Dusk

When dusk creeps, sudden,
The guards change places
Over the hill. The trees awake and sigh.

What do these woods mutter under a slow breath of breeze
Of rot and rain, of dawn and dusk
Of time devoid of numbers

Get out – they say.
Not yours by night,
By day, you stay.

Uninvited, to take the best
and worst among us.
Now you must go.

How shy they live among themselves
Theirs is the slow power of nameless darkest green

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the Sign of the Cross

One of my first encounters with religion were the rosaries in my grandmother’s spare bedrooms. They fascinated me. They looked a bit like jewellery to me, yet I knew I was not allowed to play with them. At the bottom dangled a lonely figure, stretched out in pain. I knew His name was Jesus but I understood very little of why He had ended up there.
When I grew up, the cross became a defining symbol of my religion but I was always deeply troubled by it. As long as I did not truly focus on it, it was a comfortable, homely presence in my life, an object that carried the light and gravitas of God, of eternity, into our daily life. I wore a cross as a pendant on a necklace, but deliberately chose one without Jesus Himself. Not because I found Him awkward, but his violent death unnerved me. When I looked at a traditional crucifix in prayer or just in idleness, it scared me. How could a Man tortured and dying be the ultimate symbol of what a life-giving faith stood for? What God would demand such a price? These days, I find myself remembering both the holiness and the awkwardness I felt during these important Christian holidays. My children go to a Christian (protestant) school, because it is a good school and in walking distance of our house. They have not inherited my religious streak, like their father they are natural born agnostics.  I have always left it up to them what to believe, yet I try to acquaint them with various points of view. On Maundy Thursday we watched a popular Passion special together and my daughter said:’I do not care if it is true or not. It’s just a great story.’ I found myself agreeing, yet thought to myself, if it is true, it’s pretty horrible, pretty and horrible.
Just the other day my crucifix passed through my hand while I was cleaning. I considered the cross in a new light and wondered if the widespread adoption of the cross in Europe had anything to do with our Pagan past. Among evangelicals in this country the Ichthus symbol is more common these days as a token of their spirituality, which makes more sense to me. But the cross by itself is an almost universal symbol and by no means a Christian one.  It is found in various forms across religions, across the world. As I held the crucifix in my hand, I wondered about the hold it still had on me. Learning more about sacred space in the last few months, I have come to see the cross as a symbol of our humanity. It is a symbol of what divides us from the animals and from the natural world: the ability to create and perceive structure in the chaotic blur of reality.  It marks the elements, it signifies life, death and renewal. It is a powerful and potent sign. Then I looked outside: spring unfolds itself with vigour in my garden now. It is the living woods that speak to me now, those who make no claim on eternity and faith. They are just there, I’m here and that is all I can be certain of.  I no longer wonder about the truth. What matters most, is that I live my life honourably.

Endings

When I consider all my spirituality has brought me in the last few years, one specific lesson comes to mind: coming to terms with endings. Or rather: letting go of the concept of forever, which is actually quite a surprising turn of events. I am fairly certain my fear of endings, of the ultimate ending called death, drove me in the arms of religion in the first place.

My first brush with finality were the images on the telly of a soccer disaster in a stadium. I was five years old at the time. Even now, as I think back of those coffins with Italian flags on them, tears well in my eyes, so tangible was the unfairness, the sense of finality that emanated from the images. Yet, these were strangers. The images etched themselves in my mind, but I could still pretend death had nothing to do with me. Later, death came to our household. It lurked from behind the ever increasing boxes of medication and the oxygen tanks in the bedroom. My parents chose not to introduce us to this guest, in order to give me and my brother a happy childhood. Maybe they were still hoping he would go away. But I was aware of him all the time, and when he finally left, taking my mother with him, it made me a seeker. I knew we could not conquer death ourselves. My mother had fought him for years. She had her minor victories, but in the end, he won nonetheless. It made sense to find solace in the one religion that followed in the footsteps of One who was said to have conquered death.

I did not only seek permanence in religion, but also in my relationships with other people, which was problematic. As a teenager, you are bound to be disappointed when this is what you look for in a boyfriend. I learnt the hard way that we are always in flux, and new beginnings invariably demand an end to something else.

That was years ago. Gradually, death and I have made our peace. More people and pets in my life made the crossing. We are still not the best of friends and I doubt we ever will be. Letting go of the linear narrative of Christianity and adopting the circular outlook on life, has helped me to respect the necessity of his presence though. These days, I also find it easier to deal with little endings, little deaths if you will. Letting go of a friendship that is only a shell of what it used to be, saying goodbye, seeing a grey hair. It’s all part of the game.

Someone very dear to me talks with ease of her own death. She is in her early sixties and as hale as can be, yet the prospect of not being around forever is not particularly problematic to her. She says this is something that happens to you when you’re older. Maybe I will be as comfortable with my own end, one day. But not yet. There is still so much living to do.