Yesterday I spent the morning ironing when I briefly turned on the news. Of course I was met with the death of Father Jacques Hamel. The 85-year-old priest celebrating mass who was killed horrifically by Islamic terrorists…..words fail me.
I am embarassed to say that my thoughts were not just with this wonderful, dedicated priest though.
About ten years ago now I taught RE and Islamic terrorism had just started to happen. The atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7 were still fresh in my students mind. I was at pains to describe the peaceful side of Muslim worship – although when I first studied Islam I was shocked by the teachings and actions of Muhammad and how different they were to those of Jesus. However, I knew that many Muslims lived peaceful lives and, like all my colleagues in the department, wanted to stem any backlash against them.
When my pupils would say that religion causes war I encouraged them to examine this – the majority of which were over land and money. The IRA, for example, were the Irish Republican Army. At no point in the Irish peace process was the place of Mary discussed, nor the real presence in the Eucharist. Just who held the power.
I would joke; if 9/11 and 7/7 were religious wars, the aggressors would have strapped explosives on their back and gone to blow up the Vatican. This was after all the highest profile, Christian landmark in the west.
No, I explained, the very fact that the targets were the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, and the London financial district pointed to the conflict being based on financial matters. Their targets spoke for them.
However this was pre the Islamic State. Last year I went on a retreat were I met Italian missionaries who told me their fears in relation to the migrant influx. Threats of attacks on the Vatican were being written on paper and held up in front of St Peters and filmed for distribution on the Internet. A clear threat of religious persecution. My jokes came back to haunt me.
Then attacks started happening in France and my friends asked ‘Are you sure you still want to go?’ ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘they’re not going to happen in Normandy are they?’ So you can imagine my reaction when I first saw the headlines of the attacks in Normandy. I don’t think I’m going to joke anymore.
Last night I couldn’t sleep thinking about it all. I said my rosary and offered it up for the peace and safety of my family, for God’s blessing on our move as well as the martyred priest. My husband verbalised my fear. We’re sending La Belle Fille to a Catholic school in a cathedral town in Normandy. ‘What should we do?’ I asked.
Unfortunately, as statements have confirmed today, the threat level is just as high in the UK as on the continent. Armed forces personnel have recently, unsuccessfully thank God, been targeted for attack. You may not have seen this, happening as it did amongst the atrocities which just seem to keep coming this summer.
So as ‘Where do we go?’ doesn’t seem to have a satisfactory answer, ‘What do we do?’ seems to be the next question.
Do we put our daughter in a non-denominational school? What about mass? Do we stay home? I go to mass during the week with my youngest; can I risk this anymore?
One thing that has always struck me about reading St Paul’s story is how he is repeatedly warned that he will be martyred – and one of those warning him literally binds himself with rope to indicate his imprisonment and death – yet he continues to go to where he will die.
It has always made me wonder – does God warn those who will die? Does he do it so the martyr in some way accepts their death through free will? That they lay down their life?
Of course an argument against this is all of those who die unwillingly; I’m constantly thinking of all the Jews who died in The Holocaust as well as Christians presently dying in churches all over the Middle East. Did God warn them? It would appear not.
The problem of evil still haunts Christians. However my physical experience of the presence of God and my life of faith means that, like C S Lewis who puts it so much better in A Grief Observed, I can’t turn from my belief in God. It’s not a crutch, as many atheists suppose, but real.
In terms of those dying because of their faith an answer may be that for some there may not be a relationship with God; an openness or a belief that we can hear and communicate with Him. This is no reflection on their faith or holiness, just a statement of our expectations of God. I know for many years my prayers were in the form of an answerphone, were I’d live my message and cut off the link, hoping that God got it. In this relationship the opportunity of responding to God’s warnings, no matter how faithful, would be lost too.
Today, while asking God for His help and guidance, I opened my Bible to the book of Acts, 16: 6-10. God’s spirit keeps Paul from going to Asia and away from danger, presumably. I just pray that, maintaining communion with God, my family is kept from danger too. After all, danger is everywhere. The threat of terrorism, by its very nature, is everywhere. Therefore even if I do hide away, remove my children from anything associated with our faith, we are prone to violence too.
In fact by hiding, and denying the God of love that I have faith in means that witness to His light is less in a dark world. I am not a brave woman, but history shows us where cowardice like this leads.
So I am left with the words of today’s psalm, 59:2-4, 10-11, 17-18;
“Deliver me from my enemies, O my God, protect me from those who rise up against me, deliver me from those who work evil, and save me from bloodthirsty men. For, lo, they lie in wait for my life; fierce men band themselves against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD, O my Strength, I will sing praises to thee; for thou, O God, art my fortress. My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies. But I will sing of thy might; I will sing aloud of thy steadfast love in the morning. For thou hast been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress. O my Strength, I will sing praises to thee, for thou, O God, art my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.”