Country of first asylum, or first refuge, is usually a neighbouring country to which a refugee flees. In the face of great challenge, even reported challenge, writing often becomes the place of first refuge for novelists and poets as they seek to make sense of the challenging experience. Rilke expresses it this way:
Everything conspires to silence us,
Partly with shame
Partly with unspeakable hope.
From the silence and refuge emerge art, music, poetry and enduring story. In community, these have the power to lead us from isolation to a place where we can wrestle with words and, in time, enlarge our perspectives on life and faith.
At an obvious level, writing exposes injustice, as W.H Auden reminds us:
Poetry makes nothing happen
What poetry makes visible is what changes the world.
Beyond politics or self-congratulatory commentary, this works at its deepest level when writers make visible their personal transformation in the light of events and their personal response to God.
And so Emily Bronte was able to acknowledge “No coward soul is mine” and Seamus Heaney wrote “Now, to pry into roots. I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”
These processes, when truthful, can lead us to tolerate silence, mystery and uncertainty and to know the limits of words. But what constitutes a “truthful” response after being affronted by some outrage or threat? Do our writing and speaking merely appease us psychologically by speaking up for the victim against the wrongdoers? Social justice is critical but do our words create yet another scapegoat? Is it “truthful” for us to merely line up along the moral and spiritual high ground to shore up our identity in the face of threat?
In a sermon on poetry and prophecy, on Shakespeare Sunday, 2006, Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke of a need for “The acceptance of the wound, the resolve to live with one’s undefendedness so that certain things in the world are never forgotten or reduced.” Here Williams reminds us not to forget evil and injustice but more importantly, to focus on our vulnerability, like that of Christ’s, as something never to be reduced. It is in our comprehension of the resurrection, of the victim becoming victor, that we can shift from that first refuge of “them and us” as truth, to God’s living truth at work in the world and in ourselves.
As James Alison writes, we can “Let go of our grasp on what is good so that we can be surprised by (God’s) fierce tenderness.” (Failure and Perfection).