Awful silence

Belief in a God of infinite mercy and transforming love means [to] hold on to the belief that there is no place from which God is absent. […] God’s silence signifies not absence, but total engagement. God becomes silent in order to be with the silenced. It is an ultimate act of love to be able to enter the awful silence and suffer together.

This, once again, is from Barbara Glasson, A Spirituality of Survival: Enabling a Response to Trauma and Abuse.

A double bind

Following up a friend’s recommendation, I am currently reading Barbara Glasson’s A Spirituality of Survival: Enabling a Response to Trauma and Abuse, a book that I am finding increasingly insightful, the more I am getting into it. Taking Miroslav Volf’s definition of exclusion from Exclusion and Embrace as her point of departure, Glasson rephrases this from the perspective of the victim, suggesting that:

… exclusion is being made invisible by someone who assumes superior power over us. We are rendered irrelevant and of no consequence. We are therefore pushed to the edges of … relationship to a place of silence, worthlessness and loneliness. … it can mean being owned or manipulated by someone who assumes power over us to such an extent that we lose any sense of autonomy.

Glasson describes this as ‘a double bind of silencing and isolation’, noting that victims are ‘simultaneously completely related to “the other” but also rendered totally irrelevant by “the other”.

Regardless of the motives of the abuser, a victim experiences this double bind of exclusion; this is why it renders them feeling unable to make easy changes. Whatever choice they make, they will be compounded in one cycle or another, of isolation or of ridicule, rendering them simultaneously more dependent and more isolated.

She adds:

In order to not be a victim of either oppression or invisibility … the structures of power [need to be reversed] in such a way that boundaries become liberating rather than controlling.

And she suggests:

The abused person is unable to unbind herself from the knot of victimization without the solidarity of others. These “others in solidarity” need to be prepared to enter into the bind and release it on behalf of the victim. Victims rarely move out of the cycles of abuse on their own but rather need the support, insight and understanding of those who “stand in solidarity”.

Those who learn stillness

And another quote from Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen’s Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence:

Those who learn … stillness find that their lives become a sabbath for those who encounter them. … Their lives become an embrace of the qualities and gifts in those around them that others have been too busy or too threatened or too self-absorbed to see and encourage. Their lives become an invitation into a place of depth, but an exhilarating invitation because it is depth without fear, depth as an adventure in which you are expecting to be met by God. Their lives become a place and a time of renewal in which others rediscover who they are and who God is.

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.

Er-Down-Under, Er-Up-Atop and other great characters

Before I put it back on the shelf, I have to pass on a few more quotes from Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, which is set in the early years of the twentieth century in the small Cotswold village of Slad. Lee’s book features many wonderful passages and some outstanding examples of characterisation.

My first passage has the little Laurie reflecting on the time when he was banned from his mother’s bed due to the arrival of a younger sibling. Having been led to believe that the exile would only be of a temporary nature, he complains:

I was never recalled to my Mother’s bed again. It was my first betrayal, my first dose of ageing hardness, my first lesson in the gentle, merciless rejection of women. … I grew a little tougher, a little colder, and turned my attention more towards the outside world …

‘The gentle, merciless rejection of women’ – which man hasn’t experienced it at some stage in his life?

In another, less traumatic scene, Laurie, having grown up a bit by now, is playing the violin, primarily, as we find out, for his mother:

… old and tired though she was, her eyes were a girl’s, and it was for looks such as these that I played.

Here is Lee writing about trivial old rain:

Water was the most active thing in the valley, arriving in the long rains from Wales. It would drip all day from clouds and trees, from roofs and eaves and noses.

But it’s the brilliant characterisation, which, more than anything else, makes Lee’s memoir such an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Cabbage-Stump Charlie was our local bruiser – a violent, gaitered, gaunt-faced pigman, who lived only for his sows and for fighting. He was a nourisher of quarrels, as some men are of plants, growing them from nothing by the heat of belligerence and watering them daily with blood. He would set out each evening, armed with his cabbage-stalk, ready to strike down the first man he saw.

And then there is the Prospect Smiler, ‘a manic farmer’:

Few men I think can have been as unfortunate as he; for on the one hand he was a melancholic with a loathing for mankind, on the other, some paralysis had twisted his mouth into a permanent and radiant smile. So everyone he met, being warmed by his smile, would shout him a happy greeting. And beaming upon them with his sunny face he would curse them all to hell.

We also meet the Grannies Trill and Wallon, strong characters both of them and the bitterest of enemies, who only ‘refer to each other as “Er-Down-Under” and “Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint”’.

Granny Wallon ‘made wine as though demented, out of anything at all’, wine that was readily imbibed by the Lee family to dramatic effect. For, having drunk from it, ‘a curious rocking would seize the head; tides rose from our feet like a fever, the kitchen walls began to shudder and shift, and we all fell in love with each other’.

About Granny Trill, on the other hand, we learn that her ‘time was for God, or the birds, [for] although she had a clock she kept it simply for the tick, its hands having dropped off years ago’.

On a less quirky note, we encounter the lovely old couple Joseph and Hannah Brown, who

did nothing more than was necessary to live, but did it fondly, with skill – then sat together in their clock-ticking kitchen enjoying their half-century of silence.

You don’t often meet characters as brilliantly drawn as these, but then this is a memoir, not a novel. Perhaps it is true that life itself writes the best stories.

Best Reads 2013. III: Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain SpiritualityThe Solace of Fierce Landscapes, says Frances Young in Brokenness and Blessing, is the kind of book she would have liked to have written herself. Published by Oxford University Press, this is a well-informed exploration of desert spirituality. But it offers more than that. Talking about ‘the permeable boundaries between critical scholarship and lived experience’, Belden Lane also reflects on his own experience of spending time in wilderness places; and he gives a very personal account of his journey alongside his dying mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer as well as his attempt to come to terms with his father’s somewhat mysterious death earlier on in his life.

The book is in three parts, which reflect the traditional three stages of the spiritual life: Purgation: Emptiness in a Geography of Abandonment; Illumination: Waiting in a Silence Beyond Language; and Union: Love as the Fruit of Indifference. These three stages, notes Lane, are symbolised by the desert, the mountain and the cloud.

There are chapters on:

  • spirituality and the environment,
  • wild terrain and the spiritual life,
  • prayer without language in the mystical tradition,
  • the symbolism of Mounts Sinai and Tabor in the Christian tradition,
  • the landscape and theology of early Christian monasticism,
  • the desert Christians’ counter-cultural spirituality of attentiveness, indifference and love.

And, to give you another list, which is the only way I can even begin to do justice to the book’s richness without giving an extensively long account, Lane offers insightful thoughts on:

  • abandonment of control (and the desert as teacher of renunciation and abandonment),
  • letting go and the emptying of self,
  • loving that which cannot be understood,
  • the power of compassion as the fruit of indifference (the notion of indifference might require some explanation, but you have to read Lane for that),
  • a new harmony with the land,
  • learning to pay attention,
  • the transformation of desire into love,
  • meeting love in the most unlikely places,
  • the power of silence to connect and heal,
  • liturgy and the reaffirmation of ordinariness.

Woven into the fabric of the book are interludes, called ‘mythic landscapes’, in which Lane takes his personal account of the journey with his dying mother as well as his repeated experiences of wilderness places as the starting point for further reflections on issues such as a spirituality of brokenness, the gift of nothingness in a desert landscape, the unexpected gifts of grief, and a spirituality of desire.

Having had some recent desert experiences myself, I have found this a rich and rewarding read.