Sunday, 17 July 2011

Thoughts about "Finitude" at the beginning of a journey

In various moments today we have been looking at the wonderful European Interrail map - should we go here, might we have time to get to there ... dreams of a vacation spreading before us and of discoveries yet to be made. Yet our time is finite, we can think that we might try and do some of the other things another time, perhaps but maybe we will never do anything like this again and will just have to live with the remembrance of the dream of what we had hoped and planned to do.
Sitting in the corner of a Berlin Kneipe this afternoon drinking a delicious cup of tea I read Fulbert Steffensky's short essay "Mut zur Endlichkeit. Sterben in einer Gesellschaft der Sieger."
"The Courage to embrace finiteness. Dying in a society of winners." This little pamphlet has been sitting in my "to read" pile for over 18 months and I'm glad it made its way into my suitcase for this journey.
In 44 short pages he covers alot of ground. He speaks about how little the skills and virtues of paliative care are valued in a world obsessed with doing, making, effectiveness, winning, making money, impact ... all those things which Steffensky refers to as Machbarkeitswahn - obsession with producibility, or perhaps a better translation would be our obsession with reducing everything to a commodity. Against this he tries to clearly set the Protestant value of grace - when Steffensky does this it is not at all in an anti-ecumenical spirit. He converted to Protestantism in the late sixties and has tried to prophetically "evangelise" both Protestant and Catholic spirituality - encouraging more interplay between tradition, discipline and engagement. I smiled in acknowledgement of some of the words he uses to describe our societies "There is a stupidity at the highest level, it is the weak thinking of a highly informed society whose knowledge is highly detailed yet holds absolutely no ethical power." Later on he cites Christa Wolf's Kassandra (a figure from mythology I hAve been thinking about a great deal in recent months) who at the gates of Troy says, only if you give up wanting to always win will you be able to build and keep the city. Steffensky goes on to say that in the world of winners there is no room for successful losing. I love that idea - successful losing. Brilliant!
Of course I am reading this essay on finitiude at a very particular point in my life, one when I sometimes feel I have lost almost everything (And it's all right I do know very clearly that i haven't but feelings will not always be reasoned with!). Turning the pages in the Kneipe today was like receiving a gift. One subheading reads "Ganzheit im Fragment" - wholeness, oneness in a fragment, later he says that "thinking about grace means having the courage to act in a fragmentary way." This sounds rather more meaningful and clear in German, but given all my own pondering on fragments and bits and pieces in recent months I found it very helpful.
I also found it challenging to the way we so easily as ecumenists trot out things about unity and wholeness. Often the only wholeness we will see, even that which we work towards, is but a fragment. Yet Steffensky would say there is enormous grace simply in that.
I suspect that this essay was written originally for people working in Church run hospices, to encourage those working with the ill and dying that their work is truly valued and meaningful.
He speaks movingly towards the end about the final 10 years of his wife's life, (he was married to Dorothee Sölle), speaking about how her brush with death, her discovery of the finitude of her life, meant that both of them were able to savour very simple pleasures as the true gift these things were in her final years.
I first read Steffensky over 20 years ago in East Germany, my copy of Feier des Lebens is still covered with pencil jottings and underlined quotes. I then read Die Hinreise by Sölle not knowing at all that they were married. I think I should perhaps tomorrow treat myself to Steffensky's recent book which is called "Black bread spirituality". Such a shame we are staying two minutes walk from a theological bookshop!
Anyway Fulbert thank you so much for writing and thanks for the fragments of grace. A splendid idea. I think I now know that I have to continue to find the courage to be a successful failure. Perhaps we will make it to the arctic circle, perhaps not, in any case we will travel onwards in discovery. I just hope we don't lose the timetable!

Read more by Steffensky here.

1 Comment:

sparkling said...

Du hast mich neugierig gemacht, Jane - jetzt werde ich es mir auch besorgen und lesen!