126 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
About the Authors
Lent & Easter
The Days of Our Lives
Advent & Christmas
Fifty years ago, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, spoke of the eclipse of God. But he rightly pointed out that ‘a[n] eclipse of the sun is something that occurs between the sun and our eyes, not in the sun itself’ (1). In other words, it’s not that God has disappeared, but that we have lost the art of paying attention. It is hard to keep praying into the silence and not be affected by God’s seeming absence. The Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, seems to understand the plight of all ailing prayers. He wryly observed in one of his German sermons that when we pray and get no answer, it is not God who has gone out for a walk, but we ourselves (2).
Many of us may be out of practice when it comes to praying, or maybe we have ‘gone out for a walk’ so to speak. We can nonetheless take heart from teachers like Martin Buber and Jacob Needleman that ‘merely to look at things as they are, with bare attention, can be a religious act’, a movement of grace. In so looking, we know that we are not alone, remembering with Dame Julian of Norwich that we are loved from the beginning’.
In this series of reflections, two women in faith — longstanding friends, one a Presbyterian minister, the other a Dominican sister — express something of their musings on what it means to pay attention to the glimpses of grace in life. All the times of our lives disclose unexpected moments of grace. Often we do not know the grace until the moment has passed, some time after the event, yet the ordering of our lives by God’s grace is at the heart of our faith.
Noticing what is within and without is not easy. In our personal lives, there are times when we are stopped in our tracks — sometimes in joy, at times in sadness. In the life of a nation, there are times when its citizens need to pause and reflect. Some of the reflections were written at precisely those times and are drawn from the authors’ experience of living through the conflict in and about Northern Ireland and the moves that have been made towards healing, peace and reconciliation.
The liturgical rhythm of the Christian Church invites stillness and attentiveness, and these twin dispositions set the tone for these thoughts and reflections. The book begins with the Lenten and Easter seasons: times when we are called to surrender to the way of the Suffering Servant so that we might share in the hope of the Resurrection. It ends with thoughts on Advent and Christmas: seasons which invite an awakening from the winter slumber of life to follow the newborn Christ who will ‘make all things new’ (Rev 21:5). The meditations in the days between these two high seasons form the body of the book and evoke the art and gift of meditative presence.
Originally broadcast on BBC as ‘Thoughts for the Day’ and adapted for this book, it is the authors’ hope that their words may prompt the reader to pause, to lift the eye and to open the heart for glimpses of God in unsuspected places. They offer them in the hope that the reader might find hints here of what George Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet, spoke of as ‘the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage … Heaven in ordinaire … something understood’ (3).
1. Martin Buber, Eclipse of God, New York and Boston, Harper and Row, 1952, 23.
2. Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, Vol. 1, Sermon 27 (Maurice O’Connell Walshe, ed. and trans), Dulverton, Watkins Publishing, 1979, 207-209, 208.
3 George Herbert, ‘Prayer’, in The Metaphysical Poets (Helen Gardner, ed.), Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1957, 124.
About the Authors
Lesley Carroll, from Co. Tyrone, is currently Minister at Fortwilliam & Macrory Presbyterian Church, Antrim Road, Belfast. She is well known for her leading role in reconciliation and peace-building, and most recently as a member of the Commission on the Past, chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley. She completed her studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, gaining a PhD in Theology in 2007.
Geraldine Smyth OP is a Dominican sister and theologian from Belfast. She is a Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of the Research Degrees Programme at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin and a former director of ISE. Geraldine has a PhD in Theology from Trinity College Dublin. She is a board member of Healing Through Remembering, a Belfast-based organisation focused on dealing with past conflict in and about Northern Ireland and shaping a new and peaceful society.
The paths of both women first intersected in 1993 when they came together to preach in Clonard Monastery, Belfast. The text that night was from St Luke (1:39-56), telling of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. This gospel event was once described dramatically by Bishop Jeremy Taylor, the seventeenth century Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, as ‘a collision of joys’, and perhaps this is also an apt metaphor for the friendship of Lesley and Geraldine and their continuing exchange of gifts in the Irish School of Ecumenics and beyond. The authors are appreciative of the wisdom and professional guidance of Rev. Dr Bert Tosh, Head of Religious Broadcasting in BBC Northern Ireland, who, with Chandrika Nayar and the BBC team, enabled the two women to share their reflections with a wider audience of listeners through the Thought for the Day programme.
ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS
Cleaning Up and Clearing Out
You can always tell when I have become discontented and feel defocused from the necessary tasks of my life when I start cleaning up and clearing out. It has always reached rock bottom when I start to move furniture around. However little the distance the furniture is moved, it creates a space to stand in to view life in a slightly different way, to refocus and decide what the essential tasks really are. Everyone does this one way or another — programmes are taken off the air, reporters find themselves moved from one area of broadcast to another, teachers have in-service days, homemakers clean out the kitchen cupboards, chefs reshape the menus, some of us make lists, and some of us move furniture. We all have our own way of cleaning up and clearing out.
Churches too provide opportunities for cleaning up and clearing out. Members are provided with varieties of opportunities not just at Sunday worship but in other ways too. From the sale stalls decked out with things we have never used or clothes we have never worn, to the seasons of the Christian year, there is space created to clean up and clear out. Advent provides such a time: for waiting and preparing, for the self-examination that winter stillness encourages, until the point comes when the days are darkest, that we emerge to the joy of Christ with us and the celebration of our Saviour’s birth.
Cleaning up and clearing out was perhaps on the mind of the person who wrote to the Hebrews long ago about laying aside every weight and chain and running with perseverance the race that is set before us. Whether we call it sin or a loss of focus or a mistake that repeats itself again and again in our lives, we all know the experience of gathering moss to slow us down, making the route bumpy and uncertain. Or it may feel like a build-up of lactic acid in the limbs, making them weigh a ton. But in the case of a life that hasn’t begun to lay aside the weights and chains, then it isn’t possible to simply run through the pain barrier.
Every now and again we need to pause in order to de-clutter. We need to give ourselves time to disentangle the chains that have wrapped themselves around our lives. We are killing ourselves if we don’t. So before the tinsel takes over and the shops beckon once more, take some time during these Advent days to clean up and clear out so that you reach the high point, able to celebrate and to begin again, knowing that God is truly among us.
Christmas carols rang in Scrooge’s ears, driving him deeper into grumpiness and loneliness as he allowed himself to be bound by the chains of his own making. How I love the story of old Ebenezer Scrooge and the changes that came to his life during the days before Christmas. His transformation is an ageless parable for this Advent time. It can awaken in us memories of lessons we have already learned, an awareness of challenges we have yet to face, a recognition of depths that we still need to plumb. Ebenezer’s turnaround mirrors the longing for a better world that lives in all our hearts. It tells us that it is within our gift to make peace on this earth, to bring goodwill to people everywhere, to choose light and not darkness.
Within our hearts the ghost of Christmas past is stirred to life, bringing memories rich and plentiful of childhood Christmases. These memories awaken the longing for the traditional things of the season – the lights on the tree, the dancing flames of the fire, the candles on the mantelpiece and in the window. Out and about, the winter air tightens our breathing and each breath steams in front of us as we walk. The crisp night air and the piercing brightness of the stars lend themselves to our sense of anticipation. The frosty air hangs expectantly around the street lights and a smile rises on our lips as we await the celebration.
And there are so many preparations — the cake to bake, the pudding to make, a turkey to order, the presents to buy and to wrap. Children will have spent hours poring over the pages of magazines, talking to their friends, surfing the net — months avidly listening to advertisements in a bid to decide what tempting gifts are on offer this Christmas. The letters will have been sent to Santa and all that has to be done is to wait and see what will be left under the Christmas tree.
Soon the day will come and the reason for our excitement, our exchange of gifts, our lightness of step will be upon us — the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Through him, we cannot tolerate the darkness. More than at any other time of the year, we are set upon the light and search out signs of the light: that which is seen in the bright eyes of excited children, the radiant lights of the city and the light of love and hope born in our hearts. All blend to remind us of the true light who would dispel darkness from the world.
So, during this time of anticipation, let’s try to make that journey from darkness to light in our hearts, in our words and in our deeds. Let’s make the same journey as Ebenezer Scrooge — the cranky old man who was changed by the new light that came to him at Christmas-time.
Their Fears, Our Fears
As we each make our personal Advent journey to Bethlehem, we carry with us all our burdens, fears and anxieties. Mary and Joseph, who made that journey ahead of us, brought their own burdens to the birthplace of Jesus. It is easy to overlook the emotional storm they encountered as we view the serene figures in the Christmas crib. How different their reality must have been.
It’s been such a long journey. Thank God the end is in sight. I am so weary of travel; weary of carrying this child, bones aching, head throbbing, wondering if we will ever make it to Bethlehem. The time is near. I’ve been so willing, but as the time gets near I feel overwhelmed; after all, he is my son too and I have to give him the best love I can and the best guidance for his life. This child will change my life. I have seen my friends have children and their lives changed completely, overnight.
But my life is already so changed — changed by this news. I am not who I was. I am not so certain of myself, so settled in my future, content in anonymity. I am changed and my relationships have changed. My son is to be great and he will do wonderful things. People will know me as his mother. They may all call me ‘blessed’ but will I ever feel understood or listened to again? I am so afraid of the loneliness that is to come.
How far away and strange and unreal it all seemed when I went to visit Elizabeth and shared the news with her. I could hardly believe what I was hearing from the angel. I had to test it out on someone and I had to know the truth of the pregnancy for myself. Then to discover that Elizabeth was pregnant too and that she had feelings like I had, feelings of uncertainty and surprise and wonder and fearfulness. It was good, to have someone understand the strangeness of it all. And when the child she was carrying moved with such vigour when I arrived, then I had no doubt it was true — this child I carry, this child sheltered by my tired body and fed by my dwindling resources, is to be the Son of God.
The Son of the Most High God, and I his mother. I am to hold him in my arms. I am to wash and feed him. I am to watch his first few steps and worry about him when he is out playing with his friends. I am to teach him how to be a son in the tradition of our family and religion. I share with Joseph this heavy responsibility. I hope I won’t let him down.
Dear God, she looks so weary. So much has threatened to come between us since this news — people disbelieving and mocking, family not understanding, neighbours talking, to say nothing of my own doubts. I am ashamed of my doubts, ashamed that I could even think, however fleetingly, of doubting her word, of leaving her alone. I love her and I know her. No matter how often I say ‘forgive me’, the doubts linger. I look in her face and see the one I love, but also one who is a stranger to me. So strong, so certain, so accepting. I never knew she had such inner strength.
I wonder if anyone understands what this has done to me and could yet do to me. But I can’t let the disappointment and doubt get in the way. If this child truly is the Son of the Most High God, if he really is the one whom we have been waiting for, then I want joy and delight, not bitterness and anger. I want to dance and sing, not weep and mourn. I don’t want to be excluded from this time, from this birth.
If only we didn’t have to make this journey to Bethlehem, but we have no alternative. I have to go back to my own town to register and I can’t leave her at home. We could do without it and I worry about Mary and the child. The child … when I see the face of that little one, then will I know? Will I see such love dancing from his eyes and flowing from his smile that I will have no doubt left? Will this indeed be the moment for which we have been waiting? Will this be the hour of grace?
We have far to go yet. We have time to wait. I hope this will be a journey of grace, lightened by hope and not just haunted by fear — a journey of grace for Mary and for me.
Tomas Ó Criothfain was the great storyteller of the Blasket Islands. But, as he grew old, no story could be coaxed from him, even by his old friend from England, Robin Flower. Finally, Ó Criothfain explained to him that the newspapers were now coming across from the mainland with all their ‘little stories’, and that these little stories had driven the ‘Big Story’ out of his head (1).
John the Baptist is the larger-than-life figure at the edge of Christmas, proclaiming, ‘Repent, the reign of God is at hand’. Mary, that robust woman, takes on the proportions of a prophet, heading into the hill country to visit Elizabeth. Hill country, not rolling pasture, recalls the rugged command, ‘Get thee up into the high mountain!’ These words of God to Isaiah (Is 40:9), after countless more performances of ‘The Messiah’, have had the roughness rolled out of them, perhaps. The prophet Ezekiel upbraids those false prophets who have ‘not gone up into the gaps’ (Ezek 13:5). Writer, Annie Dillard, assents: ‘The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the Spirit’s one home … The gaps are the cliffs in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God… ‘ Go into the gaps, she tells us, ‘if you can find them’ (2).
In some traditions, an empty chair is placed at the Christmas table, memory to absent friends. Or a space is left for the proverbial stranger to be welcomed as special guest. Christmas is the feast of the outsider called in from the cold, a time for the homeless to find a home. Christmas calls us to face into the gaps in our hearths and in our hearts, in our churches and communion tables.
There are so many little stories that drive the big story out of our heads: stories of shopping till we’re dropping; bus queues and the rush to parties; songs in supermarkets of winter wonderlands and of Mammy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe. A far cry from the rough hospitality of Bethlehem, birthplace of the Big Story: at the year’s deep midnight, unexpected dawn; the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; Word made flesh. This big story draws us to look out for the left-out and to listen for mystery in unsuspected places.
We need some little silence to receive God’s gift of Jesus, the revelation of God’s all-embracing love. In the blazing light of that big story all the little stories can shine out transformed — stories of last-minute cards, visits to folk cut off by sickness or poverty from the seasonal merriment; frantic secrecies of large presents stowed in small roof spaces; the rush to school concerts or carols at the local residence for the elderly. Amid all the commerce and crowds by such gestures we share ourselves with those who see little of life’s blessings — as we are all drawn into the feast of heaven’s marriage to earth, revealed in a mother’s love and a child’s face:
This baby lies
Wrapped in rags
Is fed by a girl
O if God begs
Then we all hold
Him in our power
We catch our breath (3).
1. See Robin Flower, The Western Island; or the Great Blanket, with illustrations by Ida M. Flower, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1944.
2. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, New York, Harper Perennial Books, 1985 (1975), 269.
3. Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Christmas Suite in Five Movements’: no. 2 ‘The Child’, in Moments of Grace, Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1979, 59.
Six hundred years ago, the great teacher, Meister Eckhart, quoting St Augustine in one of his renowned ‘German Sermons’, asked, ‘What does it avail me if this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters.” Eckhart was reminding us that we are all characters in the story of the birth of Christ; we are not spectators but participants.
The birth of Jesus stretches our sense of who we are and what we stand for. God pitches tent among us, and calls us to widen the site of our tent (Is 54:2). If the birth of Jesus does not upset our narrow views, our prejudiced ways of talking or refusing to talk, it is no more than a sentimental story under fairy lights on synthetic Christmas trees.
Birth, as we know, is a disturber of old routines. But St Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is shot through with the terror of Herod’s slaughter of the Israelite children. Lament rends the air. The sky is red-tinged at Jesus’ birth, the earth ‘christened’ with tears:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel, weeping for her children,
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more. (Mt 2:18)
In our land in our own day, Rachel still weeps. Peace emerges in suffering for what is lost, lament for those who are no more. Like the magi in T.S. Eliot’s poem, (2) we have journeyed far and hard, and we can say with them, ‘… this Birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.’ The birth of peace leaves us changed and at times confused: we are ‘… no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation’.’ But the risk of searching out a different route can be a scary prospect. We all stand in need of healing and fresh courage to make the unprecedented moves, now, not later. If not now, when?
This birth of peace, for all its pain, brings hope and heralds joy. This birth brings healing in its wings. No-one need be outsider to this joy — shepherds, kings, believers, unbelievers, foreigners, friends, them and us, you and me. Swords will be hammered into sickles. Weapons laid aside will make space for welcomes. Such peace is not handed down to us by our ancestors or by the powerful of this world. This peace is offered by a small child. It is on loan to us from our children and from our children’s children.
1. Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, Vol. I, Sermon 1, op. cit., 1-13, 1.
2.’The Journey of the Magi’, T.S. Eliot: The Collected Poems and Plays, op. cit., 103-104, 104.
New Town, Ancient City
I wonder sometimes who it was that invented the notion of new towns — the idea of beginning all over again fresh; new people, new houses, desk-top housing estates. Wipe the slate clean and away we go to fabricate a future. But we have heard too of the alienation felt by families who have had to uproot and transplant themselves far from kith and kin; away from the old street and country customs of familiar places with all their ill-sorted quirkiness and characters.
A while ago on the radio, I heard of one such experiment: a fifty-thousand-acre site close to Disneyland, California, was to become a new town named Celebration. The allotments were being snapped up, they said, for this was to be a new town with a difference, because folk going to live there were to enjoy the comforts and hygiene of life with all mod-cons. But part of the sunny package was that they would also buy into a Victorian value system of decency, sobriety and upright living. Security guards on every street corner would see to it that crime was non-existent. Here was a vision of law and order and moral cleanliness, an exclusive club — the very opposite of the gospel, quite at odds with the Incarnation. American writer, Annie Dillard, is someone for sure who will not be buying property in Celebration. In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she exults in nature’s intricacy, rejoices that its unruliness refuses to be tamed. ‘That something is everywhere and always amiss is part of the very stuff of creation’ (1). In fact, ‘It’s chancy out there'(2).
Coming up to Christmas, many minds turn to an ancient city crammed with people from all arts and parts; raggeds and royals, summoned by a census, taking their chances in hostelries and boarding houses, messing up the place every which way. Among them, temporarily housed in a cave, were Joseph and Mary, vagrants from Nazareth. There in Bethlehem, Jesus, the Son of God, came into a world rough-edged and fearsome, and made it his own.
Bethlehem, where even new-born infants had to fear for their lives. Bethlehem, City of David, that passionate man, who in sin and repentance for his sin learned the measure of himself and learned the measurelessness of God’s forgiving love. Bethlehem, city where God found a way into the labyrinth of human lawlessness and a way through it. Bethlehem, city where Jesus is vulnerable as a small baby and reveals to us that forever after, God’s divine face will shine out in the bits and bobs of every day; for God’s new creation is here, now within us, among the well and the wounded, inviting the law-keepers and the law-breakers. God’s word brings comfort to all the Rachels of the world whose tears cry out in Ramah or Darkley, or Loughinisland or Shankill or Enniskillen or Dublin, because her children are no more. Bethlehem is Belfast or Bosnia, Birmingham or Azerbaijan, Darfur or Baghdad … and the bright star of Bethlehem shines over us all.
1. Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, op. cit., 180.
2. Ibid., 171.