The slum of my heart 

I made a garden for God.

Source: The slum of my heart – The Zimbabwean

No, do not misunderstand me,

it was not in some lovely estate

or even in a pretty suburb,

I made a garden for God

in the slum of my heart:

a sunless space between grimy walls

the reek of cabbage water in the air

refuse strewn on the cracked asphalt-

the ground of my garden!

These are the opening lines of a poem by Ruth Burrows written for the sisters at Mariachiedza near Chegutu in Zimbabwe. Ruth is a Carmelite nun (Sr Rachel) who lives near Norfolk in England and she has been writing for years about the mystical life, which she insists is open to everyone. Many of us have, I suspect, given little thought to the teachings about the interior life given to us by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. We have heard about them and said, ‘no, not for me!’

Ruth Burrows has studied and lived the way of these and other teachers over the years and has written short books to explain directly and simply what these mystics taught.  She believes there is a profound and life giving message accessible here to all but it is a message which goes in the opposite direction to what our culture urges on us. The few lines quoted above give a taste of this. God is to be found ‘in a pretty place’, in beautiful surroundings, in music and art and all the good things of creation. But, she says, this is not the place where most people live. Most live in ‘sunless spaces between grimy walls with the reek of cabbage water in the air’. In other words, they live in poverty and destitution and this is reflected in their hearts.  They find their heart too is a slum but it can be a slum that opens them to God. Blessed are the poor in spirit! This is not to say we should not struggle to end actual poverty in our countries. But it is to say the ‘slum, the sunless space’ in our heart can be the very place where we can welcome God and ‘make a garden for him’. Perhaps the ‘pretty places’ are there just to console us as we journey to this authentic place.

Covid 19 has shut our churches and, as it were, driven God out of them. He is the only one who no longer ‘stays at home’, who is not ‘locked down’. Ruth is not writing about our present crisis but her message does help us to understand, not just the crisis of the moment, but the opportunity too.  The spiritual life we have had in the past is now questioned by the new reality. We can no longer sing ‘alleluia’ and go home satisfied that we are alright with God and the world. We are thoroughly shaken, uncertain of the future, unsure we will be alive a month from now, a year from now. We are suddenly aware of the superficiality we inhabit.  We want to admit the mess around us, that we have got some things terribly wrong. We have discovered clean air again, that we don’t need all the things we thought were essential; we can live more simply.  And most of all we have discovered each other.  We need each other, whether we are rich or poor.

If we could accept we live in this slum and that, as for those who live in real physical slums, it is hard to get out, perhaps we can notice God dwells in this slum and we can make him welcome.

17 May 2020   Easter Sunday 6 A      Acts 8:5…17   1 Peter 3:15-18                        John 14:15-21