By David Schütz, August 2015
You have possibly heard about a new activity sponsored by the Jewish Muslim Christian Association (JCMA): Text Groups.
The idea of a Text Group is based on the common interreligious dialogue activity of reading one another’s scripture texts together. However, in a JCMA Text Group, we take things further: we share any text that is of personal interest to a member of the group, religious or secular. Of course, given the nature of JCMA, we like to take the opportunity of sharing texts that say something about one another’s faith, but a text need not be sacred scripture in order to have spiritual meaning.
As an example, let me share what we read last week in the group I lead, the 10:00am to 11:30am meeting on the second Tuesday of the month in East Melbourne. The suggestion for the day was that we each bring along a piece of poetry.
Gwenda brought a segment of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ Part V:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
A striking image, of an unknown companion on a journey. Each member of the group read it differently. One felt it to be a comforting image. Another talked about a sense loneliness since her partner died. Another comment was “it makes my hair stand on end!” And then there is the idea of travelling on a road, a theme that started to emerge with the other texts for the morning. The important thing was that we were not so interested in what Eliot meant when he originally wrote this passage (it seems he was inspired by the story of Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 24) as we were in what feelings and thoughts and connections the text might arouse in us.
Coincidentally, I chose to share a passage from T.S. Eliot too, but this time from Part V of his later poem ‘East Coker’, the second of his ‘Four Quartets’:
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
It was a passage that I first connected with when I walked the Aussie Camino from Portland to Penola, much of it along the sea shore, and returned finally to where we started seven days and 240kms later. We talked then about the meaning of travelling, about the cyclic nature of time in Eastern religions, but how we can never really return to the place we left. Our three Abrahamic faiths have all inherited a linear view of time: past, present and future.
Karen’s text also focused on time. She shared with us a poem from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Maktoum’s collection ‘Poems from the Desert’, entitled ‘The Old Man’. Here are a few verses:
In the evening, as the sun started to set,
Its rays were cloaked by the darkness it met.
I stopped him, an old man, blinded by strife,
While right then, time portrayed the years of his life.
He dragged his feet slowly, so burdened he bent;
On his third foot, his cane, in his right hand he leant…
The debts of time condemned him still,
Which, till this day he could not fill…
Time has passed, with all that he knew
An old world for which his yearning grew.
With such ancient knowledge, he spoke of the past,
As if, with Noah, he had raised the mast.
He spoke of his youth with nostalgic pain,
Like a man who would sail on the Ark again.
When asked if all of life’s goals had been met,
He was struck by the silence of a sad sunset.
Karen felt it was a sad poem, and we wondered what the author, who is in fact the ruler of Dubai, might have meant by it. (Okay, so our main issue isn’t what the author meant, but if we want to talk about it, that isn’t against the rules!). We reflected on the rapid loss – or at least change – of culture for many in the Middle East in just a single life time. We talked about the narrative memory of ancient cultures – here is an old man who might have sailed with Noah! Again the idea of time passing.
This theme chimed in well with the paragraph Helen brought along from a prose work by the Dutch author Tommy Wieringa, from his book ‘These are the names’. It is a story based in part on the ancient story of the Exodus, but set in Eastern Europe:
For the rabbi, the past didn’t exist, Beg thought. It was as alive to him as the present; the low tricks of a tribal chieftain in the wilderness where reflected in the treachery of the people-smugglers he had just encountered. The day before yesterday, or three thousand years ago, it made no difference to him.
This mysterious timelessness overcome him too, when he read about the lives of Moses, Aaron, and Joshua in the desert and knew himself connected to that in some mystical fashion. He was no longer so alone. Others had gone before him, just as others would come after him. Whether he would strap the phylactery to his arm each morning, he didn’t know. But with every word he read and every visit he paid to the rabbi, he sense—with a certainty that touched him—that he was approaching his destination.
Again we were struck by the image of time and travelling: but this time not with a sense of returning to the past or returning to the place you started, but approaching a destination. What defines our lives? The fixed, ancient past or our distant, predestined future? How is that past and future present to us now, and how does it give us meaning? And who travels with us on the road?
So in our reading for this day, we really did seem to end up where we began! And yet, we were in a different place, by encountering one another’s faith and spirituality through the texts we had read. It was amazing how a random collection of texts, thrown into the pot at a JCMA Text Group meeting, could generate such openness and sharing of ideas. Each of us went away from the group enriched by the experience, and looking forward to our next meeting.
If you are interested in joining a JCMA text reading group, please contact either David on 0400 978 938 or Ian on 0403 901 734