LAST week I read a beautiful soulful piece by John Harris entitled How do faithless people make sense of this past year of Covid?. Having spent all my life with academics, teachers and western society ridiculing and misrepresenting a core praxis of my life, I confess to never having thought at all about what it might be like not to have a faith with which to wrestle. My own has usually been stigmatised as a disability that was nothing more than a crutch for enduring weaknesses in my mind and intellect.
The idea that the question might be posed from the point of view of the faithless, not the faithful, after a year when death has been ever present, was a fascinating switch round.
In my tradition Easter is when we look straight on at unimaginable horror of human suffering, through deep meditations on the show trial and execution of an innocent man, in Occupied Palestine, under Empire.
We sit with the discomfort of knowing that one friend will betray another for 30 pieces of silver; that people will not speak out against injustice even though they be your best friend. We look at the way friends will desert you; we remember what it means to gather to remember being spared from a great plague. We wash each others feet the tenderest of ceremonies awkward at times but one of humble human touch. We hold up the gifts of earth bread, wine, body and blood and call, in word and song, to a soft, kneeling , whispered sharing.
In my tradition Easter is when we go deep into the enduring stories of death and life. As someone with family caught up in Tigray and Eritrea, where plagues of locust lay waste and whole churches are massacred by soldiers, then the stories which come to me for sense-making are those of Passover, those of the persecutions of the early church, words of fury from prophets who hammer on the door of their making with terrible accusations of abandonment, or carelessness, of indifference. Words from psalms and Lamentations.
Five years ago I spent Easter week in the Calais camps. A place of hell on earth, ravaged with suffering, but full of so many people saying to one another dont be afraid, peace be with you. Selam, Selam, Selam.
The Muslims had built their own mosque; the Eritrean orthodox Christians, a church. In a place of profound alienation, I slipped through the plastic sheeting that made up the church door and my body bowed low and knelt on the ground alongside the women. In the enveloping stillness that is a steady constant in my life after half a century of practising silent prayer with others, there was gathered peace, and we had rest from the agony for a while.
It may not be much. But it is good enough to be enough good.
I watch the pandemic streets and the long queues for take-aways in Glasgow; the desire to eat with others, to meet with others, to greet others with a hug, a kiss or even just the touch of a hand and I see the practices of my faith aching through fear for life. I find myself grateful for the trusty crutch through my many frailties. I find I myself standing firm for all my many doubts and still grateful and nourished by the Iona Community in particular, as I have been for over 20 years, and for the communities I join in prayer and spiritual conversations. I find myself telling a little more openly of what it means to be a person who prays, and to be a person who choses each year anew to commit myself to the keeping of Rule of the Iona Community and our commitment to action for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.
I too have struggled this year. I too have been worn with care and have lost loved ones. My lifes work has been destroyed by our modern day Pharisees and the hand washings of a Pontius Pilate, doing the work of the Governors.
I HAVE also had strong words to surround me through the dark days, words laid down in my faith tradition, spoken by those who work on the edges between life and death baptism and burial rites and who know how to be alongside us. The stories of sowers and seeds; of wisdom and greed, of the women on the margins with food enough, and of Daniels in lions dens. All these have just been there, ready resources laid down by the regular choice against the grain, to meet with others and to listen to the words of the old stories which, throughout millennia, have helped our quest for meaning find depth and renewal.
Each year anew the meanings of story and symbol shift and change for me, as they are breathed in and breathed out in through the seasons of human life. They dont give me intellectual answers, not really, unless birth to the barren, or bread and wine count as answers. But I am offered depth to my hardest questions, and the company of those we might call saints, to ask them alongside.
In the traditions of my faith after the darkness of Friday and the waiting without any expectation of anything good that is Saturday, Sunday brings a change. There is the remembrance of a woman fey with grief who hears her name called in a garden, and though she cannot touch the one whose voice is so beloved, she can share her joy at life again. There is the remembrance of a walk along a road with strangers who fall into step, and into life-changing conversations; there is a BBQ on a beach. There is doubt. There is hope.
The practices of these stories remembered long are so close to those of our ordinary lives. And in them, again and again, the same stranger appears to people whose lives are full of fear and loss, of hopelessness and grief saying:
Do not be afraid.
Peace be with you.
Peace be with you.
Peace be with you.
Alison Phipps is UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow, and a member of the Iona Community
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