Honesty

by Chris Roe.

Towards the end of March this year, I was sat in the living room of one of the L’Arche community houses in Preston, next to a person with learning disabilities who I support and live alongside, and another assistant, watching telly. As our programme ended, a newsreader appeared on the screen. He began to inform us of the latest news regarding Coronavirus – the rapidly developing crisis, the Prime Minister’s message, the new restrictions imposed on our lives…

The person with learning disabilities leant forwards, took a breath and shouted “Oh shut up!”

We all laughed, and, on my part at least, felt a little bit of unacknowledged tension lift. For though I would never have verbalised it, there was a part of me that wanted to yell too. The harsh reality the newsreader conveyed was painful. It was good to hear someone say so out loud.

There has been a lot of advice around keeping ourselves mentally well during this time, not to mention a plethora of activities and video meet-ups organised by so many communities and organisations across the world. In my own experience of this crisis, all the best mental health advice I’ve heard (and I’ve heard this said in many different ways by many different people) has essentially involved expressing ourselves honestly, be that through writing things down, talking to someone, or just, well, shouting at the telly.

In this time of crisis, I’m more aware than ever of the power of honesty. There is something very cathartic about saying what we truly feel, when so often we cover those feelings up out of necessity or habit. Being honest involves opening ourselves up, to God and to other people, and therefore being vulnerable in some way.

I have found the Psalms to be a real gift at this time. They express a whole spectrum of emotions towards God- love and fear, longing and pain, peace and anger, and so much more. Their comfort lies in their expressiveness and openness towards God, which somehow permits us, too, to be equally open and expressive in our relationship with God.

It’s worth pointing out that being honest is not the same as being miserable! One of the traditions we hold in L’Arche when celebrating birthdays, whether for people with or without disabilities, is to “pass the candle”. A candle is passed around those who have gathered to celebrate and in a few words each person tries their best to sum up what they value and appreciate about the person whose birthday is marked. It can be a powerful thing to be a part of, a powerful thing to hear about yourself.

Of course, we do not mention the things we do not like about someone, their weaknesses and faults, at their birthday party. That would not be much fun.

Honesty is powerful and it can be painful. Which truths do we share with each other? What does the right time to share a difficult truth look like? Where do we do that? When is it appropriate or inappropriate? Is it easier for some people to be honest than others?

One of the most painful honesties in L’Arche recently has been news about Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier created and helped grow a global network of communities of people with and without learning disabilities, sharing life together. But this year, an independent investigation commissioned by L’Arche determined that he had sexually and spiritually abused at least six women.[1] A man who was considered by many to be a saint was anything but.

What do we do with such news? Where do we go from here? How do we even share it? One example of this, from L’Arche London, was widely circulated at the time and has much power in the way it does not shy away from telling difficult truths to vulnerable people, in as safe an environment as possible.[2]

There is a long way for L’Arche to go, but it seems to me that the honesty expressed by the organisation I am part of gives us a chance to grow up, to be honest about the past and not romanticise it.

The power of honesty has become all the clearer through lockdown for me. Honesty, and the vulnerability that comes with it, seems to allow us to enter deeper relationships with one another. This blog will be published the day after Trinity Sunday, a day when we recognise that the very being of God is, in some mysterious unknowable way, relational. Can church communities do anything more than aspire to reflect that?

We read in Acts of the first disciples sharing their lives together following the coming of the Holy Spirit.[3] They shared their possessions, broke bread and praised God together. That commitment to one another must have required a certain bravery, and a certain willingness to relate to each other in loving honesty and vulnerability. It seems to me that, knowing your brothers and sisters in such a way, you may, in a way we too easily take for granted, realise that we are all children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.

[1] https://www.larche.org/news/-/asset_publisher/mQsRZspJMdBy/content/inquiry-statement-test

[2] http://www.tuffrey-wijne.com/?p=767

[3] Acts 2: 42-47

3 thoughts on “Honesty”

  1. Amen to that. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is the aim.

    I love your illustration of passing the candle. Once, in a close-knit and long-standing ecumenical group I belong to, we spent an evening writing down what we appreciated or admired or loved about each of our fellow-members, and then talking about what we had written. I think we all had some surprises as well as not a little embarrassment, and we left feeling enriched – as well as inspired to develop the characteristics others had seen in us.

    Many years ago when I was a teacher I knew one little boy from an appalling background who was written off as a no-hoper by one colleague, but who visibly grew in confidence – and ability – when I chose a poem he had written to double-mount and display as an example of good work. Just a few lines, from the point of view of an ill-treated, hungry and overworked horse, but I shall never forget it. It was written out of experience and with love.

    The unhappy revelation about Jean Vanier reached me a few minutes after watching television coverage of the forcible removal of Edward Colston’s statue from its plinth in central Bristol. (One of my sons lives in Bristol so I had heard about this more or less as it happened.) Philanthropist, benefactor to the city, and slave trader. I think of writers and painters recognised as great who abused their own wives or children.

    When Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’ he was asking one of the perennial questions.

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  2. Thank you for this reflection Chris. Our contexts today are determined by post-truth and fake news all around, and at a time like this Christian discipleship is all bout honesty, as it the need of the hour. Being honest in accepting our vulnerabilities, being honest in speaking truth to the powers, being honest in moving towards an uncertain future, being honest in our confessions and being honest in our hopes. Discipleship is indeed costly, so costly that it demands to live life in honesty.

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  3. Honesty in faith is very simple. There is nothing intellectual about it. Honesty in faith is admitting we don’t fully believe what we, as Christians, are meant to believe. Honesty is admitting that the doctrines and creeds just seem a little too ‘man-made’ to be truly of God. Honesty is admitting that, however hard we try, we can never be that good, or be that selfless, or be that loving. We’d like to be but we can’t, although we are good at deluding ourselves that we can be if we just try a little harder.
    But the best honesty of all is admitting that, despite our doubts and our weakness and our failures, we know, we just KNOW, that there is a God, that there is a reason to believe, and that nothing and no-one can ever take our faith away from us.
    That’s honesty!

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