whole: day 26

We were spanked for each other’s sins.

Spanked in syllables and by the word of God.

Before dark meant home time.

My grandmother’s mattress

knew each of my

siblings,

cousins,

and the neighbour’s children’s

morning breath

By name.

A single mattress spread on the floor was enough for all of us.

Bread slices were buttered with iRama

and rolled into sausage shapes;

we had it with black rooibos, we did not ask for cheese.

We were filled.

My cousins and I would gather around one large bowl of umngqusho,

each with their own spoon.

Sugar water completed the meal.

We were home and whole.

But

isn’t funny?

That when they ask about black childhood,

all they are interested in is our pain,

as if the joy-parts were accidental.

I write love poems, too,

but

you only want to see my mouth torn open in protest,

as if my mouth were a wound

with pus and gangrene

for joy.

‘Black Joy’

Koleka Putuma

Opening myself to the presence of God made real in every moment means I might encounter a vision of the whole of me, but such a vision is only partial if, in my blinkered un-seeingdarkly, I see myself with God in splendid isolation.  On the second Sunday in Advent I mentioned the African concept of Ubuntu: a person is a person because of other persons.  I can never be whole if I insist on my separateness.  I can never find my belonging in God if I exclude others, who also belong to God.

Ubuntu

The urgent need to remember Ubuntu is brought home when I watch news footage of Afghans joining the stream of Syrian refugees fleeing from their homes, or see Ukranians searching for their homes amidst the rubble caused by Russian missiles, or hear of asylum applicants being forcibly removed to Rwanda by the British government.  Ubuntu is brought home to me when I read Koleka Putuma’s poem above, and After Whiteness by Willie James Jennings, or Ghost Ship by A.D.A. France-Williams and come face to face with my continuing part in institutional racism.  Ubuntu becomes real when I look at Timothy Schmalz’s Angels Unawares sculpture in St Peter’s Square. (This short film about the sculpture (under 3mins) is well worth a watch.)  As Pope Francis said in a message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019,

In a word, it is not only the cause of migrants that is at stake; it is not just about them, but about all of us, and about the present and the future of the human family.  Migrants, especially those who are most vulnerable, help us to read the ‘signs of the times’. (angelsunawares.org)

Mudita

In the Book of Joy the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk of the Buddhist principle of Mudita, often translated as ‘sympathetic joy’.  This grows out of a sense for one another’s wellbeing; if I have genuine kindness and compassion for the person next to me, then I will rejoice in their good fortune, whatever state I may be in at that moment.  

Mudita sees joy as limitless … Mudita is based on the recognition of our interdependence or Ubuntu.  The Archbishop explains that in African villages, one would ask in greeting, “How are we?”  This understanding sees that someone else’s achievements or happiness is in a very real sense our own. (Book of Joy, 140-1).  

how are we?

Together Ubuntu and Mudita act as a counterbalance to either my desire to cut someone down to size, or to my instinct that I am small and weak compared to others, that my contribution will make no difference to the vast problems of our world.

God with me means God with us.  If I wish to be whole I need to pray for the wholeness of others.  

God in me means God in us.  Together we are wholed people, healed; together God is Whole.

This means that whenever I face another human being, I face a mystery.  There is a level of their life, their existence, where I cannot go and which I cannot control, because it exists in relation to God … The reverence I owe to every human person is connected with the reverence I owe to God, who brings them into being and keeps them in being.  I stand before holy ground when I encounter another person.

(Rowan Williams, cited in Ruth Valerio, Saying Yes to Life (153))

To know in whole, to see face to face, I need to embrace all the fullness of where God is, experiencing the wholeness of Presence in all that is even as I acknowledge all those people and places experiencing brokeness.  As a contributor to gratefulness.org wrote: 

Even as we strive to eradicate unnecessary suffering, love asks that we presence ourselves with all of what is here now, including the pain, the anger, and the grief. The presencing is the work; the presencing is the love that is the transformation. This, perhaps, is a version of the love that precedes the action of “love in action.” 

( gratefulness.org, original emphases)

presencing

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

‘Kindness’

Naomi Shihab Nye

see how this could be you.  Canon 7D. f8. 1/400. ISO 100.

Published by Kate Kennington Steer

writer, photographer and visual artist

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