Patience is a virtue

This post will not be as coherent as I would like it to be, but it is some collected thoughts I had from a rather interesting, and fun, session yesterday titled ‘Chicks in Chainmail: Arthurian Pedagogy for Girls’.

The first presentation was on William Byron Forbush’s female-equivalent to his fraternity The Knights of King Arthur, the Order of the Queens of Avalon. Both of these groups were created in the early 20th century to combat ‘the boy problem’ (the Boy Scouts of America was created around the same time for similar reasons). I won’t go into great detail about both groups, since you can read more on the links I provided. Basically, the Queens of Avalon was a reaction to flapperism and the ‘new woman’ of the 1920s, emphasising more the (Victorian) ideal of purity, loyalty, reverence, courtesy, etc. While the audience laughed at the descriptions of each degree in the order — pilgrim, lady, queen — and at the various ceremonies to mark advancement to each level, I was reminded of a much more modern analogue: Acteens. I remember having my own coronation ceremony when I achieved the rank of ‘Queen’ — complete with a white dress, a crown bearer, and a tiara. Unlike the Order of the Queens of Avalon, however, Acteens had five levels and Queen was the lowest: Queen, Queen with Scepter, Queen Regent, Queen Regent in Service, and Service Aide.

But where the Queens of Avalon promoted submissiveness and defined the female according to her relationship to the male, Acteens promotes education about ministry and missions, leadership, and provides opportunities for both leading others and service.

Admittedly, I did find Acteens to be boring most of the time — if only because at my church it was simply a continuation of GA’s (Girls in Action, a kind of Baptist Girl Scouts for missions), and also because I was active in so many other things in high school. However, though the coronation ceremonies are rather silly, and while it is not necessarily in vogue in feminist discourse to encourage service, I do think there is a place in (post)modern society for service — and yes, even purity and courtesy. It just depends on how we are defining these terms.

Service: What can be more beneficial to society at large than a person who cares for others enough to act for the interest of others, instead of only out of self-interest? There are hardly ever enough altruistic people in this world. A person with a ‘servant’s heart’ is far from being a weak door-mat, for it is only someone who is truly confident in their own self who can sincerely serve others for the sake of serving others.

Purity: Granted, Forbush most likely had sexual/romantic purity in mind, but that is a very narrow definition of the word. Purity means ‘not mixed or adulterated with any other substance’ or ‘without any extraneous or unnecessary elements’. Can this not also be applied to one’s actions and behaviour? Purity can be a challenge to be sincere and genuine in one’s relationships — all relationships, not just romantic ones, for any bond between human beings is a relationship of some kind.

Courtesy: My idea of ‘courtesy’ comes naturally out of the above definition of purity. Courtesy is the belief and demonstration that all persons have inherent worth and are deserving of respect. This means being polite to others. This means responding with grace when one has been wronged. This means refraining from judgement or condemnation of others, for none of us are perfect. For me personally, this idea stems from the belief that all humans are made in the image of God and that Christ died for all; therefore all people are worthy of love and respect.

Notice that in my definitions I referred to ‘person’ not ‘girl’ or ‘woman’. Service, purity, and courtesy are qualities that every person can work on, not just women. Each of these three qualities refers back to the other. It would be a very admirable person indeed who can display all three qualities all of the time. But we all know this is not the case. It is for this reason that I consider ‘virtues’ (any virtue) not as states of being but as challenges, aspirations. To be courteous to others, pure and sincere in my behaviour, and compassionate are things I hope that I aspire to, not things I think once can ‘achieve’ and tick off of a list of things to do. And I hope to aspire to display such qualities in my life because I think that is what a female should do, but because I want to be a good person.

The Alchemist

I just finished reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and although it did not change my life, I did enjoy it. Parts of it were rather slow and tedious, but overall it is a good story. The Alchemist is a short novel about an Andalusian shepherd who goes in search of his destiny, a journey that takes him far from home, across the sea and and a desert, and back again. The style is poetic, flowing smoothly as his journey twists and turns in unexpected places. Critics have raved about how life-changing the book is, and certainly it illustrates how the various places or circumstances in which we find ourselves are open to our interpretation: at one point early in his travels, all of the shepherd’s money is stolen. He realises that he has the ability to choose ‘between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in search of treasure’ (44). Two guesses on which he chooses. There are a few quotes I particularly liked, so I am posting them here. They somewhat follow the vein from yesterday’s post.

‘The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect.’ (133)

‘Every second of the search [for one’s destiny] is an encounter with God.’ (137)

I also particularly liked the anecdote about the Roman centurion, but I’m not going to type that up here. You will just have to read the book for yourself.

Reality

This is my fourth 4th of July to spend overseas. I had hoped to have a party this year until I realised that everyone I would invite would be British. Instead, I wore a red dress on a sunshiney day and subjected my British housemate to a reading of the Declaration of Independence.

In last night’s Postgrad Christian Union (PGCU) meeting, we read an excerpt on Colossians from The Art of God Incarnate by Aidan Nichols, O.P. Reviewing the first chapter of Colossians, we discussed Nichols’s quote, ‘Jesus re-interprets in a decisive fashion the whole realm of the real’ (39). I did not have much to say at the time, because I have to sit and brew on such questions. I find it interesting that though I have been classified as philosophical and logical by my friends at home, within this group of people I am probably the least so. Instead, I find myself holding the role of the mystic. Here’s why.

Jesus re-interprets in a decisive fashion the whole realm of the real. How can I describe this with words? For me, this statement is simply True. He has re-interpreted it, he continues to re-interpret my entire world. Having spent the last five or so years in and out of severe depression, I can honestly say that Christ is the Only Thing That Matters. When I have been utterly lost, blind, afraid, insane, and when I have reached my hand out in that darkness, Christ was there. I sometimes struggle with reality — this world is so transient, fleeting — that God is the most real thing to me. ‘The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever’ (Isaiah 40.8), or ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’ (Luke 21.33).

I say I am a mystic because there is but a veil between this world and the true reality. When I see the glory of the sea, the sands, the forest and the hills beyond spread out beneath the sunlight; when I see a ring around a full moon on a clear night; when I see a baby duckling paddling so hard with its wee little feet, the first response I have is awe and wonder and the whispered words, ‘Lord, you are beautiful’. Jesus re-interprets reality, because in him are the varying shades of living green, the spark of imagination that writes the perfect scene in a story, the delight in reading a Middle English poem and criticism about it, the pleasure in losing oneself in another author’s world. ‘He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Col. 1.17).

It is like in The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner, when one of the gods makes a very rare appearance to a misbehaving king:

‘Trying to believe that he hadn’t seen what he’d seen or heard what he’d heard, Costis followed, telling himself that it wasn’t true that he and the king and even the stone under their feet were nothing but tissue, transparently thin, and that for a moment, the only real thing in the universe had been there on the parapet with the king’ (346).

Jesus re-interprets the realm of the real because he alone is Reality.

There. That is probably enough maundering meandering thoughts for now.

First Sunday of Lent

This morning’s Gospel reading was from Matthew 4.
I know that Jesus’s testing in the desert is intentionally chosen for the First Sunday of Lent, and it is very fitting. But though it is one of my favourite passages, most sermons I’ve heard on it have been variations on the same theme: the first temptation is Jesus relating to physical temptation/need, the second about showing off to win authority through miracles, the third about thirst for power. This morning, however, the sermon was different.

I’ll just have to rattle off the most interesting points, because I’ve been trying to write a coherent summary and keep failing. Sometimes sermons are put on the church website, so if this one gets posted I’ll add a link later so here is the link: ‘How Jesus’ Temptations Relate to Our Own’.

  • D. suggested that the figure in the background of Jesus’s time in the desert was Moses. Moses fasted twice in the wilderness for a span of forty days and nights, each time on the behalf of the people of Israel. There is then the suggestion that Jesus did not go out into the desert for his sake only, but also for the people who would follow him.
  • The first temptation was not merely an issue of Christ experiencing physical hunger. Also at stake was the temptation to do the right thing for the wrong reason; to lose sight of priorities. Physical needs should not trump the spiritual.
  • The second temptation: almost always I have heard the test of whether Jesus would throw himself off the top of the temple to see if he would be caught by angels put in the context of winning followers by putting on a big show. ‘Think of how many people would see him, and see the angels! They’d have to believe him!’ Except that isn’t the only interpretation possible from Jesus’s response, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. It could also mean, do not put God’s love for you to the test; do not demand that he prove himself to you. Faith and love require trust; instead, let us be confident in the certainty of God’s love. It is not right for us to demand more evidence — to leap off of buildings expecting him to catch us — when he has already given us so much. (D. also went on to point out that this can be said for human relationships as well…)
  • For the third temptation, D. spoke not only of thirst for power, but also of the issue of timing. The kingdoms of this world already belonged to Christ — but not yet. His mission on earth was to the people of Israel; when he appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, then he also held the keys to the kingdoms of the Gentiles. Again, the temptation here is one of priorities: do we focus on distant problems, on grandiose goals, instead of those much closer, those at home.
  • Also, I appreciated how D. allowed for the testing of Christ to endure during the forty day period of his fasting. He suggested that it is all too easy to read the exchanges between Jesus and the devil as a repartee of scripture quotations. But Jesus hadn’t just been sitting around the desert doing nothing for forty days before the devil showed up. He was meditating with scripture, wrestling with it, probably Deuteronomy since all of his quotations came from that book. Jesus was human. It is good to have been offered the idea that he took some time between each suggestion of the devil before giving his response.

After lunch, my mother and I talked about the different churches we’ve gone to, particularly the size of the churches and how they did or did not encourage community. I made an observation, and I pose it here: What would it be like if churches didn’t let themselves grow larger than 100 or so members? If every time they reached that number, they split into two congregations, endlessly growing and dividing, like cells?

Imago Dei

I was going to post pictures from this morning’s Raisin Parade, but instead I am going to write about some things I read and thought about today. Just let me pull out my soap box. I’m short, you see, and I want all of you to hear me.

It’s interesting how reading about medieval understandings of the differences in physiology between men and women leads to reflections upon modern day evangelical Christian perceptions of men and women, and how, despite our ‘modern society’, it still echoes the past. Namely, the idea that women’s bodies are inherently sinful.

In the Middle Ages, the idea was that women were not made in the image of God, and were therefore lesser spiritually and physically than men (and, because this was the point of my reading, were more susceptible to demonic possession). The human soul, of course, was sexless and was made in the image of God (see Aquinas), but regarding human physical form, only man was imago Dei; woman, on the other hand, was made in the image of man (and, in the Aristotelian view, an imperfect or deformed image of man). Along a similar train of thought, William of Auvergne claimed that good spirits only ever took the form of men and that the most appropriate form for evil spirits was that of women. Women are associated with the demonic, evil.

The modern evangelical church might not go so far as to associate women with the demonic today (however, the modern evangelical church doesn’t really like to talk about demons at all), but there is still a troubling and unhealthy perception of women’s bodies as being inherently sinful. There exists a double-standard regarding clothing and modesty: men can go about shirtless and wear swimming trunks in the pool, but women are told to cover up ‘so as not to lead astray their brothers’ and can only wear one-pieces to the pool. Women’s bodies are objectified even in the midst of modesty; women are told to be ashamed of who and what they are, how they look, simply because their bodies happen to be female.

Equally troubling and unhealthy is the implication that men are morally weaker than women. That is one thing that has been reversed since the Middle Ages: back then, women were the more carnal and morally weak, today that is the men. Both extremes are unacceptable. Neither is wholly true.

It makes me angry that we cannot see each other as persons. Though each and every one of us is sinful by virtue of being sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we are also worthy of respect and love because we, like them, are made in the image of God. And if we have been washed by the blood of Christ — if we claim to be His own — then we are new creations, no longer bound in slavery to sin. Christians should be among those with the healthiest ideas regarding the human body; it frustrates and deeply angers me that they are not.

I am a woman. I am intelligent and tend to succeed at whatever I put my mind to. I can’t be a mountain climber or Olympic athlete or a Navy Seal, but I also have rheumatoid arthritis. I am a Christian and I read my Bible; I know that I am not inherently evil simply because I am female. My sisters aren’t either. Neither are my brothers because they are male. ‘So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ (Gen. 1.27)

Words, words, words

This morning I found an old Dove Promises wrapper in my Bible. It read, ‘Find your passion’.

My passion is words — words strung into stories, stories that tell of our lives, of our past, future, where we come from and where we are going. Stories about what we do, believe, feel, think, live, love, and how, why. Stories about who we are.

It’s no wonder my life is wrapped up in books.

Shine like stars

I spend each night in the backyard • Staring up at the stars and the moon • • Maybe this was made for me • For lying on my back in the middle of a field • Maybe that’s a selfish thought • Or maybe there’s a loving God

‘Maybe there’s a loving God’, Sara Groves

There have been a number of occasions this summer that I have walked at night when it was dark, but tonight was the first I encountered the night. It was a year ago around this time that I last went stargazing, when I went, as I did tonight, to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I went up to the field just behind my house, and was struck by the clarity of starlight. I forget how clear the sky is here, how close the sky is, that even the stars seem only an arm’s length away. There were so many stars that it took me a moment to get my bearings, and even then I couldn’t find all the constellations I usually find familiar for the abundance of points to begin my patterning. So instead I marvelled, and listened to the wind in the field and felt the crispness of the air and watched as the afterthoughts of a comet burned through the sky. Two miles away the town bell tolled midnight, and clouds pulled a blanket over the stars.

• • Maybe I was made this way • To think and to reason and to question and to pray

Perhaps I should go stargazing more often.