The way you tell the story about your world will … co-create that world.
Gareth Higgins, ‘Here isn’t the news’, Third Way, Summer 2014
The way you tell the story about your world will … co-create that world.
Gareth Higgins, ‘Here isn’t the news’, Third Way, Summer 2014
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.
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’.
Some random thoughts from Mark Haddon’s The Red House. They spoke to me for a variety of reasons, I suppose.
The beauty kept slipping through her fingers. The world was so far away and the mind kept saying, Me, me, me. … But the valley … wasn’t this amazing? Look, you had to say to yourself, Look.
A failure to engage properly with the world. … Nothing mattered enough.
He occupies, still, a little circle of attention, no more than eight metres in diameter at most. If stuff happens beyond this perimeter he simply doesn’t notice unless it involves explosions or his name being yelled angrily. At home, in school, on the streets between and around the two, the world is constantly catching him by surprise, teachers, older boys, drunk people on the street all suddenly appearing in front of him so that his most-used facial expression is one of puzzled shock.
He had always seen his self-sufficiency as an admirable quality, a way of not imposing upon other people, but he could see now that it was an insult to those close to you.
It was the story that mattered, the story that held you together …. Saying, This happened … Then that happened … Saying This is me. But what is her story? Losing the plot. The deep truths hidden in the throw-away phrase.
Having looked forward to Alain de Botton’s book On Love, I did not find this as inspiring as I had hoped at first. However, now, half-way through, I have to say that the book is growing on me. Thus far, the chapter entitled ‘“I”-Confirmation’ has easily been the highlight. Consider, for instance, the following reflections on labeling:
the labeling of others is usually a silent process. Most people do not openly force us into roles, they merely suggest that we adopt them through their reactions to us, and hence surreptitiously prevent us from moving beyond whatever mold they have assigned us.
De Botton speaks about ‘shaping according to preconceptions’, adding that:
Children are always described from a third-person perspective … before they gain the ability to influence their own definitions. Overcoming childhood could be understood as an attempt to correct the false stories. But the struggle against distortion continues beyond childhood. Most people get us wrong, either out of neglect or prejudice. Even being loved implies a gross bias – a pleasant distortion, but a distortion nevertheless. … No eye can wholly contain our ‘I.’ We will always be chopped off in some area or other, fatally or not.
Looking at it from the other perspective, he notes:
Though I felt myself attentive to the complexities of Chloe’s nature, I must have been guilty of great abbreviations, of passing lightly over areas I simply did not have the empathy or maturity to understand.
On my continuing journey through Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, I have just come across a new highlight. It’s Susie Orbach’s contribution, entitled ‘A Love Letter to Feminism’. Like some of the other authors, she thinks back to the 1970s and how women were ‘daring to think and enact new ways of learning and living’.
I was particularly interested in her reflections on the fears these women had to face. ‘We began to appreciate how much patriarchy was a structure undermining us’, she says, ‘within and between women, as much as a political force outside us’. And again: ‘Internal psychological chains kept us in check and away from being as full as we could be.’
Orbach notes that she could have lived like so many women before her. But she counts herself lucky that she didn’t. Feminism, she says, gave her a proper life:
Without feminism, life’s challenges could and would have stained my individual experiences – as [they] for so many of my mother’s generation – turning them sour and bitter, rather than into places of learning. Without feminism I couldn’t have understood my personal dilemmas. Nor would I have had the capacity to reflect.
I was also moved by her comments on friendships that made it possible for her and other women to ‘think and enact new ways’:
exhilarating friendships took centre stage. They were a hammock underpinning our personal and collective struggles. We helped each other find and tell our stories as we were reshaping ourselves. Inside friendship we found ways to tackle our hesitancies, our fears, our insecurities, our shame and self-doubt.
Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.
Thus opens the next chapter in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is entitled ‘Change’. First though, still a twelve-year old, Geryon meets Herakles:
Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.
‘One of those moments that is the opposite of blindness’. These are the kinds of phrases I so admire in Carson’s work.
Having become a teenager, Geryon acts his age:
He had recently relinquished speech.
His mother can only resort to irony:
Maybe I’ll just keep talking
and if I say anything intelligent you can take a picture of it. She inhaled.
Geryon had taken up photography, while his mother wants to know about his new friend:
So Geryon what do you like about this guy this Herakles can you tell me?
Can I tell you, thought Geryon.
Thousand things he could not tell flowed over his mind. Herakles knows a lot
about art. We have good discussions.
Carson’s story touches on many subjects. One of them is the issue of sexual awakening, a problematic one for Geryon, largely due, of course, to the abuse suffered at the hands of his brother:
Sex is a way of getting to know someone,
Herakles had said. He was sixteen. Hot unsorted parts of the question
were licking up from every crack in Geryon,
he beat at them as a nervous laugh escaped him.
Tell me, said Geryon and he intended to ask him, Do people who like sex
have a question about it too?
but the words came out wrong – Is it true you think about sex every day?
All the while he is deeply affected by Herakles: ‘Geryon felt all nerves in him move to the surface of his body’ – ‘His voice washed Geryon open’ – ‘Staring at him Geryon felt his soul move in his side’.
There are lovely descriptions of his behaviour, that of a true introvert:
Why do you have your jacket over your head?
Can’t hear you Geryon. The jacket shifted. Geryon peered out. I said sometimes
I need a little privacy.
He is still working on his autobiography, which has progressed from the sculpture work he did as a child to producing a photographic essay.
This was when Geryon liked to plan
his autobiography, in that blurred state
between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul.
I can relate to that description of the early morning as a time ‘when too many intake valves are open in the soul’. That he worked on his autobiography ‘from the age of five to the age of forty-four’ also resonates with me. As I have said on the ‘Story’ page, quoting Walter Brueggemann, our ‘story must be told, tested, and retold countless times’ as part of our ongoing attempt to make sense of our lives.
There is a wonderful moment when Geryon catches the arm of Herakles’ grandmother, which ‘was like a handful of autumn’. Her voice in turn is likened to ‘old coals’.
Geryon gets lovesick, which Carson again captures beautifully. Having come home with a t-shirt his mother hasn’t seen before, she wants to know where he got it from.
Herakles gave it – and here Geryon had meant
to slide past the name coolly
but such a cloud of agony poured up his soul he couldn’t remember
what he was saying.
Each morning a shock
to return to the cut soul.
Pulling himself onto the edge of the bed he stared at the dull amplitude of rain.
Buckets of water sloshed from sky
to roof to eave to windowsill. He watched it hit his feet and puddle on the floor.
Rain lashing the kitchen window
sent another phrase
of Herakles’ chasing across his mind.
The chapter that introduces Geryon’s lovesickness is entitled ‘Fruit Bowl’. There is much that could be said about it, especially as the motif of the fruit bowl is an important and a recurring one, having already played a significant part in connection with Geryon’s fraught relationship with his brother. Once again though you will just have to read for yourselves.
Then the inevitable happens: Herakles ends the relationship.
I want you to be free.
Don’t want to be free want to be with you. Beaten but alert Geryon organized all
his inside force to suppress this remark.
‘Tunnel’ is where we leave Geryon for now, suffering, as he is, the consequences of ‘the human custom of wrong love’, as Carson puts it.