A while ago I was in Bradford. I was there as an external examiner at Bradford College for the youth work programme run by the University of Leeds.
As I live in London, I got up to Bradford the afternoon before my day at the College. There was little for me to do by the evening, so I thought I’d go for a walk, to remind myself what the place was like.
I had been out for about 20 minutes when I saw a fire engine dealing with a burning car. As people do, I stood and watched the action. Suddenly a hail of broken bricks and bit’s of concrete came raining down on the fire officers. I looked at where the shower had come from and saw about 20 young men, I suppose aged between 12 and 15 picking up whatever they could find to bombard the fire officers and their engine.
The engine’s crew tried to protect themselves by turning their hoses on the gang of lads, but as one of the men fell to the floor injured by what looked like a flying road sign, the fire officers retreated to the engine and fled the scene. The boys continued their assault. I saw the windscreen smash and one of the side mirrors shattered.
The fire blazed on.
O you are enveloped in your cloak!
Arise and warn!
Your Lord magnify,
Your raiment purify,
I read these words, not for the first time, on my first visit to Venice, whilst wandering around the Islands in the lagoon. Then, as now, I felt the verse is about the protection offered by the practice of a disciplined faith. But paradoxically, it is not a controlling imposition that is usually associated with the notion of ‘discipline’. It extols us to call on something that is within us; a human capability to discern; reject that which will hurt us and embrace ‘magnify’ the huge spiritual force that how humanity both encompasses and is encompassed by.
The longest stay I had on any one of the islands was my visit to Torcello – I think it was the idea that it went back so far in the history of colonial Venice that attracted me (5th or 6th century I think). It has only a few dozen people living on it now and it is hard to see where the 20,000 or so population stayed when it was thriving.
The Byzantine cathedral, Santa Fosca is quite astounding. The basilica is over 1,000 years old – anything with that lineage is worth touching/smelling. The marble pulpit has bits that go back to the 7th century church.
I climbed to the top of the tower and looked out over the lagoon – it was quite a dizzying day and with a little imagination it could have been anytime. I roamed around the church and the central dome and the Museo dell Estuario for hours till the late afternoon then wandered along the canal that runs from the vaporetto stop to the basilica and back – there’s a couple of little cafes along the way. As dusk began to fall I got myself something to eat and sat outside a small restaurant. I had spoken to no one all day and that seemed kind of natural. I went back to Santa Fosca and on the edge of a field, just past the tower, I laid down on my day sack and stared at the sky that seemed full of stars and listened to the night. I guess I must have fallen asleep at about 2am and had a pleasantly incoherent dream about the greatness of time and creation that was full of a feeling of being lost in wonder, that was, strangely, orientating.. I awoke as the light broke over the lagoon. It was quite cold but the colours of the island, the sky and the lagoon were fascinating. I wondered if I had ever felt so free or if I ever would again. I walked to the mud shore and looked out towards Venice, sat down and slowly ate a chocolate bar and drank the water I had brought with me, that had pleasantly cooled overnight. I then strolled back to the vaporetto stop and took a slow boat back to St Marks.
Later I made my way to San lazzaro. I liked the idea of Byron going there. One of the monks told me that his great-grand father had met the good Lord – I also loved the idea of a press producing works in 36 languages 200 years ago…words tumbling loosely into the world – little droplets of light.
I remember being alone in a police cell…they had turned the lights out…I could hear nothing but the beating of my own heart…I tried to recall when I had been more frightened…I knew they were going to come for me, that I was about to take a mighty beating…the loneliness of that moment can still be felt…how can you tell anyone about it? About how it is to be cut off from the world…the whole world and isolated in your fear…the fear that you might die having done nothing…there is an effort one makes to connect with creation after that and times and tastes like that. What makes the motivation to ‘say’, to ‘speak’ to find words and ways of connecting with everyone, finding a way back to everything? To discover things in your life that might connect you to others and try to say to them…to touch them…make connection with the wholeness of things more tangible…but it may be those who are cut off are just that…that the attempts at building bridges or crossing the lagoon of loneliness is no more than a kind of insubstantial nonsense…others are more able to do that or they don’t have to or something…to be where others stand…are not better than we ought to be? Fate and destiny are had foes…it seems few of us make friends with those two towers. Perhaps that needs some certainly.
That boy in a cell is the reality – he should be embraced for the truth he is…the night draws in on him as the chatterers chatter about their world and worry about their chatter which reflects the world of loneliness…everything is outward looking – it is as if there is a vast void inside of us; the door to everything is closed by the obsessions with things that are nothing. There is no connection just the rumour of it…the relief is in the stop…the end of trying…
But right now, I’m still trying and that is partly because the great Absoluteness has, every now and then, been open to me. That revived the soul of the forgotten boy and the echoes of the unity of creation urge me to persist.
Love is an infinite ocean in which the heavens are no more than a flock of foam.
Know that it is the waves of Love which turn the wheels of heaven; without Love, the world would be without life.
Each atom is infatuated with this Perfection, and hastens towards it. Their haste says implicitly,
‘Glory to God!’
(God says:) ‘If it were not by pure love, then how
Would I have given existence to the heavens?
I raised up this sublime celestial sphere so that you
Might know how sublime is Love
Rumi and Sufism – Eva de Vitray-Meyervitch
(from the Mathnawi, Jala al-Din Rumi
We are all in reach of the resource of the ‘infinite ocean’ of love, the thing that might not be so obvious or even easy is the reaching out for this love, seeking it and of course giving it (love, that gives the world life) to others. The capacity to ‘perfect’ these related practices (which are in practice one organic process) is something that we do naturally; all of us want to give and get love, we only shun love when we are mentally or spiritually sick. I do not have to work hard to love my son, my daughter, my brother, my sister, my father, my mother, even if they have done something awfully wrong, my love for them persists. But extending this love and broadening my own access to the love of others, the world, takes both discipline and spiritual energy. The source of that divine power (I think by definition, because it is ‘divine’) can only be God that is obtained by the Word of God as given to us. This is simple but complex, which is the nature of the sublime. However, what is clear is that in order to both get and give the great enriching life resource of love, we have to ‘do’ something; we cannot just get and be given love. The expectation of that happening is not only nonsensical it is destructively selfish in that it is achingly non-productive. The tradition of Islam is the exact opposite of this. The life Islam offers is the outcome of sustained action emanating from belief – Islam is a faith that is ‘practiced’. The sitting and waiting to get something yet doing nothing comes from another source entirely; it is the dream of an idiot whose only faith is in television commercials (they all promise something for nothing – but actually give nothing for something – route one to death). It is in the traditions of Islam that we find a path to the ‘practice’ of love and as such the enhancement of our lives.
I once shared a flat with a man called Edward. He was from Tanzania. We were student youth workers and were both sent from London to work through a particularly cold winter in Hastings. This was a foreign place for me, being an ‘East End’ boy, but for Edward, born in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, that freezing, at the time, very white, very English place, must have been like another planet. I used to run a lot, but that pass-time was not very appetizing given the bleak coastal winter weather. I used to ask Edward, ‘Do you think I should go for a run’ given it was raining or icy. He would nearly always reply ‘Just do it Brian. Just do it’. And for some reason, I nearly always did.
‘Doing it’ is harder than it sounds, particularly if it is something hard or something that we only half want to do. It might be that we just want the outcome without any effort at all. But if we don’t ‘do it’ and come across people who are ‘doing it’ in one way or another, even the best of us are likely to feel a level of resentment towards them; they are doing what we can’t or won’t do.
The other side of resentment is nearly always blame. If you make someone feel bad about themself, weather you mean to or not, the bad feelings that person might have may hurt them so much, they might want so much not to be reminded of not ‘doing it’, often you will be blamed for that hurt, because if the person blames themselves for the hurt, it might just well be too much to handle.
When you do nothing or only that which is easy, that which you know you can do, firstly you do not develop; you remain immature, unskilled, ignorant etc. But in the universe nothing is like that, nothing stays as it is. Every thing is either growing or dieing. The less we ‘do it’, the more we fail to nourish our internal world, the emptier we become. You can get drunk, or smoke a packet of cigarettes or buy an album but these things will not fill you. The day after you’ve drunk you will feel a bit bad, no more; when you have smoked all the cigarettes you will just want more; when you have listened to the album twenty or thirty times, all you will want is a different album.
When I was at school, my religious studies teacher told me he thought hell was a place where there was no existence, for him there’s literally nothing there. I think this is where those young men in Bradford were going. Watching them I could not help but feel their resentment, blame and emptiness. I felt they had never looked at the sky, felt the greatness of creation around them or ever ‘done it’. They inhabited a cell of loneliness, resentment and fear, the midwives of blame and hatred.
As a youth worker I think that this situation is what I am dealing with. How can I be like Edward and say ‘just do it’; fill and feel your life. How can I motivate or inspire someone to do that which is hard and what they’ve have never done before; promote growth and develop…ask them not die, not to go to that hell of emptiness?
I’d like to give an answer, but the reality seems to me to be that for every young person I’ve worked with, all over the world, the answer is always different. Each one is a unique and beautiful creation within the massive and unfathomable beauty of all creation; as such they deserve and require our nurture and care. This helps us because in doing this we honour that which God has created and loves; we cannot but develop by our efforts to reach out to and love those God has made.
This being the case, those lads stoning the fire men are a gift from God; they offer us a chance to ‘do it’, to love and honour them, grow ourselves and praise God’s creation in our appreciation of his love.