Jesus on the free table

 

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At the back of the main hall in Cornerstone there are two tables. One is a little stall where, at very low prices, we sell donated sandwiches, a few tins, packets of pasta and cereal. The other is ‘the free table’, where we put a whole variety of things: homegrown vegetables and fruit, woolly hats, knick-knacks from an old lady’s house clearance, and tins of cheap-brand baked beans and spaghetti from our surplus food stocks. The little stall does a good trade most days, but the free table is little short of looted: a flurry of people, arms and bags, and the whole lot is gone in half a minute or less. Watching this scene, someone said to me, ‘Look at that. Where’s the self-respect? Where’s the dignity? They don’t even know what it is they’re picking up.’

*****

When Jesus is born, the first people to be told about it are the shepherds. Luke tells us that they are ‘living in the fields’. They sleep out. It’s safe to say, I think, that they are not regular attendees of the synagogue on a Sabbath. They are not the church-going type, or even the Law-abiding type. If they did turn up, chances are other people would shuffle up the bench a bit – if you live outdoors with sheep, you probably smell pretty ripe, even by first century standards. They are not wealthy, and being a shepherd is not a prestigious profession – it’s a job you pay someone else to do for you, if you can. Shepherds are semi-wild, dwelling on the physical and social margins.

These are the first people that are told about the birth of Jesus, first by an angel, and then by a whole army of angels singing, ‘Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace among human beings who are pleasing to God.’ Notice that: human beings pleasing to God is addressed to the shepherds. What do the shepherds do in response to this announcement? ‘…they went in a hurry, and they searched for Mary and Joseph, and the baby, which lay in the feeding trough.’ They went in a hurry. Notice that, too: the other person who ‘hurries’ after the appearance of an angel is Mary, who hurries to Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah. The shepherds are in good company.

*****

Why does God choose to tell the shepherds first? Two reasons, I think. First, because they are the most important. Thirty years later, Jesus will stand up in the synagogue and, unrolling the scroll, begin: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor…’ The shepherds aren’t there to hear him, but that doesn’t matter: he will spend the next three years seeking out and healing and reconciling those not welcome in polite society: lepers, paralysed people, women of bad reputation, tax collectors. They are the first to get the good news of Jesus’ birth, because the good news is for them.

Second, because God wants to be sure of a good welcome. In Jesus, God gives us the most precious thing imaginable: the gift of himself, as a human person. Our logic puts precious things in high-end boutiques, where they are guarded by doormen and salespeople. Few people walk through the doors of these places, and even fewer buy anything. God’s logic puts Jesus on the free table, where absolutely everyone can get him, even those who will misunderstand and misuse him. And the people who rush to the free table are –thank God!– the people with no dignity and no self-respect, the people who are honest about their need, who can’t be bothered to act as though they had better offers, or something more interesting to do. These are the people who rush to Jesus. God, give me the grace to be among them.

Photo credit: Osvaldo Gago on Flickr

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Run a mile

‘Oh,’ the priest said, ‘that’s another thing altogether – God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us – God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.’

         Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

A few weeks ago I had an extraordinary conversation over lunch. Someone I’m working with, who takes his spiritual life seriously, had a question: if I keep up my practice of meditation, will the dark night of the soul happen to me? He was aware of the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and of Mother Theresa’s remarkable collection of letters, Come Be My Light, which gives a very real picture of the spiritual darkness –at times anguish– of her later life. The question was: is this going to happen to me?

At the time I said something about the journey into deepening prayer as the mystics describe it, which does go through periods of dryness, purification, joy and darkness. I said, too, that for John of the Cross, the dark night came through objectively bad experiences – being imprisoned by his Carmelite brethren and beaten on a daily basis. Dark night experiences can happen to us without us going looking for them.

powergloryAs the weeks have gone by, I’ve found myself thinking about a different answer, and about the whisky priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Finally captured by the Communists after months on the run, the priest and his pursuer, a lieutenant, spend a wet night in a hut in the mountains. It’s there that this wonderful spiritual anti-hero makes his confession of faith. “‘Oh,’ said the priest, ‘that’s another thing altogether. God is love… Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.’”

That is exactly it, at least in my experience.

Most of us want, perhaps more than anything else in the world, to be known and loved. The ‘and’ here is crucial. There are times when knowing and loving go hand in hand: the first few dates when you’re finding out more and more about each other, and each new discovery confirms your first intuition that this person is something special. In those situations, revealing something of yourself can be liberating and exciting, if also a little nerve-wracking. (Will he like me if I admit that I like prog metal? birdwatching? taxidermy?) As the relationship deepens, there are also times when knowing and loving are in painful tension with one another. Because I want the other person to love me as I really am, I may feel compelled to tell them something difficult about myself – perhaps something painful from my past. Then, being known is very difficult, vulnerable and raw: my heart may be in my mouth as I wait for their reaction. Even being loved can be difficult. If, deep down, I do not believe that I am loveable, then I may find the other person’s acceptance of me even harder to bear than I would find their rejection. Every relationship is like this: as it deepens, it goes through phases of closeness and distance, growing together and pulling apart, disclosure and silence. We may go through these phases repeatedly, but if the relationship is healthy, the pattern is not just cyclical, going through the same motions of allowing someone close and pushing them away again; rather, it is a deepening spiral, in which we are increasingly both better known and better loved.

All this is true of a deepening relationship with God. There are times when being known and loved –feeling known and loved by God– is light and easy. There are also times when it is challenging and frightening. We mention easily how God loves us even though we are sinners, but often this kind of talk is a good example of what the late Sebastian Moore OSB called, ‘making Christ the answer without doing the homework’. It is true that we are completely known and completely loved by God, but our journey into really discovering that is long, and –because we are human– every bit as challenging as an ordinary human relationship. Whatever our Sunday best beliefs, we may fear, deep down, that God will reject us because we are not good enough. We may struggle with discovering that God accepts us as we are, because it will mean having to accept ourselves as we are. In letting go our fantasy of what God wants us to be like, we have to let go our own fantasy of what we should be like. All that is difficult and unworthy in us may seem to rise to the surface, like the whisky priest who is so shamefully aware of his cowardice, his alcoholism, his worldliness. Like any lover whose deepest faults are exposed to the gaze of their beloved, we may want to get our rejection in first, and pull the plug on our relationship with God; or, like the whisky priest, we may just stumble on, bewildered by God’s mercy. All these fears, darknesses and struggles are the dark night. It’s not like a disease, something that you might catch or might not if you hang around the spiritual life long enough. The spiritual life is basically a love life, and it has all the same joy, terror, risk and promise. There are times when, like the lover in the Song of Songs, my prayer is ‘Draw me after you, let us run.’ And there are times when, like the whisky priest, I run a mile.

On Mercy: ‘Sister says…’

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Over the last six weeks, I have come to the conclusion that I work with God.

If you walked through the door of the homeless centre, you wouldn’t be able to pick her out, because she spends most of her time in the kitchen, out of sight, preparing the meals that are served each day. She’s very quiet, and keeps a low profile. She is there when I arrive in the morning and when I leave at night, and lately I’ve realised that she’s often here when I’m not: she gives sandwiches out on a Saturday, and there are a handful of people who ‘come to see Sister on a Sunday’. Sister is endlessly available.

Sister is also a soft touch. You don’t have to work with homeless people for long before you realise that, one way or another, some of them are taking advantage of you. The truth of people’s situations can be pretty elusive, and their story can vary depending on who they’re talking to, and what it is they think they can get from that person. Sister doesn’t seem to care. At first, I wondered if she believed everyone, but now I realise that she’s nobody’s fool – she just, by and large, gives people what they ask for. So I’ve learned that our more difficult visitors come and ask for Sister straightaway, or tell me they have already spoken to her. Then they sidle up to me and begin, ‘Sister says I can have…’, and I know the cause is lost. I will go and get them what they want. Sister has spoken. Occasionally, her generosity drives other members of staff nuts – someone will tell a client that they can’t have x, y or z –for good reasons– but Sister will go ahead and give it to them anyway. ‘Oh, give her a couple,’ she’ll say.

Her patience is endless. The lives of the homeless people we work with are often chaotic, and the concept of opening hours does not always lodge itself in their minds. They will turn up as we are closing for the day, trying to sweep, mop and get ready for the next morning, and ask for sandwiches, a coat, a cup of tea, a food parcel. Often as not, my reaction is mild annoyance – they know when we’re open, why can’t they come then? Sister doesn’t seem to mind. She has a brief conversation, gets them what they need, and sends them off. ‘He could have come earlier,’ she’ll say mildly, and go back into the kitchen.

It’s true that there’s a place for tough love in homeless shelters, the kind of love that challenges people and tells them to get up and walk. But as I’ve reflected on the Year of Mercy, which comes to an end this week, it’s the refrain, ‘Sister said…’ that I’ve ended up thinking about.

Her mercy has taught me to see people differently. A few days ago, a man turned up as we were closing and we went through the usual rigmarole of telling him he was too late, to no avail. In broken English, he told us he wanted to speak to Sister. Sister appeared, and she made him a sandwich. Yesterday he showed up again. The first time I’d seen him, when he’d arrived late, I’d looked at him with frustration – we were busy trying to clear up, and he was being a pest. Yesterday, I saw him through the eyes of mercy: sick, desperately alcoholic, wearing sandals with no socks on a day when sleet was falling outside. I saw him as a person, and as the worthy recipient of mercy, love and attention, however much of a pest he is, and whatever time he shows up.

Often, her generosity makes me see myself differently, too. More than once, I’ve realised that my instinct to say ‘No’ to someone had more to do with my need to show that I wasn’t going to be taken for a ride than it had to do with their need. So the guy wants toothpaste and he could afford to buy it? So what? And sometimes, I’ve known that my instinct to say ‘Yes’ has something to do with my desire to be acceptable –or at least not to have someone mouth off at me because I won’t give them what they want. I have never had the impression that her generosity is about needing to be loved or admired or accepted: she just gives because she can, and they need.

I think it was probably like this walking around with Jesus. The disciples are full of practicalities, like sending people away to buy food after a long day listening to Jesus teaching. But Jesus knows when their attention to practicalities is an excuse for their own lack of generosity, and he calls them out: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat.’ He knows, too, when the disciples’ concern that his time shouldn’t be wasted on trivialities is really a reflection of their own priorities: ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, because it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ Jesus was no fool. No doubt many of the people who came to him were taking advantage too, and their interest in him ended when they got what they wanted. He didn’t care; he went on gathering crowds and healing the sick anyway, like the sower who throws the seed in armful after armful, regardless of where it lands. God does not limit his love because we want so little of it, because we so consistently take only what we think we need, and not the whole of what he desires to give us. God gives, because God is, because we need, mercy.

Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões on Flickr

The surprise of the third week

crossDuring the third week of the Spiritual Exercises, the person making the retreat contemplates Jesus’ suffering and death. The idea is that, through meditating on the gospel texts, you follow Jesus step by step through the events of Holy Week. It’s not just about being an eyewitness, but about becoming emotionally involved in the events unfolding around you, feeling and responding to all that occurs. As always, Ignatius has you name the grace that you’re looking for in prayer. The grace is to be near to Christ and in Holy Week that means praying to feel sorrow and pain. These are among Ignatius’ instructions for the Third Week:

I will make an effort…to be sad and grieve because of the great sorrow and suffering of Christ our Lord.

I will take care not to bring up pleasing thoughts, even though they are good and holy, for example, of the Resurrection and the glory of heaven. Rather I will rouse myself to sorrow, suffering, and anguish by frequently calling to mind the labors, fatigue, and suffering which Christ our Lord endured from the time of His birth down to the mystery of the passion upon which I am engaged at present. (Exx 206)

The idea isn’t so much that you go round pulling a face like the Puritans in the Ladybird book about Oliver Cromwell, but that you make an effort to be alongside Christ in as real a way as you can.

Hence my surprise when, at this point in the Exercises, sorrow, fatigue and grief were not what I was feeling. Having found the First Week pretty emotionally intense, I’d been wondering –a little fearfully– about how I would handle the Third Week. But once I was alongside Christ in the events of the Passion –the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the betrayal, the night trials– the emotions that came uppermost were stillness and peace. More than that, there was a sort of quiet joy. When it came to Simon of Cyrene being asked to carry the cross, the joy broke cover: for me, he was a figure of joy, elation, towering strength, energy, peace and contentment. Convinced I was getting it all wrong, I tried to re-compose myself, start again, and feel what I was meant to be feeling. It didn’t work – the joy was still there, and each repetition was the same. By late afternoon, I was walking up the beach thinking, ‘Well, ok, maybe this is the gift. Maybe this is what God wants me to have.’

The last week has been incredible, though I suppose quite ordinary in terms of what homeless centres deal with on a day-to-day basis. I can’t say a great deal about the specifics, but it’s been a week of accompanying people who have been desperate and fearful, resolved and hopeful, struggling and unable to hope, or addicted and ready for change. And, though it’s sometimes felt like the wrong emotion, my feeling in accompanying these people has been joy, that surprising emotion of the Third Week. Even when the day has been difficult, or we’ve been unable to help someone, or I feel I have nothing really to offer someone in difficulty, the joy is there as I cycle home. One of the other volunteers said the other day, ‘You just radiate contentment.’ It was then that I suddenly made the connection to Simon of Cyrene, and that walk up the beach, and the joy of the Third Week. But I don’t think I’m getting it wrong anymore – I think this is the gift.

 

Sister Rafiki (Or, take your joy seriously)

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Occasionally, and especially at inappropriate moments, I like to offer unsolicited snippets of ‘wisdom’ to friends in the persona of Sister Rafiki. It’s basically a cross between an annoying fictional baboon and a fortune cookie. Gems include: ‘Criticising others when in desolation is like being a monkey in a zoo. The shit you are throwing is your own.’ (Which, btw, is totally true.)

This week I’ve found myself coming back again and again to a simple mantra that could be a Sr Rafiki slogan. It goes like this: my desire in him is his desire in me.

I started thinking about it weeks ago after a conversation with one of our older sisters. Before she moved to our care home in York she was based down in London, where her ministry was writing letters to friends and family, and talking to anyone and everyone she met – on the bus, at Mass, in the shops, at the local market, wherever. She loved the conversations and meeting new people, and she really misses it now that she doesn’t get out so much. As we talked, I realised that her need for sociability and conversation was at the heart of her ministry. By that, I don’t mean that her ministry was a cover for meeting her own needs, I mean that, through her human need for conversation and social interaction, Christ was reaching out to the people with whom she spoke: the people who needed a friendly word, or someone to pray for a relative, or someone to share their health worries with. Her need was Christ’s need in her. Her desire was Christ’s desire in her.

I’m now three weeks into my placement in the homeless centre in Manchester. Over the last couple of years, this kind of work has been one of my real joys. Something in me feels free, joyful, alive and in love when I’m there, whether or not it’s easy or has much immediate feel-good factor. Being in the company of those who are marginalised or living in poverty has begun to feel more and more like something I need. I’ve realised that I often ignore this by explaining it simply in terms of my liking for energetic work, or meeting new people, or tackling problems. But over the last few weeks, as I’ve prayed the examen at the end of each day, I’ve become increasingly aware that I need to take my desire and my joy more seriously. This isn’t just about me enjoying myself. My desire to be with these people is Christ’s desire to be with them.

I know we say stuff like this all the time, but I think sometimes we get it the wrong way round. We think ‘Well, Jesus wanted to help poor people, so I should want to help too,’ and act out of a conscious (and very well-meant) determination that we ought to help people. Living out of the Sister Rafiki version feels different to me: it draws on my heart’s I want, not my head’s I ought, and in doing so it draws on a resource infinitely deeper than my own personal preference or usefulness: the desire of Christ to come close to and console his people.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s your Sister Rafiki-isms for the day:

Take your joy seriously.

Your desire in Christ is Christ’s desire in you.

What comes next

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In Whitby, trying out my jetpack

Tomorrow morning, I set off on my next experiment. ‘Experiments’ are Ignatian-speak for the mission placements, or experiences, that Ignatius thinks every novice should have. He suggests that novices should undertake a month-long period of intense prayer (the Spiritual Exercises), a month-long pilgrimage without money, that they should spend time serving the sick and dying in a hospital, practice preaching and teaching the faith to ordinary people, and spend time living in community.

So far, I’ve ticked off the Spiritual Exercises, and a stint living in community. My next experiment, from early October to mid December, will be in Manchester, working at the Cornerstone Day Centre. Based in inner city Manchester, the Cornerstone is a hub for homeless and vulnerable people, where they can come and get food, clothing, companionship, a shower, a haircut, help with job applications, a phone line so they can check benefits, and much else besides. I’ve done lots of work in homeless centres over the years, and I love it, but I know that I still have a lot to learn. Accompanying people day-in, day-out will be a challenge, and a huge privilege. I’m looking forward to it hugely. While in Manchester, I’ll be staying with the Presentation Sisters, so I’ll also get a sneak peek at another congregation!

The second experiment, from the end of January to the beginning of May, will be in Guyana. I’ll be working in the interior, with a team of Ursuline sisters and Jesuit priests who minister to a collection of Amerindian villages in the South Pakaraimas. The work is largely pastoral and sacramental, and it involves accompanying communities whose lives are changing rapidly –and not always positively– as a result of mining in the area and across the border in Brazil. I already know more about suction-dredges, Guyana mining law, hammocks and local snakes than I ever imagined I would know. Watch this space!

At the moment, it looks like my pilgrimage experiment will be in Germany and Austria, where –I hope– I will be spending some of June and July walking part of Mary Ward’s journey to Rome. I love long walks, and I love Germany and Austria, so I am looking forward to this too.

What poverty means

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Last summer I had a conversation about poverty with one of the men from the homeless shelter where I worked on Sunday nights. Clive had just moved out into a flat nearby, but he couldn’t afford electricity to cook, so he used to come back to the shelter for a hot meal. He was asking me what I did when I wasn’t working there, and so we ended up talking about religious life, and he asked what vows I would take. When I talked about taking a vow of poverty, he was not just completely nonplussed. He was actually offended.

He gestured at himself, clearly pissed off: ‘Why do you think this is good?’ I fudged something about simplicity of life reminding us that God is the most important thing, but it sounded crap to me. I wasn’t poor like he was; I wasn’t even doing a convincing impression of being poor. He couldn’t afford electricity to cook; I pressed one switch in our kitchen, and four lightbulbs came on.

I still don’t really know what it means to be poor, or what it means to choose to be poor. But I think if I bumped into Clive again today, I’d say something different.

The number one rule is that you don’t romanticise it. My volunteering work brings me face to face with poverty all the time. People living in poverty sit across the table from me, struggling, addicted, anxious, undernourished, depressed, overworked and angry. Poverty is not beautiful, it is not happy, and it is not well. Poverty makes you sick. It tears your relationships apart. It suffocates your aspirations.

The number two rule is that you don’t choose it. It’s fashionable now to upcycle, downsize, de-clutter, simplify, whittle down your clothes to a ‘capsule wardrobe’, but real poverty is not a lifestyle choice. Poverty is systemic, and all-encompassing and exhausting; it traps you, it traps your children, and it traps their children. Poverty is, by definition, something you don’t choose.

As a religious, I don’t have that kind of poverty. We’ve got limited personal cash, but we aren’t materially poor by a long stretch. In fact, in terms of food, shelter and heating, my lifestyle is wealthy, to the extent that I sometimes wish for a greater simplicity of life.

So in the face of these facts, what does it mean to take a vow of poverty? I don’t want to get so meta that I dodge the imperative of living a materially simple life in solidarity with people living in poverty. That matters and I want to reinforce it. But, at the same time, I know from people like Clive that my real poverty is not what I do choose, but what I don’t choose. Poverty is what I find limiting, stifling, systemic, what I’d most like to escape. My poverty is what I fight against, and what exhausts me.

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Poverty often isn’t consciously experienced as such. It’s not that you don’t notice its effects, just that you don’t go round all the time thinking, ‘Woe is me, I am poor’. You just carry on taking each challenge as it comes: finding the money to pay the bill, looking at when the money comes out of your account for this or that, timing the payment, checking the price, putting something back on the shelf. For lots of the people I meet when I’m volunteering, it’s only when they sit down and talk about it that they realise how all-encompassing, unrelenting and exhausting it is. And it’s only when they sit down and talk about it that they realise –sometimes, anyway– how resourceful, courageous and resilient they are in the face of it.

I don’t face anything like their challenges. But I do face my own poverties – struggles I haven’t chosen, limitations I don’t want, constant effort that is pretty draining. Most of the time, I don’t think about this as ‘poverty’: it’s just daily life. It’s only occasionally that I realise the constant effort, and how tired I can get. But it’s also in those moments that I realise that, most of the time, I manage to be generous in the face of poverty. Most of the time, I don’t let myself get to a place of passivity and defeatism where I’m thinking, this is it. I have nothing left to give. Take it or leave it. Instead, I respond by trying to overcome the difficulty, by trying be creative, by trying to be generous, or patient, or courageous, or kind, or whatever it takes.

At the weekend, I picked up a book about St Francis of Assisi, that man who was so in love with poverty. I found myself thinking about Clive, and his question: ‘Why do you think this is good?’ As I read about his desire for poverty, I found myself in tears. One line stood out: ‘For Francis, poverty was freedom to grow in the Christ-life, and he was growing by leaps and bounds.’

To choose poverty means to choose to be generous in the face of limitations, difficulties, humiliations and exhaustion that you have not chosen. To choose poverty means not to turn in on yourself in those situations, but to accept and even embrace them, as far as you can, as an opportunity to ‘grow in the Christ-life’. Sometimes I feel I have nothing left to give but, day by day, I keep on managing to give. Sometimes I feel I have run out of my natural patience, or that I have exhausted my reserves of kindness, and so I tell God I have nothing left, and he has to help. Clive was right. Poverty doesn’t feel good. It can feel tiring, all-encompassing, unrelenting. But poverty –allowing myself to experience the place where I have nothing left– gives me the freedom to grow in the Christ-life of generosity, of self-gift, and of grace. And sometimes, when I find time to sit down and write about it, I can see that I am growing by leaps and bounds.

Photo credit: Luis Felipe Salas on Flickr