Saturday, 17 September 2011

Underneath it all

Dag Hammarskjöld.  Now there was an interesting, inspiring and truly exceptional man.  Do you know the writings of Dag Hammarskjöld?  He wrote a kind of journal called Markings, a self-searching record of a life of integrity characterised by profound faith in God, personal humility, but also by self-doubt and a considerable degree of inner anguish.  The dark nights of the Nordic spirit were his in abundance.  He had that kind of realism and excruciating honesty that any depressive recognises immediately.

Here are three quotations from Markings that I copied into my commonplace book when I was a teenager:

“ ‘Better than most people.’ Sometimes he says: ‘That, at least, you are.’ But more often: ‘Why should you be? Either you are what you can be, or you are not – like other people.’ ”

(That’s what I mean about personal humility.  Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General to the United Nations).

“He is one of those who has had the wilderness for a pillow, and called a star his brother.  Alone.  But loneliness can be a communion.”

(Anyone who says “loneliness can be a communion” is speaking with absolute accuracy but has my mind that is still the mind of a mother – though my children are all grown – and a pastor – though I no longer am one – automatically responding “Uh-oh!”)

“Cry.  Cry if you must.  But do not complain.  For the Path chose you.  And in the end you will say Thank You.”

(What a world of struggle and courage in those words).

Looking for them in the commonplace book of my teenage years, which was begun by my great-grandmother for jotting down recipes and uplifting doggerel from journals, in the aged sepia ink of her copperplate hand, and continued by me in copperplate learned for the purpose, I came across this quotation from Anouilh:

“Rien n’est vrai que ce qu’on ne dit pas” (“Nothing is true but the things we don’t say”), and I would regard that as a shrewd observation and in much the same bracket as some of Hammarskjöld’s insights.

What took me back to Hammarskjöld was not his immense humility and integrity but his anguish and self-doubt – his darkness. Because I cannot identify with his nobility of achievement, but in his groping for light I find a brother.

Some things have unsettled me lately in my thinking.  At church last Sunday, the reading and preaching were all about forgiveness – and during the week following while doing my exercises when in the tedium many buried things come to mind, I had to recognise that there have been some injustices I still have not forgiven; not that before God I wish them upheld, I do not, let them be, let them die, but that they still rankle, I want them put right.  But what struck me at the time was that (I think we heard the gospel from the Good News Bible) the bar had been lowered.  “How often should I forgive?” always answered in my childhood hearing of the King James Bible as “seventy times seven” had withered away to “seventy-seven times”.  Oh.  Well, the end of forgiveness is suddenly in sight for certain specific individuals in my life then, and I don’t think that’s what the Lord had in mind!  And I felt unsettled by my cynicism, and wandering attention in the sermon.

The next thing that unsettled me was news from East Africa, that aid sent was not reaching the poor, with the inevitable corollary of a request for more money.  I haven’t sent much money to the starving poor of East Africa, only a very modest donation and a sprinkling of miniscule ones – but I feel somewhat ashamed to admit that the news that our donations were not benefiting the poor did not move me to send more money – rather the reverse.  I found myself thinking “Surely, at some point, the baton has to be handed to the people of East Africa?  And if all they will do is fight and torture and kill and oppress, well there will be massive suffering, won’t there?”  Africa.  The habit of blaming white Caucasians for everything has begun to sound like the whinging of teenagers complaining about their parents, in my ears.  I expect I’m wrong.  I usually am.  But those who are willing to utilise what resources they have to take responsibility for themselves generally do better than those who do not, in my view.  And in the agenda for creating a better and happier world, war is the very first thing to cross off the list.  Oh Africa, stand  up for your own.  Again, I sounded to myself cynical – and possibly mean and racist with it.  But it’s still what I thought.

The third thing in my thinking that unsettled me followed the reading of a blog by a Arab-jewish American woman travelling by air on the 9th September.  She was arrested on suspicion of terrorism, held in a cell, questioned and invasively searched, before receiving an apology and being released.  Evidently the “suspicious behaviour” for which she had been arrested was no more than paranoia on the part of the person who had reported her.  You can read all about it on her blog post here.  She felt, naturally, traumatised – and her sense of trauma and alienation within her own culture was intensified by the sense that this unjustified and highly unpleasant sequence of events had come about simply because of what she looks like.  Which felt awful for her, of course. 

My attention was drawn to that blog post by a (white, male, American) friend who posted a link to it on Facebook, asking “Is this what we have become?”  He felt shocked, I think, at the institutional racism and suspicion of mind he perceived to have become embedded in American culture.  I do see his point.  But.  The thing is, if people who look like that lady have acquired a habit of blowing up buses and trains in European cities and plotting terrorist attacks and sending suicide bombers to wound and kill folks sitting peacefully in cafés or setting off for work in the morning, then surely those people that look like her must bear some responsibility when the people who look like the ones that the people who look like her have made the focus of terrorist attacks get more than a little jumpy?  And that’s setting aside the twin towers bombing, for which the conspiracy theory evidence has entirely convinced me – see here and here and here.

Once again I felt so unsettled at my thinking – it felt so cynical.

And then, I have struggled again with questions of diet.  I’ve been low on zinc (won’t go into the whys and wherefores right here) and recognised with sadness that the strict veganism I had embraced didn’t seem to deliver all the nutrients I needed in bio-available form.  Which meant adding in again a little of lamb/fish/egg.  This caused a tidal wave of sadness – I love the gentle creatures, and hate the idea of them being put to death (a whole life, a whole life thrown away) for me to eat a meal, the sea plundered, the grain that could have gone to the poor re-channelled into animal husbandry.  And then our cats have been out killing.  I wanted us to have these cats because of our HSP twitchiness and tendency to neurosis.  I felt we’d (as a household) become too fixated on neatness and tidiness and everything being done in order and just as we like it.  I thought that needed breaking open a bit in the way only animals and children can do.  We’d got a bit lifeless and that needed redressing.  Well they’ve done that a treat, but they have also brought death with them.  A couple of mornings ago Alice came down to find a mother and baby mouse both slaughtered together in our living room.   I cannot begin to tell you how that made me feel.  She laid them side by side out in the garden.

And all this set me off asking, what is God like, and what does God think?  Attracted by rumours of kindness and mercy and forgiveness and understanding and love, desiring peace and gentleness, compassion and order, I am drawn to the Gospel.  And, knowing Jesus, and sensing the great warmth of his wisdom and goodness, I take shelter in His sacred heart. 

But, what is God like, that integral to His great design are tsunamis, walls of terror sweeping away homes and families in an instant?  And that a sheep should be taken from its contentment in the pasture and a fish from the wild freedom of the ocean, forever, for me to eat lunch?  If I had to watch one of my children led away, finally, so lunch could be provided for some great Beast somewhere, what sorrow!  (And please don't tell me animals don't know, can't feel, are a lower form of life etc etc - I know animals; I have watched them, I have seen what they feel and what they are, seen their terror and their loyalty, their resignation and fear and love, seen them responding to the Holy Spirit of God).

But life feeds on life and death is integral to everything.  As the old funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer said, “In the midst of life we are in death”.  This is true even for vegans, whose bicycle tyres crush the little creeps and squiggling things unawares in the passage of their travel even if they do not drive cars with their myriad of greenfly bodies perished on the windscreens and the fenders.  Even Jains, sweeping the path before them lest they tread on an ant probably maim the ant with the brush and it would have been better off dead.

And God made it this way, if He made it at all, which I believe He did.  I conclude that I do not understand God.  That when the Lord saith "my  thought are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” that’s spot on.

But God is I am that I am, which means in short “reality”.  What God is and does is the absolute essence of single necessity – no two ways about it.  God’s reality is the imperative of the way things are and have to be – there is no other kind of reality than God’s reality – that's what being “God” is all about.  His way is just the way things are.

But my understanding stutters and fails before it.

And, the levels to which God calls me are places I cannot go – too high for me and too steep.  I think about martyrs and people who do great things – stop slavery and run homes for AIDS orphans and sleep with the families of Palestinians to try to halt Jewish bombing of their homes.  Things like that.   If I tell you that I haven’t even got round to cleaning our windows in three years and my husband (willingly and gladly) cooked his own dinner last night, perhaps you will have some idea of the extent to which I am falling short of saving the world.

What is God like?  I cannot imagine.  What does God think of me?  I am terrified to contemplate it.   But one day I will die and find out.  And I don’t need God to tell me all the things I’ve done wrong, or point out to me my laziness and self-centredness, my cynicism, complacency and apathy; I’ve already noticed a lot of it for myself.  But I feel like I’m doing my best.  I feel stretched already.  If war and terrors, starvation and turmoil and torture and looting one day befall us, then I’ll do my best again.  In the meantime (how feeble) I try to eat organic and reuse/recycle (not great on repairing), I try to care for and shelter from sorrow and hardship the people God gave into my care, I live without debt and give just a little of my time and resources to the work of the Gospel, I try to steward my home and body and income in the light of His love.  Up to a point.  I waste a lot and make a lot of gigantic mistakes as well.

But, what is God like?  What does He want of me?  What’s at the heart, at the underneath, of it all?  I can’t tell.  However hard I strain my eyes to see, all I can do is glimpse great mystery. 

The world is not short of people to tell and advise me.  I’ve heard it from the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Methodists and the Plain people, and been led by the nose along the paths of each of those groups, and what did I find? Inconsistencies and hypocrisies and all the usual human fallibility that you could have told me before I began would be there. 

So I content myself now with just being me – not upholding this group or that group that by dress and declaration pronounced itself to be “set apart and holy unto the Lord”, because I found on closer inspection they were not so, they just (like that woman arrested on the plane) looked like something.   Not by beards and hats and bonnets and braces and aprons, not by incense and candles and processions and mitres, not by stained glass and choirs or committees and conferences is the Peaceable Kingdom built.  And all these people were eager to tell me what God is like, and their version of God always looked like them – a partial and puzzling incomplete fragment of the whole.

I do not know how to follow Him because I cannot see Him properly.  I do not know how to serve Him because I cannot hear Him properly.  His thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways, and it's hardly consoling to realise that.  It comforts me a bit to perceive that Dag Hammarskjöld seemed to share something of the same problem.  Similar, anyway.

P.S. Donna (see comments section) remarked that this reminded her of this post from just over a year ago, and I went and re-read it and thought she was right, it has relevance.


Ganeida said...

Oh, Ember! ♥♥♥ Fallen people, fallen world & some days I can't see how to manage to live in it at all ~ but live in it I must. We can only do our best & trust God for the rest.

Ember said...

:0) Hi, friend! Yes, that's the truth of it. x

Donna said...

I have just read and very much liked this post of yours from last year:
regarding 're-modelling the world starting with the Wilcock Family'. I think that there are people called to (or in the position to) do such great deeds as you describe, but if everyone did then humans could not survive, because we need the little people keeping it all going behind the scenes.
I see no evidence in nature or the Bible that death is a bad thing - it hurts us, and we care, because we have to, in order to keep our species going. Is the cat evil for killing the mice? Of course not, it's just doing what cats do. I think sometimes we humans overthink things.
I also still believe you can remodel the world, starting with the Wilcock family, regardless of whether you eat a fish or refuse to offer your daughters to feed the poor starving crocodile.

Linda said...

Here is a thought that was a comfort to me today. I have spent around 17 years of my life changing and washing nappies. The year I had off I was pregnant with four other children to look after. This relates to us not feeling like saving the world just at the moment. Can everyone spend 17 years changing nappies? I am doing my math again to see if this is right. My son born beginning 1988 and my last end 2001 three years gap except 5 with the last. Last out of nappies at 3.

Ember said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ember said...

Agree, Donna - posted a link to that blog post at the foot of this one. Thanks x

Yes, Linda, familiar territory - it often strikes me a slightly awesome that I spent from 1979 - 1990 almost continuously pregnant or breastfeeding!

Anonymous said...

Hi Penelope,

I bought your book In Celebration of Simplicity from a Christian bookshop in Adelaide - thanks for speaking truth into my busy life.

I am re-reading it this year and learning to slow down.


Ember said...

:0) Hi Jasmine! Good to meet you. May your life find a rhythm of peace and contentment x

Penny Reeve said...

Thank you for this thought provoking post. I loved the paragraph towards the end where you commented that "God is I am that I am". I "stutter and fail" before that knowledge also, and perhaps that is the way it is meant to be.

Ember said...

:0) Hi Penny! Waving! x

Bean said...

This post really hit home! I listen to a lot of Christian talk radio, we are blessed to have at least five stations locally, but I find sometimes that they make me really annoyed. It isn't the Christian message that annoys me, it is the bias of the denomination message. What I mean is the constant bashing of any other denomination, the "our way is the correct way to worship and all other denominations are wrong". I get tired of the constant "join our team" attitude, it seems to me that all denominations damage the gospel message. If we are called to love one another then why don't we do it, regardless of how a person chooses to worship? I have found that christian men (bloggers, radio preachers/host) seem to thrive on apolegetics (sp), they love to argue with one and can get very unpleasant in insisting that they alone understand how we are to worship and the other point of view is wrong. I guess I just don't get it!
Anyway, perhaps I am a bit of topic, but lately this has been weighing on my heart, why can't ALL Christians get along, there is so much judging, so much attitude of our ways are better than your ways, and it all seems so childish.



Ember said...

Amen, Bean! x

Debbie Maxwell Allen said...

Penelope, I love how transparent you are in your thought process! You make me think and ponder more deeply than I would have.

I want you to know that a friend loaded me the Hawk & the Dove trilogy, and my family is so grateful. We would have missed these wonderful books otherwise. We've cried through them all. My 17 year old daughter will be thrilled that I bought the trilogy, and the new one for her birthday.

And thank you so much for including my blog on your blogroll! I'm curious as to how you happened upon it.


Ember said...

Hi Debbie :0)
So glad you enjoyed the Hawk & the Dove stories. That's such an encouragement.
From time to time I have a browse through the profiles of friends who comment on here, to see what other blogs they are reading - because there are some very intelligent and thoughtful souls posting comments here.
I must have come across your blog in that way - and when I happen upon a blog that seems to me of relevance to others as well as to me I add it to the list in the sidebar. I found 'Writing While the Rice Boils' helpful, interesting and easy to read. Nice to meet you! x

Hawthorne said...

Hi Ember *waves*. So much to think about. For me, at this moment in my life, this quote is really speaking:
"Cry. Cry if you must. But do not complain. For the Path chose you. And in the end you will say Thank You.”

Things are really difficult at the moment with hubby's health (As you will probably gather if you read between the lines on my blog.)and I sometimes wonder what God's up to. But I see also how the whole experience is changing me, strengthening me, so that perhaps I will end up thanking Him.

Ember said...

Hi Hawthorne. I pray that you may have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. x