Tuesday, 7 July 2009
“The extent to which you are loved is a source of joy and comfort to us”.
These generous and dignified words were written by the parents and brother of Miriam, a young Jewish woman killed when 18 year old Hasib Hussain detonated his homemade explosive device on a No 30 bus in Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005 killing himself and thirteen other people. These words appear in a Book of Tributes ,compiled by the families and friends who lost loved ones on that terrible morning, which we keep at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace – a building which itself was destroyed by an IRA bomb. The book was written in the year following the murders and reading it can be a difficult experience – so much raw, dark pain, so many broken hearts. But it also contains many extraordinarily beautiful words that reveal the capacity of the human spirit to find meaning in even the deepest grief.
I don’t want to suggest that this is easy. Perhaps it is only possible for a few people. A veteran soldier from the Burma camps who meets here with the Japanese community in London told me that three quarters of those who went through that particular hell were never able to come to terms with the idea that their captors might be also be human beings.
Since the bombings the Government has been busy. It has poured resources not just into security measures but into the wide-ranging “Preventing Violent Extremism” programme. It has started investing in front line religious groups for the first time, presumably on the basis that they may provide some of the adhesive required for its social cohesion objectives. This has fuelled a growth industry in multi-religious education programmes and interfaith dialogue, which are good things but unlikely to have influenced Hasib Hussain’s disastrous personal development. Maybe some of the more sharply focused Muslim-led initiatives such as those of Radical Middle Way and the Luqman Foundation might have reached him. I suspect the best opportunity for intervention would have been when he was arrested for shoplifting. An alert police or court service could have diverted him if it had the confidence of a mature Muslim community leadership willing to take responsibility for disabusing him of his mangled view of Islam. Or would this been seen as a religious ASBO?
When two men from Newry blew up Bishopsgate in 1993, whilst calculating that the mediaeval gem of St Ethelburga’s was acceptable collateral damage, I doubt they foresaw that they were kickstarting the redevelopment of this area of the City. They also created the possibility of a “new creation” at St Ethelburga’s. What was actually a redundant church is now a busy Centre for Reconciliation whose transformation attracts people from all round the world to share stories, ideas, skills about moving beyond conflict. Ten years from now what will we see as the outcome of the 2005 bombings?
Reconciliation is “the building of relationships across division caused by conflict”. Anyone can do this and, as Abraham Lincoln observed, it makes sound political sense to “destroy your enemy by making him a friend”. This is where the bereaved friends and families can help us. Their heroic public struggle with grief can inspire us not to waver in our belief in the transformational power of human relationships.
Friday, 29 May 2009
Walk from the garden into the side aisle of St Ethelburga's and your eye is drawn to "Frolicking Horses", Ahmed Moustapha's striking artwork hanging straight ahead over the sofa. It explodes with colour and energy. I've seen wild horses on the Camargue like this, dancing with the joys of life and freedom. In fact, it's not a "picture", it's calligraphy - an ancient Persian poem with many layers of Arabic text superimposed to create a superb illusion of form. It subverts the proscription of depicting living creatures by hardline religious powers in Moustapha's native Egypt. This is nothing new - religions have always struggled to co-opt or control the making of images. One woman's icon is another man's idol, and most religious traditions can point to historical episodes of iconoclastic blood-letting.
St Ethelburga's is about to offer hospitality to eight Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Tashi Lhunpo monastery for a week (8 - 12 June). The focal point will be the construction of a sand mandala in the chancel. If you can't call in to see it, you will be able to watch its painstaking creation, grain by grain, on the web through the magic of "mandalacam" (a £9.99 webcam from Maplins). You'll see a richly-coloured, abstract image of extraordinary intricacy emerge. St Ethelburga, glowing in the stained glass window above, will have a little visual competition for a few days.
For Buddhists it is, I'm told, a map of both the universe and the mind. Deities are said to reside in the mandala. These are not easy ideas for Christians and people of other faiths who use St Ethelburga's. The presence of such an alien image in a consecrated space raises interesting questions. And that's the point. Let me reassure you first - this is no new-age attempt to short-circuit the integrity of different traditions, no esoteric art show. Nobody is going to be "worshipping an idol". We want to use this spectacular juxtaposition of traditions to learn more about how authentic relationships can be built across boundaries of culture and religion.
So how might a non-Buddhist approach a mandala? Here are five thoughts
1. A world in a grain of sand: From a Keatsian stance - "Beauty is truth, truth beauty…" - the colour and elegance of the mandala are God-given qualities that please and uplift us. Kandinsky and Rothko show that we can find a spiritual meaning in abstraction, and we can approach these patterned lines of sand in the same spirit. Simone Weil, ever the mystic provocateur, puts the spiritual case for beauty even more strongly:
"the beauty of the world is almost the only way in which we can allow God to penetrate us", she says.
Approach the mandala with a sense of wonder and we may see a new aspect of the divine creation.
2. Symbols of the unconscious: For Jung, a mandala is a powerful spiritual metaphor of universal relevance. Our "spiritual journey" is, he suggests, not linear but a "circumambulation around the Self". The maze-like mandala, with its complex symmetry of squared circles, symbolises this. These patterns intrigue us and are strangely satisfying to observe. Jung suggests that this is because they produce an echo in our unconscious which reveals that deep down we have an intuitive awareness of the essential order and inter-connectedness of things. Doodle for a few minutes and I bet you'll soon see geometric patterns emerge.
3. Companions in Compassion: The central theme of the Chenrezig mandala which the monks will build for us is compassion. As Karen Armstrong is busy pointing out, this is a concept also at the heart of most other religious traditions including (particularly?) Christianity. I am curious to see whether the mandala can transcend its specific Tibetan cultural pedigree and speak to us about something in which we share a deep-seated common interest. The patient craftsmanship of the monks is an astonishing thing to witness, as is their seriousness of purpose and their contemplative discipline. We can share neither their task nor their prayers, but this need not be a barrier to spiritual companionship. With such a powerful shared ethos between us I feel sure the rhythm of their daily meditation practices will have an effect on us. I hope it will strengthen our commitment to own prayer and enable us to renew it in shared silence with them.
4. God of Surprises: I have always been struck by the honesty with which that great reviver of the Christian monastic tradition, Thomas Merton acknowledged that his deepest spiritual experience happened not in his Kentucky cloister but on the other side of the world, in front of the great Buddhas of Polonnaruwa (Sri Lanka).
“I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious”.
We never know when God will speak to us, but it’s clear from the bible that it is usually from an unexpected place. Christian scripture doesn’t say much about sand mandalas or even Buddhism. (Q: is it conceivable that Jesus could have heard about Siddhartha Gautama sitting under the bodhi tree half a millennium earlier?). It does say a lot about the value of welcoming strangers, and accepts the possibility that we may change and grow in the process.
5. Holy Envy: I owe my introduction to the concept of holy envy to my good friend Rabbi Mark Winer. It was coined by the Swedish theologian Krister Stendhal as one of his three rules of religious understanding. "Leave room for holy envy", he says - i.e. be willing to recognise in other religions practices and ideas that you can admire or which you wish could be reflected in your own tradition, even though this may not be possible. Rabbi Mark loves watching Christian Eucharist - "seeing Christians being who they are" - whilst he recognises, not without a slight sense of regret I suspect, that it can never have the same meaning for him. I find this a helpful idea. It enables us to enter into other people's religious worlds as guests rather than intruders or voyeurs. For me, it's made it possible, for instance, to be wholehearted about admiring the reverence and sense of community I sometimes witness in mosques without feeling that my own faith is prejudiced in any way.
A thoughtful new book by Catherine Cornille - "The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue" - puts all this into a helpful framework. An enthusiast for East-West religious dialogue herself, she seeks a strong theological basis for authentic Christian engagement with other faiths. She finds this in a set of five balanced conditions:
· doctrinal humility,
· commitment to a specific tradition,
· recognising the inter-connections between religions,
· hospitality towards difference.
She takes us onto much more expansive terrain than the modest overlapping ground of "common values". She shows us a place where personal conviction is a pre-requisite, not an obstacle to dialogue.
This rings true in my own experience. My Christian understanding has been continuously deepened by exposure to the beliefs of others, not weakened or confused. Time and again questions, insights and friendships from outside my own tradition have been the cue to finding new things in my own scriptures and prayer-life.
As a Christian I look forward to seeing what this alien, holy object has to show me. Come and join me.
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Thursday, 2 April 2009
City folk returned to their desks this morning to find almost every physical trace of yesterday’s Climate Camp erased. Even the chalk slogans on the road had been scrubbed off. Our banner “We’re all in this together” looks a little forlorn and it’s probably a planning irregularity now. I am tempted to leave it for a day or two to prompt people to reflect on what happened yesterday
I observed the protest throughout the day. I saw very little trouble. Early on the Police won the approval of the crowd for the efficient way they isolated and dispersed an incongruous group of young men in black masks. Hundreds of cameras recorded the Police’s every move and I didn’t envy them being so exposed doing such tricky work.
For the rest of the day, the protest seemed to me to be unfailingly good-humoured. The music and dancing, the creativity of the slogans, and the bold splashes of colour brought smiles to onlookers’ faces. I could see office workers at their windows clearly enjoying the spectacle. The speed with which make-shift kitchens and even a latrine appeared was impressive. For several hours the protesters managed to create a friendly, festival atmosphere. Opposite St Ethelburga’s the main attraction seemed to be a group of people meditating. My over-riding impression was that the organisers had thought hard about how to get their point across in an effective and nonviolent way. I understand a lot of consensus decision-making was going on.
But late last night it was a different story. I emerged from St Ethelburga’s at 10.15 to find the police presence massively increased. Most were now dressed in black combat gear with helmets, riot shields and batons. Many had balaclava face coverings. A fleet of armoured cars blocked the junction outside Gibson Hall, blue lights flashing, and there seemed to be horses behind them. A helicopter hovered low, shining a powerful searchlight, its noise adding to the uncomfortable atmosphere of menace. It was obvious someone had decided not to allow the Camp to remain for its stated 24 hour period.
The protesters were quieter than earlier and seemed intent on ignoring the police. I saw no disorder or drunkenness and there were still moments when dancing and singing broke out. Earlier I had watched whilst three young women dancing on a police van were removed. There was laughter and applause but no hostile reaction. I listened to a storyteller entertaining a group sitting on the road.
A Guardian journalist standing next to me told me the police were waiting for the media to leave and would then evict the camp. He said the demonstrators had been confined in a “kettle” (to allow the temperature to rise) and no-one had been allowed to leave for several hours. After watching for a few a few minutes, I was grabbed by the elbow and brusquely led away by an excitable young police woman “This is a sterile area and you must not be here”. I pointed to our banner. You will be hurt, she said. I could see no violence “There will be” she replied.
I can see that people climbed over our gate last night, which isn’t easy given the spikes and paint we installed on police advice. I asked the police about this and was told that this may have happened when people were trying “to get out of the way”. Of what?
Perhaps there’s a clue in the reported 88 police arrests, mostly after 7.00pm I understand. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that considerable force was used against the protestors in the unreported early hours of this morning.
Naturally there are contested histories. A police officer tells me a number of “undesirable interlopers” joined the protestors around 9.00pm and this led to an “edict” around 11.00 to remove the camp. A protester who was present says the police closed in at 7.00pm using riot shields and thereafter refused to allow people to leave (and presumably enter) the camp.
Throughout the day orange-jacketed “legal observers” kept notes on what happened, and it will be helpful for them to publish details of what they saw. There are some media reports such as Sky’s Catherine Jacobs.
London's Mayor, Boris Johnston said on Tuesday "I would urge those planning to demonstrate to honour the great, democratic tradition of peaceful, constructive protest, without the need to resort to violent or illegal activity.”
I imagine that the Climate Camp protestors feel they took this responsibility seriously, so why did it end like this?
Sunday, 22 March 2009
In a few days time, St Ethelburga’s may well find itself at the epicentre of the demonstrations planned for April 1st (and 2nd), dubbed Fossil Fools Day. The administrative offices of the European Climate Exchange are a few doors away in Bishopsgate and Climate Camp intends to make sure we know where they live. Three other demonstrations marking “Financial Fools Day” are also mooted to converge on Bank, a few hundred metres away.
We’ve been reflecting what this means for St Ethelburga’s. Issues of environmental and financial mismanagement continually arise in our inter-religious dialogues. Our fragile relationship with nature and the ethics of global capitalism are powerful issues which unite serious-minded people across the boundaries of different faith traditions. I suspect a good number of the people who come to St Ethelburga’s share a belief that things are very wrong with the ways we (ab)use both the environment and money. But, by the same token, we also welcome many people who earn their living in the glass towers of the banking, insurance and trading companies that surround us.
Several people (some known to us, some not) have asked whether St Ethelburga’s might be a place of sanctuary or refreshment for the protesters. Meanwhile, a well-dressed visitor from the City of London Police called last week, politely offering help if things go “out of control”, and dropping dark hints about intelligence on the infiltration of the demonstration by “known trouble-makers”. Apparently St Ethelburga’s might be used to gain access to other buildings in the area. His card mentions counter-terrorism.
So what attitude should our Centre take to the demonstration? I have several guiding ideas in my mind.
1. Reconciliation is the (re-) building of relationships across divisions caused by conflict. St Ethelburga’s distinctive role is to be a broker and catalyst in enabling different world views to encounter each other constructively. This requires us to cultivate the trust of different parties to a dispute. To remain credible as facilitators we must practice detachment in issues of public controversy. How far this applies is an interesting question, but I think we should be generally cautious about taking sides in public in order to preserve our capacity to offer alternative forms of conversation between the antagonists. In this case, for instance, it seems important that we do not compromise any possible future role for St Ethelburga’s in bringing together, say, some of the demonstrators with people from the Exchange.
2. But it’s not just about striving for some kind of functional impartiality. I think St Ethelburga’s also stands for a specific type of discourse. We think there is value in listening to other positions and points of view, in being curious about how and why people think differently, in avoiding polarisation and being open to complexity and contradiction. We are interested in how you build relationships that don’t require agreement or like-mindedness. You can’t run a demonstration on such principles – you need certainty, passion and commitment (and I admire that).
3. Few can now deny that we are talking here about huge and pressing problems that concern us all. Sure, there are vested interests to be challenged, but with so much at stake shouldn’t we be investing in reconciliatory approaches which bring people together across divisions to co-create a better future? St Ethelburga’s has a role to play in demonstrating (yes!)how people of very different world views can not only co-exist but collaborate. In our many inter-religious gatherings in The Tent, we’ve seen how the common interests of all can be served by drawing deeply on diversity, valuing the wisdom and experience of different traditions not just as alternative social structures, but as interlocked parts of a mosaic that includes us all. If that works in the deeply divided world of faith, maybe it’s a helpful model for other struggles as well.
4. If we want to be peaceful in the handling of conflict, clearly we must reject violence in all forms – including, I would say, using strident, polarizing language which demonises and dehumanizes others. We damage ouselves by doing this. But where does this confidence to be peaceful come from? For many people this arises from the work of gaining inner experience through meditation, prayer, discernment – however you want to label that systematic use of silence to go deeper into who we really are and what we are called to be. I wonder what would happen if the demonstrators were to put down their banners and whistles and invite the police and City folk to share a half hour of silence, with some readings from Ramana Maharshi or the Book of Genesis?
You can see where this is leading. Does the demonstration offer St Ethelburga’s a way of putting its values into practice? Frankly, I don’t think it does. From my own days of street protests (“Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher!”) I know the comfort and camaradie of marching. I remember how good it felt to take sides and bask in the warm glow of being right. Being able to identify an opponent was part of the fun and made it all possible. But somehow it always fell short of what we hoped for. It’s not just that each action generates a reaction that neutralizes its force (and the City, of all institutions, knows how to close ranks). Maybe I was just on the wrong demos, but the protests lacked the capacity to surprise, to offer new insights, to change the way our opponents thought.
This week I’ve been reading Richard Rohr’s new book “Things Hidden”. He talks about our need to journey into the unfamiliar. He quotes Ionesco on the danger of “separation from astonishment”. We need astonishment now more than ever, but, some spectacular street theatre apart, I can’t see how this will arise from what I know of what is planned for Bishopsgate next week.
St Ethelburga’s cannot ignore what is going to happen outside its front door, but I don’t think joining in, in support of one side or another or both, is our calling. We will think further about how we will spend those two days - we’ll want to find a way of saying “take these issues seriously”, “don’t demonise”, “be peaceful”, “contemplate”. I am certainly interested in what other people think we might do, so email me.
When it’s over, St Ethelburga’s will get straight back to finding robust ways to bring people together to explore how traditional wisdom, new realities and London’s unique diversity can illuminate the multiple crises we face. We’re planning a new project in this area to start soon – so watch this space.
Thursday, 19 February 2009
We then engaged in an imaginative exericse to go deeper into these qualities. In groups of four, each assigned one of the four conditions, we created an imaginary spectrum with the particular quality or condition in question at one end of the space, and its opposite at the other. Then we explored what it felt like in the body to occupy those two positions and endeavoured as a group to embody the condition in a gesture or tableau. We then looked at the change needed within to move from the opposite quality to the mid-point on the spectrum, and from the mid-point to embodying the quality. This was an interesting process that yielded some direct bodily experience of the quality, and some insights into what it takes to move into the space where peace is possible. For example, the group exploring the quality of 'willingness to risk' experienced that to move from the refusal to risk, to the mid-point of risk being possible, an incentive was needed. The incentive might come from self-interest (for example the exhaustion of being stuck in an entrenched conflict) but a carrot/stick dynamic played a part for this group in moving into a space where risk was possible. The group exploring the condition 'space for a creative act' got a direct experience of the qualities of listening, waiting and keeping a mutual space empty for something new to emerge. In exploring movement along the spectrum, we saw how each individual taking responsibility for contributing engendered a shift, as did a quality of self-awareness.
Personally, i found the evening very engaging. Like others in the tent that night, it was a lively alternative to reading Lederach's books (we re-named the event 'Lederach for Dummies'. What particularly stayed in my mind was the experience of holding space between my fellow group members and waiting and listening. This was a direct learning that I'm sure i can apply to conflict situtations in the future.
So thank you to Michael and all the others present. If anyone has suggestions for a follow-up or would like to join the discussion please do.