I enjoyed walking today by Ramla Bay in Malta, supposed to be one of the best beaches in the Mediterranean. Oh abundance!–jellyfish on the beach, shells, and a scatter of brilliant marble-like pebbles, which, with a few swishes in a rock tumbler, would reveal their sleek preciousness.
Archives for 2012
We hiked today to the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples in Malta, through picturesque garigue, covered with fragrant thyme, wild fennel, and stunted rosemary.
It reminded me of Provence, and the landscape of Marcel Pagnol’s marvellous films, La Gloire de Mon Pere et Le Chateau de Ma Mere. A wild rabbit, a pot full of rosemary, thyme, wild fennel, wild onions and wild garlic—you see how cuisine evolves from landscape. Rabbit, incidentally, is Malta’s national dish, and we had some superb rabbit yesterday, with Maltese ftira, bread smeared with olive oil, baked with a stuffing of roast chicken, tomatoes, garlic and onions.
I like Malta. I love their food, and their immense tenderness to children, a trait they share with other Mediterranean cultures like Spain and Italy. And perhaps having lived through a magical period of being a bambino or nina, smiled at and petted by all, contributes to a warm, friendly, good-natured society, as these petted children expect the best of the world, and, in general, the world and people and life correspond to our expectations. [Read more…]
I am in Malta for a week. I walked by the bay where St Paul was shipwrecked and watched the enormous sky turn pink-streaked, red-puffed, crimson, colouring the waters of the bay which had been a glorious aquamarine a bright pink. The sky, the sea, they changed their aspects every minute. Surely the heavenly painter was having fun with his creativity, showing off for me.
I sat thinking about Paul.
While the Spirit is gender-blind in his giving of gifts, Paul’s words have been used to harm people, especially women and gays, and specifically to deny women the opportunity to teach, or preach, or lead. What he said to the first century women in Ephesus or Corinth has been used as an excuse to subjugate and side-line women, yes, even in our century.
But that is not the whole story of Paul, just as our blind spots are not our whole story.
He knew Christ intimately—the Risen Christ whom he had never met in the flesh, thereby enlarging our perception of how much it is possible to know Christ and to find fullness of joy in him, without ever having met him.
And in the Mamertine Dungeon, he claims we should rejoice always, and give thanks in everything. Rejoice? Yes, because of the presence of our Saviour with us
For me to live is Christ, to die is gain, Paul says.
Me, I love life. I would like to live for decades more, gardening, reading, writing, learning, travelling, hanging out with friends. Just puttering. I don’t want to die.
But as I was flying to Malta yesterday, I looked down at the beautiful rosy-pink clouds, and was at peace with death. I am certain that there is life beyond the veil, because Jesus talked about it often in the Gospels, and believe that I will step through the veil and be with Jesus.
Why? Well, I guess I have hung out with him for so long a time here, in prayer, in studying his words and deeds. I have often seen him with the eyes of faith, clearly and in a low-key way like as the Prophet Amos, who casually said, I saw the Lord standing by the altar. So I believe beyond doubt that the one whom I have known here, who has comforted and guided and loved me here, will love me “there.”
The snow fell over our Oxford garden and transformed it. I sometimes look at my garden, and think it’s getting rather scruffy, and resolve to get out with shears and secateurs come spring.
But then snow falls, and the garden, a little bit overgrown, much in need of a prune, is transformed. White, magical, still and quiet. Cobwebs, laced in frost, glisten.
Nothing is as it seemed yesterday.
Nothing is as it seems. That’s a great lessons my garden teaches me as it changes from season to season—bulbs burst from the barren ground come spring; there was rich life beneath the frozen year. The bare branches sing with blossom; where had that been hiding?
The earth suddenly turns rich green and bursts with flower and birdsong in summer. Then it morphs again, gold-vermilion, followed by winter, austere and stark.
‘You thought you knew me; think again. You thought you had me pegged; think again.” We can only understand a fraction of reality.
And we too shall be changed, just as our earth is. “Our bodies sown in dishonour, shall be raised in glory; sown in weakness, shall be raised in power. We will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and we will be changed.” (1 Cor. 15)
Change, metamorphosis, metanoia, or changing one’s mind. Repentance. For me, these are magical words, full of hope and possibility.
Day by day, we can change the seeds we put into the soil of our lives, resisting negativity, and judgement and meanness, sowing instead mercy, and kindness. And what we sow we reap. And gradually, the very substance of our hearts changes. Because of the mercy of the gardener.
Nothing is as it seems. I wrote a harsh email earlier this week to an old frenemy I kind of like whom I first met 18 years, and who has been making a nuisance of himself on my Facebook page, and sometimes blog, leaving several negative, hostile, almost slanderous comments daily. Replying or deleting; replying or deleting: How time-consuming it all became.
Was it just envy, hostility, insecurity, sadness over his own failures? Relative success reveals whom your true friends are, just as relative failure or poverty. I blocked him, unblocked him at his request, and then when he was back with his undermining, hostile comments, reblocked him.
I wrote a harsh email explaining why (after being patient for months and months), sent it, and then a minute later, as many writers do, saw how I could have said the same thing in a dignified, restrained way in just two or three sentences. And without judgement.
His put-downs and contentious comments sure looked like envy and hostility and malice, but they may not have been. Some people are just nuts, high-functioning nuts perhaps, but nuts, not evil. “Do not judge,” Jesus said, for nothing is as it seems. As adults we can decide whom we want in our lives, and whom we’d rather block, but without withering character judgements as to whether they are mad, bad or merely sad.
I feel too ashamed to re-read that email. How will my friend, or frenemy feel? I felt dreadful.
Oh, there is only one place for such as I to retreat. To the fountain of forgiveness that falls, falls like blood, magic blood that turns its recipients as snow.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
And so I return again to the cleansing fountains, to the love of Jesus at Calvary when he, inexplicably, heart-rendingly, offered his beautiful life as a payment in full for every sin of mine.
And the mercy from the Great Heart, the life-blood of that Great Heart pours over me, and I feel the sweetness of that great love, and I feel his love and acceptance, and I snuggle into the recesses of the Most High, and there am I safe.
Such forgiveness, for a cranky woman who blew it. Incredible. I am made new, forgiven, washed white as snow.
* * *
And I forgive the man whose been trolling my Facebook page so insistently.
And become Facebook friends again? Oh no! He was consistently judging my theology, my reading of the Bible (he has a mercilessly inerrantist reading) and my politics. The continuous contemptuous putdowns were very annoying. And being exposed to people’s judgements is bad, dangerous and harmful. Judgments can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and being judged in a heavy weight to bear!! As we are not to judge, we are also not to expose ourselves, our ears, hearts or spirits to other people’s judgements. For nothing is as it seems. They too only see in part.
Envy is dangerous, and the leading, hostile questions he was asking me on my FB page were almost slanderous–“Do you support abortion for any and every reason,” (in response to my posting, without comment, a Guardian article on the medically unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar)
Anyone who experiences increasing business success or career success will face putdowns and envy and snideness from old friends, acquaintances or frenemies whose own life has been disappointing. It’s a sad fact of life.
How do we deal with this? Do not boast. Certainly. Disguise your relative success? Perhaps. Drop them? In some instances, where is not much fondness in my heart for them, or vice-versa, and we still meet up out of old habit, this might be the best solution.
I love being a Christian adult. I do not have to act reflexively. I can act with wisdom, after consultation with my Lord. My forgiver.
“When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.”
William Butler Yeats
Wrote and addressed a stack of Christmas cards and letters-a depressing, burdensome chore when all I wanted to do was read and write. Made family collages to enclose with them. Made Christmas cake and Christmas cookies. Set up the tree. And lights. And decorations.
Bought the kids 14 presents. I started ordering so they would not be sad at the competitive back to school question, “What did you get for Christmas?” and then went on, and on. Our cheeks ached with smiling as they opened them; perhaps theirs did too. Perhaps they felt like actors—ecstasy expected!—and then, there was a mass of wrapping paper and ribbons, and packaging to clear up, and parts to keep together. And more stuff to nag them about keeping tidy and organizing—and eventually, decluttering!!
We did a turkey, which none of us like, so that if they compared Christmases in school, ours would be the same. Did (other people’s) traditional Christmas dinner with all the fixings–glorious excess that left us in a sluggish overfed torpor even before the Bailey’s Irish Cream and Christmas pudding.
Gone, all gone, gone in incense wisps of peace.
* * *
First went the cards. I am on Facebook, and so are my friends. Cards are no longer necessary. I email the few people who still send me cards, but we don’t send cards, except to our mothers. If I have the energy, I write a Christmas letter and post it on my blog with a link on Facebook for anyone who really, really wants to know what I did all year.
The tree, we still do. But it’s a large beautiful fibre optic tree we bring out every year, with sentimental memories from the Christmas ornaments bought over the years. Irene likes to lie on the carpet and watch red, green, blue lights travel to the tips of the needles and back. And, well, so do I. In America, we had a potted living Christmas tree we brought in every year; I could not bring myself to buy a tree, and then throw it away.
Special treats cooked during the Christmas season—no longer. We have enough of these moment-on-your lips, lifetime-on-your-hips treats at parties. The kids are getting a lot of chocolate gifts from their friends. Why cook things that are not a blessing to our bodies? I cannot do that to myself anymore. I do adore Christmas cake, but Tesco’s Finest Christmas Cake is better than Anita’s. We do have a traditional roast duck dinner, but that’s because we like it, but we don’t overdo the sides—or dessert.
* * *
Then went presents, and what a joyful goodbye! Roy and I are both trying to be minimalistic, so we tell each other one thing we’d really like, and the gift is in the hunter-gathering. Last year, Roy asked for a fur-lined winter hat. I’ve been borrowing it for weeks, so I’m asking for one this year.
While we give the girls a surprise whimsical gift or two, their Christmas present is one thing they really want—a camera, an iPad, a laptop, a kindle, an iPhone have been recent gifts, and a couple of coveted items of brand name clothing. They are teenagers in an all-girls’ school after all.
When they were young, Christmas was Christmas Day, and being told to wait for the sales on the 26th for their presents would have been a disappointment. And I guess retailers count on this traditional sentimentality. Now that they are older—13 and 18 and savvier, part of their Christmas gift is cash for the year’s clothes shoes, bags, accessories, and so they shop the sales the week after Christmas. They are wiser, and can understand and resist the lure of marketers to spend, spend, spend on the big day to create an illusion of perfection as tenuous and fragile as glass Christmas ornaments, and never mind the fiscal consequences. Spending the way an alcoholic drinks. Crazy!
* * *
Why celebrate the birth of the beautiful person who taught us that the Kingdom of God is within us by giving each other things, stuff, which will become clutter? People ruefully say this every year–and what a relief it is to opt out.
I am me. Why should I celebrate the same Christmas as every other person up and down this land? Why should I adopt other people’s Christmas traditions if they are not nourishing to my soul—and it is not nourishing to put up lights and decorations which will be taken down, to make things with sugar and white flour and chocolate which are not a blessing to my body, to send cards which will be opened, looked at for ten seconds and tossed aside. I will not do it!
It’s all a big consumerist keeping-up with the Joneses conspiracy. A spiritual occasion that has been hijacked by marketers, who sell us food to fatten us, alcohol to inebriate us, presents to choke our houses and wardrobes. Oh, how has the celebration of the birth of the simplest and wisest and most beautiful of men become this Belshazzarian feast of excess which strains bodies, emotions, spirits and finances? Are we celebrating Jesus or our traditions? Oh, I am opting-out!
* * *
We do not need to follow other people’s traditions. If you are young and newly married or a new parent, create your own joyful, restful, peaceful, life-giving, people rather than thing-centred traditions.
If you are not young, it’s not too late to gradually change your celebration so that Christmas is a time of rest, and peace and reading and extra prayer, and extra scripture and family and friends without the additional burden of gifts and cards and trees and cooking and shopping and lights and decoration and expense and maybe debt. Perhaps each year, rule out the least satisfying, most exhausting Christmas tradition, and put in a restful, minimalist one?
Don’t cook what you don’t love even if it’s traditional. Don’t send cards to those you don’t love. Give home-cooked treats as gifts, and your sister-in-law who gave you the cashmere sweater in the ugly colour will be so cross that she’ll reciprocate with a home-baked cake next year—and you’ll both be released from the treadmill.
The decorated house, the creaking tables, piles of gifts decked in beautiful wrapping paper and ribbons and cards to be ripped apart in seconds– these bring us distraction, and tiredness, rather than serenity of that first night of stars whose eternal silence was shattered by angels singing of the glory of God!
I sometimes use the extra energy not “celebrating,” to serve—join a group singing carols at a retirement home, or serve lunch to homeless, at which my husband was mistaken for one of the homeless men, and asked, “When have you last eaten?” by a rude woman, and with exquisite sensitive manners, he pretended he didn’t remember just to spare her feelings.
* * *
Rather than celebrate Christmas just like everyone else—tree, gifts beneath it, lights, decoration, cooking, dressing up, frivolity, triviality la-di-da—we started, in contrapuntal harmony, a family tradition we really enjoy. We go away.
One of my treasured Christmas memories is walking by La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California, watching the harbour seals lounge and lollygag. People were out, running or walking by the beach. Celebrating the goodness of God out in nature! Other Christmases have seen us in the unspeakably lovely Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica; in magical New Zealand; in Mexico, Granada, Barcelona, Madrid. We are going to Malta this year.
We walk by beaches or in the mountains, sleep in, read, talk, eat out, and come back rich in memories, but with little clutter.
I am not suggesting Bah-Humbugging everything about Christmas. Keep the parts you love. Keep Christ.
Christmas is for people, Christmas is for peace, Christmas is for rest. Christmas is for quieting the manger of one’s heart and silencing the lowing of consumerism, that there may be more room to welcome and listen to the Beloved One whom we are, after all, celebrating.
The Radical One who shocked everyone by shaking up their ideas and has shaken up our family’s Christmas, and returned it to us as a sheer gift.
Christmas, for us, with the girls at home for three weeks, has become nine days in the sun on holiday, and then fifteen days at home, watching dvds, reading, playing family games, sleeping in, resting up, glorious lazy peace and winter walks observing unusual understated glory.
And just a little bit of Christmas music in the background:
“Glory to God in the highest
And on earth, peace to those of good will.”
How He changed everything,
The One for whom there was no room.
And now, it’s forever
Room for the kind ones, and room for the mean ones,
Room for the “Don’t know why I am so mean ones.”
Room for the sleek, always-praised-and-loved ones
Room for the abused, bruised, and knocked-about ones.
“Room for those whose knock is timid, tenuous:
‘I’ve messed up,
I need you
I want you
I can’t do without You!’ ”
What CHRISTMAS means to me…
(From God in the dock—Essays on Theology and Ethics by C. S. Lewis)
Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business too have a ‘view’ on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business.
I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.
1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.
2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?
3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself — gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?
4. The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.
We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.
Well, my daughter Zoe is in Cambridge today for her Entrance interview, and I have been thinking about Oxbridge interviews.
Fielding describes being interviewed to read English at Cambridge by Kingsley Amis, “the world’s greatest satirist,” who had recently written Lucky Jim.
Asked “What novel would you take on a train journey?” he says—no, not Lucky Jim, but Wuthering Heights—“I drone on about pathetic fallacies and thanatoid visions – just the kind of bilious bollocks the world’s greatest satirist needs to hear from a callow wanker on a sofa.”
Amis abruptly and scornfully terminates the interview. “My school is later informed that I am “woeful” and “without obvious potential“.
* * *
Here’s C.S. Lewis’s description from Surprised by Joy of arriving in Oxford for his entrance interview.
My first taste of Oxford was comical enough. I had made no arrangements about quarters and, having no more luggage than I could carry in my hand, I sallied out of the railway station on foot to find either a lodging-house or a cheap hotel; all agog for “dreaming spires” and “last enchantments.”
My first disappointment at what I saw could be dealt with. Towns always show their worst face to the railway. But as I walked on and on I became more bewildered. Could this succession of mean shops really be Oxford? But I still went on, always expecting the next turn to reveal the beauties, and reflecting that it was a much larger town than I had been led to suppose.
Only when it became obvious that there was very little town left ahead of me, that I was in fact getting to open country, did I turn round and look. There behind me, far away, never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers.
I had come out of the station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into what was even then the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley. I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.”
I live in Oxford now. It is 97 years since Lewis came up for his interview, but the contrast between the golden, gleaming, dreaming spires, and mean Botley is still striking.
* * *
In the famous Alpha course, leaders often tell this story attributed to a Native American elder,
There are two dogs inside me. The black dog is mean. The white dog is good.
The black dog fights the white dog all day.
When asked which dog wins, the elder reflected for a moment and replied;
The one I feed the most.
* * *
Yeah, it’s another way of gauging our thoughts, actions and choices, isn’t it? Are they leading towards the Heavenly City of the Dreaming Spires in which the Lord, high and exalted, is seated on a throne; and the train of his robe fills the temple with glory, while above him seraphim fly, calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6)
Or, instead of “the fabled cluster of spires and towers,” are the thoughts and emotions I am harbouring leading to a mean, small-minded suburb of judgements, negativity, jealousy and competitiveness?
On a bad, bored day, I have to check my thoughts many times and ask—Do I want to live here, in this small, claustrophobic negative suburb?
When someone annoys me and my thoughts spiral repetitively, rehearsing the many and manifest failings of this person, as they gradually, in my mind, turn from grey to black to horrible–I need to stop and ask myself, “Is this the address I want to live at? Obsessing about this silly person’s silly faults? Or do I want to dwell in the secret places of the Most High?
* * *
“Stop, drop and roll,” my kids were taught when in elementary school in America—basic fire safety.
Well, when I find myself spiralling into negativity, or fear or worry, I have my own routine, “Stop, drop, repent.”
A) Force myself to think about the person’s good points; thank God for the goodness in them,
B) Meditate on whether I myself have ever been guilty of the annoyingness I see them. And so use this “beam research” as an energizing spur to repentance
C) Turn to Jesus, the Lord upon the throne. Ask for his Holy Spirit to fill me.
D) And remember my goals, long and short term, ask him for strength to fulfil them. Move from the negative to the positive; from the mean streets to the golden spires and towers; from a pointless drain on my energy to being re-energized.
* * *
Yes, turn to Jesus. For there is life
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. I give my flesh for the life of the world. (John 6,53, 55).
And I change my address. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me, and I in him. (John 6:56). No longer will I dwell in smallness and negativity. I will escape to the secret places of the Most High. Yeah, I will dwell smuggled in the recesses of Jesus, the Rock.