Take a walk amongst nature; look up at the stars; listen to some heart-stirring music; see a sunrise; it is not difficult to believe or experience that God does truly exist, and is somehow immanent among this.
But what about the other side of life – the human sites of suffering, the injustices and inequalities, the blatant poverty that surround us? As this is also part of human life, should we not also be seeing and experiencing God in these places too? Is God participating in these sites of suffering, or is God just passively observing it all from a distance?
It was not answers, but questions like these that first encouraged me to leave my engineering design job with a high tech company in 1990. Swapping the rolling hills of Hampshire for the paddy fields of Taiwan, I took up a two-year volunteering stint in a Jesuit-run residential centre for those with learning disabilities. When that two-year assignment turned into 26 years, it confirmed to me that we do, in fact, find our own life among the suffering and crucified of today.
It was also this which attracted me to join the Community of the Passion on my return to the UK several years ago. I was delighted to find a community of faith which takes the message of the Passion of Jesus Christ seriously: a difficult, but liberating message, which resonated strongly with the depth of my own personal experiences. It was clear to me that in stepping into these sites of suffering, choosing to locate oneself with the crucified of today, we truly step onto holy ground where personal transformation will be experienced and after which life will never be the same again. I believe that humanity only really moves forward when we are willing to step into those places of suffering.
Returning to the UK, I took up employment in the diocesan curia setting up social action projects in the diocesan area. This involved establishing projects for refugees, asylum seekers, the homeless, those in recovery and so on, and again that experience of God on the margins of society was very much present.
Although this frontline experience was life-giving, what was it like working in a diocesan curia, embedded within the church structure? I once heard that “a sailor should never go near the engine room” and sadly this was to be confirmed during my time there. While words of “charitable action” or “helping the poor” would flow freely, and glowing articles were demanded for the glossy newsletters, there was never a sense of passion or depth behind this. There was a sense that the institution was believing and worshipping Jesus but not truly following him.
To me the establishment always seemed to be bearing witness from inside its comfort zone: unwilling to operate from the minority position, where you can obtain greater access to the truth; where you can witness to the Gospel and to Jesus. There was little desire to identify with powerlessness instead of power, see dependence instead of independence, to have communion instead of individualism. But unless this point is understood, the Sermon on the Mount and “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is unlikely to make any real sense. Are we not called to operate from the weakness of the immoral minority much more than the power of the moral majority? If the establishment is only concerned with its preservation and protecting its self-image as moral, superior, or “saved” people, then the truth will be lost. The risky search for God, which is common to all world religions, is replaced with an egotistical search for personal certitude and control.
When you begin to enjoy the fruits of the system, facing truths which take you out of your comfort zone proves difficult, and will be discouraged. There are few who will remove the plank they are standing on. If we want to get close to God, we need to get close to our fellow human beings and especially the crucified ones of today who will quickly expose any hidden idolatries. This resonates with Pope Francis’s prophetic vision to be a poor church for the poor, and for the peripheries to drive the centre.
At the worst of my experience, success was measured in the crude statistic of counting the followers, measured as mass attendance. Creative spaces and life-giving free speech to challenge, debate, publish or discuss social issues was not encouraged, and rather, it was a place where institutional preservation and the legalisms of Canon Law would take precedence over the liberating but risky Gospel of Jesus Christ. Should we not be a church that is less concerned with morality, pious practices, and the elimination of personal defects – and one which is about shining a light in the darkness of today’s pressing issues, receiving God’s liberating free gift of compassion and mercy? Church doors are open for us to get involved in the big issues of today – they are not just open for others to come in.
Seeking Liberation from our Institutional Straightjackets
But the cracks in the institution seem to be widening. Take the diocesan publications full of images of happy, beautiful people doing great things in the big community. If we are honest, we know that it is not quite like the glossy diocesan magazine says it is. And is it really in these image-building areas that our Church is at its best? I think not, because if we are serious about the meaning of Christ’s Passion – which, as Passionists, we certainly are – then it must be at its best amongst failure.
This is when we give up on all the ecclesiastical glitter, titles, fancy hardware, costumes, and other trappings. It is in choosing to place ourselves in these sites of suffering, to be in the night shelter, to help the asylum seeker or to simply talk to the lonely, when we place ourselves amidst weakness and failure that we experience that these are locations of triumph, places of engagement, encounter and hope. The paradox of “when I am weak, I am strong” starts to release its mystery. Certitude, something prevalent among the establishment, has no place among the spiritually mature, where living with paradox and the “wisdom of uncertainty” become the norms.
But these encounters – where we get close to God by getting close to our marginalised fellow human beings – can liberate us from the institutional and dogmatic straightjackets that we have inherited, and from which it is so difficult to break free. Being close to powerlessness can allow us to see our own vulnerability and if we are willing to allow it, this becomes our gold and will reveal a deep wisdom. I certainly experienced this during my time working with severely disabled people in Taiwan and amongst the rough sleepers in the UK.
We are all part of a weak and broken humanity. By placing ourselves in these places of brokenness, we will experience that deep connection with all humanity. It is my sincere conviction that it is only by locating ourselves in such places, and being willing to share in the suffering of others that our humanity truly takes steps forward. I am delighted to be part of a community that in taking the Passion of Jesus Christ seriously offers a channel for these transformative experiences.
Oscar Romero said the light of God shines in those places we would rather not see: these are sites of suffering, places of crucifixion. If we choose to go to these sites of suffering, we will experience something special, we will not only remember but enter into the Passion of Jesus Christ, and we will realise that God does not divide Godself equally in a world which is unequal.
The words of Leonard Cohen in Anthem sum it up well:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
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