September 11, 2006

Here are a few reflections from Archbishop Rowan Williams; the first two are from his 2002 book, Writing in the Dust: After September 11, and the last is from his Thought for the Day contribution for today. Please pray for all those who lost their lives and for all those who still mourn.

Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in their mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone they love. They do what they can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile. That moment of ‘making room’ is what I as a religious person have to notice. It isn’t ‘pious’, it isn’t language about God; it’s simply language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness. It’s a breathing space in the asthmatic climate of self-concern and competition; a breathing space that religious language doesn’t often manage to create by or for itself.

God always has to be rediscovered. Which means God always has to be heard or seen where there aren’t yet words for him. Saying something for the sake of another in the presence of death must be one place of rediscovery. Mustn’t it?

Once the concreteness of another’s suffering has registered, you cannot simply use them to think with. You have to be patient with the meanings that the other is struggling to find or form for themselves. Acknowledging the experience you share is the only thing that opens up the possibility of finding a meaning that can be shared, a language to speak together.

I’m not sure, but perhaps this is something of what some of our familiar Christian texts and stories point us towards. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, and his disciples encourage him to speculate on why he should suffer in this way: who is being punished, this man or his parents? They are inviting Jesus to impose a meaning on someone’s suffering within a calculus that assumes a neat relation between suffering and guilt.

Jesus declines; guilt is irrelevant, and all that can be said is that this blindness is an opportunity for God’s glory to become manifest. The meaning is not in the system being operated by the disciples, but in the unknown future where healing will occur. As the story proceeds, we see how the fact of healing becomes a problem in turn, because it does not fit into the available categories; it has been performed by an outsider, a suspected heretic. The blind man is again faced with people, this time the religious authorities, who want him to accept a meaning imposed by others, and he resists. It is this resistance, which proves costly for him, that brings him finally to faith.

What should strike us is Jesus’ initial refusal to make the blind man’s condition a proof of anything – divine justice or injustice, human sin or innocence. We who call ourselves Christian have every reason to say no to any system at all that uses suffering to prove things: to prove the sufferer’s guilt as a sinner being punished, or – perhaps more frequently in our world – to prove the sufferer’s innocence as a martyr whose heroism must never be forgotten or betrayed. If this man’s condition is to have a symbolic value – and in some sense it clearly does in the text – it is as the place where a communication from God occurs – the opening up of something that is not part of the competing systems operated by human beings.

I want to say that it is only here, with the renunciation of all our various ways of making suffering a weapon or a tool of ideology, that we are going to learn how to grieve properly. Of course, we just grieve anyway, ‘properly’ or not; but where does our grief take us? And what do we mourn for? If, as St Augustine says in his Confessions, we can fail to ‘love humanly’, then surely we can also fail to greive humanly, to grieve without the consolation of drama, martyrdom, resentment, and projection. Are there words for grief that can make us more human, so that we mourn, not just for ourselves, but for those whose experience we have come to share, even for those whose moral poverty is responsible for murder and terror?

Last week, we had a visit from one of the most senior rabbis in Israel; and among much else we talked candidly about the bloody conflict of recent months between Israel and Lebanon. The rabbi made no political points. But he said that when in the Bible God tells Moses to take off his shoes in the divine presence, the Jewish sages had interpreted this to mean that we couldn’t meet God if we were protected against the uneven and unyielding and perhaps stony or thorny ground. The same, said the rabbi, when we meet the human beings who are made in God’s image. Those who are responsible for violence of any kind, even when they think it is in a just cause, need to take off their shoes and recognise what it is like when flesh and blood are hurt. Those who think they are naturally and permanently protected from such hurt, or who have forgotten what life is like for most human beings, need to remember how thin is the partition that shields them.

And they need to do this not in a spirit of panic and dread, but with a long-term vision of what might one day be the foundation of lasting peace – the conviction, felt in our very nerves and blood, that another’s suffering is my problem too. Terrorism is the absolute negation of any such recognition. And in the long run, what makes it impossible is ‘taking off our shoes’, coming to terms with what we share as mortal beings who have immortal value.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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