Friday, 8 July 2016

To America, after last night in Dallas


Sorrowful, yes. Shocked, no. Where justice is denied, vengeance will follow. Everyone should have seen this coming - the officers guilty of every incident of police brutality; police departments that don’t train officers properly, then mindlessly protect them for wrongdoing; the Internal Affairs sections, lawyers, and grand juries that let murdering police officers off the hook; policymakers. Everyone. This was the natural consequence of a series of actions and lack of a fair, just response to them. This is the consequence of denial.

But perhaps we didn’t expect THIS. Perhaps we expected the police officers known to be guilty in notorious cases of brutality to be executed. More likely, we expected a mass shooting or a bomb at a police station, or police killed by angry demonstrators. Typical American style, thoughtless violence. Terrible one day, forgotten the next.

This was something completely different.

This was horrifyingly elegant - in its timing, in its execution, in its symbolism - using police and military tactics against men in uniform. There was intelligence behind this: resourcesful, strategic, patient, coldly angry. Not the hotheaded anger one expects of Americans that lead to many incidents of one-off violence.

Cold rage. One that recruits men who can lie in wait for hours, picking off their targets. One that may have placed a number of bombs around Dallas - and even if they haven’t, a member (one trapped by police, no less) had the presence of mind to say they did, so police are wasting resources trying to find those bombs after the chaos. One with members who escape in a black Mercedes. One that can wait for the right time and place to execute its plans.

Welcome to a homegrown terrorist cell.

Because you see, where there is a large reservoir of swirling, unresolved emotion, eventually an organising mind, a seed crystal, will emerge and draw that reservoir to it, creating a structure. A structure with a function. And that function will, for good or for ill, channel that emotion to a particular purpose. Whether it’s Martin Luther King or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that mind will come and draw like ones to it. That mind is here, and the energy it draws is the endless, deep rage of those who have been done wrong and who have not been heard.

You are coming to the last exit off this highway, America, the last chance to come off, turn around, and deal with this before it is dealt with for you. Because you ignored all the earlier exits, this is going to be incredibly painful, long, and difficult, but it must be done. To paraphrase a favourite song: you missed the stop sign, took a turn for the worse. Then you went rushing down that freeway, messed around and got lost, you didn’t care…

…and now too many of you are dying to get off.

Stop dying. Start living. You are a country with a beautiful dream that has turned into a horrible nightmare. Wake up, America. Wake up and face your demons. Because only then can you become the Republic for which your flag stands, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

It's All Coming Back To Me Now

My current earworm, following a series of unexpected ones over the last several weeks (as you can see from my last blog post. The rest are even more embarrassing, so let's not go there).

But this, I think, is the big one - and not just because of the lush orchestration, huge fuck off vocals, and an opulent video that allow me to indulge a sensuous side I rarely let out. Yes, it's cheesy. Yes, it's Celine. Yes, it's easily mockable. 

So what? It's a song where Jim Steinman took a risk, committed to writing the biggest, most emotionally laden, romantic song he could, inspired by Wuthering Heights. No matter what you think of the result, there's something incredibly brave about pouring your entire self into a creation and then putting out there. Whatever its form, it's a precious gift.

And that gift gives so much more than the creator ever expected, often offering the chance for profound healing, because when they unreservedly pour themselves into their creation, they allow us to do the same from the other side - and it is only when we do so that real transformation can occur.

So it is with this. Jim Steinman wrote it as a song about the darker side of love: obsession as it moves back and forth between 'We're done!' and 'No, wait...' But as is often the case when we step into another's creation, how it resonates with us may be completely different from the stated intent, because all creations from the heart have layer upon layer of meaning. 

When I first told a friend that I couldn't stop listening to this (and listed the others from the last weeks) she said, Your romantic longings seem to be surging to the forefront.

There was an instantaneous, not defensive, NO to that, because even when I first fell in love with this song, it was about so much more to me. Now, if she meant Romantic - with a capital R - that nails it, because it is absolutely about my core quality of experiencing, processing, and creating through intense emotion. 

That is my true indulgence here - letting myself feel. This is one of the few songs that can get me to go on a crying jag I've needed to be on for months, even years. It wrenches to the forefront my lifelong terror that anyone I'd ever be truly, madly, deeply in love with will die and the desolation of having to live with unending grief.

But above all, it's about my family and letting myself feel everything I've held at bay about that most fundamental rupture in relationship. As most of you know, I walked out of the house with a few bin bags, leaving my parents a note on the fridge door. It was a long time coming: by 4, I stayed upstairs watching the Electric Company when my father got home, rather than running down to meet him. In fact, I clearly remember feeling distressed when he got  home, because a sense of oppression would settle over the house, as if the portcullis had come down, trapping us all inside. Leaving was the culmination of a lifetime of inner knowing that staying in that emotional desert would destroy me. Either way, I would always be going it alone.

And better to go it alone and free, whatever that may bring.

I made that choice, knowing many of the consequences: my family's rage and ensuing vindictiveness; the ripples through the wider family; the relief; the fear; the need to carry on fighting. What I didn't expect, didn't dare allow myself to fully know, was

There were nights when the wind was so cold
That my body froze in bed 
If I just listened to it 
Right outside the window 

There were days when the sun was so cruel 
That all the tears turned to dust 
And I just knew my eyes were 
Drying up forever

If I let myself feel - know, in the deepest sense - that tearing yourself away from even a deeply dysfunctional, soul-stealing place would leave you with wounds that bled so much more than you thought possible, I might have gone back. And I couldn't do that. Not for so much as a moment. Instead, defiance and resolve had to see me through:

I finished crying in the instant that (I) left
And I can't remember where or when or how 
And I banished every memory you and I had ever made

THAT. THAT was what was necessary to get out and stay out. If it meant chewing off my arm so I could get out of the bear trap, so be it. Anger and unforgiveness get a bad rap, but they can often be the only things that keep you moving away from a situation you should never return to. Without them, it's too easy to remember the brief moments where you could breathe, when you thought, Yes, this can become something good: moments watching The Muppets, a magical night in the Himalayas with uncles, aunts, cousins, the youngest uncle keeping everyone in stitches

There were moments of gold and there were flashes of light

Moments that, if you could stretch them into eternity, might have brought light from the darkness. But, as all moments do, they pass, and the reality is what you've always known it was...

There were those empty threats and hollow lies

And whenever you tried to hurt me 
I just hurt you even worse 
And so much deeper unrelenting, grim, joyless landscape that just needed to be survived. Though the threats weren't empty, and you were the child, so your power to inflict deeper pain on those responsible for the cauldron you lived in is debatable.

Turn around. Walk away when you can. Don't look homeward, angel.

But you were history with the slamming of the door 
And I made myself so strong again somehow 
And I never wasted any of my time on you since then

But here's the rub: whilst anger and defiance can get you so far, they can't take you all the way. Because even as you think you've banished every memory you have ever made, they are the ghosts that haunt you, the demons that drive you. If you believe that you've never wasted any of your time on them since then, the truth is, you have

In not feeling what you really feel - so you don't go back. In living on defiance - so you never go back. In staying numb so you survive. In not leaning on anyone else because you knew from the beginning you could never lean on them. In not truly letting anyone in so you are never again torn apart like you were by them. In always having one foot out the door so you are never trapped. In living in the grey zone, numb, so you can keep putting one foot in front of the other, moving away from them, even when you no longer need to be a spore blowing on the wind, but can become a seed planted in rich soil, expecting the sun, rain, all you need to grow.

In these ways and so many others, you've carried them rather than banished them; wasted so much of your time on them. But is there a way to put them down after all this time?

If you forgive me all this 
If I forgive you all that

Can I? What does forgiveness mean? Where does it begin? All at once? In stages? Will I have to do it again? Does it mean what they did was okay? And what do I do without that weight? Without the anger that has driven me forward?

What do I do with the emptiness? And now what?

When you see me like this -

And when I see you like that:

(*my parents are on our right)

We see just what we want to see... 

...all coming back to me
I can barely recall but it's all coming back to me now

That's how we begin to heal, even from the deepest, earliest trauma: not by separating, but as the song does, by bringing all of it together: by letting ourselves fully feel the nights of cold wind and the days of cruel sun, even as we slam necessary doors, allowing anger, defiance, and even numbness to carry us to the places where we can stop surviving and start living, even if, at first, only by nearly dying. The way into the light is most often through the dark night of the soul - and through the songs that carry us there. 

It may all be coming back to you now, but that doesn't mean you have to go back to it. Welcome it, even when it feels like the tears will never end; hold it; be with it. Let it all find its place in you.

Remember, you made yourself so strong again somehow.

And then, as Gibran might note, your eve may be, in truth, your dawn.

The dawn that will, finally, bring you home. 

Friday, 6 May 2016

Do you really want to live forever - forever young?

Not sure why this crossed my path recently, but I’m glad it did. I’ve always loved its melancholy, yearning, plaintive essence...I’ve never understood those who think of it as an upbeat paean to youth - even when I first heard it, it made me want to cry.
I mean, you’d think the first verse would give it away, right:
Let's start in style, let's dance for a while, 
Heaven can wait we're only watching the skies.
Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst, 
Are you gonna drop the bomb or not? 
The essence of youth in the 80s, near the end of the Cold War - though no one knew that of course. 
Released the year before Gorbachev took office, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Forever Young captures the mix of hope and terror during the intense, taut period of increasing tension and decreasing DEFCON (look it up) just before, caught by movies like The Day After and Threads.
This year, the one in which we’ve already lost David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood, Prince, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett and others, this verse didn't pull its punch:
Some are like water, some are like the heat -
Some are a melody and some are the beat.
Sooner or later they all will be gone...
Why don't they stay young?
I wish I knew.
But the part that grabbed me the first time I heard it and has never let go is the second part of the chorus:
Forever young, 
I want to be forever young.
Do you really want to live forever?
Forever young.
Now, the standard understanding has never been how I’ve heard it, though I would say the phrasing supports it. I’ve always heard:
Forever young, 
I want to be forever young.
Do you really want to live forever -
forever young?
Which layers it differently, giving it a different meaning and tension - and to me, it’s one of the core questions of our search for meaning. I think the only reason I saw it was because of one of my favourite childhood books: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. (Read the book - don’t touch any of the dramatisations.)
When I first heard the question sung by Marian Gold (Hartwig Schierbaum), my answer to both versions was a heartfelt, unqualified ‘Yes’ - because, like the singer, I was terrified of leaving life not having lived it to the full, and I wanted all the time possible in which to do that. 
Years on, my answer is - as it is to so many questions I once had unequivocal answers to - I don’t know. Maybe I understand Angus Tuck better now. Maybe I understand better what it would be to outlive everyone I love. Maybe it’s that some part of me feels that death, in making life finite, also makes life precious. 
 Or maybe, like Rabindranath Tagore, I see death differently:
Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come. 
And that is a dawn that, one day, I hope to step into and discover what lies beyond.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise - Maundy Thursday reflection 2016

Truly, I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise. 

Huh, I thought, as I considered what to say today. Unexpected words to an unlikely person – Our Lord speaks to a thief, to a man who had nothing to do with him until that moment, either for or against. Not a disciple, not an apostle, not a Pharisee. An unknown thief who admits his own sins, understands their consequences, and speaks out for an innocent man at the last possible minute receives eternal life. 

Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, I mercy asked, and mercy found. 

Sobering, isn’t it? Because that exchange turns everything we so often believe about salvation upside down. 

Oh, we pay lip service to the ‘anyone can be saved right up to the last moment’ – unless you’re a diehard Calvinist, of course – but that isn’t what we practise. Just watch and listen to how often we claim to know whether or not someone is saved and will go to Paradise, or, even more egregiously, how often we put ourselves in the Lord’s place, claiming that we know exactly what they need to do to be in Paradise with Him – as if G-d wasn’t at work in their lives already. 

How often that ‘knowing’ has to do with their lives looking exactly like ours: same denominational team shirt, going to our church as often as we do, praying like we do, sharing our political ideology, hating the same people we do. 

My most recent experience of someone else’s certainty about my spiritual life was Ash Wednesday, when, after a couple of months’ absence, I went to mass down the road. Just as I sat down at my computer, less than 30 minutes after the end of mass, an email from one of the priests hit my inbox: 

Dear Irim, 
 As you know, Holy Communion is – amongst other things – a celebration of union with all who believe the same Faith, both across the globe and across history. You, yourself, have told us that you frequently attend a non-Catholic church on Sundays. If this is the case, then I must ask you not to present yourself for Holy Communion in a Catholic Church. If, on the other hand, you no longer attend non-Catholic churches on Sundays and Holy Days then, like anyone else who has returned to the Faith, you are of course most welcome.

May G-d bless you during this holy season. 

Suffice it to say, G-d blessing HIM wasn’t what first came to my mind. But once I could see past the shock and ensuing anger, my first thought – and almost the first sentence in my written response to him - was, You can’t make that judgment; you have no idea what my spiritual life has been for the last two months. 

 But more critically, as a Catholic who believes in the Real Presence - that communion IS the body and blood of Christ, I saw that with his request that I accept myself as excommunicated latae sententiae, he was literally placing himself as a barrier between me and G-d

In that moment, I understood that every time we judge someone’s faith journey, every time we insist it look like ours, every time we try to force theirs into a shape that WE think is right, we place ourselves as a barrier between another and G-d. Can there be any greater sin than that? 

 As with all sin, it is born out of fear and ignorance: fear that our own journey may not be the right one or that we are faltering, and ignorance of how G-d is working in their – and our - lives. We tend to forget that salvation is a relationship, a process…not a fixed point.

But this Maundy Thursday, which coincides with the Jewish holiday of Purim, when nothing is as it seems and G-d delights in turning all things on their heads, let’s turn that fear and ignorance upside down. 

 First, let us focus on the one journey to G-d we truly have any business conducting – our own. Let’s face our fear, destroy our ignorance by taking that hard look in the mirror, shining the light in dark corners, build our relationship with G-d rather than stand in the way of someone else’s. Christian, convert thyself. 

 Then, let’s turn our way of encountering others upside down – instead of trying to bring them where we are, let’s do as Our Lord does from the Temple to the well to the cross next to Him: meet them where they are. Let us listen deeply, hear their story, hold space for them to discover how G-d is speaking in their lives. Let us help them find their path to G-d rather than have them walk ours. 

Because the G-d who created a dynamic, interconnected universe containing supernovas, plankton, and everything in between is hardly likely to be found waiting at the end of a single path for a certain type. Instead, a G-d so profligate, so extravagant, will be found everywhere, unfolding in everything, delighting in surprising us. 

 Just as He did a few weeks after Ash Wednesday, when, after said priest saw me in the Lady Chapel whilst I was praying, I received an email from him. Having a no-holds-barred draft left over from our earlier correspondence, I rolled up my sleeves as I opened the email, ready to go all in – then read: 

After you had finished your devotions I looked for you in church and in the lodge to say hello but I couldn’t find you. I hope you are well. 

 And I knew I had a choice: stand between him and G-d, or give up my chance to show him what’s what – and let me tell you, that draft email WAS a masterpiece - and walk beside him. No, he had no idea how G-d was working in my life. But then, I had no idea how G-d was working in his. What I do know is the conversation that emerged from his two sentence email, the child of correspondence fraught with hurt and anger, moved us both towards G-d, not away.

 V’nahafoch hu – it was turned upside down. But that uncertainty, that flipping, is nothing to fear. On the contrary, as the Maccabeats remind us, it is cause for celebration: 

So raise your glass if you see G-d in hidden places, 
He's right in front of you… 

…emerging all the time to say those unexpected words to unlikely people: Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. May we be among them.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Hypocrisy, or, Ash Wednesday Chapel Talk 2016

One of the great things about having a Greek housemate is the unlimited opportunity for etymological discussion. ‘Hey, George, I know you’re checking out the female lead in Blindspot right now, but what IS the real plural of octopus?’ Of course, our most recent discussion (after my amused explanation of polyamory – he got the poly part, of course) revolved around the word ‘hypocrite’ as found in today’s gospel, derived from the Greek ὑπο, meaning ‘under’ and κρίνειν, which seems to have several meanings: to investigate, to discern, to accuse, to judge, to separate.

The common explanation for the derivation of hypocrite is that hypokrites was the term for taking part in a stage production – and that wasn’t always a good thing. It is said that Demosthenes ridiculed his archrival, Aeschines, for having been an actor, reflecting the general belief at the time that because actors were skilled at putting on and taking off various personas, they could not be trusted as politicians. Certainly, this is borne out by the 1980 American election and the fallout across the ensuing decades.

But I’m more inclined to play with the possibilities offered by ὑπο and, using the first person present, κρίνω. In the interest of time, I’ll only mention a couple: if we put ‘under’ (as in beneath, e.g., hypodermic) together with ‘I separate’, the implication is that ‘I separate what is under from what is above,’ – the essence of hypocrisy. But equally interesting is the idea of ‘under’ (as in lacking, deficient – e.g., hypothyroid) and ‘investigate or inquire’, meaning that ‘I under-investigate’: i.e., I do not investigate enough – bringing in the idea that a hypocrite does not explore his beliefs or motives as he should, leaving him lacking in self-awareness, unable to discern properly.

So hypocrisy is the separation of what is below from what is above driven by the lack of self-awareness created by not investigating deeply enough, leaving us unable to discern clearly.

In Matthew’s gospel, it seems we are being told to give, to pray, to fast in secret. At first glance, we may think, ‘Wait, what? What about proclaiming the gospel, going out and sharing the good news? Aren’t we meant to be a missionary people? What’s wrong with going public?’ Let us not be like the hypocrites: let us take the time to investigate and discern.

What is actually said?

  • So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration.
  • Do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them.
  • When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting.

In other words, the problem isn’t public observance, but the underlying motive for such observance: winning the approval of others; being seen as good; showing one’s spiritual superiority. Here, religious observance becomes a hypokrisis, a public performance for applause (later ‘play acting’); it is not what is true – and therefore, not part of the faith Our Lord gave us.

It is what we do away from the public eye, what we do when we are (or think we are) alone that speaks our truth: it is where we sob out our grief when we tell everyone we are ok; where we feel our loneliness despite living a desperately active social life; it is the 3am wakefulness where our true fears and anxieties find us, no matter how we keep them at bay in daylight. 

Therefore, give in private – when you mean it, pray in private – when you will tell G-d the truth, fast in private – when it symbolises something to you: because it is when you are most real that you will truly give, truly pray, truly fast. Like all things, true faith and its observance must begin from the inside out…it cannot be created from the outside in.

We are all hypocrites, because somewhere, whether we are aware of it or not, what we profess and what we actually believe are not congruent. We may not be a Bernard Law or a Jimmy Swaggart, but somewhere, we’re not telling the truth, even to ourselves.

And you know what? That’s utterly human. We are wired for connection, for approval, for love – and early on, most of us learn that being ourselves may not bring us the connection we need, but being something else will – so we split, become that which brings us what we think we can’t live without and learn to hide that which we think would deny it to us. Hypocrisy arises because we live in a world polarised: this or that, good or bad, insider or outsider. Our world isn’t one that holds the opposites and paradoxes inherent in and threaded through the wholeness of Creation; it is one that mistakes reductionism for elegant simplicity.

In the end, hypocrisy leaves us living lives divided, out of integrity with ourselves, with G-d, and with the world, disconnected and alone, because despite our hope, it is not we who are loved, it is the persona we have created – the one that at first seems our liberation, but then becomes our prison.

So how, then, do we move towards the truth that will set us free? Like the Boston Globe Spotlight team, featured in a recent film, we investigate tirelessly, digging for the truth, leaving no story buried in Metro, even when it seems unbearable. We come to G-d, our hearts broken, not our garments torn – knowing that a broken and contrite heart, He will not despise.

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being/And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. 

And what might that truth look like? In the Blue Peter tradition of ‘here’s one I did earlier,’ I offer Sara Bareilles’ song written for Waitress, soon to open on Broadway, as an example (and, of course, as appropriate, swap ‘boy’ for ‘girl’, and ‘he’ for ‘she’):

It's not simple to say
That most days I don't recognize me
That these shoes and this apron
That place and its patrons
Have taken more than I gave them
It's not easy to know
I'm not anything like I used to be
Although it's true
I was never attention's sweet centre
I still remember that girl 

She's imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won't ask for help
She is messy but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up
And baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine 

It's not what I asked for
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person
And makes you believe it's all true
And now I've got you
And you're not what I asked for
If I'm honest I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over 
And rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knew 

Who'll be reckless just enough
Who'll get hurt but
Who learns how to toughen up when she's bruised
And then she'll get stuck and be scared
Of the life that's inside her
Growing stronger each day
'Til it finally reminds her
To fight just a little
To bring back the fire in her eyes
That's been gone but it used to be mine 

Used to be mine
She is messy but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine

Whatever your shoes, apron, place, and patron, whatever your ‘X but Y’, whatever you feel is lost - you are not either/or but both/and: melancholy and joyful; regretful and grateful; angry and compassionate; tough and gentle - all of these mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie: whether it’s cherry, pumpkin, pecan, apple and blackberry, shepherd’s, steak and kidney.

Sound messy, uncertain, uncomfortable? It is. But G-d has always been in the mess – as Terry noted a few weeks ago, we’re not meant to simply be neatly immersed in G-d, separate as a swimmer is from the water, but infused with Him, as water is with tea or chicken with a marinade.

Hypocrisy, like all sin, is slavery born of fear – fear of being unloved, fear of lack, fear of being hurt, fear of not being enough - and rooted in division. So let us stop separating and start investigating the whole, replacing fear with curiosity, bringing G-d all of us, allowing Him to infuse it. Only then can we fully be in a relationship of love with Him, and then, with others.

This Lent, let us take our first steps from slavery into the unknown, into the desert – worrying, complaining, afraid, with all our belongings and mess - knowing that we won’t be led by a seraph, an archangel, or a messenger – but by G-d Himself:

Why does G-d come Himself, Grandpa?

Ah, Neshume-leh, many people have puzzled over this question and have thought many different things. What I think is that the struggle toward freedom is too important for G-d to leave to others. And this is so because only those who become free can serve G-d’s holy purposes and restore the world. Only those who are not enslaved by something else can follow the goodness in them.

(excerpted from 'The Real Story', in My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Remen – read the whole story for the background to the last paragraph)

This Lent, let’s go home.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Setting off on an Ignatian Prayer Adventure

A couple of months ago, I picked up The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O'Brien. I read the opening chapters, then put it down to pick up a couple of other books, finish a report, and have just sat down with it again to begin the Ignatian exercises.

Right now, I'm on week 1, day 1. The process is as follows: begin with a prayer, read the Scripture passage or imagine the scene, pray, then review the prayer

Today's focus was Who is G-d for you? How does G-d see me?

I thought, Jesu, I have no idea. But that's the point, I guess.

The Scripture to pray over slowly and really feel was Isaiah 43:1-7.

Unexpectedly, I found myself shaken:

I have called you by name: you are mine.

When you pass through waters, I will be with you;

through rivers, you shall not be swept away.

When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,

nor will flames consume you.

For I, the LORD, am your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your saviour.

I give Egypt as ransom for you,

Ethiopia and Seba* in exchange for you.

Because you are precious in my eyes

and honored, and I love you,

I give people in return for you

and nations in exchange for your life.

Fear not, for I am with you;

from the east I will bring back your offspring,

from the west I will gather you.

I will say to the north: Give them up!

and to the south: Do not hold them!

Bring back my sons from afar,

and my daughters from the ends of the earth:

All who are called by my name

I created for my glory;

I formed them, made them.

You are mine. Something said to me over and over again by my parents, a statement of ownership, of my duty to them, not love - a claustrophobic phrase. But somehow, when I read this, it was like being held. You are mine: a shoulder to rest my head against, arms to be held in, somewhere to belong, sanctuary. Home.

Then: For me? You would do that for me? Walk with me through water and fire; give anything in exchange for me; gather what was scattered; demand my freedom from whom and whatever enslaves me? You love ME that much?

I don't get it. I can't even begin to comprehend it. To me, love has been duty, chains that bind, relentless taking on the part of others (witness those who show up only when they need to bend my ear about something or just vomit their stuff as if I'm a bucket, then go), dysfunction, needing to chase for crumbs of connection (witness no small proportion of my guy friends and EVERY man I've been romantically interested in).

But this? I don't understand this. I get DOING it, yes. But I don't understand it being done for me. No one does this. No one is there like this. There's always something to pay, usually the demand, conscious or not, that I am there, endlessly caring, giving, non-judgmental, non-human - no grumpiness, anger, darkness, needs of my own, just relentless compassion and giving of my gifts. Yet You would care enough to be with me through everything, to do anything for me, without my having to run after it or earn it?

I'm not sure I can relax into this. 

As I prayed, I fell asleep, because I really can't do a concentrated 40 minutes of prayer yet; I tend to do 5 min stints during the day, or keep it as an ongoing background conversation and that may be how I structure these exercises - I'm sure Ignatius would understand. 

As I always do, I dreamt.

I dreamt that I ran into a guy friend of mine who was being reserved - fitting the pattern I have (taking after my father, of course) - of guy friends who give intermittently, so you really have to stretch the connection in the same way you stretch that last bit of butter or jam to cover your bread. He was holding a little one, and I played with her, then put my hand on his arm and he stepped back. I was hurt by it, a bit angry, but curious too. 

Then the scene changed and we were at a party. The scene above was repeated, except this time, he stepped well away, into a dark alcove. My arm, still outstretched, was suddenly held reverently, as if it were the most precious thing in the world, and my hand kissed with the utmost love. The look on my friend's face was a mixture of WTF, anger/affront - almost possessiveness - and a sudden realisation that if someone valued me that much, maybe he valued me more than he thought. The man who had kissed my arm stepped in front of me - South Asian, turban, proper moustache and all - saluted me with his talwar and bowed. My first reaction was to recoil; my second, one of gratitude and affection. I curtsied in return. 

I have no doubt this - and other dreams - will be part of the exercises for me. There is much to unpack here, but at the moment, my reaction of recoiling is what's holding my interest: recoiling at the fact that he was South Asian, and thus too close to my father for comfort; recoiling because of discomfort at being publicly treated with such love; recoiling at the lavish expression of cherishing me

It also feels tied to this song that I rediscovered yesterday - one of a lover going to his beloved, expressing his love with abandon, the lover's only goal being to reach the beloved:

mahabuuba main aa rahaa huun
Beloved, I am coming.

jo khwaab dekha hai tujhko dikhaane
The dream I've seen I mean to show you

voh khwaab main laa rahaa huun
That dream, I'm bringing to you

chup kyon main rahuun ab kyon na kahuun
Why should I remain silent? Why shouldn't I tell you?

mere dil ka sukuun tu hai
You are my heart's peace.

Id quod volo?

To be that to someone and for them to be that to me.

I need and desire that in physical form, with another human being, and I will not apologise for or diminish that. Neither would He - marriage is a sacrament where each lover sanctifies their beloved, after all - an earthly witness to G-d's love for us.

But also, to the One who would walk through the waters and the fire with me,

Who would exchange anything to free me,

Who would bring me home from the ends of the earth,

Who would gather the scattered,

Who loves me with abandon, 

And whose I will always be...

to You I say:

Mera dil meri jaan mera saara jahaan
My heart, my soul, my whole world,
Saara armaan tu hai
All my desire is you.

Mere dil ka sukuun tu hai
You are my heart's peace.

That is who You, my G-d, are to me.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

It is finished: Τετέλεσται

It is finished. Consummatum est, as proclaimed on status after status of Catholic students finishing their exams. Or the single word in the Greek – Τετέλεσται, ‘It is finished,’ which also has echoes of fulfilment. The verb tense is significant – the perfect tense in Greek, meaning that a completed action has continuing consequences – in this moment, this word, the sacrifice of Our Lord, now completed, continues to redeem humanity today.

The perfect tense applies to our lives as well. All that ends in our life - school, jobs, relationships, ways of being - has continuing consequences in the present, finding a way to new beginnings in the future.

But in this moment, beneath a darkened sky, as G-d hangs on the cross, speaking a word of utter finality, no new beginning seems possible – simply an endless, bleak emptiness into eternity. But even so, this end must come.

Our endings must come too: we lose people we love. We lose jobs in a world that identifies us by what we do, rather than who we are. We can no longer live in a way, in a story, that is now far too small for us: ‘I was abused.’ ‘Nothing good ever happens to me.’ ‘I am a Christian, so the world will always persecute me.’ Those stories may no longer suit us, but they have become our identity, the only way we know ourselves. And so, even though we know the ending must come, we hold on tightly to what we know, fists clenched, arms wrapped around ourselves, keeping the known old in and the mysterious, frightening new out – frozen like Lot’s wife: desperately unable to hold on to what must – or wants to - leave, and with closed hands, desperately unable to receive the grace we need, to trust that a new beginning will come.

We are in good company: in Gethsemane, Jesus too, tries to hold on, depicted vividly in Jesus Christ Superstar:

I only want to say if there is a way
Take this cup away from me
For I don't want to taste its poison
Feel it burn me, I have changed
I'm not as sure as when we started

In Our Lord’s agony, we find echoes of our own journey when endings come upon us: betrayal, anger, doubt as He bargains for things to remain as they are: 

Listen, surely I've exceeded expectations
Tried for three years, seems like thirty
Could you ask as much from any other man? 

As he progresses to contemplating the ending – ‘BUT if I die’ – he begs for the certainty that we seek in our lives:

Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain
Show me there's a reason for your wanting me to die
You're far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why

Before finally accepting the ending that is coming:

Why then am I scared to finish what I started?
What You started, I didn't start it

God, Thy will is hard, but You hold every card
I will drink Your cup of poison

Or as we know the more traditional, acquiescent line from the gospel, not my will, but thine be done. Our Lord, fully human as we are, wants to cling to what He knows: bargaining, raging, grieving, but finally accepting, because He knows that to do more, to carry on when it is time to move on, will have grave consequences for the future. This sacrifice does not just end something: it consummates a marriage between Him and His bride, the Church, consummatum est – ending one story in preparation for a new, larger one. It is not just finished, it is fulfilled: Τετέλεσται.

For us too, in ways large and small, Τετέλεσται – though we so often cannot see the seeds of fulfilment through our devastation at the finishing – and the fulfilment may be some way in the future. We may resist finishing because we are afraid that the end means that the love, the joy, even the difficulties of the situation will vanish from our lives – but the perfect tense reminds us that life is not so; even if the situation is ended, its essence has woven itself into our being. Or we may try to make an ending sharp, short, surgical, denying it matters, pretending it never happened, locking it away. Both keep us bound, but Our Lord shows us the way to live an ending that sets us free: a way of grieving, of unfolding our arms and opening our hands through intimacy with the Father, sharing with Him our darkest, deepest, most uncomfortable feelings at this loss, from resistance to rage to abandonment, asking ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’

After the storm, in that barren, uncertain place where we thirst, when we finally know the truth, accepting that it is finished – even feel ourselves unravelling as we open our arms on the Cross with Our Lord and let go – let us remember that though the relationship, job, time that is ending may be the stuff of our lives, it is not our lives – it did not form us in our mother’s womb, breathe life into us, it does not know the number of hairs on our head. Our lives are elsewhere, and every single one of these smaller acts of letting go prepares us for the ultimate act of surrender, where we give up our lives – Τετέλεσται - so that we may truly live, through the words Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.