A Joyful Commotion (with sprinkles of rain)

It was an overcast and humid day when the commotion broke out along the garden path below my classroom. Curious, I peeked out to see scores of small bodies, excited, chattering, some squealing and some sombre, flowing at the pace of lava by the serious work at the University. They had recently erupted from the nursery school next door; each child armed with a long-stemmed flower. There were lilies and roses, sunflowers and carnations. The children were on the march to the grotto to greet and present flowers to Mary.

Sure enough, it did begin to rain during the procession. The heavens gently opening was taken as a very good sign, however, all the better to keep their prayers and offerings fresh.

(Photos, courtesy of L.S. ~ on the ground at the time, late for class and amazingly in possession of the ever-elusive ‘handy’ phone . . . Ta!)


Alone, Together: The Enabling Entre-Deux

‘Every separation is a link’ – Simone Weil

Living on the edge of the world, despite the marvels of modern media, I do, at times, feel quite cleft. As grateful as I am for the ability to be in contact with family and friends, there are times when something more than a screen is desired; when nothing but the real presence feels like it will do. I mean who would disagree that ‘The body knows a language that the mind never wholly masters’ (Brenda Miller, Season of the Body)?

These gloomy thoughts were starting to get comfortable when I flipped open a book of the poet Christian Wiman’s essays and came across Simone Weil’s little story from Gravity and Grace of the prisoners and the wall. Here was just the drop of elixir my heart needed.

The two prisoners, goes Weil’s parable, each in solitary confinement, share nothing but a stone wall between them. This obstacle that separates them, over time, becomes the medium through which they begin to communicate via a series of taps and scratches. Many of us knock, nowadays, by swiping and tapping screens (or keyboards). There’s no doubt that many doors magically open . . . and it is right that we think about the ways that this media is ‘real’ and good and empowers us to live more openly, kindly and lovingly.

Reading the story of the prisoners also reminded me of an extraordinary story of solitary confinement I once heard on the radio. In South Africa, the political prisoner (Justice) Albie Sachs and fellow detainee, Dorothy Williams, shared their dream for a New World whistling parts of Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 together through the walls. [Listen here to Soul Music, or here to Desert Island Discs.]

Every evening at five o’clock, the safety sirens in my town play ‘Goin’ Home’ from Dvorak’s New World symphony. The tune is said to express ‘the nostalgia of the soul that all human beings feel’, so I suppose it is somehow right that it plays in the evening and not at the beginning of the day. Nostalgia is separation; it is memory and longing. It is a fleeting thing glimpsed in dappled and waning light, that moves (with?) us toward darkness & separation, and inevitably, then, toward becoming, toward Homecoming.

‘The world,’ observed Weil, ‘is a closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time is the way through.’ The wall that separates the prisoners is the only means they have of communicating. ‘It is the same with God. Every separation is a link.’ The homonym ‘cleave’ means, mysteriously, both to split and to join. Somehow, the medium, the wall, the door, the screen, whatever stands between you and It, is the metaxu, the middle ground, the mediating space, the enabling entre-deux.


Hinges: A Curiosity, Part 2

Like the hinge, the body speaks when it is out of whack. The word, spoken and written, as well as the subtler words ‘spoken’ by the body, are figurative hinges. These expressions are often historical narratives of a kind. These hinges (are) present (on) a threshold, inviting, and wait for us to cross.

I’ve had, over recent years, as ageing bodies do, opportunities to reflect on what my body is expressing. How am I to honour and restore, revivify and welcome new life into this evolving temple?* I imagine the intention in terms of a conversation, an exchange that is occuring perpetually within myself and with my environment: natural, cultural and institutional. Where am I investing energy and how am I, and those around me, benefitting (or not) from this expenditure? What are the shifts and adjustments necessary in my ‘energetic portfolio’ that will allow for me to be a happy, healthy medium?

The body is, we’re told, a temple, and I’ve meandered over to the idea that whereas the flesh is the relational, or connecting, aspect of the animate being, one way to think of the body is as that which contains. The temple, like the flesh/body, ideally, has the capacity for both connecting and containing. This facility may remind us that we are, to use a term from Buddhism, co-arising, inter-being. We contain and are contained by a multitude (of bodies).

Hinges are surprising elements in quite a few Byzantine icons depicting the anastasis (resurrection). I’ve been looking at these pictures since Easter, rather astonished. The doors of death have been smashed to smithereens! The glorifed figure, whose human boundedness has been exploded (become unhinged?), stands afloat on the broken doors, a liberated wholeness that shows the way to unitive consciousness [Gal.3:23-9]. anastasis We see hinges, keys, nails, bolts, locks and other tiny bits from the locks that sealed shut the gates of hell in the abysmal dark below. Has this litter of hinges and other gatekeeping paraphernalia been prefigured in an earlier story, I wonder, that of Jacob wrestling with the angel? In that story [Gen. 32: 24-26] the angel got through to Jacob finally by dislocating his hip. The Divine works with/in hinges. (Limping gods I find strangely consoling. Jean Vanier is a teacher par excellence here.)

The icons show the glorified figure in a few different postures. Of course, Jesus is always standing at the centre. I am particularly fond of the representation of him leaning over, hinge-like, to collect Adam. Anastasis (1)But in the figures in which the Christ is seen to be standing more upright, as in the St. Mark’s fresco, he appears as the central spindle, the pivot of the hinge, (centre of what becomes a revolution!) while reaching out in both directions to gather his friends. Here is the Word, made Flesh, the Hinge of Salvation.

Fresco, St. Mark's Venice

Fresco, St. Mark’s Venice

Writing in the aftermath of World War I, the mystic and poet, W.B Yeats anticipated the hinge-busting possibilities of resurrection, of life radically renewed. He wrote in his poem The Second Coming ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . . ‘. This well-known line, has profound resonance in our time, and yet the world keeps turning (and, indeed, things keep falling apart!).

I am thinking, with the icons in mind, about where we identify the centre? Modern cosmology teaches that the centre is everywhere: the central spindle is nowhere else but now & here. You are it. The centre. Your hinges delight in moving, in reaching out. These are necessary experiments for us as limited and hinged beings in order that we move our awareness closer to the very old intuition that has ‘God as an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere’.

Yes, yes: there are no hinges in a sphere. That’s the point. The hinge has been finally overwhelmed. There comes a moment when there is no need for more crossings. Then, we will have arrived.

Still, for the time being hinges, I believe, are portals for Divine action. Keep yours at just the right tension where you can, neither too loose nor too tight that your connecting and containing, keeps you in good health.


* A serendipitous footnote in Maggie Ross’ book Silence: A User’s Guide led me to Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology, an intriguing, if off-the-beaten-track exploration of the historical temple. A quick google will take you to the many available resources.