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.
I am not usually in any kind of identifiable mood, or even frame of mind, when I sit down to write one of these blogs, or, if I am, and the mood can’t be traced to a definable source, I don’t write the blog. Today I am in an identifiable frame of mind. I wouldn’t classify it as a mood, since that would be disparaging both of myself and of others who woke up this morning feeling as I do about our current (unelected) Prime Minister and her government.
I also find myself wondering, among other things, whether incompetence is a sin. Genuine incompetence probably isn’t, so the sin must lie with whoever put an incompetent person in such a position of power. They are directly responsible for what that person says and does.
To return to the question of mood, then, I realise I need to re-focus my feelings away from the incompetent Prime Minister and on to those who hold the real power, who are presumably controlling her. Being controlled is the price she is paying for the fleeting satisfaction of winning a power contest. All power comes at a price. Our Prime Minister pays a minimal portion of that price, insofar as it will come from any reserves she still has of conscience and self-respect. The rest of us, who must live with the consequences of her government’s policies (which have a tendency to change direction with the winds of political expediency), pay the price.
It is these long-term consequences over which we and future generations will have no control which make many of us justifiably angry. The question we are faced with, then, is how to channel this anger into something that is peaceful, democratic and ultimately redemptive.
There are two areas in which this can be done, I believe; the social and the personal. The social involves coming to a broad spectrum of agreement about what is fundamentally and morally wrong in any one government’s or leader’s actions and acting or speaking together, to confront and correct that wrongness – or sin, perhaps. This, Europe and the West is now doing in regard to Russia and Ukraine. Confronting unrighteousness in this way amounts to a collective act of faith.
The other, the personal, involves something similar, but on a different level or dimension. It involves channelling righteous anger to the Highest Court of Appeal, into that space within ourselves which we might call God, or which goes by another name according to personal conviction, but which is essentially pure and good. We all have such a presence within us.
I say righteous anger, not as a kind of moral judgment on anger itself. Not all anger is righteous, since it too often involves selfishness, or fear of something being taken from us, or levelled at us, which feels either undeserved or is simply wounding to one’s ego. But righteous anger does give us permission to feel something personally. It includes feeling angry about wounds we may have endured on a personal level, but which give rise to an anger that is felt on behalf of others, of future generations, of the very young, the very old, or of those whose lives can be blighted by unrighteous laws.
This is where history has shown us that good political engagement begins. It begins in righteous anger, or anger that is fueled by love. Apply all this thinking to a government whose chief motivation seems to lie in protecting the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the earth, and of society’s most vulnerable, and it becomes a mood changer.
The hardest thing about writing a memoir is explaining to yourself, let alone to anyone else, why you wrote it. I envy the writers of novels. They can wrap up their lives, their memories, their feelings and experiences in the lives and situations of others, of people they are free to invent. Characters, I imagine, are moulded out of, or around, realities known by the writer. The important thing, for the writer of novels, then, must be to tell a good story but to do so in ways that take the reader unawares, that quicken their memories in a subliminal way, rather than simply reminding the person of someone, or of something said long ago.
I would have loved to write novels, but it has never been given me to do so, perhaps because the story I wanted to tell is a real one and simply needs to be told as it was. Memoir allows you to tell your story as it was, although the reader is mistaken if they think a memoir is simply a confession, as if the writer needs to get something off their chest by telling it, so that it will be reduced, and its significance shrunk, like one of those tiny de-hydrated skulls that are found in remote parts of the world.
You write a memoir in the way I imagine you might write a novel, with a view to making connections with other people’s stories with, perhaps, one difference, which is that your story, your ‘memory’, must give permission for others to own theirs, especially if these memories are related to trauma and abuse and have lain dormant for decades.
Another reason for writing this book is to give the lie to the idea that your experience of abuse is somehow not worthy of the telling because others have known much worse. In other words, your circumstances were perhaps materially easier, or you may have known a degree of love coming from some quarters, unlike those whose stories are about brutality and abuse experienced in an emotional wasteland or in what might seem to be a far harsher emotional and physical environment. Comparison, as Oscar Wilde says, is, in these circumstances, ‘odious’. If we deny ourselves our memories, and the pain associated with them, because in comparison to what other people may have endured, ours don’t merit being remembered, we risk denying others the right to remember and own their own pain.
So this is a book whose underlying purpose is to give others permission to own the grief they may still be carrying in regard to sexual, emotional and ‘moral’ abuse. It is written very much with people of my generation in mind, people who grew up in the fifties and sixties when class was still a defining issue and when, within the parameters of that class-ridden context, secrecy and silence prevailed. Children were to be ‘seen and not heard’. The kind of religion that some of us were brought up with (in my case, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism) subtly reinforced the implicit mandate to be silent, especially about things that went on at home between family members and behind closed doors. You were brought up to believe that adults were never wrong about anything. Nothing they said or did was open to question.
And this brings me to religion itself. Religion, or at least Catholicism, figures strongly in my story, although if you are looking for salacious details of sexual abuse coming from the Church, either then or later, you will not find them. Abuse, in the context of religion as well as elsewhere, took more subtle forms and had to do with the abuse of power, especially in regard to children. In my story, religion tells its own story and invites a multitude of questions for believers and non-believers alike. I hope some of these questions, and the memories they may evoke, will give people permission to own their own life wounds and to see them as a means for bringing life and hope into the darkest of places, their own and perhaps those of people close to them.
Think of going the wrong way up a one-way street and multiply the feeling by a hundred for the feeling you get the moment you realise you are approaching a motorway on the wrong slip road. See the ‘wrong way’ sign and feel the fear. Now think of fracking.
Fracking the earth for shale gas is the ‘Wrong Way’. The implications of fracking for the future of the planet are as frightening as approaching a motorway on the wrong slip road, without the time or the means of turning back.
Fracking involves drilling at great depth, vertically and then horizontally, for long distances (it is not a small local operation) under the earth’s crust, causing it to crumble and disintegrate from within. This is brought about by the use of toxic chemicals and enormous quantities of water which, when combined, release methane and combine with other chemicals to poison the water that comes out of the kitchen tap. Residents of Butler County Pennsylvania, where extensive fracking was employed in 2019, reported, among other things, sudden attacks of projectile vomiting, headaches, strange rashes and the instantaneous death of a dog who had drunk from a nearby water source. They also reported incidents of water emerging from taps as fire.
We can only begin to guess at the long term, possibly irredeemable, effect this activity may have on the fresh water we rely on for drinking, agriculture and the ongoing sustainability of the planet as a whole, not to mention our immediate surroundings, were fracking to be employed in a place nearby, as it was for the residents of Poulton-le-Fylde near Blackpool in 2011. That particular Tory constituency has now begun capping its gas wells.
Added to this, is the internal and barely imaginable effect of smashing the very substance of the earth, what holds it together from within and keeps its relatively fragile surface intact. The earthquakes and tsunamis we have seen in the past couple of decades would bear no resemblance to the kind of whole scale and pretty well permanent devastation which the internal fracturing of the earth could bring about within a very short time scale on our own door steps. A British Geological Survey linked the two minor earthquakes near Blackpool which occurred on April 1st and May 27th 2011 to in depth fluid injection linked to the Preese Hall shale gas drilling site. The epicentre of the May quake was within 500 metres of the site.
It is not good enough to vaguely hope that somehow the scientists engaged in researching more viable ways of sustaining human life without damaging what it most depends on, will find a solution and solve the problem in time, or in believing the reassuring platitudes of politicians and others with a vested interest in this industry. Neither can we trust that right thinking and preventive action will somehow prevail.
Christians, the institutional Church and all people of faith need to act on this one before it is too late. Door to door petitions, lobbying MPs, and any kind of peaceful intelligent protest and, where possible, outright resistance, are urgently needed.
Chance conversations often have the most profound significance. Yesterday, I got caught up in one, a half over-heard exchange between someone and their dog. A family member who we look after was being re-united with his dog, after having spent the day in hospital. The dog was ecstatic. The relative, not given to showing much emotion, especially in public, exclaimed that it was just as well that someone loved him, hoping, perhaps that one of us would exclaim that we, and many others, love him a great deal – which is what we told him. I could tell he found that hard to take. It is easier to be loved in an uncomplicated way by a dog than to accept the love, with all its nuanced complications, coming from close family members.
This very minor incident has remained with me, perhaps because it is the kind of oddly fractured moment that we all experience from time to time with people close to us and, of course, with our animals. But I also think it begs a much more important question, a question that has to do with how love is recognised, owned and received. I think, if we’re honest about it, it’s far more difficult to come to terms with the fact that we are loved by our fellow human beings, and not just by our dogs, than it is to assume in an unexamined way that we are more loved by our dogs (who make no significant demands on us in return) than we are by other people. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why owning and receiving other people’s love is so difficult. We often don’t feel adequately prepared for it, so don’t know how to respond or what to do with the love on offer.
If we expand this idea a little and apply it to the Church and to relationships between people of faith we see something comparable going on. There are people of faith, irrespective of their religion, who, when they encounter one another, fall into one of two responding groups in regard to love. They are either ecstatically pleased to greet someone who, whatever their faith perspective, they sense is in the same ‘place’ in regard to how they understand, or intuit, what matters most to them. Neither party may ever have spoken about this and probably never will. This is the equivalent of the dog-human encounter I described earlier.
Then, there is another group of people who rush too hastily, perhaps, into a ‘loving’ embrace, based on assumptions about the other person (who they may think they understand) and their particular take on religion, an assumption which may later prove ill-founded and lead to ultimate distrust and even, perhaps, hostility. It will be very difficult for people in this group to learn to accept the love of the other, should the relationship mature beyond the safe and superficial. It will be difficult for all parties to re-learn trust, to believe in the love, to be sure that it is offered unconditionally without any kind of sub-agenda, the kind of covert agenda that is all about ultimately snaring the other person (through ‘love’) and dragging them around to believing exactly what you believe and in the manner that you believe it. No wonder Paul writes that love must be genuine. (Rom.12:9)
We depend on genuine love not only for the ongoing life of the Church, but for that of the world. This is also the heart of the matter when it comes to human relationships and to the way societies can thrive. Love must be genuine. Only genuine love can embody the kind of vision that transforms those a Church or society exists to serve. So vision takes love a step further because it requires more than a set of ideas, still less a strategy or growth plan. It requires painstaking time and commitment to being society in the fullest and deepest sense, which is not to say that everyone has to agree about everything for the sake of keeping up the appearance of some kind of spurious unity. Such appearances are invariably transparent and unlikely to take everyone forward into a truer and better place in regard to any one issue.
Here, it is the ‘everyone’ that matters. Used in this way, the word ‘everyone’ acquires universal significance in regard to the giving and receiving of love, because love refuses to be contained within any one Church, family or identity group, or even species. It does not allow itself to be defined or circumscribed with a view to being better understood and thereby controlled. It takes risks and makes itself vulnerable, but is also wise and guarded. It does not sell itself cheaply, although it is available to anyone who is prepared to receive it. For vision to be true, then, love must be genuine and genuine love begins with the hardest task of all, an openness to receiving a love we feel we don’t deserve and perhaps don’t want.
Yesterday, I had the sad and solemn privilege of being alongside a friend whose dog was being put to sleep. I was there both as a friend and as a priest. The dog was of an age, to be sure, and needed to move on. But my friend and the two vets who had come to euthanise her yearned in some way for her to stay, to have the moment postponed, to wheel back the wheel of time, to demand in that moment that time simply stop.
Being alongside a dog as it breathes out its last is not quite like being alongside a dying human being. It is a different kind of ministering to the dying. Prayers written for such situations are often quite sentimental. They can lack clarity when it comes to what comes next; eternity, the afterlife, the notion of a new creation and thus of salvation itself.
I believe it is possible to speak of salvation when you are ministering in the context of a dying animal. I was just as conscious of the whole of creation, and of its need for salvific healing and life, as I would have been had I been at the bedside of a dying person. I was also made intimately aware of a particular kind of love that human beings are capable of, but for which we seldom have words and often have to deal with privately. This is the complex and deeply personal love we have for the animals who share our lives at close quarters.
Dogs oblige you to share your life with them, whether or not you realise it and, at times, when you don’t even want it. Dogs can be disruptive. They expect things to happen at certain times. They shed hair. They bark suddenly and loudly for no apparent reason. They embarrass with their exuberant affection for people, especially, it seems, for people who don’t have dogs because, presumably, they don’t like them very much. A dog is not a very discerning creature when it comes to the distribution of its affections among humans.
Sharing one’s life with the dog is not like the sharing involved in any human relationship. There is a certain amount of ‘taking for granted’ which is OK between us and dogs, but which might not be OK in other family relationships. The reason for this is that dogs only understand what they choose to understand at any given moment, so they don’t get annoyed or take offence. They only understand what adds to the sum total of the goodness of the arrangement which you have with them. The more you give of yourself to this arrangement, the greater will be their understanding of you and their love for you.
This allows them to take you for granted, to trust you. Trust, in regard to dogs, is quite a simple matter, unlike the trust that needs to exist between humans. For one thing, no amount of complaining will persuade a dog that his or her presence can at times be unpleasant, from a purely odorific point of view. Or that sudden barking is both uncalled for and distracting, as is snoring, loud lapping of water and other licking sounds. But we would not be without them. If, like me, you are a writer, their goodness, despite the practical drawbacks of having them in the same room, aids the creative process.
Dogs seem to be gifted with goodness. Perhaps other species are as well, but seldom in such an uncomplicated way as dogs. It was a privilege to be with my friend and to spend a few minutes whispering to this dying animal, reminding her of her goodness and of eternity. I was tempted to believe that perhaps the words I was whispering to her were spoken more for the humans present than for the animal, but the animal grew calmer as I whispered. Something greater than the preliminary medication used in such procedures was stealing into what was left of her consciousness.
Her goodness and the essential goodness of all dogs is also a constant reminder of how God’s own goodness is revealed in the sheer doggishness of dogs. As a result, talking to a dog leads into prayer and prayer sustains creativity, although the dog is quite unaware of any of this, believing that one is talking only to them in an oddly passionate and grateful way. Their response is to lie back, paws in the air, lips slightly flapping to reveal a magnificent set of teeth, with eyes half closed in something resembling bliss.
When our last dog died, I started reading poetry to the small remaining dog, a miniature wire-haired dachs. The dachs was enthusiastic but, sadly, quite uncomprehending, although she listened and stared intently. I sensed that she was trying to make up for her friend’s absence, and for her own loss, by being even more of a dog than she already was, out of loyalty and devotion. She too moved on not long after her predecessor but the memory of her remains, as will that of my friend’s dog, a sign of the relentless forward movement of life and of the goodness of God.
‘Happiness is a right, but you have to catch it yourself’ said Benjamin Franklin of the American Constitution. It was a very English thing for an 18th century American to say. We English have traditionally held that pulling yourself up by your own boot-straps is something of a moral imperative.
Pelagius, writing in the 5th century, was a very English heretic. Pelagius argued that human beings did not need divine grace in order to fulfil God’s purpose for them because they could perfectly well fulfil it through their own efforts and character. Part of his argument entailed the denial of original sin, as it was then understood. Original sin was seen to have been inherited from Adam’s wilful disobedience to God, his perceived lack of need for God.
Today, original sin manifests itself as original selfishness, our natural propensity for the furthering of self interest at the expense of anyone or anything which gets in its way. Self reliance has become a moral imperative, so that to be poor is to fail, and failure today is easily confused with sin. The original selfishness which has ‘spawned’ this philosophy has its origins in the instinct for survival which we have inherited from our earliest humanoid ancestors, as argued by Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’.
In modern society unredeemed original selfishness leads to a state of collective and chronic loneliness. In terms of the individual, those who have led selfish lives often find themselves alone and unvisited in their final years, a situation exacerbated, perhaps, by the selfishness they have passed on to others. This is not to say that all lonely people, whatever their age or circumstances, are inherently selfish and therefore paying a price for how they have failed others. Loneliness is the price many of us will come to pay, sooner or later, for the climate of selfishness we, in our western society, have generated and grown used to. Furthermore, our collective greed and individual selfishness suggests that its ultimate casualty will be ourselves, the demise of our species within the next couple of centuries, ultimate loneliness. But our denial of this increasingly obvious fact does not seem to be making us less selfish, either in terms of how we think about the planet we are bequeathing to the next three or four generations, or how we conceive of our own happiness at this moment.
Perhaps the difficulty lies primarily with the way time itself has become a kind of currency. We are seldom sufficiently present to the present moment to appreciate its unique value. We have more important things to do than to stop and think about it. The present moment is disposable.
We are used to thinking about disposable assets, but we seldom think about disposable time. Disposable time, and how it is used, is central to the question of happiness and to that of loneliness. Too little disposable time forces us to compress our lives into a rapidly diminishing time framework, usually at the expense of our relationships and of our mental and physical health. Later in life, the sacrificing of relationships will lead to us having too much disposable time, too many hours to fill and too few people left with whom to share them.
Do we simply write this scenario off as the inevitable price we pay for living in the times we live in? Or is there a way for re-connecting with the source of true happiness from within any given moment? Can we find ways of being present to a greater stillness from within any one transient moment in daily life?
There are two stories from the Gospels which hint at how we might re-think our happiness priorities in this respect and so arrive at such a mental vantage point. The first story is that of the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God. Like many religious people, he has led a good life but he is afraid of parting with his disposable assets. Material assets may not constitute happiness, but they do impart a feeling of safety, so to let go of them willingly is frightening. This was the young man’s problem. Furthermore, like many of us today, he felt that he was defined by what he owned, or by what he had achieved (which often amounts to the same thing), so his happiness depended on maintaining his ‘profile’, or its equivalent, and this required time.
The other story concerns two sisters, Martha and Mary. Jesus is having supper at their house and Martha chides him for allowing her sister to sit listening to him when Mary’s time would be better spent helping her with the meal. (Where is their brother, one can’t help wondering?) But Jesus replies that Mary has ‘the better part’. The story concerns the proper deployment of disposable time when it comes to what makes for real happiness.
This is not to say that spirituality is more important than practical action, but that there are deep human needs which take precedence over everything else and meeting them requires time. The deepest of these needs is our need for God.
Once this need is recognised for what it is, it alters the way we think about disposable time. It also radically alters the way we experience happiness. If what we have in the way of disposable time does not allow us to be at peace for at least a part of each day, what is it we lack, or, better put, what are the time-wasting preoccupations that create an obstacle to this mysterious, unnameable and elusive happiness?