Words and Meanings

Translation – as any translator will tell you – is not so much about translating words as about translating meaning. If you translate words without knowing what they mean – and I imagine that that is what machine translation does – you can easily fail to convey the correct meaning.

So a translator must have an excellent knowledge of the source language, the language of the original text which is to be translated, because they need to understand the meaning of the words. They also need to have mastered the target language into which they are translating, so that they can accurately convey the meaning of the original text in a way which the reader can easily understand.

This is especially difficult when the meaning is not easily understood, even by a native speaker. If the subject matter is physics or metaphysics or any other specialist topic, there are probably difficult or complicated concepts to grasp. Or there may be several layers of meaning – as in poetry, for example.

A translator really needs to have a very good understanding not only of the two languages, but also of the two cultures. When I’m translating a sermon by a German pastor into English for British church-goers, that isn’t too much of a problem. I’m very much at home both in the German Protestant Church and in church circles generally in both Britain and Germany. And the two cultures don’t differ that much.

I recently translated the annual report of Brot für die Welt, the German equivalent of Christian Aid. This included reports on projects in various countries such as Colombia (concerned with peace and human rights) and South Africa (concerned with the rights of mine workers and their families). I found it helpful to have visited South Africa, Ecuador, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, and Palestine, so that I have some understanding of the context of Brot für die Welt’s project work. Indeed one of my two visits to Kenya was to take part in the evaluation of a Brot für die Welt project, the Quaker-run Rural Service Programme in Western Kenya. I didn’t have much trouble translating project reports or interviews with Brot für die Welt staff. But I did struggle a bit with the balance sheet, in spite of having produced the annual accounts for the European peace church network Church and Peace for several years.

I’m now getting involved in a major translation project which is likely to throw up a few problems: the translation of George Fox’s journal into modern German. George Fox was the principal founder of the Quakers, born in 1624 in the English Midlands. He was not only writing in 17th century English; he was living in a very different culture from that of 21st century Britain. Last year my wife and I spent five months at Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria. The Hall became the first headquarters of the growing Quaker movement after George Fox visited the Fell family there in 1652. I was able to get some sense of what life was like there in the 17th century. But I couldn’t turn the clock back and actually live at that time and experience the culture at first hand. So I have to make do with reading about those times. (Here I would strongly recommend Christopher Hill’s “The World Turned Upside Down”.)

Having been born in the 20th century, my knowledge and understanding of 17th century England and English is limited. But translating into German, which is not my mother tongue, could well be even more of a problem. So I’m glad that I’m working together with native German speakers and will not have to translate the whole journal (nearly 800 pages) myself.

One of the words used frequently by George Fox could cause us a few headaches or at least a lot of head-scratching. George Fox often quarrelled with people whom he disparagingly referred to as “professors”, people who professed their Christian faith but who did not actually know – or “possess” – Christ in their hearts. To translate “professor” as “Professor” or “Dozent” in German would obviously be wrong. But I have yet to find a suitable German word which conveys what George Fox meant by “professor”. “Fromme”, meaning a pious person, is the best I can come up with so far. Any alternative suggestions would be most welcome!

George Fox was at pains to point out that academic learning can be a waste of time and what really matters is to pay attention to the Spirit of Christ, our Inward Teacher, the Light which enlightens everyone who comes into the world.

Last night I dreamt that I was waiting in a courtyard to set off on a long journey with a fairly large group of people. I was one of the first to show up (which isn’t at all typical of me) with my large rucksack. (I guess I am carrying a fair amount of psychological baggage.) Slowly, more and more people entered the courtyard. I was looking out for the leader of the group, but no-one identified themselves. Eventually, when the courtyard had become rather crowded, someone started calling out my name. I couldn’t tell very easily where the voice was coming from and felt rather annoyed that the leader hadn’t identified himself before calling out my name. After a short while I saw who the leader was amongst the crowd, but I made a show of looking all around to make the point that the leader should have identified himself more obviously. I wonder now whether perhaps I should have been paying more attention to all the other people who were coming and going. I might then have noticed the leader when he arrived. Or maybe he was there all along.

Thomas Kelly, the 20th century Quaker mystic, possessed knowledge of Christ within. He wrote in “A Testament of Devotion”:

How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward Him who calls in the deeps of our souls.”

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Witnessing to Peace in the 21st Century

“Working for Peace: Our peace testimony in the 21st century” was the theme of this year’s annual meeting of Dutch Quakers – Netherlands Yearly Meeting – which took place a few weeks ago. This subject is very dear to my heart, as is surely obvious to those of you who are familiar with my blog. Witnessing to peace is central to my understanding of what it means to be a Quaker.

Note that it is “witnessing to peace”, rather than “working for peace”, which I believe to be significant. As disciples of Jesus, we witness to the peace which God gives us. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement in the 17th century, told Cromwell’s commissioners that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars”. There is a life and power which is life-giving and life-supporting. This is a much better defence against all that threatens to damage or destroy us than any use of military force or violence would be.

When we live in the virtue of that life and power, our lives become a witness to God’s peace. We become peaceable people who have no need to resort to violence. Whenever we do violence to a fellow human being, we demonstrate a lack of faith in God.

Living in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, and following the leadings of God’s spirit of love, may well lead us to work for peace in various ways. But at all times we need to put our faith in God rather than in anything that we can do. As soon as we begin to trust our own judgement and to put our faith in our own actions, we risk making matters worse when we become engaged in conflict.

On the Saturday morning at Netherlands Yearly Meeting Antal (“Toni”) Frei, pastor of the Evangelical Friends Church in Hungary, reminded us of our calling to be peacemakers who are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told those who had gathered to hear him: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”.

Paul of Tarsus, in his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:17-20), wrote: “Therefore, if someone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come. All this is the work of God. He has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. It is God who through Christ reconciled the world to himself, he has not charged the world its violations. And he has committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ, God makes his appeal through us. On behalf of Christ, we beg you, be reconciled to God!”

During the weekend we were reminded now and then of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, which begins: “Make me an instrument of your peace.” I prefer the translation: “Make me a channel of your peace”. Maybe God uses us as instruments. I don’t know. But I find it more helpful to think of opening myself to God’s spirit of love, so that God’s peace can flow through me into whatever situation I find myself in, especially when I’m in a situation of conflict.

Each day during the weekend we met in small base groups. I’m grateful for the depth of sharing that I experienced in the group that I was in. When we introduced ourselves on Friday evening, we shared our experiences of being peacemakers. When we met after breakfast on Sunday morning, we shared our ideas about the next steps which we might take as peacemakers.

I noted down and shared a number of thoughts and ideas:

  • My first next step is to write a blog – as I’m doing now!
  • This week my wife and I are taking part in the German Protestant Kirchentag (church gathering) in Stuttgart.
  • I’m going to look out for “The Gentle Art of Blessing” by someone-or-other Pradervand, a book which was recommended to us by a member of our base group.
  • During the coming months I want to do what I can to facilitate a smooth transition during a changeover of staff at the Quaker Council for European Affairs, where I work.
  • I am planning to move house within the next couple of months, in which case I shall want to support the peace work of Quakers there and play a more active part in the life of the Laurentiuskonvent, an ecumenical community committed to working for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.
  • I will continue to translate articles for Church and Peace, the European peace church network.
  • And as background or context for my peacemaking activities I will take the Charter for Compassion, a multifaith commitment to compassion as the basis for all our actions.

Wish me luck! – or rather God’s blessing.

Peace

“I told (the Commonwealth Commissioners) I lived

in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”

George Fox

 

Peace is about people living in right relationship with each other and with the planet. Peace is about justice and wellbeing for everyone. No individual can live in peace, unless the whole community is at peace.

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for peace in the Bible, encompasses the wellbeing of the whole community. Shalom is characterised by just and peaceful relationships.

“Pax”, peace imposed by force, is not peace at all. It may be better than open warfare, but it serves to perpetuate systems of injustice.

During the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire Jesus challenged unjust laws which allowed a soldier to compel a peasant to carry his pack, a landowner to take the cloak of someone who was unable to pay a debt, or the master of a house to humiliate a servant by hitting him across the face with the back of his hand. Walter Wink has described how Jesus advocated imaginative forms of nonviolent action as a way of overcoming the violence of unjust laws and customs: carrying a soldier’s pack beyond the one-mile limit, giving the landowner one’s shirt as well as one’s cloak, turning the other cheek to the master of the house.

Jesus wasn’t advocating meek submission. He was encouraging poor folk to harness the power of active nonviolence, to stand up for themselves whilst at the same time demonstrating goodwill towards their oppressors. He told his followers: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you and spitefully use you.”

Martin Arnold, a retired German protestant pastor, has coined the term Guetekraft for the power of active nonviolence, the power of goodness. In four volumes Martin explains how Guetekraft, “goodness-power”, works – even against a ruthless dictator. Martin’s books are the fruit of research into the life and works of three practitioners of nonviolence who have successfully employed Guetekraft: Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Bart de Ligt.

It is because Guetekraft is powerful, that we do not need to resort to armed violence, which is invariably counterproductive, as Holly Near points out in the chorus of her song, “Foolish Notion”: “Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong? What a foolish notion that war is called devotion, when the greatest warriors are the ones who stand for peace.”

If we live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, as George Fox did, we will not be persuaded to join an army, however just their cause may seem to be.

Violence cannot be overcome with violence. Violence breeds hatred and further violence.

On the other hand, peace grows from the seeds of peace. Small gestures of goodwill begin the creation of a climate of trust in which antagonists can eventually cooperate to dismantle systems of injustice. It may be a long and painful process, but it is far more likely than military action to bear the fruits of peace.

Key to the way in which Guetekraft works is the willingness to accept the costs of engaging in nonviolent action rather than do violence to one’s opponent. Peace warriors may sometimes be called upon to make the greatest sacrifice as Jesus did. Franz Jaegerstaetter, the Austrian farmer who was executed because he refused to serve in Hitler’s army, comes to my mind.

Millions of soldiers died in the First World War. What a fruitless undertaking!

When he was dying, Jesus prayed for those who tortured him. He is the Christ within us, the life and power in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus told his disciples: “My peace I leave you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives peace do I give you my peace.”

This war-torn world of ours is very much in need of peace – in Syria, in Palestine and Israel, in Ukraine, and in northern Iraq.

Britain is in need of peace too. A society in which significant numbers of people have to go to food banks to get enough to eat is not a peaceful one. And Britain’s possession of weapons of mass destruction makes the world more dangerous and less peaceful.

The world is in need of the peace that Jesus gives. We are called as individuals to be peacemakers. And we are called as communities of faith to be a force for peace in the world.

It is hardly surprising that we have got into the habit of thinking that life is a right to be defended. But we need to think of life, like peace, as a gift to be shared.

There are Quakers serving with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). I know of a Friend serving with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine. And there are Quakers serving in Afghanistan and in northern Iraq.

By no means all of us are called to this kind of service. There is much that we can do to foster peaceful community relations wherever we happen to live. And we can play our part in the peace campaigning and advocacy work of our faith community. When we join together with other faith communities and harness the power of goodness, we will become a force to be reckoned with.

Love

“Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.”

This quotation from William Penn appears at the beginning of a chapter of “Quaker Faith and Practice: The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain.”

Learning to love is most definitely a question of learning by doing. I have found reading helpful, e.g. “The Road Less Travelled” by Scott Peck, but it is no substitute for actually loving another person.

Love is not just having a nice warm feeling towards someone or wanting to be with them. Love is about being sensitive to another person’s needs and desires and going out of our way to help them to be happy. And we can only begin to do that by paying attention to our own spiritual growth. We are not going to help anyone else become any happier, if we ourselves are miserable for much of the time.

But it’s not much good pretending to be cheerful. We need to find the deep and abiding joy which comes with doing what love requires of us, whatever the circumstances and however much it might cost us.

One of my all-time favourite quotes is, of course, by Thomas Merton. If I’ve quoted it before, it’s worth quoting again:

“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.”

If you want to love without suffering, don’t even bother to try. I have often heard these lines by William Blake quoted in Quaker meetings for worship:

It is right it should be so;

Man was made for Joy & Woe;

And when this we rightly know

Thro’ the World we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,

A Clothing for the Soul divine;

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine.

Suffering is a fact of life. Love, joy and peace are not to be found through avoiding suffering. They are the gifts of a loving God to anyone who chooses to live life to the full and drink the cup that is flowing over.

When we learn to love, we become the agents of God who becomes human when humans become godlike. Jesus is the supreme example. When Christ dwells within us and we “live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war” (George Fox), then we too will become patterns and examples and will “come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” (George Fox).

It may seem that God causes suffering. Maybe He/She does. I don’t know. What I do know, is that God loves each and every one of us. A good few years ago, when I was taking part in a group therapy session, the message that was coming through to me was: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” In the knowledge that we are loved, we become capable of loving others, so that we can tell them “I love you, because I love you, because I love you.” And now and then we catch a glimpse of the God within them, even though they may not yet see this themselves.

Let the light shine!

“I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” (George Fox)

Let the light shine
And let the silence ring.
Look into your heart
And let your soul sing.

In this dark world we rarely see
The beauty of the Earth,
The richly coloured tapestry
Surrounding us from birth.

In these dark times of fear and strife
We need the light to see
The beauty of each human life,
Of all humanity.

The streets are rarely silent now
Even in the dead of night,
But at four a.m. it’s quiet now;
The moon is shining bright.

Just look up at the stars above
And cast away your fear.
The eternal silent song of love
Will touch your inner ear.

Let the light shine
And let the silence ring.
Look into your heart
And let your soul sing.

Just a few years ago I was wondering what I could sing together with a fellow Quaker at the Somers Traditional Folk Club in Worcester. I was inspired to write this song. My Quaker friend, Tony, only ever performed the song together with me on that one occasion. Sadly, he passed away a year or two later.

Tony had become a good friend to me when I was living in Evesham, serving as the warden of the Quaker Meeting House. When I first arrived in the town, he used to take me each month to Meeting for Worship outside the gates of RAF Croughton, a US military base near Banbury. Tony and I shared an active commitment to living out the Quaker peace testimony.

Tony and I also enjoyed Friday evenings together at the Somers Traditional Folk Club. When he first took me along to the club, Tony thought I was just going along to listen. So he was surprised when I took a turn at singing a couple of songs.

Thanks to considerable encouragement from members of the club, I eventually recorded a CD of my own songs, including “Let the Light Shine”. Thanks are due especially to Chris Stewart for arranging and accompanying several of my songs and for doing the recording and production. And “Thank you, Tony!”

Sundays

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.”