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Archive for January, 2008

Holy Innocents and the Environment

January 2008

About ten days before Christmas, I led an afternoon retreat here at Heart’s Rest for 7 women. We were a varied lot, with probably 40 years difference in age from youngest to oldest: some church-going-all-one’s-life folks and others totally un-churched and proud of it. The retreat, entitled “Gifts of the Magi”, was modeled after a workshop my sister Elizabeth has been doing with friends for years. You begin by reading together the birth stories in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Then each person randomly draws the name of one of the characters, and models them in whatever way and out of whatever material seems right. I added a few things—guided meditation, lectio divina, discernment questions, a time of feedback and group reflection—but our focus was the same: to use the Christmas story, in all of its complexity, as a lens to see the workings of the Holy in our lives.

As we prepared to select names, I remarked—almost as an afterthought—that one need not be upset by the character we pick. To draw Herod is not to be Herod, but merely to recognize that Herod has something to teach us.

Elizabeth always says that we don’t actually choose our character: we are instead chosen by them. And sometimes it’s a bit of a horrific choosing. This year, there were 10 characters’ names folded neatly in the basket. I decided not to draw one out so that I could attend fully to the group. But after all the preliminaries, after the reading, the historical and theological background, the meditation and the silence, when everyone else was diving into the work of clay and fabric and heart, I opened the folds of paper that had been left to see who had not chosen us.

Jesus. Mary. Melchior, one of the magi.

I was, indeed, a bit horrified. With Jesus and Mary and a Wise Man standing to the side, it meant that Herod had actually “selected” someone. Someone else was “drawn” by the Holy Innocents. But what is the Christmas story without the Christ Child and his mother? Where is the centre—with those nameless slaughtered infants whose bloody death served no purpose? With Herod’s hatred and fear? Caspar and Balthasar could limp along without their compatriot seer, but toward what? All those characters—Joseph, the shepherd boy, the angel, the wise men, the Innocents, Herod—seemed to be moving toward carnage rather than birth.

I have to admit that when Herod and the Holy Innocents decided to show up at my house, and Mary and Baby Jesus declined to visit, I felt afraid.

I needn’t have. All I had to do was believe what I’d been telling everyone else: that these people, whether real or archetypal, historically accurate or shrouded in myth, had something to teach us. And not just something to teach the one person who was chosen by a given character, but something to teach all of us in attendance.

After an hour or so of drawing, gluing, shaping, cutting, pondering and who knows what, we came together to show each other what we’d done and to talk. Angels and shepherd boy and Joseph and Magi and Herod and Innocents, all came to the table. Gabriel came in two forms to underline his hidden and daily presence among us. Along with him were a disabled shepherd boy, an awe-struck wise man, and a Joseph of great strength and steadiness, faint angel wings hovering behind him to guide and direct. There was kindness and generosity in these old friends from the Nativity scene, a sense of coming home to the familiar in a new way. But it was Balthasar, Herod, and the Holy Innocents who broke me open.

The wise man Balthasar was hard to see at first. A small round ball of wood tied in a piece of muslin, the ball peeking out like a blank face from a hooded cloak; under the lower part of the cloak was hidden a Chinese pin cushion, the kind that has tiny, chubby, people holding hands all around the central cushion. Simple, sad, stripped down: no glory for this wise man, but plain garb and children, hidden but always with him. When the artist spoke about what she’d learned from Balthasar, she told of his grief after he heard about the infanticide. Of his decision to go home, put away his fine clothes, set aside the power of his court position, reconsider whether he was really wise. Here was a man whose heart was broken by the unintended consequences of his life. Here was someone differing in race and class and gender and belief from the sorrowing mothers, but joined to them in grief and loss. Here was a human willing to witness to innocent suffering. Like Mary, Balthasar took the events of the time to his heart to ponder them.

Herod, the author of all this suffering, should have looked horrid and nasty. But in the cloth painting depicting him, Herod stared out at a glorious starry sky; only the back of his head showed over a sumptuous robe that dragged in a river of blood and angel feathers. The overwhelming and surprising feel of the painting was pity. When I looked at Herod, I felt compassion for this frightened and twisted human who found even the night sky dangerous. There was no doubt about the evilness of his behaviour, but somehow I found myself moved by the utter isolation and lack of joy in his life.

After these two somber characters, the Holy Innocents were a surprise. Where I’d expected to encounter suffering and grief I found instead illumination. The Innocents were drawn as a radiant circular mandala, their tightly swaddled bodies arrayed around a burst of Christ light. The outer edge of the drawing was a circle of tender hands holding these babies. Their deaths, like the death of Jesus that would come years later, were not final or worthless. The grimmest, most painful part of the story radiated joy and hope.

It was a stunning re-telling of the Christmas story that came out of our work that day. Each woman present spoke of her longing to protect the innocent; the grief that comes when we allow ourselves to see the suffering in the world; the need to think and ponder in our hearts; the way that fear warps relationships. Instead of a single child at the center, we found that our feast centred on many children; and the bright light of hope was still shining even in the midst of great and seemingly meaningless suffering.

This focus on the Holy Innocents seems particularly apt these days, at least to me. I am trying to deepen my knowledge of the issues in our environment, and have to keep struggling with my grief about the ways that we are destroying the natural world, and habitats, and cultures, and ourselves. Many of those plants and animals and communities that are being lost are lost simply because they are in the way of some human’s need or greed; think of the rubber-tappers and habitat of the Amazon. But many aren’t even in the way of “progress”; they just feel the effects of the results of our behaviour. A few illustrations that I can see out my window: the cedars on our property are suffering—and sometimes dying precipitously—from the increased heat of the summers and decreased snow of the winters. The reduced snow-pack and earlier, higher heat of summer also means that the huckleberries don’t set or ripen normally, so the bears come to town for food and end up getting shot. The glacier that I can see across the lake when the clouds lift has lost 47% of its area in the last 20 years. As it melts so quickly, the streams coming from it are flooding, but soon they will cease to exist: impacts on plants and animals and humans downstream. Then there is the clearcut up the lake whose runoff has muddied the stream, obliterated spawning grounds for the Kokanee. These are the Holy Innocents of climate change. You can probably add more examples without even trying: the victims of flooding in Uganda, habitat and homes destroyed by superfires, dead spots in the ocean where no creatures can survive.

I recently began reading a book by Roger S. Gottlieb entitled A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. He writes, in part, to contradict those who argue that religion has nothing to offer the environmental movement, that religion serves only to support the concept of human domination and hegemony.

Gottlieb’s first point about what virtually all major world religions have to offer is that religious traditions hold that one is not allowed to ignore that which is uncomfortable. Whether you call the practice an examination of conscience or a meditation on suffering, religious people are supposed to break through their comfortable denial so they can see what really is, both in their own hearts and in the world. So we see the Holy Innocents of Matthew’s gospel; so we see the innocents of the natural environment.

He notes also that the act of acknowledging complicity in corporate sin is part of a religious worldview: thus Balthasar’s realization about his unwitting part in Herod’s atrocity, as well as my recognition that printing cards to send to my mailing list and driving to Portland both use resources beyond what is my share, beyond sustainable.

In addition, Gottlieb says, a religious perspective offers an alternative worldview and philosophy—one where one’s own fears and desires don’t have to come first. This is the worldview rejected by Herod; it is still unknown whether we contemporary humans will be able to set aside our ravenous wants to set the physical world right.

And finally, he points out that religious people have the reality of hope, even in the midst of the worst suffering. David Suzuki—internationally known Canadian scientist, environmentalist, and TV host—noted in a recent program that despair and suicide are problems for many environmentalists. Overwhelmed by anguish at the ravages our civilization has poured on the natural world, facing new losses every day, unable to get the sustained and committed attention of the general public, some of those who love the land and air and water are losing hope. But religious tradition offers us the Exodus, the birth of Jesus, the Resurrection, the mandala of the Holy Innocents melting into Christ; God has promised that in God’s world—however ridiculous and impossible this may seem—all things will come together, intermingle, for good. We are invited not only to grieve for the wounds of the world, but to love and enjoy this earth, see Christ alive in cedar and salmon, moss and spring and cloud.

During the environment and spirituality retreat I’ll be holding this fall here in New Denver, I want to invite people to reflect on their grief, their call, and their prayer for the world. But most importantly, I want to invite them—and myself, and all of us—to experience the sheer joy of creation, and to remember and connect with what keeps us hoping, tempers our anguish, and allows us to stand unbowed and faithful in the face of insurmountable odds. In thanksgiving for God’s grace, in expectation of God’s power and sustaining love, I pray for us and for our world.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2008