My Crib Notes on Islam

F9B1823B-0BD2-4C07-B93C-65F4D2AC3C8AReflections on Islam and the Koran

la ilaha illa’Llah
“There is no god but God”

Background of Islam

The word “Islam” is derived from the root s-l-m. which means “peace” or “surrender”: “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.” “Allah” comes from joining al (the) with Ilah (God).

According to tradition, the Arab Muslims descended from Ishmael, who was Abraham’s son by Hagar, his second wife. Abraham’s first wife, Sarah, also bore a son and demanded that Abraham exile Hagar and Ishmael. They left Palestine and settled in Mecca.

Muhammad was born into the leading tribe of Mecca, the Koreish, around 570 AD. He is known as “The Seal of the Prophets” – the final authentic prophet. He grew up during a time of tribal turmoil.

Muhammad’s childhood was characterised by loss. His father died not long before he was born, and his mother passed away when he was six years old. His grandfather took over his care but died when he was eight years old. Muhammad then went to live with his uncle, whose family received him with warmth and love. Muhammad worked for his uncle as a shepherd.

Muhammad entered the caravan business and at the age of 25 he went to work for a wealthy widow, Khadija. Although she was 15 years older than him, they fell in love and married. Over the next 15 years Khadija supported Muhammad emotionally and financially as he began to take frequent retreats in a cave on Mount Hira on the outskirts of Mecca. He pondered good and evil and was unable to come to terms with the violence of his contemporaries. Muhammad did not take another wife as long as Khadija was alive.

At the time, the people of Mecca worshipped a variety of gods including Allah. Muhammad was one of the hanifs who exclusively worshipped Allah. Then around 610 AD on what is now known as The Night of Power, “the Book was opened to a ready soul.” (Le Gai Eaton, 1985: 103). Muhammad, at the age of about 40 years, received a visitation from an angel who told him that he was to be a proclaimer of God. Muhammad returned to his wife in a terror. He told her what had happened and she believed him, telling him that he would be the Prophet of his people.

After the Night of Power, Muhammad’s first “converts” were his wife Khadija, his good friend Abu Bakr, and his cousin ‘Ali. Gradually the circle expanded, which brought the pressure of the tribal rulers against him because he was preaching a wholesale revolution to their way of life. Muhammad’s teachings included the destruction of the idols which the tribal rulers used as the spiritual seat of their power: Mecca garnered significant revenue from pilgrimages made to its 360 shrines (one for every day of the lunar calendar). Muhammad also taught fraternal equality, challenging the class hierarchy of Mecca.

The Meccan rulers ridiculed the Muslims, then began to stone them, jail them, or starve them out through sanctions. As with early Christians, persecution only made the Muslims more determined. After three years of this, Muhammad had only managed to gather about 40 followers. But slow and steady wins the race. After ten years, several hundred families acknowledge him as the Prophet.

The Meccan rulers decided to assassinate Muhammad. But a delegation from the city Yathrib (later renamed “the city of the Prophet,” Medina) invited him to migrate there and become their ruler. Yathrib was riven with internal strife and needed a strong leader with no conflicting loyalties. Muhammad’s message had reached Yathrib and gained ground there.

Muhammad accepted the invitation and set out in June 622 AD. 70 families preceded him. When the MEccan rulers discovered what was happening, they tries to stop them, but Muhammad and his friend Abu Bakr hid en route to Yathrib while Meccan militants scoured the countryside for him. After three days, they managed to obtain two camels and use the back routes to reach Yathrib.

The date of his move to Medina, known as the Hijrah, represents the start of the Islamic calendar. Muhammad became the administrator of Medina: judge, military leader, policy maker and Prophet of God.

Muhammad became the public administrator: a “masterful politician; the prophet was transformed into statesmen.” (Smith). He continued to live in a modest way, setting the example for the city. It appears the Muhammad blended justice and mercy and this is palpable in the Koranic teachings about punishments for crimes to be tempered with compassion. During his management of the city, Muhammad managed to overcome the tribal conflicts (including with the Jewish tribes of the city) and unite the city into an orderly confederation. He appears to have been a great leader: someone who captured the hearts and minds of his followers, and used his power for good.

The Meccan tribes attacked Medina a number of times, but the Medina Muslims consistently won against Meccan armies which outnumbered the Muslims. When reading the Koran, you can see the passages which are to do with the just war against the Meccans, exhorting the Muslims to fight the Meccans but within the rules of a humane warfare.

Other tribes of Arabia began to pay allegiance to Muhammad until eventually the Meccan tribes also followed suit after a final failed attempt to take Medina. In 630 AD, Muhammad marched into Mecca in triumph and forgiveness. After this, the Prophet Islamised the north. Ten years later he returned to Mecca to make the hajj. He returned to Medina, fell ill and died in 632 AD.

The Koran

The word al-qur’an means a recitation. Thus the Qu’ran or Koran is the book which contains Muhammad’s revelations from Allah. It contains 114 chapters or surahs which, after the first surah, are ordered by decreasing length.

Muhammad received the Koran over 23 years. He would enter a trance-like state whilst his followers would transcribe or memorise his words. The Koran covers ethical, legal teachings, spiritual insights.

Similar to Christianity, compassion and love are the core teachings of Islam. Muhammad however had a longer life than Christ and more opportunity to articulate and apply his revelations to real world situations. According to Smith, “If Jesus had had a longer career, or if the Jews had not been so socially powerless at the time, Jesus might have systematised his teaching more.” (Smith). The Koran is the key Islamic text accompanied by the hadith which are texts describing Muhammad’s actions.

According to Huston Smith, Muslims tend to read the Koran as literally the words of God. To them the earthly Koran is the “instantiation, in letters and sounds, of the Koran’s limitless essence in its Uncreated Form….The created Koran is the formal crystallisation of the infinite reality of the Uncreated Koran.” (Smith).

That said, there is a strong Koranic scholarship tradition focused on interpreting the language and grammar of the Koran and its sacred history. There is also a tradition amongst Sufis and Shi’ites of examining the esoteric meaning of the Koran: its inner reality.

The Koran and Other Holy Books
The Koran includes the Old and New Testaments and represents their culmination. Thus Jews and Christians are included with Muslims as “People of the Book,” and it is implied that people of other faiths in the one true God would also be included (“To every people we have sent a messenger…” Koran 10:47). However the Koran is free from corruption which the other Testaments are susceptible to.

The Sonoral Tradition of Islam
It’s important to note that Islam was firstly a “sonoral” revelation: Muhammad “heard” the Word of God and then spoke it to his followers. Muhammad was “unlettered,” which if literally true as well as metaphorically, is interesting. Think of the Indigenous religions in pre-literate Australia and America, where shared spirituality occurred through speech, rhythm and ritual. Reading the Koran in translation does not have the same spiritual impact as listening to it recited or reciting it oneself. The pauses and intonations are all based on traditions going back to the Prophet (Nasr).

Muslims responded to this sonoral nature of the Koran by developing the art of calligraphy and Islamic architecture, in which spaces are designed to reverberate the recitation of the Koran (Nasr).

Treatment of Women
Something I find of particular interest about the Koran is its prescriptions for the treatment of women. Before Islam, women in Arabia were treated as property. Daughters had no inheritance rights and were sometimes killed in infancy.

In this historical context, the Koran revolutionised the way women were treated. For example the Koran:
• forbade infanticide
• required daughters to be included in inheritance to half the portion of sons
• sanctified marriage
• required that women give free consent to a marriage
• allowed women to instigate divorce and required their husbands to give them their marriage portion if a divorce ensued
• exhorted men with more than one wife to treat all with equal respect, love and esteem

The Koran advised women to “draw their cloaks closely round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed.” (33:59). Again historical context is important here: Muhammad lived at a time of banditry and violence. In this light, veiling is a kind of avuncular, prudent piece of advice.

The Koran sets out pretty severe punishments for moral offences. However when you read the Koran, you notice how Muhammad has set out the worst case scenario punishment almost immediately followed by exceptions, exemptions, and exhortations towards mercy and care in judgment.

Religious Tolerance
Muhammad decreed that the Jews of Medina would be permitted to practice their religion freely. He extended this freedom of religion to all who worshipped one God.

Theological Concepts
The basic theological concepts of Islam are the same as those of Judaism and Christianity. There is an ultimate, immaterial and invisible God who made the heavens and earth. Muslims experience a kind of holy fear of God: awe at the “magnitude of the consequences that follow from being on the right or wrong side of an uncompromisingly moral universe.” (Smith). Muslims believe in the idea of heaven and hell, but also a compassionate God whom a Muslim can access ay any moment for strength and guidance. There will be a Day of Judgment at which time the good and the bad will be divided between heaven and hell.

Gratitude and Surrender
Islam does not have a concept of original sin and fall from grace, but it does have the concept of ghaflah, which means “forgetting.” Humans sometimes forget their divine origin, but their fundamental nature is good. We have two obligations to God: gratitude and surrender.

According to Smith, the word infidel is more about someone who lacks thankfulness than someone who does not believe in God. The more gratitude one feels, the less greedy and grasping one is.

Surrender is a common core of religion and spiritual experience. According to William James,

When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed into our only permanent positions of repose….In the religious life…surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary. (James, 1961).

The centrality of the individual
As with Christianity and Judaism, the individual self is the arena for spiritual fulfilment and spiritual realisation. “All life is individual; there is no such thing as universal life. God Himself is an individual; He is the most unique individual.” (Iqbal, 1920). This creates individual moral responsibility for actions and eternal damnation or salvation. Muhammad provided evocative imagery of heaven and hell, intended to jolt people out of ghaflah and into action.

The Five Pillars of Islam

The Koran exhorts people to walk the straight path, “The path of those on whom Thou [Allah] hast poured forth Thy grace.” (Koran opening surah). The Koran includes five key social teachings, or pillars, as to how to walk this path.

1. Creed, Shahadah
“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The Koran requires a Muslim to say the Shahadah once in her life “correctly, thoughtfully, aloud, with full understanding and heartfelt conviction.” (Smith).

2. Constancy in prayer
Muslims are asked to be constant in prayer as a way to keep their lives in perspective (Smith). Muhammad sets out that Muslims should pray five times a day: on rising, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and before retiring. Muslims can pray anywhere, but preferably in a mosque on Friday at noon and any other time when it is possible.

First of all, the Muslim washes to symbolically purify the body and soul. Standing upright, the person then prostrates herself with forehead pressed to the floor. According to Smith, this has two levels of symbolism: the body is ready to reborn, and at the same time crouched as small as possible, representing the human nothingness in the face of God. Prayers centres around praise, gratitude and supplication.

3. Charity
Muhammad, via the Koran, introduced a graduated tax to support the needy: those in immediate need, slaves purchasing their freedom, debtors unable to pay their bills, strangers and wayfarers, and those who collect and distribute alms. The Koran specifies 2.5% of income and assets. Poor people do not have to five anything, but those in the middle and upper tiers should annually disburse a fortieth of the value of their possessions and income.

4. Observance of Ramadan

This is the holy month of Islam: the month in which Muhammad received his initial revelation and then ten years later, migrated from Mecca to Medina. Muslims who are physically able to, are required to fast during Ramadan from dawn to sundown. After sundown, they are allowed to eat and drink in moderation. Ramadan follows the lunar calendar. The aim of Ramadan is to encourage contemplation, self-discipline and compassion for the needy.

5. Pilgrimage

Once during a Muslim’s life, if she is physically and financially able to, she should travel to Mecca.

The Major Groups of Islam

Almost 88% of Muslims are Sunnis. This term comes from ahl al-sunnah wa’ljama’ah, followers of the sunnah of the Prophet and the majority (Nasr).

The Shi’ites and Sunnis emerged as separate groups upon the death of Muhammad.

The Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s friend, to be the Prophet’s successor. They thought that the caliph should protect the Divine Law, act as judge, and rule the community as a public administrator. The Sunnis were in the majority (and still are).

The Shi’ites believed that the caliph should be a person who also be able to interpret the Koran and the Law, because he received the inner spiritual power of the Prophet. Therefore he should be chosen by God and the Prophet, and not by the community. The Shi’ites named this person an imam, which in this context means the person who carries the “Prophetic Light.” After Muhammad died, the Shi’ites believed that the imam was ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib, whom they believed the Prophet chose before he died. Shi’ite imams are all descended from ‘Ali and Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet.

Shi’ites get their name from being shi’it ‘Ali- partisans of ‘Ali. They are divided into:
• Twelve-Imam Shi’ites
• Ismailis
• Zaydis

Kharijites oppose the claim of both All and Mu’awiyyah to the caliphate. They are small in number and mostly confined to Oman and southern Algeria.

There are sects and splinter groups which derive historically from Islam, including the Baha’is, the Druze of Lebanon, and the ‘Alaw?s of Syria.

My Reflections on Islam

The first thing that struck me as I read the Koran was what a kind, fair man Mohammed must have been. The rules he suggests in answers to questions seem extremely reasonable for a man of his time in history. In particular I was struck by his fairness towards women. For example, he requires a relatively fair outcome for widows or divorcees – a far cry from what the women of the times would have been accustomed to.

Smith observed that Mohammed became a legislator and administrator, and as a result his book goes much further than Jesus Christ’s gospels. Christ died before he could articulate his principles as applied rules in a government context. But Mohammed was appointed the administrator of Medina, and had to govern.

As a result his holy book reads in part like a list of rulings upon real life concerns, in addition to core principles and exhortations to remain true to a monotheistic religion and Allah. References to holy war against the infidels are thoroughly contextualised by the threats from tribal warlords and the precariousness of Mohammed’s attempt at a society built on the rule of law rather than the whims of men.

I like Muhammad as I come to know him through his book. He seems to me that he was a good guy.

It seems to me that Islam is an intensely aural tradition in the way that Judaism is an intensely written tradition and Taoism and Australian Indigenous spirituality are intensely physically experienced traditions. Huston Smith emphasises that the Koran should be heard in Arabic to be experienced, and the Sufi teachers also emphasise this. No doubt there is a physical aspect to the frequencies of the chants and prayers, similar to the Buddhist chants which stimulate a certain neurochemical response in the listener and participant.

I have taken to chanting the beautiful phrase in my head: la ilaha illa’Llah. Saying it over and over, the sonorality of the phrase – it is primal and sacred.

I also listened to the South Sudanese Sheikh Al Zain chanting the Al Baqarah, recommended by the New Seminary Sufism teacher. This is beautiful and brings home the sound aspect of Islam. It reminds me of how important sound is in this religion and also in connecting with people in the future of my ministry. I went to see a concert by a Zen Buddhist shakuhachi player and again was reminded of how spiritual and sacred sound can transport in a way that thousands of words sometimes cannot.

The Sufi mystic approach to connecting with the Unnameable resonates with me. I too have always believed that eternity can be experienced now; infinity in the present moment. I have not had the opportunity to participate in whirling as practised by the Turkish Sufis, but I can imagine that this physical act would induce a kind of embodied ecstasy, as close as you can get to transcending the body by being completely in the body.

I also like the regular daily prayer cycle of Islam, and the annual fast. The daily cycle of prayer keeps the Divine Mystery at hand, reminding you of the spiritual space in which you live. Christianity used to follow this kind of cycle too, but it has been forgotten by all but the monastics.

I like the annual fast as a kind of communal experience. In Christian society we have Easter but have let Lent go. But it seems to me that an experience of self-sacrifice is an important one to remind yourself of sacrifice in general; humility, and the people who have come before you, and your place in a long line of humanity.

I visited a mosque in India many years ago and was struck by the coming and going. People came, prayed, read, even had a quiet chat on the outskirts of the temple. Also I was struck by how utterly beautiful it was – the lack of human imagery and the use of patterns and designs, numbers (crossing over with the Judaic tradition of Kabbalah – so many crossovers!) The place was literally and metaphorically a cool, white oasis in a sea of red dirt. I had to cover my head to enter and frankly being inside I was glad I did. In such a place you want to make a gesture of some kind to lower your eyes and acknowledge your part in something so divine as human communion.

The same thing happens at my local Hindu temple, which I visit fairly often, as it is not far away and they make delicious masala dosa :-).There too, you can come and go, socialise, chat in the outer courtyards; get something to eat, share food; make an offering and have a prayer said on your behalf, and of course pray or meditate. The doors are open.

The first few times I felt like a tourist, but the most recent time I swallowed my shyness, approached a volunteer and asked how to make an offering to show appropriate respect. I bought a ghee candle for $5 and took it to the fellow making offering prayers at the shrine of Vishnu. After he chanted a prayer and lighting our candle, he marked me, my daughter and my husband with grey powder. We sat and said a quiet prayer of gratitude. We felt part of the place instead of intruders. We left the powder on all day, left it to wear itself off with the passage of time.

Footnote about Taoism:

A thought that has come to me about the Tao since I did my homework on that topic: I really like the idea present in the Tao that something comes after death. If we are so well taken care of in life, it seems reasonable that will continue in some way after death. This does not make me believe in an afterlife, but it does reassure me that there is something other than meaninglessness to life. I am reading a book called Other Minds at the moment, all about the evolution of life and consciousness in octopuses and how they are as close as we might ever come to meeting a sentient “alien.” It gets me thinking about the nature of life, which a scientist at MIT (I can’t remember his name!) recently modelled as a logical outcome of chaos. Life seems to be an energy, and that is what is the divine mystery.


Charles Le Gai Eaton. (1985). Islam and the Destiny of Man. (Albany: State University of New York Press).
Huston Smith. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: New York.
William James. (1961). The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Macmillan).
Sir Muhammad Iqbal. (1920). The Secrets of the Self. Reprint (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, 1979).
Seyyed Hossein Nasr. (1993). “Islam.” Our Religions. Ed. Arvind Sharma. HarperCollins: New York.

Merry Christmas and a brief history of Jesus

316E1438-A1FD-498E-8DAC-72783F23462AI think most Christians understand that Jesus was not actually born on 25 December in the Year 1 AD. Like the Queen’s Birthday, Christmas Day is a symbolic date rather than a literal one.

Christmas is thought to originate as a festive season from a number of converging festivals, including:

  • Saturnalia – the Roman celebration of Saturn, characterised by holidays and bosses being nice to slaves
  • Modraniht and Yule – the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples’ festival of gift giving and cook-ups to get them through the long dark winter, and their celebration of Modraniht, celebrating female deities Matres and Matronae (and isn’t that an interesting connection with the (virgin) birth of Christ? But that is a topic for another blog post!)
  • Winter Solstice – similar to Yule, a time to celebrate the half way point of winter in Europe
  • Chanukah – the Jewish festival to mark the historical re-dedication of the Temple in the second century BC

Historians estimate that Jesus was actually born around 4 BC in the rural province of Galilee. He was born at the same time as “King of the Jews” Herod the Great died at the age of seventy.

Herod was the client-king who ruled Judea under Roman aegis. In 37 BC, Herod had re-taken Jerusalem on behalf of Rome from Antigonus and his Parthian allies. Rome named him “King of the Jews” as a reward for his loyalty.
Herod’s rule was marked by excess and ruthlessness. Herod replaced the Temple priests with his own supporters and massacred anyone who hinted at rebellion. According to Roman historian Josephus, at the time there were an estimated 24 Jewish sects in and around Jerusalem. Three main sects dominated:

  • The Sadducees, who made up the wealthier class of landholding Jews, and generally collaborated with the Romans and accepted the state of affairs
  • The Essenes, a largely priestly movement that withdrew into communes on the Qumran hilltop in the Dead Sea valley
  • The Pharisees, mostly lower and middle class rabbis and scholars who tried to assiduously uphold the Law of Moses as set out in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Torah and the Bible)

The fourth segment of the population is known as the Zealots, and covers the various resistance movements which were eventually crushed in 60-70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Temple and massacred Jewish rebels.
I hypothesise that there was probably a fifth group, making up most of the common peasantry: those who kept their heads down, paid their taxes, did the rituals they were supposed to do as “good Jews,” and generally tried to get by.
Herod imposed severe taxes to pay for major infrastructure projects including Hellenistic and Roman institutions such as gymnasia, baths and amphitheatres. At the same time he commenced a massive project to rebuild and expand the Temple of Jerusalem.
After Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC, there was a period of bloodshed and chaos as Jews rebelled against their new rulers from Rome. Upon Herod’s death, Caesar Augustus split his empire amongst his three sons. He gave Judea, Samaria and Idumea to Archelaus; Galilee and Peraea to Herod Antipas; and Gaulanitis and the lands north-east of the Sea of Galilee to Philip. In response, the people rioted. Caesar Augustus sent in Roman troops to end the uprising. By 6 BC, he had placed Jerusalem under a Roman governor and Judea became a province ruled directly by Rome. Jesus would have been a two-year old toddler at the time.
The historical context of the Gospels
The Gospels represent a combination of memory and testimony. There are four Gospels included in the Christian Bible, and they include a collection of stories about the words and deeds of Jesus. Most of the Gospels say little about Jesus’ childhood and youth, and are largely concerned with his actions as an adult in the few short years before his execution. The Gospel of Luke includes a birth story which places Jesus in Bethlehem for his birth.  This is unlikely to have been historically accurate – there was no Census at the time the writers of the Gospel of Luke described, and when Rome did conduct censuses, it did so based on place of residence rather than place of birth.

Reza Aslan (2013) explains that this story (and several others in the Gospels) were intended as a “revealed truth” rather than an “historical fact;” a way to express that Jesus was the prophesied messiah. Aslan reminds us that the Gospels were not intended as historical record but as stories which represented spiritual truth. Like any tales of gods and heroes, the details are not expected to be factual but the underlying message is true.

Similarly, the story of Herod’s massacre of the Jewish firstborn sons which forced Jesus and his family into exile in Egypt is probably not historically accurate: there is no other record of such an event in the historical annals. But the Gospel writers of Matthew’s Gospel, like the writers of Luke’s Gospel, were saying that Jesus was the messiah as prophesied who would come out of Egypt. The story of Jesus’ resurrection and the virgin birth are possibly (probably) also stories of spiritual truth rather than factual events.

Jesus’ teachings

Jesus taught compassion. He reminded the Jews that God loved them. He gently but firmly opposed the Pharisee emphasis on the rituals of the Temple because he saw in this emphasis a literal rather than spiritual alignment with God’s will, and one which was adding to the financial burden and oppression of the common people. His views were a challenge to the Jewish priests’ power base and eventually led to Jesus’ arrest and execution.

800 odd years later, Muhammad almost attracted the same fate. He taught egalitarianism and compassion and he too angered the powerful Arab tribal leaders, who garnered considerable income from the 300 plus shrines which people paid tribute to in Mecca. The Meccans hunted and tried to assassinate Muhammad, but unlike Jesus, he managed to escape through the desert to Yathrib (later renamed Medina, the City of the Prophet).

Jesus was also a miracle worker, or what we might call these days a faith healer. At the time of Jesus, it was not unknown for men to enter this magical profession, travelling from village to village and conducting wonders. I don’t know if he really had magical powers; but I do know that the placebo effect is a scientifically proven phenomenon, and I can imagine a world in which placebo plus (let’s call it) the energy field of an extremely calm and enlightened person like Jesus could lead to a healing experience.

Jesus’ ministry
There is not a lot known about Jesus in the years between his childhood and when he burst upon the miracle working circuit when he was nearing the age of 30. We can assume that he was not literate, given hardly anyone was, but that he was a deep thinker and influenced by his cousin John the Baptist and other evangelical revolutionary teachers of the times.

As an adult, Jesus went with some of his mates to see John the Baptist. There it appears he had a transcendent experience of revelation; when he emerged from the Jordan River, he did not return to his carpentry business in Nazareth but went on the road, preaching and working wonders. Friends of friends, cousins of friends, friends of cousins started to follow him and he gradually developed a sizable following which included a number of wealthy benefactors who probably secretly subsidized their itinerant life. At no time was Jesus wealthy, and it appears he lived in the present, allowing others to deal with the alms which would pay for his and his followers’ work.

Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand and this got the attention of the Roman authorities, as it sounded like a clarion call to revolution. Gospel writers later placed a determinedly spiritual, lofty interpretation on these words, but at the time of Jesus, the Kingdom of God meant a free Zionist state and the end of Roman rule.

There were a number of “false messiahs” at the time of Jesus, pandering to the Jews’ desperation for hope, for relief from the yoke of Roman oppression, but Jesus never called himself the messiah. He always reminded people that they were the ones calling him that. He called God “my father,” his way of describing a supremely and primarily personal relationship which all Jews could entertain with God, rather than going through the priestly sacrifice (and cost) of the Temple powerbrokers.

My reflections on Christianity

Reading the gospels, it is pretty evident that Jesus was a great man. He was a clear thinker and saw through the bullshit of the Temple priests and power brokers, and for an unlettered man he seemed to have an instinctive relationship with the Torah. He was also a great orator, drawing crowds to listen to him wherever he travelled. And he seems to have exuded otherworldly calm, peace, wisdom and compassion: when you read the gospels, you are fairly lulled into a meditative state by the simple, plainly spoken words of a man who spoke his truth quietly but clearly. He was unruffled by the intellectual snares of the Pharisees and the Saduccees; he responded to the desperation of the common people with love and a empathy which had become rare in such an era of fear and scarcity. How an illiterate man, quite possibly the illegitimate child of a teenage girl, could emerge from his circumstances and speak of love and truth with such deep certainty was indeed a miracle.
Jesus the man

Jesus was, importantly, a man. The gospels report his cry of doubt just before he died: ‘My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?’ The gospels also give him other final words, including, ‘It is finished.’ Neither of these phrases appears to be designed to strike hope into the heart of a Christian. But they do show that Jesus was a human, and as doubtful of his fate as we all would be if we were facing the spectacular demise of all our dreams and certainties. It’s my favourite part of the gospel. I always was a morbid Christian, preferring Good Friday’s veneration services to Easter Saturday’s resurrection celebrations.

The resurrection

The resurrection. Some believe it literally, others believe it figuratively; either way, it is a symbol of hope and redemption. Jesus was a human, and died in the worst possible way. But God loved him and God saved him from death, raising him up three days after his death.
In the resurrected Jesus’ stories, the character of Jesus had a levity that he never displayed during his mortal life. Resurrected Jesus plays a little trick on doubting Thomas, telling him to poke the holes in Jesus’ hands. Resurrected Jesus pops up, appearing to the faithful as they go about their business with what I can only imagine as a smile of delight on his face. This may all be my fantasy of course. But the risen Jesus strikes me as a guy with no more troubles; a guy who, despite his doubt, was saved. And here is our hope. If Jesus could doubt right at the end of his life and still be resurrected, then so can we.

I find many of the Christian explanations of why Jesus had to die to be rather convoluted. Jesus had to die as the sacrificial lamb for our sins? I don’t think God is either that metaphorical or that literal. That said, the poetry of the Christian faith is to die for (sorry, puns, sorry). The Christian story is the most romantic one I know: a man who preached loving kindness, who refused to save himself, who forgave his betrayers and killers, who was ultimately killed in the most horrific way; this is the guy we call our saviour. This – loser. This – failed messiah. This guy is our hope. What better poetry than this? What more profound message than to lead a poetic life?

If the early Christians hadn’t raised Jesus from the dead, literally or metaphorically, I don’t think Christianity would have been quite so successful. People like a happy ending. A priest friend of mine once explained to me that the key characteristic of being a Christian is to believe that there is hope. If that is the case, I am still a Christian.


Some of my favourite passages from the Christian Bible
James 2: 14-26
My brothers, what good is it for someone to say that he has faith if his actions do not prove it?….as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without actions is dead.
I like James’ practical, applied version of Christianity. S/he provides really sound, practical advice about how to live in the world as a Christian. The idea of faith as a lived and acted experience really resonates with me. When I think about love, I think of it as a doing word: a conscious and daily decision to act in a particular way towards people. The same goes for faith: it’s an act in the world which is constantly creating and created.

James 4: 1-10
Where do all the fights and quarrels among you come from? They come from your desires for pleasure, which are constantly fighting within you. You want things, but you cannot have them, so you are ready to kill; you strongly desire things, but you cannot get them, so then you quarrel and fight.
This is also very practical and reminds me of the Buddhist wisdom that the core of human suffering comes from the constant push and pull between desire and aversion, both sides of the same coin of samsara.

1 John 4:7-8
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

The radical emphasis on God as love is what really sets Christianity apart for me. A benevolent universe, love as the fundamental creative energy.

1 Corinthians 13
I may be able to speak the languages of men and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell. I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains – but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give up my body to be burnt – but if I have no love, this does me no good.
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope and patience never fail.

Love is eternal. There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in strange tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass. For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.

When I was a child, my speech, feelings and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am a [wo]man, I have no more use for childish ways. What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete – as complete as God’s knowledge of me.

Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.

I didn’t want to include this passage, but I had to. It is so clichéd to read this passage out at a wedding and yet I had to have it at mine, read by my dear sister who has since passed away. This passage is pure poetry. The rhythm and repetition has inspired orators throughout history. I love that the use of language and music (which is poetry) taps into something deeply human – like the vibrations of a chant or the harmonics of a hymn. And of course I love the message, which reminds us of the ineffability and unknowability of God except through love.
Aslan, Reza. (2013). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Out Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: Epub.

White people don’t fart*

*Caveat: Some of my best friends are white people, and they definitely fart. This post is not about them. It is about those who do not fart. And when I say “do not fart,” I mean, of course, “Do behave in a racist fashion which implies that only people of colour fart. Or eat smelly food. Or take our jobs. Or kill people.”

I don’t know if I will post this blog. I feel kind of embarrassed just writing about the R word. I am not a victim; I have not been disadvantaged by my race.

Have I?

The thing is, a few experiences have been adding up lately and I don’t think they quite mean what I had always assumed.

I have had a few experiences lately which have left me no other word to explain them but with the R word.

I am writing about this because of a recent incident of overt racism in a professional context, which is not where you expect to encounter it. I had met this particular person, let’s call them X, a number of times and each time noticed that X didn’t seem to particularly like me. I assumed that X was shy, or nervous, or territorial, or perhaps just tired. But then we had a work meeting about a project and my husband was with me because we work together, and perhaps it was the sight of two Asians which was just too much for X. Certain words exploded out of her mouth as if she could not keep a lid on them, and when I heard them (and I don’t plan on sharing particulars as I don’t want a suit for libel), I laughed awkwardly because surely this wasn’t happening? But X did not laugh, and then went on to say several other things about groups of people who are of a similar skin colour to me (i.e. not quite white/right). So I stopped laughing.

The meeting proceeded, because what can you say to someone in power who says things like that?

Afterwards I processed what had happened. I reflected on my past exchanges with X; the physically drawing back, the not meeting my eye, the talking to my colleagues rather than me.

‘Ahah! That’s why X doesn’t like me!’ I cried to my husband. ‘Not because she is threatened by me (how cutely naive!), but because she is physically repulsed by me!’

It’s a very strange experience, to physically, viscerally repulse someone purely because of what you look like. This is what racism is: when someone doesn’t want to look at you, touch you, even smell you, because your body is slightly different to theirs around the eyes, and in the amount of melanin in your skin. That is enough to make someone recoil from your touch. It may as well have been you who let the fart rip in the lift on the way to the meeting. You would have been blamed anyway because white people don’t fart.

All my life I have been taught that if I behave properly and nicely, most rational people will respond accordingly. I was not told that sometimes, people will barely be able to look me in the eye because of the colour and shape of mine.

So when this does happen to me, as it has happened a number of times in my life and (sadly) more so in the last few years, my reaction is generally disbelief in the simple irrationality of it. Could an intelligent person really not like me because of what I look like?

Because racists aren’t always stupid or ignorant. However, they are always, always lazy. It is lazy to not fight the deep tribal urge to dislike what is different. It is lazy to not put yourself in someone else’s shoes or to not pull yourself up when you hear what your brain is saying on autopilot when you spot someone browner/yellower than you.

I too have been guilty of the visceral swerve. My Chinese mother raised me to distrust and dislike Chinese men (this type of internal racism is not uncommon). When I met and married my ABC, I had to overcome all my childhood-learned dogma. But I did, because I am not lazy (and he is super hot). And thank the gods, I was smart enough to recognise the man of my dreams, even if he looked like the type my mother and the rest of society had overtly and covertly warned me away from.

My experiences of racism seem trivial compared to the stuff many thousands of people put up with on a daily basis. Before I married my ABC, I experienced some mild racism – the occasional name-calling; one memorable egging (but to be honest, that could have simply been a random act of teenage-ness). However, since I married my ABC, I have become a secondary target for the racism which has dogged him his whole life and have come to understand that sometimes, people hate you for No Good Reason.

With him, my Eurasian-ness is no longer mistaken for whiteness and is instead fully absorbed into his Chinese skin, even though he was born in Wollongong and I in Brisbane. People think we are siblings because what Asian man can have a sexual identity? People think I can’t speak English because I am walking next to a University of Sydney LLB graduate who happens to look Chinese. People think my food smells weird and nasty because I am eating delicious cold rolls on the train and sitting with my Asian husband so therefore we are stinky and nasty (who could possibly think plum sauce is stinky?! Lazy racist people with no taste, that’s who).

The professional incident I mentioned above made me laugh, then made me feel unsafe because it made me wonder how many other people might be going around, hating me because of how I look. And then that just made me feel sad.

So I am writing this to stop feeling sad. I want to believe that each time the pendulum swings, it swings further in my direction. Right now it seems rather far off in the distance, and here I am, waving at it to come on over.

What would I say to all the racist people who make me feel unsafe because they feel unsafe because of people like me? I guess I would say this: Get you DNA checked. You’re probably just as yellow / brown / black / other as the rest of us, underneath your burnt red skin.

Interfaith ministry

I have just been accepted by The New Seminary into the ministerial program. I’ll tell you about it.

I have been looking for a way to pray in community for years. I guess you can take a girl out of Catholicism, but you can’t take the Catholicism out of the girl. A long time ago I started questioning the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and Karen Armstrong’s books helped me immensely to understand Catholicism and other religions as ways of translating the unknowable into terms humans can deal in.

Unfortunately religion gets caught up in culture and power, and you end up with institutional disagreements and simplified, mass messages about ‘truth’ which have nothing to do with genuine spiritual exploration.

I started reading more theologists and philosophers and began to understand the World in terms similar to philosopher and writer Marilynne Robinson:

  • Faith is an attitude towards life, rather than belief in a specific set of facts
  • I embrace the presence of mystery
  • Faith is a process, an attitude of wonder, an openness to joy as well as the experience of deep suffering

Recently I finished the second draft of my novel, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (working title – yes, it’s a Psalm). The day I returned home from writers retreat I felt this weird sensation which I soon identified as happiness. I was free of the book which had been my companion for the last five years. Suddenly I found myself following my nose, so to speak, and this meant researching how to become a celebrant for funerals. In this process I stumbled across the interfaith ministry course which Stephanie Dowrick had done in 2005. After researching some more and attending the interfaith service at Sydney’s Uniting Church, I decided it was the course of action.

Today I was accepted into the interfaith ministry program of the New Seminary. I had a chat with Dr Jay Speights, who is the convenor of the course and sounds like a really genuine friendly fellow who during our conversation kept discounting my tuition fees unprompted. I will do the course largely online, with two group sessions per month in real time on a Monday morning here, Sunday evening in the USA.  I also participate remotely in a number of intensives. Next June I am required to attend a group retreat in New York (such an imposition 😉 and then upon completion, I will be ordained as an interfaith minister.

The course focuses on world religions, pastoral care and interfaith service. Every month I am required to make site visits to various religious sites of worship, and the course is run by ministers of various faiths. For pastoral care I study and do practical exercises, and am required to find a local practice which can supervise my activities.

I have also enrolled in a celebrancy course in Australia so I can learn about and be qualified to conduct life ceremonies – deaths, births and marriages, so to speak. I am most passionate about funerals, forgiveness and naming ceremonies – I REALLY, REALLY think that everyone should have access to meaningful ceremonies which mark life’s key moments. I think these ceremonies make a difference to us.

I don’t really know where this will all take me. I don’t really care. It just feels 100% like the appropriate thing for me to be doing.

I look forward with excitement and trepidation to sharing what the courses offer with anyone who might be interested.



The power politics of (under-) funding the arts

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I have had this question bubbling around in my head for weeks (months, years). Why do Australian governments fund the arts so poorly?

It’s not an economically rational decision. There is ample evidence of the value of the arts to the economy. Politicians are intelligent and educated people, and can understand the concept of investment in an industry at certain nodes of influence having a catalytic effect, leading to much greater returns.

Cuts to the arts are often post-rationalised as an economic decision. In much the same way as I can rationalise buying yet another black cardigan (I’ll always use it, it goes with everything), the government uses economic reasons to rationalise selling pretty much anything. 20% cuts to higher education – ‘hard economic decisions’; freezing the Medicare payment schedule – ‘hard economic decisions; cuts to CSIRO, the ABC, and pretty much every other public institution which Australian people still actually have some faith in and respect for – ditto, ditto, ditto.

‘Hard economic decisions’ sounds paternal, responsible, vaguely Calvinistic, appealing to our epigenetic belief that pain is noble and necessary for the greater good. In reality of course, economic rationalism is just a marketing strategy for conservative government agendas. There is literally no economic sense in cutting the arts. There is even less economic sense in cutting something as essential as higher education or under-funding schools (the latter is increasing in the 2016 budget, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of quality education that was derived from actual research and evidence).

How do you argue with irrational people?

There are a few, barely visible factors which I think it might be useful to observe and unpack, which might help us to come to some sort of answer to this question.

  1. The government of Australia has a conservative, free market agenda.
  2. Arts, along with social service sectors, are viewed through a gendered lens.
  3. The end of democracy is nigh.

The government of Australia has a conservative, free market agenda

This is not exactly a state secret I am revealing here. But it is worth bearing this in mind. A free market, to some, means total laissez faire capitalism (think pre-GFC America) and to others (think Keynes, the economist darling of the arts) a market regulated to protect competition for the benefit of ‘consumers.’

At the moment in Australia we are finding out just what a free market means to our newest Prime Minister. So far, it seems to mean, ‘This government is not paying for anything that someone else will eventually cough up for.’

It seems sensible until you realise what it means in practice. For example, you can count on parents to work their fingers to the bone to send their children to university, even if the fees become astronomically high. When you love someone, that’s what you do. In the process, the parents may sacrifice their health and housing security to do so; and ultimately there will probably end up being far fewer Australian students at university from less affluent backgrounds.

The government can also count on artists practising their art despite not being funded to do so. When you love something, that’s what you do. Of course, there will be far fewer artists making art, and far fewer artists from less affluent backgrounds. But so what? It’s still taking place, right?

And then there is the argument – why don’t philanthropists pay for the art?

The problem with philanthropy is that it is not a meritocracy, as public funding is (meant to be). Philanthropists can donate to whatever they like, and so they should – but greater reliance on this purse means a greater concentration of funding in the hands of artists who can access power. It is the same problem as raising fees in higher education – a meritocratic system which enabled people like me and my siblings to escape poverty and ‘economically participate’ is less and less accessible to the scrappers, the underdogs, the people on the outside looking in.

wish things worked the way that the free market philosophers believe they do. I wish they did.

But they don’t. Free market politicians in this day and age are as dangerously innocent of reality and as frighteningly fanatic as communists in agrarian Russia, 1917. Just look at America to see how well free market economics works out for the little guy.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Foucault was on to something. Politicians use their power to entrench the status quo for themselves and the class they identify with. Cuts to education, freezes to Medicare, and cuts to the small-to-medium arts sector are all manifestations of this primitive act. They might even believe in it as they do it. Missionary zeal is never not zealous.

That’s why you have to elect a government which identifies with the class of the majority of people. With the working and middle-class, who like choice and enterprise but also like education and health care. Who like sport but also want their kids to be able to go to the library or the gallery or learn an instrument at school, public school.

I don’t think there is a political party in Australia which currently identifies with the class of the majority of people. I think the current government markets itself well in an aspirational sense – you know, the classic ‘if you buy this car you’ll get the beautiful girl’ – ‘if you vote for me you’ll be well off and have good-looking white friends who accept you.’ It has convinced people it represents who they want to become, as opposed to who they are. By comparison, I have no idea who the ALP represents. The ALP seems to have been experiencing the kind of identity crisis reminiscent of my teenage years (patched overalls, bandannas and brand name sunglasses. I was young. The ALP has no such excuse).

Arts, along with social service sectors, are viewed through a gendered lens

The other point I want to make is that the arts are viewed through a gendered lens, and whenever your industry or sector is viewed through the G-lens, you are under-valued. Social service sectors associated with the feminine virtues – childcare, social work, nursing, teaching – are amongst our poorest paid professions. Within sectors there are gendered hierarchies – criminal law or corporate law vs community law centres; brain surgeons vs paediatric surgeons; the big arts companies, associated with power and old money and status, vs the rest of the arts. Then of course there are gendered hierarchies within hierarchies – school principals and CEOs of social service companies – still mostly blokes, despite the majority of their workforce being women; heads of major arts companies still mostly men.

My husband gives me hope, noting that sectors like banking and finance will be disrupted via technology over the next decade or so, but it will be much harder to disrupt the social services sectors, in which humans will be ‘much harder to disrupt.’

I think arts are seen through the G-lens. This is because it is not seen as a ‘productive’ sector (even though we know it actually is – but like much of feminine-gendered work, the outcomes seem indirect or invisible to the gendered eye).

Because of the G-lens, arts work is not viewed as ‘real’ (i.e. men’s) work by people outside the arts. Consequently arts is stuck with a bad image as the ‘pretend’ work of ‘people who’ve never known a day’s real work.’ As soon as you say ‘I work in the arts,’ people roll their eyes. It’s like you just said, ‘my biweekly mani-pedi in Toorak.’ Because the ‘arts’ are seen as a nice to have, as something fun, as something you might do because you love it but not for the money, then you are immediately identified as someone who is either a ‘bludger’ on the tax payer (i.e their) coin, or a member of the moneyed class. In reality, most of the arts sector is impoverished and many are attempting to speak truth to power and other culturally necessary acts of resistance.

The other thing about gendered sectors is that the work they do and the value they create makes positivists like free market believers uncomfortable. The exchange involved in arts is about people, relationships, connection and spark. It is an energy transfer and by nature its impact is largely unseen. Arts experiences are gifts and cannot be made more efficient or productive. The value of an arts experience is like the value you derive from a teacher who actually cares about you, or a counsellor who genuinely responds to where you are at right now. It saves you. It changes your life. Authentic connection is so hard to come by in this free market age, where everything has a price and everything can be made more cost-effective (I was just reading that funding cuts will see callers to mental health helplines asked automated questions so they can be directed to the appropriate mental health area. This is an attempt to streamline helplines rather than fund specialist helplines. Imagine calling a helpline and getting asked to dial 1 for suicidal ideation, 2 for loneliness, 3 for eating disorders…? You don’t have to be that imaginative to see that helpline might not be very helpful). But in this era, the ineffable is dubious.

The end of democracy is nigh (well not entirely, but come on, got your attention)

Since the late 1990s, we have seen a contempt for the ethics and norms of public service arise in the corridors of power. I don’t mean everyone in parliament – there are lots of good people working for their electorates. But I think that there is a clique of political types who learned under Howard’s tutelage (SievX, children overboard, ‘I was not informed’) just how much room there really was to manoeuvre before you actually broke the law.

In the arts, this was brought home in 2015 when the Australia Council unceremoniously lost a huge chunk of its funding. I and others were speechless at the sheer audacity of such an act, flouting long-valued conventions of arms-length funding and the norms of policy-making in consultation with the sector and based on evidence.

It’s not so much the end of democracy I am talking about here, as the end of the concept of public service. 2015 highlighted for me that there is, amongst some decision-makers, a lack of respect for the norms of public service – evidence-based policy making, careful consideration of the public interest, transparency and accountability of ministerial funding decisions….It’s seems as though there are some decision-makers who hold us, the people they are supposed to serve, in contempt. These decision-makers behave like a passive aggressive friend who calls you at 6.00 am on a long weekend to allegedly wish you a happy birthday (you know who you are). How do you call them on it? It’s not illegal. But it’s clearly not right.


Top ten tips for responding to a mourner

Today I bundle under my new doonah cover, bought for its primary colours in a nod to the need for cheering up. My husband has taken our daughter to the playground, which she was unimpressed about, sensing perhaps that mummy’s retreat to bed reflected more than a sore throat (although there is that of course, too – the low immune response of grief taking its daily toll). Or perhaps she was just hungry. Who knows. She left the house swathed in a red and white check sheet which her father also used to wear as a boy, both generations emulating superheroes ready to fight off the baddies. She is my little hero, but sometimes I need a break. I feel the need to apologise for this to the gods that be, in case they think I no longer deserve her.

It has been what, three weeks? I can’t tell – since my sister died. I have started to feel guilty for still feeling bad. Shouldn’t I have moved on by now? Shouldn’t I be getting on with things? I read about one woman’s explanation, several years after losing a child – she still misses her everyday, but sometimes she is happy. I know losing my sister cannot be compared to losing a child, but I felt like I knew the sentiment.

I have begun to dig in a little, not wanting to forget my sister, not wanting to be happy just yet, as it would somehow dishonour her, mock my own grief, belittle her importance to me. I get angry at people who want to cheer me up, as if they are saying, it doesn’t matter that much. Of course that is not what people are saying – I know that. But that’s how it feels. The best responses are when friends don’t ask, how are you, but ask, how was this week – acknowledging the context, the different set of benchmarks you are operating within. But we in the West encounter death so rarely nowadays, that we don’t know how to sit with it; we don’t have the experience to know what a mourning person might need.

I don’t want this to sound like a complaint – I have received love and kindness from numerous sources, and I am lucky for this. Perhaps it is just the nature of grief, that you cast about, looking for something to fill the gap of the love you have lost. I do think it is also the lack of some kind of acknowledging ritual, or a period of mourning, something to dignify this loss, something to socially ‘see’ it.

The other thing that happens is, some people seem to think you should be less sad if the person who died had been ill or are elderly. Like it should be easier to lose someone who clearly was on the way towards death anyway. And maybe there is truth in this – the grief for Ally is for me somehow cleaner than it was for dad, whose death was a shock. But I want to scream to the world (and I think I and my siblings did this at her funeral): just because Ally was disabled does not mean I miss her less now. She was a whole person to me, right to the end.

When someone dies, you lose everything of them and you together. You lose the person  who you knew as a child, as an adult; you lose your history with them even if you still have your memories. You lose their complex presence inside your life, your skin, your flesh and mind. You don’t even know exactly what warmth they provided until it is gone. I suppose this is why I am drawn to quantum physical explanations of the soul. Because the loss feels so very very physical.

I have wonderful friends and loved ones taking care of me right now viagra india. Drawing on their sweet actions, I offer the following advice to people wondering how best to relate to a mourner in their lives.

Even if you have little experience with grief yourself, I hope the following will give you a few simple ‘ins’ so that seeing a mourner does not make you feel helpless.

Tips for responding to a mourner

1. When you hear of the loss, even if belated, I recommend that you send a card, call and/or better yet, send a small caring gift or token. Don’t SMS – or if you do, follow it up with something more tangible – eg even just an email, if it is a loving one, preferably more than one line.

2.  If the mourner does not return your calls, you can send an email or a card or persist in trying to call go on. Keep trying. It’s just that they don’t have any energy, but your thoughtfulness in persisting will make them feel loved.

3. A physical gift or token as I mentioned above, can be really appreciated. It could be chocolate, your favourite relaxing tea blend, or perhaps a massage oil. Whatever it is, as long as it is something you have thought about and want to share with the mourner – as long as it represents that you care – it doesn’t matter what it is or how small.

4. The mourner might not want to talk about it. That’s not about you, it’s about their process. I recommend occasionally offering subtle openings to talk about it if they want to – even if they said they don’t – they might change their mind half way through your conversation, once they have dealt with the initial discomfort of being re-submerged in their loss.

5. If you can, attend the funeral. Even if you think, I didn’t know the person who died all that well, it is a much, much appreciated show of support at a time when the mourner is feeling a great rent in their usual fabric of love.

6. Your mourner might still be feeling up and down, occasionally sad, depressed or angry, for many months and years. Give them a bit of rope, but you should not have to be on eggshells around the mourner, and if they take their anger out on you, it’s best if you tell them that is what they  are doing – they should not do that and if they feel angry, they need to find ways to let that out. It is never OK to let a mourner make you their doormat.

7. Be aware that some of the mourner’s moods are not about you; you don’t need to (nor can you) fix them; all you need to do is be present and acknowledge the pain. Often your mourner is just looking for permission to feel whatever they are feeling, even after time has passed, because our society denies the mourner that permission. But you can support the mourner with the permission to grieve, and you may find the mourner starts feeling better sooner as a result.

8. I think I want to reiterate that point: it is not your job to make the mourner feel better. Don’t take that on. We tend to try to fix things in our society, but grief cannot be fixed. It has to be lived through and loss has to be integrated into who we are after someone has died. It is up to the mourner to tell you what they need, and it is up to you to make sure they are not milking you dry emotionally.

9. If a mourner doesn’t know what they need, you might be able to suggest things (like time off – the main things we need are time and permission). If you think the mourner is becoming maudlin (ie re-traumatising themselves for no benefit), try distraction, fresh air, sun and light exercise. Bringing up politics and things happening in the wider world can also provide perspective, and anything which gets the mourner laughing is good for them. But don’t force these things – just bring them up gently, into conversation or activities. Let them take effect rather than didactically (or self-importantly) telling someone to get out of their rut.

10. Hugs, physical touch, and checking in as time passes – these should all be top of the list really. I think this is why I talk about gifts – most of my close friends live a long distance away, so gifts are a substitute for visit and touch.  If you live near a mourner, try to squeeze in a few drop-ins more than usual, and check in as time goes on too, even just a phone call here and there. Hugs generate oxytocin and connection, which the mourner desperately needs. And checking in is a great way of letting the mourner know you care, and that they are still allowed to be sad if they need to be – you acknowledge this each time you offer your open arms or ears.

Thank you to all the excellent souls who have done all of the above for me. You know who you are. xxxx


Grief and pain

The pain has hit.

Today was the first day I did not think to myself, ‘I can’t believe she is gone.’ Now that the buffer of shock has dissipated, the pain can be felt, as if the body was waiting for the mind to be ready to handle it. Just.

Grief feels like a weight on my chest, a nauseating swill in my gut. Today it hit me in the car driving to the shops with my darling husband and daughter. I felt like I could not move my head, or get up from the chair until it let me. It hit again later, when we got home – luckily it was nap time for my little person, so I went to bed and slept for two hours, then got up and waited for the lead to leave my system whilst I watched my husband do all the chores and play with our daughter.

I wanted to know why this happens. When Dad died, the Internet was still in its unreliable infancy. This time, I could ask Dr Google.

Scientists have documented the following physiological impacts of bereavement:

  • neuroendocrine activation (cortisol response)
  • altered sleep (electroencephhalography changes)
  • immune imbalance (reduced T-lymphocyte proliferation)
  • inflammatory cell mobilisation (platelet activation and increased vWF-ag)
  • hemodynamic changes (heart rate and blood pressure)

This explains why I feel exhausted but can’t sleep when I would normally like to. Why my fuse is short and my heart shakes. Why I have been fighting various lurgies and allergies this week. Why my stomach clenches as if something terrible or wonderful is about to happen – or I am about to throw up. The heart genuinely aches; the body is truly labouring with less air and under more strain. Doing the daily chores feels like acclimatising to high altitude mountain climbing, because you essentially are doing exactly that.

According to the research, these physiological responses are greatest in the early months after bereavement. In spousal bereavement or the loss of a child, the survivors experience increased mortality (particularly if they are elderly and so have less immune response in the first place): dying of a broken heart is real.

I wonder why the sorrow waited until now, when I am preparing to get back to work on Monday. Unfortunately, you can’t dictate to your body or your spirit a clear schedule; a project management approach to grief.

There are websites which provide advice about living with and through the physical pain of grief (I won’t list them here, but just google grief and you will see loads of heartfelt advice and suggestions). Practcal advice includes having massages, eating well, snuggling, and listening to sympathetic music. The advice I will try to take regarding working – instead of making to-do lists, make a list of everything you got done at the end of each day; say no to things you don’t have the capacity for; get more sleep if you can, and exercise.

When my dad died 15 years ago, I was very hard on friends whom I didn’t feel responded the way they should have. I was young, and they were young, and I was sensitive and in shock. Everyone responds differently – as one website suggested, one should not expect to get the reactions one wants, but be open to forgiving and accepting this. I was not, last time around. I want to be this time, because I know my own pain last time made me lose more than I needed to when my dad passed away.

I have received some beautiful and really interesting replies about my soul searching posts. People have given me their own insights and I am hugely grateful. Does anyone else have any ideas, or experiences to share? I am so intensely curious – what do you think happens after death, based on your experience? And if you don’t think there is a ‘soul’ or ‘energy blueprint’ after death, how do you find meaning for your life?

I may have seized on quantum physics and the soul as a way to avoid feeling the full terror of there being no point at all to each individual life. If you have a different solution to this, please share it.





Quantum physics and the soul

Today I woke up sick with a cold. It is as if my body, upon hearing me think about starting back to work today, had other, more realistic ideas.

I am watching comfort DVDs and eating the chocolate which came courtesy of Julie Lovell. It feels surreal, using the old tricks of the trade to ease my way through depression for this particular affliction.

I have been resisting thinking of my sister as a phenomenon of the past, the way I spent years not thinking of her as disabled, but simply as an individual of different characteristics to most. That was until she herself described herself as disabled but not in a defeated way, simply as a matter of fact, an aspect of her reality to deal with. But she is not here to tell me, in her straightforward way, ‘Well, being dead….’

I can’t feel her any more.

Those first few days, as I wrote in my previous post, I could feel her confused soul, seeking its way forward. But after that, I have felt not so much nothing as very distinctly that she is not part of the world I inhabit any more. There is a coldness to it, and maybe this is an artefact of numbing myself to the reality, or maybe it is because she has passed into a different realm of unknowability, or maybe it is because, as I am starting to believe, she no longer exists as Allison but as a set of frequencies unattached and unaware of itself.

After my last post, I googled ‘quantum physics and the soul’ and discovered that I am not the first person to theorise the soul as a set of coded frequencies. Several physicists – one at Cambridge University, one at Princeton, and one at the Max Planck Institute – have theorised similarly that this is possible. (This one is the most similar to my thinking about wave-particle duality and the potential for the soul to continue as a set of frequencies).

I wonder if the soul has no mass, in which case, it could theoretically continue forever unless interrupted. But I also think that such a post-death collection of frequencies would be unlikely to be self-aware without the physicality of a body / matter, and therefore would not be capable of directing itself into another existence, unless it is the soul of a great meditative practitioner whose brain frequencies have been altered through years of practice to actually incorporate some sort of directive awareness. If the soul has mass, then it exists in space-time like the rest of us and cannot continue indefinitely, except perhaps in its wave-aspect. Hmm.

I have started reading Tibetan Buddhist texts on what happens at and after death, and the theories are similar to mine and those of the quantum physicists, except that they are far more detailed. The Buddhists theorise that the ‘soul’ is shaped by the life of the person (which makes sense – the brain is elastic and shapes itself according to genetics, environment and experience). They believe that good karmic works during life set the soul up for a positive rebirth. In quantum physics, you could describe this as the soul’s set of frequencies having a predisposition to connection (in life, known as ‘compassion’), which means that the soul is drawn to similar frequencies or quantum states. Potentially, this could be a new life. The soul blueprint is absorbed and imprinted in that of the physical being it has joined, so you would have no idea of it but in this way, knowledge is imprinted and continued and evolves with each physical iteration.

OK now I can see I am sounding crazy. But the fact is, if there is a soul, there must be a material explanation for it. Otherwise it is just crazy talk. We should never rule out anything that might be possible simply because of the prejudices of the times we live in. We would still think the earth is flat and the centre of the universe if we did that.

The Buddhists talk about different realms which the soul enters after physical death, and possible ‘reincarnations.’ These depend on how well the soul can direct itself after death, and how trained for connection it is. In gross material terms, I can imagine a swirling soup of soul space, except I know this isn’t what it would look like because that would have been detectable. In quantum physics terms, I think it more likely that the soul (perhaps I should call it a quantum blueprint? There must be a less loaded term…), if eternal in its wave aspect, writes itself into the quantum layer and yet can interact with matter, and possibly is attracted to matter, and so may at times iterate in the physical world.

Where is this leading me? To other worlds? To other universes? If the soul can exist, does exist, at a wave level, then it could feasibly exist everywhere, at all times, massless, echoing throughout the vacuum, a potentiality encapsulated in the DNA of the sub-atomic multiverse. What then makes it a physical reality? Does it have an inherent attraction to physical form? To – life? I don’t want to ask the question,’ why’? because this goes in the wrong direction – it starts to assume without proof that there is a choice behind all of this. Better to ask, ‘what’ and ‘how,’ at this point.

Do we encapsulate all possible selves within us? Is this what it means that we are all interconnected, that we are everyone’s mother? Outside of spacetime and inside spacetime simultaneously? I used to hypothesise as a child, that Jesus taught us how to access eternity right now, in a moment. Perhaps this is what I meant? That eternity is living within us?

This is contingent on the soul having no mass. If it does have a mass then that could explain why it is attracted to matter at some point, rather than continuing indefinitely. Perhaps it does both? Perhaps it has Higgs bosons and wave aspects simultaneously?

Perhaps I am just looking for an explanation for what is really just a projection of my own mind, desperate for a way to sublimate its loss?

Here I am stuck. Any ideas, any other amateur quantum physicists out there?





Religion and death

It is at times of death that religion has its greatest potency.

It had been a long time since I had been to mass. As I listened to the liturgy during my sister’s farewell, I could hear the rhythms of the service in a way I had not as a regular attendee. I heard the constant beats – death, hope, death, resurrection, death, death, death. In the midst of life we are in death. In the midst of death we are in life.

I often think about religion and faith – most often when I am driving and my mind has some time to itself. But on Tuesday at my dear sister’s funeral, I thought about religion in a new way. As something you can only really think seriously about at a time like this, when the veil between us and the enormity that humanity is part of is at its thinnest. I thought, This is when I should think about religion. This is what religion is for – to prepare us for death.

Buddhism is quite overt about this. It has specific meditations where you visualise corpses, skeletons, and remind yourself that all is impermanent. For great practitioners, their final days are spent in a meditative spell, attempting to refine the subtle mind to the point that reincarnation is as conscious a choice as possible.

Christians live in the reality of death and the possibility of hope, through Jesus. I heard the words about sin and redemption and it sounded to me just like the kind of faith that would be born from a culture struggling to assert a moral hold on itself. Christianity offers hope in death. Imagine. What a thing.

Hinduism, like Buddhism, celebrates rebirth and enjoins us to merit during our living years. I don’t know enough about Judaism and Islam to speak about their after-death beliefs, but from my reading of theology and history (especially the excellent book, a History of God, by Karen Armstrong), I know that many faiths embrace mystery and remind us of the unknowable.

Islam, Judaism and Christianity each have mystic practices which acknowledge, through rules and symbols, that God is beyond naming.

I have been through the common journey from devout Catholicism to agnosticism in my life. But for years there has been something hopeless about my materialist worldview, something spiritually bereft which I dismissed as hankering after the community of faith rather than a reflection of some hidden truth I was missing.

Upon reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, my views changed and crystallised again. She gave me a way to understand faith as an attitude towards life, and acceptance of mystery in the world we know and do not know. Whether this is hopeful, I don’t know, I couldn’t say.

When my sister died, I had no butterfly on the windowsill moments. I did not feel her leaving me peacefully, farewelling me to go to a better place. I had a very strong feeling that she was confused – that perhaps she did not even know that it was over for her. I spoke to my husband about this, and we cried together. I tried to explain what it made me think – how I could explain this sensation in the material terms I thought about the world. Perhaps people’s souls are the electric frequencies, the patterns of us, which are left even when we die. Our bodies cease to work, but the brain frequencies that made us who we were linger in some sort of sub-atomic way, like a code, like an electric version of DNA for the soul, but far more fragmented, and much harder to observe scientifically. Music resounds with certain frequencies in our head, which is why we experience dissonance and consonance the way we do, and the same is true of stories. Why not then, personalities?

In my nascent theory, this then is the soul – a lingering pattern which eventually, perhaps brokenly, perhaps in perfect form, rejoins the life energy of the universe (wince) for want to a better term – I am still working on that. (Please don’t think I am falling into a mind/body dualist position, which is such a moronically gross concept that I don’t want you to think I am going there.)

The soul is as close as we get to experiencing the unknowable.

In those days after my sister left us, I felt that I could sense my sister’s soul’s confusion. In the hours after she left us, I felt strongly the lack of a cultural ritual which would have let me stay with her body through the night and into the next few days, before her final farewell. We should be able to sit with our loved one, and be as involved in preparing them for disintegration as we want to be. But that is a topic for another essay.

This sensation triggered my theorising. I spoke to my Buddhist monk friend about it. He is the closest I could get to an expert on dying.

He said, ‘I don’t know if it [my feeling] is real or not, but it is all so interrelated, and maybe people who are close to the person who has died can feel it more. I don’t know, but it can definitely help to just keep sending them calm, peaceful thoughts that it is OK to go.’

‘And even, um, information?’ I asked, not wanting to sound stupid. ‘I am not sure she knows she is gone.’

‘Yes, that can happen when people pass away with problems or lack of clarity in the mind, or drugs in their system. I have seen it a lot and it is really, really common.’ This was a relief. Even if it was not true, it was something I could do for her. And who knows? No one can definitively prove there is no such thing as a soul lingering, clinging to familiar matter, waiting for the all-clear to go.

So over the next few days, I sent my sister calming thoughts and most importantly, the information that she had died: that this next journey was hers. Gradually, the sensations grew less urgent, and when the funeral directors collected her body form the morgue. the sensations stopped all together. I do not know what was real or not. As my monk friend, said, It is all so interrelated.

So this is my theory of the soul, and I am still working on it. I can say that some sort of spiritual practice to prepare for death is necessary for me. I don’t know what form it will take. All advice welcome.



Grief and Joe Hockey

Grief is like the ocean. It comes in waves – some seem angry, some wash ashore with peace in mind, some seem to be trying to return to the centre of the world as if they could reverse the tide and tug of the moon above.

I miss my sister. It might seem strange to miss someone who could not speak for the last two years of her life. I missed her then too, but now I miss her in the bleak, dreary fashion of knowing I can never sit and hold her hand and feel her kiss on my cheek, or see her questioning glance.

I miss hugging my sister. She was the best hugger in the world, I think, even after her time in the aged care home meant she could no longer raise her arms in response. I miss her smell, of clean clothes and familiarity. I miss her orbit – when I entered it on my short visits to Brisbane, I felt I had come home.

Coming home is an instinctive laying down of burdens, shedding the external skin and putting on a far more comfortable layer. Even if we play roles with our loved ones, they are roles so ingrained we need not think how well we are playing them. This was my peace with Ally.

Not that it was easy to visit her. Every time I left her I felt a tearing sensation, and would cry a little, grieving the relationship we could not have, the life we did not lead. Some of this I blame on bad luck, illness. Some I blame on the system, because that is where the blame squarely rests.

There is a lot of futility in the disability system of Australia. My sister suffered a mini stroke when she was in compulsory transition care which caused or at least significantly sped her demise. Let me explain, because it will seem unreal to those of you with no experience of the system.

Ally kept having falls, and she could not be cared for at home by my mum any more. She could still speak, eat, walk (with a frame or stick). She suffered dementia, but she had periods of lucidity every day and in her own reality, she was mum’s carer, not the other way around – and in many real ways she was, giving my mother purpose and meaning.

Finally the disability system accepted that she really needed external care (after years of trying to get my sister an adult lifestyle package to prevent social deterioration, the system responded to a crisis which, who knows, may not have been so severe if they had acted sooner.) But to go into a care group home, she would have to first stay in transition care for several weeks – for some unknowable reason she could not go straight fro her own home.

When my mother and older sister took her to the transition home, Ally said as clear as a bell, ‘Don’t leave me here.’ My mum tried to tell her it was a holiday.

Ally started getting a rash and the carer gave her Phenergan, which was contra-indicated with Ally’s medication. Let me repeat this: the carer, whose job was to care for Ally and take care of her meds, gave her something which she would not have given her if she had been doing her job with a basic level of duty of care, and THEN (we believe) LIED ABOUT IT. Ally went into a deep sleep from which she never recovered. Days later she awoke, but could no longer eat or talk. We entered into a series of complaints, mostly concerned that this would not happen to others. The carer either deleted or did not enter the Phenergan in the record she was supposed to keep. The complaint unit is a part of the disability department itself. We never stood a chance.

Ally could still walk and move her arms and try to say mum. But time spent in the under-resourced and unsuitable system of aged care soon took care of that. After several months she lost even these abilities.

Finally a year later we got her into a beautiful group home for high care needs, with excellent care workers. Ally revived – she would never regain significant physical functions lost to neglect, ignorance and a broken system. But  she started to sign with her hands, try to help with her care, go on outings, and generally engage in living.

But the lack of movement which resulted from the aged care meant that the fluid gathered on her chest and would not disperse. It was a matter of time before pneumonia would carry my sister away with it.

I hoped for a few more winters. I got just one.

It is natural to feel angry when someone you love dies. I don’t feel particularly angry as I write this. Mostly I feel tired. There are things we can do, things we can fix. What our politicians have forgotten: the reason to keep somone alive and well is not how productive they can be in material terms, but because we love them. Our politicians forget how senselessly unproductive so much of being human is. Grief itself seems a useless by product of attachment to an economic rationalist. Love too, a useful emotion only insofar as it creates a will to breed for the labour force.

But humans are not like that. I think it is time our treasurer Joe Hockey loved someone whom it is absolutely economically irrational to love; someone like my sister Ally. I mention Joe not because I don’t know that disability services are a state matter, but because for me he represents all that is ahistorical, morally bankrupt and dogmatically obtuse about the economic irrationalism of our times.

That said, I could do an impact evaluation for you, showing you the lives Ally touched, the people she inspired and the value this created for the economy. I could really do that. But why? If you have ever loved someone, you know that all the other stuff doesn’t matter.

If the system denudes us of love, derides us for our essential humanity, then it’s time to overthrow the system.

Let my grief come, let it wash over me, salt my skin with the tears of loss, chafe my soul clean. I grieve someone who could not speak, or swallow, who could not walk or  move her arms. I grieve someone who could love, right to the end. When his time comes, will Joe Hockey be able to say the same?