August 2011

Holy and unholy thoughts in a hot climate

How do I have holy thoughts when all I can think of is how uncomfortable I am and where I might find a refreshing breeze, asks Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

“I haven’t had a holy thought since!” These words kept coming back to me during my last visit to Kiribati – words that had originally been uttered in frustration and anguish by a friend who broke her foot while on retreat in the moderate climes of Melbourne.

Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) is made up of a series of coral atolls which straddle the equator and the international date line. More than hot, it is humid – humid with a vengeance. How do I have holy thoughts when all I can think of is how uncomfortable I am and where I might find a refreshing breeze?

I’m wary of dualistic thinking that places a false dichotomy between the sacred and the profane and I ponder on what makes a thought ‘holy’. Surely it is more than assenting to certain beliefs and dogmas. Because of the Incarnation – God taking on the weak and limited ‘stuff’ of our humanity – all that is genuinely human is holy. Hasn’t the coming of Jesus, the Christ, revealed to us that the holy and the Holy One are woven intimately into the fabric of our lives?

Our convent at Temaiku is near the ocean. Actually, on these atolls, you are never more than 300 metres away from the lagoon or the ocean. I go outside with my bible to pray and hope I might catch a sea breeze. Always in Kiribati – and this is my ninth visit – I renew my companionship with the ancient prophet Elijah who finds God in the gentle breeze.

I sit in the shade facing the ocean and endeavour to pray, but prayer is as elusive as any holy thought. The breeze is both gentle and refreshing and I am grateful. Surely my gratitude, my deep gratitude, is holy.

Instead of reflecting on the words of the Scriptures my mind wanders, taking in the sights and sounds around me. I am intrigued by the coconut palms. Apparently the prevailing winds cause the trunks of young coconut trees to curve. But why do so many actually lean into the wind?

According to scientists, by bending into the breeze, coconut trees adopt a fascinating strategy for avoiding critical stress. It’s called “controlled flexibility”. Australian theologian Maryanne Confoy RSC describes faith in a similar way. She says that faith – more a verb than a noun – is the way we lean into life.

These Kiribati palms are a beautiful living icon for faith as they lean both into the soft breezes and the torrential storms which regularly enough sweep across these islands. When I feel buffeted by life they invite me to be less rigid, more giving, more flexible.

My eyes now wander to the horizon beyond the breaking waves of the Pacific Ocean. The incredibly deep water around the atolls has been described as an abyss. This deep water, it is said, will protect Kiribati from a tsunami.

Thank God! With a mere height of three metres above sea level, Kiribati would be utterly devastated by even the smallest tsunami. Our sisters joke that the highest points in Kiribati are the speed bumps!

A swift tsunami may not devastate Kiribati but slowly rising sea levels will. Kiribati and its people are vulnerable in the extreme to climate change. God help them and us to work for climate action and climate justice.

Back to the abyss. An image recurs often in my prayer. I see a figure – perhaps it is myself – curved in a foetal position, spinning slowly and falling deeper and deeper into an abyss. For me, the abyss is a metaphor for the mystery of God within me and within our achingly beautiful cosmos. US theologian Sallie McFague describes the world, the cosmos, as “the womb of God”. A mantra emerges: “O God, may I fall ever more deeply into the abyss of your love”.

Four days later, I am in the Sacred Heart Cathedral for Mass, and once again, I feel anything but ‘holy’. My back is aching, the seats (and I’m lucky to have one) are hard, and already the bishop is 25 minutes late. I know from past experience that I’m in for a long homily, made longer by the fact that I cannot understand one word.

The congregation gathers. Perhaps the oldest man I’ve seen in Kiribati, wearing dark glasses, shuffles in feeling his way with a walking stick. He sits two rows in front of me. I am drawn by his soft and kind leathery face, wizened by decades of wind and sun.

I wonder what stories he has to tell. The opening words of Gaudium et Spes come to mind and I wonder about “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of this gentle-faced man.

At last the singing begins heralding the beginning of Mass. This singing is ‘foreign’ in tone as well as in word. It is in many parts and as strong and energetic as anything I’ve ever heard. It is wonderful.

There is an entrance dance rather than an entrance procession. Why process when you can dance? The I-Kiribati are known for their beautiful dancing which is at once strong and subtle, powerful and graceful, precise and dynamic. Bishop Paul Mea, today’s celebrant, has said that dance is the highest point of expression for his people. The dance gives emotional release and is a means of expressing feelings about life and relationship between people and also the relationship with the invisible world of the spirit.

When the bishop begins his homily I check my watch and hope that it is less than 20 minutes. After ten minutes, some children – and the child within me – begin to get restless. I lean over to make some comment to my companion who is visiting Kiribati for the first time. The heat has got the better of her and she is asleep. I’m reminded of St Therese of Lisieux who consolingly assures me that God loves us best when we are asleep!

We come to the sign of peace and I have an urge to reach over to connect with, to touch the hand of the old man two rows in front. We shake hands and I am warmed by his smile. I know from quantum physics that everything in the universe is connected. In her book, Fields of Compassion, Judy Cannato says that the principle of non-locality or quantum entanglement proposes that once two particles have connected, they remain that way no matter what the spatial distance. I’m very unlikely to meet this man again, but we will stay connected. I am deeply glad.

Distraction seems to be the stuff of my prayer. As we go up to communion I am distracted by the sight of two young men kneeling on their thongs instead of the hard concrete and am impressed by their inventiveness.

There is another dance after communion, this time in praise of Mary. Performed by young girls and older women all dressed in white, the dance is different with much less hip movement. Why is this so? I think – and I don’t think it’s an unholy thought – that Mary would appreciate both this lovely discrete dance and also the I-Kiribati dances of a more vigorous kind. The Eucharist, which means ‘thanksgiving’, concludes and I am indeed thankful.

Four days later on my return flight I smile as I recall earlier visits when, upon arriving back in Australia, I wanted to emulate the Pope and kiss the ground in thanksgiving for my land with all its familiarity and comfort.

Not so now. I will stay connected to the vulnerable nation of Kiribati and to its people by letting go of comparisons between the land of my birth and these Pacific Islands, by endeavouring to be present, to experience and not to judge.

Despite my many ‘unholy thoughts’, or perhaps because of them, my heart has become a little more open to the flow of divine love. I have found the Holy One, or rather, the Holy One has found me in Kiribati, revealing to me that life there, as in the land ‘down under’, is filled with possibilities, holy mystery and grace.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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