The Saints Are All Around
Cape Town, South Africa
The Saints Are All Around
Sharing with you today this poem by Jan Richardson, a writer, visual artist and retreat leader.
Jan introduces it as follows:
“This year … I am thinking especially of those who have lost beloved ones since this time last year. And I am thinking always of those who have carried grief for a long time. I am grateful that the sacred calendar provides these days to do what so many of us do throughout the year: to remember beloved ones who are no longer here but who somehow journey with us still.
In these days, as we grieve and celebrate our beloved dead, may we know how they endure with us, holding our hearts and encompassing us with a fierce and stubborn love that persists across time and distance. May that love help light our way in the life that is continuing to unfold for us.”
What I really want to tell you
is to just lay this blessing
on your forehead,
on your heart;
let it rest
in the palm of your hand,
because there is hardly anything
this blessing could say,
any word it could offer
to fill the hollow.
Let this blessing
work its way
with its lines
that hold nearly
Let this blessing
settle into you
with its hope
Hear how this blessing
has not come alone—
how it echoes with
the voices of those
who accompany you,
who attend you in every moment,
who continually whisper
this blessing to you.
Hear how they
do not cease
to walk with you,
even when the dark
Hear how they
encompass you always—
breathing this blessing to you,
bearing this blessing to you
—Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief
Grace and peace, Adrienne
I have recently, and ever so briefly, been introduced to Robin Wall Kimmerer – author of Braiding Sweetgrass. Elizabeth Gilbert describes the book as: “A hymn of love to the world”. I say Amen to that!
Kimmerer describes herself as a “plant scientist, and … I am also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor”.
When asked, as a first year student, why she wanted to study botany, she answered: “Because goldenrod and asters are so beautiful together, and I want to know why. I want to know why these stand together. Why do they grow together and look so beautiful when they could grow apart?” Her advisor was dismayed: “That’s not science.” And he said, “You should go to art school if you want to study beauty.” Narrow single lens perspectives can be quite tyrannical! We see what we see according to the lenses through which we see. Today’s modern world privileges the scientific over the poetic, yet something special is bound to happen when the lenses of science and art love each other as neighbours. This is also true when studying the Scriptures.
Looking through the incredibly ancient yet beautifully fresh lens of indigenous wisdom, Kimmerer speaks of a “gift economy”. She writes, “Plants know how to make food from light and water, and then they give it away” and that what “my scientific community sometimes call ‘natural resources’ are what Native people call gifts”.
She continues: “And that language of thinking about them as gifts rather than natural resources is really, I think, very important because they … When we are given a gift, we know what to do about that, right? When we take natural resources, we take them without consequences when we call them natural resources. Well, they’re ours; they’re our property. We can do with them as we wish. But when we think about what the world gives us as gifts, not as stuff that we’re taking, but as gifts that are given, that engenders a whole different relationship to the living world, doesn’t it?
Suddenly, it invites gratitude, not expectation that I’ll get more and more and more, but gratitude for what I have been given. It generates a kind of self-restraint in return for that gift. When you know it’s a gift, it somehow makes you less greedy and more satisfied and appreciative of what you have.
The other way in which we know when we’re given a gift—yes, we want to be thankful; we want to be respectful to that gift. But when we’re given a gift, it also opens the door to reciprocity, to say, “In return for this gift, I want to give something back,” and that’s the gift-giving economy. It’s based not on an exchange of property, but an exchange based on reciprocity, so that in return for what’s given we want to give something back in return, which means we need to engage one another not anonymously, but as individual beings to consider what it is that we have to give to each other.”
The ‘Gift’ lens is another name for the Jesus lens. For those who have eyes to see…
One of the psalms set for today is Psalm 107. It is a “redemption song” that recounts the myriads of occasions of the Lord’s steadfast love delivering a despairing people. A people lost, wandering aimlessly in desert wastes. A people hungry and thirsty, about to faint with fatigue. A people sitting in darkness, unable to see and stand. A people locked in leg irons, prisoner to the past in the present. A people broken and bent by hard labour. A people sick and dying of disease. A people tossed about on stormy seas drenched in fear. But then, interspersed between the trauma and tragedy the psalmist sings: “They then cried to the Lord in their trouble, and the Lord saved them from their distress. Let them thank the Lord for the Lord’s steadfast love and wonderful works to humankind.”
This redemption song was sung to en-courage all the despairing to doggedly resist their despair. To ‘vasbyt’ and keep the faith, the hope and the love when doubt, despair and fear monopolised the evidence on hand. Singing of redemption past was more than a mere act of memory. It was a protest. It was to re-member it to the now. To sing of redemption past was to subversively plant redemption into the soil of the present that would break open a new future.
Redemption may sound like a religious word to our modern-day ears but long ago it meant being set free for the sake of the just-ordering of society where everyone had enough and none was superior or inferior to the other.
As we witness “things fall apart …” in our present days, one redemption song we must not tire to sing into the present is that of our Constitution. Yes, our Constitution is a redemption song. The preamble of which encapsulates so succinctly and contextually the gospel’s call for redemption: the just and merciful ordering of society. It was written in the wake of what many called a miracle. A miracle because many thought it was impossible. As it was written before the cement of what was possible and impossible could set, it calls us to imagine again what some have stopped believing is possible in SA today: a truly just land and healed people. God’s steadfast love has not given up on us. Our past tells us the impossible is possible…again…and again. We must keep singing our redemption song:
We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso.
God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa.
Mudzimu fhatutshedza Afurika.
Hosi katekisa Afrika.
Hope in the Dark – Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, by Rebecca Solnit is an amazing book. A Gospel book. A book about Resurrection that refuses to deny or skirt around Crucifixion. It is a book that reminds us how social change and how history is made: It happens mostly from the margins, incrementally and incompletely while enabling small shifts that are mostly unnoticed multiplied by further small shifts that eventually are noticed with the accompanied declaration: “Things have changed”. Paradoxically change does not feel like change while it is taking place. Change is known in hindsight, and even then very briefly, because when the change is for good it soon feels like things have always been like this.
Just this week an organisation called Right 2 Know secured an unnoticed victory for us all. For two years it has worked to overturn the Parliament’s Intelligence Committee decision that CVs of candidates for Inspector General should remain secret. I love their letter to the Committee: “We invite you to reverse your view taken … kindly advise us by not later than close of business on Thursday 3 November 2016 as to whether these documents will indeed be made available. If not, we will pursue all legal options to ensure their disclosure so as to ensure a properly informed and fair selection process.”
They received a reply before close of business 3 November 2016: “The Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence has since reversed its decision with respect to the CVs of the candidates for the position of the Inspector General of Intelligence. Consequently the CVs will be available on Parliament’s website.”
Now you may not have noticed – but since last Thursday – the sun is shining more brightly over SA.
Thank God for those who steadfastly work for social change. Securing small victories for our freedom that take many years and with little or no public acknowledgement.
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
On Monday two weeks back I was in Hermanus. Just about where the crowds stand scanning the waters for whales there is this amazing sculpture. It is called “Seemingly Peaceful”.
The old woman – Ouma Sarah – is made mostly out of metal cable. She is sitting on whalebones. A bronze bird joins her. A book is open to a single page of poetry. The sea crashes into the old harbour just beyond her limited gaze.
With her hat pulled down to her eyes and her body folded over her walking stick I was immediately drawn to Ouma Sarah. I had a desire to sit next to her and listen to her story.
Her story given to us through the poetry alongside her should be compulsory reading for everyone. The poem opens our ears to the questions that our great-great grandchildren will ask us.
In the future will our great-great grandchildren witness wondrous creatures at play or will there only be bones for them to sit on?
As Joanna Macy writes: “Life on our planet is in trouble. It is hard to go anywhere without being confronted by the wounding of our world, the tearing of the very fabric of life… Our planet is sending us signals of distress that are so continual now they seem almost normal… These are warning signals that we live in a world that can end, at least as a home for conscious life. This is not to say that it will end, but it can end. That very possibility changes everything for us… With isolated exceptions, every generation prior to ours lived with the assumption that other generations would follow… Now we have lost certainty that there will be a future for humans.” (From her book: World as Lover World as Self).
The day after Hermanus I was in Malmesbury where they are experiencing a terrible drought. And yet sadly very few houses seemed to have JoJo tanks attached to their roof drainpipe systems. All of us will have to do this at some stage in the near future. (We are exploring how to do this even here at CMM.) Treasuring every drop of water so that our great-great grandchildren may not die of thirst should be our task.
So I invite you to take a seat next to Ouma Sarah and listen to her story…
Today on All Saints’ Day we remember those in our community who died in 2015 as well as all loved ones through time:
God our com-fort-er,
you are our refuge and strength,
a helper close at hand in times of trouble.
Help us so to hear your word
that our fear may be dispelled,
our loneliness eased,
and our hope reawakened.
May your Holy Spirit lift us above our sorrow,
to the peace and light of your constant love;
through Jesus our Lord.
For whose life do you give thanks today?
“Hear the good news: We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the living and the dead.
When we were baptised in Christ Jesus, we were baptised into his death. We were buried so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Romans 14:7-9, 6:4
Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about death. In particular my own. And I realised that if I had to die now (or pretty soon) I would carry a deep sense of sadness. In fact sadness doesn’t really sum it up. I would feel great grief. Gigantic grief.
Grief that is rooted in knowing that I have not yet lived my life as I know I was created to live it. Grief for all the unfinished stuff. I am not referring to “things” I would still like to do or places I would still enjoy seeing – as in a type of bucket-list. Rather I am referring to those aspects of my living that I have yet to hand over to the Jesus Way. Why haven’t I surrendered more of my life? There is basically only one reason: fear. Yet, if I knew for certain that I was going to die in a year’s time I think I would make the changes without fearing any of the consequences.
I have found the thoughts of author Ron Rolheiser helpfully challenging in these matters:
How do we prepare to die? How do we live so that death does not catch us unaware? What do we do so that we don’t leave this world with too much unfinished business?
The first thing that needs to be said is that anything we do to prepare for death should not be morbid or be something that distances or separates us from life. The opposite is true. What prepares us for death, …is a deeper, more intimate, fuller entry into life. We get ready for death by beginning to live our lives as we should have been living them all along. How do we do that?
We prepare to die by pushing ourselves to love less narrowly. In that sense, readying ourselves for death is really an ever-widening entry into life. We prepare ourselves for death by loving deeply and by expressing love, appreciation, and gratitude to each other.
It’s easier to die when one has been, even for a moment, fully alive. What makes it difficult for us to die, beyond all the congenital instincts inside of us that want us to live, is not so much fear of the afterlife or even fear that their might not be an afterlife. What makes it hard to die is that we have so much life yet to finish and we finish it by loving more deeply and expressing our love more freely.
Grace to you in your living and in your dying, Alan
The stories we tell ourselves and each other are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Some stories become so sticky, so pervasive that we internalize them to a point where we no longer see their storiness — they become not one of many lenses on reality, but reality itself. Stories we’ve heard and repeated so many times they’ve become the invisible underpinning of our entire lived experience”. ~ Maria Popova