Sunday, 5 September 2010

Belonging Andrew Bebb

The birds of the air have their nests.

One of the most painful experiences is, I think, that of feeling that you do not belong. The feeling that you are an ‘outsider’. An outsider in a group, a place, and most painfully of all, in ‘anywhere’ at all. Some of us may have experienced something of that particular experience during the time of our adolescence. The increasing number of self-harm incidents and suicides among the young is maybe a testament to that.

I recall occasions in the past when I have been attending conferences, usually of an academic and theological nature, when, at least for the first day or two, this feeling has predominated. There have always been those who seem to relish the situation and quickly become the focus of attention either by their humour and self-confidence or by the respect they feel entitled to attract because of their expertise. For me, I have usually looked to gravitate towards someone sitting quietly in the corner of the bar, looking equally disconnected. Some have described it in the past as ‘having an inferiority complex’. Perhaps accurately. Maybe in the circumstances, it was the constant awareness of the many lacunae in my classical and neo-classical education. After all, my initial contact with the aroma of ‘Higher Education’ had been in the field of Mathematics and Structural Engineering, certainly not in the area of poetry, literature or theology. It has of course become easier as the time passes and the focus of attention has been on the lectures or seminars But that feeling of ‘not really belonging’ has often been there.

I suppose the concomitant sensation is that of ‘loneliness’.
Here it is that one thinks of the loneliness of the elderly, perhaps left on the shore of life after the departure of a partner or children. The single mother or father left to care for a child struggling in an alien world without the support of friend or relative: The man or woman facing a life threatening disease unable to share with anyone, no matter how close they may be, the fear that takes over and drives out any hope or joy. There is too is that painful entrapment within oneself: the loneliness of the prisoner in gaol, the illegal immigrant constantly afraid of exposure, the vulnerable stranger moving to a new abode, the mentally ill and the Alzheimer sufferer, bewildered by the world they do not understand. There is also the loneliness of those imprisoned by an addiction, in the face of the contempt that it can generate. The isolation engendered by the remembrance of unforgiven guilt as one reflects back on the shame and sins of the past can be a joyless burden to carry. Perhaps we might also not forget the isolation of the priest now living alone and sometimes comfortless in a large presbytery designed to house many. Finally at the close of our lives, there is the loneliness of those who have no one to grip their hand as they travel into the darkness on that last journey of all.

‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from?’ sang the Beatles.

I remember my late wife, Marie, suffering from terminal cancer, waking me in the early hours, asking me if it was a nightmare and in the morning she would be free of the disease and that she would be able to watch her young children come to adulthood. It was difficult to share the panic and fear that she had to live with. It was a self-contained isolated cocoon that it was difficult to enter. Sometimes she would be driven to question whether there really was anything beyond the grave.

This bitter journey into loneliness was a journey that Jesus shared and knew well. There is almost a hint of self pity in his voice when he proclaimed: ‘The birds of the air have their nests and the foxes their lairs, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ As he prepared for his last journey and agonised in Gethsemane, almost plaintively he asked of his closest friends: ‘Could you not watch one hour with me?’ No wonder that Peter went out from the courtyard and wept bitterly as the cock crew and he remembered the words of his master foretelling treachery and disavowal.

At the end, as Jesus’ own last journey into darkness began, he looked down and saw that all his friends had fled. Save his best friend, John and his agonised mother. Other women stood some distance away. All he could hear was the taunts of groups passing by. It was then that the terrifying cry comes from his lips: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Was there ever an agonised experience of ‘not belonging’ as deep as that? How grateful he must have felt when the man hanging beside him, uttered those words of pity. What a reward he promised him. ‘This very day you shall be with me in Paradise!’
Dying outside the city walls, rejected by his own: ‘How often would I have gathered you under my wings like a hen her chicks’ he had said in his final days, as he looked down from the hill above Jerusalem.

And yet it is important, I think, that we distinguish loneliness from solitude. Loneliness can be corrosive. Freely chosen solitude can be fulfilling and creative. Jesus often praised the enrichment that solitude can bring us. It is there that we can commune with the Father who holds us in existence. He directed us to find our secret room, even that quiet room behind our closed eyelids, where only God can see us and where we can explore the deepest depths of our communion with Him. We watch him sometimes slipping away from the crowds into the hills, to pray to his Father when he felt suffocated by those pressing upon him. A prayer so impressive to his followers as they watched him, that they asked him to teach them how to pray like that.

Where is the source of our belonging? The deepest foundation of the ‘good news’ of the gospel of Jesus is that each one of us in spite of everything does belong. Each of us is pre-chosen and loved with all our individual gifts and quirks and disabilities, and even with our sinfulness and our weaknesses. That is fundamentally true, before we establish that right to belong by any credentials we might be able to offer.

I recall being told of the initiation rite of a Kikuyu tribe during the incorporation of the newly born. The chant was simple: ‘I am because we are. We are because I am.’
As we might say: ‘We, your family, your friends, and the whole human race welcome you as a precious gift into our midst. We belong to you and you belong to us. May you be contented and happy all the days of your life.’
‘I am with you all days even until the end of the world.’
‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them,’ said Jesus towards the end of his earthly time with us.

The Sacramental life into which we have been initiated in Baptism is not intended to separate us out from the human race. It is meant to enable us to become fully human, to belong in the deepest way possible, not by our uniformity or the badges that we bear, but by the welcoming acceptance of our differences and those of others.

Sadly without that assurance, we may look for an identity elsewhere. Unfortunately this quest for ‘belonging’ is not always a happy and humanising process. We seek refuge from isolation by enclosing our unique identity in the suffocating mentality of the tribe, even the tribe called Christian or Catholic! So many ways we have of escaping from our sense of insignificance. Our need to become a member of something seems to predominate. Here it may be helpful to recall the wise words of Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian, who described those visibly outside the Church but who follow the light that God has given them through their God-given humanity, however imperfectly, as ‘anonymous Christians’. I suspect that some of my children might merit that description!

How I love to label myself in order to find refuge from my isolation.
In place of the sharing and cooperative endeavours that I have been created for, anxiety and fear can replace love. The temptation to suppress the fear of isolation is present in all of us to a degree, just below the surface.

Recently I read something that changed quite radically my understanding of the reason why God in creation made each one of us so different, with separate languages, colours, sexuality and beliefs. I had previously been led to understand an interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel that it was a punishment for human effrontery in its attempts to create by its own power, a universal order of uniformity with a hierarchical structure. However contemporary scholarship claims that cultural and linguistic diversity are part of God’s design for the world, rather than his punishment of it.

Perhaps we need to learn to rejoice in the richness of our differences and in the otherness of those we live among. It would be a miserable joyless world were we all identical.

One of the most reassuring and yet most challenging words of Jesus come in the Gospel of Matthew (ch.7 v.1): ‘Do not judge and you yourself will not be judged’ If only I could get through life with simply that, my salvation would be assured!!
If only.

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