In an episode, aptly entitled “Hell” of the cult Irish TV series “Father Ted”; Ted and his curate Dougal are enduring a dismal rain-soaked holiday together in a tiny, cramped caravan. To ease the boredom Ted tries to teach Dougal about perspective. Using plastic toy cows Ted tries to show Dougal the difference between “small”: the plastic toys, and “far away”: the real cows outside. “OK, one last time” says Ted pointing to the toy cows, “these are small… but the ones out there are far away. Small… far away…” But Dougal doesn’t get it.
For many of us, our journey with God can feel a little like that that rain-soaked afternoon. In a world which can feel both claustrophobic and overwhelming, the way in which we “see” God can be very confusing. Is God “far away”, transcendent, remote, distant, absent or non-existent….or is God close, imminent, present and visible in those “small” things which we so often take for granted or in those “little ones” whom we so often overlook.
The dilemma of the transcendence and immanence of God isn’t new. In many ways, the religions of the “Book”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all grappled with this. Is God so holy that God cannot even be named? Is God so “other” that God can only be “venerated” with robes, rubrics and ritual? Or does God “dwell among us”, “break bread with us”; and is God revealed most fully in the broken, battered body of a naked condemned, crucified criminal?
Christianity would pitch for the latter view. The “scandal of the Cross” is precisely that God reveals Godself in those places where we don’t want to look: in the “despised” and in the “rejected” and in “sites of suffering” where there is marginalisation, rejection, misunderstanding, exploitation and exclusion. Indeed, the challenge of Christianity is that if we can’t find God in the marginalised, the excluded and the forgotten, then we won’t find God at all!
I recently attended a retreat organised by Positive Catholics at Douai Abbey for diverse women and men of faith living with HIV in the UK. The stories of these individuals are, human, remarkable and painful. In so many ways people living with HIV still experience deep stigmatisation, misunderstanding, sickness, prejudice, poverty and exclusion. But what is astonishing, is that these very people who have the least to give in material terms; give to one another an abundance of love and affection and care and esteem and friendship and fellowship and kindness, and with such generosity.
It is difficult to find words to describe this “inexplicable” contradiction. The most moving part of the retreat was in our final celebration of the Lord’s Supper: we, the people, gathered in the sanctuary with our brother priest facing us (because God is present in his people, his little ones and his forgotten ones). Our brother priest struggling with his own frailty ministering “with” his sisters and brothers struggling with theirs; united in the diversity of our brokenness in love for one another and in love for Jesus. God was joyfully here. God was lovingly with us.
The gift that is shared by women and men whom the world finds easy to forget, is quite simply and quite astonishingly the revelation of God. If we cannot learn to seek the face of God in the poor, the marginalised, the forgettable and the excluded, we will never see God at all. God will always remain nameless, obscured by holy smoke, formless and unknowable. But when we look into the eyes of the forgotten, then rather like the disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus, we suddenly realise we are looking into the eyes of Christ and he is looking back at us.