Friday, 4 December 2015

The Helplessness of God - an Advent Reflection

 The bedroom in my houseboat has french doors that open onto the water. This morning I awoke to the sound of a swan approaching in flight. The power of that sound is unmistakable, like a vast heartbeat pulsing through air. I opened my eyes to see the swan skim the water outside the doors. I wondered if that’s what Gabriel looked like when he alighted on the threshold of the Virgin’s womb. Was the annunciation nothing more than that – the beating power of feathered wings, silencing rational thought, opening her being to the coming of God?
Then the tumble of words came back. The dark ooze of something that feels too close to despair. I always regret going on Facebook at bedtime, this morning most of all.
War taints everything. It sows the seeds of violence in our souls and makes us cruel with one another. It makes us angry, and self-righteous, and arrogant. Not us. Me. It has made me all those things. I have raged and watched others rage as I read the posts and responses on Facebook. I have posted myself, in a lather of indignation. I have wondered why MPs who voted for war feel offended by angry emails and tweets, when they themselves have chosen violence as the only way to resolve a conflict. The anger goes deep and spreads wide. My soul is polluted and my thoughts corrupted with my own violent hatred of the men who make this a world where wars must be fought.
The water ripples beneath the wings of the swan, and then it is gone. The sun is rising, and all is alive with birdsong and light. I get dressed and walk along the river. I watch the geese and the ducks and the swans. I listen to the high cry of the gulls. I gaze on the lazy winding river that has been this way for thousands of years. I think of the body that drifted to our island a few weeks ago, and of all the bodies that drift on rivers of time, mourned for a while then melting into eternity. The river swallows our lives, carries them out to the ocean, dissolves them in the tides of history where only the monumental solidities of war and conquest retain their shape.
I gather kindling for the fire, cracking the sweet green sticks beneath my foot in an ancient ritual that soothes me. Long before wars for oil, long before drones and bombs, human beings did this for warmth, for light, for life.
I walk in search of silence. I walk in search of my Advent poem. Every year in Advent, I write a poem for the Christmas card. It always comes to me if I wait, patiently stirring the silence, feeling it thicken until words begin to take shape. I thought it would be the same this year, but it’s not. I stir, and the silence coagulates like clotted blood. I wait, and the words that come are bitter and ugly, full of satire and cynicism. What poem will suffice for a Christmas card at a time like this?
Last night, I went to my first carol service of the year, in Digby Stuart Chapel at the University of Roehampton where I work. I nearly didn’t go. I couldn’t bear the thought of singing Christmas carols at such a time. I thought of the obscenity of declaring war in the first week of Advent. Was this the last crucifying gesture of a secular age?
But who says Advent is a time of peace? I thought of God choosing to be born amidst the bureaucracy of an empire that sent a pregnant woman to a distant town because then as now procedures must be followed. I thought of the child born among the animals, of Herod’s tyranny and the flight of that small family into Egypt, of the tortured victim on the cross and the mother weeping on the ground.
As we sang those old familiar carols, I thought of Robert Kaggwa, our chaplain who never knew that the carol service he organised last year would be his last. He died in January. He was everywhere and nowhere last night in the candle glow of memories and music. Sue Acheson was there too in the sadness and the memories - an RSCJ sister and friend who died too young this year after a cancer diagnosis. I imagined Robert and Sue in a different, better world, watching us with a wisdom that eludes us and a peace that we long for.
I felt something timeless and deep and true beginning to melt the solid core of war. The silence stirred. I glimpsed a word. The word was ‘hope’.
This morning, walking by the river, I did not find poetry but  I found words, words that began to shift the landscape of my soul. For me silence is always a particular form of words, a particular expression of being that shapes itself in language when the clutter of everyday speech is cleared away. I dared to reach out and touch the darkness and give it names – rage, hate, resentment, helplessness. Helplessness. That’s what it is. I am helpless, and I do not want to be helpless.
All this I think as I walk by the river and listen to the gulls, my arms full of kindling and the low winter sun turning the water to silver and silk, dazzling me.
Last night, before the carol service, I went into the small Sacred Heart chapel. It’s a Puginesque jewel, lovingly restored two years ago by the Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart who founded the College. It is one of the few buildings to have survived a World War II bomb which destroyed much of the College. My generation easily forgets that bombs can also fall from the skies in indifferent cruelty on the cities of Britain. At the weekend, out walking with my baby grandson in Bristol, I was reminded how the iron railings on the Victorian garden walls had all been removed during the war to make weapons. The stumps are still there, mute reminders of a trauma that is increasingly remembered only as heroism and glory, for would we ever fight another war if we truly remembered the trauma?
I am reading Stan Goff’s book, Borderlines. I recommend it for those who think that there is ever any glory in war.
Last night, I sat in silence for a while in that small chapel before the carol service began in the larger chapel next door. I gazed at the tabernacle, and noticed for the first time the word ‘Jesus’ carved into the wood beneath it. I am not good at silent contemplation. I am not good at noticing things. Even in silence, I am always distracted, speaking in my head, writing, composing, rationalising, sifting, imagining.
I swing out into the silence, as one might swing out over an abyss. I swing out towards that word ‘Jesus’ beneath the tabernacle. I swing towards it in silence. I never arrive, for it recedes. I can’t grab it, squeeze it, make it offer up words of explanation and definition. It is just there, as silent and enigmatic as the tabernacle itself, gazing back at me. But it gives me a gift, a word, and the word is ‘hope’. That's the word that came back to me in the service.
That’s what is wrong with all those abandoned Advent poems I’ve been writing in my head. Not one of them speaks of hope.
As we sing the carols, I don’t think so much as feel the helplessness of the newborn child, the terror of the refugee family, the anguish of the mother at the foot of the cross. When Mary wept on the flight into Egypt, her tears fell on the ground and flowers sprung up. That’s why Lily of the Valley is sometimes called Our Lady’s Tears. If a refugee mother’s tears make flowers spring up, the borders of Europe should be covered in flowers by now.
There is hope because God is in the helplessness. That’s God’s hiding place among us. Do not be afraid, the angel said to Mary, when he arrived with the beating wings of a swan in flight. Do not be afraid. Was it her helplessness that allowed God space to become?
After the service, I am speaking to my dear friend Sister Mary Hinde. I find myself telling her about my time before the tabernacle. A small miracle happens between us. She is a modern sister, with little time for traditional devotions. But she told me that, as she waited for the vote on whether to bomb Syria in parliament the night before, she went into the small chapel in the house she shares with some other sisters, took the host out of the tabernacle and put it in a simple monstrance. She sat in front of it and tried to pray. She found herself saying to God, ‘All this is going on, and you are just there, as bread. That’s all you are for us. Bread. You don’t do anything. You’re just there. ' She paused, and I waited. 'That’s the mystery,' she said, 'And I realized it's enough. The bread is enough.'
We both wept. Bread. Hope. Maybe peace, one day. For now, the bread is mystery enough. It’s the helplessness of God with us.

Digby Stuart Chapel - angel