By Fr Donald Chambers
In my first article (CN, April 12), I reflected on the COVID-19 pandemic as a forced exile—an unexpected, disorienting, traumatic circumstance within which there are wisdom lessons.
The second article (CN, April 19) argued that forced exile moments are sources of personal and communal transformation, preparing for the birth of a ‘New Way of Being Church’. The article ended with the question, “What does the New Way of Being Church look like?”.
In response to my articles, a friend wrote saying, “Similarly, one of the greatest thematic concerns of our West Indian writers is the experience of exile . . . From the involuntary exile from the motherland to the voluntary experience of exile via migration, both our early and contemporary writers continuously explore the impact of exile on the people of our region.”
This remark led me to ask the question, “What can the Church learn from the experience of exile in Caribbean literature?”
The two novels that I was invited to explore were Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.
Selvon details the life of the Windrush generation living in post-World War II London. The main character in the novel is the Trinidadian Moses Aloetta, a long-time émigré who, like the biblical figure, takes on the role of community leader.
Every Sunday morning “the boys” would gather in Moses’ rented room to share their predominantly negative experiences of exile, while also inquiring about absence of others.
Similarly, Rhys’ heroine, Antoinette Mason, is exiled all her life. Rhys gives an interesting perspective on exile as her protagonist is a white Creole who struggles to exist in the post-Emancipation Caribbean society.
Isolated by poverty, Antoinette is rejected by the freed slaves, the local whites, her mother and finally, her husband. As a child, she spends much of her time alone in the bushes of her family estate and later, she is exiled to a school convent after her family home is set on fire.
When she becomes older, she enters into an arranged marriage and is taken to England where she is locked away by her husband in the attic of his family house. Ultimately, she escapes with a candle which she uses to set the house afire, an act which symbolises her achieving self-actualisation.
Non-essentials of Church life
Other common themes that emerge in these novels, which are also dominant in West Indian writing, are identity and belonging. In the case of Selvon’s ‘boys’ their Sunday morning gatherings became that communal space, in the midst of their exile, where they grapple with the question of identity and belonging. Likewise, when Antoinette declares, “. . . I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong” she reveals her continuous struggle with these issues while in the unforced exile of the bushes and the forced exile of England.
As with the protagonists of these two novels, the Church must retreat underground in small groups to reflect on its identity and belonging, and express concern about absent members.
This exile invites us to revisit the questions, “Who are we as a local and regional Church?”; “Where do we belong?”; “What is the role of the regional church within the Universal Church?”.
Perhaps for too long our gaze has been on the non-essentials of Church life— increasing the percentage of Catholics, maintaining the status of Catholic schools, lack of financial resources, or shortage of religious and clergy, or the organisation of mass religious gatherings.
The wisdom from these two novels is that small gatherings (communities), or as Ronald Rolhesier calls the “Domestic Monastery” (Domestic Church) are the fertile spaces to reflect and reclaim the Church’s identity and belonging.
In her book Radical Hospitality, Lonni Collins Pratt, a married lay woman, engages in conversation about monastic spirituality and sees great value in monastic practice for families and communities. Her broadening of the monastic practice of cloister, community, and hospitality points to an essential way to reclaim our identity.
Cloister is defined as time alone or apart for solitude and silence; community as “the people with whom you share your life,” and hospitality as “your interactions in all other relationships . . . especially those outside the security of your comfort zone.”
Furthermore, she says that, “life outside the monastery is very similar. We need time alone (cloister); we need time with those closest to us (community), and we need to open ourselves to those who are not one of us (hospitality).”
At a recent virtual forum of the Conference on Theology in the Caribbean Today (CTCT) titled ‘Theological Reflection on COVID-19’, Gloria Bertrand shared that the pastoral care for her sick husband which she described as, “living in the land of my captivity”, prepared her for life in this COVID time. In her reflection, I identified all three elements of cloister, community, and hospitality, as key to her transformation/survival.
I am unclear as to how we will define ourselves and our place as the Church in the post -COVID era, but I do know that embracing cloister, community and hospitality at the domestic level will reclaim the Church’s identity and belonging.
Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.