The latest fires have come a little too close to home for us, or almost home. Evia island is the only place we go to for a holiday. We know its contours, its olive groves and beaches as if they belonged to us which, in a sense, they do. We know the hotel. It’s pink walls and little private enclosed gardens, its terrace. Most of all we know the people who own it and who we count as more than friends.
Watching the footage of Limni beach on fire, from the vantage point of the departing ferries with their load of bewildered and terrified tourists and inhabitants, I remember that ferry crossing well. I know Limni too, and the monastery just around the corner of the headland where the monks, we are told, are refusing to leave. Reality hits hard when you are not there and can only feel for a place and a people you love. Perhaps my feeling with them helps a little. We know that our friends in Greece are grateful for the many messages they receive through social media, so there is a connection there, a mutuality of suffering allowed by love.
But what of the realities others, people we do not know, are facing, in places we have never visited? What of Afghanistan, for example? Can we also connect with the woman whose two sons have been hacked to pieces by the Taliban? Or with the woman herself, now completely alone without shelter or any means of subsistence? Or with the father whose seven-year-old daughter went missing a day ago and has not been seen since?
All of these situations find a home in our hearts, when we let them, and therein lies the problem. It’s not just a matter of feeling something, and perhaps even doing something as a result, but of coming to terms with the ‘plasticity’ of the human heart. The more we allow into them, the bigger our hearts, or our capacity for loving, become. This, as we know, can prove costly. There is a danger that we could also be overwhelmed by so much reality. Even so, having allowed for it, we must continue to ‘make space’ for it.
If we are to make space without collapsing under the sheer weight of other people’s suffering, we have to allow more love to take hold of us. ‘Look up’, Jesus says ‘when all these things take place, for your Redemption is near’ (Luke 21:28). He is not talking about the end of the world (or if he is, that isn’t the point), but about Redemptive Love taking hold of us.
When we understand this truth, the mind can move on to other realities that need to find a home with us. The fires in Evia belong with the devastating floods and landslides in China, with the injured man being hauled to safety across a raging torrent by two of his friends. The mind and the heart are immediately taken to the moment when a man is lowered through the roof by his friends so that he can be healed by the Christ. Before he is healed he and his friends are told “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). If we transcribe this moment back to the man in China, we hear the same words spoken, not to the man himself, but to all of us who are holding his situation in our hearts. It is our sins that are being pronounced forgiven from the moment we care to notice the man in China, or the beach at Limni, and allow space for them in the place where we are most vulnerable, our own hearts.
Let’s not balk at the idea of sin and human suffering being twinned in this way. What we are seeing in Evia, as in China, in North America, in parts of Canada, and in London is the consequence of sin. It should be quite plain by now that the suffering we are witnessing, which is by no means limited to that being experienced by human beings, is the consequence of short-termism, greed, selfishness, power-lust and sheer folly that has accumulated over centuries and is now being visited on people and places we know and love.
So, to use another old trope, what would Jesus do? Or say? Or feel, in all these situations? Or perhaps these are the wrong questions for me to be asking on this blog. Perhaps I should be asking if we cared what he would do, or say, or feel? It is a question that can only be answered, if it can be answered at all, from within the heart of the human person. And this returns me to the dangers of plasticity, because if we allow our hearts to be opened for even a second in regard to the plight of another person or place, Love Himself immediately slips in and is a very difficult guest to remove. ‘Love bids us welcome, guilty of dust and sin’, to borrow from the poet, George Herbert. The poet knew who he was talking about.
Suddenly we are in a position of having received something which was unasked for, for which we are unprepared and, in regard to the devastation we are wreaking on God’s world and people, undeserving. Suddenly we are given the means to love and suffer with those who are suffering as a result of fires or other cataclysmic events. Given the enormity of this realisation, it is often far easier to carry on agonising about what we can’t do or give to ease their suffering, looking the other way when we perhaps can do something. But Love insists on making His presence felt, if for no other reason than that there are Afghan men, women and children who number among those seeking refuge on our shores right now.