After the Quake

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 56, Lent 2011

Cathy Harrison

Hospitality is the act of the recklessly generous heart, says Joan Chittister. In this context, here in Christchurch, we have been submitted to epic proportions of recklessness! But one cannot downplay the devastating consequences of the recent earthquakes, the resulting brokenness, the unbearable grief and sorrow which continue to hang heavy, a weeping cloud over our city.

Yet from the earliest moments of this natural disaster, recklessly generous hearts continue to beat to the needs of others. For hospitality is a gift and, when mutually experienced, both host and guest are called into a new creation, a new chapter of an ancient tradition. They are invited to live to their fullest potential.

From one standpoint, it is the abandonment of self, outreaching to the needs of others regardless of personal beliefs and feelings. From another, it means entrusting our lives and stories to the safe custody of others. Images we all remember speak of a spiritual connection, oneness of heart, the presence of God deeply embedded in human love.

For many who were at the lowest ebb of their lives, (for those who survived and those who perished) there were others close by, linked in spirit, separated only by rubble, enabling and ensuring the dignity of each person, the sacredness of life. These were all recklessly generous hearts. An enlarged global heart is pumping love amidst pain, grief, disorientation and uncertainty. It is as if the ‘aftershock’ has spontaneously ignited a strong surge of the love Jesus spoke about: ‘A new command I give you: love one another, as I have loved you’ (John 13:34-45).

This love is a compassionate love which has transformed many people so that instead of being passive and silent spectators on the earth’s surface they have become active participants in this time of crisis. In many diverse and creative ways they are responding to human and environmental needs more than anyone could anticipate, more than anyone could imagine. The love of neighbour has become paramount. While generosity is not new in our society, we are seeing and experiencing unprecedented love and kindness for the heart’s yearning and deepest desire is for love and peace. Marion, a friend from Chicago wrote in response to the earthquake, ‘the one advantage of adversity is that it awakens the desire to act neighbour to neighbour’.

Our neighbour, as the Gospel reminds us, may be in another city or country, visible or invisible, male or female, old or young, believing or non-believing. As people open their doors, homes, and resources the parameters of belonging expand because in the reign of God, radical hospitality is unconditional, it has no hierarchy.

While generosity is not new in our society, we are seeing and experiencing unprecedented love and kindness for the heart’s yearning and deepest desire is for love and peace.

It is incredible how all over the city people are gathering and sharing and unraveling their stories. Alone, or in communities people are also gathering and uniting in prayer. In silence and in stillness prayers are uttered, psalms are sung from under the southern sun by day and stars by night. United in faith and from the intimacy of our hearts we stand in the strength of our ancestors and God speaks, ‘When you call me, I will listen. When you look for me you will find me . . . When you seek me with all your heart you will find me with you.’ Jer 29:11-14.

When we are stripped of our resources we may ask ourselves ‘What do we have left?’ For some the answer may be humility. In this we aren’t alone. Through contemplation and prayer we often kneel or sit. We bow our heads and close our eyes. The reverence and simple act of prayer also symbolizes humility, abandoning for a short time our worldliness, our thoughts, our feelings and ego. To ignore the spiritual dimension of our lives would be foolish, says Michael Leunig, ‘so powerful is its effect on our lives, so joyous, so mysterious, so frightening.’

When the earth shook, so too did our hearts, orienting love-filled prayers, thoughts and actions towards the well-being of others. Private and public realms merged. Ordinarily, the stranger is encountered in the public realm, says Lucien Richard. ‘Hospitality has to do with the private realm. In the public realm our lives are intertwined with those of strangers. The private realm is characterized by mutuality, reciprocity and intimacy.’ How beautiful it is when hospitality functions as an intersection between the private and public realms. These liminal times of chaos, uncertainty and collapsing structures are also times of revelation, sacrament and the Word of God.

This ‘compassionate love’ response to recent events, therefore, is a deep expression of relationship which remains central to radical hospitality and therefore essential to the dignity of each person. What will radical hospitality look like when post traumatic stress becomes more evident? How will families and our community cope with increased depression, violence and continued fear? When the spotlight is removed from some areas of need and many people are left to manage shrinking resources, when hope boundaries diminish for many people and wellness is compromised, what will our radical hospitality look like?

This ‘compassionate love’ response to recent events, therefore, is a deep expression of relationship which remains central to radical hospitality and therefore essential to the dignity of each person.

Trauma psychologist Robert Grant has said, ‘I believe our injuries, our losses and our wounds – if they are held properly and supported by others – can take us beyond where we were before.’

So how do we ‘hold and support the injuries, losses and wounds’ of others as the realities of homelessness, dislocation, redundancy and other complexities become apparent? How can we continue to support unconditionally those who are most vulnerable? How do we get to ‘beyond where we were before’?

Profound and prophetic, Robert Grant’s words can be heard as an invitation to journey towards new depths of spiritual meaning which emerge from the substance, the raw material of our fragile lives, especially right now. Hidden in these words is Christ incarnate made visible in the rich tapestry of human suffering, vulnerability and powerlessness as well as personal and collective transformation.

Uninhibited, unmediated cries proclaiming desperate need and truth will surely not go unheard, making way for God’s Divine presence, God’s transforming, healing grace. For radical hospitality is above all else relational, it is humanising; it reminds us that we aren’t alone, and ensures that the burdens of life may be carried more comfortably with the help of others, rendering the world more hospitable.

In his poem, Tired of Speaking Sweetly, Hafiz writes ‘Love wants to reach out and manhandle us, Break all our teacup talk of God . . . Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly and wants to rip to shreds all your erroneous notions of truth that make you want to fight with yourself, dear one, and others, causing the world to weep on too many fine days.’

We need to find those fine days. We need to discover a spiritual meaning as it evolves from the reality of our own lives, our own circumstances, our own world, where instead of fear or the concepts of others, glimmers of hope, light and mystery shine out of the cracks.

Cathy Harrison is a friend of the Christchurch CW, an educator with long experience of working with the marginalized.

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