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Prayer for the week

26 September 2014

Christopher Collingwood seeks to perceive God in those who suffer


Forgive us, Lord, when we build worlds which are dependent on us and not on you. . . Forgive us when we cannot see you in the midst of suffering and darkness. Help us, however feebly, to realise that the coming of the Kingdom is your work, and not ours.

Subir Biswas (1933-77)

UNTIL his death at the age of 44 from cancer, and afterwards, the work of Canon Subir Biswas had a colossal influence not only on the Church in India but also further afield. He came to prominence in the aftermath of the war between East and West Pakistan in 1971, which resulted in the creation of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

Millions of people became refugees, many of whom found their way to live in the slums of Kolkata (Calcutta), just across the border, where Biswas was the Vicar of St Paul's Anglican Cathedral. He was the inspiration for the founding of the Cathedral Relief Service, which provided food, clothing, medical care, and education, and which is still much in evidence today.

This prayer articulates profound truths about what prayer is all about. At its heart is the conviction that prayer is rooted in the centrality of seeing: seeing God, seeing ourselves, and seeing others. Prayer is, in part, about the clarifying of our perceptions, so that we can see things as they really are.

The focus of the prayer is that we might able to perceive the presence of God in the midst of darkness. Not surprisingly, most people flinch from pain. Prayer involves our coming to see what the causes of suffering are.

True clarity of perception begins when we face our pain. When we repress it, we obstruct potential sources of creative energy within us, not least compassion. If we allow pain to surface, however, and if we stay with its terrible discomfort in prayer, we discover, little by little, that the heart of God is compassion.

It is this that embraces all the darkness of the world, uniting everything and everyone in God's grace. Those who have experienced abuse as children, for example, often tell of how their sense of shame and guilt have caused them to repress their experience. As they begin to face it later on, sometimes in prayer, there is initially great suffering, but eventually there can be freedom, healing, and solidarity with others - even after such trauma.

Compassion enables us to accept ourselves, and draws us closer to others who suffer. It also opens us up to ever greater depths of compassion because we allow God to be more fully present in us.

A story was told by Mother Teresa, who, like Biswas, worked to alleviate suffering in Kolkata, about one of her Sisters: 

"During the mass," I said, "you saw the priest touched the body of Christ with great love and tenderness. When you touch the poor today, you will be touching the body of Christ. Give them that same love and tenderness." When they returned several hours later, the new Sister came up to me, her face shining with joy. "I have been touching the body of Christ for three hours. . ." The Sister brought in a man covered with maggots. He had been picked up from a drain. "I have been taking care of him, I have been touching Christ. I knew it was him." 

This Sister of Charity was enabled to see that everyone is embraced in the loving compassion of God, made known in the suffering of Christ. Biswas's prayer begins with a plea for forgiveness, that desire deep within all of us for a fresh start.

That new beginning is focused for the whole creation in the resurrection, something that the gradual cleansing of our perception enables us to know as an ever-present reality. It is in this fresh start that the Kingdom comes - not as a result of our own work, but as a gift from God. 

The Revd Dr Christopher Collingwood is Canon Chancellor of York Minster. 

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