Once upon a time...long long ago...in Japan, a woman prayed that God would show her the difference between heaven and hell. She wanted to know whether there were fires in hell, and whether the people in heaven sat around on clouds all day playing harps. She didn’t fancy going to either place if that was all they had to offer.
She prayed so hard that God decided to answer her prayer, and he sent an angel to give her a guided tour of both places...angels are good like that...first she went to hell. It wasn’t hot at all; in fact it looked quite pleasant. There were long tables laden with food of all kinds – cooked meats, vegetables, fruit, delicious pies, and exotic desserts. “This can’t be hell,” she thought. Then she looked at the people. They were sitting some distance from the tables, and they were all miserable – emaciated, pale, angry. Each of them had chopsticks fastened to their hands, but the chopsticks were about three feet long and no matter how hard they tried, the people just couldn’t get the food into their own mouths. They were groaning with hunger, and frustration, and anger. “I’ve seen enough of this,” said the woman. “May I see heaven now?”
The animation below is another telling of the story...from another tradition...
Henri Nouwn on "Care"
"...Real care is not ambiguous. Real care excludes indifference and is the opposite of apathy. The word “care” finds its roots in the Gothic “Kara” which means lament. The basic meaning of care is: to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with. I am very much struck by this background of the word care because we tend to look at caring as an attitude of the strong toward the weak, of the powerful toward the powerless, of the ‘haves’ toward the ‘have-nots. And, in fact, we feel quite uncomfortable with an invitation to enter into someone’s pain before doing something about it.
You might remember moments in which you were called to be with a friend who had lost a wife or husband, child or parent. What can you say, do, or propose at such a moment? There is a strong inclination to say: “Don’t cry; the one you loved is in the hands of God.” “Don’t be sad because there are so many good things left worth living for.” But are we ready to really experience our powerlessness in the face of death and say: “I do not understand. I do not know what to do but I am here with you.” Are we willing to not run away from the pain, to not get busy when there is nothing to do and instead stand rather in the face of death together with those who grieve? . . ."
...We are all called to care...
Thankfully, although at times I do feel weariness towards life it has been many years since I did not care; it has been many years since I experienced the pain and loneliness of indifference.
There’s another phrase along this theme, which I often hear spoken “I don’t care what people think of me.” Now while I think I understand what people mean by this, that they are no longer ruled by the views of others, what matters is how they see themselves, there is something in this phrase that still bothers me. I never want to reach the point where I do not care at all what people think of me. I never want to, once again, experience indifference. While I am not ruled by the views of others, it matters to me what they believe about me, about life, about one another and about themselves. I care a lot.
To minister is to serve and to serve is to care. It is about connection it is about relationship it’s about bringing that loving space alive. I learnt this through the example given to me by John Midgley when he came and tried to be with both myself and others during an horrific time in our lives. John couldn’t heal or change anything. He was as powerless as we were, but he was able to be with us in our shared powerlessness and somehow in this space the healing power held us together.
This is heaven, this is love, this is what it means to care. This is what it means to turn to as opposed to turn away despite the pain, fear and confusion. This is courage. To care takes courage, it comes from the heart, it is the heart alive and on fire. To not care is the way of the coward; to not care is a frozen state, indifference requires a frozen heart.
I have heard hell described in many ways, what it means to be living in a state of hell. I think the most accurate experience of hell is that it is indifference. It is a sense of disconnection from the feelings and concerns of others. Hell is indifference. To live in hell is to be indifferent to sufferings of others. Dante’s Inferno described it thus.
Extract from Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” Inferno (Hell), Canto III
Hell is indifference. Hell is not fire but in actual fact a frozen state, a state where a person no longer cares and has grown cold towards, others, towards life itself.
In the story that began this "blogspot" “Heaven and Hell” appear exactly the same and yet they are experienced oh so differently. In Hell all go hungry because everyone tries to feed themselves only, they are purely self focused and fail to recognise the hunger in their neighbour sat opposite them. And yet in heaven they attempt to feed one another and are therefore fed in abundance. To me this is as much about the relationships as the food going into one another’s mouths. I believe that we all possess an innate need to serve one another that if we do not do this part of our natural humanity withers away and dies off. By not serving one another we starve our souls.
By living with indifference towards others we live frozen, unfeeling lives…Yes hell is not a firey place, but a frozen state of being…One where nothing touches. Where one is cut off from others, from life itself…Yes hell is indifference, but it is also dis-connection…Hell is a place where nothing connects.
You see something similar to the "chopsticks" story happening in the feeding stories told in the Gospels. Accounts that are more about the relationships between Jesus, his disciples and the people in the crowds, not whether a few loaves and fish could feed so many. There is a deep truth being revealed in the universal mythos found in these stories. They are talking about abundant love being poured out in these deeply connective and connecting relationships. The key phrase in the account found in Mark (Ch 8 vv 1-9) are the words “They ate and were filled”. In this account the crowds hunger is acknowledged, compassion is recognised and care shown. The crowd are invited to stay and sit and the disciples are asked to feed them face to face. Thus they are truly cared for, their common humanity is cared for, they eat and they are filled. They mattered, every single one of them.
Following the "Heaven and Hell story" is a reflection by Henri Nouwen on the word “care”. He highlights it’s origin from the old English word “caru” meaning “sorrow, anxiety, grief” as well as "burdens of mind; serious mental attention," from the Proto-Germanic word “karo” meaning "lament; grief, care". To really care is to truly feel another’s sorrow to cry out with them and to truly be with them. To care is to truly empathies and not merely sympathies. To truly care is to be with another, it is about meeting another in common human relationship. This is why indifference, to not care, is hell as it is about breaking that sense of relationship, it is emptiness it is loneliness. It hurts to care, which is why so often we turn away. No one likes to feel powerless and to care is about recognizing our singular powerlessness at times. It’s also about recognising the healing power that can begin to grow from this powerless state, as the common grief is recognised and shared and the healing comes in that very space. This is the power of love. This is the miracle of healing that is recounted again and again in the gospel accounts and it is the same love that comes alive once again when we recognise one another and truly care. We make heaven. We create the kin-dom, the one-ness of love right here, right now. For heaven is a place where everything connects
So how do we overcome this? How do we warm our own hearts and those who we share this world of ours with. Well it begins in and through care. It begins by recognising what we have in common. It comes in recognising our shared sense of powerlessness at times, for here is where the power comes alive, in this deep relationship of care.
It begins by reconnecting in and through care…Let’s not become frozen people, indifferent people, let us live in and through care…For in so doing we will bring warmth to our lives and those we share our lives we…
Let’s care a lot…