Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Matthew 5:11-12
The final beatitude is worth pausing with for a while, because most of us have no experience of revulsion and persecution on account of Jesus, so we definitely need to slow down with this one and take some deep breaths.
When you’ve given yourself some time to reflect, noticing if certain words caught your attention, where your thoughts led you, what roused your curiosity…you might like to sit for a bit with this saying from the Gospel of Thomas and see what you notice with that.
Blessed are you who, in the midst of persecution, when they hate and pursue you even to the core of your being, cannot find ‘you’ anywhere.Logion 68
On a trip to Rome a few years ago, one of the things that struck me forcibly was how much of the art decorating the churches to inform and inspire worshippers and pilgrims depicted the death of the saints. In one church there were larger than life statues of each of the disciples holding the instrument of their execution. Simon casually holds on to a saw while he peruses a book, Bartholomew’s skin is slipping over the folds of the cloak he’s holding. I’d post a photo but I actually found it all very disturbing. This is the kind of persecution in store for those listening to Jesus’ words, and it can be hard to understand how the early church found such glory in it.
A commentator of the times observed that the blood of the martyrs watered the seeds of the faith. Rather than discouraging new believers, the persecution, torture and murder of Christians seemed to inspire others.
So what’s going on here?
Did the ancients have a different perspective on life and death because life could be so unpredictable, dangerous and tenuous, while death so prevalent among all ages that perhaps they expected less? Perhaps life seemed less precious to them, so they clung to life less? Somehow I don’t think that’s likely.
How can we look at persecution in the way that Jesus suggests it as a blessing and a cause for joy?
If we come at this with the mindset and values of ‘basic operating system’ which is mostly about staying safe, maintaining attachments and relationships to secure a future – well, it makes no sense to value suffering and dying for Christ. In fact, if we are fully identified with the story of this operating system, the one that tells us we have to hold on to everything – love, money, friends, status, power, youth, freedom, high ground and hats – suffering and persecution are the worst possible outcomes for our life. They are signs of total failure.
If we are going to make sense of it, we have to look through a different lens – the lens that the logion from the gospel of Thomas more clearly points to.
We need to open to a new mindset that re-frames our identity in the ground of God’s being rather than in our achievements or the attachments we have made; a mindset that allows a different perception of our experience of life, of being and of death; a mindset that tells a different story of grace, belonging, acceptance and liberation.
Jesus says you’re blessed if you are persecuted on his account…
Take a moment to reflect on your own experiences of prejudice and persecution. What has that been like for you? Have they had any connection with your faith? Does that make any difference?
What are the particular challenges of this concept for you, and where do you feel them in your body?
What happens inside you when you are singled out/stand out/ made to suffer because of something that you were identified with that made you ‘different’? How are you holding that experience now?
How does that effect the way you think about the suffering and persecution of others for their faith – we had a taste of what that means for Muslims in our country in March – what are the threads of connection and difference for you?
Let the body’s wisdom guide you…
Someone wise once drew my attention to the way ducks often have squabbles with each other. There is quacking and posturing as they dispute and then once the skirmish is over, each duck will stretch, flapping its wings and shaking off the encounter.
Is there a “shake it off ritual” you might try after a challenging conversation, an irritating encounter, an upsetting exchange? You might want to do it in private, but physically shaking out tension actually does relieve tension. Try it.
A natural sanctuary…
An alternative response to threat, snails have a place of safety constantly present to them, easily accessible, and they retreat into it without any sense of failure or shame. Could a snail shell be an image of God’s presence as a safe hiding place for your soul, a refuge where your sense of identity is restored, where God surrounds and holds you until you are ready to begin again? Perhaps you could find an empty one in the garden and put it somewhere you will see it often, or in your pocket, or you could make one out of fimo or clay, or doodle them whenever you need to remind yourself who is holding you, and the ground of your being.
Light a candle
It is a powerful thing to recognise connections, to stand in solidarity and to share the suffering of others and although it can cost little effort, take little time and appear to achieve little, it does seem that God is often happy to work with small things, without fanfare and for the long game. Take a moment. Light a candle. Open your heart. Do it again later or tomorrow and the next day.
You might want to choose a special candle for a particular situation or group, or if you work in a place with smoke alarms, you can use the Gratefulness.org site to light a candle instead.
A breath prayer
You may find you are as often on the giving end of persecution (inner critic slips out) or that you complete the loop without involving anyone else (inner critic stays in). Try tuning out the voice with a breath prayer:
Inhaling – Acceptance in
Exhaling – Rejection out
The between breath pause – God’s child
This can be a 4×4 part prayer (inhaling 4 counts, pause 4, exhaling 4, pause 4) or you can make a three part flow as it is written above.