Taking up the cross

‘Taking up the cross’ in costly discipleship means a willingness to struggle against evil, for the sake of fullness of life, for the ‘bringing back of beauty’. It does not mean the passive acceptance of imposed suffering. Rather it means resistance to any pain or violence unjustly inflicted and an affirmation of abundant life for all. It means prioritizing love and justice inseparably intertwined.

Mary Grey, To Rwanda and Back: Liberation, Spirituality and Reconciliation

Lament

Lament means ceasing to try to protect God from our anger, disillusionment and despair.

Lament … searches out the deepest places in the heart and exposes them to the presence of God. It is a whole-body experience.

Lament can be said to have reached its core when the true dimension of grief has been felt, touched, named and articulated.

People get the idea that they’re somehow deficient and defective if they feel pain. People of faith have done a terrible disservice to one another by thinking that, if they love God, they’re not supposed to feel pain.

These thoughts yet again come from Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen, Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence.

Silence

In Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen talk about the importance of silence, the silence of listening, the silence of being present, the silence of solidarity, the ministry of silence. When confronted with the pain of others, ‘we want to speak’, they admit, ‘because we don’t want to feel, and we speak to stop people from feeling’. Yet silence is so important because it says:

I am not going to tell you I’m too busy. I am not going to make light of your struggles. I am not going to tell you something more interesting actually happened to me. I am not going to say, ‘I know,’ when you’re exploring a feeling for the first time. I am not going to change the subject when you bring up something that’s hard to hear. … You can trust me to listen. You can trust me to withhold my personal investment for another time and another place. You can trust me to be alert to the ways of God, however strange the story you tell.

I have no enemies

Some thoughts on love, fear and violence from Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, a book that I am enjoying more and more:

Living beyond fear … means hearing God say, ‘Love, just love. Find your way to love that person, find your way to love that forest, find your way to love all things, especially the things you find so unlovable and so frightening.’

The book is about a community’s journey to overcome powerlessness and fear in the face of gun violence. It is co-authored by Samuel Wells, at the time of writing Research Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, and Marcia A. Owen, Executive Director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. It also tells the story of Owen’s own transformation, which came about as a result of being involved in this struggle to end gun violence.

Marcia felt a gift being given to her – the awareness that we are a profound unity; we are of equal value and worth. […] It allowed her to love. She could feel her soul grow. It didn’t change her personality – it didn’t erase all the hurts and the fears and the anxieties she had. But it let her love. And it gave her peace.

The authors quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s apt contention that ‘if we could see the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility’. And they ask:

What makes a person lash out and make someone an enemy? It comes from a feeling of profound powerlessness and fear that says, ‘I’m not big enough for this.’ Living without enemies is radical acceptance. … You lead with your soul by taking a moment to say, ‘I accept all that is, all the suffering I’ve caused, all the suffering I’ve endured. I just accept it. There are no enemies.’ Then you can begin to see the glorious nature of each one of us.

They talk about ‘the most empowering gift in ministry’, which is ‘hearing God whispering, “I have no enemies.”‘ And they note that ‘fear is at the heart of violence’, and so ‘the final response to violence is learning to live without fear’.

When we begin to honestly feel that we are all part of the same community … then we will begin to find the grief and pain and loss caused by violence to be truly unacceptable, and we will join together to finally say, Enough is enough.

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’.

A proof of love

Julian Barnes’s latest book, Levels of Life, offers some intriguing observations about the beginnings of ballooning and photography. But that shouldn’t fool anyone: the book is essentially about grief, Barnes’s grief for his wife Pat, who died in 2008. Two passages struck me particularly.

In one, Barnes describes his experience in terms of a seventeenth-century map, which features ‘the Desert of Loss, the (windless) Lake of Indifference, the (dried-up) River of Desolation, the Bog of Self-Pity, and the (subterranean) Caverns of Memory’.

The other passage talks about the persistence of pain. Barnes comments: ‘Pain shows that you have not forgotten; pain enhances the flavour of memory; pain is a proof of love’.

The challenge

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.

This is one of the statements that I most associate with Richard Rohr; and it is one that he must have said dozens of times. And so it also appears in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, where he adds:

If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. Indeed, there are bitter people everywhere, inside and outside of the church. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know where to put it.

If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down. The natural movement of the ego is to protect itself so as not to be hurt again.

Biblical revelation is about transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing the pain onto the next generation. … Exporting our unresolved hurt is almost the underlying story line of human history, so you see why people still need healthy spirituality and healthy religion.

I think Rohr is right. How we deal with our hurts, disappointments, betrayals etc. makes all the difference, not only in how we experience and treat others, but also in how we experience life itself. Bitterness, cynicism and distrust are so dangerous because they are so destructive. They can seriously hurt and even destroy others, but that’s not all: in the end, they can destroy us, too.

The challenge, then, is not to close down but to accept and integrate our hurts, disappointments and betrayals, which of course hurt the more the less expected they are. The challenge is to transform our pain and not transmit it, to let ourselves be hurt without hitting back. A true challenge indeed, but the realisation that this is the only healthy way forward is perhaps the first step. Compassion for those who hurt us and a commitment to non-violence in all walks of life make all the difference, for ourselves in the first place but also, in the long run, for those we encounter.