I am doing something new for this post, I am going to have a guest blogger!
Why, because I went to church today and one of our congregation gave a sermon about love and inclusion that everyone should read, whether you are in Australia, or anywhere else in the world. A message that touched us all, and why I love my community of fellow travellers so much.
So here it is, a sermon from Jodi.
The readings, if you are interested were these…
Isaiah 56: 1-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 21-28
In Isaiah, God we hear of a God who does not discriminate. All people are welcome in God’s house. Gods house is a place of welcome and prayer for all of God’s children, including those who have been specifically excluded – in Isaiah’s time that meant foreigners and eunuchs. Acceptability to God is not defined by ethnicity or sexuality, but by keeping the Sabbath and holding fast to the covenant.
When you were the chosen people, the ones delivered to the promised land, to be told that acceptability is not defined by ethnicity must have been a pretty big call. In Romans, Paul is trying to make it clear to the people that God has not abandoned the Jewish people, God’s compassion is available to all who believe, no matter their heritage. God wants to have compassion towards all people.
Throughout time there seems to have been a continual struggle over people’s historical and traditional view of who is acceptable to God. Times change, the world that 94 year old Ron grew up in was very different to the world that I grew up in and that world is not same as the world of today that 3 year old Josephat is growing up in. Whilst our traditions and cultural heritage are important and help to shape us, we also have to ensure that we are living a life that holds true to our Christian values but is also alive and relevant to todays world. Sometimes this requires us to reflect on what we believe and question our reasoning.
In todays reading from Matthew, the Gentile woman’s shouting disturbs Jesus’ disciples, but he ignores her – not the sort of response we’re used to from Jesus. When he finally speaks to her, his words are dismissive and insulting – again, not what we would expect. But with courage and humour the woman leads Jesus to change his mind – and to expand his mission beyond Israel. “Woman, how great is your faith!” Jesus exclaims, and clearly Matthew presents her as an example for his community and for us. It‘s in this spirited encounter with a woman who refuses to have her daughter’s value diminished that Jesus comes to a new understanding. It is in meetings like this, with people on the margins, that new wisdom and compassion are found.
The abandonment of prejudice, the crossing of the traditional boundary, is the good news of the story and why it was told. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Jesus, himself, had to make a transition, had to learn. His response was more typical of the rather conservative Judaism of the time. Jesus was human, too. Here we see that that he was a product of his environment, just like we are influenced by our upbringing. But just like Jesus we can change our views when confronted. This can be a very confronting process. Sometimes it is total strangers who cause us to confront our beliefs but more often than not it is the people we know and love.
Slaves used to be quite acceptable and predominantly black people were exploited. Aboriginal children were taken from their parents to supposedly give the children a better life. It was not that long ago that divorce was frowned upon and was a bit of a scandal within the church. Within my lifetime, unmarried mothers had their children taken away from them. They were hidden away, marginalised and shamed. Refugees running from the horrors of their homeland come seeking a better life and here in Australia we lock them up. The bible can be used to justify and confirm all kinds of discrimination. However, we tend to use an interpretive lens to ensure that historical and cultural bias do not prevent us from loving and accepting everyone.
Today we debate marriage equality. I have read a couple of articles recently from conservative ministers who talk about why they have changed their minds. The key point seems to be that facts and rational argument don’t change people’s minds, it is listening to the experiences of others that really makes the difference.
Just as Jesus listened to the Gentile woman and her faith made him change his mind, so too we need to listen and get to know the refugees and aboriginal people, the gay community, those with mental health issues. When we know and love those marginalised as our friends then equality is not something that we can debate in the abstract. The debate becomes about real people.
The attached picture says it all, Science is real, black lives matter, no human is illegal, love is love, women’s rights are human rights and kindness is everything. This is the way we are called to live, in the 21st century!
This blog is a revisiting of one I wrote when I was away. One I wrote that I subsequently lost due to a random click on the computer by me. Yes, I did that awful thing of editing what I had written because I wanted to split the blog into two and then saving without renaming, and ended up losing the original, ouch!
Anyway I would still like to revisit the disappeared one, so here it is, reconstituted.
This blog is inspired in part by a guy called Rob Bell, a favourite of mine in so many ways. He started out as a leader in the evangelical movement in the US, in charge of a mega church with thousands of people, a darling of the religious right. Then he had an epiphany, and realised that what he was preaching about Christianity, about heaven and hell, and who was going where, just didn’t fit with the message of Jesus. So he left his mega church, renounced the trappings of his position, the power and the popularity and the money, wrote a book called “Love Wins” and started a journey to a more open exploring faith. In the process he went from the darling of the evangelical movement to its enemy, and you only have to look on facebook to see how much they now attack him for being a traitor to the cause.
While being an author, Rob Bell also does podcasts, where he interviews a wide selection of people, from varied faith traditions to explore what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st century. Recently one of those podcasts caught my attention in a big way! Just before I left I listened to Rob interview a guy called Peter Rollins, a philosopher and theologian from Belfast, with a wonderful accent, a dry sense of humour and an incredible and deep interest in the “God “question.
Rob Bell and Peter Rollins did 4 podcasts together, where they talked about God and of course about Christianity and about spirituality in our world and time. They were great, but the third one in particular made me sit up and take notice. It was on the absurdity of faith and in particular the absurdity of the Christian faith. It really struck a chord.
Of course faith seems totally absurd in our modern, scientific world where everything is measured and what can’t be measured can’t be true. But somehow Jesus is the ultimate absurdity, even after 2,000. Traditionally the people of the first century were expecting a Messiah, a messenger from God, to come and rescue them, to put things right, to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, and turn around the world. To renew creation by power and might.
And what did they get?
What they got was a humble, peasant carpenter, quite possibly illiterate, but who could teach and tell stories and parables, who revealed the creative presence of God in the world and showed those who listened how to bring light rather than darkness and despair, who called for community, equity and justice, and who died a horrible death on a cross.
What, that can’t be right! Where is the power and might?
Jesus, in his life, in his words and deeds, represented the powerless, not powerful, and called for forgiveness over retribution, peace over violence and most essentially love over hate. The reason Jesus was killed is quite simple really, but we complicate it with rules and beliefs that exclude and divide, and he would be probably horrified. He challenged those with power and those in power responded by getting rid of this radical, scandalous messenger.
Or so they thought!
Before Jesus died he called his listeners to join in and follow him.
And that’s the amazing thing! They did and still do.
Regardless of what you think about the resurrection, literal, spiritual, or something else, Jesus’s life and teachings still resonate with people today, as they have done for centuries. The call is still there! Changing people’s lives, and the lives of those around them, inspiring them to give up things to make the world or their little bit of the world better. His message still has the power to speak to people today and completely transform them. Jesus revealed and continues to reveal life’s hidden mystery. Of God’s renewing power and presence within each one of us that can make a difference, and when we enter the stream of that mystery we can live lives of freedom and joy. We become better more complete people.
This may sound absurd today when what we hear mostly is that money and possession or jobs define us. But that’s not really true. What defines us best is how we love one another, and that includes ourselves, and what we contribute. And we have an urge within each one of us to do this if we listen to this persistant inner voice. Which is why Jesus’s message, while absurd to many modern ears, strikes a chord to others. But it’s not about getting to heaven, it’s about living the best way we can here and now.
Rob Bell realised that the type of Christianity he was presenting, that you have to believe and act a certain way to be in the group, otherwise you were definitely out, and not just out but lost forever, seemed horrible and out of step with its founder. In fact it seemed more in step with modern society that says the things which divide us are greater than those that connect us. So he left. To become a Jesus follower, to preach the Jesus way. An absurd decision and one in which he had to give up a lot.
As for little old me, I could be following the standard route as a scientist but I have chosen to follow a slightly crazy path, serving a small Uniting church congregation in Wembley Downs while combining it with secular employment. Recently I have had the opportunity to break away, giving up the church work altogether to do a Phd in Anatomy and Human Biology and finally be a proper scientist! Mmm, tempting!
Yet somehow that is not what my heart is saying.
Like Rob Bell, it seems totally absurd but I am about to commit for another 3 years to this small, but very active congregation, as long as they will have me, and leave thoughts of Phds behind. Certainly scientific ones. As one friend said, I will have to be a Dr in a parallel universe! Thoughts of Dr Who!
But it opens up a new path, which feels exciting and really quite freeing.
After walking the Camino again, a great time for reflection, I realise I want to show those that will listen that all things in life are not clear and measureable. That the path or journey of faith is one worth following. And that the way and teachings of Jesus gives us a glimpse of that path. Even in the 21st century. Perhaps this is what I have been waiting for all my life!
Absurd as it seems!
We are nearing the end of our adventure, and I thought I should do one last blog. Those of you on facebook have been inundated with photos from the Camino, then wonderful Portugal and finally southern Spain. Hope you have enjoyed them as much as we have enjoyed sharing them.
So what to write in my last blog? Well I have decided to write about churches, yep, that’s right, just a few of the churches and cathedrals we have visited, or more aptly that I have dragged Matt into. After all, both Spain and Portugal are Catholic countries and revere their traditions and religious history greatly.
But this is not going to be just a travelogue. Because the one thing I do want to say, is that more and more I became rather disillusioned by what we were seeing. Not so much on the Camino where the churches were simple and humble, in keeping with the inspiration behind the Christian faith, a humble, peasant carpenter. Often these small churches were kept open by congregational members, and tended lovingly as a centre of village life. But as we moved centuries the churches became more grandiose and spectacular, until I feel Jesus and his message was left behind.
So let’s start with the cathedral at the end of the Camino. While this time we did a section between Astorga and Sarria, and so did not walk into Santiago, we still went to the cathedral when we got into town. And it is still a wonderful experience. As pilgrims having walked some of the Camino, and it doesn’t matter to anyone how much and just how, whether walking, bike riding or even riding a horse, the pilgrims service is very meaningful, as the names of the countries from where we have all come are read out. Of course as Australia starts with an A we were read first, but there were so many people there from all over the world. The service is spoken in many of the main languages and it is surprisingly moving considering that they still allow tourists to roams around during it. We were hoping to see the large botafumeiro or incense burner swing, but these days they only do it on festival days, or if someone pays!
But the cathedral is very grand, and a great deal of gold and glitter can be found not only in the main alter but also in the side chapels. It seems to contrast sharply with the dusty, dirty pilgrims, many who go straight to the cathedral to see St James and touch the statue
Gold and glitter seemed to be the order of the day in churches, monasteries and cathedrals, particularly from the 15-16th century onwards. Churches became more ornate, more elaborate as we went along, until we saw the ultimate. The Church of St Francis in Porto! A church with so much gold and glitter it was breathtaking and sickening all at once. It was seen as so precious we couldn’t take photos, but every conceivable surface was covered. I am not sure about St Frances but I think Jesus would be horrified. Maybe that’s why it does not operate any services any more.
Then an example of this contrast between a church building and the message of Jesus came to us by surprise as we drove down the coast of Portugal to Lisbon. We stopped in Tomar, a lovely town, which also had an incredible Knights Templar Convento de Cristo or monastery. Within the monastery we found an amazing 16 sided church, an imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Really an amazing church which we admired greatly, until we looked a bit closer. It had in the middle a circular structure made with high columns, with various images within it. Jesus was there, on the cross, which was wooden, simple and profound, but surrounding him were representatives of the church fathers, dressed in gold and fine clothes.
What! They were surrounded by glitter, Jesus by dust. A striking contrast. Even taking into account the Knights Templar were not the most favoured by the King or Pope and disappeared after the 13 century. But even they seemed to miss the point.
Somehow one just had to almost laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Somehow the idea that Jesus’s message turns things upside down, that the poor will inherit the earth, that we should love our enemies, that we should forgive those that wrong us, that we should be inclusive and hospitable and generous, and that we should not seek the worlds power, but the power that comes through love, seems to have gone a bit haywire.
As the ages went by, it seems that many churches and cathedrals became the home of all the power, both monetary and intellectual and social. Not to say they aren’t beautiful, they are, and the books they lovingly recreated are amazing, but again somehow the message seems to have become muddied. It’s as though Jesus is being worshipped with the very material he despised in life!
So we head to Lisbon, and although I still love going into churches and cathedrals, my heart is not quite in it anymore. Particularly when at every door to every cathedral there is a beggar or two or three. Somehow it seemed even more absurd.
But then it was Matt’s turn to take me to something I had not thought about going to see. A religious thing, rather than a pub (just kidding!). And we were both blown away by it. I am talking about the Christo Rei, a statue of Christ, which is found on a hill over the river in a place called Cacilhas. A bit like the statue in Rio.
The statue is named Christ the King, or Christo Rei, overlooks Lisbon and was erected as a gift to the city and to all of Portugal after WW2 which Portugal survived, even though they did not enter the war. While normally the title, Christ the King, raises the idea of a king who will defeat his enemies with power and might, this has a different message. It is an image of peace, and the statue itself while absolutely amazing is not the whole picture. Artists have created images of Jesus’s life around the base of the statue and in a chapel below. The chapel itself celebrates and calls for love and peace among all nations, and is a place for quiet reflection and meditation, as well as a place of faith. No gold and glitter here! The images on the walls were beautiful as was the simple design.
Somehow both the statue and the chapel and the images captured something for both of us, that none of the cathedrals had. And it was very profound. For me it captured the call from Jesus to join the revolution. The revolution of love. For no matter the time in history somehow Jesus’s message still seems to speak to people and transform them in ways that are mysterious and amazing. As the sign said, in many different languages, God is love, and without love we are nothing.
Or the words of Pope John Paul, which are outside,
“How wonderful is this king who renounces all signs of power over the instruments of domination and wishes only to reign with the power of truth and love.”
While we can admire our traditions and history, it seems to me that this is what we need to remember when we are working out how to live our lives.
Well we are almost at an end of our second instalment of the Camino. We are currently in Samos and due to walk to Sarria tomorrow, to end 8 days of walking. We have loved the scenery and the people and the time out, but have not really loved the heat, or a persistent blister that I have had.
So the question was, what to write about as the last blog from the Camino. I have many more to write for this trip, but I wanted one more reflection about the walking.
It came to me the other day. As we were leaving La Herrerias, a lovely small village and heading for our big climb for the day, 8 kms almost straight up, we came across a little tree and sign. The sign asked us to write down on paper “what are your dreams” and to pin them to the tree. Of course there were heaps of messages, folded and pegged or tied to the tree, as the Camino lends itself to these sorts of thoughts.
So I wrote something, meaningful to me and placed it on the tree with the others. I felt good writing it down, not a huge dream, but one that was achievable (well I think so) and which would make my life better and more meaningful.
It got me thinking. Dreams, we all have dreams, no matter what age.
The Camino this time has been a little different. We have meet many people travelling the Camino alone, and who are much older than us. It has been amazing really to see the number of older women and men, well into their 60s and 70s, someone was even 79, trudging along with their backpacks and their walking sticks, relishing the comradery and the reflection of the walk. It was amazing to watch how they approached each day, particularly when we had the 8 km climb up to O Cebreiro, which was very difficult even for us 50 somethings. There they were, slowly ascending the path, one foot in front of the other until they reached the top. Determined, and methodical in their desire to get there.
These were women and men, walking sometimes their second or third time, embracing the hardship and also the beauty of the way.
When we talk of dreams we often think they are only for the young. That the young must have dreams and visions for the future, but older people, well, what would they have dreams about? Aren’t they well, old!
Yet the Camino tells a different story. There have been our German friends, Herbert and Marie, a retired couple who have walked the Camino twice and plan to come back, an older lady from Switzerland, again a third timer who now plans to bring her granddaughter with her next time, a couple of women over 70 from Holland who had walked from Amsterdam, and planned to go all the way to Santiago, carrying an amazingly small amount of clothes on their back. The older Korean man who we passed and then passed again as we, like little jack rabbits, had a rest and then fired up to continue while he just kept on going up the slope. Or the American, covered in sweat, and carrying the most enormous rucksack, who astounded us with his persistence.
All represent something pretty special. They reinforce the idea that we can have dreams and visions for the future at any age and at any stage in our lives.
The Camino says, just start walking, and the journey will begin, and in that journey we may begin to know ourselves better, and find ourselves reaching for new and challenging ways of being in the world, ways we never thought of. We are never too old to live out our dreams if we have the courage, and by living them out we might even change and grow.
You may not walk the Camino, and that’s okay. But dreams are not confined to people under 50! Dreams and the Camino are for any age, young or old.
A lesson I am going to try to remember as I approach 60!
The Camino is not just another walk, certainly not for me, it is an experience like no other, even in 40 degree heat! it is a walk that constantly surprises me, and when I least expect it.
Let me share some of these surprises with you, they may strike a chord, reminding you as it does me that life is full of mystery and joy, if we are open to it.
So here we are after a few days on the Camino. And it has been hot, really, really hot. As most Spanish would tell you, it is very unseasonal, in fact so surprising that they continually want to talk about the weather. Which in itself is very unusual. We have been baking in the mid-day sun, but in response the locals have been particularly friendly, looking concerned about our welfare, and even offering water. Perhaps they are thinking they might lose a peregrino (walker) or two doing the heatwave!
The walk has taken us over the highest point of the Camino and through some gorgeous scenery. At 1500 feet, it beats the path through the Pyrenees which starts the Camino, again a surprising fact. It reminds me so much of some parts of the Cape to Cape walk in Western Australia, with its rock climbing and bush.
While the walking has been quite difficult and doesn’t allow for too much reflection, in case one falls, we surprisingly came across a labyrinth made out of stone, near one of the descents. Incredible! A small labyrinth, only 3 circles, but enough to take a break and a breather and gather our thoughts for the day. Out in the middle of nowhere, as this was one of the most isolated parts of the Camino, we had a little gift left for us! Makes me realise, if someone can make a labyrinth here, we can make one at Wembley Downs Uniting Church!
The section we are doing however does have one of the most important landmarks for people to reflect at, the Cruz de Hierro or Iron Cross, which seems to date from the 11th century. When people get to the cross they place pebbles at its base to remember loved ones, or to signify a change in their life, or to leave something behind. Either way there is a mound of pebbles now around the cross. It is a hugely significant for people on the walk. I knew about the cross, and was looking forward to seeing it and perhaps have a quiet and sacred moment there. But my imagination did not live up to reality.
It in fact was more like a carnival. The cross itself is very near the road, and nothing like I imaged, perhaps I have been too influenced by a movie! Anyway when we reached it there were a lot of people milling about, taking photos, and generally having a party. While we also took some photos and placed some stones, to remember our mums, and for our friends Rose, Rod and Ingrid who are fighting ill health, a work colleague, Preetha, who recently had a serious accident, and a beautiful family from church who has just lost their son and brother, it seemed to be just a bit crazy. It certainly wasn’t what I expected. I have to say I was a bit disappointed with my quiet reflective moment.
As we trudged off, a surprising thought came to me. All moments are sacred, life is sacred and just because I couldn’t do it “the right way” at the iron cross wasn’t really an issue! I still love and care for my friends and family and I still miss my mum.
A bit further down the track we came across a smaller cross, with a mound of pebbles at its base. And suddenly the sacred moment I was looking for at the iron cross revealed itself. There was no one else around, and in this quiet spot, I placed some pebbles, and said a prayer. It wasn’t a great big cross, or a tall pole, or a significant landmark on the way, it was a just a place to reflect and think and send some love.
Bit like the labyrinth, it was an unexpected beautiful gift that someone had left. But these gifts are everywhere, if we have eyes to see.
But the time so far on the Camino has not just been about the scenery or the crosses.
While we have been spoilt with the mountains and forests, we have also been through some beautiful tiny villages, and have meet some wonderful people. People and places who have been surprises in themselves. More unexpected surprises!
After reaching the highest point, we headed for a town call El Acebo. It is quite small, but has 2 Albergues (small hostel) with the same name. What! Anyway as we were getting hotter and more exhausted, we kept seeing advertisements for this new Albergue, with fantastic facilities, including a swimming pool! Ah bliss we thought when it was so hot and there was no shade and the path down was quite treacherous!
Unfortunately, when we entered the town we realised that our Albergue was not the new one, but the older one, and with no swimming pool!! Our disappointment was palpable. Particularly when our bags weren’t there, as they had gone to the other one!!!
We gritted our teeth and made the most of it, but what is quite surprising, is that the Albergue turned out to be comfortable, airy, with very friendly staff, and we met there some lovely people. Peggy from Holland, walking on her own, as many people seem to be doing on this part of the Camino, and Marie and Herbert, an older couple from Germany. So it was the right place to be, even without the pool!
We all had dinner together, well more than together, because as Marie and Herbert waited too long to order that the kitchen closed, they shared ours, a surprise, since I had half eaten mine. As they say sharing is caring. Herbert and Marie did not look like people who would walk the Camino, let alone having been here before, so I quickly have learnt that on the Camino anything is possible. In fact, that is what I also love about our fellow walkers, people can be walking the whole thing, a section, can be carrying all their possessions, or just a day pack, and can speak Spanish or some terrible version of it, like us. It doesn’t matter, we are all people on the way!
We subsequently meet up with Maria and Herbert by chance in Ponferrada, at the town’s Knights Templar castle, then at a beautiful outdoor bar after seeing the castle, and then again the next morning at breakfast which was a complete surprise. We did not know they were also staying at our accommodation. Ah the mystery of the Camino!
There have been other surprises, the fact that I came to the walk having had achilles problems with my left leg for months, but since being here, while I have had blisters and sore feet, my achilles is perfect!
Or the fact that I carried a rain jacket, jumper and poncho for the potential change in the weather for 3 days, until I realised there isn’t going to be a change! That wasn’t a surprise, just stupidity!
So the Camino, even the second time seems to have captured my heart and continues to teach me some valuable lessons. Which I hope to remember when I get back. Perhaps I need to come every few years!!!
From our new friends, who were surpising in their ability to walk such long distances, and to eat my left over food, to our wonderful little Albergue to the weather, to the cross, to the labyrinth, sometimes things are not what they seem. Sometimes life can be much more than our expectations imagine it to be. We need to be open to people and to places, for all can teach us. There is no perfect cross, no one sacred place, no perfect peregrine or perfect way to walk the Camino, no perfect Albergue, and no ideal way to live life. We are all working it out as we go along.
So as we move further on the Camino, we realise how open it makes us. Open to those walking with us and open to be surprised.
For sometimes things are not what they seem.
I have a confession to make! I am taking a break from reviewing books, to write some blogs while I am away, 4 weeks in Spain and Portugal with my lovely husband, Matt.
So let’s get started.
After a few days in Madrid, we have now embarked on another section of the Camino de Santiago, a famous walk in Spain that dates back to the 10th century. The pilgrims, mainly monks in those days, walked from all over Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela where the bones of St James are believed to lie. The walk is called the Way of St James because of this. It is now a very popular walk that many people do, not just monks or Catholics, to take time out, to reflect on their lives and its direction, reflect on their faith, or just to take on the challenge of doing a walk that is about 800 kms long. The most traditional way is from a town in France, St Jean Pied-de-Port across northern Spain to Santiago although there are paths through Portugal and southern Spain.
Two years ago we did the final section of the French way, common for those only doing a little bit. We went from Sarria to Santiago over 6 days, and covered 114 kms. It was a wonderful but challenging experience, during which we met some incredible people, not to mention donkeys and dogs. We also found it was a very spiritual and reflective time for both of us. It revealed how community can be formed so quickly, how the most ordinary things reveals some deep truths about life, and how taking time out to challenge oneself is amazingly life giving.
So how do we top that this time!
Well we don’t. This time we are going from Astorga instead, and we are to end 8 days and 140 kms later in Sarria, where we started last time.
Today was the first day. Was it the same, no, the people were different, quite a lot were older than us, and there were fewer of them. In their place were a lot of cyclists, and even some horse riders. The scenery was different, we could see some hills in the distance, and as we headed towards them we entered a forested area. There were less towns, only a few very small villages that were beautiful and very old. In most of the bell towers we saw stork nests, which were enormous. It was quieter, hotter, and more challenging, as we are older and probably not as fit as last time.
And we are different! In the two years since we were here last time, we have lost my mum, who died last year, my uncle who died this year, we have friends with serious illnesses, but we also have had the joy of weddings and birthdays, holidays and time spent together with those we love.
I reflect back two years and my life as a pastor has become more layered and my faith deeper and more multi-dimensional. Part of that change has come from the walk that we did back then. While I have always believed the spirit of God is found in all places and all people, in small and not so small acts of love and kindness it was a revelation how the mediative aspects of walking revealed that spirit to me more profoundly.
I started an ongoing dialogue with quiet time, with Celtic spirituality and with the Taize style of service (an ecumenical service using repetitive music and lots of candles). I even want to build a labyrinth at the church. Not bad for an anatomist!
So I came home a changed person, although I occasionally lose that person when the busyness of life takes hold and doing dominates everything.
But I know that I have grown, and have changed. I understand now there are two sides to the faith coin, and life coin, a doing side and a being side, and both need to be fed.
So the path this time cannot be the same. How can it be?
Because I am not the same!
So as I walked today, and took in my surroundings, and the new people we were greeting, with Hola, and Buen Camino. I relished this fact.
The path is never the same.
It is different, it is new, it is exciting and we are so fortunate to be able to walk another small part of it again.
I have been wanting to write a blog about friendship for some time. In fact since I read the book, “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara. What a book, what a story!
So here goes…..
We travel through life, if we are lucky, with a group of people who journey with us. If we are really lucky some of these people start the journey when we are young, and hang around until the end, whenever that is, 70, 80 or earlier if circumstances dictate that.
These friends, the old friends, seem to hang around regardless of the ups and downs of life, the joys and sorrows that befall us, and remind us of our younger selves, and the dreams we may have had, some fulfilled others not. As someone said to me recently, friendship is not just about the good times, but just the times, some good some not so good. But hopefully all shared.
I have been very fortunate to have had these types of friends, developed during my University days when I was known as KD, and had lots of ideas about what I was going to do, save the world, become a famous scientistic, run a marathon, or just organise a party. I had so many good ideas, of which some remained just that, an idea, that I was christened “Gunna Dutton”. Funnily enough that doesn’t seem so bad now, and when some of my close friends call me KD, it brings a smile to my face. KD, who was that, oh yes, I remember now…
I am lucky to have one friend I have known from school, when we used to eat our lunch outside and dream about going to the beach. When we get together it is like we are 20 again! And others I inherited when my husband’s good friends became mine.
Commitment and loyalty are words bandied around but require an inner strength, for when the going gets rough and it does for most people, it is the people who remain who end up being the greatest friends, regardless of when they appear in our lives. I recently caught up with my cousin, well sort of cousin in Broome, and spent a day enjoying his company. I haven’t seen much of him these past years, but we have known each other since we were kids, as his mum and my mum were best friends. Shirley, my mum, and Gwen knew each other from the age of 10 when they lived across the road from one another. Now theirs was a friendship which had its ups and downs, but when the downs got more than the ups, my cousin was clear in letting me know my mum showed loyalty and courage. When Gwen got dementia, and was very difficult to deal with, mum was the constant in her life. Even though Gwen rang mum at all hours of the day and night, and often was so confused that she though mum had suddenly got a fella, as the answering machine voice was male, mum was there for her.
So friendship is such a vital part of who we are as humans, we need friends to love us, and for us to love. To share with, cry with, laugh with, be honest with and sometimes to forgive, for forgiveness is part of the journey. And hopefully we are better, more complete people with it.
So let me return to the book for in the book we see a most beautiful friendship and how that friendship along with others can be enough for someone to form” a little life” with it, after the most horrendous of childhoods.
The story is about four young men from the same college, their relationship to one another and ultimately to one of them in particular, Jude. Jude has suffered terribly, but how and why is not known by the reader or by the other characters till quite a long way into the book. Initially the young men move to NYC, and we follow them as they work their way through life, full of career ups and downs, relationships and marriage. But the story at its heart is about the nature of friendship and how it can transmit love and forgiveness, compassion and tolerance. How it can find the very best of us if we let it, becoming a platform that allows us, all of us, to participate in the world. Even with someone like Jude, who was so damaged he was unable to conceive that he is worthy of such friendship.
But this minimises the book, which has so much depth to it. For Jude is not just racked by mental demons, cutting himself literally to survive the memories and flashbacks, but physical ones as well. He suffers, but so does his friends, who for most of the book do not understand the depth of his grief and his anguish, but love him anyway. Along the way there are standouts, people who leave their mark on him in ways that seem incredible. Willem, his best friend, Andy, his doctor, although that seems too small a title and Harold and Julia, who ultimately adopt him. Who accept the unknowns of Jude, are with him as he deals with his demons but also share with him his hard won joys.
There are so many sections of the book which are so beautifully written, which speak to us about our lives together. In the end Jude can be seen as both a tortured soul but also the light by which the others are better people by having known and loved him. We are the better for those we travel with. As Willem discovered “The person he loved was sick, and would always be sick, and his responsibility was not to make him better, but to make him less sick.”
Or when Willem realised his was not a rescue mission, but an extension of their friendship, in which he had saved Jude and just as often Jude had saved him.
I remember one passage that will always stick in my mind.
All the boys were visiting Harold and Julia’s place in the country for the first time. They were to have the first of many Thanksgiving dinners with one another. The evening had begun and there were drinks and talking and laughing. Jude was quietly sitting in the corner. Not feeling isolated and alone, but instead peaceful and happy. He can see all the people he loved in one room getting to know one another. Starting a relationship with each other that would strengthen them all in the coming years. Friendship was not a competition to Jude, he was unable to complete on so many levels. Rather it was the love shared between them that counted the most. “He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved.”
The book is not for the faint hearted. Jude is a very damaged, although brilliant person, and the hidden secrets when revealed are confronting. Yet when he does reveal them it is to the person who in the end loved him the most. But that’s the other thing about friendship, it should not require both parties to somehow to be on equal terms. I know that seems strange, but love can also be accepting that the other person cannot give all of themselves to the relationship, and what is offered is offered in love. Jude would know everything about his friends, but they knew very little about him. And that seemed okay. Maybe we ask too much of the people we travel with, that we should behave the same way, share our stories in the same way, look the same way, think the same way, and even deal with our friendships in the same way. I often complain that one of my friends doesn’t ring me enough, or ask me enough questions!!!
We are linked by time spent, shared experiences, both good and bad, a life lived with one another. This should be enough. Is enough.
So as I enter my 57th year (how is that possible!), I am grateful for those that have hung around, who still laugh at my pathetic jokes, and who I know will be there through the continuing joys and sorrows of life. As Willem reflects in the book, “Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”
In a world in which anxiety rules, when the dreams of riches, and prestige and an adventure filled life is reduced to the normalcy of day to day living, and where our social media gives us thousands of online friends, but no connections, true friendship, lasting friendship is the light of love which saves us.
While I don’t want to give the ending away, it is clear that Jude’s life has been a struggle, and the struggle to continue to live with the pain is incredibly challenging. Yet in this struggle, with friends, he discovers his own meaning in life, even if he can’t really believe he deserves it.
Lets’ hear him…..
“And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile he had always wondered why he, why so many others went on living at all. …
He had known ever since the hospital that it was impossible to convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others. That rare selflessness had been something he could be proud of after all. He hadn’t understood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had done it. Eventually he had learned how to rediscover contentment, joy even.”
“I know my life’s meaningful because” – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ” because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
The ending is just as beautiful as the beginning. A life of friendship, a life of love, that could overcome the most terrible of starts. A little life. Maybe that’s what we all will be blessed to have, a little life, travelling with those who love and know us. If we are lucky.
Let me end with a passage that has Willem talking to Jude late at night. Theirs was a relationship for the ages.
“Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?
And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.”
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.”
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore.” “You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way.”
“You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.”
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.”
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
A love between friends, in some ways the greatest love, according to CS Lewis.
I leave you with a song by Simon and Garfunkel, called “old Friends”.