I have been continuing to read ‘Nine Lives’ over breakfast. As you recall, this book is about nine people’s lives from India, told by William Dalrymple. This particular section struck me this week. Dalrymple is talking about the disasters that sometimes happen in India, and the response of the people to them. He is comparing Westerners with Hindus. He says about the attacks on the USA on September 11th “The people of New York again and again compared what had happened to them to films or TV. ‘It was like ‘Die Hard 2’, it was like ‘Independence Day.’ In contrast, when the great tsunami struck at the end of 2004, Indians were able to reach for a more sustaining narrative than disaster movies: the calamities and world ending floods that fill the … Indian oral literature. As the great American Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger puts it, ‘Myths pick up the pieces where philosophy throws up its hands. The great myths may help survivors to think through this unthinkable catastrophe, to make sense by analogy’.
Great stuff !
When thinking about Indian culture is always a bit easier to accept that they have mythology to help them, whereas we in the west do not need such stories. It is easier to admire them from afar, than to see what they are getting at, and maybe take it to heart.
But the same situation that confronts the Indian people in the face of disaster confronts us too. I have often said ‘What things mean depends upon what story you think you are in when they happen’
One of my favourite books is by the ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. He has written ‘Naming the Silences’ which explores the problem of illness, especially when it happens to Children. Quoting David Barnard, he says ‘it is only within a life story that illness has a meaningful place. And to see the patients illness as a development in a biography- rather than as an isolate series of biological events – is precisely to recover a context of meaning for medical interventions’ Hauerwas goes on to say in his own behalf ‘I suspect what bothers us even more about childhood suffering is that it makes us face our deepest suspicions that all of us lack a life story which would make us capable of responding to illness in a manner that would enable us to go on as individuals, friends, as parents and as a community. Christian convictions help us to discover that our lives are located in God’s narrative The God who has not abandoned us, even though someone we deeply care about is ill”
So like the Indians, we all need a story to make sense out of what happens. This is what Holy Week and Easter are for. Each Sunday we rehearse it too, but during Holy Week we take a whole week, to tell ourselves in ‘real time’ the Story of God, in Jesus. Then, whatever happens, we can say ‘My life is hid with Christ in God.’ That is the determiner of my reality now, and in the future. As a baptized person the power of the sacrament of baptism changes me from being in the story of ‘the World’ or ‘The old Person’ into the Story of ‘Christ’. Our story allows for many different ways to participate in it, but it is always about the overcoming of whatever is death dealing in order to live in the story of God’s life and love for us.
This week, there have been a couple of occasions where this has happened to me. When I wrote about my impressions of the Mass in Rome last week, I received, apart from some appreciation, some hurtful e.mails. What I saw being ‘A person of Catholic sensibilities having a think out loud about one particular Eucharist, and what it meant for me about barriers, feeding and priesthood’ was seen by others as ‘Thumbing my nose at the Catholic Church’ This provoked a response that sounded like ‘You have hurt me, so I am going to hurt you back’. It did. I was numb for a few days.’
But I began to wonder about the process. I called one of the people who was not pleased with what I had written to let them know that I intended no ill meaning. I thought about the process of forgiveness, and preached about it at Evensong. It occurred to me that openness with one another depends upon the context in which hurts occur. If we think that God is a punishing father, then like Adam and Eve we are going to hide from God. But if we think that God really loves us, then we won’t hide, but can find the strength to tell some uncomfortable truths about ourselves to God. This is the way it is meant to be in the Church. St. Matthew invites us to go to our brothers and sisters in Christ to have a talk with them about what has hurt us. Why? Because our story is the story of God’s life-giving love in Jesus. We can expect to be received well by a brother or sister in the Church if they hurt us.
So after the Evensong, this person, unasked, came to me to say ‘Well, if I have hurt you I ask forgiveness’. I did the same. A deepening of the relationship happened right there, because two people decided to live in God’s story.
Later during the week, I was still recovering. I rang up a friend and was greatly helped by being heard by them. That ‘loosened me up’ emotionally. So I went into the music room in our house to practice the ‘warm up’ music for Sunday. This music is a combination of the Song of the Three Young Men’ (The Song of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace!) and the refrain ‘Christ is Risen Alleluia, Sing to the Lord, Alleluia’. As I was able to remember the chords, somehow the meaning of the music ‘got in’ and I began to really sing ‘Christ is Risen! Alleluia.!’ The sadness I felt at being ‘hurt back’ was able to be expressed and I could then move on into the rest of Holy Week with a heart full of hope. This is the way that God’s story impinged itself on my reality this week. This is what we celebrate.
I am reminded of the story of the communist days in Russia. The Communist Party had gathered all the people into a hall to lecture them for hours on end about the evils of religion and the benefits of dialectical materialism. After a long time, an old man asked to be allowed to address the crowd. Being sure of themselves, and in a generous frame of mind they agreed. The old man got up and simply said ‘Christ is Risen!!’ To which all of the people answered at once, and with emphasis ‘He is risen indeed!!’
This is our Story.