Choose the Better Story

I admit, I wasn’t an instant fan of Life of Pi (the book) when it first came out, because I’m not a big fiction-reader. But then I attended an event where Yann Martel spoke. His novel Life of Pi was soaring on the popularity charts (and was later made into a movie). Martel began his presentation by quoting the most frequent question asked by his readers: is Life of Pi true? He spent the rest of his talk sharing a brilliant multi-faceted explanation of truth. I went home and read the book, almost in one sitting. I was literally blown away; Martel’s/Pi’s insights have stuck like gems that keep instructing me as I continue to explore that all-time favourite question, “What is truth?”

Of course the story is true, replied Martel. All good stories are true. Good art is always true. There are truths that go beyond factual or scientific truth, such as moral truth, literary truth, emotional truth, historical truth. Religion does it, art, music and literature do it, fairy tales do it. They don’t contradict facts; they simply go beyond facts, further and deeper.

For all its touting of sophistication and modern living, it often seems as if  our western culture is losing the heart’s ability to live an awareness of truth that exceeds hard data and one-dimensional knowing. With the diminishment of religious adherence and practice, along with a flattened version of reality and a trivialization of the arts in various quarters, we risk becoming an impoverished species. How very sad and boring that would be.

Fortunately for us all, the likes of Yann Martel arise periodically to give us a jolt of what is really real and rich and deep and meaningful and goes far beyond what we can measure in facts and touch with our hands: Mystical writings in all traditions acknowledge the mystery of life and suggest ways of engaging with that mystery, even though it remains impossible to comprehend intellectually. You can view the world in different ways – historical, scientific, social, political – but there are limits to what you can do with a calculator or a hammer. You must make a leap of faith to get the full flavour of life. (Yann Martel Interview)

It is probably for this reason that Martel’s introduction to Life of Pi includes  an enigmatic line: Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Early on in the novel, Pi notes that religion is off-putting to many people because they believe it constrains  our freedom. He criticizes such positions for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of ritual and order, whether religious or secular, can be extremely frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher. In the absence of taken-for-granted order he faces life and death situations every day. It is his religious faith that gets him through — an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

Martel asserts a strong relationship between religious faith and storytelling. Pi pities agnostics who are so paralyzed they cannot believe in anything. He admires atheists for having the courage to claim God’s non-existence and for working hard to justify their non-belief.

Pi’s fascination with stories leads him to embrace no less than three religions — Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. He cannot understand how gods can be represented in such radically different ways, and wonders how to love the human Jesus. Until Father Martin suggests to the young Pi that we tell the same story in multiple ways to come to the same conclusion.

Pi’s beliefs mature throughout the novel. His first brushes with religion lead him to find several mentors and experiment with various forms of prayer, whether it be in  a church, mosque or the temple. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does he realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not before when life seemed orderly and predictable.

So enjoy here some of Martel’s/Pi’s nuggets of truth:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

“You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

“People fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity—it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.”

“I was giving up. I would have given up — if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in my heart. The voice said ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen everyday. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.’ ”

In short, repeating Martel’s own words from the interview quoted earlier, Life of Pi sums up as follows:

1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story.

Prairie Encounters

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Truth – A Relationship

A few personal challenges of late sent me reflecting on truth again. Some of our loved ones confronted us with some difficult positions on important moral and family matters. It’s all I could do to keep conversations open and respectful, while working hard to share my opposing perspectives in non-judgmental ways and in a manner that deserved equal openness and respect. Maintaining open and loving relationships in times of disagreement is so heart-wrenching.

And then a peculiar thing happened. As if the ears of my mind and heart were sharpened by my own painful experience of discord, I heard and saw the same pain in so many places and over so many issues: disagreements over assisted suicide, disputes over the need to reconcile with our First Nations sisters and brothers, deep differences over the definition of marriage and how the church ought to care and seek justice for the LGBTQ community, strong disagreements within First Nations jurisdictions over allowing mining on their territory or not, a family feud over an estate, debate over whether to sit or kneel at the consecration or the place of the tabernacle (really!), sharp divisions over the peaceful nature of Islam,  vastly opposing opinions on how to eradicate racism and violence in the US, in Canada, in the world …

Sometimes I wonder: “How can we ever sort this out?” Is it even possible to reach for higher conversation standards; are there others who are dissatisfied with entrenched polarizing positions on controversial questions? The extent of volatile conflict near and far is scary; even disputes within churches sometimes resemble more a vindictive culture war than the Gospel.

What is so hard about acknowledging our vulnerability and awkwardness while affirming goodwill and desire for wholeness in every person? What is so hard about living God’s truth, Jesus’ truth, in the quality of our relationships, challenging ourselves to deliberately choose love as our foundational orientation? I sadly acknowledge the reasons for violence, war, and discords of all shapes and sizes. But are we doomed to live with this alienating way of relating to one another? In all these examples, a battle for “the truth” rages. I find myself asking Pilate’s ancient question again: what is truth?

As if an answer to the pleading prayer in my soul, along came the words of Pope Francis:
The truth, according to Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. So the truth is a relationship! Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives…. This doesn’t mean that truth is variable or subjective; quite the opposite. But it means that it is given to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’? In other words, truth being altogether one with love, requires humility and openness to be sought, received and expressed. ~ Pope Francis in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari, Nov. 9, 2013

What if this is true? I mean, what if truth is first and foremost a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity as the ultimate communion of love (long before it is a set of intellectual dogmas and beliefs), and is given to us always and only as a way and a life? If indeed this is true, that has enormous implications for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, the incarnation of that truth. We cannot ignore today’s local, national and international conflicts, both within and between our churches and in the wider world. Nor can we retreat in ideological fortresses of our own making and say to the rest of the Body ‘I have no need of you.’

But we desperately need to adopt conversation models “in a new key” so to speak, models which can equip us to listen without fear or prejudice and seek a better understanding of ‘the other,’ whoever that may be in any given situation. At best we can only change ourselves, and only if our Christian discipleship summons us to do so. In other words, the most life-giving reason to desire change is to deepen our capacity to love as God loves. I know that I need to change daily, as I struggle with difficult people, new issues and moral dilemmas. We may not agree, but can we be committed to hold together in love, and through that commitment, see the face of Christ in one another while inching ever closer to realizing God’s Kingdom on earth?

I read echoes of this same diagnosis and a desire for fostering a higher standard of discourse through the quality of how we relate to one another and the world in Fr. Richard Rohr’s words in Breathing Under Water (pg. 62):
The longer I live the more I believe that truth is not an abstraction or an idea that can be put into formulas or mere words. Our real truth has to do with how we situate ourselves in this world. There are ways of living and relating that are honest and sustainable and fair, and there are utterly dishonest ways of living and relating . This is our real, de facto, and operative “truth,” no matter whose theories or theologies we believe. Our life situation and our style of relating to others is “the truth” that we actually take with us to the grave. It is who we are, more than our theories about this or that. 

Jesus himself holds us to this higher standard, and yet we forget as quickly as water passes through a sieve. We keep making a categorical mistake, i.e. that loving and honouring our opponent implies consent and support for something that risks violating our conscience. But far from condoning sin, pain and woundedness, Jesus’ capacity to love unconditionally and show generous mercy had a radical life-changing effect on persons. His love shed clear truth-filled light into burdened souls, spontaneously exposed the darkness of sin and healed open wounds, while restoring dignity and honour.

Simply by experiencing the honour to be worthy to host Jesus, Zaccheus confessed of his own accord. (Luke 19:1-10) Simply by being in his presence, the sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, evoking from Jesus the words: “Her sins, which were many; have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:36-50). In the parable on the weeds and the wheat, Jesus cautioned about pulling the weeds before harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). Even the Syro-Phoenician woman, an outcast by all social standards, felt the power of divine love, and claimed it for her daughter. (Matthew 15:21-28)

Simply put, the sheer power of divine love does the sifting and sorting, the healing and restoring; no need to add judgment or condemnation, no need to fear, dispute or despise. That is why St. Augustine said in his famous sermon on love:

Human actions can only be understood by their root in love. All kinds of actions might appear good without proceeding from the root of love. Remember, thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly savage, but are done for the sake of discipline motivated by love. Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Contrary to earlier reports, it became clear this morning (July 12, 2016) that the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada did pass the motion last night that will change the definition of marriage. While many are grateful and relieved there is also much pain over this decision across the Anglican and ecumenical landscape. Are there really any winners in such a divisive outcome? The most striking comments came from Rev. Dr. Iain Luke, soon-to-be the new principal at Emmanuel St. Chad College in Saskatoon:

The irony is that before the whole synod started, people were saying it’s a “lose-lose” situation. Everybody knows what it feels like now. Both sides have understood now what it feels like to lose, if you have to use that word. One side ends up not getting their way, but the other side knows what it feels like. For a day, they felt that, and I hope that that will help us.
The most important thing going ahead is that we bring those two groups of people together, that people see the leadership of those two groups working together to find one story for our church. It would be terrible if there were two stories of this synod, because two stories lead to two churches. We need one story, one church. But to do that, people have to see that both sides are working together to tell that story.
Why did it happen this way? There must be something for us to learn from this … (Anglican Journal, July 12, 2016)

My heart hurts and my spirit weeps as one group cheers and another group breaks. Can we take seriously Pope Francis’ words that each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives? Are we willing to look for “Holy Ground” in another’s painful life story? Can we let God’s love purify all our hearts so that love’s divine power can truly flow through us all freely, confidently and generously? For the sake of the world, create a clean heart in me, O God, and put a new and steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of
the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Amen.
~ St. Benedict

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