“Yom Kippur” a Gentiles lesson: At-One-Ment
From next Friday night until Saturday at sunset 7th – 8th of October millions of Jewish people, throughout the world, will be celebrating the festival of Yom Kippur “The Day of Atonement”.
According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person's fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to "seal" the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend his or her behaviour and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish person is considered oneself absolved by God and therefore can then be placed in the “Book of Life” for another year.
What is significant for me, as a gentile, about this concept of atonement is that the wrong doer must first of all seek forgiveness from those they have wronged before they then turn to God and ask that they be returned to the “Book of Life”. Only after the transgressor has been forgiven by the transgressed can God’s forgiveness be obtained.
So what can be learnt from this tradition and understanding of atonement? Well for me it stems from this idea of coming into right relationship, not only with God but also the rest of humanity and life itself. Experience has taught me that through coming into right relationship with other people and life in general, I begin to come into right relationship with myself and then and only then do I began to experience the power that I call God. This seems to go against much of what the faith traditions teach, but it is definitely my experience, God it seems came last. My experience of God has been revealed through an attempt to live honestly and openly which began by me being able to see where I had been wrong. It began to be experienced as I dropped those barriers of self protection I had built up over the years.
Now I could share hundreds of examples of how my internal walls have “come a tumbling down” over the years, some appear mind blowing and others are really quite simple. The one I will share here may not sound very significant to most folk, but it meant a lot to me.
For most of my adult life I was one of those people who could never admit to be being wrong. I could say sorry but I could not admit to being wrong. I would argue and argue until I convinced the other that I was right. I remember once persuading a very intelligent friend of mine that the water in Yorkshire is somehow better than it is in Lancashire. It took me hours but she did eventually come round to my point of view. The argument was utterly pointless but there was no way my esteem would allow me to concede defeat.
This though began to change during an exchange I had with another friend about 7 years ago now. I was spouting my mouth off about something, really showing off if I’m honest, when my friend corrected me and explained what the real truth of this particular situation was. Now in my guts I wanted to fight and argue, but for once I did not. I stopped and listened and realised that I was incorrect. I then admitted I was wrong and do you know what it didn’t matter. Now there was a lot of change occurring within me at this juncture in my life and this small incident pieced a lot of it together. I suddenly realised that by admitting I was wrong about one thing it did not mean that I was wholly wrong about everything. I had developed enough honest self esteem to realise that being wrong about one thing did not make me wrong full stop; it did not make me wrong to the core of my being, which I believe had been the problem all along. I could not lose an argument because if I did it would prove to me, what I really believed that I was wrong to the core. I do not believe that any of us is wrong to the core.
It also taught me something else, which for some reason had passed me by before...once you can see you are wrong, admit to being wrong and do what is required to correct what was wrong, you are no longer wrong...you are right again; you are at one, you have atoned.
Let me just repeat that...because I need to remember this...
once you can see you are wrong, admit to being wrong and do what is required to correct what was wrong, you are no longer wrong...you are right again; you are at one, you have atoned.
That said to be able to accomplish this requires the development of natural self esteem, which I have discovered only develops by living honestly. I realised some time ago that you cannot work on self esteem itself by telling yourself how wonderful you are, it just doesn’t work. It can only grow naturally by living honestly from the core of your being and by healing the relationships between yourself, the rest of humanity, life and whatever we understand is at the core of it all.
I have discovered that the essence of atonement is to bring life back into relationship. As Peter Sampson (one of my all time favourite Unitarians, or do I mean Lunitarians) once taught me Atonement literally means At-One-Ment... “Atonement literally means At-One-Ment.” It is the quality of being the one undivided whole. So if atonement means being the one undivided whole then the opposite is this sense of separation, this experience of fragmentation which can occur within ourselves, within our wider society and within that which holds all of life together. So this healing of not only ourselves but humanity and all of life simply begins by first of all admitting where we have been wrong as individuals. By the way this takes courage and true faith. It is a healing process that begins to break down the barriers that separate us from one another.
Many people are estranged from one another, both within families and communities. Who is no longer friends with someone because of a quarrel that got out of hand?
I have been estranged from many members of my family for long periods at different times of my life. This is no longer the case I am united with all of them today. We were brought back to this state of at-one-ment because I was willing to level my own pride and make the first move. I was willing to atone for the wrongs I had done and able to forgive the harms that had been done to me and to others too.
And isn’t this the case for all of us. We can all feel uncomfortable by some individuals who we have fallen out at some time and place in the past often we don’t remember why and yet we can become enslaved by the memory of these slights. This anger affects all who are around us and this sense of negativity breaks up any sense of true community. And yet we could easily begin the healing process if we could just admit where we have been wrong. That though of course leaves us vulnerable to criticism and I believe that this is what we are most afraid of. I know I was and can still be so from time to time. Fear of criticism has always been my greatest downfall.
This concept of atonement does appear out of synch with our 21st century world. Our culture tacitly encourages us to cover up, deny, forget our lies, our indiscretions, and our exploitation of others. Our media is full of public figures behaving in this manner. Many only genuinely offer regret and occasionally ask forgiveness when there is nowhere else to go. Rarely is the apology directed at the person or persons harmed. More often it is directed towards the general public who the figure is frightened of losing their support of. How many times have we heard celebrities’ apologies to their fans for letting them down? Not for what they have actually done.
This is not atonement by any stretch of the imagination. This is not at-one-ment! A genuine apology expresses remorse when it is directed to the person hurt and is given with the intention of seeking to be in an honest relationship with ourselves and others. It is an acknowledgement of personal wrongdoing. It is an attempt to make amends, to heal to put right what is wrong. It also carries the intention to change and grow from the person making amends.
I like the Jewish concept of atonement, it seems so human centred. I am sure that in practises many Jewish people fail to live up to its true ideals, but then who amongst us ever truly walks the path that we talk about. I know for one that I do not. I am able to acknowledge my short comings and to bring myself back into relationship with those I share my life with. I am much freer today of the old bondage of perfectionism fuelled by the fear of criticism. I have learnt a lot from seeing where and when I am wrong. By the way I am also able to see and acknowledge when I am right (I will talk more about that in my next post). All these things have brought me closer to the rest of humanity and begun to heal that aching loneliness that was at the core of me for so long. Finally and vitally it has begun to return me to the love that I understand to be God.
Remember Atonement means At-One-Ment!
Thank you Mr Sampson for teaching me that Atonement means At-One-Ment and everyone else who has opened my eyes as we have walked along life’s rich and Broad Highway.