Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Christmas that was different

As a child, Christmas time was mostly spent at home with my family in Calvinia. I can still recall the spirit of good will and expectation that was such a central part of our celebrations: we would listen to music, sing together, enjoy a special meal and eventually gather around a Christmas tree to receive our gifts.

One year, however, I had a different Christmas with relatives in Cape Town. In the days before the 25th my cousin and I had been partners in a junior tennis tournament in the city, and since the trip back to Calvinia was rather long the family invited me to stay over with them for Christmas. In an unexpected way it became an extraordinary occasion during which I learnt an important lesson.

At the time I was carrying a very special gift I had bought for myself, in my luggage. It was a record with songs by the remarkable Jewish-German tenor, Joseph Schmidt. I had discovered recordings of Schmidt’s music shortly before, found his voice very special, and so had been looking for this particular record for quite some time. I had saved my pocket money for whenever the opportunity may arise to buy it. And then in Cape Town, during a break in our tennis schedule, I got the chance. I can still recall my delight and excitement when, among the hundreds of records that Stuttafords had on offer at the time, I discovered the Joseph Schmidt I had wished for. Like a precious treasure I carefully wrapped and packed it away - I could not wait to return to the Karoo to enjoy listening to my long awaited gift.

But on that specific Christmas morning my little dream took an unexpected turn. Not knowing my relatives’ rituals, it came as a surprise when very early on Christmas morning I was woken up by my cousins entering my room, wishing me well and each giving me a gift they had specially sought out. This surprise was also a bit embarrassing, revealing how preoccupied and self-centred I had been; I had completely forgotten to buy any Christmas presents. All I had was my cherished Schmidt record. And although extremely painful, I knew instantly that if I really wanted to honour the spirit of Christmas, I had to give it away.

To this day my relatives do not know what sacrifice I made that morning; they had no idea how difficult and costly it was to give up my most precious belonging. But then the delight on their faces and the way they received and appreciated the gift from me, convinced me that I had done the right thing. That day I learnt that the true message and joy of Christmas is not as much in receiving, as in giving.

In fact, Christmas started when God gave us his only begotten son, so that we may enjoy abundant love, forgiveness and mercy. And also share it with others.

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, December 12, 2008

Impressions of a pilgrimage

As part of the recent “Pilgrimage of Trust” to Nairobi, our arrival already set the tone for the kind of diversity we were to encounter: the first people I met at the airport were a young man and woman from Moscow, also on their way to the Taizé community’s meeting on African soil. The remarkable gathering of 6 500 pilgrims was comprised mostly of Africans who come from strife-torn regions like Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Kenya itself, which recently experienced the torment of post-election violence. A group of Masai youngsters made the colourful event even more so, adding to the rich embroidery of the scene with their tartan blankets and abundant beads.

On a hectic drive through the inner-city of Nairobi, we start inhaling the bustle of this East-African city. Our first night, as all the following ones, was spent in rather primitive living conditions, in what is home to our hosts and is befitting of the Taizé way of life with its emphasis on simplicity. We were overwhelmed by the hospitality of Kenyan families who opened up their humble homes and housed us in mostly Catholic parishes in and around Nairobi. The mass we attended was filled to capacity with people shuffling into church with subdued respect for its holiness. During the week our group of fourteen from the Western Cape embarked on journeys which took us along rural roads, through passes, through coffee bean plantations and tropical vegetation. In these remote areas the “mzungu” (white person), according to the small children’s calls, seemed still to be almost a scarce animal. The universal profession in the region, despite high levels of tertiary education, remains “digging the land”. A degree does not necessarily offer assurance of employment.

A number of the Taizé brothers spent the year in Kenya to prepare for the meeting. They worked towards transforming and transplanting their message, their style of spirituality, to fit this context. As our leader, father Edwin Arrison, put it: during these months “the faith as expressed through the Taizé community has not only been incarnated into the lives of the pilgrims - Africa incarnated itself into the life of Taizé!” This is indeed Taizé with an African flavour in its music and movement. But it is also an honest grappling with the continent’s pain and complexities, “together seeking paths of hope”, as the theme read; searching for reconciliation, healing and trust even amidst despair; celebrating amidst suffering. Many of us South Africans can also witness to the fact that joining this pilgrimage gave us an experience of homecoming; it took us on a journey back to the mother this continent is for us - a mother, we are no longer stepchildren.

Laurie Gaum

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thank you my teacher, thank you!

Reflecting on the recent national campaign against violence on women and children, as well as on this week’s dedicated campaign remembering the victims of HIV and AIDS and their caregivers, it is clear that not only our own country, but in fact our world, urgently needs to cultivate a culture of non-voilent resistance.

More than ever we need people who will bravely stand up and resist all forms of voilence, abuse, injustice, corruption; who are prepared to speak out despite the risk of being accused of intrusiveness and obstinacy; who will constantly protest when and wherever the law is transgressed or disobeyed. Oh, how the world and our country yearns for people who will demonstrate such courage, who will embrace such prophetic responsibility without hesitation, even at the cost of their own popularity and status.

There is, however, a kind of protest which is extremely destructive and harmful, a form of activism which can insult or injure the other. An approach to protest which views the other primarily as an enemy and which seeks to eliminate or even destroy the other, is completely counter-productive. Such resistance is often fuelled by disregard and hatred. It only furthers a cycle of voilence. In the end it does not really help society to change for the better. Instead, it perpetuates a spirit of hatred and instills an inclination to retribution in the hearts of a next generation which can, over time, cause irreparable damage to the moral fibre of a society.

What is needed, is a more imaginative and creative kind of protest, a form of resistance which can truly surprise and change the other, a non-voilent approach which, while never hesitating to speak the truth, does not injure and offend. To the contrary, one’s protest should help the other to dicover and express their God given humanity and dignity. This is only possible when we constantly view the other as a precious creature of God, someone made in the image of God, who in spite of his/her failures and selfish habits, is called to reflect something of God’s glory. A truly non-voilent approach will even believe and nurture the hope that our most ardent adversary can teach us something.

In the words of a wise man who was asked for advice on how to treat one’s enemies:

“If you come across people who, metaphorically speaking, ‘keep pushing your buttons’, do not look at them with disdain or hatred. Look at them with understanding and love, folding your hands as in prayer, while you keep saying: ‘Thank you my teacher, thank you my teacher! I struggle to like you, but you help me to learn patience, to grow in compassion. Thank you’…”

Is this not what Jesus also taught us? And is this not what a non-voilent approach to life and to other people is all about?

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, November 21, 2008

A letter to Obama

In the past week a moving letter, written by the well known American author, Alice Walker, to the newly elected president of the USA, Barak Obama, was circulated via the internet. As a fellow black American, she applauds and congratulates him on his historic achievement of becoming the first black president of the Unites States. Then she goes on to remind him of some unconventional responsibilities which, to her mind, are now crucial for his presidency.

For a start, she reminds him that he should not forget to cultivate happiness in his own life. In this regard she points to the need to make a schedule that permits sufficient time for rest and play, not only for himself, but also with his remarkable wife and lovely daughters. This will counter the tremendous stress of their lives and promote the kind of joy and happiness required to fulfil such a high public position competently. In her words: “We are used to seeing men in the White House become juiceless and as white haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained…This is no way to lead …Finally it is the soul that must be preserved if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to the earth, peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies.”

A second piece of advice that she offers Obama is on how to deal with his enemies. In this regard she quite movingly reminds him not to take on other people’s enemies. In fact, she says, “Most damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those feelings occur in all of us…We must actually learn not to have enemies but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disquise.” Quoting her devout mother who often admonished her to hate sin, but love the sinner, she continues: “There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people’s spirit. This has already happened to people of colour, poor people, woman, children. We see where this leads, where it has lead.”

Reading through Alice Walker’s letter it becomes clear that her plea to Obama is nothing less than an urgent invitation for him to nurture his spirituality. One realises how little we see of this in political leaders and what a difference it would make if such prominently placed people, so prone to power play and empty glamour, were to heed to this call. Truly if this happens, we may also speak the language of hope and selfempowerment - like Walker when she concludes her letter: “We are the ones we have been waiting for. In peace and joy, Alice Walker.”

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A call to remain dignified

We often hear stories of how a single word of advice or an offhand remark can influence people’s way of thinking and even change the course of their lives. At the time when the famous Thomas Merton was unsure whether he should become a monk or not, his good friend Mark van Doren, listening to his struggle, calmly remarked: “Well, if you do have a vocation to the monastic life, it will not be possible for you to decide not to enter”. And though his words may have sounded quite ordinary and obvious, they became defining for Merton. The remark shed new light on his predicament and showed another possiblity in the process of making a choice.

In my own life I can recall similar incidents of unexpected enlightenment. One may even call them moments of grace, because they can influence and change the pattern of you life in a permanent fashion.

There is one particular event which stands out as such a lesson in wisdom for me. It happened at a time when my family and I went through a very tempestuous and uncertain time in my ministry. I had come to clear convictions about what the church’s role in politics should be, which turned out to be highly controversial. This became the basis of a public incident in our little community that left us exposed and vulnerable. At the time I felt betrayed and deeply hurt and I was tempted to overreact and hit back.

During a few days of turmoil there was a gentle knock at our front door early one morning. Opening the door I was surprised to find one of my older and highly respected professors standing there. He was on his way to his office and would not come in. But he had come with a purpose. Looking at me intently he said: “I know you are going through a tough time. I know that you are upset and rightfully so. But stay calm, keep your head high and just do what is right. You will know what this means in the circumstances”. And with these few words he left again.

I don’t think my professor ever knew the impact of his words on me that day. Because apart from making me feel deeply supported, he also reminded me of a truth that since then has never left me: that we are called to stay upright and act in a dignified manner under all circumstances, specially when the tide sometimes turns against us and we are tempted to respond rashly.

It is of course never easy. But then, is that not the undisputable way of faith? Is that not the calling of Christ?

Carel Anthonissen

Friday, November 7, 2008

The hidden treasures of Sutherland

The past weekend I was priviledged to travel after more than 40 years, to one of the almost forgotten towns of my childhood days - Sutherland. Sutherland is a small Karoo town, situated on a plateau area called the northern Roggeveld. During my high school years at Calvina, which is 120 kilometers northwest of Sutherland, we used to travel there once every year to play rugby and netball.

From the outside, Sutherland does not immediately attract or impress. At a first glance it looks like a dreary and deteriorating place. But for those who are interested and keep their eyes open, Sutherland has some unique features. It can, as ever when one looks beyond the most obvious, offer unexpected surprises. First of all, the sun-baked town has been recognised as one of the coldest places in South Africa. In fact, tradition has it that there is not a month in the year in which, at some time or another, snowfalls have not been recorded in the town.

Sutherland is also the birthplace of one of South Africa’s most famous artists, the writer and poet NP van Wyk Louw. To introduce and celebrate his work together with that of his brother Gladstone and a number of other memorable son’s and daughter’s of the community, the family house where they grew up has been turned into an intruiging little museum. Sutherland is also part of an area where quite a collection of rare and exquisite veldplants can be found. You can’t help but notice them when you enter the town - if not because you see them, then because of their herby fragrance. And there is Salpeterkop, the last of the active volcanoes southern Africa knew, and its inevitable traces left in the geology of the area.

However, during the weekend I was struck by another feature, an almost hidden treasure, of this simple little town. Given its unique location on the still and higher plains of the Karoo where little atmospheric interferences are experienced, the stars at night are more visible, much clearer and brighter than in most other places in the country. It is no accident that the biggest observatory in the southern hemisphere has been built here. Looking up into the sky on our first night there I not only noticed, as if for the first time, the stars in all their virginal splendour - I also understood much better the sense of amazement and wonder the psalmist must have had when he wrote: “When I look at the sky, which you have made, at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places - what is a man that you think of him; mere man that you care for him?”

Perhaps that was the biggest gift of Sutherland over the weekend: the awareness that we are not as Fredrick Bauerschmidt wrote, primarily the masters of the universe. “We receive the world as God’s gift, just as we receive ourselves as God’s gift…”. What is more - we often discover this, where and when least expected.

NP Wyk Louw expressed it well when he wrote: “To be a child in these surroundings of town and farmland is perhaps the richest treasure that can be offered to a youngster. I become impatient when I hear about limitations, the monotony of such a life, deprived of all cultural commodities. For a receptive child, a child with imagination, it is a rich fulfulling life”.

Carel Anthonissen