A Mother's Journal - Kaaren Mathias
Bright colours splash around Himachal Pradesh every day. The Kullui men perch a marigold or bright plastic bloom in their striped bright caps. Women cheer a bus in their bright matching salvar kameez suits and scarves. Monsoon finished fully earlier this month.
Three months of clinging mist, damp cloud. Frequent outbursts of heavy rain and flooded rivers. When Hari Ram invited us for chai, it was a great excuse to leave the inside of four walls. He lives perched high on a hill. His wife, in a wheelchair after an accident hasn’t left the house for three years.
As we puff up onto the verandah, we meet Phul Devi looking over the green-green valley. Beside her is a mini-loom. She weaves the colourful bands for men’s caps, and edging on shawls. Six-year-old Shanti was intrigued by the loom’s tangle of wool, knots and the wood darkened by the touch of many hands. Phul Devi is full of smiles. Over chai and a sweet rice pudding she waves over the valley and her loom: “With all this to look at and all this weaving to do – I have no time to go out of the house.”
Walking up a long hill on another Sunday afternoon, Rohan is a bag of grizzles. Tired legs, hungry and not wanting to go on a stupid walk. Village children crowd around and pull his hand to walk with them. He roughly jerks it away. A shyer girl behind peeks over with her three-day-old goat kid in her arms. Hunger, tiredness are forgotten while Rohan staggers around the crowded courtyard with the skinny, bright-eyed kid.
Another week later, we nearly fell upon the mela up in Ghyagi. On the village outskirts we met the mela cooking team - making chappattis on a huge griddle. They laughed with the fun of preparing a feast for hundreds – cauldrons of dhal and rice boiled over smoky tangy fires. Then with the bigger crowd at the village square, we waited our turn at the microphone to tell about our child health initiative – vaccinating, deworming and Vitamin A.
The Women’s Group of Hirab village queue jumped up and started their dance. Slow and shy at first – the women were dressed in the full finery of their best pattus (the colourful woollen shawl they dress in during winter). Giggling they started stepping faster. And suddenly in the whirl of nasal music, drums and dancing, I realised the colour and melas are here to brighten the monsoon, the day, this sometimes sombre grey and green valley.
On with looms, baby goats, chapattis for hundreds and dancing on a cloudy day. On with colour! On with life!
Grown-up Catholic - Sandra Winton
As I get older, and I do seem to get older at an ever-accelerating rate, I find myself thinking of my first meetings with God, religion, church. I grew up in a small town, little more than a village. In my earliest years Mass occurred once a month. In winter my mother and I would battle through the wind and rain to get to the church, while my father, who had had a row with a priest over parish money, stayed in bed. The battle with the elements was preceded by the battle of the hat as my mother fought to impose a beret on my straight, slithery hair, while I wriggled against this confinement. I remember, one particularly cold and stormy morning, her wondering aloud if I would go to Mass at all if she were not there. She knew that the seed had fallen lightly in my soul and feared I might go the way of my father.
Inside the church I relished the chance to watch adults close up and at length: Mr Toomey who served Mass and grunted his hefty farmer’s frame up off his knees when required; Mr Todd, who sat at the back and took up the collection. Then there were the women. A skinny child, I was fascinated at the way they could rest their bottoms on the seat behind while leaning their elbows on the rail in front. No amount of gymnastic endeavour could get my body to bridge this gap. Only age has achieved it. Most of all I would stare at my mother: how she would close her eyes or bury her face in her hands, outwardly quite still, while inside she was in some other place of her own, communing with an invisible confidant.
My father’s feud with the church extended to a refusal of financial support and twice a year I would share my mother’s dread of the reading of the Christmas and Easter dues. My mother was a shy woman, timid at times. Without looking I felt her beside me hold her chin up and brace her shoulders as the list was read, beginning with the biggest donations and ending with her five shillings or two and sixpence. She told me how she hated it and I was darkly outraged that anybody could do this to her.
When I was six my mother came into her own. There had been no First Holy Communion in the parish for a number of years. Children from my age to big boys almost ready for high school were gathered up and instructed after Mass. My mother and other women made a thick cushion for the altar rails so that the elderly priest could reach the children with the host. For hours, my mother and I sat in the sun cutting up rags with which to stuff it – I marveled at the strength of her hands when mine could not wield the heavy scissors through the layers of fabric. She also pulled out the unused organ and got it to work, writing to the nuns in Dunedin for the music.
On the day, she played and sang virtually solo, “How sweet to be a little child…” and “On my First Communion Day”. She was unstoppable. She even found the money for a white dress, which she paid a dressmaker to sew, not trusting herself enough. Perhaps she wanted to see that I got a taste of what she had known when she had worn a long, white dress, had her hair in ringlets and scattered rose petals from a basket in front of the Blessed Sacrament, down the long aisle of St Patrick’s Basilica with its hefty pillars and stalwart Irish saints. Years later I discovered the basket still there on the floor of her wardrobe, that mysterious place smelling of face powder and Three Flowers talc.
God and prayer were a place of refuge in her often hard life. When I made my first Communion she told me that I should love God even more than I loved my father and her. This seemed a task utterly beyond me and I prayed to rise to it some day. But how could I ever love anyone more than I loved her? Her love of me was the rock of my life and I longed for nothing so much as to see her happy.
As I grew older, I understood in more adult ways what I had sensed as a child: the absolute moral code by which she conducted her life, responding even in situations which were costly to her “because that’s what Our Lord would do”. I saw her freedom to base her decisions on her own principles even when she knew it went against what the priest would say. I learned about her capacity to forgive where it counted, even though she was by nature a woman who held the pain of hurts and insults. She was unswervingly faithful to the church and turned to it throughout her life for strength and comfort; at the same time as she was free to think beyond some of what she had been taught in it. In the end, the gospel was stronger in her than anything. She was a soft woman, gentle, sometimes disapproving of my opinions at the same time as she was fiercely loyal in her love for me.
I know that the deepest layer of my belief is based on my experience with her. How could I love God or know of God’s love if I had not known hers? Seeing her on her knees every morning and night embedded in me the roots of prayer. The sureness of her morality, grounded in love, justice and the example of Jesus still sits deep in me.
I began this article for the 100th edition of Tui Motu thinking about the people who read this magazine – adult Catholic people, or those of other faiths. I was asking myself how it is to be a ‘grown up Catholic’. And I have ended up writing about growing up Catholic.
Reflecting on this has confirmed for me that the deepest roots of adult faith, morality and religious living lie in core experiences of parental love and in what a child knows of the depth of their parents’ lives. Later experiences may build on this, modify or correct it but it is what primarily constitutes the church inside us. I believe that children watch their parents and know a great deal about them and that it is the truth of parents’ lives, more than deliberate example or instruction, that carries into the hearts of their sons and daughters.
In these days when the local church is much preoccupied with the shortage of priests, the availability of Mass, buildings, money and programmes, it may be well to remember that it is the faith inside, the faith of the home, the inner programme upon which a person’s life is lived, that counts most and builds strongest. Such faith and love can implant in children the kind of faith that can mature into adult faith and grow through changes that will make their lives inconceivably different from what we now know.
Apostle of peace
Paul Oestreicher was a child refugee from Germany, raised in New Zealand, but spent his life mostly as an Anglican priest in Britain. In this interview Paul traces the sources and fulfilment of his vocation to spread the message of peace
I arrived in Dunedin as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany at the age of seven. Within months the Second World War began. My parents and I were now ‘enemy aliens’. At school there was a game called Hunt the Hun. I was the Hun! A little girl shouted to the others: “He’s not just a German. He’s a Jew!” So, from bad to very bad.
My father taught me that the only way to deal with such ignorance was to be sorry for these kids. They just didn’t know any better. Just love them in return. They’ll learn, maybe slowly, to accept you as one of them. So, I learnt early on that what Jesus taught and how he lived makes sense. Loving our enemies is the only way to change our world for the better.
My parents joined the pacifist community of the Quakers. The Quakers were the only church in New Zealand that went out of its way to welcome German refugees. They did it corporately, not just as individuals. That left a deep impression.
At Otago University studying politics, the Student Christian Movement (SCM) became my spiritual home. I was impressed by Anglican liturgy and very much influenced by the chaplain and vicar of All Saints, Charles Harrison. Amazingly, he had both the appearance and personality (as I realised much later) of Pope John Paul II. So I became an Anglican.
When, at 18 I was called up to do military service – still compulsory at that time – I was accepted as a conscientious objector. I went on to write a Master’s thesis on the history of New Zealand’s conscientious objectors in World War 2.
My supervisor at Victoria University, Wellington, was General Kippenberger, the editor of the NZ War Histories. He was a famous soldier, and from him I learned to respect soldiers. The young pacifist and the retired General, who had lost both feet at Monte Casino, came to like each other. He was a man of tolerance and understanding.
The antinuclear movement
I returned to Germany as a postgraduate student working on the relationship between Christianity and Communism, and finished up a few year’s later ordained as an Anglican curate in London’s East End. My parish priest was Stanley Evans, a truly remarkable fighter for justice and a leader in the peace movement. I had years before as editor of Critic, the Otago University newspaper, published one of his sermons. He and I marched together in the early Aldermaston marches of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), of which I am still Vice-President.
The campaign still goes on. Britain and the United States are threatening war against Iran because of its nuclear ambitions. At the same time Britain is claiming the right not merely to retain nuclear weapons but to develop the next generation of Trident missiles. That is politically foolish and morally repugnant. The Scottish Catholic bishops, led by Cardinal O’Brien, have said so very clearly. In England the churches – all of them – have been shamefully silent.
Tragically, British political leadership seems determined to go on undeterred by what most people now think. Although the majority of people in Britain are opposed to the war in Iraq, Tony Blair will not listen. That indicates the current parlous state of British democracy.
Robin Cook, the late Foreign Secretary, resigned on the issue of the Iraq war. But there is an entrenched tradition among British politicians that the only way to retain some status as a world power is to belong to the nuclear club and to do it under an American umbrella. That mindset is political, not military.
The Church of England many years ago commissioned a report called The Church and the Bomb. It found that the continued possession of nuclear weapons was incompatible with Christian ethics and with a decent international order. I was one of the drafters of that report. In the end, in the midst of the Cold War, it was quietly shelved. Its findings are still valid now.
An alliance between the church and political power dates back to the time of the Roman Emperor, Constantine. It has a long history. Yet a prophetic strand has also been present throughout Christian history. Prophets are always an unpopular minority, swimming against the tide. I think of Daniel Berrigan, the American Jesuit poet, who was prepared to go to prison for opposition to the Vietnam War. The great Catholic sculptor, Eric Gill, was another. I feel privileged because of my background to have been able to stand in that gospel tradition.
It has often been hard to stay within the church institution, but to be in critical solidarity with both church and state is what I believe Jesus demands of his followers. This is a term I learnt from the Christians living under a Communist regime in Eastern Europe. They said: “we must remain in solidarity with our society, but we cannot accept it as it is.” That position, for me, represents the very nature of Christian witness in every society.
Becoming a Quaker
At the Anglican Synod in the ’80s Archbishop Michael Ramsay wept because his church rejected a scheme to reunite with the Methodist church. It was vetoed by a very conservative group of priests against the wish of both bishops and laity. The Archbishop said: “I now fear that Christian unity will never come through formal agreements from above. It will have to be worked out at grassroots”. It was an appeal to individual conscience.
That speech impelled me to return to my roots and join the Quakers – and yet remain an active Anglican priest. This was an act of witness that raised some eyebrows. I had the support of both the Archbishop of Canterbury and of my own bishop. Some Quakers, as I was to discover, could not get their heads around it. I can see why. Many had had bad experiences with the mainline churches.
In 1985 I was elected by the Wellington Anglican Synod to become Bishop of Wellington. But the election was too much for some of the New Zealand Anglican bishops. This radical from England was too much of a threat. My being a Quaker gave them an excuse to veto the election. It was my politics they didn’t like. Sir Paul Reeves had encouraged me to let my name go forward, but he had been made Governor General and was out of the ecclesiastical picture. So I was saved from joining the ranks of the bishops, and in hindsight I am grateful for that.
The Israel-Palestine tragedy
My Jewish roots are very important to me. The whole of Christianity has Jewish roots. Jesus was quite simply a Jewish Rabbi. Yet for 2000 years Christians have shamefully persecuted the Jewish people. Now there is once again a Jewish nation. Israel is a powerful country in the Middle East backed up by the world’s only superpower. My grief today is that Israel has become the oppressor of the Palestinian people. Israel is destroying its own soul.
It is now the only Middle Eastern nation with nuclear weapons – with the blessing of the West. That is pure tragedy. There is a significant minority of Jews who share my grief at Israel’s denial of its own prophets. In Britain I do all I can to support the organisation Jews for Justice for Palestinians. The Jewish Tikkun community plays the same role in America. Their task is to support the opposition in Israel.
These brave Jews have the courage to put up with being reviled as traitors within their own society. Much of my prayer and my emotional energy is directed to helping them, some of whom are in prison for refusing to do military service in occupied Palestine. Zionism has triumphed in Israel and has created a permanent refugee problem for millions of displaced Palestinians. This unjust occupation lies at the heart of the conflict between Islam and the Western world.
The anger of the Islamic world is concentrated on the tiny land of Palestine. It is the source of so much Islamic terrorism. Some 95 percent of Israelis are passionately convinced that only their military power can save Israel. That is an illusion. Tragically, it is the recipe for another holocaust. It will take many years for sanity to prevail: the creation of a viable Palestinian neighbouring state, tied to Israel in friendship. Nothing, sadly, points in that direction yet.
Pacifism is no easy option. It is not the obvious answer. It requires real spiritual maturity to see that violence begets violence. People have the right to defend themselves. But when people claim that right, they usually mean the right to retaliate, the right to attack others they see as a threat.
Just as the abolition of slavery was once thought impossible, so many people today believe that the abolition of war is no more than an idealistic dream. Einstein, the great physicist, recognised that – given our technological capacity to destroy – unless we abolish war, war will abolish us, all of us. That calls for a new human mindset, just what Jesus was advocating in the Sermon on the Mount. That, today, is not idealism but realism.
If the resources that go into the military-industrial complex were used to feed the hungry and to save the environment, we, as a human race, just might survive. That’s the new realism, the new peaceful revolution. Albert Schweitzer simply called it ‘reverence for life’. It’s in short supply, but Jesus challenges us to go on in faith hoping against hope for the triumph of love.
Paul Oestreicher is living in busy retirement in Brighton, Southern England