Breaking the masks

One of my most treasured funny experiences was the day I went with a chance acquaintance to visit a mosque.  It went like this.

One day, while taking the train into the city, I sat opposite a lovely Muslim woman who was passing the time on her trip by doing exquisitely intricate Arabic calligraphy.  I complimented her on it, and she told me that it was a verse from the Koran, and that this style of art is a form of reverence for the Scripture.  We got chatting, and I expressed my regret at my own ignorance of Islam; I had a copy of the Koran, but I found it difficult to understand (I think the translation assumed a lot of knowledge).  She invited me to visit her mosque with her; it had a bookshop attached, and it would be her privilege to help me find a version of the Koran which I found easier to understand, and to make a gift of it to me.  I was hesitant at first, but she seemed to really mean it, so we exchanged email addresses and agreed to arrange a day.

Naturally, we chose a day which turned out to be extremely hot – over 40 degrees – and as I got dressed in long pants, long sleeves, and tried desperately to find a way to wear a headscarf which mirrored the easy elegance of so many Islamic women, I wondered if this visiting a mosque thing was really such a sensible idea.  But I was committed, so off I went; and I was glad I had made the effort when I reached the mosque and my new acquaintance didn’t immediately recognise me because “You look like a Muslim!”  (I should hope so, that was rather the idea!)

After a tour of the mosque, and a lot of chat about various aspects of Islam, we got to the bookshop.  Here my companion asked if I’d mind browsing for a while; it was the time for afternoon prayers, and she’d like to say them while we were there.  Sure, I shrugged.  I’m in a bookshop.  I’d be happy for hours.  Go, I’ll be here when you get back.  What I didn’t realise was that, being the time for afternoon prayers, all the other customers had also left, as well as the sales assistant.  Thinking that the shop was empty during prayer time, he carefully locked the door behind him.  So there I was, a Christian woman, locked in an Islamic bookshop, and none the wiser because I was too fascinated by the books on fasting and comparing Islamic spirituality to Christian practices such as Lent.  But when my companion and the sales assistant returned, they were frantic with worry that I would have been upset or frightened at being effectively trapped.

Perhaps in part because of this, I left the mosque that day loaded down, not only with a new translation of the Koran, but with several other books as well; in part the gift of my companion and in part a gift from the store.  I was impressed; I knew all too well how costly quality Christian books could be.  Imagine if our bookstores practiced this level of hospitality and generosity!

I enjoyed my visit, the experience of the trip there and back in hijab and having a chance to gauge how Muslim women are really treated in our community, the chance to learn and ask questions, and the generosity of people I had barely met.  I was impressed, and have often reflected how much this experience showed me an Islam that bears no relation to the version of Islam presented to us by the media or by too much of our political commentary.

In my reading on peace making, I came across the statement that “We all must do everything we can to break through the masks that are being painted on our faces.”  In the laughter after being let free from the bookstore that day, I broke through the masks painted on my Muslim brothers and sisters.  In turn, in my willingness to listen, ask questions, and learn, perhaps I also broke through the mask painted on my own face; I am not sure.

But of one thing I am sure; it is in meeting people who differ from us, whether in religion, in culture, or in whatever else; in listening, sharing, and laughing together, that we will break the masks painted on us and see one another as the people we are, and be able to build bonds of relationship, trust, and peace.  But that doesn’t just happen without effort.  We must be willing to step out of our comfort zones.  We must be willing to risk getting stuck in unfamiliar bookshops, or even worse, unfamiliar emotions.  We may not recognise the reflection gazing back uncertainly from behind a headscarf.  We can only hope that we will recognise the humanity of the new friends we may acquire along the way.

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The land of unlikeness

I have refrained, during the lead up to the recent Australian federal election, from blogging on politics.  Not only because it isn’t my area of expertise, but because it seemed to me that the internet was already cacaphonous with analysis, comment, debate and other wordy angst.  I didn’t feel I had anything constructive to add.

But now that the election has been and gone, and the country is settling into being bitterly disappointed or much encouraged, depending on individual political outlook, I am still thinking, not so much about policies and promises, as about process.  I read a quote from the author Terry Williams, who described democracy as “an insecure landscape,” one which demands our participation and “civil dialogue” in order to offer us any safety at all.  She describes this civil dialogue as requiring us to “vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act ultimately on behalf of the common good.”

I’ll come back to that shortly.  For the moment, since I’ve decided to comment on politics, let me tell you that the greatest disappointment to me this election wasn’t the outcome (although I didn’t vote for the new government).  Nor was it the cheap, shallow discourse offered to us in the lead up, where it seemed more important to vilify an opponent than offer a positive policy of one’s own.  These things, while saddening, I expected.  But what disappointed me most was that come election day, there was not one party offering a policy platform I could wholeheartedly endorse, even on just the “big” issues.  I had to bargain hard with my conscience to put a number one on the ballot paper.  And it leaves me disappointed, angry and frustrated that the exercise of my right, responsibility, and indeed legal duty to vote should feel like such an unethical action.  I feel the Australian public deserve better than what we were offered.

Anyway.  Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let me return to considering the “insecure landscape” that is democracy.  I do very much agree that it requires our participation and civil dialogue.  I’m very glad that I live in a country which has compulsory voting; where this bare minimum standard of participation is required of our citizens.  It seems the very least we can do to contribute to our common life.  But I think that’s really only the start of our responsibility, not the end of it.  It behoves us as citizens to be informed, to read the work of those who are expert in their fields, to do the hard work of thinking.  Even beyond that, though, there are the other things Williams mentioned above; to sit lightly to our own convictions, be willing to listen and engage; to become aware of our blind spots, and to make an effort to take into account the needs, hopes and dreams of those who are not like us.  This is a high standard; it is demanding.  It is costly.  But in the insecure landscape of democracy, it is the way to build a country and a future which is safer, not just for me and those just like me, but for all of us.

That phrase, the insecure landscape, reminded me of another, from St. Augustine, who described his experience of being away from God as being in a “land of unlikeness.”  Democracy, too, can be a land of unlikeness; where voting compromises conscience and winning parties claim a mandate for injustice and oppression.  I note that some of my Christian brothers and sisters, in America particularly, where voting is voluntary, resolve this problem by removing themselves from the land of unlikeness, refusing to vote, and withdrawing from this and other important expressions of public and civil life.  I sympathise with that point of view, but at the end of the day I think it’s a cop out, a refusal to wrestle with the hard realities which face us in playing our part in the world.

Centuries after Augustine, Auden wrote a Christmas oratorio which picked up on this idea of the “land of unlikeness.”  Its chorus runs thus:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

I suspect that here there is more wisdom than in renunciation and withdrawal.  I offer it as something of a counterpoint to that discourse, and as food for thought to all those who have reason to feel disappointed with our current politics.

Why funerals matter

Recently, I provided pastoral care to an intellectually disabled man whose mother had died.  For some days after her death, he appeared not to have quite grasped what had happened; he kept returning to the hospital, asking to see her body, and having long conversations with members of the pastoral care team, trying to come to terms with his loss.  Discussing this with a colleague, I asked what day the funeral was to be, commenting that perhaps the funeral would help this man move past this initial difficult stage of his grief.  

“Oh,” my colleague said.  “The family have decided not to have a funeral.  It’s becoming more popular now; they just get the funeral home to do a quiet burial with no service for anyone.”  The two of us agreed that this wasn’t a development we welcomed; both of us saw some sort of rite of passage as being important for people who are grieving.  But we could see why, newly bereaved, not wanting to deal with the pressure of hosting a public event, (and, let’s face it, put off by the cost), people might see this non-funeral option as an attractive one.  So in this blog post I want to make the case for a funeral, explaining why I see it as valuable and important.

A disclaimer first, by the way.  This is not me advocating that everyone must have a religious funeral or memorial service.  Those can be good, and in appropriate circumstances I think a better option than a secular one, but here I’m arguing for the idea of a rite of passage to mark death in a more general sense.  

Ritual functions as a means of helping us cope with life’s most difficult circumstances.  It is a way of coming to terms with forces we experience as destructive, unintelligible and immoral (and I’m hard pressed to imagine any force better fitting that description than death).  In its patterns, predictability and purposefulness, ritual (and the use of symbol that goes with it) helps us to focus on norms, beliefs and sentiments which give us a way through crises that might otherwise overwhelm us.  Funerals done well, then, become a way of helping us to face death, loss and grief and help us to begin to deal with them healthily.    They also help mourners come to terms with their changed patterns of relationship, changed status or roles within their family, and changed sense of identity.  

Anthropologists have identified in funeral rites three phases, all important for the reasons I’ve just outlined: separation, transition, and reincorporation.

Separation is about coming to terms with the initial loss.  Funerals make opportunities for this in elements such as viewing the body (especially for loved ones who were not present for the death), going physically to the grave, actually burying the coffin.  These allow mourners to experience the death and its reality, often breaking an initial sense that the death “isn’t real.”

Transition is about the experience of being in-between.  It is about the adjustment that needs to happen for a wife to think of herself a widow, or a child as an orphan.  This adjustment takes time, and it is facilitated by suspending the activities of normal life and being actively involved in the change.  So, things like choosing a coffin, filling out legal paperwork, and also receiving support and care from the wider community play their part here.  Funeral services too, with their review of the deceased person’s life and loves, and their framing of that within a context of meaning, help people to move through this time of transition.  

Reincorporation is about being able to pick up the threads of life again and go on, with the loss of a loved one now better integrated.  Rituals, as they are provided by the community for the mourners, also help here.  They keep mourners moving, doing, communicating.

Of course, none of these things – separation, transition, re-integration – is achieved simply with a funeral.  It’s not that quick or easy.  But funerals, done well, make some provision for all of these elements of healthy grieving, and can play an important part in carrying people through the disruption of death.  They also allow a safe space for experiencing, and giving voice to, painful but deeply significant feelings.  

You’ll notice that I have said this of funerals done well.  Too many funerals have encouraged people to suppress their grief, deny the reality of death, or otherwise act in unhealthy ways.  I’m not arguing for that, and I’d go so far as to say that anybody uneducated and unprofessional enough to run that kind of funeral shouldn’t be in the business.  That’s not what it’s about, and this is too important to stuff up.  It matters, because people matter.  

There is something else worth considering, too.  Funerals are not just for the grieving immediate family.  Much wider communities, of extended family, friends, colleagues and so forth gather for them.  These people, perhaps less emotionally affected, nonetheless have an opportunity to consider death and grief, and in some measure to be prepared for their own later experiences of loss.  This is part of why I tend to recommend children come to funerals; it is better to learn about death and grief when distant relatives die, than for your first confrontation with death to be your mother’s.  On the other hand, funerals can also be helpful to older people who have experienced loss before; it can be a prompt to confront and work through their own unfinished grief.  In short, a funeral is a community event, and it has benefits for the whole community.

That is my plea for considering funerals carefully.  They matter, because grieving people matter.  Let’s not throw out one of the most tried, trusted and true ways of carrying those grieving people on a whim.