, Professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. Her book [see here for details] is not, as one might have thought, about coming to terms with the suffering caused by her husband. It is about transformation. It is about her becoming aware of her own destructive ‘passions’ – Farley uses the term ‘passions’ in the sense in which the ancients used it, as a designation of the destructive forces deep within us.

The second woman is Marian Partington [again, further details about her account can be found here], whose sister Lucy went missing on 23rd December 1973, leaving her family and friends in a hiatus of unknowing that would last for over twenty years. It finally came to an end on 4th March 1994, when Frederick West told Police investigators that Lucy’s remains were among those hidden in the basement of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester.

In contrast to Farley’s book, Partington’s account is about her long and arduous journey of coming to terms with what had happened to her sister. Her book, too, is about transformation, a process that would not have been possible had she not become conscious of the ‘murderous rage’ within herself.

Then there is our third woman, who sheds a flood of tears (the term employed by Luke is also used to describe rain showers). She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears (almost literally, it would seem), dries them with her hair, kisses them continually, before eventually anointing them with her costly perfume.

So how does her story relate to the other two? Well, she, too, as Jesus’ parable suggests, had become conscious of the darkness within herself. Luke describes her as a sinner, a fact that the dinner guests are only too aware of. But so was the woman herself, which is why, in contrast to Simon, the Pharisee, she knew about the great debt of hers that had been cancelled. And she was profoundly grateful for the forgiveness she had experienced. As a result, she is the one who can go in peace and show deep and real love, the kind of love that leads to the excessive and rather intimate gestures that so upset Simon, a man who had not yet discovered his own depths of darkness, thus finding it all too easy to condemn that ‘kind of woman’.

As Jesus says, the debtor conscious of the enormity of her forgiven debt is the one who loves the most. This is why the books by Farley and Partington have made such an impression upon me. It would have been easy for these women to respond with blame, judgement, condemnation and hatred. As Marian Partington herself says, ‘it is easier to hate than to love’. And who would blame her? It’s an instinctive thing to do, an attempt to keep the pain at bay; it’s an act of self-preservation, or at least, it’s meant to be.

But Wendy Farley and Marian Partington did not run away from their pain. They allowed it to touch them, and that’s what made their transformation possible. Two things happened: first, as already mentioned, they became aware of the darkness within themselves, which made it impossible for them to blame others, including those who had inflicted that unspeakable pain upon them. As long as we continue to blame, judge, condemn and hate others, we are still in the position that Simon, the Pharisee, finds himself in. Unaware of the darkness within himself, he finds it impossible to love, forgive and be compassionate.

Secondly, having endured traumatic hurt and pain, and having been transformed by it, that transformation leads to the desire for the pain not to be passed on to others. Again Marian Partington expresses this beautifully:

There is a place that understands, deep within, that violence can only breed more violence and that this is where it must stop. It is not a place where justice means more pain, punishment and revenge. It is rooted in a strong instinct for this depth of pain not to happen to anyone else. … It is a place of insight which opens up to learning, hope and compassion. It is a place that yearns for healing, which is willing to sacrifice the immediate response of revenge. … It wants to say, just wait, stay with the pain, let it burn you into a place of renewal.

Luke’s story is about an awareness of that darkness within, an awareness of our own debt, but more than that, an awareness of the forgiveness of that debt, an awareness that leads to love.

The unnamed woman in Luke’s story expresses that love in a costly, intimate, yet public display, a display that left her fully exposed and vulnerable but which became an opportunity for those witnessing it to be led down the road to transformation themselves.

Jesus, while addressing Simon, is looking at the woman, thus helping Simon to focus on her acts of love. Luke, by including her story, is extending that opportunity to us, thus allowing that woman’s love to unfold its transformative power even a full two thousand years later.

The books by Farley and Partington are similar acts of love and indeed vulnerability. It takes real courage and strength to talk about those journeys and the depths of darkness that the two women discovered within themselves. But it is by means of those acts of love that love is spread and that others are enabled to experience transformation for themselves.

Marian Partington has become part of ‘The Forgiveness Project’, which works with ex-offenders and victims of crime, seeking to model a restorative process of justice. She regularly shares her story with perpetrators of violence in prison. In her book, she gives examples of how that courageous act of love can make a profound difference. How instead of transmitting our pain to others, which is what we do when we blame, judge, condemn and hate them, our willing suffering of that pain can lead to real healing and transformation.

The stories of these three women invite us to confront our pain, our hurts and fears, the darkness inside, and allow for transformation to happen. As Jesus says, ‘the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little’. Simon, who concedes Jesus’ point only grudgingly – ‘I suppose’, he says – is still locked in that destructive pattern of blame, judgement, condemnation and hatred, unaware of his own debt. It is the woman, the sinner, the sinner who is fully conscious of her debt, the sinner who has found forgiveness, the sinner who is filled with deep, uncontainable love, who is told to ‘go in peace’. Only she can truly ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.

Love is expected of all of us. More than anything else, it is love that makes us most fully human. But if that is true in general, how much more vital is love in the context of the Christian ministry. How much more important, then, that we allow our hurts and pain to be transformed so that we are set free to love and forgive and not transmit our pain to others, regardless of how they treat us.

Those who prefer power and violence tend to portray the love that is vulnerable – and true love always is – as weak and powerless. Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. In his aptly named book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King talks about a steely resolve to love. He talks about what I would call ‘defiant love’. This is what he says:

We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. … But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. … Love is the most durable power in the world.

In that sense, then, let us ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.

Best Reads 2013. VIII: Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of LoveThis is one of the lesser known books by the late Dutch Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, best remembered perhaps for books such as The Return of the Prodigal Son and The Wounded Healer. In the former, he briefly talks about giving up his distinguished academic career in order to work with people with mental disabilities at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. In The Inner Voice of Love, Nouwen reveals that, during his time at L’Arche, he suffered a severe breakdown lasting about six months, a period he describes as the most difficult time of his life. It was, he says, ‘a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life’.

I felt that God had abandoned me. … The anguish completely paralysed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people’s problems. I lost all appetite for food and could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.

The breakdown was triggered by the loss of a close friendship, which Nouwen describes in moving terms:

Going to L’Arche and living with very vulnerable people, I had gradually let go of many of my inner guards and opened my heart more fully to others. Among my many friends, one had been able to touch me in a way I had never been touched before. Our friendship encouraged me to allow myself to be loved and cared for with greater trust and confidence. It was a totally new experience for me, and it brought immense joy and peace. It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life.

When that friendship came to an end, Nouwen ‘lived through an agony that never seemed to end’. But, he says, he never lost the ability to write. Indeed, writing became part of his ‘struggle for survival’, and so he kept a secret journal, which was to be published years later as The Inner Voice of Love.

In this book, Nouwen describes how the loss of that friendship ultimately deepened his love of God, and how his suffering taught him compassion for others. There are many profound insights in these reflections on issues such as wounds and pain, friendship, love and compassion, God and spirituality, loneliness and transformation, the body, emotions and incarnation, community and living up to one’s calling.

The following quotes, offered without further comment and presented simply in the order in which they appear, give an illustration of the richness of Nouwen’s thought:

… those who seem to reject you … never speak about you. They speak about their own limitations. … They simply ask for your compassion.

Your willingness to let go of your desire to control your life reveals a certain trust. The more you relinquish your stubborn need to maintain power, the more you will get in touch with the One who has the power to heal and guide you. … As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed.

It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there.

When your deepest self is connected with the deepest self of another, that person’s absence may be painful, but it will lead you to a profound communion with the person, because loving each other is loving in God. When the place where God dwells in you is intimately connected with the place where God dwells in the other, the absence of the other person is not destructive. On the contrary, it will challenge you to enter more deeply into communion with God, the source of all unity and communion among people.

There is a real pain in your heart, a pain that truly belongs to you. You know now that you cannot avoid, ignore, or repress it. It is this pain that reveals to you how you are called to live in solidarity with the broken human race.

… real healing comes from realising that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realisation allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life.

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them …

It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move towards the Light, the Truth, and the Life.

There is much in this book, which I discovered quite by chance and only recently, that I can relate to in deep and profound ways. Nouwen’s journey from anguish to freedom is also one from hurt and pain to love and compassion, and that goal of a loving and compassionate life, while not making the hurt and pain any easier to endure, can give deep meaning to our struggles.

Best Reads 2013. VI: Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing

Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and LongingThis book, indeed Rumi generally, has been a revelation to me. As I have said elsewhere, I had come across him several times in the writings of Richard Rohr and others, but it was only when a woman I met at a conference recommended him with the greatest enthusiasm that I ordered my first book of Rumi poems. It happened to be this one.

This collection has been put together and translated by Coleman Barks, who has given us highly readable texts rendered in beautiful English (on Barks as a translator of Rumi’s poetry, see my earlier post And so I’m hooked. Rumi (as mediated by Coleman Barks)’). The book is divided into twenty-two chapters, each of which features an introduction by Barks. There is also an opening introduction and a brief account of the life of Jelaluddin Rumi (1207–73).

Rumi’s poems are an expression of medieval Sufist spirituality, albeit as mediated and adapted by Barks, and so it should come as no surprise that some of it feels foreign to novices like myself. It is foreign, after all! That said though, some passages have touched me in ways I have perhaps never been touched before.

How can I possibly describe its impact on me? I would have to talk about its sheer, breathtaking beauty; its role in expanding my thought, stirring my passion, offering consolation; above all perhaps, its deep and utterly compelling wisdom. But let me give you some further examples, in addition to the ones I have already provided in earlier posts.

Having gone through a prolonged period of intensely-felt grief, I have found Rumi’s thoughts on grief and pain, longing and healing illuminating, consoling and quite simply to be full of wisdom:

The cure for pain is in the pain.

Hold on to your particular pain.
That too can take you to God.

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

I’ve broken through to longing now,
filled with a grief a have felt before,
but never like this.

There’s a shredding that’s really a healing,
that makes you more alive!

Holding on to my pain, not running away from it, not denying it, resisting the urge to move on has been a source of profound blessing. The cure for pain is indeed in the pain in that it generates that longing that draws us toward union, as Rumi says, that longing that can take us to God. A shredding is not what I had been expecting, but strangely enough it has made me more alive.

Rumi on thinking:

… Leave thinking to the one
who gave intelligence. Stop weaving,

and watch how the pattern improves.

How I wish I had come across that advice some time ago, but even if I had, would I have been able to leave well alone? It is so true though. Our weaving does not do any favours to the pattern.

And on jealousy:

If you could untie your wings
and free your soul of jealousy,

you and everyone around you
would fly up like doves.

How true!

This is a beautiful collection of poems, full of deep wisdom and insight. It is a book that I will be returning to time and again. Who knows, perhaps some of the more mysterious sections will over time divulge their deep secrets to me as well.

Two types of losses

At the beginning of Lent I decided to subscribe to the Lent Daily Reflections by the World Community for Christian Meditation. I am glad that I did, because they have contained many inspiring thoughts alongside some gentle, wholesome counsel.

Today’s reflection (Friday of Lent Week 4) talks about the anguish of loss, making the helpful distinction between two types of losses. One is described as the deliverance from an addiction or a compulsive delusion, which, while very much experienced as a loss at the time, in the end leads to freedom and a life lived with renewed vigour. The second type, on the other hand, is a ‘genuine death experience that drags us into a vortex of surrendering to something vaster than we can control’.

Experience of the second type, which they describe as ‘major surgery with a strong anaesthetic that puts us out’, can take a long time to heal and integrate and can change your life forever. It probably will!

Divine love is incessantly restless

Some quotes from Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes to complement my previous post:

The starting point for many things is grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute.

Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter. In biblical faith, brokenness is never celebrated as an end in itself.

God can only be met in emptiness, by those who come in love, abandoning all effort to control …

… tragedy in one’s personal life can be trusted as a gift of God’s unfailing presence far more than trances, raptures, or visions received in so-called mystical experiences.

Referring to Moses’ and Elijah’s experience of God, Lane comments:

In both cases, their ‘seeing’ of God on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real. Transfiguration is a hidden, apocalyptic event, offering to those facing anguish a brief glimpse of glory to come. It incorporates a theology of hope into a theology of abandonment and loss.