Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Bride

We all know her story, but have we wondered how she felt on that wedding day?
She wasn’t brave enough to this, even though her father had ordered it, and there was no escape. Even her sister seemed resigned to the plan, or more likely she had such certainty of her power over her betrothed that, once assured that it would only be a short delay, she saw the extra wait as nothing important. No one except herself seemed to think there was anything wrong with it.

She rehearsed her father’s arguments in her head: the custom of their people to marry an older daughter before a younger, the desirability of getting her a husband (and who else would ever want her, he added with thoughtless cruelty), the advantage of getting this restless young man to stay around longer (“keeping the family together”, he called it), and “how nice” it would be that she and her sister would always be together (thus proving he didn’t know his own daughters at all). She knew better. They were all just excuses, a smokescreen of rationalisations to cover the truth of his blind greed – why settle for seven years unpaid labour from such a productive young man as the bride price for one daughter, when, by throwing another superfluous daughter into the bargain, he could get double the return? Ironic, really, that, in the end, she should be worth exactly the same amount to her father as her cherished younger sister? But then, of course, this was to be achieved by pretending, for just one night, that she was her sister.

A girl was supposed to be radiant on her wedding day, but she couldn’t stop crying. Not that it mattered, for the sake of the deception it was necessary that she wear a thick veil, so there was no point in painting her face. No point in doing anything except passively stand, sit, go through the motions as instructed, and keep the poor man totally fooled. And .. afterwards? No one could give her any help there, except that they had promised the room would be dark (to preserve her maiden modesty) and, if she never spoke above a whisper, he would not be able to tell her voice from her sister’s. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d ever been able to spend much time with either of them anyway. For seven years they’d been sent off to the women’s quarters most of the time when he was in camp, only leading an unsecluded life when he was with the flocks and herds (which was most of the time.)

It was hard to always be the unwanted one. She had been taught to believe in the God of her family, but she wondered – and kept her wonderings to herself. Family religion was decided by men, not women. But why would God create her with a blemish that would always make her ugly in everyone’s eyes? She felt a whisper, deep inside, which seemed to say, “Not everyone ..”

She savoured the thought, wonderingly. Who had ever wanted her? Her mother, perhaps? But she could barely remember her mother. “I knew you long before your mother did. I shaped you into being inside her body.”

There was only one answer to that, and she found herself crying again for a very different reason. Her shoulders heaved with emotion, and her sister, Rachel, glared at her. Perhaps she wasn’t so indifferent after all? But the whisper in her heart hadn’t finished yet. “You will be the mother of mighty sons, and it will be through one of your sons that the promise will continue.”

It didn’t seem enough, not when every breath of her being shouted out for a father who cared and a husband who would love her. But it was something, a foothold to cling to when her world was crashing down in pain. And perhaps there would come a day, when her sons were grown men, when her husband had grown older, when this little fragment of hope could grow to be her peace ..

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Beginning and End

She needed something to do. Not fuss over the dresses, or bother the bridesmaids. That was silly, and no help to anyone. The last thing she wanted to be was “that” kind of mother. Besides, it was her daughter’s day, not hers, and she had always despised parents who had to grab their children’s limelight. “She must increase, and I must decrease,” she murmured to herself. It was a misapplication of scripture of course, but the principle was still sound. And if ever there was a time when it was appropriate, surely it was one’s daughter’s wedding day?

But it hurt. Things had been hard for almost as long as she could remember, but the last year had left her wrestling with more emotions than she knew how to name, let alone categorise. Her marriage had always been strained: good on the outside, depleted and barren within, but all those straitjacketed emotions had been thrown into turmoil by her husband’s sudden death, and the sordid revelations which had followed. She had coped silently, alternating grief and denial while the numbing months flowed past. Looking back, it was her responsibilities to others that had helped keep her sane while she dealt with these things. And especially her responsibilities to Jessa, her beautiful daughter, her only child. She suspected that her husband had always been a little jealous of the bond between mother and daughter, and a little resentful that she had “given up” after several miscarriages and one heartbreaking still birth, and never produced the expected son. But that was his loss, to have a lovely daughter and never quite see her value.

And today it was Jessa’s turn to become a wife, to turn towards a young man, starry-eyed, and give him her heart’s first allegiance. Resolutely she swallowed her own pain, the terrible sense of loss that came with letting go, and tried to consider her daughter’s welfare. Once she, too, had been just such a starry-eyed young bride, but she knew now that her bridegroom had never been what she dreamed. It had not been the worst possible life, but it had been so much less than it could have been. In the end, she acknowledged now, with the cold hindsight that comes after grief, so much of it had built on a lie, a lie she had chosen to go on believing because the alternative had been unbearable.

What if Jessa ..? but no, that way lay destruction. She wanted to protect her little girl with every fierce atom of herself but then, her own motives were suspect, since she also wanted Jessa for herself. Besides, there was absolutely no reason to doubt the character of Jessa’s bridegroom. It was time to let go, to let her little girl move forward into life, to hold out her own empty hands and let God fill them with whatever came next. In a moment of clarity she suddenly saw that real love is always an act of faith, an act of deliberately choosing not to cling and grasp, but to give, to let go, and to wait. She was ready now, ready to end what had been, and begin a new chapter of life. There would still be love.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Here all the mighty palaces of kings,
And all the garnered splendour of our state,
Waver and burn against a darkling sky,
Seared by that wind which from the desert springs.

We, who would trumpet immortality
And own the pride of all our hands have wrought,
Must bow before the words, “This, too, shall pass,”
And own our awful insufficiency.

Here, to stand still within the screaming void,
Where our desires play out a thousand notes,
Shredding the lies of our imagined selves,
Letting their neat erections be destroyed.

Here, to admit the shadow: dark desire
Claws at our minds, but does so from within.
We are, ourselves, the empty promises,
We are the ones who lit our own strange fire.

We are the ones who mouth of penitence
As an opinion reached. We never kneel
On the bare stones in the past-midnight hour,
Flaming to ash in self-grief’s turbulence.

We are the dead unless Life comes in grace,
Comes with the burning coal, the heart aflame,
Shatters us with the nakedness of love,
Bound to Himself in cruciform embrace.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Spring didn’t want to come that year. How could she bring joy, hope, renewal, to such desolation. These fields had been fields of life, fertile, rich with crops, green and glad in the sun and rain; now they were fields of death. Even her tears wouldn’t help, there had been rain enough already here to flood this world with misery: rain of water to turn it all to sickening, stinking mud; rain of bullets and rain of poison to fill that mud with death and despair. It was the grim antithesis of everything Spring was.

There was no love, there was no tenderness, there were no seeds of life left to be kissed awake by the warmth of gentle rain. There was only endless, frozen, bitter grey from one horizon to another, and little men in foetid trenches dancing clumsily in their chorus-lines of mutual destruction. Spring knew how to bring returning life to the sleeping kingdom of Winter, but what could she do here? This was no sleep, this was hell awakened and walking on the fair green earth, poisoning the world to ruin with every step of its polished military boots. Despair, terror and hatred had set up their camps in this place, and senseless brutality was the commanding officer. Men, reduced from the dreams of their golden youth to being herded around with less value than cattle in an abattoir, milled around in regimented madness while their living flesh rotted on their bones and their actions were reduced to mere survival. But even survival was countermanded here; death lay before them at a superior officer’s order, death lay behind them, from their own, if they should panic, break ranks and flee. The soul itself became a casualty when the choking gas clouds rolled across, and few could maintain their honour in such a terrible place.

Spring watched in silent horror. What could she do to bring hope to such a place? What action of hers could bring any promise of love and loveliness where these men – mere boys, so many of them – were losing their lives or their humanity day after day in endless greyness? How could she even whisper of resurrection beside the maddening thunder of the guns? Yet come she must, by eternal decree one season must follow another, each in its turn. Yet this was no time or place for baby birds or skipping lambs.

Then, while, in spite of herself, her tears coursed down as the thawing rain, she saw, in this terrible grey-brown twilight, a tiny flash of scarlet, a scarlet that was not the blood of man. It was a flower with wide, paper-thin petals, vibrantly, shockingly red – a poppy!

And then she knew what was needed. She had no power to stop hate and destruction, they came from the pit of hell through the heart of man. But as she laboured to bring new life and beauty into the world, she could nurture, not only a symbol of hope, but a symbol of remembrance, red as the blood so wastefully spilt on this ugly, churned up ground. One day the fields of Flanders would be covered with scarlet poppies, and they would encourage men to try another way.

Monday, February 08, 2010


The challenge: a piece of writing called Rediscovery:

She had lost the music. It used to pulse through her like the rhythms of her own blood, but now there was only silence, or a dreadful, jumbled cacophony of sound. She was not sure which was worse. The unmusical noise lacerated her, until she felt like her very spirit was bleeding, the silence froze her with the grief of unimaginable loss. Either way, there was no song, no beauty, no meaning. She didn’t even know how she had lost it; she only knew that it had gone. And, because she didn’t know how it was lost, she didn’t know how it could be regained.

For a long time she grieved, and sometimes screamed with her frustration, and then heard those feelings mirrored back to her in silence and sound. Something would have to change. Otherwise she would die, from the long, slow starvation of her spirit.

So she began to look at what she could change, and started to realise how many things in her life were things she didn’t actually like, or else things she did for no better reason than because she was afraid. And because she was afraid, she started with small changes. She went to bed when she was tired and got up in the morning when she woke up, throwing out the alarm clock. She stopped listening to the advertisements; after a few months she didn’t listen to the radio at all. She stopped going to late night parties with people she didn’t even like, drinking things that tasted foul, and wearing clothes that were too revealing just because she thought it was expected of her. She went walking in the rain, even though her mother had always told it wasn’t sensible. She grew a flower in a pot on the windowsill, just because it was lovely, and served no other “useful” purpose except to manifest loveliness. She grew out her hair, she dared to wear pretty colours, she started re-reading her favourite childhood books: Winne-the-Pooh, Narnia, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Little Prince. She impulsively gave money to charity. She turned upside-down beetles up the right way and left crumbs on her windowsill for the sparrows.

And one Sunday, just on impulse, she went to church. It wasn’t a “proper”, theologically correct church like her parents used to take her to, it wasn’t large, didn’t have a band, and obviously didn’t have much money, either. There was no car park, and only one minister’s name on the dingy noticeboard. There were a dozen elderly people, a couple of young women with toddlers in their arms, and a woman with no hair, probably battling cancer. The minister was an old man, with a gentle voice. He spoke without a microphone, and she had to concentrate to hear him. He talked about the love of God as if it was something real, something you could actually experience. And then one of the old ladies got up, stood at the front, and, in a rather quavery voice, began to sing:

“Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling ... come home .. you who are weary come home ..”

She was crying, and as the tears washed down her face she realised that the something inside her had changed. It was the music, soft and low, but clear and absolute. And this time there were words to it: “Because I am loved forever, I can love.”