Contact Us

A Spirituality of Survival: Enabling a response to …

23 August, 2011


How can people who suffer abuse be enabled to survive – from the French sur vivre – to live on top of, over and above their stories of trauma and begin to flourish? What brings resilience to the human spirit? These are the questions which Barbara Glasson addresses in this book. It is a book that can enable us understand the brokenness – the French sous vivre – living underneath the burden of the oppression and perhaps begin to provide spaces for the abused to “annunciate” their story.


is a Methodist minister, now based in Bradford. She was formerly at ‘The Bread Church’ in Liverpool sity centre, and Director of the face2face project (supporting survivors of sexual abuse within faith communities), based at a centre for therapeutic healing and wholeness at Holy Rood House in North Yorkshire. She is the author of Mixed Up Blessing (Inspiration Press 2005) and I Am Somewhere Else (DLT 2006).



  1. The Hearing
  2. The Presenting
  3. Being Lost
  4. Boundaries
  5. Breaking the Power
  6. Redeeming Relationships
  7. Surviving Church
  8. Consider


164pp. Continuum International Publishing Group. To purchase this book online, go to www.continuumbooks.com



Living with our questions is a sign of being secure enough in God’s company to wrestle with the things that are confusing or troubling. I believe we are greatly indebted to the disciple Thomas for permission to doubt. I understand doubt to be a hallmark of faith, rather than the opposite. This book is my story of living with a very big question, ‘What does it mean to survive?’ It is indeed a wrestling, not a conclusive theory. I hope simply to open windows, to provide glimpses of a spirituality born out of the struggle – both mine and others who have lived with the question for much longer than I have.

There are two parts to my job. I am both a Methodist minister in Liverpool city centre, and also the Director of the face2face project based at Holy Rood House, Centre for Theology and Health, in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. In Liverpool, I work alongside an emerging church community called ‘Somewhere Else’ which makes bread together, and at Holy Rood I am producing educational material for churches around the issues associated with sexual abuse. In Liverpool I am in the heart of a big city and in Thirsk I look out at the rolling hills. While these experiences of Church are radically and wonderfully different, they have both presented questions born out of encounters with people who survive.

Over the past two years I have been travelling with this question, as if it has been tucked in with my luggage. The journey has accompanied me around the streets of Liverpool in its transformation to ‘European Capital of Culture 2008’. I have pondered it as I have sat with my elderly mother who represents a generation of strong women who survived the Second World War. I have taken this question with me to South Africa as I visited emerging bread-making communities in Soweto and also listened to some amazing people finding integration and healing through the story-telling process in the townships. And I have been privileged to accompany a group of ‘survivors’ to listen to similar stories in South America. In the middle of it all, I have taken time with Laura on her Derbyshire allotment, as we have listened to the growing patterns of the earth among her potatoes and beetroot.

I have had the hunch that individuals who have survived things hold a key to what it might mean to survive as nations and communities. I have begun my questioning by going to the root of the word ‘survive’. It is a tricky word. Survival can denote a fingertip emergence to catch breath among the forces that threaten to overwhelm us, or a triumphant bursting forth into new life. The word ‘survivor’ can imply a helpless victim or a feisty freedom fighter. So I have wondered what does it mean to ‘sur vivre’ – that is, ‘live above’ our experiences of trauma or abuse rather than ‘sous vivre’, to be overwhelmed by them. And in this journey to discover the stories that ‘sur vivre’ I have begun to discern a process of hope in which safe enough space can be discovered, bonds broken and individuals and communities find the resilience to live.

Within this journey I have also re-connected with the narrative of Luke and Acts. In particular, I have re-read the account from the perspective of ‘being lost’ and discovered new insights as we begin to read the story from underneath. This has been a tough wrestling with the scriptures, always trying to keep ‘survivor’s eyes’ and struggling for an honest dialogue with the text. In particular, I have worked with the motifs of victim, silence and innocent suffering in the life of Jesus. Maybe my question about survival raises more questions than answers!

I have seen how the Gospel of Luke flows over into the Acts of the Apostles, and I have asked questions about surviving Church – a deliciously ambiguous phrase – as we realize that church communities often overlook the needs of the vulnerable. I see that a real engagement with those who have suffered trauma and abuse is the key to our understanding of mission, especially when we reflect that the silence of God signifies the attentiveness of God rather than God’s absence. The writing of this book has sometimes felt like trying to find the ‘Theory of Everything’ as I have taken my question to individuals, town planners, environmentalists and policy-makers. Maybe it can do little more than provoke a conversation –I certainly hope it will!

For free material and further information on survivor issues, go to www.holyroodhouse.org.uk and follow the face2face link.


For anyone who got up this morning,
noticed they were still alive,
and wondered what it meant.



 Let us consider what it means to survive.

We are sitting on a simple bench in a barn-like building. The floor is mud. Around the walls and across the centre of the room are more benches. At the front is a plain wooden table with a jug of water and some plastic cups. We have been greeted with some traditional African handshakes, everyone is singing. We have been invited to bear witness to a hearing of Khulumani, part of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa — ‘Khulumani’ means ‘speaking out’.

As the singing quietens, one middle-aged woman makes her way to the bench, her head wrapped in a tight African head-dress. She speaks of how, during the days of apartheid, she had been kicked by the security forces as she knelt outside the prison where her son was detained, of the operations she had endured to try to remedy the brain damage the boots had caused, and of how she is bringing up grandchildren after her pregnant daughter was killed by a kick to the stomach. She tells her story simply and, through an interpreter, we hear her pain. When she has finished, a silence hangs in the room and then the community around her begin to sing a song she has chosen. The words of the song are ‘God of opportunities, use me’.

Over the course of the next two hours we hear more stories as women and men make their way to the ‘listening bench’. A mother tells of how her two children, shot by other children, died in the truck on the way to the hospital. A young man shows the scars he sustained when a truck reversed over him on the night Nelson Mandela was released. A young woman tells of a corrupt building company that had shot her husband at the gate of their house during the recent reconstruction process in the townships.

As the stories are told, a leader of the Khulumani organization moves forward to be beside the tellers and gently massages their neck or gives a glass of water if the story becomes too painful. ‘It’s like giving birth,’ the counsellor says afterwards; ‘there is a right time for these stories to be told and it is a labour.’ Certainly we could see how he, and the women and men of that rural community, acted as midwives to each other. It felt like a very basic delivery room.

I am on a journey to discover what helps people ‘sur vivre’; that is, what helps stories to surface and enables people to claim their lives after they have experienced trauma or abuse. I am using the French root of the word ‘survive’ to distinguish this process of ‘sur vivre’ (vivre – to live, sur – above or on top) as opposed to ‘sous vivre’ (sous – below or underneath). The word ‘survivor’ can give so many mixed messages. If we think of surviving, it can denote either a life lived while others died, or a life claimed despite the destructive powers of death. In distinguishing ‘sur vivre’ from ‘sous vivre’ I want to affirm the life-giving possibility of a story surfacing from under the circumstances that have suppressed it. ‘Sur vivre’ is not about pure survival, a desperate attempt to keep one’s head above water, but rather speaks of a process of flourishing. Survivors are so much more than just survivors, they have important stories to tell which need attending to, not just for themselves but for the healing of communities and nations. ‘Sur vivre’ is about seeing the world differently and finding possibilities for all of us to live in a new way.

Over the last two years I have travelled to various parts of the world and within my own localities with this question, ‘What does it mean to survive?’ Within these journeys I have looked for connections between the process of ‘sur vivre’ for individuals, nations, neighbourhoods and the earth. While I have travelled, I have listened to many stories and sat alongside various groups, conversed with some of the midwives of the story-telling and tried to connect with my own issues. I have also taken time to sit in the middle of the Derbyshire countryside with my friend Laura, an artist and allotment keeper who attends to the lessons that the natural environment communicates. On this journey I became increasingly aware how difficult it is for the subject of survival, ‘sur vivre’, to be discussed. Often people prefer to remain silent than to disclose what has happened to them or to those around them. But when stories do surface, and if they are attended to with compassion and insight, then I have also seen massive potential for a new way of engagement, one that speaks to me of life and faith. Understanding something of what enables people to survive has shown me a new hope among the most fragile and vulnerable people of the earth, which is both a small and massive undertaking.

‘Sous vivre’
If ‘sur vivre’ is to live ‘above’ a story of abuse, then ‘sous vivre’ is to be the victim of a terrible silence.

Abuse is about the misuse of power. Wherever in the world abuses happen, there can be an awful silence. It is as if the trauma cannot be reduced to the logic that words require. So, the first thing I have tried to do on my travels is to listen out for the things that are not being said – for the absences, the silences, the deadly cycles of ‘sous vivre’.

One week in every month I work for a project called face2face. The face2face initiative has the intention of listening to the silence of survivors of sexual abuse within faith communities and is based at a centre for therapeutic healing and wholeness at Holy Rood House in Thirsk. Day by day a team of trained volunteer counsellors takes time with clients who are beginning to unravel their stories. It is a patient and skilled process. Many accounts are blurred, maybe abuse happened in early childhood and is only recalled in fragments and flashbacks. Sometimes the events are so painful that they can be expressed only in the third person. Often words give way to self-harm in order for the trauma to become manageable. In the privacy of counselling rooms, therapists hear of women and men raped by parents or siblings, of the rituals of abuse performed by cults or in the name of the Church, of babies aborted or given up to the terrors of abusive practices. Around all this lies the fear that has been instilled in those who are experiencing abuse should they ever disclose what happened: fear of people for whom they often still have a loyalty and sometimes still love. Because abuse is about power, and because abusers hold the power to silence their victims, abuse is also about silence and the silenced. Abuse suppresses stories. What happens in the therapeutic environment at Holy Rood House is an engagement with these silences, to the stories that have been forced to be covered up, to ‘sous vivre’.

This suppression of stories is a complex issue. In the case of individuals who have experienced abuse it may be that the grooming process has been so thorough that the fear of speaking is overwhelming. Grooming usually happens over a period of time. The individual is systematically isolated and networks of confidantes reduced or obliterated. There will probably be threats and bribes to ensure that the abused person remains quiet, and the silencing is compounded by an overwhelming sense of guilt. On the other hand, it may be that the person does not realize there is anything strange about the experience, particularly if it happened in early childhood. It is only later in life that most of us realize that our families might not be as ‘normal’ as we had assumed when we were growing up! One woman who spoke to me told me of her mother who was so emotionally damaged that she never held her children and expected them to care for themselves by the age of seven. This woman could only name the depth of that loss of maternal care as she raised her own children and learned how to hold and nurture them. Another woman had never met a man who had not abused her and led her life avoiding male friendship. Abuse silences because of the grooming process or because it becomes impossible for the person experiencing abuse to engage with any sense of what is normal.

This isolation, loss of normality and grooming leads to the separation of victims from any sense of autonomy or worth. It is for this reason that stories are often heard in isolation. In British society the bringing to birth of these stories is often in the therapeutic context. The story-telling can be a privatized and confidential act, unlike the community processes we witnessed in South Africa. The growth in person-centred counselling in the UK has been remarkable over the last few decades and the need to find safe spaces in which to talk and be heard have caused a burgeoning of therapeutic services and time spent in doctors’ surgeries. The ‘birthing’ of stories tends to be a private process as people who have experienced abuse seek safe enough spaces to share what has happened to them. ‘Sur vivre’, then, can be an individual or a collective story-telling according to cultural mores or context. The attending to the silences around us requires an engagement with both individuals and communities, but also with our culture. Silences can also be held at national level; there are things that are simply not talked about or are assumed to be normal because they are part of a collective history.

In Britain we are a country of individuals with a collective story of survival, but we rarely talk about it. The ‘winning’ of the Second World War has resulted in a whole generation of British men and women, now in their eighties, who rarely speak of the trauma and loss. Among the elderly we see glimpses of a generation within which every family was bereft of relations, friends and property. Unlike Germany and indeed South Africa, Britain has not had to face a collective guilt and begin to speak of the horrors witnessed by us as a whole nation. On the whole we just ‘Don’t mention the war’ and our remembering is often ritualized into wreath-laying and contrived silences. This collective silence has not, to my knowledge, been a source of therapeutic concern. How would it be possible to hear a whole generation of elderly people? We have been culturally attuned to accept this silence. If we are going to engage with what ‘sous vivre’ is and begin to discern how it might be possible to ‘sur vivre’ we will need special, culturally tuned antennae that enable us to hear what we are not hearing.

Further, it is not just individual people who are abused, or even distinct communities or nations – it is the earth, the environment, our surroundings. Waste-heaps around Johannesburg tell a story of profligate mining that has not been mindful of the survival and flourishing of the earth. Cyanide from mining explosives leaches into the water supplies, and other toxic substances are breathed in with the dust. This scarring and spoiling of the landscape brings its own implications for the future of the local people and for the future of the earth. These soil mountains stand in silent judgement over the powers of short-term advantage that are the legacy of colonialism and capitalism. The cost of abuse of the earth is a hot topic, within which we are also called to attend to what is not being said.

So, there are silences around at every level. The individual silences of the abused whose tongues are bound through fear and threat, the collective silencing of a whole society such as the people of Chile and Argentina where silence runs through national experience, and the silence of the earth as it stands spoiled and accusatory at the edges of our landscapes. Abuse is about power, and it silences all of us – individually, collectively and environmentally. We cannot engage with the process of ‘sur vivre’ unless we understand those forces that lead to death, destruction and ‘sous vivre’. As I have travelled and listened and pondered on these things, I have begun to realize that this journey has significance not just for individuals but for our collective sustainability of the earth. If we are to ‘sur vivre’ then we must begin to acknowledge this need to allow the stories to surface – fearlessly, remorsefully, searingly but also gently and lovingly, as the Khulumani counsellors have already discovered.

It was with all this in mind that I went this week to sit on Laura’s allotment. Well, it’s less of an allotment and more of a field. There are eight allotments altogether on the Chatsworth estate; seven are laid out in neat rows, with precision planted beans and regimented beetroot. Then there is Laura’s. Laura has planted her seeds and is now in the business of listening to what they have to say to her. Laura is an artist and is considering the processes of ‘becoming’.

At one end of Laura’s allotment some tall artichokes are producing deep roots under the sandy soil. A tangle of raspberries crowds another corner, and a tree that has been laden with plums begins to lose its leaves as autumn begins to bite. She has harvested the peas but because their pods are a beautiful deep purple she has left them on the plant. There is a compost heap and a pile of sticks drying for kindling. The beetroot are a disaster, but she is leaving them in the soil anyway to see what happens. Between the vegetables, herbs grow wild and untended. We dig up some pink potatoes, their flesh creamy white, and we converse as we make a stew in her garden shed.

Chopping artichokes into the pan of boiling water, we talk about the allotment, not as a thing but as a process of becoming. It is not something to be ‘managed’ but to be ‘attended to’. It is quite clear that Laura has a loving relationship with this allotment, it tells her things and she is listening to it. As I sit on the small wooden seat in the allotment shed, spooning a stew made of freshly dug vegetables and herbs, I am mindful of the similar wooden bench in South Africa where I have so recently listened to stories of abuse and violence. I begin to feel the power in these small, radical steps of attentiveness as Laura and I chat and listen to the Derbyshire rain soaking into the earth.

After the Khulumani listening process, we sat with the counsellor at a motorway service station, somewhat dazed by what we had heard and needing time to process our thoughts. He told us that he attends such hearings every week. ‘How else will the nations be healed?’ he asks. In Laura’s shed I remember the words in Revelation that his words have echoed, ‘The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations’. Within the Khulumani process, on Laura’s allotment, at Holy Rood House and with my church community in Liverpool, I begin to understand that this healing, this listening, this attentiveness is a process of hard work, like giving birth. But it is essential work: the journey from ‘sous vivre’ to ‘sur vivre’ will take time, care and the willingness to listen to one another and to what is coming to birth among us.

As I have travelled with the question, ‘What does it mean to survive?, I have not only recognized a way of possibility that I want to describe as ‘sur vivre’ but I also see that this question is a question about faith. St Paul writes of the whole earth ‘groaning in travail’ and I begin to make a connection between the birth-pangs of ‘sur vivre’ that I am encountering and the process of incarnation described in the Gospels. As a theologian and human being I see that this process is a faith imperative because I believe in a gospel that calls us to ‘life in all its fullness’. This is not just divine wishful thinking but the call to live our lives on top of oppression and abuse and enable others to do the same. If abuse is about the deadly effect of misappropriated power, then I believe that God calls forth life, life from under the oppressions that seek to crush us, and begins to give voice to another way. God desires us to live in a way that subverts abuses. God’s way is not a way of death, but a way to flourish. So I have turned to the Gospels, in particular the Gospel of Luke, to search for clues of God’s message of ‘sur vivre’. This has been one of the most challenging parts of the journey! There have been times when I have felt overwhelmed by the motifs of victim and sacrifice. But I have discovered a sense in which the Gospel also survives as it begins to tell its story afresh above the weight of a lot of doctrinal assumptions and church baggage. I have been surprised by how often discovering what it means to ‘sur vivre’ in relation to the story of God has brought me to a new sense of mission, a way of unbinding the story and enabling it to live in new ways, enabling a spirituality of survival.

The bind
The deadly cycles of ‘sous vivre’ suppress the human spirit, bring negativity, fear and foreboding. ‘Sous vivre’ is about death – physical, emotional or spiritual – and, like most deaths, results in a binding, a shrouding of life. In these deadly cycles of abuse the powerful overcome, overwhelm or smother the less powerful, putting them into a position where their own power is bound, and they are trapped. Most often the first thing to be bound is the tongue. Individuals who have experienced abuse consistently recount the terrors of the threats they received ‘not to tell’. In the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland publication, Time for Action, we read:

Commonly those who abuse children instil a fear that is so awful that a survivor knows almost instinctively that he or she cannot possibly dare tell another person about what has happened or is happening. Consequently there are deep-rooted feelings of loneliness, isolation and fear’ (1).

Such feelings often last well into adulthood. It is not unusual for adults who have experienced abuse to continue to believe that they are totally in the power of the offender, even after the person who abused them has died. Many sexual abusers are skilled manipulators, and the use of secrecy and silencing has been well documented by specialists who treat such offenders. Techniques include telling children things that will frighten them, such as ‘Your mother will have a heart attack if you tell’ or ‘You will go to prison if you tell’ and other messages that will bind someone’s tongue. All these messages are given to terrorize the person being abused into complete silence and to encourage compliance. Sex offenders within the clergy often use spiritual threats of confusing messages, such as: ‘You’ll go to hell if you tell’ ‘God does not mind what is happening; ‘You will hurt God if you tell,’ or ‘No one will believe you because I’m a priest.’ Even when people are adult, independent and free to speak, the sense of being unable to disclose can still have the power to bind.

We need to be aware that most abuses happen in the home and by family members. Children abused by parents will already love those parents and be anxious to please. They will also respect the authority of a parent or sibling not to disclose, and the biggest threat is that love will be withdrawn. Within the cycles of sexual, emotional and physical abuses there is tied a convoluted knot of love and power which binds the tongues of those affected by trauma. The loci of silencing frequently violate the very places that should be safest to speak out without fear.

Similarly, in political oppressions, the power to silence and bind is often close to home. In South Africa the networks of trust were systematically broken down by the apartheid regime so that neighbours became informers on neighbours, church members on pastors, and children on teachers. Abused people soon learn to hold their tongues. During the Khulumani hearing we repeatedly heard stories of fear in connection with the police and security forces, but also in relation to friends, family and neighbours. Abuses of power infiltrated every level of social engagement so that it became impossible to know whom to trust. One person told of the advice given to them by an elderly priest, ‘Say to no one what you cannot say to everyone.’ In this environment of suspicion and mistrust, a society of fear was soon engendered and permeated every level of life.

This knot of silencing also binds communities and individuals in relation to the environment. The relocated ‘Cape Coloureds’ displaced from the townships, have been rehoused on the Cape Flats which are the areas most likely to flood in heavy rains. The exploited black workers of the Johannesburg mines were powerless to complain about the spoil-heaps that overshadowed their already impoverished neighbourhood because their livelihood depended on the mines. Those whose relatives had ‘disappeared’ in South America did not know whom to trust in their search. Who can stand up to individuals or political regimes that hold such power by force and bind the tongue of protest?

Among the victims of the world there are terrible silences, tongues are tied and words are trapped in cycles of oppression. Individuals, communities and nations can be caught up by these complex ties, resulting in both individual isolation and social exclusion. To understand ‘sous vivre’ we have to begin to attend to these silences. It is only if we can begin to discover what is bound that we are able to speak of ‘unbinding’.

Abuse is about the misuse of power and it leads to silence and the binding of individuals to perpetrators in cycles of violence. This binding is of the whole body, but particularly the tongue which is rendered speechless either through fear of reprisal or mental disintegration. This power of others to silence can become all pervading. Fears and terrors can haunt and dement. In the UK, one in three girls is sexually abused before the age of 18, one in six boys before the age of 16 (2). There is a mighty silence in every gathering of humankind. People who are experiencing abuse are not marked out as special beings, behaving strangely or unable to cope with life, they are everywhere holding onto deep silences in the context of seemingly ordinary lives. Individuals have been groomed to bear this silence in isolation, they have often had support networks undermined and are unable to trust disclosure. Political abuses work in similar ways by undermining the infrastructure of trust. Police forces and the military may be in the pay of the abusers, and informers can come clothed as friends. This great silence suppresses the fullness of life which is God’s intention both to individuals and to the earth. There is a sense of powerlessness, of nothingness. The poorest communities of the world sense they are out of sight, invisible, of no consequence. Silence and nothingness go hand in hand, and there is a disintegration of any feeling of autonomy or worth. Indeed, many people who ‘sous vivre’ lose sight of being individuals but live in a fragmented psyche in which dissociation makes integration of experiences seemingly impossible. Similarly, with the undermining of trust in political oppressions, there is disintegration and worthlessness. So, where is God in all this? It might be easy to say, ‘This is nothing to do with God’, maybe God is also nothing? Are we to preach a counsel of despair to those victimized and alone? Certainly the Church has often done much to compound the sense of guilt in those who are suppressed and repressed by violence and abuse. How is it possible for victims to live on top of this oppression, to ‘sur vivre’, and what is God’s place in the process?

Ten years ago when my friend Alison swallowed a bottle of paracetamol and jumped from a bridge into moving traffic, she lay in a hospital bed looking more dead than any living person I have seen. Her spine was crushed but the depression that had caused her suicide attempt had lifted. Later, when I asked her where she thought God had been when she jumped, she replied in a matter-of-fact way, ‘Oh, beside me on the bridge’. Some God, I thought, that didn’t intervene, didn’t speak out, didn’t pull her back from the brink. I was extremely angry with God for not rescuing her and preventing her excruciating pain and despair. But not Alison, for her God was present and remains present, even in the face of nothingness. This is not necessarily the case for all victims. Often God is most notable for God’s absence. How hard it is to believe in a silent God, within the awful silence of violence and abuse. Is this not the callous God of infinite superiority and detachment?

Does God’s silence mean God’s absence? Has Jesus, in fact, been abandoned by God at the point of crucifixion? It may appear so, yet belief in a God of infinite mercy and transforming love means I still hold on to the belief that there is no place from which God is absent. God is infinitely present to all creation, pervading the cracks and darkness as well as the highs and hopes. So how is God present in the silence and binding of abuse, and in what way do we come to understand this presence to signify a God of mercy and love?

One day when Alison, my suicidal friend, was in hospital fighting for her life, I found myself in the hospital car park waiting for the beginning of visiting time. I was angry, anxious, mixed-up and fearful of what I was going to say when I went onto the ward. It was then that I noticed the letters on the number plates of the two cars opposite me – one said ‘HUG’ and the other said ‘GAG’. While I don’t believe in a God who strategically places number plates, I do think there was wisdom in my seeing that these were two messages pertinent to my impending visit, first to embrace the situation and second to wait in the silence without ditching my own stuff. As a friend advised me later, ‘Don’t just do something, Barbara, stand there!’ Just as my silence indicated my total engagement with the relationship and suffering I held with my friend, I believe that God’s silence signifies not absence, but total engagement. God becomes silent in order to be with the silenced. It is an ultimate act of love to be able to enter the awful silence and suffer together.

How does being silent with the silenced signify an infinite response of love? Silence can be a very deep place. There is the silence that results from the binding of the tongue and there is the silence of deep attention, when all we can do is ‘be there’. The meeting of these silences, the meeting of the silenced and those who attend to the silence, is the place where ‘sous vivre’ encounters ‘sur vivre’. I am beginning to understand that it is only when we enter into the silence at the heart of ourselves that we are able to give proper attention to the silence at the heart of creation. This silence is different from the terrible silence of the abused. It is a silence of longing and empathy in which words have failed and an embodied, rather than a spoken, response is necessary – it is the silence of ‘sur vivre’ rather than the silence of ‘sous vivre’. Being in this silence, and attending to the pain of alienation and silencing that all people who suffer abuses know, is a sign of the power of transformation. In this place where the silences meet, there is a safe enough place for the ties around the tongue of the abused person to be loosened.

It is in this place that we realize that we are not ‘sufferer’ and ‘friend’ but rather two people who are being attended to by the same God. Just as we can be silent because we are listening, so also God is silent because God is listening, listening with the very being of God’s self, in the abyss of silence, redeeming the silence, bringing the words to birth. It is at this place, where the silences meet, that the process of ‘sur vivre’, of bringing a story to birth, is initiated. Jesus is the pivot between ‘sous vivre’ and ‘sur vivre, between a deadly silence and the birth of a life-giving story, between death and life. God can unbind tongues with Pentecostal force, not through powerful speech but through divine listening. The silence of God is the life-giving longing of God. Alison knew this when she jumped from the bridge – God was there, not as divine manipulator or rescuer, but as aching, silent, incarnate friend.

This labour of ‘sur vivre’ is started not by the story-telling, but within the meeting of the silences, the meeting of the silenced with the infinite silence of God. This meeting is the initiation of a process that results in the birth of a story, and it is the emergence of this story that brings life from underneath abuse and oppression. But story alone is not the beginning of survival; the meeting of the silences is the beginning. And at the heart of this process is the God of silence. This silent God is not an absent God but a listening God. God’s presence is within the depth of the silence, such a silence is the ultimate solidarity of love. It is the hope that God will relinquish the power of speech in order to unbind the silences of the earth and the people of the earth and bring them to birth.

But do we really want to believe in the transformative power of a silent God?

On my journey I have discovered that people of faith do a lot of talking about God, praying to God and, on a good day, listening to God – but they rarely sense the presence of the silent, listening God. Little space is given to God as the great silence surrounding the earth, the longing for the story of humankind to be born, the infinite waiting that is paying attention to the travail of creation and created beings. We are mostly far too busy to have any sense of the God who is listening to us. And isn’t the Bible rather about God speaking to his people and our struggles to discern what he is saying and our disobedience to a whole set of clear instructions? How are we to live our lives in the presence of a silent God who meets us before the story-telling, before the word, and who hangs around with us in a place where silence meets the silenced?

As we begin reading the scriptures with an eye to the process of ‘sur vivre’, we need to look again at the places where Jesus is silent and is silenced. In this way we might begin reading the story ‘from underneath’ and observe how he has lived a life both as a silenced victim and as a survivor. This ‘reading from underneath’ peels back the dominant narrative and reveals Jesus showing a way to bring the silenced voices of the world to light. Jesus is found entering a place of the deepest, eternal silence and then unbinding the tongues of those who were betrayed, abandoned and lost.

Being born from silence
At the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel we learn that, very soon after his birth, there was a move to silence the baby Jesus. This move has euphemistically been referred to as ‘The Slaughter of the Innocents’. The scale of this slaughter is not known but clearly what we hear described is an act of ethnic cleansing. In this story, and through the power of God and dreams, Jesus is not a victim of this act of silencing, but his contemporaries are, and we hear of the memory of ‘Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be consoled because they are no more’ (Matthew 2.18). The silencing of a whole generation is a mass act of abuse, political and individual. The terror of the silent babies and the wailing of the lamenting mothers is the precursor to the proclamation of John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. A voice crying in the context of the silence, the silence of the lost and the bereft, the silence of the wilderness.

Later we meet the adult Jesus himself coming out of this silent wilderness to proclaim the word of God, to speak, to preach, to minister, to pronounce. But later in Matthew’s Gospel we learn of the death of John the Baptist, beheaded at the behest of Salome. John is the victim of ultimate silencing, of imprisonment, isolation and death. The words that Jesus proclaims are spoken into the context of silencing, of personal and political oppressions, of innocent suffering (Mark 6.16-29). Immediately after the death of John, Jesus retires to a deserted place.

Throughout the accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus we hear of this to-and-fro of engagement and subsequent withdrawal to the hills or to the sea, to be silent. The rhythm of speaking and listening brings a dynamic of relationship in which we sense the solitary nature of Jesus alongside the deeply personal and intimate encounters he initiates along the way. He has conversations with people made outcast by political exclusion, the Samaritans, victims of societal taboos, the mad and the leprous, those considered unclean such as the woman with the flow of blood (Luke 8.43-48) and those literally voiceless through dumbness. Jesus brings the stories of the silenced to light but he also withdraws into his own silence. In his life, in this to-and-fro, he embodies the divine person in whom the silences meet.

This is never more apparent than in the silence of Jesus before Pilate. Is he a victim at this point? Clearly he is at the mercy of the political and religious authorities whose intent is to silence him for good, but unlike many victims, he still has a choice to live. He could deny his allegiance to the gospel he has proclaimed and withdraw into the fabric of Palestine. He chooses, however, to remain silent before the power of the authorities. He knows that this silence will lead him to the ultimate silence of his death. Although he has not been silenced as many victims are, he chooses silence over speech. It is an embodied act of both the victim and the defiant. Later, in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, he will begin to wonder why the God of everything is also silent. Maybe there is no deeper silence in the history of the world than that of Easter Saturday; the tomb is sealed, there are no more choices, and there are no more words. People who have experienced abuse throughout the world will know of this silencing, a place where God is so silent that they sense they are in a place of ultimate desolation.

And yet also, in the place where the silenced and the silence meet, there is embodied, through Jesus, an eternal solidarity. He descended into hell, into our hell, into the place of nothingness, into the endless silence. The Word died and was silent so that the silent can give birth to words. Where the silences meet there begins the labour of new life. In the dark heart of the tomb a different story is being born. In this very darkness the transition from ‘sous vivre’ to ‘sur vivre’ is happening, a new way is coming to birth and, like all labours, it is a painful process.

In the little wooden shed on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a man tells of his frustration with the processes of the new South African government. ‘We longed for freedom, but now it has come it is not freedom’; and a woman laments her son, so traumatized by the experiences of apartheid that he is unable to settle anywhere and spends his life wandering the city streets. In a counselling room at Holy Rood House, a woman self-harms as the pain of a childhood memory cuts through her ability to find words. Alison learns how to use a wheelchair and live with the pain that is going to continue to pierce her body like hot needles for the rest of her life. Outside the tomb of Jesus a woman asks, ‘Where have they taken my Lord?’ and the answer to the question soon disappears into nothingness. So what is this transformation process that unbinds the tongue and begins to set free the stories of trauma and the songs of lament?

Someone said of the Khulumani counsellor, ‘He is the message: The transformation process is an embodied process in which people are prepared to enter into the place where the silenced meet the silence of God. These people are indeed the incarnate message, as embodied in Jesus, whether they know it or not. Being in silence with the silenced is a hard place indeed; how much easier for us to fill up our days with words, because words are a means of power, and silence takes us to a place of apparent powerlessness. Yet this process is, I believe, an imperative of the listening God. It is a mission imperative; by this I am not referring to a place of verbalizing doctrine or enlisting Christians, but rather a place where the God of silence is prepared to meet us within a dynamic of grace – an imperative of Missio Dei, of the God who goes ahead of us, even into the silence; it is the mission of the eternally silent, attentive, love-bearing, listening God.

It is the mission of the people of God to pay attention to this God who goes ahead, a mission to be present for the silenced and to embody the listening love of the Creator. As any trained listener will know, the process of ‘hearing’ involves a certain amount of of’self-emptying’. The clutter and chatter of our everyday lives needs to be quelled in order to have the space to give real attention to the stories that are being born among us. This kenosis is at the heart of the silencing of Jesus who chooses to be nothing in order to stand alongside the silenced of the earth, the silences of the earth. The self-emptying of Christ, through his crucifixion, is the re-entry of the powerful God into the time before the word, into silence, into chaos, into darkness, so that a re-creation can be resurrected. This is why listening is not simply the work of the therapist, but also the work of the missionary. If we believe in a God who listens, and in a Christ who has stepped into silence, as an eternal act of solidarity with the silenced of the earth, then what does this imply for discipleship and mission?

I want to suggest that it is the mission of those who seek to follow Jesus to have the bearing of such divine attentiveness. That, contrary to the perceived wisdom of evangelism as proclamation, we are called to become a community of believers who listen, who are attentive to the silences that are around us, the silences of people, the silences of creation. Our primary mission is to listen to the God who has chosen, through Jesus, to risk being nothing for the sake of our ‘sur vivre’, as individuals and as a planet. Through Christ we are called to hear, to bear witness to those who groan in travail, to the silenced among us, to all that is missing and lost. This is not simply a piece of therapy, but an act of redemption. It is the work of God in the world.

Simone Weil writes,

Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance, the love of neighbour, which we know to be the same love, is made of the same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people giving them attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a rare and difficult thing: it is almost a miracle, it is a miracle’ (3).

Here is the connection between the God who enters into the deepest of silences and the call to mission. God’s self-emptying brings an eternal attentiveness to creatures and to creation. God, through Jesus, relinquishes speech in order to be attentive to the silences of the world. God enters silence in order to call forth the words of the new creation, in order for God’s beloved creation to ‘sur vivre’. This holy attention is a call for us to pay attention to each other and to the earth as a redemptive action.

Nelle Morton asks, ‘How many women and men have been rendered silent because the words just did not exist to “hear them into speech”? What is needed is a “hearing” engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech – a new speech – a new creation.” This ‘whole body’ attentiveness has been borne out for us by the ‘whole body’ response of Jesus as he has willingly entered the silence of death and the tomb. And so the Church, as the body of Christ, is similarly called into engagement with divine attentiveness, to individuals and to Creation. The body is called, individually and collectively, to stand in solidarity with the silenced, to wait in the silence, to pay attention to the silence, to hold fast in the silence, to be the message, to remain silent – until the words can be brought to birth from the silenced.

As we sat with the counsellor on the simple wooden benches of a South African village, our backs ached from leaning forward to hear the words of the story-tellers, translated for us. We knew that we were witnesses to a powerfully redemptive act. By the commitment of Khulumani to sit and wait within the silence that is the pain of South Africa, a new way of being is being brought to light. A body language of redemption, among the women and men who collectively wait for stories to be born, it was physically and emotionally uncomfortable to hear the accounts of violations that were being told. It required the attention of our whole body. In the counselling rooms at Holy Rood House a similar process comes to birth as trained practitioners wait and prompt until the words begin to be spoken out of the depths of unspeakable silencing. It takes all the counsellor’s wisdom and energy to pay such undivided attention. It is a ‘whole body’ listening that is required.

In the same way, the listening God has become an embodied expression of listening, through the silence of Jesus. This incarnational engagement bore the body scars of the God who waited within the silence of victimization and crucifixion. This is a costly process. And, as the body of Christ, the Church is called into such a role. It must learn to bear the marks of silent attentiveness to the victims of the earth, and to the earth.

As, in her allotment, Laura watches the plants flourish or fail, we are each called into the intense, exquisite, vivid attentiveness that calls forth life ‘from underneath’. Some stories are born gently and under the cover of darkness, others are surgically assisted by prompting practitioners, some are delivered violently with convulsions of emotion, others stillborn and despairing. This is the work of God.

‘Do not be afraid’
And so to Luke’s Gospel; at the very beginning we hear of a series of announcements. The first is literally the binding and unbinding of a tongue as Zechariah is struck dumb at the news of the child to be born to him. After the conception of the baby, his wife Elizabeth was in seclusion; being childless had resulted in her being in a place of isolation and shame. It is not until she is visited by her pregnant cousin Mary that she exclaims, with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me … ? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy’ (Luke 1.42-44). Hearing this exclamation, Mary begins her song of praise, Mary who has been disgraced and perplexed by her unlikely pregnancy. When Zechariah is eventually able to speak, he too begins to proclaim, seeing what is happening to him and his family as being part of the greater story of Israel. And he names the child, ‘He will be called John’. This releasing of words continues, to the isolated shepherds on their hillside and to Simeon and Anna in the Temple.

In the wooden shed outside Johannesburg, as the women and men take their turns on the ‘listening bench’, the counsellor nods his head. One woman has told of how the security forces gave her father a slow poison while in prison, how her mother died of stress and how she was evicted from every house in which she tried to settle. She tells of how she was forced to sleep in the graveyard beside her father’s grave, how even now she fights for the land rights to her family property. Her story of exclusion and suffering has been named, the silence has been broken.

At the end of the ‘telling’ the counsellor responds, ‘You have suffered greatly, my mother. You have been treated like dog. Wicked men have killed your father and taken your land . . .’ In the silence that follows, each of these ‘tellers’ knows that they have been heard. ‘They have a need to annunciate . . ‘ ‘ says the counsellor. It seems a curious word to use. I wonder if he means ‘enunciate’ to spell out what has happened to them. But as I remember the story of the birth of Jesus, I return to ‘the annunciation, the proclamation, the telling out. Yes, Khulumani means ‘speaking out’ but also signifies the message of angels, ‘Do not be afraid.’

In a counselling room at Holy Rood House, a woman is talking in a strange voice. It is the voice of Jason – the name she has given to the personification of abuse. Through her dissociation and confusion she is beginning to discover the story of what has happened to her. The counsellor sits attentively within the process. These disclosures are hard to hear – and much harder to tell. This naming and telling comes with the delivery of the words, as the waters of silence are broken, as the hidden secrets come bawling or gasping into the daylight. Telling a story is a huge act of courage. Unless we are paying attention it may well be missed.

People who have experienced abuse will often wait years before they feel safe enough to begin to disclose. The exact timing of a story’s arrival cannot be predicted. It may come out at an unexpected moment, bursting into a room with anger and chaotic behaviour. Whenever or however it happens, the need for the selected listener to pay proper attention and to set proper boundaries is crucial. But this does not mean that we all need to be trained counsellors; we just need to be aware of what we are doing and what we are not doing. Mostly, when we hear such a story we are simply being asked to believe it – even if it has inconsistencies. The issue at stake is not, ‘Is this true?’ but ‘Are you listening?’

So, the process of ‘sur vivre’ is one that begins with God, the God who is listening in silent attention to the earth and its people. Through Jesus, this loving attention is embodied. Jesus enters into the depths of divine silence in order to be with the silenced. This ‘meeting of the silences’ is the creative place in which stories are held and nurtured until such time as the labour of telling begins. This holding of silence is both the ministry of Jesus and the mission of the body of Christ in the Church and among the people of the earth. The movement from ‘sous vivre’ to ‘sur vivre’ begins with entry into this silence and a commitment to hold fast within the waiting until the words take flesh. This fleshing-out of stories is an annunciation, an announcement of a new life, a life without fear that can live from underneath oppression.

As for Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, this annunciation can come only after they are encouraged not to be afraid. Not being afraid is not a simple act of will; it is often a process of shaking off the messages of fear that have been learned and, in the case of abuse, taught from a very early age. The unbinding of tongues takes time, patience, skill and insight. But often the first telling of a story isn’t in a counselling room on a listening bench but somehow ‘in passing’. People who have experienced abuse may practise stories, test people out to see if they are to be trusted, talk in the third person, or give snippets of information to a friend. To be aware of God’s attentiveness is not a remote theological theory but a mission prerogative. Churches and faith communities are called to be safe enough, boundaried places where the truth has space in which to be told and held. How we make such spaces of trust and acceptance is not simply a way of reordering the Church but also a way of reordering inner space to make room for the process of attentiveness; more a question of how we can ‘be’ Christians rather than people that ‘do’ stuff for God – and this is what I would like to consider in the next chapters. In particular I want to ponder prayer as silence, and liturgies as the work of the people. I want to investigate the processes that allow spaces to become safe and how we can be sensitive to thresholds and boundaries, how the bonds of oppressions can be broken and the liturgies of life sung.

But right now I am sitting on Laura’s allotment, the first frosts are drawing patterns on the shrivelling leaves of the raspberry canes. The purple stalks of the beetroot begin to twist and become brittle; the blackbird tugs worms from under the artichokes. There is no knowing what seeds have already germinated or what will emerge next year. Now is the waiting time. We sit and consider Laura’s theme of ‘becoming’ as we wrap our hands around mugs of warm coffee and blow steamy breath into the cold October afternoon.



I am in the vestry of a church. I have been asked to take a funeral. It is not my church – the minister is away and I am covering for him. Elsie was a lady in her eighties, known to the church all her life and latterly through the Ladies’ Circle. She was a spinster. I have visited her brother and sister and I have talked with the church steward to try to get the picture of what this woman was like. Despite my best efforts, I have gleaned very little information; the message from all of them was that ‘Elsie struggled with her nerves: I am also struggling with my nerves: two minutes before the service, I have little to go on to paint a picture of this life. I have one last desperate attempt at extracting information from the duty steward. ‘I gather she suffered a lot from her nerves,’ I lead hopefully. ‘Yes’ she says, ‘you know how it is in families, it was the father I think, all the children suffered in one way or another, you know how it is with fathers like that . . .’With that sudden insight, it is time to go into the church, the coffin has arrived …

‘Sur vivre’, surfacing above traumatic stories, begins when silence meets the silenced. As such, it is not an isolated activity, it requires company. But here is another bind. To seek safe company requires a huge amount of trust, and it is trust that has been most undermined in cycles of oppression and abuse. Those who should be trusted cannot be trusted. There is a need to locate a safe enough space before trust can be reinstated. This is more of a process than an event. We can assume that faith communities will provide a safe space for such conversations, but sadly these issues often remain hidden under a veneer of religious coping. So what makes a ‘safe enough’ space in which to tell a story, and how do we hear the clues that can bring stories to birth – preferably before the coffin is coming down the aisle of a church?


Tags: ,