Month: January 2021

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A Holocaust Memorial Day Like No Other

Guest blog by Nathan Eddy, Interim Director of the Council of Christians and Jews, taken from the 22 January CCJ Newsletter

cb0debf7-3ae7-4bc4-ac0c-6e67444d282fHolocaust Memorial Day, observed across the country on January 27th, will be unique. A year ago, I remember queueing in the rain to get into Methodist Central Hall in Westminster for the national ceremony and seeing friends and colleagues there. This year we gather in front of laptops, tablets and phones to remember, to hear stories of survival and loss, and to be together. And HMD is different this year for another reason; last year, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was the last major anniversary at which survivors will likely be present. We now enter a new era of commemoration, with new ways of remembering, educating and gathering together.

During lockdown I was helped by reading the poetry of a Holocaust survivor, Dan Pagis, whom I first encountered on a CCJ Yad Vashem seminar. Born in 1930 near the Bukovina area of present-day Romania, Pagis lost most of his family in the Shoah, was interned in a concentration camp, and emigrated to Israel as a teenager. There he learned Hebrew for the first time and, remarkably, became one of the prominent Israeli poets of his generation and a world expert in Medieval Jewish literature. Life went on after the horrific events he experienced as a young person, but haunting and ambiguous images fill his poetry. ‘I was a shadow’ — a tzel, in his Hebrew original — he writes in his poem ‘Testimony’. Yet perhaps the very act of sharing his testimony is his poetry’s power — at least, it is for me.

The theme this year chosen by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is ‘Be the light in the darkness’. For survivors of the Shoah and other genocides, as was the case for Pagis, the shadows are present even in the light of liberation and a conflict’s ending, and this testimony of survivors can challenge those of us who want an easy ‘happily ever after’. As may be the case in the current pandemic, trauma changes lives forever. Yet there is a curious power, a healing power, in hearing testimony and reflecting on lives like Pagis’. The testimony of survivors can be a light in the darkness for us all, giving us courage to be a light in our communities today. That light will be shining brightly on Wednesday, encouraging and empowering us all.

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Virtual Pilgrimages

By Anthony MacIsaac

During the difficulties imposed by Covid-19 many of our religious habits have necessarily changed. Among these are habits of prayer, personal and collective. One especially profound form of prayer is the pilgrimage, which has been affected extraordinarily. At its root, the concept of pilgrimage involves leaving one’s normal space, to enter into sacred space. To leave oneself (along with any notions of selfishness) and to be embraced by a living and selfless whole. When we make pilgrimage to a particular site, we indeed walk the paths on which countless others have trod, living and dead. We enter into communion with them, even if an unseen communion, and we focalise that onto a particular space. We might call this focal-point a kind of Divine presence in the world around us. It is indeed a kind of deep communion with God.

pic_1518594231It is impossible to conceive of any religion that doesn’t include some concept of pilgrimage. Islam makes it one of the Five Pillars to its religion – the Hajj. Every adult Muslim is expected to make this journey at some point in their life, even if only by great difficulty. The Holy site of Mecca is itself rather illusive, despite being at the centre of this rite. It’s Ka’bah is popularly considered to have been built by Adam, and to have been re-built by Abraham. These legendary associations transform this figurative “House of God” into a focal-point for all Humanity, in the first instance, and then into an Abrahamic shrine. Pilgrimage to Mecca thereby accomplishes, for Muslims, a return to their source (Allah) and to the foundation of His relationship with Humanity. They fulfil religious obligation in making a journey of prayer to this site, and return home uplifted. For Jews and Christians both, Jerusalem is the central space by contrast (Muslims make a secondary pilgrimage there nonetheless). By Biblical narrative, this city was the site upon which God blessed Abraham – through Melchizedek, its King – and upon which His Chosen Nation was founded centuries later. In the New Testament, it was the city in which Jesus Christ was to be suffer His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. It was also the city in which Pentecost was to come, and from which the Gospel would leave to reach the ends of the earth. So that, in making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there are again the two key notions of returning to a Divine source and leaving rejuvenated by that source, to bring its joy to others.

article-2059042-0EB7BDCD00000578-46_634x416In the tradition of Hinduism, the ancient city of Varanasi holds especial significance for pilgrimage. Within its boundaries is the sacred river Ganges, which is of great importance to most Hindus, as a river in which they might wash away their sins. The city itself was reputedly founded by Shiva, who beheaded his rival Brahma. Brahma’s head was lost by Shiva, and fell into the ground, therefore making the land encompassed by Varanasi absolutely sacred in Hindu belief. Varanasi is crucial also to many Buddhists – the Gautama Buddha having given his first sermons not far from the centre of the city, at Sarnath. For Sikhs, there is the city of Amritsar, which hosts the Golden Temple. The city’s name translates as “Pool of the Nectar of Immortality” – returning us to the theme of a space’s power to transform us from within – and it was founded alongside the temple by Guru Arjan.

The above sites are just some of myriad different locations venerated in religions around the world. Each religious tradition will usually have a plurality of sacred spaces. This returns us to the effects of Covid-19. In the first instance, we have found that making great pilgrimages to great places has been an impossibility. Yet, what some of us might have recovered is a sense of the Holy in Nature around us – which is an even more fundamental source of the Divine than any Holy city, we might say. Whether we walk in a nearby park, or look to the night sky – we are able to sense something greater than ourselves within Nature. Granted, many of us live in busy cities and it is difficult to recover any of this sense. Parks might be closed, the night skies covered in artificial light. However, we still might have so many other little spaces of prayer around us – if we are fortunate. Our local Church, Masjid or Synagogue can become that source of the Divine in our life – we can make pilgrimage to it. Of course it is clear that the imagination becomes important with all of this. We are perhaps re-thinking our space around us. Seeing beauty in Nature, even when hard to spot, and appreciating the Holy in everyday religious life. The Catholic Church has certainly encouraged virtual pilgrimage throughout the pandemic, and perhaps other religious groups have also done so. In November, the Holy See even declared that a virtual visit made to a cemetery would allow us to obtain a Plenary Indulgence – which we would be free to offer to anyone buried there, or perhaps to anyone buried anywhere. Such a virtual pilgrimage as this didn’t presuppose the Internet – it went beyond that. We were told that even the act of imagining a visit made to the graveside, perhaps just the act of imagining our loved one, would bring this Indulgence. The emphasis on individual spirituality has taken centre-stage in this declaration. Through our own personal contemplative life, we can access the full bounties of God despite being so very confined in this difficult pandemic. For this winter season, the Christians among us (but others too if they desire) might stop to make a virtual pilgrimage – a pilgrimage of the heart – to Bethlehem. This has been the idea of the Christmas crib, for so long, and it would surely bring great benefits to us – even equalling those we would gain by making a physical visit to Bethlehem itself. There are no distances in God. 2539739a446a5da1756d7d6e39867554

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New Year Resolutions

From the blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

Christmas has been different and difficult for many of us this year but we’ve survived it and we’re now in a period of recovering from card writing, parcel posting, shopping and cooking  – all of which somehow became more insistent this year.  Now we’re back to lockdown and, for some perhaps, a feeling of isolation, even with skype and zoom possibilities. It feels rather flat and quiet with no new year celebration to look forward to. It’s so different from last new year when I was invited to bring in the new year at a 1920’s themed party. We put together clothes that somehow expressed the spirit of the 20s and even attempted to dance the Charleston. There was a sense of excitement and hope as there often is at new year as we entered what might turn out to be another roaring twenties decade.  This was the  decade which followed on from the Spanish flu of 1918 and was a time of economic growth and prosperity after the devastation of the First World War. It was not to be.

Unknown to us (but not to everyone) there was lurking a tiny, deadly virus which would disrupt the economy, cause chaos and reveal to us all the vulnerability of humanity and the cracks in our societies with the widening  gap between rich and poor.  The Coronavirus has been the topic of conversations, a motivation for social action, given us a recognition of our dependence on key workers and a growing sense of thankfulness and neighbourliness.  Now as we move into another calendar year there’s much to reflect on and hope for as we dream of a better world which will demand a change in all of us if that dream is to become a reality.

New Year is a time for resolutions and new perspectives. So what might they be?

For me one of them is to try to stand in the shoes of my brothers and sisters who are suffering because of poverty, war, abuse, discrimination, neglect, isolation. I was very aware in writing the first paragraph of this blog that the reality I described of Christmas cards and presents, family and celebrations was not everyone’s reality. Any flatness I might feel is a consequence of not having the opportunity to meet friends and family as would normally happen at Christmas. In itself that’s a sign these things are a reality for me but they’re not for everyone. There are people with whom I live cheek by jowl who have no family, no home, no money, no possibility of the kind of family and community relationships that I have. Life is flat for them all the time. There are neighbours who are lonely, friends for whom Christmas evokes sad and not happy memories and for whom all the razzmatazz around Christmas is painful. This is as true of the reality of Christmas as the joy.  Others for whom the virus has exacerbated mental health issues and the many who in this year are grieving because of the death of loved ones, made even more painful by their inability to be there as their family member died of be consoled by the presence of family and friends at funerals.

Another is to deepen my understanding of ecology. Covid 19 and its restrictions have shown us how much we humans pollute our atmosphere. We heard bird song more than we have done for a long time, we saw blue skies. Some in India saw the Himalayas for the first time in years. We rejoiced in cleaner air as airplanes were grounded and cars were left at home. But now as restrictions are easing we can see the pollution creep back again. Can I feel the pain of this world on which I depend and to which I am intimately related? Can I walk on this earth with reverence and respect doing my little bit to overcome pollution and waste?  Can I cut down my consumption to live a more simple lifestyle?

There is so much that needs done that it can seem overwhelming. At my age and stage I can do little but I can pray a prayer that feels the pain of the world, offers compassion and hope  to a world and society that I hold in my heart, believing that this  good energy can have a positive and transforming effect. Tibetan Buddhism has a name for this kind of meditation. It’s called Tonglen and is a practice in which we breathe in the pain of others and our world, perhaps visualising this pain as a dark ribbon and breathe out compassion and love, again perhaps visualising this as a light coloured ribbon.

Tonglen and similar  meditations  make tangible the reality that we can never pray or meditate as isolated individuals, that we approach God or that Reality in which we live and move and have our very being united to our sisters and brothers and indeed the whole cosmos. It also reminds us that our desire for justice, love and compassion is united to that of many, many good people whose kindness and generosity have been so visible during this past year.  We are part of a great movement towards wholeness and reconciliation. We can have confidence that “the love, courtesy, generosity and beauty that is put into to the world will never vanish from the world. And when it’s time it will restore itself instantly” a quotation from Cynthia Bourgeault that can give us hope as we let go of one year and welcome another.

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