April 2019

A compassionate embrace

Jacinda Ardern

We often learn by being moved by what others do and say, writes Pam Grey reflecting on NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the recent Christchurch terrorist attack.

BY Sister Pam Grey SGS

“Take off your shoes for you are on sacred ground.” They are rare, but I experienced a “burning bush moment” while watching New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, embrace a Muslim widow outside her mosque. Both wore hijabs. Each was in mourning. This was Holy Ground – a place “to take off my shoes” and to go humbly barefoot, to be open to what this loving embrace revealed.

Let’s remember that 50 people were targeted and killed including the lives of children. And 50 people were injured with gunshot wounds as they gathered at the mosques for Friday prayer. They had emigrated to New Zealand from Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia. New Zealand was their home.

On reflection I discovered this loving embrace between Jacinda Ardern and the widow revealed our shared humanity. You are not forsaken, not abandoned. We are sisters. The Hebrew word for compassion is rosham. It is close in meaning to ‘womb’ – bringing new life into being. Rosham is the matrix of our respect for life. The women’s embrace reminded me of St Peter’s encouraging words: “We have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, tender hearts and humble minds.” (1 Peter 3:8) Yes, these are the words spoken by a rough and tumble fisherman who stumbled through life, betrayed, grieved deeply and experienced life-renewing forgiveness.

I saw holiness in action between these two grieving women outside the mosque. “Holiness is seen as going to the heart of where it is most difficult for human beings to be human. Jesus goes ‘outside the city’; he goes to places where people suffer and are humiliated ‘outside the camp’,” writes Rowan Williams1.

I wonder if we can free ourselves so that we can be drawn into those unpredictable moments of holiness, of service. We often learn by being moved by what others do and say. I believe this holds true of witnessing the loving embrace between the grieving widow and the New Zealand Prime Minister. We witness our common humanity and tremble.

In times of unpredictability, I find that St Benedict’s Rule offers wisdom. Wicked zeal, Benedict writes, is based on bitterness that separates a person from life and people. Good zeal promotes both life and love. Good zeal is built on respect and great patience with our own and another’s weaknesses of body and behavior. A key phrase of Benedict’s Rule seems somewhat odd in today’s world of self-promotion. Benedict writes, “No one is to pursue what one judges better for oneself, but instead, what one judges better for someone else.” Benedict simply teaches that the meaning of love is to be considerate for the good of others.

In Christchurch we witnessed and heard about the good zeal of selfless heroism of Muslims losing their lives while attempting to protect others, especially women and children. We were left speechless and humbled.

It brings us back to the question – why did a man act out of such wicked zeal? What stirred such hatred in his mind and heart? What was behind his murderous intent? As a community of shared humanity we need to seek answers.

Jacinda’s way of offering that simple feminine, loving embrace to the grieving woman reveals the truth that, “We do not enter the kingdom of God by becoming more knowledgeable, more influential, more powerful; but by becoming more humble, more gentle, more loving. The Kingdom of God is the communion of hearts.”The world becomes a safer place, makes you feel more yourself, opens you up, affirms you. Perhaps a seed of hope emerges from the gloom.

St Benedict’s way can guide us too when he writes of good zeal as the meaning of love, entering into Christ’s way, simply being considerate of the good of others; to allow Christ to work within us and allow Christ to lead us altogether along the way.

Let us remember and take to heart Jacinda’s wise words; “They (Muslim migrants) have chosen New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us. The person who perpetrated violence this against us is not us. They have no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence.” Her words proved true. The perpetrator of terror and death is Australian.

Jacinda Ardern and the Muslim woman allowed themselves to be drawn into an unpredictable moment. We wonder how they could enact the “unsayable” when emotion was so raw? We learn to be more human when witnessing what good people do. From our televisions we saw it and tears flowed.

Maybe now, we should gaze in our own hearts and see what is growing there. And then there comes a time to leave “the burning bush” behind and “to go and do likewise”.


[1] Archbishop Rowan Williams, Reflects on Holiness with Young Adults in Christchurch, N.Z, 4/11/2012.

[2] Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger, p. 85

Pam Grey

Melbourne-based Good Samaritan Sister Pam Grey is a writer and poet. She also volunteers as a home tutor for newcomers to Australia who need language and resettlement support.

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