Jean Vanier: Man of the margins

Jean Vanier with Raphael Simi, who were together at the beginning of L’Arche

Jean Vanier, the philosopher, humanitarian and theologian died this week. He founded L’Arche and Faith and Light and inspired many other ventures including my own work on the spirit of the margins.

In their obituary, the New York Times described him as a Saviour of people on the margins. He was also a man of the margins himself.

He had deep relationships with many people, and yet was essentially a solitary person. Much as he liked travel and leading retreats, he was happiest back home, in his small, simple, house. He avoided formal dinner parties and other social gatherings, though he felt comfortable with people with learning disabilities around the table. After his birth his mother struggled with post-natal depression, as a result of which he was distanced from her at a young and crucial stage. He suggested that this had a significant impact on his later life. He never married.

Later, as a young man in the navy he was swept into the sea and thought he was going to drown. For a time, we can imagine that he felt his time on earth was at an end – the ultimate margin. He was rescued and he later said that this whole experience gave him a sense that his life had been saved for some purpose – even if at the time he did not know what it was to be.

He came from an establishment background – his father was Governor General of Canada – and by the age of 35 he had explored several mainstream options. He had shown exceptional leadership qualities in the Navy, considered the priesthood and also pursued academia, the latter with a position as a University lecturer and a PhD on Aristotle. Instead, he moved to the margins, choosing – much to the initial dismay of his mother and others – to share his life with two men with learning disabilities.

He discovered his life’s work – revealing the gifts of people with learning disabilities – when he first came across them and felt they were asking him ‘will you be my friend?’ The extent to which this resonated with him suggests, to me at least, that there was also an echoing cry in his heart of whether they would be his friend.

He told me he felt marginal in times of conflict, or when he didn’t quite know what to do. He had profound differences of opinion with his long-time friend and spiritual guide, Pere Thomas, notably as to whether L’Arche should be a purely Catholic Community or more ecumenical. Pere Thomas favoured the former, Jean the latter. Later, he had the agony of discovering that Pere Thomas had abused women within L’Arche, finding it hard to reconcile the two sides of his personality.

Jean was welcomed and lauded by leaders of many Churches – Pope Francis sought to speak to him during his last week of life. Nonetheless, Jean often felt that the message of L’Arche was not really understood or appreciated by the Church as a whole. He often spoke of L’Arche as a sign, not a solution: a sign that society, to be truly human, must be founded on welcome and respect for the weak and the downtrodden. This makes L’Arche an essentially marginal, often hidden, nearly always mundane, but potentially prophetic work.

Jean used to say that ‘everyone needs a Saviour and that a Saviour is someone who has need of them’. Jean was, in his life, a form of saviour to many, not just those on the margins, but to those who served those on the margins. It is good to imagine that in passing beyond the margins of this world, he has now come to the true centre.

A personal tribute to Jean Vanier is given at http://www.chrisbemrose.org/jean-vanier/

Musings on the margins

In January this year a friend of mine, Lloyd Wigglesworth, asked me to appear in one of his ‘Paradox’ videos. His starting question was ‘what’s important in your life at the moment?’ I talked largely about death and the margins – topics which lead me to what many people call God.

Here’s the result: https://vimeo.com/331179282

For the record, while I’m not sure about reincarnation, I love the idea of a meeting with God in which we talk about what sort of situation may best develop us as people, and our souls.

The margins of the public and the private: sitting room in the street

                               Sitting room in the street

A couple of times this year I took my sitting room – including sofa, chairs, carpet, bookcase, standard lamp and coffee table – into the public area outside my house. I offered a cup of tea to anyone who showed any interest in what I was doing.

It was based on a piece called ‘Encounter’ which a friend of mine, Jon Bowra, had developed on a street in Oxford as part of his MA in Social Sculpture.

An English person’s home is said to be their castle – a place where we feel secure, protected and private. So I loved the idea of taking it into a public space. Once there, I enjoyed looking up at my new ceiling: bright blue sky with moving clouds and no cobwebs in sight. Straight ahead I could just make out the waves breaking onto the shore. But what I enjoyed most was waiting to see who came past. 

At home, I know everyone who enters. But out there – in the margins – it was open to anyone who passed by. I noted that some people were intrigued but uncertain – they liked to keep their distance. Perhaps, over time, that would change. But what I loved most of all was the people who came up and engaged. The conversations, the laughter, the getting to know one another.

Much as I loved doing it, it also required some courage to take up residence outside. A homeless man had set up a tent nearby some weeks previously, and had not been universally welcomed. Would I be seen in a similar light? As often happens, in going into the margins, there was an element of being willing to be vulnerable.

Managing from the Margins: the case of the Catholic Church.

I used to think of the Pope as being at the centre of the Catholic Church.

But, increasingly – and radically – it seems as though it is the Pope who is in the margins while others try to secure the centre.

This was apparent from the start of his Papacy, when he moved out of the Papal Palace into more humble accommodation.

He followed that up by putting the emphasis on the role of the Church in the margins. He insists that the Church will be ‘bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 49). He uses the image of the Church as a ‘field hospital’ which does not carefully assess its resources or calculate the probability for the success of its pastoral initiatives: ‘it simply responds to those in need with whatever resources it has at its disposal’. He regularly visits places (such as L’Arche) who support those who are on the margins

TABLE SERVICE. Pope Francis visits the Il Chicco community, part of the L’Arche movement, in Ciampino, Italy.

Pope Francis visiting the L’Arche Community near Rome

The Pope has also put emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers’ – a concept which, I would add, is close to the heart of Quaker theology. The Pope has condemned arrogant priests who act as ‘little monsters’, insisting they humbly serve God’s people. There is emphasis in his teaching on ministers serving the poor – washing their feet – rather than directing them. Francis calls for ministers who ‘have the smell of their sheep on them’.

The Pope has also sought to move towards decentralization. Subsidiarity – making pastoral decisions at the local level unless they cannot be addressed at that level – pushes responsibility to the local level. This increases flexibility and responsibility. Differences and disagreements may result, but they are not to be feared or denied. They are signs of life. Priests are not representatives of the Pope, but pastoral leaders of their local flocks.

While the Pope seeks to lead the Church into the margins, others seek to pursue power at the centre. An article by one of America’s leading theologians, Richard Gaillardetz, in this week’s Tablet (22nd September)  suggests there is a small but well-organised and vocal minority of Catholic individuals and organisations who have grasped what the Pope is really doing: transform the Catholic Church from an institution in which power is at the Centre to one where it is in the margins. He suggests that the challenges the Pope faces ‘represent a thinly-veiled attempt at something close to a palace coup.’ These include multiple challenges to his authority and chosen direction of travel, as well as allegations of cover-ups.

An Institution puts the well-being of the organisation before all else. Power is at the centre, with systems and structures often rigid and inflexible, unable to adapt to new situations. Problems (such as abuse) are quickly hushed up in case they cause reputational damage.

Francis seems to be trying to change the Church into something more human – in the absence of other words I call it a ‘humanisation’: An organisation where all are seen as fundamentally equal (even though all may have different roles), which engages with those on the margins and which seeks to give power out from the centre. It is flexible and adaptable, though with a clear focus on the central aims. It feels more like a family than a well-oiled and efficient machine.

The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest multinational in the world. Perhaps, under Francis, it is moving into something sleeker and swifter in which the spirit of the margins blows ever more strongly.

Death as the ultimate margin

The journey of death is taken by each of us alone. There is a sense of vulnerability: none of us knows for sure what will happen on the other side, even if our faith (or lack of it) may convince us otherwise. Dust to dust is the ultimate form of transformation – moving our relationships with others into another dimension.

 

This came back to me when I recently saw the 2008 Japanese film ‘Departures’. It depicts the story of a young man who returns to his hometown after a failed career as a cellist and stumbles across work as a nōkanshi—a traditional Japanese ritual mortician. He is subjected to prejudice from those around him, including from his wife, because of strong social taboos against people who deal with death. This is common around the world: think of the dalits or untouchables in India, for example.

The film has some gruesome moments, as well as humour. Some Western reviews have criticised its sentimentality, but I found myself touched by it. The idea that a ritual – ‘encoffinment’ – performed with beauty and dignity could bring about peace and reconciliation was deeply moving. The way he undressed and dressed the body, his manipulation of the hands, his bringing colour to the face – all with deep dignity.

 

It reminded me of the times I have shared with people shortly after they have died, when we touch the thin curtain that separates this life from whatever follows. It can feel initially awkward – we are not used to being next to dead bodies – but if I allow myself to overcome the initial fear, it can be a beautiful, peaceful, unique, transforming moment.

 

In L’Arche in France, the bedroom of the dead person would become a shrine for a day or two, with people from the house spending time to say their goodbyes, and with objects associated with the person decorating the room. Sadly, I found this almost impossible in the UK. Even in the local hospice, I learned the other day, we do not have the refrigeration equipment – essentially a cold surface – to keep the body in the room for more than 12 hours or so.

 

Perhaps, as with so many other margins, we need to bring death more into the centre of our lives.

 

 

Pablo Picasso and the paradox of the margins

Mike, a friend, has drawn my attention to ‘The Sacred’ in which Elizabeth Oldfield of the Theos Think Tank talks to various people about the sacred. In the most recent,  John Lloyd (producer best known for comedy television programmes as Not the Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blackadder and QI) talks about  paradox. He quotes Niels Bohr, the nuclear physicist, as saying ‘How wonderful that we have met a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.’

Lloyd takes as his starting point the etymology of the word sacred, which comes from the Latin sacer, meaning both sacred and accursed: a paradox.

The paradox of the margins is, I believe, that the more that we are in the margins, the closer we are to the centre.

Lloyd himself gives the example of Picasso. Lloyd had a theory that Picasso, for all his fame and success as an artist – as well as the wealth, the mistresses the lifestyle to go with it – left that all behind him when he went into the studio. He needed the openness, the patience and the courage to fully engage with his art. Lloyd felt confirmed in this view when, later, he came across this quote from Picasso: “When I enter the studio, I leave my ego at the door the way the Moslems leave their shoes when they enter the mosque, and I only allow my spirit to go in there and paint.”

Perhaps the same is true of most, if not all, great artists, composers, writers and social reformers. That they are at their most creative, their most individual, when they are away from the centre of the ego, and engaging with the margins with a humility and an openness that will lead them along paths of uncertainty that allow the spirit to lead them in often new and unexpected ways.

 

 

Mainstream to margins

I recently attended the funeral of Tina. I knew her through a MIND group I was involved with, and she also came to some of the Quiet Garden mornings I lead at Runcton Manor.

As so often with funerals, I came to understand her much more fully than I had previously. Jon, a friend of hers from childhood days, gave an insightful and moving eulogy. As he spoke, I realised how Tina had had many of the attributes of those in the limelight or centre – but who through choice and circumstances had moved to the margins.

Jon described her as a ‘prototype it girl,’ with film star looks, a smile ‘to light up the greyest of grey Glasgow days’ and a quick-witted brain. Through her father, a high level journalist, she had access to the best tickets for the Bay City Rollers and Live Aid. She was stylish, spiritual, natural, arty and intellectual.

She never flaunted her attributes. She was completely down to earth. While others might play mainstream games and mainstream toys, Tina had none of it. ‘Mainstream was not Tina’, said Jon.

What was it that led her out of the mainstream? She was not materialistic and had no interest in money. She was more at home in the wild open spaces and skies of the Highlands than in suburbia.

She was a non-conformist with a rare individuality and an independent mind. She would not join in for the sake of it or to please people. At four, she was offered a chance at modelling but, even at that age, would not be persuaded to do it. When she didn’t like the secondary school she refused to go – and then thrived at her new school. Later, she chose to drop out of University – and once again thrived when studying a different subject at a different University.

Perhaps, also, she was shy. When offered the possibility, with her sister, of a backstage meeting with the Bay City Rollers, she refused to go – much to the disbelief of her sister.

Maybe also, she had a heightened sense of anxiety. One time she was on a walk with four others when they came to a dodgy wooden bridge that only one person could cross at a time. It was scary but everyone made it, except Tina. Despite serious encouragement from everyone else she absolutely, resolutely, refused to cross that bridge. Nothing could have made her do it. So they all came back and went back home.

And yet at other times, she was remarkably fearless. Jon recounted a time when they had been talking on the phone and everything was fine. Minutes later she called back to tell him the ceiling had just come crashing down. While others would freak out, Tina just laughed.

She was a woman ahead of her time. A vegetarian before it was fashionable and a Green before it was mainstream. Being out of the mainstream helped make her empathetic to others. She always had time for people in difficulty and would dispense good advice and – often more importantly – good questions.

I treasure my time with Tina. Quiet, unassuming, loyal and full of compassion. She fully embodied these qualities of the margins in her being. It was what made her human.

 

 

Christ stopped at Eboli

I found this a beautiful book which speaks deeply of the margins. Because of his opposition to Fascism, Carlo Levi was banished at the start of the Abyssinian War in 1935 to a small village, Gagliano, in a remote province of southern Italy.

The first chapter contains a description of the margins which I find powerful and moving:

‘We’re not Christians,’ they say. ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.’ ‘Christian’, in their way of speaking, means ‘human being’, and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We’re not Christians, we’re not human beings; we’re not thought of as men but simply as beasts, beasts of burden, or even less than beasts, mere creatures of the wild.

Towards the end of the book, he recounts going up North for a family funeral. In the train back down south again, he meditates on his feeling of strangeness, and the lack of understanding amongst his friends who concerned themselves with political questions: ‘They had all asked about conditions in the south and I had told them what I knew. But although they listened with apparent interest, very few of them seemed really to follow what I was saying….Many of them were very able, and all claimed to have meditated on the ‘problem of the south’ and to have formulated plans for its solution. But just as their schemes and the very language in which they were couched would have been incomprehensible to the peasants, so were the life and needs of the peasants a closed book to them, and one which they did not even bother to open.’

It reminds me of many of todays comments by those concerned with those living in Grenfell Tower, suggesting that others are out of touch with them.

Margins as the shadow

I’m grateful to a friend, Mark, for leading me to a talk by Alan Watts on Carl Jung. Alan Watts was responsible for popularising Eastern Philosophy for a Western audience. In this talk, given a few months after Jung’s death in 1961, Watts reflects on Jung’s understanding of the shadow.

Image result for carl jung
Carl Jung

Watts emphasises Jung’s view of the importance of recognising those parts of ourselves that we may label as the shadow, or margin. Some of the passages that particularly struck me were as follows:

‘To the degree that a person becomes conscious that the evil is as much in himself as in the other, to this same degree he is not likely to project it on to some scapegoat, and commit the most criminal acts of violence upon other people.’

‘He [Jung] was the sort of man who could feel anxious and afraid and guilty without being ashamed of feeling this way. In other words, he understood that an integrated person is not a person who has simply eliminated the sense of guilt or the sense of anxiety from his life – who is fearless and wooden and kind of sage of stone. He is a person who feels all these things, but has no recriminations against himself for feeling them.’

‘…He (Jung) knew [his shadow]…so strongly, and so clearly, and – in a way – so lovingly that he would not condemn the same thing in others, and therefore would not be led into those thoughts feeling and acts of violence towards others, which are always characteristic of the people who project the devil in themselves upon the outside, upon somebody else, upon the scapegoat.’

‘…behind all your pretentions to being either a good citizen or a fine scholar or a great scientist or a leading politician or a physician or whatever you happen to be – …behind this façade…there is a certain element of the unreconstructed bum. Not as something to be condemned and wailed over, but as something to be recognized as contributive to one’s greatness and to one’s positive aspect; in the same way that manure is contributive to the perfume of the rose.’

I am reminded of the letter that Jung wrote to a Christian friend in which he said:

“I admire you Christians, because when you see somebody hungry or thirsty you see Jesus. When you see someone in prison or hospital you see Jesus. When you see somebody who is strange, a stranger or naked you see Jesus. What I don’t understand is that you don’t see Jesus in your own brokenness. Why are the poor always outside of you? Can’t you see they’re inside of you: in your hunger and thirst? That you too are sick: that you too are imprisoned in your own fears or need for honour and power; that you too have strange things inside of you which you don’t understand; that you too are naked?”

(Quoted in ‘Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, Edited by Brian Brock & John Swinton).

I am also struck that many of the same qualities that Watts saw in Jung I see in Jean Vanier: not being ashamed of feelings, the sense of integration, the lack of condemnation of others and even – though he may not use the same language – the sense of an unreconstructed bum beneath the facade.

 

Mapping the margins

Sometimes I think that my interest in the margins is – well – marginal. But recently I’ve appreciated how it can shape the world we live in.

Christopher Wylie is the person who, aged 27, came up with the idea that led to Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU referendum and later was heavily involved in digital operations for the Trump campaign.

In an interview in The Observer last week (18th March) Wylie recounts the time in 2013 when he met Steve Bannon. Bannon was editor-in-chief of Breitbart News at the time, which he had brought out to Britain to support Nigel Farage in his bid to take Britain out of the European Union. Wylie (who is gay) described Bannon as ‘the only straight man I’ve talked to about intersectional feminist theory…’

‘Intersectionality’ was a term first coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 (Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics). In her work, Crenshaw discussed Black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and being a woman independently, but must include the interactions which frequently reinforce each other.

In this analysis, for example, women are not all a homogeneous category sharing the same life experiences: the experiences of white, middle class, heterosexual women will be significantly different to those of black, poor, gay or disabled women. It is only when the intersection between these different factors are taken into account together that it is really possible to see how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalised in society.

Wylie says that Steve Bannon immediately saw its relevance of intersectional feminist theory ‘to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.’ I assume (though the article does not fully spell this out) that the implication is that many young, white, conservative men feel oppressed by many different factors (eg poor childhood, low self esteem, low and largely static income, inadequate housing, relative lack of opportunities) which all come together to shape their attitudes and behaviour. It is only when such people feel that it is safe to ‘come out’ as they are, to face those in power, that they will feel secure in voting for someone with what many would see as populist views.

The key, as Wylie says in the article, is to find the ‘inflection point’: the point at which people decide that something they had hitherto seen as unmentionable suddenly becomes desirable and achievable. If politics is dependent on culture, Wylie maintains, then politics is all about changing that culture.

This is nothing new: it is what advertising has sought to do all along. What is new is the extent to which it has used data on a huge scale (via the personality profiles that most of us have filled in at one time or another), and the way it has carefully adjusted messages delivered to different audiences, as defined by those profiles. It is also apparent that Bannon, in helping to orchestrate Trump’s rise to power, focused on the weak, marginal position of many electors – especially white men. What is paradoxical is that a notion – intersectionality – originally developed in a feminist context, has been brought to bear against both women and feminism.

A marginal commentary on John 11:45-56

So far I have chosen not to focus on biblical passages in this blog, but reading today’s bible passage I found the references too strong to avoid. My comments in red.

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. Some saw this strange, eccentric man doing unusual things on the margins – he’d just raised Lazarus from the dead – and inwardly felt drawn to trust him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. Others felt fearful of this person on the margins. Perhaps they never saw or heard Jesus themselves, but just relied on hearsay. They reported on him to those close to the centre of worldly power.

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ Those at the centre are often fearful of those in the margins – especially if they are attracting others. The last thing they want is trouble – just want to keep people in their historic and rightful places.

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. The best route for those in the centre to retain power is to choose a scapegoat. That not only gets rid of the apparent problem, but also teaches others not to go down the same path.

Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples. Jesus chooses to go to Ephraim, a marginal place: near the wilderness and well away from the centre at Jerusalem.

Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ The Passover celebrated the time when the first-born Israelite children were spared death, and the Israelites liberated from slavery to the Egyptians – free to journey towards the Promised Land. Here the question is whether Jesus – man of the margins – will have the courage and desire to be seen in the centre of power.

Chernobyl on the margin

Svetlana Alexievich is a journalist who, in ‘Chernobyl Prayer’, recounts the words of people who were involved with or affected by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I found it a deeply moving book that made me appreciate the enormity of the event and its impact on people’s lives.

Chernobyl is in the Ukraine, but close to the border with Belarus, described in the opening sentence of the book as ‘terra incognita’: an obscure and uncharted region. I remember – vaguely – reports of the explosion in 1986: The radioactive cloud that gradually dispersed around the world; the attempts to move people out of the area; visits of children from Chernobyl to other parts of the world; the plan to build a sarcophagus around the original reactor.

What I hadn’t appreciated was the extent to which it was seen by local people as a war –a war against a largely invisible enemy whose damage was invariably not evident until years after the event: the death rate in Belarus increased almost seventy four times from 82 to 6,000 in 100,000. People who were already largely on the margins of world consciousness became ostracised by others. The clean up workers were state heroes, but few women wanted to have children by them.

Picture from abandoned house

In this extract, Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya, one of the people who was resettled from the area, talks about the impact on her son:

From the very beginning, we had a sense that we people from Chernobyl were now outcasts. Other people were afraid of us. The bus we were travelling in stopped for the night at a village. Evacuees were sleeping on the floor in a school or at a club and there wasn’t an inch of spare space. One woman invited us to stay with her. ‘Come, I’ll make up a bed for you. I feel sorry for that son of yours.’ Another woman nearby pulled her away from us. ‘You’re crazy!’ she said. “They’re infectious.’ After we had resettled in Mogilyov, my son went to school. He burst into the house after his first day, crying. He had been sat next to a girl, and she complained she didn’t want to sit there because he was ‘radiated’ and if she sat next to him she might die. My son was in fourth grade and, unluckily, he was the only person from Chernobyl in the class. They were all afraid of him. They called him the ‘Glow-worm’, or the ‘Chernobyl Hedgehog’. It frightened me that his childhood came to an end so abruptly.

Spiritual evolution through the margins

Last week there was an interesting piece by Teresa Pasquale Mateus on the website of the Centre for Action and Contemplation. She observes that when Western Christianity revived contemplation in the 1970s, it did so primarily through the lens of white, upper-middle class, celibate men. Contemplation became synonymous with solitude and silence. Yet there are many, many ways to enter into non-dual consciousness and presence with God, self, and others. The contemplative tradition should reflect the diversity of the divine image. Teresa suggests that we need to move into the margins if we are to evolve spiritually.

There are so many . . . people deeply yearning for what the contemplative path has to offer—but often there is a great divide between the prayer circles and the activists, the people of faith in communities of color and the contemplative retreats. The spaces seem remote and inaccessible to many who need them the most: those suffering from poverty and homelessness; those on the frontline of protests and marches for justice; those who sit in non-contemplative church contexts. . . . Further, members of each group carry practices from their own traditions and cultures that could serve the current contemplative containers—rituals of healing from street protests, mantras of lament and hope from those in the margins, and prayers and songs from African and indigenous cultures. . . .

For people existing in the margins—who desperately need contemplative wisdom—a path of contemplation without action . . . doesn’t have meaning. Because their struggles are for survival, for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities, these struggles cannot be set aside in pursuit of an individual spiritual journey. The journey is inherently communal. . . . It necessitates action, but desperately seeks contemplation. The current contemplative container was not built for them and cannot contain their hurts, their actions, their needs, their identities.

When the container is too small for the contents, it must expand. It must evolve. . . . God’s great love story with us calls us into discomfort—the gateway to evolution. For the majority culture, this call is to be in the margins, alongside marginalized persons, and learn what is needed to authentically walk beside them in their suffering. It calls for the discomfort of being in spaces where the mystical path may not look like your own. . . . It calls for the discomfort of hearing God’s voice through the woman of color, the queer teen, the under-heard and under-seen . . . and to reorient perspectives and actions according to the lessons taught through deep listening. . . . For people of color, like myself, and others in the margins (women, LGBTQI, and beyond), it is also a time to let our voices rise and join this conversation as vital partners in the unfolding of this new evolution in the collective soul of contemplative faith. In the process, together, we co-create the contemplative evolution and the mystical revolution. . . . In a world in pain, we are in the crescendo of birthing ourselves for this place and time. Only together can we push through to the next phase of our spiritual evolution.

Margins near Pagham Harbour

This field has been sown with special crops and rough field margins created to benefit wildlife. Early flowering plants are specifically for insects such as bumblebees that emerge in February. Special seed crops are for turtle doves which have declined by 97% since 1970 and are now one of our rarest birds. Other seed crops are for overwintering finches and buntings and the grassy margins provide ground nesting opportunities…

Comparisons are odious

The old school magazine came through the post this morning and plunged me into depression. Normally it goes straight into the rubbish bin, but this time I intercepted it and that’s when the damage is done. I started looking at how former classmates are doing but then found myself caught up in comparing myself with them. But as Dogberry says in Much Ado about Nothing: ‘Comparisons are odious.’  What is it about this drawing of ourselves into competition which is so compulsive, and yet also depressing – except perhaps for the winners. I console myself with the thought that only 3% of my contemporaries had a mention it it – and that the most interesting and touching stories are probably hidden in the margins. It’s a bit like the worst sort of Christmas card round robins which are full of successes but say little or nothing of the struggles which is what, ultimately, make us more human.

Life on the margins is great!

I was touched, after leading workshops on margins at the national Quaker meeting in Warwick, to receive an email from Carolyn Matthews. It seemed to me to be a great example of how, when we accept our place on the margins, life becomes so much easier.
We move from fighting to try to be at the centre – a fight we can never win – to being centred: being ourselves, which is a very different experience, with a sense of healing and wholeness.
This – with her permission – is what she wrote:

Hi Chris

I was at your Margins event at Yearly Meeting and it really spoke to me.  I had already worked it out, but I wasn’t describing it in quite those words but thinking about life in these terms makes sense.

I have always been on the margins. I found life difficult and I couldn’t work out why I didn’t seem to be quite like other people.   I was somehow all wrong,  and suffered a lot with depression, anxiety, stress etc. Despite trying very hard, I couldn’t get into the mainstream.

Then, a few years ago, things went from bad to worse.  I had a serious cycling accident, I was unconscious for several days with skull fractures, brain haemorrhages etc.

So now everything really was wrong, but I felt that I had to find out what on earth was happening and I started on a steep learning curve, doing research and to cut a long story short, last year I was diagnosed (in my mid-sixties!) as being on the autistic spectrum.  I have Aspergers Syndrome!

Gradually, everything began to fall into place and make sense.   I will always be on the margins (I’m not going to be anywhere else with Aspergers and the after effects of a brain injury) but now I don’t care that I’ll never be mainstream. I’m so much more confident now I know what my problems are, it has made such a difference, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.

I just thought I’d write and let you know that life out here on the margins is great!  

with many thanks

Carolyn

Art on the margins

I recently held two margins workshops at a national Quaker Gathering at Warwick University. I’d planned for 20 people, but 60 turned up to first workshop, and 50 to the second.

As always, I was fascinated by the mix of stories and knowledge I gathered. One person (unfortunately I don’t have their name) introduced me to a form of art of the margins called Thomasson or Hyperart Thomasson.

It was developed by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei in the 1980s. It refers to a useless relic or structure that has been preserved as part of a building or the built environment, which has become a piece of art in itself. These objects, although having the appearance of pieces of conceptual art, were not created to be viewed as such. Akasegawa deemed them even more art-like than art itself, and named them “hyperart.” In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Thomasson, especially since the publication of Akasegawa’s work on the subject in English in 2010.

The term Thomasson comes from the professional baseball player Gary Thomasson, who was signed by the Yomiuri Giants for a record-breaking sum of money, and spent his final two seasons with the team (1981-1982) coming close to setting the league strikeout record before being benched. Akasegawa viewed Thomasson’s useless position on the team as a fitting analogy for “an object, part of a building, that was maintained in good condition, but with no purpose, to the point of becoming a work of art.

A few examples are given below:

 

A margin of land as a place of decision

‘Last night I was transported to a thin bar of sand in the middle of the ocean. The sand could only just be seen above the surface of the water; different currents pushed from east and west. The motorboat came from the east. Once on this margin of land would I take another boat and go onto the west, into the unknown, or seek to return to the east the way I had come? This margin of land represented decisions: how small, often marginal, changes can make all the difference.’