Our growing is not yet over

‘May seekers of truth give life to those who are satisfied that they have found it’, wrote the late Thérèse Vanier in a prayer composed in her old age.

Perhaps one of the dangers of advancing years is the conviction that we have found the truth. The hurts and losses of experience have made us cautious and self-protective and we are in danger of succumbing to the arrogance of ‘knowing’, of being convinced that we know and that no one else knows as we know.

We may seek to tidy, to see reason and explanation where there may not be any, and so to eliminate the element of mystery. Yet the acceptance of mystery, of the possibility that some actions, some apparent transgressions or inconsistencies transcend our limited reason, and the faith that somehow at some time the meaning of the mystery may be revealed, can be peace-giving.

In an age when disagreement can lead not to respectful acknowledgement of difference but to ‘cancellation’, the challenge is to view the world and others from that place of peace. We are called to see familiar landscapes afresh, with new eyes, to be humble and open, and to engage with others and ourselves with compassion.

When there is something within us that seeks still to connect, relate and understand, albeit with the awareness that some things surpass our understanding; when our best self seeks still to restore relationships and not to blame or punish, our growing is not yet over.

Where is hope?

As destruction, injury, homelessness, austerity, poverty and loss appear to prevail in so many parts of the world, where is hope? How was it that in the trenches of Verdun, as a thousand shells rained down upon him, the Jesuit priest and scientist Teilhard de Chardin was full of enthusiasm for the geological grandeur and beauty of God? How was it that on the mortuary streets of Calcutta Mother Teresa exulted in divine joy as she carried living skeletons in her arms? How could the Jewish author Etty Hillesum proclaim her uneasy hope as she climbed aboard a train to Auschwitz, and refer to how “a luminous current of invisible Goodness irrigates the world no matter how virulent evil may be?”

Throughout history poets, seers and mystics of a wide variety of nationalities and belief systems have pointed to a connection between adversity and suffering, and growth and joy. Perhaps the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, popularly acclaimed as the “Father of mindfulness”, put it most succinctly:

“Happiness and suffering inter-are.

Good and evil inter-are.

The lotus needs the mud in order to grow.”

It is a question of vision. Unless we have vision, the people perish, the book of Proverbs tells us (29:18). Jesus spoke repeatedly of vision in his public ministry. What do you want, he asked of the blind man, Bartimaeus? “Rabbi, I want to see.” Open your eyes then, Jesus says, and behold the light. (Mark 10:46-52)

We are called by the teachings of Jesus no longer to wander in darkness devoid of hope but to a new vision that allows us to see God and the divine plan for his creation more clearly. We are called to look with the eyes of the heart, not the heart as the seat of the emotions but the heart as referred to by St Paul when he writes to the Ephesians, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be opened that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” (1:18)

To our usual way of seeing, hope is tied to outcome. It is a feeling that arises when we experience ourselves moving towards the object of our desire. For biblical examples we have but to look to the parting of the Red Sea or Jesus’s healings. There is, however, another kind of hope represented by Habakkuk who says, “I will be joyful in God my Saviour” (3:18) even when the outcome appears to be no crops, no flocks and no food; or by Job who proclaims when his wives, health, children and goods are taken from him, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.” (19:25)

Our usual sense of hope is tied to egoic thinking that experiences our personal identity as separate, defined by what holds us apart from the whole and craves satisfaction, praise and security. Deeper than our sense of separateness and isolation, however, is – if we are open to it – the spiritual awareness that we are bound in an unfailing link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. It does not come and go. It is unconditional and underlies everything.

“I believe that there is an ideal hovering over the earth, an ideal of that Paradise which is not the mere outcome of imagination, but the ultimate reality towards which all things are moving,” claimed the great Hindu poet, Rabindranath Tagore. The eyes of the contemplative see Paradise in the green of the earth, in sunlight, flowing streams, in the repose of a snowy winter morning or the fertile beauty of springtime. They also recognise that any moment, no matter how ostensibly dreadful, can be sacramental.

This is not to deny the ineffable horror of war or poverty or suffering. The pain is there, the sadness, the grief, the hurt, but somehow we know that it is not the end. There is something – the great Beyond that calls us from within and transforms the whole reality of the world.

Nor does such a vision absolve us from active compassion and concern as Mother Teresa defined it – namely, the “practical expression of God’s love”.  Everything we do in life goes into the treasury of the heart. The ideas with which we fill our heart determine the way in which we live our life. They transform our within, they shape our vision and are simultaneously the things on which we draw in those moments when we need to reach deep down inside ourselves for character, courage, endurance and HOPE.

Do you know me?

Gérard was waiting at the window of one of the l’Arche houses for people with disabilities. He had been told that an “important gentleman” was coming for lunch. When Gérard spotted the visitor he rushed out to greet him. Running awkwardly with one leg shorter than the other, he arrived in front of him and, extending his hand to the important gentleman who seemed somewhat ill at ease, inquired of him: “ Do you know me?” “No” replied the man nervously. “What a shame for you!” replied Gérard whose heart was fully reconciled with the person that he was and who could therefore readily welcome others.

The wonder of a birth

A bullock-cart, bearing a desperately thin but heavily pregnant woman, her anxious husband and an enormous tin trunk, wound its way laboriously up the steep hillside.

The dark night of the soul

“Your Grace,

… Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show himself – for there is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.”…. “Ask Our Lord to give me courage.” So wrote Mother Teresa to Ferdinand Périer, Archbishop of Calcutta on 18th March 1953.

A troubadour in a small boat

He was a gambler who, in his youth, lost everything he had on racehorses, a gentle, prayer-filled man whom Mother Teresa described as “very, very holy”. As a priest he was later instrumental in founding a community of Brothers devoted to the service of the poorest of the poor. He shared their lives in Saigon, Cambodia and many other places of violence and suffering, and wrote sublimely of the “beautiful” unsung people he met along the way, whom he believed to be the hope of the world.

Another Way

With the possibility of Mother Teresa’s canonisation later this year, journalists and commentators throughout the world are poised “objectively” to assess the rights and wrongs of her life, of the process of canonisation in the Roman Catholic Church, and of her being made officially a saint. I know because a number of them have made contact with me.

An ugly incident in a dreary police cell?

She was probably in her seventies, Afro-Caribbean, with watering eyes and a limp so pronounced that she could scarcely walk without her stick. She had been arrested for shoplifting, and I, as a Woman Police Constable, had been called to escort her to a cell and strip-search her. The rules on how the search should be conducted were very clear. Under no circumstances should I have let her keep her stick.

Seeing God in the darkness

An old man with flowing beard and hair, wearing the saffron robes of a sannyasi, sat cross-legged, silently gazing into the darkness of a cold mountain cave. His earnest disciple waited patiently beside him. Many hours passed, during which the younger man felt the chilled darkness seep into his being and a growing sorrow. His heart longed for the sun rising over the waters of the Ganges that habitually brought joy to his meditations.

Finding the light

I have long been intrigued by the magi, those men from the east, where the daylight dawns, who had the insight, the vision, to spot in the darkness a previously unidentified star of exceptional luminosity. Having spotted it, they resolved to leave the security of what they knew and embark upon a journey into the unknown, drawn only by an intuition, a deep inner conviction, that the star was of extraordinary significance.