Advent’s Four Last Things: HELL


To be trafficked, and forced to live and work where you have not chosen; this is hell. Your captor counts your value in dollars, not in your humanity, and so treats you with the indifference a bad tradie treats his tools.

To be in pain, constantly without end; this is hell. Pain holds your body prisoner and you are unable to live as you wish because of the pain.

To be abused, and to live with memories of abuse; this is hell. Someone you trusted violated you and treated you just like a willful child stomping on a toy.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the descent through the circles of Hell (L’Inferno). In a region called Ptolomea are those who have been thrown deep into Hell for treachery to their guests. These are people who insinuate themselves in a position of trust and use that power to take advantage of their victims. Significantly, Dante believes that these people die at the moment of their crime; their body may live on, but their soul is thrown immediately to this bottom part of hell.

In the world of Dante’s poem, there’s justice in this punishment. The Australian churches now must allow justice to be dealt both to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also to those who, by action or inaction, covered up those crimes.

I want to give little oxygen here to perpetrators, however.

Rather, consider the hell of being a victim of abuse: the inability to trust; the devaluing of the self; the trauma of being violated, and the secondary, and sometimes worse, trauma of remembering it. There is a shocking trauma for those who recover a memory long repressed. There’s the ongoing trauma of flashbacks and dreams. Relationships take on extra challenges. Some victims become hypervigilant, expecting at every moment something bad to overtake them. Taken together, this is hell lived out in daily experience, like a young woman trafficked, or the person experiencing high levels of pain every day.

Is ‘victim’ the right word? Many prefer ‘survivor’. While a person remains without hope, then they are in hell: they are a victim of the violence done to them.

Being destroyed by abuse, or corroded by pain, or forcibly held become hell when the victim can see no way out. This person understands that their situation will go on unchanged for ever. It is hell, and one of the four last things: an ultimate reality.

Christian faith reveals God who can undo the final reality of death. Death, the end, is no longer the end. The God who has power to raise Jesus from the dead has power to release victims from hell. The person who believes there is a future becomes a survivor, literally, one who lives beyond.

Christian faith bears witness, in the hells which people experience, to the reality of hope. This is the key which unlocks the door of hell. Hope is the secret ingredient which explodes the murderous captors of this world.

We must believe in hell because it is part of people’s lived experience. We are invited, however, to grasp hope, because hope turns victims into survivors, and eventually into joyful survivors; hope destroys hell.


As At The Dawn

As At the Dawn


Because you love them free as they are
They say you have nothing to say


Because you put on a human face
They say you’ve hidden yourself


Because you’re all heart God
They say you’ve gone to sleep


Because your Spirit cannot be grasped
They say everything has gone wrong


Because you refuse to collude with evil
They say you’re good for nothing


Because you don’t crush people
They say they haven’t called on you


Because you’re not just any God
They say you’re just anything


Because you made me in your image
You are also everything they say


Dear God won’t you take pity on me?


Original French P. Fertin “Comme à l’aurore”, Paris: Desclée, 1974, p. 17
Translated by Ted Witham 2013


Francis the pastor

Of course the name chosen by the new Pope, Francis, has encouraged me to think that his ministry will be different from his predecessors. In his first 100 days Francis has behaved like a pastor, like a parish priest, encouraging his flock in following the Gospel.

In his informal style Francis has also used some charming and helpful images: while encouraging bishops to be exemplars to their people  of Christian living, the Pope also shows that he trusts the faithful to be the faithful: “they have the scent of the Gospel anyway,” he has said more than once. That’s refreshing.

I know that a faraway personality can become simply a blank screen on which to project our own hopes and values, I can see that his apparently off the cuff homilies are actually quite studied,  and I hear the warnings that despite the gestures of austerity, he is governing like an old-fashioned Jesuit (listening to all but making decisions by himself), and that his theology on issues I care about is still conservative (I am certain he disagrees with my views on the ordination of women, and the acceptance of LGBT people in the Church!), however, what counts is clear: Francis is a pastor encouraging all Christians in their faith.

In this address to the Cardinals Francis shows that he trusts God with the future of the church, and for that we can be encouraged:

Let us never give way to pessimism, to a sort of bitterness that the devil offers us each day; let us never give way to pessimism and discouragement: let us have the firm certainty that Holy Spirit gives to the Church, but her powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to look for new methods of evangelism to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth (cf Acts 1:8)

–          Pope Francis  at Rome, 15 March 2013

As an Anglican, I am in the nice position of being able to pick and choose what I like from the Pope’s leadership, and this Pope is showing forth Gospel values in his reported lifestyle and gestures, and is speaking about the Gospel from the heart. I thank God for him.

Hope for Palestinians


Michelle Cohen Corasanti, The Almond Tree, Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing

Paperback from $AUD 11.22 (online) or Kindle E-book: $US 3.49

Reviewed by Ted Witham

I wept frequently while reading this outstanding first novel.

The Almond Tree tells the story of Ichmad Hamid, a gifted Palestinian boy whose family home is destroyed to make way for Jewish settlers. They lose their orchard and, after some years in a tent, are able to build a one-room cement-block house on the tiny patch of land the Israelis leave for them. Ichmad’s beloved Baba is sent to prison for 14 years after 12-year-old Ichmad helps radicals bury weapons in their backyard.  Their small home and all its possessions are again destroyed by Israeli soldiers.

In his father’s absence, Ichmad takes on the role of provider for his family, working on Israeli settler construction sites for far less wages than the suspicious Iraqis and Russians who work with him. Following his father’s advice Ichmad tries to choose always the way of peace, and despite endless provocations, not to return hatred for hatred.

Teacher Mohammad offers to tutor the gifted boy every evening after work. Ichmad wins a scholarship in Maths and Physics to Hebrew University, and sets out on a stellar academic career. He collaborates with his Professor, a bitter Jew whose family was murdered in Auschwitz. Eventually the two become close friends and win the Nobel Prize jointly for their work on nanotechnology.

Ichmad continues to support his family on his Professor’s wage at Harvard, and maintains close contact with his village. He identifies with their life-giving almond tree with its roots deep in Palestinian soil. At every turn in his story  he encounters tragedy, much of it caused by the brutality of Israeli occupation, and Ichmad’s desire to choose peace almost always – eventually – turns the tragedies into something deeper and positive for his people and his family.

This is a powerful first novel by a courageous Jewish-American woman. I did not need to be persuaded that the occupation of Palestine is anything but a disaster for the Palestinians. It would be wonderful if this novel helped others to see the human cost of providing a secure and secular state for the Jewish people. It may just be sufficiently powerful to do so.


Easter Lights

Lueurs pascales – Easter Lights

 A poem by Brother Roger of Taizé (with translation)

Toi, le Christ,
tu te charges de ce qui nous charge,
au point que,
débarrassés de ce qui alourdit notre existence,
nous reprenions à tout moment
la marche légère
de l’inquiétude vers la confiance,
de l’ombre vers la clarté de l’eau vive,
de notre volonté propre
vers la vision du Royaume qui vient.
Alors, bien que nous osions
à peine l’espérer,
tu offres à chaque être humain
d’être un reflet de ton visage.
(Le défunt Frère Roger Schutz de la Communauté de Taizé, dans Reff, Sylvie et Stern, André. Soleil de prières. Editions Albin Michel, 1989).
Prières à Taizé
You, dear Christ,
take all our burdens on yourself,
to the point that,
released from all in our lives that weighs us down,
at every moment we may step lightly again
from anxiety to confidence,
from the shadows to bright living water,
from self love
towards the vision of the coming Kingdom.
So, even though we scarcely dare to hope that it may be,
you offer each human being
to be a reflection of your face.[The late Brother Roger  – translation by Ted Witham]

The Hearth of God

My new translation of an old prayer:

Fill this house with your presence, Loving Lord, and keep far from us all the poison of the enemy. With your holy angels around us, protect us within the circle of your peace, and bless us always with your love. Through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[The Original:

Visita, quaesumus, Domine, habitionem istam, et omnes insidias inimici ab ea longe repelle: angeli tui sancti habitent in ea, qui nos in pace custodiant, et benediction tua sit super nos semper. Per Christum Iesus Nostrum Dominum. Amen.]

A human trinity

It’s Trinity Sunday again. I regard this feast as a tipping point in the church’s year. It’s our last chance until Advent Sunday to celebrate the life of God, God’s coming in Jesus Christ, and God’s ongoing presence in Holy Spirit. From Trinity Sunday on, we turn green and turn our attention to growing in the grace of Holy Spirit.

Trinity Sunday then marks a turn from God to humanity. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate God as Three and God as One.  We know that though God’s Threeness and Oneness may be logically incompatible, they say something important about God.

Trinity Sunday sends us back to the beginning. And for us humans, the beginning is described in Genesis 1 and 2. We humans, we are told, are made in the image of God. If God is Three and God is One, then there is also an aspect of our lives that make us a Trinity too.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
The great African Saint Augustine of Hippo taught that human beings are three in one. We are made, Augustine said, of
will, and

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures who have a past to remember. Our memories are vital to us. We often hear people say that if their house were burning down, the first thing they would rescue would be their photo albums, because ‘they contain our memories’. Our memories, we say, make us who we are.

We are also the only creatures with a sense of the future, and the knowledge that, through our  wills, we can affect the future. Our will partly determines the experiences we will have from this point on. Our will and our desires are deep parts of ourselves.

But memories can be bitter. Good times of the past can be locked up by our sinful actions. To be truly human, we need more than memories: we need love. Love will lead us to be grateful for our memories. Love will empower us to forgive and be forgiven, so that our memories will shine with goodness.

The future can be uncertain. We can be horrified that our wilful actions can turn out to be destructive. At the same time, we know how little effect our wills have on the future. We can live in fear of what is going to happen. So our will needs to be coloured by love too. Love will give us the grace to will that which is good. Love will give us the confidence to go on in faith rather than in fear.

Love is what makes us truly human. It is the jigsaw piece that fits in between our memory and our will.

In the Creed each week we make the amazing affirmation that in Jesus, God became “truly human.”.Jesus carries in him the memory of all our pasts. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has opened up for us a future that is life and not death, glory and not shame. His love, memory and will, makes him truly human too, and makes us like God, “partakers in God’s nature”.

So let us celebrate the human trinity of memory, will and love. They are a way to God.

Ted Witham

First posted at Dunsborough Anglican Church (St George’s).