Peace in the Heart of the City (July, 2013)
An article by a participant, Lizzie Foster-Bollons about her experience.
And so I am back home again, and now back into normal roles and routines. However at the beginning of July I was fortunate to attend ‘Peace in the Heart of the City’ held in Tower Hamlets, facilitated by Interfaith Vision. It has left very clear impressions on me, and I continue to reflect and to question what peace might mean in its fullest sense, and how I contribute to that.
The two days were quite extraordinary and encompassed so much. There was a place for sacred conversations, honest enquiry, the voicing of tender hopes, music, dance, pilgrimage, good food and friendship.
However, although separate in time, two particular contributions at the event continue to shine brightly for me.
The first was the inspiring and thought provoking talk given by Ray Gaston which opened the conference. As part of his talk Ray explained that the words for God in Arabic and Hebrew were linguistically connected to the word for ‘womb’. I notice that I get caught up with ideas of trying to achieve peace. That is, trying to achieve peace both in myself and in the wider world in some effortful way. And that is of course often the way peace is portrayed generally, that we do have to work hard to achieve it. Parts of the media would certainly have us believe that this is the case. However when I strive for peace, trying to create some sense of it, I am aware I become tighter and more bounded, and I potentially destroy the very thing I am trying so hard to create.
Through Ray’s talk and the subsequent exploration around images of birthing, I came to understand more clearly that to enable peace it requires me to soften, to open and to continue to birth qualities that are already a part of me, as part of the Oneness, the compassionate heart of God, The Source of All, however we name that. It is an invitation to love.
Of course attention to peace requires action at times, courageous action too sometimes. But it also requires me to encourage and allow something within me to flourish, my own innate capacity for compassion and peace. To be still and centred rather than forcing, or striving.
So looking through a different lens, on that first evening we were then invited to attend ‘Space for Peace’, created by June Boyce-Tillman and held at St Johns Church, Bethnal Green. And here was my second experience. It was a musical vigil for peace, inspired and performed originally I believe at Winchester Cathedral to honour Holocaust Day. It felt particularly poignant given our setting in the city and the recent events in Woolwich.
The evening began with singers and choirs of different faith traditions singing together, and to which everyone present was also invited to join. And then each person or group sang motets, hymns, worship songs, chants from their own faith tradition. After which, each person or group went to a different part of the church to continue singing. So there was the possibility of hearing sounds overlaid with each other, and opportunities for choirs and singers to choose to weave sounds together.
Of the many contributions, the Imam delivered the call to prayer from the pulpit, with the most sacred icon of the Christian Church behind him. There was no posturing, no attempt to be or do anything different because of the setting he was in. He simply did what the Imam does; he called the faithful to prayer. But he did this in an authentic meditative way, and to sit before him and see him so willing to be present in that whole context, was breathtaking.
On one side of the West door the Rabbi sang The Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew, in a beautiful resonant voice. We had been told we could make a request to the singers, perhaps to sing in memory of someone for example. So I asked the Rabbi to hold someone in his heart when he next sang, my beautiful Mum. He was a delightfully warm and empathic man and he said he would sing a Hebrew song which incorporated my Mum’s name, Lily. It would be a love song which spoke of the fragrance of the lily. Although he acknowledged her name to me each time he sang it, I didn’t understand the words. However, I think that helped me to feel the cadence of the music and his voice more intensely. It was rich and beautiful. And I wept. I have never asked anyone to do this before, and no one has ever offered. In the past people have said they would remember someone in prayer or thought, but never through music. I didn’t know music could be so powerful. That solo voice singing with such a depth of intention and love for someone I loved. I shall never ever forget that.
On the other side of the West door sang a small choir. When looking out through the doorway I couldn’t see either the Rabbi or the choir but I could hear their voices mingling. From the floor above there were distant sounds of chanting in the Buddhist tradition. I looked out through the archway of the church entrance and the whole world seemed framed by that arch. Through the church doorway I could see London in evening sunshine. There were buses negotiating busy roads, sirens of police cars and ambulances, people glancing into the church, laughter, conversations, cars hooting. It was like a sound bath. And yet whilst I could see the ordinariness and the hectic busyness of life outside, I stood and felt utterly still and at peace.
I felt somehow that this connected with the morning’s exploration of the compassionate heart of God, described as womb like. That experiencing peace was about me dis-covering and birthing feelings within me of softness and expansion. And then, to find my place and just to hold that place, with grace and gentleness. Like the Imam, just doing what is to be done with quiet intention, and importantly with authenticity.
Also with an awareness that I have the ability to act like a pebble in a pool, with ripples flowing out into the world. And so I need to make the choice of how I stand in that world. Driving an idea of peace forward which ultimately dissolves it, or recognising the potential for peace that naturally lives within me and simply standing in my place.
Lizzie Foster-Bollons ~ Interfaith Minister