A blog by Jane Morton, Chaplains Coordinator at St Ethelburga’s. This is from a talk given at St Luke’s on 13th October, 2019.

I want to float the thought of using God at the heart of my compass. In life. How might that work?

In October, we celebrated St Ethelburga’s feast day. Our patron saint was the leader of a spiritual community in the 6th century. She had a big job; the scope of her spiritual responsibility was akin to our current Archbishop of Canterbury. Together with this she was the leader, organiser and manager of a substantial community of nuns and monks. She was accountable for them and to them. When the plague arrived in Barking where her abbey was, she had a choice: she could have chosen to protect her community for whom she was responsible and accountable and close the doors of the abbey and wait for the crisis to pass.

She did not. Ethelburga had a vision of light she describes as “brighter than the sun at noon”. She saw her responsibility as both within and without the Abbey walls. She and her community opened the doors and went out. They acted on her prayer and offered practical support and help to the people who had the plague. As a result many of them, including Ethelburga, died.

What I take from this story is this: A professional competent woman who was on top of her game, at a moment of crisis, asked her God what was being asked of her. She heard her God and in response took a massive risk. She did not do the obvious. She did not choose to protect her individual community – she chose to serve her whole community. St Ethelburga put her faith in the driving seat.

Ethelburga was a very impressive woman. Right now I don’t feel impressive. I feel scared.  I’m overwhelmed by our world’s crisis, by the terrifyingly self serving politicians voted or supported into power in whom significant numbers of people seem to find solace. Politicians who are not asking God: what is needed of me? Who are not asking: how have I harmed this planet and it’s life and what does it take to put it right? Who are not taking responsibility.

Shared responsibility is really what I’m talking about here, and what it takes to create it. Among the most enormous disconnects we are living with are the differences in views on the climate and politics. These differences of opinions about our reality and what matters are not being talked about. When was the last time you had a good in depth conversation about Brexit with someone who holds a different view?

I have avoided having these conversations. I know I have. I was on retreat in August with eight wonderful friends. Only two of them openly acknowledge the crisis of the extinction event we are living in. I didn’t bring it up at supper. I’m frightened of doing more harm. Of alienating people. Often disagreement leads to ruptures in our relationships, to separating and not reconciling. This happens when harm happens and is not acknowledged.

Those who caused the harm have not fessed up. Those who have been harmed have not described their experiences. Instead all that is unspoken. It takes up no space. What has happened has not been heard.

I wonder what my conversation with the planet would sound like:

“I’ve hurt you. I’ve taken from you and I haven’t given back. You are wounded. You are dying. Your life, all of our lives, are under threat.”

I wonder: what do you think the earth would say back? I have asked. I hear howling, pain,  confusion. Yet still she is giving. 

Having these conversations is not easy. We are not taught how to do this. It’s not a typical part of our culture. With our closest ones we don’t practice it. Where this avoidance of speaking out gets us is writ large when things go badly wrong. When people are made unsafe. When harm that happens that we call crime. Then our criminal justice system has the job of naming a harmer or perpetrator of violence. The system of the police and the courts describe the offender and their actions. The victim does not have a voice nor do the offenders. The speaking and listening happens between police, lawyers, judges, the probation service.

The process is passive for those who have been harmed and those who did the harming. It is done to them, it is for them a passive experience of being described, the fault is stated and punishment is given out. All of which the harmer and the harmed have no part in. They either watch or receive it.

They are not asked to respond to the question: what does it take to make it right?

An alternative approach is called restorative justice. It has been around in parts of Criminal Justice System since the 70s. It owes much to First Nations approaches to justice. It asks everyone involved, including the harmed and the harmer:

  • What has happened?
  • What were you thinking at the time?
  • What were you feeling?
  • How did it affect you?
  • What does it take to make it right?

This brings the conversation into an active experience. It is a chance to voice, to acknowledge what is and what the impact has been on all sides. It is potentially transformative. It takes the unacknowledged feelings of shame for having hurt someone and brings them into the light. I did it. It hurt you and I’m sorry. How can I put it right?

I describe this process of restorative justice because I have just begun training in the approach, and while I was training my thoughts kept returning to the planet. I am the harmer. I have lived a life where for the large part of time I have not taken account of the impact of my using the world’s resources. I’ve done bits, but largely I’ve enjoyed the rich abundance around me and not counted the impact of taking. I’ve assumed I will be safe physically. I will be fed and watered. I fly to Japan every summer to see my husband’s family. I recycle what Islington offer (i.e. not a lot). Without asking I have assumed that the planet would continue to provide me with a place to live. I have been a semiconscious harmer of my planet.

Now there is a large body of activists standing up and saying we have to put out the fire (as much as we can). I am with them and I will do my small bit, but I am terrified that not enough of us will. I am scared not enough people will vote for politicians who will.

So I’m wondering, what does it take to have a conversation with others about this, others who might still be just glancing or avoiding looking at this?

The restorative approach to moving forward from harming works because it addresses our feelings of shame. When we have caused hurt, the people and things we have hurt move away from us. When people move away from us – when connection and trust breaks down – we do one of 4 things:

  • Withdraw
  • Attack and blame ourselves
  • Attack and blame others
  • Avoid

Have you felt any of these in relation to the climate crisis we are in?

Our response to the pain of shame is to self protect in some way. If we do that we are basically hiding. We cannot come out together, to openly and honestly say: “This is what I did. This is what we did. This is where we are now. What are we going to do – together?”

So what circumvents my avoidance, my shifting blame? If I take my pain to God – my embarrassment, my fear of powerlessness, my despair – I can climb into her lap and weep. I am heard. I am held. God knows me, she keeps me and she loves me.

The carapace of protection I have put around my shame for not looking after our home and it’s life has cracked. God’s love for me softens it a bit and enables me to look out to others. To ask what others are experiencing. To ask: what happened? And what does it take to make it right?

“Prayer is the deliberate and persevering action of the soul. It is true and enduring, and full of grace. Prayer fastens the soul to God and makes it one with God’s will.” – Julian of Norwich

All this is looking for an answer to the questions: How do we respond and how does my faith help? I’d like to invite you to take your questions to God: What has happened? How am I feeling? And, God, what does it take to make it right?”

by Jane Morton.

Are you interested to explore the topics in this article more deeply? Explore our Radical Resilience Programme: a funded opportunity to journey with a small group through deep adaptation and beyond, growing resilience for the sake of all life.

You may also be interested to explore our Christian peacemaking programme Reconcilers Together. And once a month Jane Morton co-hosts Soul Space, a Christian-themed space for reflection and community. Details available on our events page. We hope to see you at one of our events soon!