I’m leading a workshop tomorrow for the metropolitan prison chaplains – an inter-faith group, consisting of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian chaplains from the prisons / remand centres across the broad metropolitan area.
We’re going to talk about the easter stuff we did at the DPFC, and about the connection between art and spirituality – and in particular, the use of art and imagination to take us into transformative spaces.
We’re also going to look at the effect of doing that – what creating spaces that invite people into doubt, faith, hope and fear leads to.
[This is stream of consciousness, so it’s not edited or wrapped up nicely at the end! It’s also very, very long.]
The ‘When hope goes to hell’ space on Saturday was really interesting… The idea that God went to hell is most clearly stated in the Apostles Creed [especially its traditional versions], and it was a belief inherited from very early traditions, and from some interpretation of biblical passages. Psalm 139 gives a poetic version of the same concept. I guess the responses of the women was a microcosm of the community / church: some of the women got the idea instantly, and were right there with it. Some were horrified that we could say such a thing – that we could dare to mention the words God and hell in the same sentence, let alone put them in the same place. One woman was outright angry with me… then she came in the next day with her prayer book open to the Apostles Creed. ‘You were right’, she said. ‘Maybe’, I thought.
The women wrote prayers onto black card at the easter saturday vigil. The funny thing about the prayers was that we had the women writing with black on black so that no-one else would be able to read them. But they wanted them to be read… as I’d move around the room, they’d squint into the black card to find the outlines of their words and read out their prayer to me; by the end they were reading them out to each other. We sort of got this group prayer thing happening entirely by accident.
I feel my journey at times has meant nothing to anybody. That nobody hears my cries of anguish. That I am alone in this dreaded place called hell on earth. If God is in hell with me then he understands. Amen.
The Saturday afternoon was perhaps the most intensely theologically demanding that i can remember. Some of the women lost themselves in the art / meditations… for others there was too much prior stuff that needed to be sorted out before they could trust the process – too many questions that arose. Normally we have the luxury of talking about faith theoretically, and our questions have a buffer zone around them. They’re not life-threatening. But here, choices were being made about relationships, lifestyles and pleas in courtcases based on the conversations we were having. And none of these are simple moral choices – they are infinitely more nuanced and complex than that. I have to say, I don’t think I have the faith to do this. I think what we did only worked because it was framed in doubt – i can’t, with any honesty, write anything but out of doubt / disbelief – but it’s when people assume that there’s faith on the other side of it that I get overwhelmed with the responsibility.
Anyway, there were a lot of questions that came up – some of them asked into thin air, some of them that turned into conversations. We’re going to use them at tomorrow’s workshop – to discuss how we reframe the expression of our beliefs so that they actually contribute to a conversation about the questions that are asked; so that we create a shared conversation about faith rather than a forum with a religious expert offering the answers. For example, if we don’t believe in a physical manifestation of hell after death, how do we respond to the question ‘what actually happens in hell?’ in a way that provokes thought and interaction, rather than shutting down conversation. The real skill is in being comfortable enough with our own world view to be able to refocus a question…
These were the questions that arose on the Saturday. They weren’t just asking me, they were asking each other:
‘Who do you think is in hell?’
‘What did God do in hell?’
‘If we all go to heaven, will I need to be with the people who hate me after I die?’
‘If I can’t believe, will I go to hell?’
[learning number 1: belief in heaven and hell is entirely independent to belief in god… and the idea that there might not be a hell or heaven is inconceivable. there’s no prior question in this…
learning number 2: prison gives you too much time to ponder the existential questions of life
learning number 3: invoking the fear of hell is an evil motivator for faith]
‘what if it’s not true?’
[indeed. the great unanswerable question]
‘When i died, i just saw a white light. I reckon that means I’m going to heaven.’
[quite a few of the women have had NDE’s]
‘how do i know who i should trust to tell me what to believe?’
I think we imagined that the vigil would be the meditative part of the weekend – and it was in Protection where we controlled the space and time much more – but the transformative moment actually happened on the Sunday morning. This links back to the use of art and imagination. I think it was only possible because of the Saturday – that gave it an authenticity, perhaps, that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
On the Sunday, we started with Libera’s ‘Jubilate’, which is astonishingly beautiful, tear inducing… and it was like we all found ourselves in Rumi’s field beyond knowing… there was a moment where the questions were irrelevant, where belief itself didn’t matter. We just knew there was beauty somewhere; there was no desire to analyse or interpret it, we just wanted to lose ourselves in it… and after the service was over, when we were having a cup of tea, the women kept going back to the cd player to re-play that song…