On praying

Do you remember where and when you learned to pray? And who taught you? I guess most of you don’t. I don’t. I think we learned it the same way we learn most of the usual, daily stuff when we’re todlers. You just sit there at the table, every morning, every evening, listening to the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary’s for some, and after a while you find yourself softly whispering the words, the sentences you’ve come to know as familiar to the daily routine of your household.
And even before the words, you learn to fold your tiny hands, just the way you see your brothers and sisters, your mom and dad do every day. I found out later that in many families they hold hands while praying, which is a fine thing to do of course, but for me, being a catholic girl in a catholic area, folding the hands was the right thing to do.
I can’t, however, bring back this childhood memory without remembering the little incident in first grade. I must have been six at the time, and my teacher made serious remarks about the way I was folding my hand. She said I was doing it wrong and it really took me years to figure out how in heavens name you can fold your hands the wrong way. Later I found out my right thumb should have been on top…. and it wasn’t, because I’m left-handed, which was, needless to say, a bit of a problem back in those days, and a huge problem to my teacher in particular.
Like all bigotry this incident made me sad and angry more than once. As if the sincerity of your faith and your prayer depends on the way you hold your hands! Where, in fact, it depends for a larger part on the culture you’re brought up in. As a student I’ve encountered quite a range of non-christian religions, and indeed, a great deal of a religion’s specifics are defined by the environment they are rooted in.
Desert people often pray standing with hands and head up. Why? Because the help they seek most probably won’t come from the earth, from the barren emptiness that surrounds them. They raise their eyes, as we read more than once in the bible, expecting their help and salvation will come from the heavenly realms.
How different was the posture while praying among the Northern Europeans. They often prayed kneeling down, head bowed and the hands folded on the chest, because that was the right way to adress the chieftains and other persons of power. Through feudal times and the enormous influence of Charlemagne on European christianity this posture became the most common way for white christians to pray.
But as I said, it really is a matter of culture. And you will probably agree with me, that much more than posture, it is, or should be, the attitude that counts when it comes to praying.
When it comes to that, I surely do remember who taught me to pray. It was my mother, who wisely never forced me to kneel and pray beside my bed, but tucked me in with the assurance that I could always pray, whenever I wanted and do so in the way I saw fit. Again and again she told me that Jesus was my friend and always would be, and that no matter what had happened or in whatever trouble I would be, I could always turn to him and he would be there for me. He would listen to me without judgement, he would comfort me, forgive me and somehow direct me to the right answer or solution.
I think that’s what praying is about: stay in touch, keep the communication with God going, how difficult or even impossible it may seem at some point in your life. Keep the communication going, because SHe is always there for us, no matter what. We may always turn to God and pray, and find that Her mercy is endless, His forgiveness limitless. All our agony, our songs of praise, our halleluia’s, our cries of pain, our weeping, our muttering, our shameful stammering, SHe will always, always listen to us.

On hope

Whether we watch old footage from WW II concentration camps, news flashes from refugee camps in our own time. Whether it’s about poverty ridden towns in India, Mexico or Brasil or about starving children in Darfur, it doesn’t matter. One can always tell those who still have some hope left from those who have given up. You can see it in the eyes. The ones that have given up all hope have bland eyes, even the last tiny flicker of light seems quenched. They still move, talk, breathe, but when it comes down to it they are living dead.
And those that still do have some hope, are they better off? Surely not! They are as sick, exhausted, emaciated as the rest, except for this little difference: there is still this tiny light glistening in their eyes. Weak and hardly visible, yet strong enough for us to recognize what is stands for: the will to live, spirit, resilience, hope. Not much, but enough to keep them going, no matter how hopeless and devastating the circumstances are.
Hope, I guess, could well be described as the ability to see through things as they are and imagine things as they could be, and hopefully will be some day. Hope as the ability to envision a future in a present that lacks literally every reason to do so. And yet you do. You hope and you envision whatever it is that meets your deepest needs. Prison doors that will open one day, illnesses cured, pain healed, peace that comes after war, cities rebuilt, rains that set a desert in bloom, lost ones found, an afterlife where loved ones will be reunited again.
That is what hope does for us, or better, what we do for ourselves and each other by hoping. We envision a future that, no matter the specifics, keeps us going amidst the deepest dark and misery. That is how we survive, because we imagine a life where there is none. Bereft of every reason to hold on, we seek our reason in some not-yet future.
That is hope, and it is not just any way to keep us going when everything is lost. It is the only thing left, for everything else is lost. Precisely because of this life enhancing quality we call hope a virtue. And precisely that is why cynicism is the sin that opposes it full stop.
Ask a random person what the opposite of hope is and they will probably come up with despair or hopelessness, which is quite understandable. Except that hopelessness is exactly what it says: the absence of hope. And despair rather a condition without hope than an active force with essential powers that can be executed and put whatever change in motion. That’s cynicism’s job.
Whereas despair and hopelessness are merely empty vessels that can be filled with hope or trust or comfort or whatever the good Samaritan is willing to pour into it, cynicism is an active force on its own account and it strives with aim and purpose to certain goals. These goals are, needless to say, quite opposite from hope’s strivings. As a matter of fact, eradicating hope is cynicism’s main goal. That is its prime motive and precisely that makes it the lowest and ugliest of all sins. Above that, it is not about messing up one’s own live, as is the case with many other sins, and accidentally messing up the lives of others in the slipstream. No, this one is about deliberately ruining somebody else’s life.
And being a mean and sneaky weapon by itself, cynicism doesn’t need much to do so. All cynicism has to do is being its own low and vicious self and just keep on darting its poisonous arrows until hope can’t take it any longer and gives up and gives in.
No other weapon or armed force is needed for that, the sneers, insults, unsupportive comments, demeaning grins, the sowing of doubt, the constant ridiculing will do the trick. ‘Stop fooling yourself, it’s never gonna work. – Loser, did you really think it will ever get any better? – You can walk out of here but you’re never gonna make it on your own.’
I’m sure we can all add some examples of our own, because even the best of us sometimes give in to cynicism. When somehow someone else’s hope and optimism annoys us, because we don’t feel so hopeful and confident ourselves at that moment. That’s when we slip in the state of cynicism and start saying cynical things, instead of reaching out and admitting that we really feel a bit lost right now and could do with some hope and trust and optimism. And you know what, even in the darkest and desperate situations hope will be shared, because somehow those who have hope know that it is not theirs to have and to hold, and they know that there’s plenty more where that came from.

A view from the top

Exactly when it started, I cannot recall, only that I was very young. How I came to love mountains however I remember vividly. It was the pencil box – yes, the famous Swiss brand – with a picture of the Matterhorn on the lid. I was totally smitten and I haven’t recovered since from this strange love which was and is a painful one at that, for I am a Dutch girl, living in one of the flattest parts of the world. Although I did have the pleasure once, when I was in my twenties, of living on a mountain for half a year. And of course I travelled the Alps many a time ever since I was sixteen.
Every single time I have asked myself precisely why I love mountains so deeply and dearly. And every single time I haven’t been able to answer this question. So I rather focus on what I do know and understand. Apart from the scenery that meets my constant need for beauty and the rich variety of landscape that keeps my hungry mind satisfied, it has something to do with dimensions, proportion and perspective. Because that is what happens once you start climbing mountains. Your perspective on just about everything in life changes tremendously.
This notion hit me full in the face as I was standing one day on a mountain ridge opposite the Dachstein, quite high, above the tree line. It was a late afternoon in October, the only sounds to be heard came from birds, a brook and my own breath. Imagine yourself so high up that you can overview Greater London or the whole of New York from Queens to Newark, and yet you are not flying, you’re standing firmly, both feet on solid ground.
Realizing that was only part of the experience, as I stood there watching pinkish mountain tops and behind that the deepening blue of the – soon to be – evening sky. Way below my feet the Ennstal valley with a river, a railway, a motorway, villages and towns. What really hit me was the almost inconceivable contrast of what I so clearly saw around me – giants who had seen dinosaurs come and go, survived about any kind of weather and had witnessed billions of suns and moons passing by – and the small, familiar world I knew down below, the quaint little farms and houses, factories puffing out cigarette smoke, people driving Dinky toy cars, riding Märklin trains.
The sizes from down there, the yards and inches, don’t fit up here. Neither does time. The minutes, the hours, the days, here they mean nothing. And vice versa, the movements of evolution happening here cannot even be perceived in a lifetime, let alone in one hour.
Coming up here and being up here has put everything from down there in a totally different perspective, and yet that is the world we live in from day to day. That is where we work and feast, eat, love, study, sleep, play. That ’s where we dream our dreams, count our gains and losses, laugh and cry and deal with our everyday, sometimes ever so petty problems.
It’s only from this height and distance that we see how small and almost insignificant that life of ours is. And it is only on this height, and so distanced from our everyday life, that we can truly experience the overwhelming beauty and vastness of creation and the dazzling boundlessness of time, and beyond that eternity. We would never have seen and felt it, had we stayed down below, in the ordinary world where we live our ordinary lives.
Precisely that’s how this view generates new perspective. Here we are free, at least for a while. Free from and free to. Free from whatever it is that fills our days and minds and hands with things that have to be done. Free to receive whatever messages, ideas, insights were held in store for us. For make no mistake, all those beautiful things that can and will be given to us, all the wisdom and knowledge, all the light and love, are not new. They are as old as the mountains around us and were laid aside for us from time began. Only we were to busy to notice, driving our Dinky toy cars and living our lives in our tiny houses in our miniature towns. Our eyes and hearts, our hands and minds were not open. We were not open.
Climbing a mountain, going into the desert or a retreat, making a pilgrimage, meditating, fasting, it’s never about deliberately searching and finding something specific. It’s about stepping away from whatever occupies you and enabling new things to enter your life. It’s about distancing yourself from the familiar, the tiresome rut, the everyday drama, and thus creating openness in your heart and mind and life for the unfamiliar. It’s about shifting your attention in a different direction to see what was shown to you all along and to finally understand what is revealed to you.

Meet the characters

After a very long break – I cannot even remember how long – I’m writing fiction again. I honestly wasn’t planning to, but last October this idea popped into my head while having my jaw fixed at the dental surgeon, and ever since it has been brewing and fermenting and boiling to such an immensity that I could no longer keep the lid on. So last week, almost ready to go to work, I took off my coat again, sat down and started writing.
Since I had gotten up exceptionally early this morning – I only do early and very, very early – I was in time for work anyway. But boy, did hell break loose! I wrote again in the afternoon and in the evening. And the next day, and the next. Cooking was quite an ordeal, as was shopping for groceries, as was driving. After three days I totally remembered why I had stopped writing fiction all those years ago.
No idea how other writers deal with this, but I get totally overwhelmed and consumed by the story I’m writing, or rather the people I am writing about. To the point of exhaustion, really. It’s like pulling a piece of thread and then ending up with a huge ball of yarn. It starts with one basic storyline and a protagonist, who happens to have a wife and three children. So far so good. But before you know it neighbors with muddy boots walk in, children get chickenpox, dogs throw up, letters from France arrive, guest rooms have to be prepared because there’s family coming over for Christmas.
And they are everywhere! In my house, in my bed, in my car, in my fridge, in my head, every hour of the day, demanding their story to be written. How on earth does a writer keep a healthy balance between his own life and the lives that are somehow planted in his mind by this unseen power we call inspiration?
Don’t get me wrong, I really like my characters, I do, honestly. I grow fond of them within hours and then I love them to pieces. I even cry when they die. And I guess they love me too, or at least they are excited by the fact that I am writing their story, which is all very flattering of course. But, as I said, it’s eating me alive. No matter how fast I write, they do their living faster.
This, I believe, is the moment where you should intervene and say: ‘But they are not real. You made them up yourself. The life they are living isn’t actually happening. It is all your fantasy, your imagination.’
Really? It doesn’t feel like that at all. My whole life I have wondered how this inspiration thing works, for it never felt like it was something I was doing, but rather something that is happening to me. As if these stories and plot lines are constantly on the search for empty spaces in people’s heads. Once they find one they quickly creep in and start hatching or nesting or whatever it is stories do in one’s head. In short, to me it never felt like I am making up stories. They just pop in like sailors in a brothel.
I see an old woman with a basket full of vegetables on a market in Spain and there is a story.
I pass a tiny overgrown railway station in the country, and I have a story.
I watch a man with one leg and a scruffy dog begging in the streets and again there is a story.
How very different, and much less demanding I suppose, is writing nonfiction, compared to that. You analyze and comment on data collected either by yourself or others. You express your opinion on a film you saw, a book you read, a concert you visited. You report about a political gathering, a court trial, a sports event you went to. Or you study, compare and synthesize theories into a theory of you own.
No matter how involved we are to the point that it really, personally touches us; no matter going through some pretty shady stages sometimes while processing our material; no matter how frustrating it can be having to redirect our course because of new information, we are, on the whole, in control of what we’re working on. When it comes to the bottom of it, it’s work, and although many of the writer’s guild are quite familiar with burning the midnight oil, it could – I repeat, it could – be done on a nine to five basis.
Whereas my characters aren’t in any way nine to five people. I’m quite sure there are no clocks in the parallel universe where they dwell and live their messy, quirky, endearing lives pretty much the same way we do. So I guess I can’t really blame them for haunting me day and night with their stuff. Like last night, on my way to the bathroom, inspiration whispering in my ear:
Remember to mention the painting.
What painting?
The one over the fireplace at Grandma’s house.
What’s with it?
It’s a hunting scene!
Yeah… so?
The boar has two arrows in his neck and the kid is afraid of it.
…. Okay … I’ll fit that in tomorrow, I promise, I won’t forget. Nice detail by the way.
Now please, please, go to sleep!

The physicality of our needs

Long, long ago, when the earth was still flat, Europe was covered with immensely vast woods. And in those woods lived all kinds of peoples, although not as many as we are used to nowadays. But there were Germanics and Celts and Goths and Balts and what have you.
When Christian missionaries arrived in these territories, they had a short and simple name for them: pagans. I can still remember how totally baffled I was when, in third or fourth grade, our teacher told us of this joyous event. My bafflement being the fact that our teacher didn’t mention in any way what and how these peoples believed before they became acquainted with the holy trinity, the gospel, sacraments and a whole bunch of saints. ‘Didn’t they have a god of their own?’ was the question that came to my mind and which I wisely kept to myself, as I did most of the time by the way.
It wasn’t until I was well in my twenties that my question was answered. Not by any professor or lecturer but by my own insatiable curiosity, by reading between the lines, putting two and two together and daring to connect loose fragments by just trusting my gut feeling. Finally I learned what and how these peoples believed before Christianity was brought home to them, uninvitedly most of the time.
Although many efforts were made to eradicate old beliefs and religions, many remnants are still very much alive, albeit in different grades of alteration. In many places in Europe, at many moments in the cycle of the year, we can see those remnants and the way they evolved through various layers of history.
One such moment is the feast we celebrate this weekend. Purification of the virgin Mary says one calendar, Presentation of Jesus in the temple says another. On deeper layers we read: Candlemas, in some regions Brigid Candlemas. On even deeper layers we encounter a celebration that has nothing to do with Mary or Jesus at all, but could so easily be claimed for this purpose because of it’s moment in the year’s cycle: about 6 weeks or 40 days after Christmas. The original feast however is much older than these biblical events. It goes by the name of Imbolc, and yes, it is a feast of light. It takes place right between midwinter and spring equinox, and although it has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, it does celebrate the returning of the light.
Just try for one moment to imagine what life must have been like in these massive forests I mentioned above. You bet they had silent nights, darkest hours and bleak midwinters, and you bet they had plenty of reason to celebrate when they made it through yet another long, cold winter. If your imagination fails, just watch The Revenant or The Grey or The Clan of the Cave Bear.
When it comes to religious celebrations and rituals we so easily skip the beginners level and go straight to the more symbolic and spiritual department. But the truth about religion is that it originates in precisely the most basic and practical aspects of life. It is always about food, water, fertility, light, protection from cold and danger, keeping wolves and bears at bay, surviving any kind of hardship one may encounter as a person or as a group
Religion in it’s most primal form never started with: please god, let my crops grow. It started with: please sun, let the crops grow; please rain, fill the rivers and the ponds. It doesn’t start top-down with a ready made god introducing himself by saying: here I am, at your service. Religion starts with the assumption that these basic and ever so vital processes can somehow be directed and influenced by powers unseen.
For all life forms, not just for humans, these are the most essential things in life: food, water, warmth, light, shelter. These are the most basic needs when it comes down to it. It is only too understandable that we feel happy and relieved when these needs are met, and that we are worried or scared when they are not. It’s as simple as that.
During the course of many centuries however we have lost touch with this basic and original way of experiencing life. Due to certain dominant elements of Christian teaching, combined with several philosophies, we have come to devalue all things physical in favour of the more symbolic, spiritual way to look at the most important parts of our lives. We baptize a child with a drop of water and call it cleansing. We share bread the size of a coin and call it food.
We are so focussed on the non-material side of things that we give them names from the physical world without even being aware of it. There is, of course, nothing wrong with finding a lecture enlightening, a yoga-weekend nourishing or reiki session replenishing. But no matter how much you yoga or pray or meditate or whatever, you are besides mind and spirit also body. We all are. No matter how far we evolve on a spiritual level, for the time being we are all still pretty much physical, and so are our needs. So, maybe we do well to remember that the next time someone expresses such a need, they might be actually hungry or thirsty or cold. And please, do respond on a physical level.

Family business

There once was a time – and those of us over 50 will surely remember – when supermarkets were not as common as they are today. Bread came from the baker, meat from the butcher, and all the rest came from the grocery store down the street. We didn’t have those gigantic DIY-warehouses at the other end of town, instead we went to the hardware store a few blocks away. Our hats, shawls, sweaters were not ordered on the internet but knitted by mothers and grannies and the wool came from this cute little shop, run by a lovely elderly lady who was ever so willing to help us out with whatever was new or difficult to us.
We knew these people by name and by face, and they knew us. And that’s how we like it best. That is how, both on a personal and a professional level, our need for reliability is met.
How different are these enormous superstores. They are quite anonymous, and that goes both ways. For them we are just figures in their marketing statistics. For us they are impenetrable organizations run by managers we hardly know and who are replaced whenever the board decides to.
How different indeed, as local shops – unless they have the misfortune of being swallowed by such a super chain – are most of the time taken over by sons, daughters, grandchildren. After all we don’t call them family businesses for nothing.
Of such a transfer we hear in the gospel that is read in most churches this weekend. Peculiar thing is that most people don’t know this story from hearing or reading but from the many paintings that were made of this event: the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. Although the main features of the event are there of course – two men in the river, the fierce looking guy being John the Baptist, white dove representing the Holy Spirit – something very important is missing in all of those pictures. And this is so because this very vital and essential part can by no means be depicted in a two dimensional image. To grasp this most essential part we need ears and words, for what we are about to hear is Gods own voice saying: this is my beloved son.
This moment is a true turning point, in more than one way. With this being appointed there and then, Jesus officially takes up the work he was sent for. Until now he had lived quite a low profile life we know little about. It seems that with this beginning of the public life of Jesus, God the father is about to retire. For that is the other aspect of the turning point, one we are seldom aware of. This moment – whether we follow Mark, Matthew or Luke – this moment is the very last time in the whole of biblical history that Gods voice is heard. Many times before God has spoken to numerous people in many different ways. And yes, after this moment a few more times heaven will open and people will see God in all his glory. But in this event, the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, it is really the very last time for God to speak.
Therefore I think we may rightly understand this moment as a handing over the business and putting the son in charge of the work the father had started so long, long ago.
And as is usually the case when the next generation takes over, things changes. Questionable changes sometimes, that may put our trust and loyalty to the test. In this story however, the changes are all for the best, because they are the fulfilment of age old promises people have been hoping and waiting for for such a long time. The business of God continues. The caring and healing, the bringing people to light and freedom, the restoring of life, continues, and not just like that. From now on it is done on a whole new level, with God the son being even more close than God the father ever was.
The God that once split the seas is now in a boat with his friends, comforting and reassuring them. The God who miraculously fed his people with quails and manna in the desert, is now in their midst sharing his bread with them. The God that could only be seen on the back or sensed in a gentle breeze by a few, is now visibly, tangibly present. Healing people by touching their eyes, ears, mouths. Bringing them back to life by simply taking their hand, by lovingly calling their name ‘Lazarus, Lazarus, come out my friend’.
Never before in history has God been so intimately near to us as he is now in this divine human.

The upside-down mindset

Whatever we call them, three wise men – or just wise men, as the gospel says – or three kings, as is common practice in most middle and eastern European countries, fact is that they must have been men of certain means. Travelling vast distances was a costly undertaking, not to mention the precious gifts they were bringing. They must have been men of some social standing also. Entering a foreign city and start asking around wasn’t a poor man’s privilege. And how else can their visit to Herod’s palace be explained. Considering the man’s paranoia that must have been quite a rare occasion.
Visiting that palace was a huge mistake to begin with of course, but who can blame them? Isn’t that the place where we all would expect a royal child to be born? That is the course of affairs we are most familiar with. And knowing God as a strong and determined creator of things, it could easily have happened that way. Except… it didn’t. This royal child Jesus was not born in a golden cradle with blankets of the finest wool and silk because it wasn’t meant to be.
A few weeks ago I told you about the child that would come to bring change, to turn the world upside down. Precisely for this reason he had to be born among commoners. Not secluded from the world and every day life but right in the middle of it.
How right and natural it might seem for this young king to be born in a palace, it’s even more right and logical that he isn’t, for the turning upside down is not limited to Jesus’ working years. The whole program of ‘last shall be first’ and ‘blessed are the poor’ is not something that is launched all of a sudden by a man in his early thirties. It is the essence of a massive plan, made up long, long before he was born. A splendid plan of redemption and salvation that many people, his parents among them, had so vigorously dreamt of and hoped for.
The turning upside down isn’t something to be waited for any longer. It began way earlier with the choosing of Mary and Joseph as his parents, and Bethlehem, the royal town of David, as his place of birth. The welcoming of simple, poor and downtrodden people is not something for later days, it is happening now, and not in a palace but here, out in the real world where the real people live.
Obviously the three wise men who came from the east, are open to this upside-down mindset. They must have been. Why else would they have left the safety of their home in the first place to wander off in a faraway land by merely following a star? And not just that, they are open to having their own world turned upside down. They enter the place where the child lays and kneel before him. Among the common people, the paupers, the farmers and the shepherds they kneel.
Whenever stories tell us about two kinds of people, it’s almost always about making choices. Myths, parables, fairy tales are precisely about that. The two persons, or groups of people, we meet in the story represent the sides we can choose from. The choices are, needless to say, of a serious nature. It’s not a cake-or-icecream kind of choice. It is about what profession to take up, whom to marry, which road to take, right or left. And quite often it is about whether or not wanting to move at all, as is the case with Herod the king in Jerusalem.
Unlike the three wise men who came from god-knows-where, Herod isn’t the least bit eager to even leave his palace. A prisoner of his own might and wealth, he distrusts the outside world, because that’s where things change, all the time. And Herod, the king, fears change more than anything. Of the two positions one can take in a story like this, he most definitely represents the person who maintains the status quo. Or at least he tries to. Whereas the three wise men crossed an entire continent in search of change.
Now where do we put ourselves, in the face of this choice? Are we with Herod, with the status quo-people, the remainers, the comfort-zoners? Or are we off with the seekers, the dreamers, the wanderers and the wonderers? Longing for a brand new understanding of divinity, humanity, and of life itself. Following stars and angels, trusting our own heart’s desire to finally, finally find a world turned upside down and a life worth living.

How light appears

Every year I wonder – slightly annoyed – if there really was no room at all in the inn for those two travellers from Nazareth. Two people so quiet and modest and non-demanding, they wouldn’t have bothered anyone, would they?
Room isn’t about square feet or metres. Room is about attitude, your own attitude towards the other, your own way of dealing with a given situation. Room is about the willingness to make room, both literally and figuratively.
We’ve all been, more than once I’m sure, in a situation where someone enters and all of a sudden the room is completely packed. At best in a pleasant way when that someone is a lively and funny and invigorating person. More often than not however, it’s someone who carries with him a less positive vibe. Someone so full of himself that he takes far more space than an average person could possibly need. He claims this space by shoving others aside. And he isn’t even aware of it, or he is but doesn’t give a toss. Being tolerant and attentive, showing respect or understanding, making room for others simply doesn’t come natural to him.
Imagine what would have happened if Mary and Joseph had been that kind of people. Their child probably wouldn’t have been born in a stable among the shepherds and their animals. If Joseph had been some sort of macho man, he would never have taken no for an answer when that innkeeper told him there was no room. He would have rolled his muscles, flashed his VISA-goldcard and one way or another bullied his way in. Chances are they wouldn’t have made it to Bethlehem at all, if Mary had been such a person. You know, spoiled, self centered, cold hearted. ‘Travelling in my condition… in the midst of winter… on a mule? … really?’ Fortunately they weren’t like that.

Near the town of Brezje – Slovenia stands this sculpture.* It represents the Holy Family, not with the little baby Jesus we know so well from the nativity scene, but with Jesus as the twelve year old. Exactly the way the Holy Family is usually portrayed. However, there is something odd with this sculpture, for Jesus is not literally pictured. As a matter of fact, Jesus isn’t there at all. If we would travel to Brezje ourselves, we could see and experience that this Jesus is nothing more than a hole in a piece of granite. Without being sacrilegious in any way, you could stick you hand right through it and reach for the bright winter sky so clearly shining through. By shaping the Holy Family this way, the artist makes clear how very special these three people are and what their presence can mean for us.
The shape of Jesus, the expected child, appears precisely there where Mary and Joseph do not take up space for themselves. For them being a proper family is not about them two, but about them three. And that’s how they make room for their child. The promised child that is coming in this world to live his own life and to fulfill his own mission.
Had they not been the generous, serene people they were, there wouldn’t have been that much space for Jesus to appear. And maybe, had they really been self absorbed, boastful people, there might not have been any room at all, as described above.
Fortunately Mary and Joseph weren’t like that and therefore the story of Christmas is not a plain and simple one. The story teaches us on several levels how we can become parents of the new life we are expecting, and how by our own attitude and behaviour, we can contribute to making room for the Light to enter this world. It is done by not taking up lots of space at the expense of others; by not flashing our muscles and ego’s; by not pushing forward our own interests and pushing others aside; by not taking more than we need. It’s only by becoming the best person one can be, loving, modest, open hearted and open minded, tolerant, caring and respectful, and above all by understanding our own part in the whole scheme of things and taking up the space that was meant for us, that we make room for light to appear.

*I tried my very best to find the author of this picture. It came to me as a homemade paper postcard a very long time ago. Since the picture is not on the internet it is practically impossible to find further information.

Quantum leaps

He could have sent her away. He could have turned her in to the elders. Surely they would have known what to do with her. She could have been stoned, for those were the days and those were the rules. And unfortunately in some societies they still are. He would have had every right to do so, because the child his fiancee was expecting wasn’t his. He could have, but he didn’t, because Joseph, as the story tells us, was a righteous man. He wanted to divorce her in silence.
It took me quite some time before I got the point in this line. It’s not about the leaving part, it’s about the in silence. Joseph doesn’t want to publicly shame Mary, and by doing so he seems to turn his back on tradition. But does he? Not really. He rather shifts his focus on another part of tradition. Not the tradition of harsh laws and rules and the many thou-shalt-nots, but that other tradition of mercy and benevolence. The tradition of protecting the weak, the widows, the orphans and the strangers, of bruised reeds not broken, smoldering wicks not quenched. A tradition only living in the hearts of those still pure and bold and foolish enough to remember a promise once made and now, hundreds of years later, still waiting for it to come true.
It is in this tradition that we should place the man Joseph. And looking closely, I think no better man could have been found to become Mary’s husband and to father the child she carries. For they are so alike. Like Joseph, Mary is equally rooted in this tradition of hope and redemption.
Furthermore, in both of them we find another trait that links them to this tradition. Like many before him, Joseph is familiar with the dreaming of dreams, and not just any dreams, but the special ones that convey messages. Like several of his forefathers, who, in their days, heard voices from clouds and burning bushes, who were spoken to by angels, Joseph is also visited by an angel telling him not to send Mary away. And although it is almost impossible for the human mind to understand what is at stake here, Joseph accepts the angel’s message just like Mary had done a few months earlier.
We so often think that people are being chosen because somehow they must be very special. But that is not quite how it works, for everyone is chosen. Everyone at some point in his or her life receives a calling, a message from an angel, a dream, a sign or signal. Special are those however, who are open hearted and open minded enough to listen and to willingly give in, although it is indeed impossible for the human mind to comprehend the vastness and depth of the whole scheme of things.
Mary and Joseph are all to often portrayed as a young girl betrothed to an older, rather dull man. Not quite the sexy, romantic catch a sixteen year old might hope for. But was that really the case? And moreover, does it matter? Looking at who these two really, basically were, what they stood for in matters of faith and spirituality, they must have been perfect for each other and for the task they were called for.
I dare to assume that theirs was not a passive, subservient ‘yes’ but rather a meditated step towards a new future. A huge leap of faith because as of yet no one could foresee where this was all going. Right there and then all kinds of lines and forces collided. A people worn out by long endured oppression, messianic expectations wherever you looked, new philosophies and ideas on the move. In short the Zeitgeist. Add to this the personal traits of Mary and Joseph, their willingness to set aside their own interests in favour of the greater good, their openness to visions of renewal and liberation, their unshakable trust that the age old promise of salvation will soon be fulfilled.
It is exactly this attitude of sincere openness, of courage and wonder and spiritual resilience, that makes them so very suitable to parent the child that will come to change the world for good and that will – almost literally – throw a new light on things by his very presence.

Next blog to be expected on the 24th of december

Dare the dark

Half a life ago I wrote a thesis titled Earth, the Body and the Dark as sites of salvation. Being a woman and a feminist in the male dominated world of theology, I choked more than once on the whole concept of dualism. You know, earth versus heaven, matter versus spirit, female versus male etcetera. It’s quite understandable if one – let’s call him Plato – needs to find an explanation for the things he sees and experiences, wants to understand how it all came about, how it fits together and what it means. The real problem started when whole scales of value were attached to these pairs of concepts, resulting in a world where heaven, spirit, reason, light were good, and all things opposite, earth, matter, instinct, darkness were deemed as not so good.
The tragedy of this dualistic system is that much of life itself is left out, not seen, misunderstood and underestimated. Those who, throughout the course of human history, had the courage to explore those fields left out, often found themselves on a perilous expedition, because theirs was a road less travelled. They chose that road all the same, driven by a deep-felt and sometimes barely articulated sense of something entirely different, a world more whole than this dualistic system wants to have us believe, a life more wholesome. And right they were. Life can only be lived to the full if all aspects are valued for their worth. The processes of who we were and what we are to become can only be understood if the whole story is told, not just parts of it.
Imagine yourself meeting someone you haven’t seen for a long, long time. She has this relaxed, serene glow on her of people who are perfectly at ease with themselves and with life. You could assume that, indeed, life had been easy for her and had treated her gently. But you’re way off, because in fact her life has been anything but easy and gentle. You don’t know the pain this woman suffered, the tears she cried, the despair she dealt with night after night before she got to this blissful state of being, this sincere contentment, this peace of mind. That part of her becoming her wasn’t for the world to see because it happened in the dark. And you might be happy for her that everything turned out so fine in the end, but that would be a pretty shallow conclusion, and it wouldn’t do justice to her and everything she went through.
As long as we stick to the dualistic conviction that darkness is something negative we have to overcome as quickly as possible, we completely miss out on the essence of the dark and its vital role in almost all of life’s processes.
Grains, seeds, nuts, acorns are hidden in the ground before they are strong enough to endure wind and rain and scorching sunlight. Fish grow in shells, birds grow in eggs, mammals grow in wombs. And though it looks like not much is happening, some serious growing is going on there. This being in the dark is not just a random stage in the process of growing, it’s a vital condition, an imperative. For all these fragile not-yet-ready things need the quiet, the time, the protection to germ, develop and ripen. That is basically the same for all processes of growth, physical and spiritual alike
Just think of the famous mystics from the past. They even described their own process of inner growth as ‘the dark night of the soul’, their longing and seeking for divine enlightenment, and with it their despair, their fear, their maddening loneliness. And yet, it cannot be done otherwise. Everything that once comes to full bloom, first grows in the dark. So do not fear it. Dark precedes light as winter precedes spring, as labour precedes harvest, as wandering precedes encounter.
All too often we shut out the gloom of these short December days and escape the silence by getting very festive, buying and drinking and eating more than is good for us. But wouldn’t it be far better to spend this time of year the way it was meant to? As a time of wondering what kind of spring will come after this winter and what kind of inner work we can do ourselves to make that happen. Wouldn’t it be good and wholesome to, like Mary, give in to the quiet, to observe what is happening deep inside of us, to feel it growing, that tiny thing of beauty that one day will be a gift of Love to the world and to life itself. Do not fear that. Dare the dark, for it is the soil of light.

To be continued