In a recent ABC interview with Richard Glover and her co-author Monsignor Tony Doherty about their recently published book Attachments, Ailsa Piper presents us with the challenge to “become aware of the thing that comes at you”. Two chance encounters over this fourth week of Lent have given me pause to reflect that to live a life of unpredictability is to become immersed deeply in the Paschal Mystery, and that the paradoxes inherent in that Mystery can be daily experiences.
The challenging Gospels of the final weeks of Lent ground us deeply, I believe, in what radical awareness involves: the paradox of choosing to ‘see’ or to remain ‘blind’ to the great social concerns that confront us daily in our Church, society, and beyond (Jn 9:1-41); the choice to allow others to ‘unbind’ and to ‘free’ us, or to remain ‘bound’ or imprisoned in our own prejudices, securities and self-centredness (Lazarus – Jn 11:1-45).
The first of my chance encounters occurred a week ago and involved a telephone conversation with a man (I don’t know his name) who, as a result of an injury some 25 years earlier, has suffered extreme chronic pain since that time. Medication and numerous pain management treatments have not worked; he is unable to work even when sitting at a desk; there are no friends or family for support; the various charities he has approached have been unable to provide any long-term assistance. He has been living in a series of boarding houses in the inner-city of Sydney, and of the $400 per week he receives as his disability pension $270 is paid out as rent for his room. He became quite agitated as he described his living conditions as ones plagued by rats, bed-bugs, etc. His emotions were those of fear, anger, frustration, loneliness, hopelessness, as he explained that constant poverty, rather than his physical disability, was, for him, the most pressing issue. He named suicide as a realistic option. When I asked the absurdly mundane, but nevertheless sincere, question of what we could do to help, he said “make people ‘aware’, particularly the charities”!
The inter-relationship between poverty and increasing homelessness is becoming more and more apparent as we walk through our city streets. The Department of Human Sciences (Vic) (2002) states: “homelessness is one of the most potent markers of social exclusion”. The ABS Census of Population and Housing (2011) lists just some of the diverse causes of homelessness: domestic violence, a shortage of affordable housing, unemployment, physical and mental illness, family breakdowns, drug and alcohol abuse, and so on. One of the characteristics of homelessness listed by the ABS is that it “does not allow a person to have control of, and access to, space for social relations”. I became acutely aware of this and other restrictions as our telephone conversation continued with its details of life in the inner-city boarding house. As early as 2001, census data recorded a figure of 17,721 homeless people living in boarding houses, of whom the majority are men over 45 years of age. Current research suggests an overwhelming increase in these statistics. We carry into Easter the hope that genuine, in-depth “consultation” at the grass-roots level in relation to proposed parish amalgamations in the Sydney archdiocese might result in any potentially vacant presbyteries and other under-utilised parish buildings being turned over to those really in need!
A second epiphany or example of that unexpected awareness “that comes at you” (Ailsa Piper) and which draws us ever deeper into the Paschal Mystery, was an incident reported to me a few days after the (above) phone call by an Aboriginal member of the Redfern and La Perouse Communities. It was reported that Thomas, a 10 year old Aboriginal boy whose mother had died 6 weeks previously, was discovered, co-incidentally by a relative, in the early morning wandering and in tears in Sydney Park. He had spent the night alone in the park and pinned on his back was the sign: “Anyone can take this little nigger”! A Gethsemane experience of loss, fear and rejection on our doorstep! Although these details are reported ones, I have been told that with the support of some caring members of the Redfern Aboriginal Community and with Thomas’ consent, plans are underway for him to be re-united with his (disabled) father who lives in Queensland. The faces of the many “Thomases” reflecting the loss of identity, spirituality, alienation and disempowerment of so many of our indigenous sisters and brothers might very well merge with the face of the Crucified One as we walk up to venerate the Cross on Good Friday. We live with the radical awareness that the suicide rate of 90 deaths per 100,000 of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males between the ages of 25 and 29 is four times the rate of non-indigenous males, making it the 12th highest suicide rate globally. (Australian Government, Department of Health, 2013)
This radical awareness inherent in our daily living of the Easter paradox may be sudden and overwhelming, but it may also be deeply hidden, requiring it to be “prised open” (often with reluctance on our part!) by other people, experiences, the media, and so on. Specific scenes in two different films I find overwhelming. Towards the end of the film Silence, the Jesuit priest Rodriguez is faced with the dilemmas of the Christian Love ethic exposed in all its stark rawness. He whispers in despair and echoes the Gethsemane words of Christ and the Golgotha despair of all the abused, marginalised and suffering of all time: “God, why are you silent?”.
The second film is the wonderful 1970’s Canadian film Jesus of Montreal in which a group of young, unemployed actors perform a Passion play, as a consequence of which their lives are changed forever. One striking scene occurs towards the end with the ecstatic shouts of joy and amazement reverberating through the long dark tunnel as the young woman, arms outstretched, runs to tell the others. The tomb is empty; he has called her by her name, “Mary” (Jn 20:16). With the utterance of that one word she, and all of us, are jolted into a ‘radical awareness’ and empowered to strive even harder for a ‘resurrected’ world of peace and justice.
In our darkened Church as we sing the Exsultet, the ancient prayer of praise around the newly-lit Paschal candle on that night “when heaven is wedded to earth”, and when on the following morning I join in the fun of searching for those (not so well) hidden Easter eggs with my grandchildren, I know that for me Easter hope will once again envelop and shape a revived sense of ‘radical awareness’ with all the paradoxes that this entails.
The prayer of Andrea Dean of the National Office for the Participation of Women expresses something of this vision:
“We pray for ourselves we who are Church,
That we resurrect a community of radical love,
inclusiveness and solidarity.
That we become an oasis for the weary and downtrodden,
That we explore truth from various sources and live
with a creative ‘Kingdom’ tension.” Amen
A very happy Easter!
Maureen Brian, Parishioner, St Therese Church, Dover Heights