September 2015 Archives

Becoming Painfully Aware

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With his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis is very much the man of the hour. But Francis is far more than a beloved, charismatic figurehead. He is also a powerful prophetic voice for the social teachings of the Catholic Church. We may not have been able to see Francis on his recent visit, but we can draw close to him through studying his teachings. In particular, Pope Francis has recently authored an encyclical--a papal letter--addressed not to Catholics alone, but to all humanity.

Francis has entitled his encyclical Laudato Si, Praise Be, after the great Canticle of the Creatures written by his namesake, St Francis of Assisi. In his encyclical, Pope Francis calls our attention to the devastating environmental impacts of industrialized society, with special reference to global climate change.

Last semester, I taught toxicology and environmental medicine to my students. In the course of the semester, we looked into many interlocking concerns, including pesticides, genetic engineering, mining, toxic chemicals, radiation, air pollution, waterway pollution and climate change. We saw that, just as a chronically ill person may suffer from several co-existing and mutually exacerbating conditions, in the same way, numerous interacting and mutually exacerbating stressors affect our biosphere. Often, the students complained, "This is depressing!"

What do we mean by this? How do we respond to the current ecological crisis? And how does Pope Francis invite us to respond?

Faced with species extinction and looming environmental catastrophe, we may prefer not to know too much. "Ignorance is bliss." If we avoid the news, isolate ourselves as much as possible from current concerns; perhaps we could lead happier, less stressful lives. How does it help me to worry about Tuareg nomads in Northern Mali who cannot find water for their livestock? Isn't it better just to get on with my own life? In fact, when I was growing up, Timbuktu was an idiom for a place too far away to worry about. I didn't know a real Timbuktu actually existed, still less that it was an ancient seat of culture and literature in Mali.

Laudato Si was published in May of this year and soon became an important theme of our summer holiday. Picture us sitting in an attic room on the slopes of Etna, reading the encyclical together as we avoid the noonday heat, or gathered in my mother's flat in West Wales, as the three of us read together, Mum just as inspired as Sadananda and myself. I had many aha moments as we read, the first being the answer to the question, "Why do we need to know this?"

To this burning question, Pope Francis replies: "Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."

Becoming painfully aware is a vitally important teaching which reminds me of the Four Steps of Reconciliation. Fist comes recognition--we must recognize and understand the impacts of our actions, as a person and as a species. Second comes repentance. This is the moment when we understand not just cognitively but also emotionally; we feel the pain we have caused. This is painful awareness. Out of this arises reparation--our willingness to make good, to give back. Finally, we commit to rehabilitation, the step of making the needed changes to prevent the issue happening in the future.

We, as a human species, need to reach out for reconciliation with other species and with Mother Earth. We who enjoy all the luxuries of industrialized society need to reach out for reconciliation with the Tuareg and all the other poor and vulnerable victims of climate change, who themselves have never experienced the benefits of life in developed countries, but must pay a high price for what we enjoy. The things we take for granted have had impacts that rob them of the traditional lifestyle that brought them joy and meaning. But by the same token, small actions of awareness and compassion on our part could have benefits beyond our imagining in lands we have never seen.

Laudato Si is a lengthy and thoroughly researched letter. It must have taken tremendous effort on the part of an elderly man to write such a letter, personally intended for each and every one of us, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists alike. I would encourage each one of us to take some time to study what Francis offers us and to see how we personally are called to respond. (Here's the link to it). Above all, I invite us to take to heart the call to painful awareness. Becoming painfully aware of the impacts of our actions and the effects of what we enjoy, making it our own personal suffering, let us look to the big and small ways in which we can make a difference.

"Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs".

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Peace Pilgrimage in Tunis

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June 26, and we were all prepared to visit Tunisia. We had our ferry tickets from Palermo port to Tunis and an apartment booked in the Medina--the old city. Since the terrible attack on the Bardo Museum earlier in the year, things seemed quiet enough. It was Mum who broke the news, as we came into her flat after a walk amid the Cambrian Hills in Wales. "There's been a massacre in Sousse!" Horrified, we watched as the BBC revealed scenes of tourists running for their lives. Direct flights between the UK and Tunisia were cancelled and the Foreign Office recommended that no British nationals go to Tunisia.

After deep thought and reflection, we decided we would still go. The US State Department had not followed suit with the Foreign Office, neither had France, nor most other European countries. And after all, we were just on our way to spend three days in London, despite that city being on high alert. It simply made more sense to trust God and do what we are here to do.

So exactly a month after the Sousse massacre, we boarded the grandiosely-named Zeus Palace--quite a modest ferry in fact--and set out 'across the wine-dark sea', as Homer would say. Boarding the ferry was a nightmare. The ferry terminal resembled a cattle pen, outdoors in the blazing heat, well up in the nineties, with a small awning the only concession to comfort. We queued for hours--well, to be honest, it was more like a Rugby scrum than an actual queue--with no access to seating, water or toilets. Once aboard, however, it was a beautiful journey, with stunning views of the Sicilian coast, the Egadi Islands, Malta and so on. One disturbing feature--mile upon mile of coastal habitat and no birds--no, not one seagull. I saw only one sea bird on the entire journey--a far cry from the rich bird life of the Irish Sea.

Our room in the medina turned out to be elegantly appointed but quite dusty by American standards. Similarly, the old city itself was a combination of picturesque and squalid--beautiful traditional architecture and tiles but also a lot of trash and dirt. While many people were full of joy and life, dressed in colourful traditional clothes, others seemed to be extremely poor. It was easy to see how a revolution could have arisen in a country where so many are suffering and aspire to a better life. Honesty was apparent everywhere. Tunisian money was difficult to understand, so usually I just held out a handful of change and waited while the market seller carefully picked out the right coins. I knew I would not be cheated.

Communicating with people in Tunis was relatively easy as almost everyone spoke French--a language I enjoy speaking. In fact, it was easier than communicating in France, where people often speak very fast. Tunisians, having French as a second language, were quite tolerant of my errors in grammar and pronunciation! And the lack of tourists meant that people had extra time on their hands to talk to us.

Meeting with merchants in the souk was a satisfying experience. To be a merchant in the main souk, close to Zeytouna Mosque, is regarded as a particularly noble task. The merchants were educated, pious and devoted to their business, which had been in the family for generations. Meher, who had a perfume stall, spoke excellent English and had a degree in English literature. Nabil, who sold spices right opposite the mosque, poured out his feelings in impassioned French, barely pausing for me to translate for Sadananda. Despite the current difficulties, most of the people we spoke to expressed hope and optimism for the future. Believing in the goals of the Jasmine Revolution, they felt sure that in due course of time, the vision would be fulfilled. For the most part, they understood that freedom and democracy are not won in a day and that the revolution was a work in progress. And as pious men, they trusted in Allah despite all circumstances. Yet, as Nabil said, the present time represented a crisis for the country. Hundreds of thousands--including the merchants themselves--depended upon the tourist industry for their livelihood. Many expressed outrage at what had occurred recently in Sousse, distressed both by the loss of life and by the insecurity resulting in Tunisia.

The Tunisian people we spoke to were grateful that we had come on a mission of peace and prayer, even at a time when our government had told us not to come. However, not all the friends we made were from Tunisia. We spent our first day touring Carthage with a family of British Muslims from Birmingham--some of the nicest people we have ever met. Another day, we attended Sufi dhikr, held each afternoon in Zeytouna Mosque. Here we met two Algerian Sufis who warmly invited us to Algeria. Despite their humble manner, they were some of Algeria's best musicians. Nureddin was a French horn player and Mustaffer a percussionist in the Algerian symphony Orchestra, in Tunis for a big concert.

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In Carthage with our British Muslim friends

The Bardo Museum, with its amazing Roman mosaics and other artifacts, is one of the highlights of any visit to Tunisia. It is also a sobering experience. At the entrance is a memorial to the tourists killed there earlier this year, with flags of each of the nations who lost citizens in the massacre. And in the wonderful room where a drunken Hercules staggers around taking a piss, one can still see bullet holes from the attack.

On our last evening, as we were heading home, a merchant in the Souk suddenly stopped me. "Why have you come to Tunis?"

"To pray."

"Then go to the mausoleum at Sidi Mehrez. He was a great saint who protected the Jews. Here in Tunisia, there are many men and quite a few women too, who sacrificed their lives for prayer. "

We did go to the thousand-year-old mausoleum and found ourselves enveloped in the atmosphere of love and peace. For all the turmoil in North Africa and the Arab world, the spirituality that radiates from Tunisia is sure to draw us back to this land of humble and prayerful people.

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    This page is an archive of entries from September 2015 listed from newest to oldest.

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