Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In the Absence

I have had a long computer/blog silence, I realise. But I have been stymied by helplessness and frustration. My psychic energy is being drained, making it difficult for me to write anything of any substance.

Perhaps the reason for this is that I am dismayed by so much that has developed and continues to develop in South Africa and even in Grahamstown itself. During the time of my silence, Grahamstown has seen the brutal murder of a priest who has meant so much to so many people, including one of the brothers in our community. The Rev. Clive Newman was passionate about justice for the poor, ministry to prisoners, and education of not only many children in South Africa but future priests. He was an excellent example for young students to follow when it comes to such passions. I have been involved in a court case, which has not even begun to be heard by a judge, of a young man who has broken into our monastery seven times and has stolen numerous computers, electronic items and even clothing. We were even helping him and his child through our scholarship programme. No justice for him or for us. The last time I was in the courtroom while waiting for a judge to hear our case, a man was accused of raping his girlfriend's 12 year old daughter. The defence was so shabby that everyone in that courtroom must have known that the man did the crime. He and his public defender were trying to delay the trial so that "he could make some money". In the meantime, one of the witnesses didn't turn up. So his trial was delayed after all. And in Grahamstown, the water infrastructure is collapsing to the point that there might be ecoli and dangerous metals at alarming levels in the municipality's water, say some scientists from Rhodes University. As one young activist from the township said at a public meeting about the water, (this was the most poignant thing contributed), "all we want is to make our tea and be clean and how can we do that when the water is a brown sludge?!?"

Nationally, Julius Malema, the leader of the African National Congress Youth League, has been mouthing off racial and violent epithets. These vicious pronouncements have been creating great division in the country. Another murder of Eugene Terreblanche, the leader of the AWB, a white supremacist Afrikaner organisation, is then seen as a direct result of Malema's hate speech. It probably wasn't. Since they caught the murderers, it turned out to be a worker's dispute, but you know how these things go. The timing of the crime made it so. Malema is being "reprimanded" by the ANC. Based on past history, that doesn't mean very much. In the meantime, the World Cup approaches in South Africa. Sure the stadiums are pretty much completed, but all the thousands of people hired to do that construction are now jobless. So much for job creation. The people in townships without electricity or plumbing including a toilet, and the rural poor still without good health care or education are ignored even further. Often they have to take to the streets and rage to get their voices heard. But the World Cup will happen, and it will be a great thing for South Africa, especially for those who are due to make a lot of money.

South Africa is a land of such beauty and tragedy, and I am not just talking about the landscape. I am including the people in my description as well. The two ends of the spectrum are not subtle. They are extreme, and the tension of these two extremes doesn't seem to get any easier. Alan Paton captures this so well in his novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. Things don't seem to be changing from when he wrote that book in the 50s. The "New Democracy" is becoming more of a discouragement.

Twice a year, our monastic community is in retreat for 10 days. During this time, we are in silence, and we have more time for prayer, study and reflection. Occasionally we do have guest conductors come and address us. In Grahamstown, we have been fortunate to have a very good theologian, Janet Trisk, living here and have used her for our last few retreats. In December before she moved on to Pietermaritzburg, we made sure that we took advantage of her wisdom again, and she spoke to us about hope and despair.

Hope and despair are so intertwined in each other. Hope exists right in the midst of despair. I have seen so many examples of this in South Africa, sometimes to the point of not knowing of whether I am hoping or despairing. This uncertainty is an uneasy feeling, and I find that often I want to avoid approaching it in my writing.

Maybe that same uncertainty is why I can't even be sure God exists as any kind of certainty. All I have as evidence sometimes is just simply absence. So then what do I do now? Where do I look for hope?

I can look exactly where Jesus has been pointing me all along, toward our earth, toward the other. What do I believe in? I believe in the divine in humanity. Is that dangerous? Is that belief misplaced? Yes, often it is, and yet, I do it anyway. In the Gospel According to John, Jesus says, "Those who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them." I can believe in the very power of relationship and love itself. And somehow God's absence points me in that direction.

Perhaps I can finally realise the reality of the incarnation. The Way, the Truth, the Life is when the words of the Word of God finally become wordless within us and translate into love. And love transcends mere words and translates into action. Here is where God can be found. Here is where God makes Her home.

The model of the Trinity should be our best teacher. In that Trinity are the different manifestations of God. God is different "persons". And God is the relationship of the three through kenosis, the emptying of one person into the other. It is a continuous cycle, a continuous giving. Imagine if we could do that for each other!

Signs, glimpses of this kenosis exist. They may be all we will ever have. God is present when we do hope. We must recognise this when all seems chaos, meaninglessness, absence.

Do I trust humanity? No, not always. Have I been hurt? Has humanity betrayed my trust? Yes. Sometimes I am justified in my mistrust. But I can trust the glimpses of what humanity is capable.

Our community life offers me one of those glimpses. Five times a day, I go to church and recite or chant the psalms, words of others who have been betrayed and have betrayed as well. I will go to church and pray. I can trust this. Pray to whom? Humanity? God? Absence? It doesn't seem to matter. I will be praying to and with others. We will be verbalising the same words in unison. Some will inflect them slightly differently, and yet there will be another voice that joins me in my prayer. Our choir will have its own distinctive sound. It will be one rendering of words recited for centuries, keeping alive ancient songs and poetry, setting the stage for more to follow. Then the Word eventually becomes wordless. The words that we pray no longer become the focus, but the union with each other from our far past, into our present and far into our future. We are all doing hope.