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Best of 2013: Transformed by a boring Brussels Mass

Brussels collageIn Brussels it's snowing and the cold drives everyone indoors, to bars, offices and warm apartments, but inside the talk goes on.

Brussels is a talking city. In the bars outside the European parliament the young bureaucrats and staffers gather and 'network' over two euro pints of Belgian beer. Leaning back on their heels and stroking their cashmere scarves they will tell you with a glow of satisfaction that they 'simply adore the policy process', that they could talk all day about wheat subsidies and clean energy technology. They read fact books rather than mere novels and they keep up to date with the details of Canadian politics as an exotic hobby.

These fearsomely focused Eurocrats seem to have the same ruthless attitude as my Russian teacher in Yaroslavl some years ago — a terrifying woman who once sat me down and pronounced 'Bwen, you are a man and philosophy is for dreamers.'

But on the other hand Brussels is full of dreams — encapsulated in schemes, political movements, party politics and the ambitions of those hordes of interns who flood the city. The European project is of course the great dream and the young people who come here to work are animated by it — in one way or another.

The life of a young expat in Brussels is full of people, parties, work and daily drama — an endless stream of events, news and new faces. Life is as fast paced as Byron described:

Here was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.

The other night a group of us were having dinner in a noisy restaurant. The conversation turned from football to politics and then, as the dishes crowded the table and the wine flowed, to spirituality. We came to talking about being young and Catholic in Brussels, and our conversation made apparent a common experience: we're all swept up in the fast stream of life here while at the same time trying to make space for 'the world of the spirit'.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has a phrase for it: religious faith, he writes, points us towards 'a deeper transformation' in our lives, an uncovering of buried intuitions. What we're all trying to work out is where the transformation can be found, how it can be effected.

After dinner we slip and slide our way over the icy pavement, throw a few snowballs, hug each other goodbye and part ways, off to bars or to meet friends. But Taylor's words stay in my head — 'a deeper transformation'.

Sunday mass couldn't stand in starker contrast. It's a quiet, snowy morning and the fair women and the brave men are asleep — and every inch of my body tells me I should be too. The music begins and a tiny old woman gurgles behind me, in squeaky broken tones le seignue-e-e-er! interrupted by rasping coughing fits.

I try to focus on the cross and in my mind I repeat Thomas Merton's words: 'to learn to know the Christ of the burnt men' — what did he mean by 'burnt men'? But the coughing is getting worse, and between muttered prayers it sounds like the pew behind me is hosting a cardiac arrest.

At first it seems like the deeper transformation isn't to be found here — compared to the excitement of everyday Brussels life, the atmosphere at mass, the slow music, the warbling elders, can seem rather underwhelming. But English theologian James Alison wrote that 'when people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it's supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It's a long term education in becoming un-excited.'

For Alison, becoming 'unexcited' allows us to dwell 'in a quiet place', a place that 'increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us'. And in a place like Brussels with all its excitement, becoming 'unexcited' seems important.

The French poet, Phillipe Jaccottet, expresses beautifully this movement from motion to stillness, from excitement to calm, from skittish life to a deeper transformation:

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

As it happens, my work in Brussels demands an increase of attention. Over the coming months I'll be working with the Jesuit Refugee Service European office here in Brussels on a report on migration control policies in the Western Balkans. I'll be travelling to Macedonia and Croatia to interview asylum seekers detained in those countries. And I'll be writing in this column every month, reflecting on some of the themes above, and on what I learn from my work here.

Throughout I hope to be able to explore further what Taylor means, in the context of busy political life, by being 'transformed', and open to the transcendent: something that runs deeply and quietly beneath everything else. 

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a Eureka Street columnist. This article was originally published on 24 January 2013.

Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, Brussels, Jesuit Refugee Service



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