Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Attentive Beholding - a reflection inspired by people living with HIV/AIDS

Michelangelo, Rondinini Pietà (16th century)
On Saturday, I was invited to offer a short theological reflection at the end of a day at St. Martins in the Field in London, organised by Catholics for Aids Prevention and Support (CAPS), on the theme, ‘Love Tenderly, Act Justly: Stories of HIV and Christianity Today’. Throughout the day, people from many different churches and cultures spoke simply, generously and profoundly about their experiences of living with HIV/AIDS. There were stories of grief and desolation that were almost too hard to bear, and stories of hope and delight that lifted the soul.

One participant told of losing several close family members to AIDS, and of being HIV positive himself. Another told of her loneliness, the complexity of giving and receiving sexual love in a time of AIDS, her longing to be held and touched. We heard about suicidal darkness and bereavement, but also about the wonder of finding joy in life’s smallest blessings – a flower, the shape of a cloud – gathering ‘five small delights each day to make a handful of hope’. We heard about mothers weeping over their dead children, refusing to be consoled, and about the joy of becoming a mother in spite of the virus. We heard about lovers driven to the point of exhaustion by caring for their dying partners, and of the aching loss that followed those partners’ deaths. We heard about the shock of receiving the diagnosis, and the long dark struggle to accept and adapt.

But we also heard about stigmatisation and rejection, about fear and denial. We heard people who had experienced a deep sense of shame and self-loathing, a dread of making their condition known. We heard too many stories of churches that rejected sufferers on account of their ‘sins’, or refused to allow a space where it was possible to speak and be heard about what it means to live with HIV/AIDS.

A woman told of how she had left the Church when she received her diagnosis, only to return many years later when she found a welcoming community who accepted her fully as the person she was, a person who happened to have a virus. That was repeated several times – HIV is a virus. It should not be a condition that sets a person apart from all others because of some unmentionable shame or secret. She spoke of being a Eucharistic minister: ‘I, a body identified with the leper, the outcast, the untouchable, am offering the body and blood of Christ the victim.’

As I listened and reflected throughout the day, I found myself experiencing an inversion of thought. These were all people who spoke as if they were somehow on the margins of the Church, dependent on those in the centre to receive them and welcome them, to allow them to live as part of the body of Christ. I thought of what it means to place one’s faith in the Word made Flesh, and I realized that it is the people who are marginalised by the self-righteous, the worthy, the pious and the fully included, who are the Church. Theirs are the bodies we must embrace if we are to incarnate our prayers and sacraments in the Body of Christ. It is not for us to accept them. We must ask to be accepted by them. It is not for us to forgive them. We must ask to be forgiven by them. We have nothing to teach and everything to learn, from those who have been called to travel the desolate and lonely path that leads through fear, rejection and abandonment to Calvary – a path that any of us might tread one day, whether through illness, loss or ageing, or through the unthinkable catastrophes that can visit themselves upon a life. Those who have gone ahead of us offer wisdom, shine a light and create a space of warmth and courage within the terror of that cold, dark path of sorrow and sickness.

To say this is not to glorify suffering. It is not to indulge in that obscene suggestion that another person’s suffering is purposeful because it helps to make us compassionate or good or loving. Why should another human being experience dereliction in order to teach me how to love? In one of Simone Weil’s reflections she contemplates the utter desolation of the abjected and degraded person deprived of all dignity and beauty. Stripping away the sentimentality of cheap love, she asks us to consider what it means to say to that person, ‘Who art thou?’ This, she says, only happens in those who have cultivated the habit of attentiveness
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. It is almost a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.
Maggie Ross is an Anglican hermit who spends much of her time living in the snowy wilderness of Alaska. Her book, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, is an extended reflection on the biblical word ‘Behold’, which tends to be translated as ‘look’ or ‘see’ in a way that takes away its depth of meaning. Beholding is our ability to remain open to all that is revealed to us of God through creation, which requires a form of attentiveness and stillness far beyond what we normally understand by words such as ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’. It is the attentive gaze of the inner eye of the soul on the grace of God manifest in the mystery of creation. It calls us out of our solipsistic loneliness and narcissism, and draws us towards the abyss of encounter and silence that constitute our human knowing of God. Ross writes that ‘Silence is context and end, beholding the means. In the final analysis, this is all we need to know’. The silence that we experience as ‘the vast interior landscape that invites us to stillness’ allows us to enter into the presence of the Other through the sense of awareness that comes from beholding.

Beholding and attentiveness – these are the lost arts of insight and discernment in a culture where we flee from silence and solitude with endless technological gadgets and gimmicks. Crowding out the empty spaces, we no longer know how to behold, to say to the other in all her vulnerability and desire: ‘Who art thou?’, knowing that that question also puts us into positions of vulnerability and desire that we do not control.

To behold is to be holding, to be held and to be beholden. It is to open ourselves to embrace the world in all its fragility and sorrow, in all its hope and meaning. It is to overcome fear – that most crippling of emotions from which flows all anger, hatred, violence and envy. ‘Do not be afraid’ is the angelic exhortation that comes to us on wings of prayer and seeds within us the vulnerability of the newborn God. It is the exhortation that calls us to stand with the one who suffers on Calvary, being there in helpless solidarity before the darkened horizons of death. It is the call that quickens our steps and leads us through the early darkness of the city to the tomb of the risen Christ, where with Mary Magdalene we must discover what it means to let go, to relinquish our clinging in order to open ourselves to the billowing abyss of the body that is not there for He is Risen.  Yet still he comes among us in every body that cries out, ‘I thirst’ to an indifferent and terrified world.


Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
      Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 
      From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, 
      If I lacked any thing.
     
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
      Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
      I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
      Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
      My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
      So I did sit and eat.