Anglican priest living in Wales, UK.
Books include 'In Such Times - Reflections On Living With Fear' (Wipf and Stock 2019), 'Waiting On The Word - Preaching Sermons That Connect People With God' (DLT 2017), 'Finding God In Other Christians' (SPCK 2014), 'Beginning Again' (Kindle e-book 2015) All books available from Amazon
‘What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’
Words borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and surprisingly well suited to the season which is almost upon us – Lent.
What is the point of Lent? You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s some kind of masochistic Christian exercise designed to remind us that we are nothing but dust to be trodden underfoot and that we should be mindful of our station at all times and in all places, especially during this season of imposed abstinence.
Unfortunately, being made to feel like dust (or rubbish), which the Ash Wednesday ritual of ashing the forehead can do, if we’re honest about it, can also have the effect of inducing a kind of groveling self-hatred which is altogether counter-productive, in terms of what Lent is really for (which is to grow closer to the God who loves us for who and what we are), or, at best, turn it into some kind of self-improvement regime. On the whole self-improvement regimes rarely achieve their goals, or so I’ve found, leaving us feeling not only less improved but also that we are thoroughly incapable of sticking to anything we set out to do and hence a dismal failure into the bargain. The paragon of animals, we are not, still less the paragon of virtue.
Here, we start to come a bit closer to what I think is the point of Lent, which is not to make us feel like miserable failures or, at the other extreme, like paragons of virtue, but to make us know that we are loved by God who invites us into a loving relationship with him before we have done anything at all to make ourselves presentable, so to speak. In fact the less presentable we are, the more deserving (for which read needful) of the love of God we are.
Think briefly of the story of the Prodigal Son. Incidentally, it is not that he is more loved than his brother, but he is, I believe, given an extra slice of something, possibly because, unlike his older sibling, he has actually dared to live a life and to fail, ingloriously, but ultimately quite gloriously. He arrives filthy, smelling of the pub he last visited and still slightly drunk from the night before. He has not lived carefully but I would hazard a guess that he has not lived selfishly either. What he hasn’t been cheated of, or just lost, he may well have given away out of a mixture of compassion, naivete and innate self hatred. He hasn’t really thought anything through at all and now it is too late, or perhaps not quite too late. He is a kind of glorious failure. The point of Lent is to show us how to fail gloriously.
The point of Lent is not to waste time trying to clean ourselves up by mastering our cravings for sugar, or violence on TV or the instant reassurances afforded by twitter or snap-chat, dangerous media which can just as easily destroy as build up. The point of Lent is to make us more vulnerable to God’s love. The point of Lent is to give us permission (freedom is the other word) to be fully who we are before God. The last thing required of us, in this respect, is that we should spend the time making ourselves presentable. We will never manage it.
If we manage anything at all, it will be to recognize this fact, and that we would like to be a different kind of person to the one we know ourselves to be. The exercise then becomes a matter of getting to know this real person over a period of forty days or so, so that by the end of it, or better still right at the beginning, that real person can hear their name being called by the one who loves us as we are, by the Risen One. The ashes on the forehead remind us that we need this love.
Our labradoodle has a particular way of running when he is feeling whatever dogs feel when they are happy. His front legs move each to one side as he hurtles towards you full of eagerness and devotion. He is nine years old and weighs 39 kilos. When this happens, the trick is to crouch low on the ground, so avoiding the risk of him cannoning into you, although he probably doesn’t intend doing this, as he usually veers off to one side a split second before the collision happens. These moments of untrammelled joy occur unannounced and seemingly for no particular reason, except that the sun is shining and he finds himself in an open green space in the company of three people who he loves. I use the word love guardedly, only because I can’t think of a better one.
Do we anthropomorphise our animals too much? Many would say that we do. But I think that if we were not to make clear to our animals the depth and intensity of our need for their affection and loyalty we would all be the poorer for it. We do this as we condition them to understand us and in the way we tell ourselves that we understand them, or so we like to believe.
A dog is a pack animal, but one with a difference. Much as I love horses, and those who work with, or own horses will know just how deeply felt this love can be, I don’t credit them with the kind of intelligence peculiar to dogs. It isn’t possible to share a house with a horse, for example. As a child, I had a small Shetland pony who I once persuaded to come upstairs into my bedroom. The experiment, though successful in one sense, was a disaster. He almost did himself terminal damage. He also wrecked the staircase and the whole episode got me into a great deal of trouble. Part of the problem was, unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, lack of trust. The Shetland did not understand why this manoeuvre was necessary.
Dogs seem to have an innate ability to understand the underlying reason for what is being asked of them, whether it involves not fouling the nest we allow them to share with us, or the need to see a blind person safely across a busy road. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that they are pack animals, rather than herd animals. Horses, who are herd animals, seem on the whole to feel happier doing what all the other horses are doing at any one time. Not so with dogs. Dogs decide whether to really adopt their particular human, an idea which is brilliantly sketched out by Russell Hoban in his post-apocalyptic novel Ridley Walker. That being said, dogs, in Hoban’s novel, revert to a primal pack state where they decide together whether to adopt the human or, in this case, simply eat him. We anthropomorphise, and sentimentalise, our relationship with dogs when we forget what they were originally programmed to be, creatures who kill to eat and who survive best in packs.
This returns me to this morning’s moment with our labradoodle. Have such instincts simply been bred out of him over a few generations of solidly reliable antecedents and responsible breeding by those who ‘engineered’ his existence? We met his mother, a kind and gentle chocolate lab, along with his four siblings who, on meeting us, did the morning joy caper with as much enthusiasm as we witnessed in their brother this morning. He, on the other hand, hid behind the stable door which immediately endeared him to us.
I sometimes wonder whether those of us who are privileged to be the guardians of dogs, cats or horses (for whom, if there is such a thing as judgment, we will one day be answerable) are at times not quite human. In order to bond with our labradoodle, which I do at great length every night before parting from him until the next morning, I park my sensible human self on a shelf for a few brief moments while I get down on the floor and up close to the dog. If you have a loved horse, you will do something comparable. You will sneak out to the stable and canoodle with her or him for a few last minutes, on the pretext that you are just checking that your beloved is settled and happy.
I have also found that these moments have a profound spiritual intensity to them. While the dog, or the horse, or the cat, all three of whom I count as sentient beings (as opposed to a goldfish or bird, though some birds might qualify as sentient), respond with everything they have to give when they receive these attentions – a succession of sneezes, a wide open maw of appreciation, a gentle nip, or blowing through the nose and a stamp or two – they are limited in how they can reciprocate. What seems to happen instead is a kind of shared understanding, a shared knowing of something unnameable which is unimpeachably good and, I believe, utterly vital to the survival of the human species, as proved when dogs are invited into hospitals. Dogs in hospitals have a marked effect on people’s ability to mend, both physically and psychologically. Autistic kids who are given even a small amount of responsibility for the care of a horse feel a current of healing and calm pass from the animal directly into their often frightened and confused selves.
We may think that our reasons for keeping animals have their origins in the agrarian utilitarianism of centuries past, but they are far more subtle and complex than that. We need the particular response to our love which these animals give us because they afford us with the opportunity to be vulnerable, in other words to trust another sentient being. The way we tend to behave around very young children, and around animals we love, suggests that we are only fully human when we are in this particular state of vulnerability and trust.
An animal we trust is often as close as any of us gets to trusting a God who is revealed in the full and complete doggishness of a dog. Recognising and owning this love for what it is makes us capable of being just a little bit better than we are most of the rest of the time. When you stop to think about it, how will we, and the earth itself, survive if God’s love is not chanelled to us through the doggishness of a dog ?
‘Drilling down’ is something of a conversational catchphrase. I am not sure that conversations are particularly enriched by it, perhaps because drilling is too easily associated with dentists and oil wells. But the phrase does have something to offer when it comes to news overload, although it is the depth, not the aggressive drilling which, seen from a different perspective, may have something to bring to the way we initially react to the conflicts and environmental catastrophes with which we are faced on a daily, if not hourly, basis. We brace ourselves for the news as if it were the dentist’s drill. I think there is a better way to play a part in healing the world’s pain than simply bracing ourselves for the next disaster.
As Christians, we engage with the suffering of others by ‘deepening’ rather than ‘drilling down’ into it. Deepening is not the same as ‘drilling down’. Deepening involves ‘dropping into’ and allowing, rather than forcing ones way into something. There is no pressure involved, and hence no stress. We deepen, or drop into, the world’s suffering, and begin to participate in its healing, by first allowing the initial shock wave of the latest news feed to flow into us and through us, without trying to block or defer it by turning off the computer or phone.
Today, I alight briefly on CNN’s cable news channel to be faced with a report of the latest Israeli raid on the town of Jenin, the worst in over a year. I am tempted to just click on to the next news item, or switch off. It is a typical news overload moment. But neither of these evasive tactics is really an option. Instead, I need to ‘deepen’ into the situation being depicted, and the devastation it has wrought on all those involved, by dropping down into its own darkness.
This is not quite the same as ‘drilling down’. Dropping down is not a search for some pre-defined end, or even for a solution to the problem. It is a matter of letting go of one’s own initial resistance to the suffering of others by ‘abseiling’ down into their suffering and into all the circumstances which surround it.
Abseiling, as defined by Wikipedia, is ‘the controlled descent of a vertical drop’. The abseiler has to both let go and hold on, letting themselves drop down into the unknown while bracing themselves against the cliff face and holding onto the rope. We abseil into the Jenin situation by picturing the human beings caught up in this decades long conflict with no end in sight and by bracing ourselves on the inner strength given to us in the abiding presence of Christ.
When it comes to engaging fruitfully with the world’s pain, we let go and drop down into it in terms of our own inner life. Our inner life, if we pay attention to it, is a constant, so you could say that its constancy means that it is the only life that we can call real. It takes us out of ourselves but it also holds us together. Our other more superficial habits of mind generally return us to an over familiar but far from complete, or real, self.
Following our immediate inclinations or habits of mind, including switching off when we reach news overload, seldom enables us to be more deeply connected to others. It leaves little time for abseiling into the realities that lie behind any news item. In an age defined by the instant and the superficial, depth is what counts, and depth requires trust. Abseilers take a calculated risk as they drop down into the depths while trusting completely in the competence of those around and above them.
For Christians, life in its fullest sense involves this kind of trust. To trust others means knowing ourselves to be connected to them, wherever they are, and taking them with us as we drop down ever more deeply into the life of Christ – the Christ who ‘abides’ with us and in whatever situation we are being faced with in the news, the Christ who provides the foot-hold or ledge on which to brace ourselves when needed as we absail into the depths of our inner life.
This is how Christians think of prayer. Prayer is a three-way process. We take the world’s suffering, and the suffering of those known to us personally, into our inner life. We bring all this suffering into the presence of Christ who abides in us and in Jenin at the moment and we dare to hope.
‘“It is winter in Narnia,” said Mr. Tumnus, “and has been for ever so long…. always winter, but never Christmas.”’ This is surely one of the most memorable lines from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The words make me wonder why we are always in such a hurry to remove all evidence of this festive season by midnight on January 6th– or Twelfth Night as it is also known, as if we were in a hurry to get back to the winter Mr. Tumnus is describing.
Some people take their Christmas tree down on New Year’s Eve. I find this haste to get back to workaday normality sad, not just because I’m sorry to say goodbye to the good memories, and the lights and cards, or even because it’s time we finished the Christmas cake, but because it deprives the season of its true meaning. It diminishes the joy of anticipation that we have already known, and cuts short the possibility of hope for the weeks and months ahead. Right now, we are very much in need of that Christmas hope.
Of all the seasons, Christmas is the one we most joyfully anticipate. Advent is a joyful season of preparation, and not only one of fasting and self denial. Christmas begins in a hope that is realised through a promise fulfilled, the coming of the Messiah, and in the giving of gifts that signify the fulfilment of yet more promise, his welcoming of the gentile world, so why are we in such a hurry to tidy it away?
I would dare to suggest that what appears to be our need to be done with Christmas has something to do with the difficulty we experience, both as a Church and in our individual lives, with the receiving of gift. We sense this difficulty in the way we exchange gifts under the Christmas tree. It has become a contractual exercise. There are expectations and wish lists to be met and fulfilled. This creates an atmosphere which makes it hard to be genuinely grateful for the gifts we receive from others, which in turn diminishes our joy in receiving them. Where contractual thinking begins, gratitude and reciprocity end. But the gift of Christmas itself carries no such expectations, only the hope that the Giver will be loved for His own sake, as he was loved by Mary, his mother.
The love between Jesus and his mother is also an invitation to us to be part of that reciprocal love. We are invited to ‘treasure’ the real meaning of Christmas as she treasured the memories that surrounded his birth. We are to carry Christmas with us, and ‘treasure’ its promises into the weeks ahead, through Epiphanytide to the pre-Lent season. With Mary, we treasure the surreal moment of gift giving, as three wealthy foreigners kneel and worship the Child in the house he is living in – or in the stable, depending on how you read the timing.
The mismatch of facts and information concerning these and earlier seminal events in no way diminishes their significance, or their truth. The truth of them endures and enriches our lives because it is made manifest in the context of the people around us, beginning with our own Church family. Christmas was never a private event, so the Christmas story endures and acquires greater meaning to the extent that we go on living it together and receive the Christ Child in one another with unfeigned gratitude. What better place to begin than the Feast of the Epiphany and the short season that follows it?
Across from where I am sitting right now is a wood that appears to be sliding down a hill. It’s not the Dunsinane of Macbeth’s macabre story, but an ordinary small copse which is seemingly on a downward trajectory because of the lie of the land. Until quite recently it didn’t belong to anyone but now it’s been claimed and, thankfully, continues to be left alone, fenced off from the surrounding grazing land so that sheep and cattle are not tempted to wander in there. It is home to a few foxes and badgers and quite probably to one or two rare kinds of wild flower. Orchids and cowslips are known to grow in this area.
The copse makes me think of the Church, rooted or grounded on ‘rock’ as the Gospel set to be read this Sunday tells us (John 1: 29-42), but appearing to be sliding down a hill to possible oblivion, no more than a staging post for life’s significant events, ending with the one final event, the death event, which, on the whole, we would rather not talk about. The little copse across from me celebrates this event for the whole of the winter season, dancing nakedly and as happily in the gale force winds as it does in a summer breeze. It is unchanging and yet transforms itself entirely from year to year, from death to life.
I have a feeling that the Church could be like this copse if it, and people in general, would allow it. What inhibits its life, and it is nothing less than life that it is offering the world, is an inability to hold together the relentless forward movement which comes through gestation and change, and the immutability that it inherits from having been founded on ‘rock’. The kind of life that I am talking about, in regard to the Church, is not about different ways of doing things, or of ordering its practical existence, including the management of buildings, but has to do with how it values, nurtures and deploys human potential, the gifts it receives through the work and personhood of its ‘saints’.
One of the hymns that we will be singing on Sunday, in one of the churches that I am privileged to serve on a regular basis, gives thanks ‘for all the saints’ for whom Christ was their ‘rock, refuge and might’. These words can be read or sung in one of two ways. They can either be taken as a load of pious waffle, put to a quite rousing tune so that we all go away feeling the better for having taken a few deep breaths in order to sing them. Or they can be allowed to take root in a deep place, where they will remain, insistently, long after coffee is over and the washing up done.
The pious reading of this hymn is, of course, utterly fanciful, conjuring up ideas of valour and holiness which are well out of the reach of most of us, and perhaps not particularly desirable in any case. The better reading might appeal to a person’s innate goodness, their capacity for fun, their faithfulness to small tasks that are possibly essential to the life, or even to the survival, of another being, human or animal.
The people rescuing the dog may or may not go to church, but if such a person happens to find themselves in church this coming Sunday, when the hymn may be sung, they should know that the hymn is about them. They may or may not think of themselves as ‘religious’ or as ‘saints’, but the real Church is not a particularly ‘religious’ body, with all the connotations that word brings to mind. It is much more like the copse across the fields from where I’m sitting right now, rooted deeply in something like love, waving it’s branches madly in the air, inviting the world into its madness, inviting it to be part of a life-saving exercise which is desperately needed in this age of political turmoil and extremism of the worst kind.
Love, in regard to the Church and religion is, of course, madness, but it is a holy madness with no apparent rhyme or reason to its existence. But it insists on doing its work through the lives of its unobtrusive ‘saints’. It only needs the rest of us to come and join in the rescue operation.
Social media is awash with religious sentiment at the moment, although many of the tropes and sayings are in fact quite profound. It’s just that when they all arrive together their meaning and significance is often lost to the casual scroller. Or perhaps the scroller isn’t really being all that casual. We are just looking for something on which to pin our confused thoughts and feelings in regard to Christmas. Some of us are dealing with events, memories, triggers and conflicting emotions that make it hard to stay on message. By that I mean staying fixed mentally, emotionally and physically to what Christmas is about.
The clumsily designed cards, the carols, the canned music in shops point to a mystery that defies description. It is a mystery that chooses (because it involves human will, the will of one woman who chose to say ‘yes’ to it) to be revealed in the ordinary, in the routine, in things not being as they ‘should’ be, so that the heart of it can be known and understood by the excluded, the unloved, the anxious and afraid, and by the plain busy.
Christmas carries a health warning. There are times when no amount of will power makes staying on message possible, the reason being that the foundational story itself is not something that one can call upon to make sense of the season as most of us experience it. It is something that captures you unawares, leaving the heart exposed, and this can be annoying, for ourselves, and even frightening.
It is annoying or frightening when it puts us at risk of minding about what is said or done in regard to this particular Christian festival. I am annoyed with myself for the gut reaction I experience when the story, or images that depict it, are twisted in such a way as to make the event totally devoid of mystery, or worse, expose it to ridicule. I am also ashamed for the people who do this because it reflects so badly on them. The story, despite the trite imagery it is subjected to, will endure, as it has done for centuries. Their shallow humour will not.
In that respect, the idea that Christians are ‘offended’ by caricatures and distortions of the Christmas story bears no relation to what some of us actually feel. We do not experience offence. We feel grief. Sometimes we actually weep, not for ourselves, but for the cynicism of the individual and for the way it is reflected in the callous indifference of so many in regard to the deeper meaning of this festival.
This is where the health warning applies, and the cynics probably sense this. There is a real risk that hearts might be touched and minds turned, in less than a nano-second, when the frightening realisation of the truth of this Christmas story is laid bare in a way that is undeniable because it is somehow ‘birthed’ from within a person’s deep consciousness, that place in which we hide the worst and the best of ourselves, where we both know and are known for who and what we are, or could become.
Given all of these considerations, ‘It came upon a midnight clear’, one of my favourite carols, rings more truthfully than ever. Few would deny that the world and individual nations, each in their different ways, are in a ‘midnight place’ right now; a total breakdown of trust in government, the rationalisation of war and violence, the ‘crushing load’ of life that we all bear from time to time, and of which the carol sings, rampant hatred on social media, contempt for the holy. But ‘heaven’s all gracious King’ waits to be gracious to us in all of this. All that is required, for the world’s trajectory, and our own lives, to be radically altered, is a ‘yes’ when the mystery and its truth asks to be acknowledged by each one of us, perhaps while we sing the old carols or open the next Christmas card.
The Church, I sometimes feel, is a little like the high street shops at Christmas time. Take, for example, a well-known clothing retailer on our own high street. Garments of varying degrees of attraction are on display in the window as they always are, the only difference being, at this time of year, that some of them are sparkly, or surrounded by coloured decorations. Otherwise, they are pretty much the same garments that we are likely to see in the January sales, before the shop begins to focus on what people might hope to wear come the Spring.
This week, though, there is a large placard on display, proclaiming quite prominently, in amongst the trendy outfits, the word ‘joy’. I must confess that I’m finding it difficult to make a connection between the word ‘joy’ and the items on display. Perhaps the shop has chosen the wrong word. ‘Warmth’, ‘Surprise’ or even ‘gratitude’ might have been better. I wouldn’t have thought that ‘joy’ spoken into a vacuum, in the context of a clothing outlet, would be a very good marketing tool. Perhaps it doesn’t signal clearly enough what shops are, which is to sell goods that the public wants and which will make the shop’s business viable. How does the word ‘joy’ resonate with what the public wants?
But to return to the Church, I think there is a connection to be made. We very much want to bring people something that we, the Church, believe they need. Or do we? How often do we really plumb the depths of human yearning, or even of own yearnings, to know what that need is and how to meet it? I think the word ‘joy’, placed as it is in amongst the scarves and coloured socks in the shop window, is an invitation to ask ourselves what it is that we really want or need for Christmas. Do the items on display, whether in a shop or in a church, come anywhere near meeting that need? It might even be better if a question mark was put at the end of the word ‘joy’, inviting reflection on what might follow the scarves and socks once they have been opened on Christmas morning. Will they meet that deeper and more enduring need? What might people need that could possibly entail joy?
I think that the Church, given the opportunity and good will, could supply the missing ingredient. Given the right conditions (a reasonable degree of physical warmth being one of them) it could supply a little time, and with it a little mental space, in which to centre into the depths of ourselves and be surprised to meet something that is greater than any emotion that we can give a name to. Or perhaps, in the whisper of a passing moment, it might suggest itself as unconditional, unquestioning Love for which we are, on the whole, completely unprepared.
The Church, when it gets its priorities right, can offer the space needed for this encounter to happen, and often does. But it requires something of all of us. As with the word ‘joy’ in the high street shop window, the Church cannot minister into a vacuum. There has to be a willingness to own, if only for a fleeting moment, our need for unconditional love, and so welcome the joy which is unique to this season of Christmas, the joy of Emanuel, of ‘God with us’, meeting us in the need.
They say that if you are unlucky at cards, you are sure to be lucky in love. I’ve never been much of a one for cards, but I reckon I’m pretty lucky when it comes to love – in all areas, in human and animal relationships, in people I read about and will never meet and, surprisingly perhaps, in the Church.
I’m not going to over define what I mean by the Church because that would make explaining my reasons for loving it harder to do. I love it most, I think, when I come up against it in surprising ways from time to time, when it seems to be hiding itself. I love it least when it is ‘full of itself’, preoccupied with its material concerns, with tradition brought to the service of its own insecurities, with status and permanence, when it is too solidly present, unmoveable and thereby out of touch with the fluidity and complexities that are inherent in life’s everyday problems, including the great problems that threaten us all, like war, hunger and climate apocalypse.
By ‘full of itself’ I mean when the Church is overly introspective and concerned with the quantifiable, rather than with the qualitative. The qualitative is the unknowable unquantifiable element that lies hidden in the heart of every human being and which, I believe, the Church is called to give voice to. This returns me to why I sometimes love the Church.
I am not, of course, talking about the visible Church about which I have very mixed feelings. I am talking about the invisible Church, the Church that Jesus compares to yeast or to a seed that has come from a dead plant and found new life in the soil it happens to have landed in – if it has been lucky enough to land in good soil. This is where luck comes in when it comes to finding the Church or, for that matter of being the Church. It’s a matter of where you land. Given that seeds gestate in darkness, the more hidden the Church is, the richer it is likely to be and the more likely it is to turn into something new and life giving.
I think this is where there is some hope for the Church today. The hope lies in the very thing it dreads most – the decline and ultimate extinction of the visible Church. Perhaps we should stop calling it the Church, a word that objectifies (and quantifies) the whole notion of Christian community and sets it apart from the world. The ‘world’ is itself a misnomer too, signifying an entity without heart, driven by materialism and all its attendant vices. The contemplative writer Maggie Ross prefers to replace the word ‘world’ with ‘system’.
Jesus reminds his followers that he is not of the world. He is not of the ‘system’. This is a truly liberating concept for the Church to embrace today. If the Church were to shed the shackles of the ‘system’ that govern so much of its internal life, and consume so much of its spiritual energy, it would be freer to love the world in the way Christ loves it.
This returns me to luck and love. Occasionally, one realises, usually with the wisdom of hindsight, that one has stumbled on the Church in some small barely definable moment, through a tiny act of kindness received, or given us to perform, or in the hearing of a piece of news that helps put things together in our fragmented existence, that helps make sense of suffering, or at least brings love and hope into a situation of unhappiness or despair. In thinking about these moments I realise that I am not alone in them, that they are connected to other moments in other people’s lives, or even in my own, that everything is of a piece.
If this is the case, then how are we to think of God’s Church? Perhaps we are to think of it, not as a physical entity existing in real historical time, but as something that is continually being brought into being in ways that are barely noticeable. It is important that it not be noticed because when the Church draws attention to itself it invariably ‘misses the mark’.
Missing the mark, or hamartia, is the New Testament Greek word for sin. When the Church makes itself noticeable in all the wrong ways, through preoccupation with secular standards and concerns, it obstructs the growth of love and obscures the Wisdom of God which the world so badly needs. Let the Church be more hidden then. Let the good news be proclaimed quietly in and through the hearts of its members as they listen out for people’s need for meaning and for God, however it is manifested, in any given moment. When they do this, they become the Church or, better put, bearers of Christ, manifesting his presence quietly and unobtrusively into an anxious world.
The film producer and sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein, is back in court. He is already serving a twenty three year sentence which was imposed in 2020. He is in his eighties. The anguished testimony of one of the women he raped, known as Jane Doe 1, makes one thing very clear: abuse is never ‘historic’ no matter how long ago it may have occurred.
Harvey Weinstein will surely see out his days in prison, but what of his victims? And what of the survivors of all historic abuse, abuse that may have taken place in times when these things were not spoken of, when it was just ‘men being men’ and that the victim was ‘asking for it’, as is still being maintained by the defence attorney in the current court case? The victim in the Weinstein case is saddled not only with the shame of the memory she is obliged to re-visit in a very public context, but with the added obligation of having to prove that the event was non-consensual, something that she will also have to prove to herself, again and again.
Being persuaded that you are lying is one of the subtlest and most cruel aspects of abuse, whether the abuse is sexual, emotional or spiritual. It is therefore very important that abuse survivors trust what they remember and be prepared to re-connect with the emotional pain that the event still causes them. The pain they are experiencing in the present moment through words or situations which act as triggers, or deja vue feelings of repeating something that it is hard to give a name to, is part of the abuse. So it is not just a matter of forgiving and forgetting. The abuser needs to be held accountable for the long-term effect of his or her actions or treatment of that person before anything like forgiveness can take place.
When a serial abuser cannot even remember a victim’s name, or denies abusing someone they know well, their feigned amnesia reveals the core of the sin itself, a callous indifference to another human being’s personhood and moral autonomy, in other words to their right to be believed. In not allowing them to be believed, they consign that person to oblivion, to non-being, but they also forfeit their own humanity as they deny the victim theirs.
How then are those of us who have experienced abuse in childhood, or in early adulthood, to think of men like Harvey Weinstein? For the survivor, the challenge lies in remembering aright. Weinstein triggers our own feelings of shame, as well as the memories which cause it. Seeing him once again in court returns us, along with the victim who is testifying against him, to our own ‘sheol’. ‘Sheol’ is a word used in scripture as a depiction of hell. It is a place of darkness, a place where personhood holds no meaning.
Where personhood has been denied, our memories of abuse are hidden in a kind of suffocating darkness, and it can be tempting to leave them there. But burying memories, or denying them, does nothing to restore those of us who have experienced abuse to the persons we once were before the abuse happened. Nor does it enable abusers to face their own self and the truth about their actions. Both victim and perpetrator need to be restored to themselves, to the dignity of their own personhood, if remorse, reparation and healing are to be effected. Nothing good can emerge and grow in the darkness of Sheol.
Furthermore, being consigned to Sheol does not allow the abuser to begin to take responsibility for their actions and for their long term effect on the lives of others, because in this place of darkness they cannot see those victims as persons, anymore than they can really see themselves. Nor can they be made to face themselves through the vicarious revenge many of us unconsciously enjoy at the sight of a high-profile abuser being ‘outed’, even when ‘outing’ him is presented as long overdue justice. The public disgracing of old men has no power to heal, either them or their victims.
For those of us who experienced abuse at the hands of others, facing these particular abusive men with the fact that it is their victims’ humanity, their deepest selves, which was violated helps us to move a little further on from a desire for revenge, even when revenge comes in the guise of justice, after so many years of justice not having been done. Real justice happens when victims are finally believed and truth is admitted.
Not being believed about abuse makes it convenient, even obligatory, for the victim to be thought of as a liar in all other respects, because of the tacit belief that once a liar, always a liar. So the victim occupies a space in the minds of potential abusers, be they family members or others who hold some form of power over them, of not needing to be thought of as a person in the fullest sense. They are a ‘made up’ object to be moved and conveniently managed beyond the bounds of another person’s moral periphery, where no further questions need to be asked.
For the abuser, the victim, now identified in their mind as a liar or a fantasist, is relegated to the status of plaything, of not being fully a person, and this will affect the way the abuse survivor thinks of themselves for the rest of their lives. So those who have experienced abuse in childhood and adolescence have been sinned against twice over, first by the abuser, and then by those who choose not to believe, or not to notice what was going on in the past, and may still be going on in the present.
On the other hand, there are some who are blamed for ‘hiding’ or ‘protecting’ abusers when, in fact, they were known to have informed their superiors, or those in authority, to the extent that was required and possible at the time. They too are being judged and condemned as liars because they did not do more to protect the victim. But they are being judged in accordance with today’s expectations, as if the legislation relating to abuse and child protection, along with the more open channels for appeal and victim support which exist today, were in force and available to them then, which they were not.
So what are those who have suffered abuse in early life to make of this web of untruth and half truth and of their own enduring pain? It begs the question of how forgiveness and healing might work into these memories.
We have to take it one day at a time. For a long time I thought that the best most of us can do at present is to allow ourselves to see the perpetrators of these acts, and all those who wittingly or unwittingly condoned them, as persons who belong to a just, truthful and loving God as much as we, the survivors, do. This is true in one sense, but it can also be a way of denying or glossing over pain and the evil that caused it. So I think we have to be honest about what is involved when we struggle with notions of forgiveness and of the all embracing love of God.
It is not incumbent on us to forgive. Furthermore, when we try to do so out of our own meagre resources something tells us that whatever we think we are doing, we are not doing forgiveness in the fullest sense. Something else is needed, something that does not strictly belong to us. One of the greatest fallacies that has been taught by religions until now is that it is the duty of the victim to forgive unconditionally which, with the possible exception of a few saintly individuals, and there have been some, is impossible for most ordinary humans. Forgiveness needs to be sought before it can be given, and before we can experience its healing effect. This happened to me as my father was dying. He simply said the words “I’m sorry”. Nothing more needed to be said. I took his hand. He died in peace.
Much of this post draws on my latest book ‘Re-Building the Ruined Places: A Journey Out of Childhood Trauma’. It is available in bookshops and on Amazon.
‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ ran the once popular ad. Today, its haunting ambiguity lingers on, inviting reflection on the sociality of the human condition, or the lack of it. Can we, or should we, seek to be alone? Does being alone invariably mean we are lonely? Or is being alone our natural state? After all, we are born alone and we ultimately die alone. In the moment of death we return to that primal moment of separation from whatever it is that we have come from, both physical and spiritual.
The last sound we make in this life will be an echo of the primal cry of birth, a cry of protest shaped by desire for something left behind, for some other being. We protest in the face of our aloneness, in death as in birth.
To be alone is not necessarily to be lonely, although it is often thought of in that way. To be truly alone is to embrace solitude. Solitude is necessary for human health whereas loneliness destroys the human spirit.
To experience loneliness, a person needs to have known what it is to be left to themselves, to be left truly alone, before they have come to know their true self, as can happen with rejection in childhood. The abandoned child will have left a great part of themselves in the place from which they have been banished and perhaps with the person who has rejected them.
Bereavement in early childhood can also be felt as abandonment or rejection, leaving that person feeling inwardly naked and often angry. Lonely people are vulnerable because they go through life in a state of inner nakedness – as naked souls, perhaps.
Loneliness is never chosen. But solitude must be chosen and then learned. It is a free choice. Unlike loneliness, it does not impose itself and it never cheats those who embrace it. It never cheats them of the joy it promises. It is always its own reward.
Making the jump from aloneness, and the loneliness associated with it, to the kind of solitude in which life gestates and yields creativity in the true sense of the word, is not something achieved through will power. Neither can we try to effect solitude, because we are curious to know what it is like to experience some sort of higher spiritual state.
Solitude is not about being in a higher state. It is about acceptance of the present moment in the full knowledge that it is as it is, whether it is a moment of joy or sadness or intense boredom.
Inherent to solitude, as opposed to loneliness, is the expectation that there is also something deeper and greater than anything we might be experiencing or thinking about in this present moment. Solitude, if we will allow it, makes it possible for the moment to be inhabited by Love itself, a Love which re-clothes us in the nakedness of what would otherwise be our loneliness.
Since solitude is not chosen and yet never fails to deliver what it promises, it is essential that a person simultaneously seeks and waits for solitude to come to them, that they wait for it to happen, rather than actively seeking it out.
This is a question of disponibilité, to borrow from the French philosopher Simone Weil. To be disponible is to be fully available, permanently ‘on call’ to the one who promises. It is a state of mind and heart which can take a lifetime to learn, especially if a person has experienced real loneliness and depression. Depression is, among other things, an acute state of vulnerability and abandonment, possibly including a sense of having been abandoned by God. Such a person might be distrustful of methods for dealing with depression which have a religious ‘tinge’ to them. They may not trust religion at all.
Re-generative and transforming solitude comes about as a gift in its own right. It is the antidote to the causes of depression, although it will not cure depression itself. Depression, we are learning, is a chemical imbalance as much as an emotional one and needs to be treated accordingly.
The gift which comes with solitude simply makes it possible for the one suffering from depression, and the loneliness it brings, to step outside that particular state of mind and view it objectively as something other than themselves. Depression does not define who they are. Their true self remains inviolate from any kind of ‘cause’ in regard to the depression they may be experiencing.
The damaged self waits for the gift which solitude brings. Solitude involves being available to having something given to us which is both unconditional and life-transforming. It changes the way we see things and people. It places them within a wider framework, one which can usefully be seen as having been constructed around the people or memories that touch our lives at any given moment.
Solitude can enable a kind of framework for whatever may be assailing a person in any given moment, like a picture surrounded by a frame. This conceptual framework contains us, and our situation in regard to them, as it would a painting. It allows us to see things as they are in the general scheme of things. When we see a person, whether from the past or in the present, in that ordered context it sometimes becomes possible to meet them in a new and different way. In other words, it allows us to forgive them, without feeling that in so doing we are exposed once again to the pain we may have already endured at their hands.
Abuse and trauma survivors are not required to re-experience their pain, either in reality or as a memory, in order for forgiveness to occur. We can only do so much when it comes to forgiving our abusers. It is God’s business to do the major part of the forgiving work, but he does it with our permission, so to speak. We have enough to do in simply being vulnerable to Love itself. That is the primary work of solitude, and of forgiveness. The riches of solitude are the riches of Love incarnate, love which is hard, tough and resilient. It is love as we see and know it in the person of Jesus Christ.