The Art of Looking Sideways

by Cary Gibson, guest contributor

Greenbelt Festival Campus
The view of the Greenbelt Festival grounds. (photo: Cary Gibson)

During the last week of August, 20,000 sojourners gathered at the 37thGreenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England. Greenbelt’s identity as a social justice and arts festival has always been firmly rooted within a Christian tradition that is world-affirming, politically and culturally engaged, seeking embrace over exclusion.

The program is so vast and diverse it’s impossible to encounter more than a fraction of what is on offer. There’s no single Greenbelt experience; there are 20,000 Greenbelt stories. This is just a thin slice of mine.

"GB10" marked my 18th year at the festival, so it’s fair to call it something of a pilgrimage — to a sacred space that exists amongst the people in an atmosphere of intentional, mutual welcome. These four days each year have often been the closest thing I’ve had to church. And, for the friends with whom I make the pilgrimage, Greenbelt has an important role in our community: we gather from around the world to embrace togetherness, share meals that anchor our days, and have our ongoing conversations woven with new threads.

Cary and JayneThis year’s festival held personal significance for me. As I prepare to marry and immigrate to the United States, my best friend Jayne and I were on perhaps our last Greenbelt road trip together. This end of an era was salved with celebration of new beginnings ahead and the gratitude for all we’ve shared thus far. In recent years we’ve been attending as contributors with Ikon, an experimental arts collective from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Our summers are usually busy with creative planning for our festival events. Free of any such logistical responsibilities this year, I found myself looking to be provoked by others.

Greenbelt marks something of a New Year moment — an opportunity to reflect on the year since the last festival, to have one’s mindfulness reawakened, to be reinvigorated for the year to come. Contemplating the theme of “the art of looking sideways,” I found myself wondering, ‘Looking sideways at what?’

An art workshop, “I Draw To Know Myself Better,” opened with a brief reflection on the creativity all humans share: we create to know ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Making art is a constant process of asking: Who am I? Where am I? Why am I here?

Perhaps as a response, some words of the late John O’Donohue kept coming to mind:

"A review of life usually considers the facts of experience, the thresholds, the situations and the people who participated with us along the way. We take this to be the real material of our lives; it becomes the mirror that allows us to glimpse who we are and what meaning our lives have. The facts of what we have lived stand out. We take them as given and real. Yet all these facts have issued from that huge adjacency of possibility, that neighboring world that shimmers invisibly behind all that we take to be real."
The Poetics of Possibility

That adjacent realm is perhaps what lies close when one is in what the Celtic tradition calls “a thin place.” That neighboring world is one pregnant with possibility, and it is calling us to remember to look sideways. Looking askance, we might find a world of possibilities inviting us, and discover that maybe the stories we haven’t (yet) lived are the ones we haven’t (yet) heard telling themselves to us. If there is possibility that wants us to hear its invitation, tapping our shoulder so that we might notice and bring it into the visible world, to breathe its life, then maybe our alternative futures are with us all the time, walking beside us.

Greenbelt is a space in which people gather to think critically and its long tradition of social justice theology is rooted both in the realities of human experience and the hopeful possibilities of just peace. As the festival approached, I was troubled by ensuing religious controversies denying the freedom and dignity of the LGBTQ and Islamic communities. I’d been thinking a lot about Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan, conscious of how easy it is to walk on by in silence rather than serving those suffering on the roadside. The theme of the festival for me became one of living intentionally, mindful of possibility, seeking to turn and see the stranger in need who is my neighbor at my side. What alternative ways of being and action might I better embody? I found myself, once again, challenged to think through my own privileges — particularly of economic class, nationality, race, and education — but also inspired.

PadraigDave Andrews stridently challenged the festival, and me, on the vital gospel response to poverty and injustice here on Earth with Jesus’ words in "The Be-Attitude Revolution." My dear friend Pádraig O Tuama also explored “incarnational theology” in "How Do You Spell Hell?" — a mirthful, moving, and characteristically poetic sharing of real stories, which express what it means to be present to one another and recover our personhood in life’s most broken experiences.

In a thought-provoking panel discussion on musicians and artists as social activists, Dan Haseltine, founder of blood:water mission said, “Activism is in the DNA of the artist” — the artist’s prophetic role is to tell real stories that expose the beauty and life that persists in the midst of horror. I’ve been thinking a lot about his comment that any act of service done for another, however small, is a counter cultural act, because our culture isolates us. When we tell of the hell experienced by our neighbor-in-need, prophetic voices are not called to provoke paralysis. For even though so many of us in the Western church are living in the persistent contradiction of our prosperity, when we choose to think critically about the impact of our actions, he added, “It’s not everything. It’s not nothing. And that’s something.”

WillowGreenbelt 2011’s theme is Dreaming of Home. There’s a tender kind of irony to think that I’ll be living far from many of these friends I love. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Greenbelt, it’s this: There are thin places everywhere, where the unseen is palpably present, ripe with possibility and therefore hope. I can’t do everything but I won’t do nothing. If one remembers to look sideways and be wholly present to our neighbor-in-need and welcome the possibilities for alternative peaceful & just futures we might share, then this life can be it’s own kind of pilgrimage: an everyday act of something.

Peace be with you, neighbor.

(You can find Greenbelt all year on Twitter and Vimeo. Readers in the USA might be interested in the Wild Goose Festival, which is bringing the spirit of Greenbelt to North Carolina in 2011.)

The images above from the Greenbelt Festival are used with permission of Colin Fraser Wishart.


Cary Gibson and Colin Fraser WishartCary Gibson currently lives in Dublin, Ireland. She explores theology through the arts and recently completed an MA in Women’s Studies at University College Dublin. She has a habit of blogging and tweeting.

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