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