‘I’m a priest, and I’m going to have to answer your question as a priest.’
‘Good, that is what I wanted.’
I was asked at the very last minute, literally, to join a panel in a conference. I had gone to listen and to learn, at a day conference on the conflict in Yemen. Different points of view had been expressed, maps shown, statistics provided on devastation, injury and death. Having spent a bit of time in various places suffering the after effects of conflict, I still very much feel I have little to offer other than a listening ear. But, here I found myself sitting on a panel, talking about a country I have never visited. Well, I didn’t even try.
What I did do was to tell a story, a story that is not mine, but one told to me – and that is the way of stories. They are meant to be told, and heard, and passed on. This is the story of a man and a woman who were living in a country not their own, but which was at war. They loved one another deeply. But she was shot on the street in front of her partner, her love. And as he watched her die, he realised, at that precise moment, that he had a choice to make – he could either give in to despair, and follow a path that seeks revenge and hatred. Or he could make a choice for Love. And in order to honour the love he had for this woman dying before him, he chose love – and the painful and all too necessary forgiveness that must accompany that love.
One gentleman told me afterward he found that ‘airy fairy’ – a phrase I confess I used myself when I was speaking. But I told him, and I also said when I was speaking, that this is the only choice we really have. It is grounded, earthy and all too real for us each and every day – although maybe not in quite so dramatic circumstances. We choose between love and revenge, when someone slams a door in our face, when someone insults us. Our response is that very choice. It is serious business, all too easy to ignore – but it is the staff of life, this bread we choose to eat.
This exchange has repeated itself many times over during this Lent. I have taken this Lent ‘off’ – for healing, for reconciliation, to find who I am, where I am, to find ‘home’, in a literal sense and a spiritual. I have not hidden from the world, rather I have been walking in it, carried into many places, sitting alongside others who have had to face that chilling moment when Death comes knocking – and each of them has chosen Love. And the choice was never easy. But it was the only choice that could allow life – even when the result was injury, loss, or death.
In the places of power I have found myself walking, and in places of poverty and pain, through red light districts and war zones – people want leaders of faith. They want us there, long for us to turn to them, to see them, to acknowledge them, to listen to their stories. And they want us to show in the manner in which we look at them that our eyes are open, and that our words are from the deepest part of our souls – that we are honest. They don’t want politicians or platitudes offered by institutions. They want a word of faith, a look of love, a warm, human touch.
For those of us called to this religious life, this entails a search into our own souls. Are we able to see ourselves for what we have been created and called to be? Are we able to face our shame – the shame we may hold for our flawed bodies, the sins we commit or think? Are we able to identify and celebrate all of these as cracks which allow the light in? Because when we do, we enable ourselves to celebrate the light that is in the souls of the broken whom we meet – and to bring joy and love and sight and life.
This is what enables all of us to live, I mean really live. And to love, love deeply.
Sometimes people have said to me they believe I must look at them as simple, worthless, because they have had so few adventures. And because of this, for a time I held back sharing stories of places I’d been and people I’ve met – and I probably will continue to do so in some contexts. I am wary of being seen as a ‘show off’ – and you can see it in the eyes of some people. Even when there is no actual rolling of the eyes – you can sense this is what people are sometimes doing inside. But if I stop telling my stories, I also stop being fully me. We are the sum of our experiences, good and bad. And the stories I tell are the stories of people, and my encounter with them. I get told stories sometimes because people want their lives to be known, they want to know they have been seen.
Once upon a time I used to weave rugs, on large 20ft looms. It was a very physical yet meditative process. For four years I gathered threads, that during the weaving process on the surface appeared to be a mess, but on the underside, and when it was removed from the loom, the beauty of the pattern became apparent. I continue to gather threads, and I weave them into a human story. Each thread, sometimes brightly coloured, sometimes dull, forms an essential part of the whole. And I have come to love the duller colours more. You see, if a rug is just made of only bright colours, it can look rather sickly in the end. It is too much. The duller colours are what set off the beauty of the bright, give them depth and vibrancy. One of my favourite pieces of writing is on Joy and Sorrow in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet – that Joy is made all the more joyful for the memory of Sorrow. And the opposite is also true, Sorrow is all the harder to bear for the memory of Joy. Each deepens and provides meaning to the other. When we deny our stories, when we try to cover over the blemishes, we lose an essential part of ourselves, maybe the better part – the part that gives vibrancy to our life.
I think what people are wanting when they invite religious leaders into a space, is to have that ‘better part’ seen, to have that part of them in which they have found shame and sorrow to be acknowledged as a vital part of their whole. There is a concept in Hinduism called ‘Darsan’ – that of ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen’. In the practice of using an image of the sacred, our senses seek a taste of divinity. We long to see God. But along with this, is a longing to be seen. We long for God to see us, to acknowledge our existence.
There is a wonderful performance artist, Marina Abramovic, who invites people to sit across from her and to look into her eyes. This is an ancient spiritual practice. Religious texts claim the eyes to be the window of the soul. And that sense may have very little to do with the actual functioning of the physical eye, and everything to do with the eye of the soul, the window that allows our inner being to glimpse others, and for others to glimpse us.
Shame is the ‘sin’, if you can call it that, of being afraid to allow ourselves to be seen – by others, and by God. Forgiveness removes that sin of shame and allows the soul to walk free in the world, to not only be seen – but feel the freedom to see others, to Love.
When religious leaders are sought out, to participate in the world, is this what we are being invited to do? To see? To allow ourselves to be seen? Sometimes people believe we have the ability to see into their souls and it makes them afraid. Of course we have no such ability. We are only able to see what we are allowed. But there is a demand that we demonstrate what it is to be seen, to open the window on our souls, to be vulnerable – and to be courageous in that vulnerability, in doing so teaching others how to do the same.
We live in a world thirsty for human connection. I have the ability to connect with friends across the globe and which I value greatly, but oftentimes we are still left in our tiny homes will little human interaction or touch, or in relationships which feel surface only and lack intimacy. Looking into the eyes of someone, really looking, is one of the most intimate acts we can share. There is no physical touching – but there is an embrace and acceptance of the soul. And there are usually tears, beautiful tears, healing tears.
Within Christianity is the concept of the priesthood of all believers, and I would expand that into the sanctity of every human life, of all life, of creation. Each and every atom of the universe holds within it the breath of divinity – however that might be understood. There is a story of the late Allamah Tabatabai, a prolific commentator on the Quran. He suffered from Parkinson’s, and one of his carers asked him why he didn’t sleep more. His answer was another question. He asked, how could he sleep when he could hear the whole of creation praising God?
Each and every human being is called to be the best they were created to be, and to see holiness in others too. This is no easy task. We can spend a lifetime never realising this is what we have been called to. And we get too busy just surviving the day to day to pay attention to that holy praising. There is a longing that seeks for someone to sing that song for us – even if it is not quite our own. This is the fun of jamming, of listening to one another’s voices, entering our own and bringing life into a dissonant harmony. This is the song leaders of faith are being asked to share – to sing the song of praise within humanity, to see the better part within us and to reflect that back.
(the photo is of the piece ‘The Story of Sand’ by Ali Raza, hanging in St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace & Reconciliation in London)