In the Religious Other

It has been a remarkably painful few weeks in Canada with the recent slaughter of four human beings in London Ontatio for being Muslim, and the discovery of 215 graves of innocent children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation, whose deaths were the result of racist and genocidal policies by the Canadian government, enacted by religious communities entrusted with the process of “civilizing” Indigenous peoples. What is especially tragic is the realization that the racism that killed the Afzaal family (leaving their nine year old son an orphan) last week is but a tiny tip of an Islamophobia that daily batters Muslims; and the 215 bodies in Kamloops are joined in their cry for justice from Mother Earth with thousands more since the government and church operated 146 Residential Schools across Canada.

Two items clearly link these two events: racism and religious intolerance. These two, of course, exist as an expression of fear of the other, who thinks, believes and lives differently. That religion, which ought to be a source of empowerment for the flourishing of all, becomes the site and source of intolerance ought to give people of faith pause and cause to question what is going on.

I recall, in my first parish, going from door to door in my neighbourhood, inviting people to worship. If people did not answer, I would leave a brochure in the door. I remember knocking on the door of a house and there was no answer. I left and moved to the next house, and saw an Indigenous man open the door, see the brochure and throw it on the ground in disgust. I was aghast at his seeming lack of respect for the church. Of course, I did not know much about residential schools at that time (itself a telling tale), and so was not in a position to understand this response. Now I consider it rational. What is surprising, to me, is that Indigenous people still hold to Christianity.

Last week I was a part of a virtual gathering with Indigenous Christians. The discovery of the 215 children loomed large in every conversation. In one breakout group the question “Why Christianity?” was asked and an Indigenous person there spoke of their experience of Jesus. I have heard this from others as well. Jesus remains attractive. The church, not so much. Of course, theologians (like myself) can wax quite convincingly that you cannot separate the too, and that too is true. But still for those who hold to any formal religious organization in this day, the events of the last two weeks remind us that we need to hold to the truths of our faith with a deep and abiding humility, commit to justice unflinchingly and practice a love that is generous, excessive, and curious. Curiosity and humility, I think, are at the core of authentic spirituality and the two together appreciate the diversity that is written into the very architecture of creation.

I suppose most people can readily give lip service in affirming the gift of diversity, but our cultures generally reward conformity that expedites expediency. Institutions, in particular, credit sameness. It was written into the governance of residential schools, and it is evident in the eyes of a young white Canadian male who sees five differently dressed individuals as demonic. It is hard to be hopeful in these days, but my Muslim and Indigenous friends give me hope, literally. I see them taking steps forward and hope fills my heart. There is something very parabolic about that, which humbles me and makes me curious. In the religious other I experience grace upon grace that best racism, hatred, and fear.

Roots in You

Trees cannot walk, unlike
homo erectus now sapiens.
But our silva relations
are stars at standing still,
the sine qua non for
paying attention.

Simone Weil once wrote:
“attention is the rarest and purest
form of generosity,” so making of trees
exemplars – always giving
shade and sap
breath and beauty
warmth and wood.

Posing like a tree
demands more of me
than I first imagine:
balance, humility, serenity
and finally, roots in You.

But a flicker

Yesterday our tree got a
a trim, only it isn’t really
our tree. It is actually our
elder, deeply rooted in
earth. Being closer to sun,
it beams. Scooping up wind,
it sings. Stretching across our lot,
it draws us in, only it really
isn’t our lot, our plot, our earth.
We belong to it, or so said
Chief Seattle, and I suspect
we would all do well to
trade “seize” for “see” and
be a bit more circumspect
at the prospect that we
own anything. We are
but a flicker across the
spectral vision of the divine
whose seeing us is the only reason
we have not yet slipped back into
the dust from whence tree imbibes life.

Yesterday, our tree got a trim.
Today, I touched its trunk and breathed.

Seeing Double

I am only just now back from the American Academy of Religions, that annual event that allows me to be lost in a sea of folk who think about things religious, spiritual, and theological. It is always a rich experience, although oftentimes a bit harried with side-meetings, planning groups and such. This year, as I am wont to do most years, I came in on Friday. Things started in earnest on Saturday even though meetings and lectures are increasingly bleeding into the Friday too.

I came in by plane from Toronto, and my colleague and I shuttled our way to downtown Boston to Copley Place, a sprawling complex of hotels, shops, a convention centre and a huge mall. I checked into my hotel and from the 28th floor took my bearings. After checking a map, I walked out of the hotel/convention centre complex and took a right in order that I might go see the Boston Commons. After a time, it struck me that I was quite likely walking in the wrong direction. And so I pulled out my phone, took a look at the map and realized that yes, indeed, I had been walking for a time westward rather than eastward. But my map also indicated that this was a happy accident since I was now a stone’s throw away from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Upon finding out that the Museum was to be open until 10:00 pm, I bought my ticket and entered the shrine.

I always find art galleries to be sacred after a fashion. They don’t quite take the place of churches, temples, synagogues, and such in my mind and soul but still, they facilitate a kind of quiet where looking at the art seems to facilitate a shuttle into a different place, interior perhaps. I was quite taken by a display they had of Mark Rothko. For those who don’t know him, his work is abstract in genre, with rich colours that bleed across fuzzy edges, blurring where lines begin and end at the edges of what is often a rectangular shape on a rich coloured back-drop. I learned at the exhibit that he painted with the expectation that the viewer is to look at the painting from 18 inches away, which really rather radically reframes the experience of his art. His goal, thereby, was for the viewer to be drawn into the piece, which I found to happen with great effect.

When I left the Rothko exhibit, I came upon “Seeking Stillness.” This show invites viewers into introspection. Here I found a marvellous traditional Chinese mountain scene, shown below.

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I took this photograph of me taking a photograph of it, in the hopes to capture the manner in which stillness allows viewers to see themselves in art, society, the city, nature, and more. As I wandered around the museum, I took a few such photographs in the interests of seeing myself in the art, attaining, I think, what Rothko was hoping for. We often see things, but don’t see ourselves in the things we see. We aim for a kind of detachment that might well encourage a posture of judgement of art, play, family, etc. that is naïve about its objectivity. There is nothing wrong with “judging” art and such, I think, as long as we recall that our judgment might well say as much about us as the art. Art, good art anyway, always draws us into the art at the same time as it artfully enters us. Such art enables us to set aside the too easy conceit that it is ours to play God – now with art and next, too easily, with people.

Prodigally Content

How many poems are in me?
Is it a host? Or legion?
Or only one more?
I was going to count, but
demurred, recalling their
surreptitious character.

But I do know that every
now and then, a poem
deigns to let go, and
then again like
an echo
comes back to haunt me,
sauntering
about my ear –
foreign yet familiar and
prodigally content
to shadow me.