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

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A new take on an old parable

A woman pastor from the Netherlands came across my path recently, and meeting her was a mentally and spiritually stimulating and uplifting experience.
Trained in the reform tradition, she found herself drawn not to large congregations, but to smaller groups, groups of carers and caregivers, or those in need of care. To this end, she immersed herself also in the catholic tradition, so that little would estrange from those groups who would benefit from her spiritual support. At the moment, in Holland, she is the pastor at an institution for the mentally disabled, among them sufferers of dementia, Alzheimer’s and some bad cases of epilepsy.

Her sermons in this institution, she told me, however well prepared, were subject to surprising responses and sometimes interjections from her listeners which could change the whole tone and even theme of the homily. I’m learning to think on my feet, she laughed. And told me the story of the parable of the lost sheep.

She had based her sermon that morning, she said, on Luke 15, and was telling the story of the lost sheep with lots of drama : the weather was wild, but the shepherd left his 99 other sheep out in the open and went off to search for the one, poor, lost lamb. And could not find it, and kept searching, until at last he heard a soft bleating, a solitary mmaa-aaa…

Her audience had been so quiet, you could hear a pin drop, and she was thrilled, she said, with the impact she was making, assuring her listeners that Jesus would not let one sheep go astray. But at this point an elderly man rose and interrupted her without apology or preamble : That is not the sound a sheep makes, he said. A sheep bleats baa-aaa. What the shepherd found must have been a small goat; it’s a goat that goes mmaa-aa !

And so, laughingly, she ended her story (and her sermon), with the shepherd going home with a kid over the one shoulder and a lamb over the other…

With what grace and love was the parable retold, reflecting the love and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And giving new meaning, so I thought, to Matthew 25 : 31 – 46.

Cecile Cilliers