At St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle upon Tyne, England there is a stained-glass window depicting the last supper. It is about 140 years old. In the picture, Jesus is surrounded by his disciples, all blessed with handsome features and dressed in bright colours with gold halos above their heads. In stark contrast, Judas, his betrayer, is wearing a dark coloured cloak, has an ugly face, flame coloured hair and holds a bag of money in his grasping left hand. Most telling of all is the black halo above his head.

Judas has long fascinated me. Not with the aim of excusing him or trying to rehabilitate him but to understand what lay behind the decision to betray his friend and once he had, what options remained. A previous blog has looked at this (Pathways: Restoration instead of Despair; April 2020). What has intrigued me this Easter is less about the pathway of Judas, and more about Jesus and how he coped with the betrayal by his friend and his experience of increasing powerlessness through this betrayal as he journeyed from arrest to trial and execution.

Throughout his life, Jesus consistently showed the way of love – to all those he met along the way and most especially to his close group of twelve disciples with whom he spent the final three years of his life. At the last supper he shows this love in a symbolic act of service when he first washes their feet and then shares in a meal where he talks of his impending death. He knows Judas is about to leave and betray him and Judas knows Jesus knows, yet he still does it. The love of Jesus reaches out, but he is powerless to stop Judas. Love is like that. The families of addicts know this only too well. How many parents, children or partners of addicts have loved and reach out in love, desperately hoping that this will be enough to draw their loved back to sobriety, back to sanity, back to them. But they are powerless to stop them, all they can do is love, and that brings with it immense pain and sorrow.

In the story of the last supper, John responds to Jesus’ prediction of betrayal at the hands of one of their number by asking him who it will be. Jesus indicates that it is Judas. Throughout the gospels, the disciples seem to display a high level of crassness and misunderstanding about whatever Jesus says and I’ve always assumed that in this instance John, (and probably Peter too who overheard what Jesus said about betrayal) simply didn’t understand what he meant. But on reading the story again, it now seems obvious that this wasn’t the case; they did understand, yet they did nothing. This is shocking. The anguish which Jesus felt about Judas’s impending betrayal must have been compounded by an immense sense of bewilderment and perhaps an even greater sadness that Peter, John and any others who’d overheard the conversation did nothing to stop Judas. He’d loved them all fully yet at this point, each of them betrayed Jesus in some way by their indifference and passivity.

Soon, as the story shifts to the arrest of Jesus and his trial, Jesus becomes physically powerless in the hands of the Roman authorities, initiated and urged on by the religious leaders. But at this point he is experiencing a different sort of powerlessness – his powerlessness to influence and change the people he knew and loved. We know that this is not the end of the story and that ultimately, they do change – that is, everyone but the tragic Judas who takes his own life before the love of Jesus can finally break through. But today, Maundy Thursday we stay with Jesus and stand in solidarity with all whose love is powerless to change the behaviour or circumstances of someone they love. Despite everything – the hurt and sadness, the suffering and confusion, the rejection, doubt and despair, they stick by their loved one and continue to offer them love and hope. We give thanks for these people.  We pray for them too because they continue to love against all the odds. Love is never easy and it’s costly, but ultimately, it’s the only way to bring healing and life to others and to ourselves too, remembering that we love because God first loved us. Whether we know it or not, it’s this love of God which helps us to keep on loving others.

On the Frontline – learning from Covid

It now feels like a very long time ago that Coronavirus so rudely kicked down the front doors of our comfortable, stable, well-planned lives and unceremoniously marched on in.  At long last, nearly eighteen months later, many of the worst affected countries are finally lifting their lockdowns and easing the various restrictions put in place to limit the virus’s rapid and seemingly relentless spread. It is noticeable, however that this gradual relaxation has been accompanied by signs of the usual human tendency to forget what we’ve been through and the lessons we thought that we’d learned, as we rush headlong to bury ourselves once again in what Heather King calls “the low-level anaesthetic haze of distractions and false gods.” There’s an old Irish blessing which says, “May you never forget what is worth remembering, nor ever remember what is best forgotten.” Maybe now is a good time for us to take stock and reflect on the things that we thought we’d learned during the Covid Pandemic but are now in danger of forgetting. We need to remember what is worth remembering.

Over the first six months of the pandemic there was a lot of talk about both love and suffering. Love was perhaps most clearly seen in the work of many of the frontline health and social care staff whose self-sacrificing care for the ill, lonely and dying went far beyond their job descriptions or professional expectations. Other essential workers, all too often the lowest paid people in our communities served us with immense dedication and love, keeping shelves stocked, food supplied, garbage cleared, fuel flowing and transport running. With schools and workplaces shut, families suddenly found themselves living close to one another 24/7 which required them to discover new depths of love, patience and tolerance. Love was also to be seen in many small acts of kindness for others in need in the community. People looked out for neighbours who were old or vulnerable, significant increases were seen in donations and contributions to local food banks and meal services, help was offered to those who could not manage. Little kindnesses of many sorts abounded. We discovered the truth of Mother Theresa’s words: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Communities flourished and we dreamed of a greener, cleaner, more loving world.

The virus also caused much suffering too. Not just the premature and often painful death of nearly four million people world-wide, but also those who were acutely ill and survived, as well as relatives who suffered as their loved ones died alone and without the opportunity to say a final goodbye. Those who have developed ‘long-covid’ continue to suffer in painful and extreme ways.  Elsewhere, many people with other health conditions suffered from temporarily inferior services and slower treatment as resources were shifted to fighting the virus. And all around us the poor, those in overcrowded living conditions, those in households where there was domestic violence, suffered even more than normal. Some experienced a double or triple whammy of these and other sources of suffering.

The majority of us, may not have experienced such extremes and instead found ourselves stuck in the lockdown hinterland of reduced options, dull routines and loss of purpose as its duration dragged on beyond any of our expectations. We just longed to get back to normal, whatever that new normal would look like. Yet, our eyes had been opened to a global vulnerability, and maybe we’d never have quite the same self-assuredness ever again.

Love and suffering have always been the most significant means by which we achieve spiritual growth. People in recovery know this and Jesus taught and consistently lived this truth. Addiction itself causes “acute and constant” suffering to both the addict and those around them and arguably the turning point is when the prolonged suffering caused by the addiction becomes too great to carry on. As the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions says, “Until now, our lives had been largely devoted to running from pain and problems. We fled from them as from a plague.  We never wanted to deal with the fact of suffering. Escape via the bottle was always our solution. Character-building through suffering might be alright for the saints, but it certainly didn’t appeal to us.”

The road to recovery is painful. The simple fact of living without a substance or process that we have always relied upon and having to stand without it, emotionally naked before the world is hard. Recovery is also painful because it requires change, most significantly the loss of ego which comes from our surrender. But wherever there is pain and suffering, love is usually there too, lurking in the shadows in the form of other people for whom this is a way of living and service. As the Big Book of AA says, “Love and tolerance of others is now our code.” In twelve step recovery, people find themselves drawn to others by acts of love; the duty which begin as a requirement of the programme ultimately develops into a way of life for the individual who gradually becomes loving and giving rather than selfish and taking.

The single most important message of Jesus was that God loves each of us and as a result will do anything to bring us back into his light. Anne Lamott says, “Sometimes I think God loves the ones who most desperately ache and are most desperately lost – his or her wildest, most messed-up children – the way you’d ache and love a screwed-up rebel daughter in juvenile hall.” The two great commandments of Jesus urge us to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. No soft, sentimental love this, but a diamond hard centre of being, made so by the intense forces of costly self-sacrifice and suffering. As children of God we are to fill our lives with such love for God and others. Never one to ask anything of others that he did not do himself, Jesus lived this love to the full and experienced the process of dying to self. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear great fruit.” His brutal death brought great love and extreme suffering together in one final cataclysmic yet ultimately triumphant event.

None of this is news to most regular readers of this blog and certainly not to anyone with a strong recovery from addiction or Christian faith. One of the golden threads running through both is that love and suffering are our great teachers. But because we sometimes lose focus and our ego seeks to reassert itself from being in its rightful place and constantly tries to Edge God Out, it always pays to do a spiritual health check on how we’re doing, remembering that we so easily fall prey to self-deception. No time is better for doing this check than right now when things are starting to return to “normal.”

As I’ve said previously in these blog posts, I’m a real coward and will do my utmost to avoid pain and suffering if I can, but I am also a realist who knows it’s a fact of life and that somehow, at some point it will come knocking. In the meantime, whether suffering or not, we can always work at being better at loving others. So, the question is, each day, how can we better love those around us, not just by what we do but also by what we don’t do. Not saying the unkind, uncharitable things but only speaking words that encourage, build up and bring life. Giving the nicest and the best – not just the cheapest or most convenient, sharing the things we hold dear, sacrificing our time, comfort and ease. It’s the kind of love which has no price tag on it. Such love is steady and slow work, changing us without us ever knowing it’s happening. Life may sometimes feel dull or purposeless but the challenge to love those around us means that each day and in every situation, we are all called to be frontline workers. “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and in the life to come.” (Henri Nouwen)