December 2013

My year of leaning

To be human is to lean on, to allow ourselves to be leaned upon, and to lean towards the other, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

There are all kinds of years. There’s the year of living dangerously and the annus horribilis. 2013 was the Year of Grace and the Year of the Snake. For me it’s been the year of leaning.

Earlier this year I was intrigued by the title and the phenomenal publishing success of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, which was on the New York Times best-seller list for a remarkable 36 weeks. Sandberg and her book were ubiquitous. There she was on the cover of Time magazine; I tuned in to Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra show on Radio National and heard a panel discussing Lean In; and along with hundreds of thousands of others, I viewed Sandberg’s TEDTalk on YouTube.

Her message is fairly straightforward. The world will be a better place when, and only when, women lean into positions of leadership and go against their gender-wide tendency to underestimate their abilities. Sandberg’s leaning is about ambition, confidence and partnership. “A truly equal world,” she writes, “would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”

These ideas are not altogether new, so I was left wondering if Sandberg’s impact could in part be explained by the novel use of the image of leaning.

While still pondering this, I came across two fine Christian writers who were also ‘into’ leaning. Far from the corporate world in which Sheryl Sandberg leans in, Beatrice Bruteau and John Philip Newell lean back.

In Radical Optimism, Bruteau, a Christian philosopher, proposes leaning back as an image to describe our relationship with God. She paints a word picture from John’s Gospel of the beloved disciple who “reclined on the breast of Jesus” at the Last Supper:

“I want to suppose St John positioned with his back to Jesus. Jesus is behind John, not face to face with him. Therefore, when John wished to move closer to Jesus, for instance to ask him a question, he just leaned back toward him.”

John Philip Newell, contemporary poet and Anglican priest, picks up the image.

“One of the most precious teachings in the Celtic Christian world is the memory of John the Beloved leaning after Jesus at the last Supper. It was said of him that he therefore heard the heartbeat of God… To listen for the heartbeat of God is to listen both within the vastness of the universe and within the intimacy of our own hearts.”

Where Sandberg’s ideas stir my social conscience, Bruteau’s and Newell’s image of leaning back toward Jesus and listening for the heartbeat of God capture my imagination and heart.

This metaphor of leaning back came to mind as I travelled on a suburban train recently. Instead of reading, I was content to simply sit and enjoy the ride. Most seats were taken and there were a number of people in the foyer area of the carriage, including a man in a wheelchair. I felt myself lean back, literally and metaphorically, as I wondered how Jesus would view this man.

My circle of concern soon expanded to include other passengers – the man in the smart business suit, the teen in the black hoodie, the private school students engrossed with their iPhones. Again, how would Jesus regard them?

My wondering led to a visceral experience. I did not know these people; they were anonymous commuters on a city-bound train, but I felt myself beholding each one with compassion, acceptance and deep appreciation for their uniqueness, beholding them with God’s heart. I beheld them with love. It was as though Jesus and I were one as we together viewed these strangers.

I reached my station, alighted and went about my business, but with a heart gentled by my leaning and wondering.

Leaning has become part of my spiritual practice in that I now begin my time of prayer imagining myself leaning back toward Jesus. I feel myself ever so slightly physically move. I then try to be still (and straight), moving my awareness within, hoping to encounter and be encountered, hoping to be one with the One in whom I “live, move and have my being” (Acts 17:28), hoping to hear the heartbeat of God.

When you think about it, lovers lean into each other; they are not rigid. Love leans and persons lean. The Greek word for person – prosopon – literally means “turned toward the other”. I don’t become fully human as an isolated individual. To be human is to lean on, to allow ourselves to be leaned upon, and to lean towards the other.

Trees teach us this. Trees build up strength by moving with and into the wind. By leaning and bending trees become strong. Rigidity is weakness.

Likewise, to become strong in our relationships we, too, lean and bend. We become fully human in the give and take of life when we move beyond any self-absorbed “it’s-all-about-me” state to do our bit to create and sustain communities of care with all the imperfect people – and that’s everyone – who are part of our world.

And God leans. Rublev in his classic icon of the Trinity captures this. The three figures lean into each other symbolising that intimacy, relationship and a love that is self-giving, self-emptying and graciously receptive, is of the essence of God.

There have been other leaning experiences throughout 2013.

I went on retreat in September and there in my room – serendipity at play – was an icon of the beloved disciple at the Last Supper. The lettering was in French: Je te fiarcerai a moi dans la tendresse. I will draw you to myself with tenderness. The words are from the prophet Hosea and reminiscent of Rumi, that wonderful thirteenth century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, who says, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”

Teilhard de Chardin concurs. Teilhard often wrote about God’s attractive influence. God is “up ahead” as the ultimate force of attraction of the universe, alluring us, drawing us forward into an unknown but graced future.

During the year I listened to an interview with English theologian and Catholic priest, James Alison, who spoke of faith in a most refreshing way. Faith, Alison said, is “relaxing into the embrace of the One who likes us.”

Alison’s definition bears pondering. Think how delightful and freeing it can be to be in the presence of someone whom you know likes you. When I’m in this situation I feel myself physically and emotionally relax. I lean back in the chair, so to speak, content to be myself, secure and confident in the knowledge that I am known and accepted for who I am.

This seemingly unorthodox description of faith is utterly orthodox. Alison says that God takes the initiative and that faith is always God’s gift. God’s grace enables me to relax and lean back in surrender into God’s embrace. Within that embrace I hear God speak a unique word of love to me and to all creation. God loves us, yes, and God also likes us, is fond of us, is attracted to us and leans toward us.

Isn’t this what creation and incarnation are all about? Isn’t this what we celebrate at Christmas? By the power of the Spirit who, in Gerard Many Hopkins’ beautiful words, “… over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings,” God leans over creation and humanity, not because of sin, but because of love.

With overwhelming proof of how much God loves us and likes us, God gives Godself away in becoming human. God is both the giver and the gift. God is selfless love poured out in Jesus, the Beloved Son. At Christmas we celebrate the Son of God’s humanity and also our own. We are the human place God has chosen for God’s leaning.

Look at the figures in the Christmas crib. Notice how all of them, animals included, are leaning in towards the child in the manger. Each of them is an icon of God leaning into us, all of us without exception.

During this anything but “silly” season, may we lean on each other and allow ourselves to be leaned upon. May we lean back and accept God’s embrace and constant flow of love in Jesus. May we accept this embrace with deep peace and joy at Christmas and throughout the coming year – every coming year.

Merry Christmas and a Happy Leaning New Year.

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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