“All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”(Blaise Pascall)
‘Stay home’ is the message we get with increasing urgency. A message that is echoed and reiterated by politicians and doctors alike.
‘Stay home; just stay home.’
Staying home is one way of avoiding the crisis. And it seems as if a good proportion of society finds that quite difficult. Perhaps the reason behind this is to avoid the deeper crisis: not the crisis of staying home, but the crisis of turning inward.
In a world where we have had to cease travelling, where our longest journey might be to the local shops, it is worth remembering the advice from Dag Hammarskjöld: The longest journey is the journey inward.
Turning inward is not fleeing into an imaginary world; it is exactly the opposite. It is the long, arduous journey of facing reality; the reality of my world, the reality of our world; seen from inside out.
One of the first things we seem to struggle with in staying home is boredom. You can read the newspapers and read online blogs and that seems to be the great challenge that parents face: how to avoid their children from becoming bored.
The fear of turning inward
On one level boredom is already the symptom of a society unable to turn inward. And I often wonder if the fear of parents of their children’s boredom is not perhaps a reflection of their own fears. The fear of turning inward.
On another level boredom is the sign of having taken the first step of turning inward. One of the interesting things that happen if you allow children to become bored, is you give them the opportunity to play, to discover, to be inventive, to dream. Keeping them occupied, busy all the time, is robbing them of the first step of turning inward, namely to become bored.
What is interesting that is we see exactly the same tendency in the church and among believers: the obsession with busyness and the reluctance to turn inward. One of the things that has suddenly proliferated in the church, is a whole raft of online meetings, of online aids, of new ways of being church, of new ways of connecting with people. Many of these initiatives may indeed be of great help to many people.
But the deeper question is: Do we do that to create community or is to avoid turning inward?
An important question we hear raised both in society, by journalists and commentators, but also in the church, is the question how this corona crisis will change the world in which we live.
The black plague towards the end of the Middle Ages killed between 50 million and 200 million people in Eurasia. The estimate is that in some countries up to sixty percent of the population perished. It is said that it fundamentally restructured and changed society.
Confronting us with ourselves
The economic aftermath of the corona crisis will reverberate through our world for years to come. What the spiritual aftermath will be, is still anyone’s guess. It might confront us with our preoccupation with things, with prosperity or it might even reveal to us what a fantasy world we’ve been living in. But whether it will confront us with ourselves, is the real question. Not only as individuals but also as a society and a church.
The journey inwards is not a flight into faith; an escape into a world of inner peace or spirituality. The journey inward is the long journey of seeing the plight of the world reflected in the mirror of my soul. And it is in seeing the plight and the pain of the world as it is, as it really is, that we see the pathos of God, where it is really shown: on an isolated hill in the grief of a small group gathering around a dying man on a cross.
Then it becomes clear what the real purpose of turning inwards is, not to self-isolate from the pain of the world, but to reach out with compassion, by whichever means, to those who desperately need our care.
Etty Hillesum was a compatriot and contemporary of Anne Frank, a Dutch Jew who lived in Amsterdam and died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29. Most of her diary notes and letters were written from Westerbork, a detention and transit camp, from where mainly Jews were sent to the extermination camps in Poland.
There are two things that make Etty Hillesum’s writings remarkable. First, her passion for and her ability to turn inward and self-scrutinize and second, the compassion for others that this created.
The interruption of wonder and gratefulness
The translated title of one of her books is “An interrupted life”. The ‘interruption’ doesn’t refer so much to the fact that her life was cut short at age 29, but it refers to those moments of quietness that interrupted her day. The interruption of wonder, of gratefulness, of care in a world gone mad.
It was in the crucible of the camp, in the isolation that she also saw the opportunity that life offered of seeing herself. “Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others…I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we first change ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned.”
Her last postcard she sent was to a friend in Amsterdam, a postcard that she wrote hurriedly in the train and threw out of the window as they were leaving Amsterdam for Auschwitz.
It reads like this:
Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower’. I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother and Mischa [Etty’s brother] are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning. On sudden special orders from The Hague. We left the camp singing…
This reflection was prepared by Rev Dr Ockert Meyer, the Lecturer in Preaching, Worship and Theology at United Theological College
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