I read this (rather ironically), while on an eight-day silent retreat at a Jesuit spirituality centre in the UK, after finding it on a bookshelf in the library.
Reading this, I got a strong sense of the heartbreak that comes with the dying of an old age and the growing pains that come with the birth of the new.
In many ways, it seems that we are at such a turning point in our world today. A time when we have the opportunity to let go of the old ways of being – suspicion, fear, mistrust – and embrace a new way of being and relating: welcoming, listening, witnessing, and more than anything, the way of faith.
To quote Barack Obama, it’s the faith that isn’t “black or white or Christian or Muslim but [the faith] that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead – a faith in other people.” (From Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.)
Faith is a language without words. It speaks in its silence. It is the stolen glances with the stranger. The glances with which I have the opportunity to reject or to “welcome the stranger”. It takes the memory of my own isolation and fear to remember what it was like to be, like the people of Israel, a “stranger in the land of Egypt”. And then I remember how it gladdened my heart to be welcomed in my alienation and how I was redeemed in my loneliness by the kind look or gentle word of a stranger.
My mother used to regularly take my sister and me to pray and light candles in an Anglican church here in Croydon when we were children. I remember a sign at the entrance that read, “There are no strangers here; only friends who haven’t met yet.” Those words created a state of mystery and reverie in me as a child. There was something here that I hadn’t understood yet, something beyond the realm of my experience. Those words would linger on my mind as I followed my mum through the thick curtains that led from the busy Croydon street into the quiet of the church.
There the light would hit me, split through the beautiful stain-glassed windows – I remember St Michael the Archangel in particular, and (I think) St George as well – and we would walk forward and we would be greeted by a kindly English lady with short hair and a wooly jumper, who would always offer such a warm welcome and would engage in conversation with my mum. It touched my heart that we were welcome in this church. So often in life I have experienced the pain of rejection – not being seen for who I am and not being known for what is going on inside of me; to know that in this place I was welcome, warts and all, was a real gift for me. It was a place where I didn’t need to pretend, a place where I could light a candle and bring all my thoughts, worries and concerns to God in prayer.
I don’t know how I got into this tangent, but I am finding it hard to work my way out. I suppose that what I am saying is that it wasn’t the institution of the church, the hierarchy, the dogma, the vestments, the liturgy, or the hymns and organ music that touched my heart, but rather the welcome I received from another person. A moment where I was recognised for who I was. A moment where I was transformed from a stranger to a friend, an other to a brother, a them to an us.
Each day we have the opportunity to transform our lives through our relationships. We come from so many different places, so many different backgrounds, but deep down we are all the same. We all breathe the same air. We all see the same sun rise and fall each day. We all depend on the same planet, and we all depend on each other to varying degrees. We are implicated in one another’s lives. As a wise old lady I know once said in an early post to her Facebook account, “We are each a part of God’s great mosaic spanning the entire globe. I am not a computer expert but [I am learning] to understand how it all works. Blessings. LOVE YOU ALL[.]”
If the Catholic church, and the other great institutions of our world, do indeed fall in the coming years, once we get over the heartbreak, and if we keep our hearts and minds open, we have the opportunity to discover a new way of relating, a new way of being. A way of faith in the other person, recognising the image of the Creator in the person in front of me. St Paul saw it in a vision those many years ago: “Now we see things as in a mirror dimly, then we shall see each other face to face.” Perhaps these days are the death throes of that dark age of suspicion and mistrust. Perhaps we are at the cusp of that age of the face-to-face. To quote the Bible-quoting indie musician John Darnielle, “Speed that day on its way.”