Where were you, Oh my Lord, when I was suffering? Where were you Lord, when my heart was in the mud?; I was there, in the mud. Catherine of Siena
This Remembrance Sunday has been an important one for me. Not only did I get to take part with my daughter (the answer to a long-held prayer), but I have at long last found myself able to reflect on my own military experiences. I sometimes feel that it is harder for those that have a faith to do so. What do we do with the unsettling questions that arise in our hearts each November as we struggle silently through, fearing that to even ask the question ‘where were you Lord’, will end in the simple realisation that God was, in fact, not there at all. Fear that to hold some of the experiences of our lives up to God may, in fact, destroy the very faith that we cling to so often to help us through the dark moments. You see, if God was not there, I could no longer worship him as he simply would not be who he says he is; and yet how could he have been? It’s a dark tension.
Many of us have either suffered, witnessed suffering or both. For me, my experience of the horror of the Balkan wars somehow hold less pain, seem far less significant than when I held one of my soldiers in my arms, his face no longer recognisable. Why? I suppose simply because the latter was personal; I knew him, his family. He was part of my story, and I was part of his; he was my responsibility. It is often the more personal experiences that affect us the most, the greatest pain is often closest to home. And yet it would be the same for a member of the emergency services, medics, someone who has lost a child perhaps; anyone who has experienced first hand that it is often Tragedy rather than the Comedy that plays out on the stage of humanity.
Upon reflection, some of the more charismatic spirituality that I have enjoyed over the last ten years has simply not held the answer; there are lessons to be learned I think. It is only as I have embraced the raw humanity of Christ during the times where he was seemingly nowhere to be seen, that I have been able to begin to glimpse his presence in the midst of that suffering. A deeper understanding that God became incarnate, and lived as himself on earth, rather than merely as a puppet on heavens strings. The second incarnation; the first being when he created us, releasing his perfect image into creation to bind it together in both Adam and Eve. It was his own image that he inhabited here on earth, not simply a borrowed body from a lad called Jesus. The perfect revelation of God was no spiritual trick of the light; it was flesh capable of pain, blood capable of flowing. The more, I think, we look outside of ourselves, outside of each other to find the revelation of God that we seek, the more open we become to simply not finding anything at all. We can gather, pressing into heaven for as long as we like, and yet if the exchange that takes place does not lead us deeper into our shared humanity with Jesus, the response to which will be human love in its original form, it is merely an enjoyable evening.
Whilst spending time with women who had been victims of rape and domestic violence for years in South Sudan, it was as much the ‘truth’ that we were there and that we cared that set them free, than any rapidly spoken, probably mistranslated words that we were able to bring them in forty degree heat. It was the embroidered flowers that had been so lovingly made in England pined to their garments, the physical contact that was devoid of any sexual intent that brought beauty and dignity to their lives, instead of ashes. The presence of God for them was not in a feeling, it was simply in the exchange of human love. And yes, God’s supernatural, invisible presence was there to heal the sick and bring freedom to the captives; but that was very much the icing on the much larger visible cake of basic human compassion. As my mother used to say at Christmas, ‘careful Ben, too much icing will make you sick’.
So God was there in my most broken times, but maybe not where I have been looking for him. Thomas Aquinas said of truth ‘If it is true, it is of the Holy Spirit, the only question is veracity, not origin’. In other words, the truth of God, who is love, can be found in the richness of humanity, whatever its outward appearance. Isn’t that the real lesson of the Good Samaritan? So God was in my hands, as I held the broken soldier. God was there in the shovels of earth that returned dignity to those that no longer lived; held in Muslim hands. God was there in the compassionate words that were given to me by those that chose to truly listen, in the midst of the struggles of the last few years, many of whom had never set foot into a church. God is found in simple kindness, in our ability to overcome. In our ability to get up, dust off and continue on with life, even if, for some, it is an hourly struggle sometimes. Christ’s incarnation was surely as much about reuniting us with the power that is held in our true, God-like humanity, than simply uniting us with heaven. When we allow our preconceptions of where to look to be removed, it is amazing what we can truly find.