29 Sep 2010

From Knockpatrick to Kiyinda - Part 3 - Suffering

“The choice is between the mystery and the absurd. To embrace the mystery is to discover the real.” (Basil Hume, The Mystery of the Cross)
“The joys and the hopes, the grief’s and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the grief’s and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” (Gaudiem et spes,).

The sounds of daily life in Kiyinda begin each morning around 5.30am with the Muslim call to pray ringing out from the minarets of the local mosques (provided that there is power),

Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah.
Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah.
Ash-hadu anna Muhammad-ar-Rasoolullah.
Ash-hadu anna Muhammad-ar-Rasoolullah.
Hayya 'alas-Salah. Hayya 'alas-Salah.
Hayya 'alal-falah. Hayya 'alal-falah.
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
La ilaha ill-Allah.

And almost like a plug has been removed or someone has un-muted the mute button, everything seems to burst into life, because almost as soon as the prayer has finished you start hearing life beginning to stir in Mityana.

Voices of excited children going for water, the clang of the school tyre (bell!) waking up the sleepy heads in the boarding sections, their shouts and laughter ringing through the duskiness of the Ugandan dawn, the horns of the first Kampala-Fort Portal express buses of the day blare out warning people to get off the road or else, the bleats of the goats waiting to be released from their pens and the squeals of pigs waiting to be fed join in the cacophony set off by our troop of cockerels who seem to take delight in announcing the arrival of a new day outside my bedroom window.

Into that orchestra of life steps the bird calls of the various inhabitants of the trees overshadowing my house, some of them as sweet and gentle upon the ear, others that only their Creator could love as they call seems to go through you no matter the time of the day.
If I am feeling particularly lazy and the snooze button has been used readily on the alarm I always know I am in trouble if I am still in bed when the Carmelite bell goes for Morning Prayer around 6.30am. Its single sonorous clang rings out down the hill to my house almost like a counter tenor to the cry from the mosque, announcing to the world that the good sisters have once more begun their daily labours too and that Christians can get up just as early as Muslims! Upon hearing the bell I know, depending who is on Mass duty this week from the administration, that I have about 20 minutes to get up, wash and out the door if I want to be on time for Mass as it means I am already late for morning prayers! Then at 7am just as Mass starts at the Carmelites, the carillon of bells at the cathedral clang out and if everyone has been keeping to time, it usually happens just as the priest venerates the alter at the start of Mass and the sisters finishing singing the opening hymn!

Such a daily rhythm helps eases a body into the day and prepares you for the challenges ahead. It has always taken me a while to get into my stride for the day and I have always been a person of habit and routine to speed up that process!

But sometimes that daily routine can shock you out of yourself and cause to stop and think. It is difficult sometimes to go out into the villages and visit and not come back and be angry or dejected by the sheer magnitude of the poverty that people face and the fact the what we do is just a drop in the ocean.

The Dominican writer Timothy Radcliffe has made the observation that poverty and being poor is so different from one society to another, depending on the nature of family ties, the type of economy and the social supports available. He has observed that poverty is not just an economic condition, the lack of food and clothing and employment. For many what it means is a terrible life of just surviving from day to day, meal to meal; where every day is almost a violent struggle to exist, where there appears to be no hope for people and they have given up trying to overcome the boredom, the insecurity and the dependence.

The scandal of poverty is that it rips apart what Christ has made one. It tears apart the human family. It alienates us from our sisters and brothers. Lazarus at the door of the rich man’s house is not merely excluded from sharing his food but from sitting at his table. And in times of economic woe and distress, the rift between those who have and those who have not is progressively getting wider. When you work in development, you are trying to bridge that rift. But where people, families and communities have nothing or less than nothing, how can you talk and plan for sustainable development from a base of zero? It is one of the biggest challenges we face.

One thing which Africa brings you face to face with is human suffering in all its starkness. While at home things may be hidden behind the facade of family privacy and the walls of homes or you can ignore the beggar sitting at your feet while you try to access the ATM, here poverty and suffering is evident everywhere you look. I think at Kiyinda its impact may be slightly lessened by virtue of the fact it is a rural area in contrast to the squalor and misery of Kampala’s slums where the poverty is so evident but it is there at the same time.

“If you were to imagine proportionally for a moment and picture a “Global Village” into which you could fit the entire population of the world consisting of 100 people. This 100 people would represent all the peoples on the different continents. Proportionally that village would consist of: 57 Asians, 21 Europeans; 14 Americans (North, Central and South) and 8 Africans. Out of that one hundred, 6 people would possess 59% of the wealth and they would come from the USA. 80 would live in poverty; 70 would be illiterate, 50 would suffer from hunger and malnutrition and one would have a university degree. If you had a full fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are wealthier than 75% of the world’s population” .

Poverty, and especially extreme poverty, provides the context for the exacerbation of many natural and unnatural disasters which afflict humanity. J. Sachs, in his book The End of Poverty (2005), writes: “every morning our newspapers could report, ‘More than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty.’’’ He goes on to add that “They die namelessly, without public comment.” However, there was no need for them to die, for as Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Jesuit Superior General, remarked shortly before his death, “Humankind can abolish world poverty, but it does not want to do it.”

The causes of poverty, which exacts a huge toll on human lives, are many. As J. Zeigler explains “more than two thousand million human beings live in what the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) refers to as ‘absolute misery,’ that is to say that they do not have a fixed income, regular work, nor a proper place to live; they do not have access to medical attention, sufficient food, water or education”.

For those same reasons, malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, respiratory infections, which are all treatable illnesses, become ‘killers’ among the impoverished of our world. As N. K. Poku points out “any disease in the developing world must be placed in the context of poverty, however transmitted.”

Poverty and hunger are close allies. Zeigler adds even more chilling statistics: “100,000 persons die from hunger, or its consequences, daily. A child less than ten years dies every seven seconds, and every four minutes another goes blind from lack of Vitamin A.” In the light of these figures, he reaches a damning conclusion: “the world order is not only an assassin, but an absurd one at that, as it kills without necessity. Today there is no such thing as fatalities. A child who dies of hunger today, dies assassinated.”

On June 19, 2009, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published new estimates on the world food situation that showed over one billion persons going hungry every day: “The most recent increase in hunger is not the consequence of poor global harvests but is caused by the world economic crisis that has resulted in lower incomes and increased unemployment. This has reduced access to food by the poor.” This is occurring despite the enormous wealth that has been generated by the globalization of production and the markets.
Here you don’t have to imagine, the poverty is so pervasive everywhere you turn. Homes are often one roomed mud huts maybe with a tin roof, toilet facilities may not exist in many homes or are extremely basic if present. Daily, the women and children spend hours and walk many kilometres to find water and then have to trudge back with jerry-cans of water precariously balanced on their heads although sometimes you wonder how a twelve year old girl is actually balancing a 20 litre jerry-can on her head when that jerry-can is almost half the size of her body. I know I have tried to lift the jerry-can and struggled with it, yet this is a daily task of hundreds of children and women.

Poverty, illness especially HIV/AIDS and illiteracy are pervasive and often the main contributors to a vicious cycle which it seems is almost impossible to break. But what sometimes catches you out is the hopelessness of the situation. The people that I have lived amongst have been those with some of the greatest sorrows, suffering their own crucifixions on the cross of AIDS, but at the same time they are people of such joy and happiness. But sometimes a situation arises which just reduces you to tears and emotionally shreds you up.

One particular incident which comes to mind from my very first few weeks in Uganda was a visit we made to a women’s group and I sat and listened to a discussion between Prossy – our Gender programme manager - and one of the beneficiaries. She was 30 with 4 children, recently confirmed with a diagnosis of being HIV positive and widowed. She told us her story; her deceasd husband’s infidelity, her contraction of HIV from him and the transmission of HIV to her last born child because she didn’t know of her husband’s or her own status until after his death and the uncertainty which was crippling her following her own diagnosis. She was without hope, without any joy as she contemplated the future, not so much for herself but rather for her children. What would happen to them when she died? Where would they go? In a land teeming with orphans, with families stretched to look after their own six or seven children, who would take care of her children, feed them, pay their school fees and watch them become adults with families of their own. As she spoke she wept silently, the tears running down her face, testimony to her pain and despair which we could not do a whole to alleviate except to advise her to contact a local ART programme and see if they could get her on medication as well as ensure she was on the our income generating programme as a member of the group to try, however small, to give some income support to the family. She wasn’t ashamed of her sorrows or tears, she didn’t try to hide behind a mask but just set out her situation; an all too common one in Africa. Only recently I came across a quote which brought her back to my mind in a vivid way. She had no need to be ashamed of her tears because her “tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer ”. I came home from that field visit and wept in my house as soon as I could get inside the door. The pain, suffering and resignation of that woman in the face of such tribulations just left you crying to heaven against the injustice of the world. It seriously posed the question as to what was the point of life when faced with such trials and where was God in the midst of it all..............

I haven’t found an answer to that question. Two years looking back over the experiences of KMD, there has been no flash of inspiration as to why suffering occurs or how to solve the problems you see. But for that woman, she struggled on with the sorrows afflicting her because “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” , and her why was her children. For me, the suffering has just been a reminder that in the midst of it all God is somehow present.

We cannot explain the existence of evil, natural disasters and suffering. If we had that kind of knowledge we would be God. But Basil Hume reminds us that “Our Lord has given us....a way of entering into the mystery [of suffering] to try to discover some meaning, and that is his own death on the cross. It is only by looking at the crucifix that we begin to discover some kind of solution. There, and there alone, is the solution, because behind the crucifix you seem the eyes of faith, the outline of the risen Christ. That is the point and that is why a crucifix is such a lovely thing” .

It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like [us], he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of [our] pain and its enduring effect upon [our] lives and [our] relationships....Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning (Pope Benedict - Pastoral Letter to Irish Church).

But clinging to hope in the midst of suffering because of the promise of the Resurrection is not easy until you remember that even Christ on the cross called out “‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me? These words express all the pain and anguish of a person who feels totally abandoned...If you have known utter desolation, so has Christ.”

Ron Rolheiser recently wrote on the question of suffering:
Where is God in all this? How does one find a faith perspective within which to understand this? Not easily. When we search scripture for answers, we find that neither the Jewish scriptures nor Jesus try to tackle the question philosophically, namely, in the type of way that Christian and Jewish apologetic writers have tried to answer it. Scripture and Jesus, instead, do two things: First, they place suffering and tragedy into a larger perspective within which God is understood more as redeeming suffering rather than as rescuing us from it. Second, they assure us that God is with us, a fellow-sufferer, in any tragedy. For example, anyone who follows the daily readings for the church's liturgy, cannot not have noticed, that on the very day after the earthquake, there was a haunting parallel between what happened in Haiti and what was described in that day's Epistle taken from the Book of Samuel. Here is an excerpt from the Epistle for the liturgy the day after the earthquake:
So the people went to Shiloh, and brought with them the arc of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the Ark of the Covenant. When the ark of the covenant of the Lord was brought into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the whole earth resounded. ... [And with that faith and confidence, Israel marched into battle, but] ... Israel was defeated, and everyone fled, each to his own house. There was a great slaughter and thirty thousand of her foot-soldiers fell. The arc of the covenant was captured; and the two sons of Eli died.
One doesn't have to strain the imagination to write a haunting parallel:
So the people Haiti practiced their Christian faith with piety and confidence. They went to their churches, received the Eucharist, and lit vigil candles to their God. And they trusted that their God would protect them. But there came a great earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of its people died, its great buildings were all leveled, all its churches were destroyed, its beloved cathedral fell to the ground, and the Archbishop was killed.
So where was God in all of this? The Book of Samuel doesn't try to write an apologetics to explain what happened that day when a people who had just celebrated its faith and confidence in God were utterly crushed in battle. It doesn't try to explain where God was when this happened. It simply continues to tell its story and, eventually, we see how God redeems a tragedy from which he didn't rescue its victims. It also makes clear that God was with the people of Israel, even as they were being routed. Jesus gives us essentially the same perspective: When his friend, Lazarus, lay dying, he didn't rush to his side to rescue him. He waited until Lazarus was dead and only then went to his home. He was met there by the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, who each asked him the painful question: Where were you when our brother was dying? Why didn't you come and cure him? Jesus, for his part, doesn't meet their question head-on. Instead he simply asks: "Where have you put him?" They answer: "Come, we'll show you!" They take him to the grave and when Jesus sees the tomb and drinks in their grief, he sits down and begins to cry. He enters and shares their grief. Only afterwards does he raise up the body of his dead friend. Where was God when the earthquake hit Haiti? He was weeping with its people, grieving outside its mass graves, sitting in sadness beside its collapsed buildings. He was there, though he provided no Hollywood or Superman-type rescue. Moreover we can be sure he will redeem what was lost. In God's time, eventually, not a single life or single dream that died in Haiti will remain unredeemed. In the end, all will be well and all will be well and every manner of being will be well.

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