Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The need for discipline, routine and ritual

I have a family member who firmly believes that the way you start your day determines its outcome and especially the mood or attitude with which you live and relate. For this reason she gets up early each morning to follow a definite routine – one in which she consciously practices a set of very specific rituals or disciplines. These rituals include a brisk walk, some breathing exercises, a time of silence and prayer and the writing of, what Julia Cameron calls, her morning papers. The latter are two pages of uninhibited long hand writing to help you access and express your feelings. According to this family member: “These exercises not only help me to remain calm, alert and positive throughout the day. As a believer it also helps me to remember that there is a God in heaven who cares”.

For some people, especially those who struggle to relax or to find time for leisure, mostly due to a hectic work schedule, these kinds of rituals or disciplines often sound eccentric and unnecessary, almost like an exclusive and excessive luxury. Others again are so caught up in the fancies and pleasures of society that they merely float along without even knowing or thinking about an alternative style of living. However the life giving, if not life changing and necessary value of the abovementioned routine with its rituals or disciplines should not be underestimated, especially in a culture like ours.

Because despite its many amazing feats and benefits, it is clear today that our modern society has a darker and disturbing downside. In its hectic drive to produce and to generate money, our current information-based economy has not only increased our pace of living dramatically – it has also altered our needs to such an extent that the human spirit has been deeply affected. According to some analysts a large part of our generation has become socially saturated, distracted and even worse, multifrenic. It has become a generation, which increasingly suffers from a fragmented and disconnected identity.

Luckily there are those who, like my family-member, has sensed this darker and more destructive side of our society, these so called unhealthy and distractive compulsions, and who tries to deal with it in a more imaginative and creative way, thereby reminding us of some irreplaceable values and rituals and offering us an alternative and more integrated and connected way of living.

In this regard there is a wonderful little anecdote about the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While in prison during the years of the second world war, he also had to deal with the problem of ongoing distractions and disturbances, the most familiar being his constant and often overwhelming longing for family and friends, for company, for intimacy.

To counter and channel these strong and often distracting emotions in a healthy and constructive way, he deliberately chose a life of discipline and routine, starting with an early morning shower, some exercises, prayer and then his daily programme of specific and carefully planned reading and writing. These disciplines or rituals not only helped him to produce his marvellous letters from prison, but also showed through them a way of hope and peace for a next generation.

Those who have discovered the liberating effects of a well structure life of discipline, ritual and routine know that it can never be a burden. To the contrary, it is something that should be sought, celebrated and enjoyed. Especially today.

Carel Anthonissen

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dolls that empower our children

From time to time I am asked to lead a prayer meeting at one of the retirement centres in Stellenbosch. I always enjoy doing so. Apart from feeling useful, the colourful stories of older people, often borne from a rich and eventful life, always intrigue me. Like many others, I am painfully aware of the frailty of old age and the limitations it brings. Then one also tends sometimes to view older people as a passive community, a group whose chances to serve others and make constructive new contributions have passed, as if they are left only with good memories and the prospect of death.

During the past week I was forced in a surprising way to review my somewhat stereotypical perception, and to reflect anew on my own responsibilities regarding the well-being of our society. It happened when, on a regular, routine visit, I came across some residents, mostly women, who defy any categorisation as bystanders or onlookers. In a remarkable way they use what talents they have, to make a difference in a wider context.

The women in the group are all part of a project called “Valuable to God” – a project which aims to counter the sexual abuse of small children in our country in a significant way. They sit together every day enthusiastically and committedly producing hundreds of hand knit dolls. These little dolls are passed on and distributed to children across the peninsula - the aim being to make them aware that, just like the little dolls, they are unique and precious in God’s eyes. Also that they are, just like the dolls in their hands, being held and cared for by God, no matter what experiences they may have.

Looking at these older women in action and taking their works of art into my hands was a special, in fact deeply humbling experience. Apart from sensing the profound symbolic meaning of these dolls, especially when they end up in the hands of children from poor and vulnerable communities, I also realised how important it is to be a part of South Africa’s positive and healing history. Such histories are often less conspicuous, and certainly less newsworthy than stories of violence and crime. Healing and restorative experiences are often similar to the knitted dolls: created in obscurity by unknown and seemingly insignificant people, they are vital for a hopeful future.

We must never forget this – it also reminds of how we can all contribute to the care of our children.

Carel Anthonissen

The gift of discernment

If there is one thing we dearly need in many parts of our confused and deeply insecure society, it is leaders with the gift of discernment. This gift presents itself as that rare ability to know and to do the right thing at the right time; or in terms of biblical imagery: to read and interpret the signs of the times, then to act responsibly and appropriately to the challenges they offer. Ignatius of Loyola defined it even more poignantly when he said: discernment is about recognizing and choosing not only the good, but the better.

One of our most celebrated modern Christian leaders who became renowned for his ability to discern, to read the signs of his time and to act accordingly, was the German theologian of the 1930s and early 1940s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. More than most of his contemporaries he was able to foresee certain events with almost prophetic clarity, to fathom their meaning and to predict their outcome. To illustrate: he was the first theologian to note that Germany’s fate during the second world war would eventually be determined by the so called Jewish problem. He was also one of the first who, long before anyone else gave it a thought, predicted that Hitler’s policies meant war. So how does a person attain this ability? Where does it come from?

From his writings it is clear that for Bonhoeffer this ability to discern, that is, to see clearly and act soundly, is founded in good information, in keeping up to date, having an ear to the ground. Discernment relies on trustworthy sources, on following regular news reports, and even more importantly, it develops when people do not shy away from direct exposure to and first hand experience of critical, sensitive issues of the day. For a Christian, however, according to Bonhoeffer, there is always an additional, perhaps deeper more crucial source from which true discernment flows and that is a personal encounter with God’s love and forgiveness as it was revealed in Christ.

Such encounters, Bonhoeffer and Ignatius teach us, usually come through constant prayer and by attending to the movement of the Spirit in one’s own life; they always inspire new, courageous acts of love which in turn bring new insight and knowledge. In Bonhoeffer’s words: “The person who is enlightened by Christ, lives a truly earthly life. He or she is grounded in love, and this love brings insights which few other people see and which inspires to new action. He who loves most, also discerns and sees deepest.”

To an outsider these simple guidelines to acquire discernment may sound overly pious and unrealistic. Even to Christians, this is not an easy assignment or a quick fix. Nevertheless, for the Christian who has honestly, unreservedly tested God’s spirit in faith and has discovered the unique insight and fruits of love, this is the real stuff of life. No wonder that Paul in Phillipians 1:9-11 implores us: “I pray that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God”.

Can there be anything more important to try, to develop, to experience and eventually to share in our own time, even today?

Carel Anthonissen

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Leaving a sparkle in her eyes


In a time when the social and economic downslope globally and locally tends to make many people feel depressed and insecure, how good it is to have people around us with a sense of realism and good humour; people who keep smiling and laughing, reminding us constantly that, although at times a tough and serious business, life is not all about toil and suffering. It also contains some lighter, entertaining and enjoyable moments.

Too much lightheartedness or silliness can of course be misplaced and irritating, especially when it trivializes the gravity or urgency of a situation. One can also hide one’s insecurities and hurt behind a joke. However, a good dose of healthy humour at the right time - one which rightfully acknowledges our regular concerns, but then makes them relative by putting them into a broader perspective - can also relieve the tension, thereby creating a sense of relief, hope and even a good laugh.

I have a friend whose mere presence enables a sense of goodwill and laughter. I know that he also has his vulnerable moments, but you rarely meet him without a mischievous smile. He is always ready to entertain one with his most recent joke or comical anecdote. It is possible that such a way of always highlighting the bright and funny side of life can be too much for some people. For me however, this rare ability to relieve others from the weightiness of life by introducing humour, has always been a real tonic, especially in times of turmoil and pressure.

No wonder that the nurse in the frail care division, where he regularly used to visit his endearing grandmother, held him in such high esteem. In her words: “Her illness had made the grandmother quiet and glum, but after a visit from him, she always had a sparkle in her eyes. It was wonderful to see. Like sunlight pouring into a dark room, his presence, honest concern and particularly his sense of humour, always seemed to transform her dark mood in an instant. She seemed to wake up to life again”.

Is this not a unique feature of the Christian testimony in a time like ours - to make people feel happy and positive, to leave a sparkle in their eyes despite so many things that threaten to destroy our ability to be joyful. In fact it remains a terrible accusation against our faith when we confess the Lordship of Christ and yet continue to live and speak as if the darkness prevails…as if there is no space for faith and humour.

Carel AnthonisseN