Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On the poison of prejudice

A few months ago I had a very disappointing encounter that also turned out to be a highly ironic incident. Several days earlier I had heard about a particular person with special talents and gifts, a sharp intellect and especially an ability to motivate and influence people. I was therefore keen to meet him. I expected a warm and welcoming person, someone open to the signs and possibilities of new acquaintance and friendship. But when we actually got to meet one another, I found almost the opposite.

When we were introduced I could not help noticing that he was extremely wary and guarded, all the while avoiding to look at me directly. At first I mistook his cautiousness for a nervous shyness – given the fact that I was older and that he did not know me. However, when we eventually sat down to discuss some issues, his initial reticence turned into open animosity. He made it clear that he was sceptical of my viewpoints (which he could hardly have gained first hand as we had not had time to share much); he was not keen to engage. In fact, when he eventually talked, he suggested that I was compromising what to him was the truth and was misleading the group to which we both belonged. You can imagine my surprise, having come to the meeting with such different expectations.

Of course I was perplexed and disturbed. Nevertheless, remaining composed, I tried to work out where things had gone wrong. It was only later that it dawned on me that this was something not completely unusual in interpersonal encounters which I had not experienced for a long time. It was one of those unhappy occurrences when a person hears about someone’s ideas and then, often without even having seen or met personally, he decides beforehand that he doesn’t like the other. It shows in a seemingly unwarranted agitation and unwillingness to start any honest exchange where each will hear the other. We have all had the experience of hearing or reading stories, rumours perhaps, which do not appeal to us, so that we ignore, slight or even completely write off another person or group. This kind of negative conditioning can cause one to reproach people blindly or to engage with them distancingly without really listening and with all one’s proverbial weapons and defenses out, ready for the attack. Such a behavioural pattern has been named the poison of prejudice.

The history of Jacob and his uncle Laban shows that even in biblical times precious relationships could be infected and damaged by the poison of prejudice. In Genesis 31 we read of Jacob’s disappointment when he noticed that as if overnight, his uncle’s face had changed – he no longer carried the same expression of friendliness as he had the previous day and the day before that.
Prejudice can harm personal relationships, which is bad enough; but worse is when this becomes a societal attitude. Recently in Rwanda one group’s prejudices were allowed to determine their view of the other so that they started to talk of their neighbours as “cockroaches”. This is what fuelled the terrible genocide which is still fresh in African memory. The danger of prejudice, no matter whether it has a personal, provincial, racist or cultural flavour, is that it can be nurtured for many years, until a day when a seemingly insignificant event sparks confrontation. Then differences become deep rifts or even battle zones. We need constantly to guard against such destructive prejudices that have the potential to poison faith communities, churches as well as other societal structures.

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, May 20, 2010

You don't take a high note, you collapse into it

Most people carry within them some hidden talent or passion - something they have not been able to express or practice properly, due to various kinds of circumstances. Because this longing, this unfulfilled gift or dream is often part and parcel of their inner being, the way they really are, they tend to feel restless… until such time as this secret need or longing has at least in some way been met, expressed and fulfilled. For some it can be the romantic longing to act or to dance or to make wild music. For others it can be the more mundane need to set up an own business, something that draws on their special interests and abilities – it could be a bakery, a clothing shop … it could be starting a blog or taking up further studies.

In my own life I related to music I was introduced to by my father and by inspiring teachers. From an early age I was touched by voices singing. I virtually fell in love with opera in my primary school days. In the same way that our children now collect CDs, I collected records; my first ones were wonderful sound tracks of Caruso, Gigli, Bj√∂rling, Merril, Galli-Curci, Sutherland, Callas. And I wanted to sing along…always. The longing to sing did not subside as I grew older. I remember moments when I was listening to live performances of music that by then I knew by heart, how it felt almost unbearable not to be able to just stand up and join in, even take to over the show! I truly felt capable on some occasions to perform even better than the artist himself.

Eventually I actually found an opportunity to respond to my longing to sing some of the really great pieces of music. For two years I took singing lessons and although I realised very quickly that I was not bound to become a second Pavarotti, these lessons became one of my very rewarding life-experiences. I learned many new things: the importance of how you breathe, of posture, of standing and projecting your voice, putting yourself out there without being abashed or self-consciousness. I learnt the art of relaxation. A short sentence, a brief piece of advice from the teacher, will always remain with me: “Remember, you never take a high note, you collapse into it”

I often return to this little remark, because it not only expresses one of the most basic principles of singing very concisely - it also quite tellingingly expresses an aspect of what is essential of a true spiritual way of life. As Christians we believe that we are called to really occupy high planes, to be a the light for the world, a shining star in heaven as Paul puts it in Phil 2:15 - to sing out, to echo songs of the psalmists, giving voice to songs that express human experience: low notes in songs of woe, but also the high notes of joy and jubilation, of praise and compassion to which we are called and need constantly to learn. As believers we also know that we can only reach this goal, can only express our true calling, when we are prepared to let go, to collapse into grace, to allow God to be our rock, our security, and to take us where we need to be, to where God’s dream for and in us is fulfilled. In short: things come together when we are willing to become part of His flow – the flow of the Holy Spirit.

This is a liberating truth and challenge – especially during this time of Pentecost where we believe that the Spirit has been poured out and is already moving within us.

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Count your blessings ...

A dear friend of mine suffers not so much from depression as from a deep melancholy which affects his whole life. His outlook is pessimistic, his mood usually sad. For the sake of family and friends (and I dare say for his own sake), he tries to overcome or at least to control this dullness of spirit, but it remains an uphill battle.

Once, discussing his malady (for malady, dis-ease it is), he told me an interesting tale. The other night, he said, held captive by a deep darkness which seemed to envelop his very soul, and in a desperate attempt to find some light, he started recalling his blessings and reciting them aloud : I have a roof over my head, I have food on the table, I have the use of all my limbs, I am employed, I have beauty around me, I can read….

And an hour later, still finding yet another blessing to name, he fell blessedly asleep.

Like a coin, my friend’s tale has an obverse side which became clear to me some years ago. It was May in Johannesburg and autumn had already come. But the two young children of a friend who had dropped in for a cup of coffee, insisted on swimming. We were sitting next to the pool in the dappled shade of a white stinkwood tree, and the pool certainly looked inviting. But although the sun was shining, the water was already very cold. A mother would never had allowed the little ones into the water, but the father obligingly helped them to undress and watched them go naked down the steps of the pool, where they splashed and played until they were practically blue with cold. Then he took them out, and rubbed them warm and dry with the towels I had brought from the house.

And as they stood, happily smiling, next to his knee, a sudden small whirlwind wrapped itself around the tree, shaking off its yellow leaves, and causing them to fly about. And just for a moment the naked children stood there amazed and laughing, in a shower of gold.

The two sides of one coin….

Some of us must strive to count every blessing to become aware of God’s love, but others, like children, accept the shower of blessings as their due and laugh at the sheer joy of it.

But laughing child or melancholy adult, both thrive in the blessing of God’s grace.

Cecile Cilliers

Friday, April 30, 2010

We live in a benevolent universe

Apparently Albert Einstein, that brilliant physicist who became known for his theory of relativism and who also provided the theoretical building blocks for the development of the first atomic bomb, towards the end of his life made this remarkable statement: “Now I see that the only question is ‘Is the universe friendly?’…I have begun to discover its physical meaning, but the question that haunts me is ‘Is it friendly?’ ".

What an extremely important question to ask – this question: whether our environment, our world, the universe that encompasses us, is hostile or benevolent. Is it against us or for us? The answer to this very fundamental riddle, will in the end determine the outcome and quality of our life on earth, will shape the basic sense, belief or instinct with which we enter into and handle each day.

If for instance we believe that everything out there is hostile and working against us then most of what we do will finally be dominated by fear. Our life will become a constant effort to counter this fear by looking for ways to control it or insure our life against it. Mistrust and anxiety will be our daily bread. If however we trust the opposite, accepting in the words of John O’Donohue, “…that at the deepest level of reality some intimate kindness holds sway”, life becomes a space where we may explore and taste hope and love, beauty and trust, every day - an opportunity to continuously open our lives to God’s grace and blessings.

In Everything Belongs Richard Rohr has a pertinent chapter in which he also refers to Einstein’s question, reminding us that this is exactly the liberating perspective that those of us who claim to be true believers, owe to the world.

“The gift of true religion is that it parts the veil, returns us to the garden and tells us our primal experience was trustworthy. It reassures us that we live in a benevolent universe, and it is on our side. The universe, it reassures us, is radical grace. Therefore we need not be afraid. Scarcity is not the primary experience, but abundance. Knowing this we can relax and let go…”

In a way Rohr’s words remind us of Jesus’ remark when, parting from his disciples, he consoled them:

“Do not be worried and upset: do not be afraid…(John 14:27)…The world (that is the negative and evil forces in life) will make you suffer. But be brave! I have defeated the world”.

We need to demonstrate to the world, especially to those who feel lost, hopeless and desperate, that this is indeed true. We need to positively embrace the abundance of our universe and also share it with others.

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, April 23, 2010

Bellfry, where it is easy to talk about God

Mimi Saayman, a team member of the Centre, and I returned from the United States last Monday, having attended a retreat that turned out to be a very unique experience. Shalem, a contemplative community in Washington, had invited us to attend a 7-day workshop on personal spiritual deepening with a view not only to our own personal enrichment, but also to being introduced to their course built on material developed over the past 15 years. The idea or long-term purpose is to bring it back and present it in our own community in South Africa. So, even if I relate personal impressions first – eventually what we received will be moulded into a programme that will be shared and passed on to others.

What a rich and special gift it has been! Besides being overwhelmed by the novelty of an American spring – a first for me – there was a further surprise waiting for us when, after almost 4 hours on the road to the south west of Washington, we arrived at the Broadway Bellfry Retreat Centre in Virginia where the workshop was to be held.

Words cannot really do justice to the beauty and splendour of this venue, but I’ll try to give an impression: the Bellfry, set in magnificent surroundings, welcomes one into loving spaces, inviting silences and has colourful symbols that represent the concrete embodiment of a poetic and imaginative God-given dream – one which Anne Grizzle, the current owner, had nurtured for many years and which eventually materialised three years ago. Entering this small paradise I was taken back to John Denver’s celebration of the country roads that he loved: “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains, Shanandoah river…”. These were all there, or at least very close by.

I will remember this special course/workshop and especially the Bellfry for a number of reasons. First, one was brought to a standstill that enabled new awareness and reflection. As Kendrick, one of the other participants, observed: “here the vital sense of slowing down and becoming centred inevitably begins to grow”. And then there were special moments with special people, kindred spirits, a contemplative tribe – the opportunity for deep sharing of our doubts, fears, joys and passions, at night in a small circle, or during our walks in the forest; the singing and celebrating together during the sessions which made us “part of the flow”. Perhaps Ann Dean described the mystery and joy of such communion best when her first letter after our return reminded us: “Should you or I ever feel alone or isolated, let us remember we are eternally connected in soul and purpose”.

Bellfry took me back, after many years, to a special moment in my life when I experienced myself a true child of the earth – probably for the first time. It triggered a wonderful memory from my teenage years, when a schoolfriend and I swam naked in the upper stream of a waterfall in the mountains close to our hometown in the Northwestern Cape. The question that was gently posed after I shared this moment of vulnerability, still lingers: “Where is that place today? Where is that boy?”

Looking back on the remarkable time of becoming quiet, systematically exploring one’s own spirituality through carefully directed, rich experiences, barely a week on, I realise that perhaps the most significant shift that took place in me, is manifest in the subtle, almost obscure way it became easier than before to talk about, and even with and to God.

When we arrived at Bellfry after a very busy term I felt fragmented and blocked, almost like Thomas when he was tormented by nagging questions and doubts. When we left however, it was with the song of Job in my heart: “… I knew only what others had told me, but now I have seen you with my own eyes”. Because for me, anew, God was – is – undeniably there; I met Him/Her in the splendour of nature, in the birdsong at daybreak, in the amazing stories of the Bible, in our shared brokenness and joys as children of God, in the warm embraces of appreciation, hospitality and love and then most of all…in the silence which is, so it seems, always God’s first and most clear language.

Carel Anthonissen.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In search of common decency

My elderly friend was outraged. Perhaps not outraged, but certainly highly indignant. Was it necessary, he spluttered, for a young driver to overtake him at speed, hooting all the while, simply because he had refused to turn into the lane designated for the use of emergency vehicles, merely for this young whippersnapper to be able to pass? And that at a speed far beyond the limit! What, he demanded, (and I would love to use the phrase ‘in high dudgeon’ here), has become of common decency?
What indeed? Reading a Dorothy Sayers crime novel published some decades ago, I was delighted and I admit, amused, to find phrases which seem to have disappeared from the English language: ‘Jolly decent of you!’ ; ‘She’s a decent sort’ ; ‘He did a decent day’s work’….
What gives one pause is that with the disappearance of the word decent the sentiment of decency seems to have disappeared also. We hardly understand what it means anymore. And looking at the events in South Africa during the past week or two and at the growing polarization in the country, it might be worth looking anew at decency, and the meaning of it.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines decency as follows: Propriety of behaviour; what is accepted as being required by good taste or delicacy; avoidance of obscene language and gestures and of undue exposure of person; respectability…
The definition of the adjective decent, includes seemly, not immodest, and used colloquially: kind, generous, obliging. It comes from the Latin decentia / decere – to be fitting.
Our beloved country is being torn apart by violence and anger and growing racial hatred. And fingers are being pointed in every possible direction – always away from ourselves. Paul might have been talking to South Africans when he writes to the Galatians: If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other…
In the sermon to my congregation this past Sunday morning we were urged to allow the Holy Spirit to change our sinful nature, and according to Galatians 5, to live a life by the Spirit. And the fruit of the Spirit, proclaims the well-known verse 22, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Common decency, in fact.
Cecile Cilliers

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I will find you again

The well known spiritual writer Ken Wilber tragically lost his wife Treya to cancer a mere five years after their wedding. In his book “Grace and Grit” he gives an account of their last days together and touchingly recalls what passed between them in the final hours preceding her death. For him these hours remained the most precious and tender moment in his life. This was due mainly to a promise he had made to her on their wedding day and of which she now reminded him.
Five years earlier he had whispered in her ear: “Where have you been? I have been searching for you for lifetimes. I finally found you. I had to slay dragons to find you, you know. And if anything happens, I will find you again”.
At the time Wilber did not exactly know why he had uttered these profound words. Nor did he know where their lives would end. He simply wanted to express how he felt at the time about his special bride and their loving relationship. And now in this hour of death she took him back to the promise he had made. It was as if to hear it again gave her a feeling of tremendous security and peace; as if the whole world would be in order if he could only keep this promise. Therefore her question: “You promise you will find me?” “I promise.” Forever and ever?” “Yes, forever and ever”.
It seems significant to me that I came across this very moving piece during Easter weekend. Wilber’s promise seems to represent in a moving and surprising way the message of Easter which others such as Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), Simon Peter (John 21:1-19), the men from Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and eventually all the disciples (John 20:19-25, 1 Cor 15:3-8) had experienced, namely that the God of Jesus had finally found them after they had lost their way. God had kept his promise never to leave or forsake them, even when they forsook God, even after they had given up hope in the face of persecution, sickness, betrayal, death.
On account of Jesus’s resurrection, his victory over human weakness – in fact over evil, we may also hear again, just like Treya on her wedding day: “I had to slay dragons to find you, you know. And if anything happens, I will find you again”.
Is there anything more consoling, more renewing and full of hope than this promise that we will be found by God, particularly when we, often with fear and trepidation, have to leave our earthly home and tread the unknown path of death.
According to the Gospel, we may count on this promise…now and forever.
Carel Anthonissen