Calling Men and Women of Good Will

This photo popped up on my Facebook news feed a few days ago:

Over the years, I have often embarked on a Lenten fast – sometimes from chocolate, at others from dessert or wine or coffee. Always an indulgence, the theory being that as I abstain, it acts as a prompt to pray. Often, I have caught myself remembering my pledge as I pop the object of my fasting in my mouth.

These words of Pope Francis appeal to me on the one hand and appall me on the other. I know that I will remember my fast as I speak that unkind word or fail to see the positive in the face of all that is not as it should be. But I’ve decided to give it a go.

When I fail, it will be an invitation to remember that I aspire to more; to focus my prayer, not on my failing, but on my desire. I encourage you to join me in this Lenten fast; if the list seems overwhelming, pick one as a focus. I plan to focus most on the last one – to fast from words and be silent, so that I can listen.

Pope Francis, in his 2018 Lenten address, extends his invitation to ‘men and women of good will’ that they join him in ‘almsgiving, fasting and prayer’. Prayer might be too much of a stretch, but fasting as defined above, might not be too big an ask.  So, I call on men and women of good will to fast with me between now and Easter; surely, we would have nothing to lose and much to gain.


‘There is no ending without a beginning … beginnings and endings are always right up against each other.’
Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom

I’m reflecting on these words as I find myself in an end/beginning space. On Sunday, I said farewell to the congregations of the Uniting Churches I’ve been serving and I turn my face towards beginning with a new congregation in March. Both the ending of the one and the beginning of the other were unanticipated only four months ago and in addition, the ending was unlooked for and even unwelcome.

Endings are often this way, we fight against them, wrestle with them, become overwhelmed with the sorrow inherent in them, and try to evade or deny them. Sometimes, we simply do not want them. What remains at the end is a space. Rachel Remen encourages her readers to think of endings as end/beginnings.

She illustrates her point by telling the story of a ring she once made. Crafted in silver, the design was technically difficult. When it was finished, it attracted a lot of admiration and she was persuaded to take it to a jeweler who agreed to buy her design, to recast it and sell it to others.

She left it with him, but that night, a huge storm washed a part of the road she’d traveled the previous day into the ocean. The jeweler’s shop, which had stood next to the road on the seaside, was washed away, taking her ring with it. She was left with an empty space on her hand where the ring had been – silent, huge, and filled with loss. She writes of how she learned to value the space, to let it be sacred, and to wait in the space to see what gift would come. Thus, she came to view her experience as an end/beginning.

So, here I am, in the space between the end/beginning. Today marks the eve of the Christian season of Lent, a season of prayer and reflection, of self-examination and repentance. This year, I will spend most of it in this space in between the end/beginning. I’m hearing the call to let it be a sacred space and to anticipate its gift.

Submerged in Mercy

Whoever visits a sick person is plunging into mercy until he sits down, and when he sits down he is submerged in it.

Silsilah Al-Saheehah

visiting the sickI came across this quote from the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, when I attended a professional development day at the Islamic Council of Victoria. The event had begun at 6.00am so that participants could observe the early prayers of the Muslim day, and I wasn’t too alert as someone talked about the needs of Muslim patients in hospital. Until this quote appeared on the screen.

Now, I was awake, grabbing a pen and writing it down. Later, I asked the speaker about Silsilah Al-Saheehah. Who or what is this? She informed me that this is the name given to the authenticated sayings of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad; the literal translation is ‘The Authentic Series’.

At the time, I was working in pastoral care in a public hospital and it spoke  directly to my work. This is what I was doing – visiting the sick, usually sitting at their bedside. I had thought of myself as offering mercy, perhaps even bringing it with me, but the prophet, Muhammad, turned that notion on its head and revealed the egoism in it.

Mercy precedes me whenever I visit the sick. It is already there.

I enter into it, more than that, I immerse myself in it. Mercy envelopes me.

In the action of visiting the sick, I gain as much as I may give.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this notion as I knew its truth from experience. When I was twenty-three years old, I gave birth to twin boys. They were eight weeks premature and while one has grown to manhood, the other only lived for four days. He died after we had given permission for life support to be discontinued. We were told we could stay until the end, but if we didn’t a nurse would sit with him. I could not and did not stay. I had no experience of death at that time and no resources on which I could draw.

More than twenty years later I met another twenty-three year woman whose son would not live. She was still in the labour ward, but had asked that he be removed from the room. She could not watch him die. Would I sit with him?

It was after hours. How long could I stay, how long would it take? These were the uppermost questions when I first sat down beside him, but after a time, they no longer seemed relevant as it dawned on me that I was doing something for this young woman that another woman had done for me. I would stay as long as it took.

When I left the hospital that night, I knew a circle had been closed and I had received more than I had given.  Moreover, it was Lent and resurrection had come to me.

I plunged into mercy when I entered that room and as I sat there, I was submerged in it.

Self-promotion vs Anonymity

I’ve recently finished reading Italian author, Elena Ferrante’s captivating Neapolitan series.  I discovered Ferrante after coming across this article:

In my writing studies, I’ve often heard  that authors must become adept at ‘shameless’ self-promotion in order to find a readership. Yet, Elena Ferrante has found international readership for her eight novels without performing a single act of self-promotion. Further, she has chosen withdrawal and anonymity. The public do not know who she is.

When her first book was published, she told her publisher,

‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t … True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known.’

This runs counter to our technological age where many of us put our writings ‘out there’ every day, firmly attached to our name and our #hashtags. Elena Ferrante has put me in mind of something Jesus said, that we ought to beware of practicing our piety in order to be seen by others.

There are more important rewards than being known.


Then who will we be?

Then who will we be? 5853965-question-mark

This is the last line in a recent article, Nauru: how long can we keep lying to ourselves, written by Waleed Aly and published in The Age. Aly uncovers the fabric of lies that have been told and legislated by successive governments to justify current asylum seeker policy, and questions how long they can be sustained. He concludes with this:

‘At some point, the clock runs out. And on that day, maybe the alarm will sound on these mighty fictions that have been sustaining us. Then who will we be?’

This last question has struck a chord with me in a way that finds application beyond this country’s inhumane asylum seeker policy. Today is Ash Wednesday, which begins a period of preparation and discipline for the Christian church. It reflects on the life and ministry of Jesus and calls upon Christians to renew their commitment to Christian discipleship.

‘Then who will we be’ is a searching question to carry into Lent. It invites us to examine our decisions, our actions and our beliefs, every one of which is forming and transforming us.

Every ‘yes’ to any given thing sets us on a path that moves towards one thing and away from something else. For example, our assent to ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘stop the boats’ in Australia has taken this country down the path towards moral bankruptcy.

Similarly, and at a personal level, the same is true. When we say ‘yes’ to one thing, we say ‘no’ to another and it changes us, for good or for ill. Lent is the season to pay attention to the paths we’re travelling.

I enter Lent this year pondering on Waleed Aly’s question, ‘then who will we be’.

I invite you to join me.