Saturday, June 17, 2017

On being and doing

Many years ago I read Peace Comes Walking, the biography of Donald Groom, an English Quaker peace activist who had lived in India in the 1940s and followed the example of Gandhi. As I was ensconced in my Masters degree in peace and conflict studies at the time, I was intrigued by the life of a peace worker. I had been struck by the tension between Donald’s commitment to live his life in the pursuit of a just peace, and his attempts to maintain inner peace and peace with his family.

In the years since, I have held this tension in my mind as I forge out my own work for peace and justice. Another aspect of peace activism that I drew from Donald Groom’s biography and from writings about Gandhi’s life was the balance, or sometimes tension, between “being” and “doing”. Or, to put it another way, between the inner world and action in the wider world. Much of what is written about Gandhi suggests that he took time out from his activism (the doing) to nourish his spiritual soul, and to seek divine guidance (the being). It was during a time of deep contemplation (being) that the idea of the salt march (doing) occurred to him.

Jerusalem - where spirituality abounds
I wanted to explore this idea of how to incorporate the being into the doing as I prepared for 3 months as an ecumenical accompanier in Palestine. This role was to be a very active and potentially stressful one, where I was to accompany those working nonviolently to end the occupation and monitor human rights abuses. I was aware I would need to be grounded and comfortable in myself in order to do this work effectively. Where would I seek spiritual guidance in this context? How would I find the time and space to nurture my inner world? And what effect would it have on the “doing”, if any?

After my first support group meeting, it was decided that I would explore creative ways of engaging with Spirit, as the idea of reading lots of texts didn't seem to bring me particular joy. I began with watercolour painting as my main way to nurture the “being” side. I had packed a travel sized watercolour set, and began painting the washing lines visible from the roof of our house, and loved the vibrant colours of the clothing that shone against the backdrop of mainly cream coloured houses and dusty earth. One evening I tried to capture the sunset, but the sky darkened so quickly that my painting looked more like a confused prawn as I played catch up with the changing hues of the night sky.

Rooftop washing
As winter lifted and we began to accompany shepherds much more frequently during their days of meandering and grazing, I found myself using this quiet, meditative time to centre down. Since my only obligation in this particular job was to simply ‘be there’, it seemed appropriate to take the time to practise ‘being’ in a more intentional way. Sometimes I would allow thoughts to wander about in the corners of my mind, grazing on a matter that might have been troubling me. At other times, I would, like our shepherding friends, gently direct those thoughts to move on.

One of the shepherds, Jibreen, who is a muslim, would often invite us to his tent at the end of the day for a meal or cup of tea. He liked to speak about peace. As his gentle, lilting voice would wax lyrical about his vision of the world’s faiths getting along, and about forgiveness, and his troubles, I felt so moved that on a couple of occasions I just wept. Although we didn’t share a language, it was through a mixture of gestures, translation and the inexplicable kindness in his eyes that I understood most of what he was saying. His perspective sat comfortably alongside those of Gandhi and Jesus and so many other people whose faith informed their actions and whose ministry described a peaceful future free from injustice.

Jibreen and his flock
During my last week in the job, Jibreen was arrested and detained. In the confusion of numerous phone calls from those who knew the context better than I and competing directives leading up to his arrest, I felt incredibly torn, and ultimately that I had let him down. I wondered whether a more deeply spiritual person, or alternatively a more practical person, would have handled things differently and better. And yet, I was somehow able to pick myself up from these feelings, and make attempts to right any wrongs. I made the promise to share Jibreen’s story far and wide.

More than halfway through my time in Palestine, I finally made it to Quaker meeting and met Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Quaker who writes and speaks often about nonviolence as a way of life and the struggle for justice for Palestinians. She's been influenced by liberation theology. I’d never met her before, and yet saw her as a bit of a spiritual mentor. Over a cup of tea and biscuit after meeting, I made a thoughtless comment about the call to prayer interrupting Meeting for Worship and she gently eldered me. Jean reminded me that, in the face of Israeli attempts to deny access to worship and ban the call to prayer, Christians and Muslims in the holy land needed to band together in solidarity. For her, the call to prayer during our worship was a beautiful reminder of their common struggle.

Jean and me
I found myself part of a small group of international visitors who joined Jean for lunch after Meeting for Worship. We all wanted to know more about the challenges facing Palestinian Quakers, and how they see the occupation ending. As we discussed interfaith relations, the commitment to nonviolence that we all share, and the everyday struggle for justice, I wondered how Jean blends the being and the doing in her life? How does she seek nourishment of the soul when she faces the “doing” every day? It was clear to me that a deep connection to spirit directed her activism and ministry in the wider world.

The third spiritual mentor during my time in the holy land was a fellow accompanier called Carole. She was an Australian Christian based in Hebron, working with a different organisation. Since we’d met back in Australia, and were now so physically close, she was the person I turned to when things got tough and everyone in Australia was either asleep or busy at work. Carole had a way of blending the practical and the spiritual, and would know which kind of support was needed. Sometimes she provided a compassionate ear when I needed to vent about difficult personalities, and at other times she offered a gentle nudge to encourage me to think differently about a situation. And sometimes we’d meet in Hebron for shisha. Much needed hugs and laughter would abound.

Carole and me, surrounded by friends in Hebron
So, as I entered the final weeks of my time in the holy land, I continued with my watercolour - painting neighbours, more of the countryside, tractors, and sometimes just colours on the page. I found it difficult to be stressed when painting, as it gave me a focus other than circular thoughts. I also found it helpful to write letters and blog pieces in an attempt to collect my thoughts and prepare for the advocacy work when I returned. On days off, I would sit for hours in a cafe in Ramallah nurturing my impressions into a reasonable story for others to read.

Sooner than expected, it was time to leave. A week spent partly with friends and partly alone in Europe after leaving Palestine gave me distance from the events of the previous few months, without having to face the well-intentioned questions and company of friends and family just yet. I found myself again taking time during that week to wander and wonder - writing and watercolouring, exploring and capturing the aesthetic cityscape of Prague and the parks of busy London. I took a boat ride on the lake in Geneva, as being by water always calms me.

Prague at night
As I reflect on those three months, and my attempts to find the right balance of being and doing, I realise that even those I greatly admire are struggling with these things as well. It feels as if being and doing become so intertwined that it's difficult to work out which one influences the other. I found that spirit and meaning was to be found in the unexpected - the call to prayer during silent Quaker meeting, the unjust arrest of a resistence shepherd, and the everyday reality of washing hanging on the line, flying freely while its occupants remain occupied.

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