Earlier on in my term as Moderator, I was given a book by a retired Uniting Church minister entitled, ‘Violence and Christian Spirituality – An Ecumenical Conversation’, edited by Emmanuel Clapsis [A World Council of Churches Publication].
Whilst I believe it was given to me for a different purpose, I have found myself turning to it again in recent times, particularly when I’ve been confronted with very graphic images of violence in the Middle East.
The blurb on the back of the book poses a number of questions including, “What is the relationship of our Christian faith to the violence we see in the world? How do we respond to violence in a manner that is rooted in our faith and our relationship with God?”
Recently, in my role as a member of the Standing Committee of the Victorian Council of Churches, I was quite disturbed to open an email in relation to the persecution of Christians in Iraq. It contained some very distressing images of decapitated human beings. Initially I found it difficult to match belief with practice as I struggled to affirm the peace of God in such a violent world. My ‘soul’ was troubled.
William Shakespeare has been credited with the phrase “The eyes are the window to the soul”. Others say that its origins are from Matthew Chapter six: “The lamp of the body is the eye…” but I’m not so sure.
I am told that Aboriginal people locate the soul in the vicinity of the abdomen. Certainly in looking at those distressing pictures, my abdomen was affected. Yet my eyes were indeed the windows.
Of course, this is not the first time that I’ve found myself being forced inward by harrowing images of the goings on in the world. There have been times when I have looked in horror and then obscurely observed myself from a distance. In an irrational kind of way, perhaps this could be construed as a ‘glimpse of my soul’.
The Egyptian Desert Father, Abba Poemen, quoted most often for his gift as a spiritual guide, said that, “The beginning of evil is the lack of vigilance.” Another Egyptian, Abba Bessarion, when he was dying, said “the monk should be like the cherubim and seraphim: all eyes”.
If our eyes are the windows to our soul, how is it that images of suffering connect with that invisible ‘extra dimension’?
Whilst those images still haunt me, I have come to believe that reactive suffering can be an occasion for real spiritual growth … where meaninglessness somehow dissolves. Surely the problem of suffering is not how to avoid it, but how to suffer with – how to make the helpless contemplation of physical and emotional pain, somehow something that is bearable.
Whilst digital cameras didn’t exist in Biblical days, upon hearing of the decapitation of John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself”.
Much later on, Paul said to the Corinthians that God reveals things to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. So too it can be that the Spirit searches the depths of my abdomen, particularly when I manage to maintain a degree of watchfulness.
Some weeks after Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize Community was murdered during evening prayer in 2005, Brother Alois said that, “Prayer does not cast away the worries of the world, rather prayer makes us responsible. Prayer generates peace building creative energies”.
These peace building creative energies involve being attentive to the peace of God in such a violent world as ours is today. It’s a matter of witnessing the very real presence of God – even in the midst of chaos, just as Jesus must have done in that deserted place by himself.