On Sunday afternoon ten days ago I set off across the city on a bicycle. I had to negotiate my way around mothers and fathers with pushchairs casually walking down the middle of the road and past cyclists riding towards me on the wrong side of the street. Both cyclists and pedestrians were ignoring red traffic lights, children on skateboards and young men on roller-blades were all over the road, and young children were being allowed to wander about in the middle of the street. “What on earth was going on?” you may well ask.
This was the annual Car Free Sunday in Brussels. Private cars were banned from the entire city inside the ring road. A few buses and trams were running. And there were quite a few taxis around, but they had to go slowly because of the fleets of cyclists and hordes of pedestrians. I spent several hours cycling around the south of the city and spotted only a handful of cars which didn’t appear to be taxis. It was a pleasure to be able to cycle around without having to concentrate on the traffic all the time. And what a pleasure to hear the babble of human voices instead of the noise of traffic.
I should have counted the number of different languages which I heard – all the main European languages and probably a few others besides. Brussels is certainly a multilingual and multicultural city. I’m getting to experience this on Sundays especially. This last Sunday I joined a “Meet Up” group of photographers on a visit to an exhibition in a former abbey in Stavelot in the Ardennes. The group was organised by a German and included people of various ages from Ireland, the Ukraine and several countries in between. The lingua franca was of course English. They were a friendly bunch of people.
The exhibition was a display of photographs by the well-known French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. There were also a couple of short slide shows about his life and work. All the photographs were black and white – very striking. Several of the images have stayed in my mind: a girl skipping through a patch of sunlight on a mediaeval street; two bathers lying alongside each other in a lake with two ducks beyond them; boys playing amongst the ruins of a town during the Spanish civil war; three women washing clothes in a river somewhere in Yugoslavia.
Next Sunday there will be a neighbourhood fair here in Square Ambiorix, which is in the European Quarter, not far from the institutions of the European Union. There will be stalls representing a variety of cultures, no doubt. So next Sunday promises to be another special day.
Not that we Quakers regard Sundays as being any more special than any other day. We need to draw strength from the Source of our being every day of the week. And we need to seek the guidance of God’s spirit of love every day wherever we happen to be.
Then, drawing strength from the Source and following God’s guidance, we may become patterns and examples in all countries, places, islands and nations, wherever we happen to be, to paraphrase the words of George Fox, who goes on to say “then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”.
Some time ago I discovered a quotation attributed to Robert Benson: “All of the places of our lives are sanctuaries; some of them just happen to have steeples. And all of the people in our lives are saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most will never have feast days named for them.” This resonates with my conviction that every place on earth is in some way sacred and that there is indeed “that of God” in everyone, which in a way makes everyone a saint.
So, bearing in mind that all of the people that we live with are saints, here is one of my favourite quotations from Thomas Merton: “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering, by our very contact with each other, because this love is a resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.”