Mrs Rembrandt

I originally wrote Mrs Rembrandt  for The Good Oil (thegoodoil@goodsams.org.au), the e-magazine of the Good Samaritan Sisters, in August 2016. I hope you enjoy it.  

In what one of my young grandchildren calls the olden days, but was actually 1975, my husband and I went to Europe. It was my first trip outside Australia, his second, and it a bus tour – see so many countries, in so many days, and bring back the slides to remind yourself, and others, that it actually happened.

Like the rest of the tour group I bought souvenirs- a leather handbag from Florence, a glass swan from Venice, Marks and Spencers everything in England. Then, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I met Rembrandts mother, and brought her home packaged in a cardboard tube – my souvenir of two days in Holland. Decades later she sits in solitary splendour on my bedroom wall.

I’ve always called her Mrs Rembrandt and assumed she was painted by her brilliant artist of a son. Now it appears that may not be true. Maybe she was someone else’s mother. But that doesn’t matter. Whoever painted this old lady did so with love and respect, no air brushing here. She wore her age with dignity – more than that really. Every miniscule wrinkle of her lived in skin was a story without words, captured the way anMrs Rembrandt artist paints the folds of a landscape. This elderly lady had come to terms with life’s regrets.

I wasn’t aware that the reason Mrs Rembrandt and I clicked probably went right back to my choice to leave religious life. She looked so calm, so settled, so comfortable in her own skin. It resonated with the womanliness of the aboriginal women on the Northern Territory mission stations where I taught as a young religious. They had something that I had not found in my years of living with women in religious life. As I smoothed the print into its slightly battered second-hand frame and hung it on the lounge room wall, my inner self touched into her settledness and I thought, “You and I are going to get on well together”.

Scholarly articles suggest that my Mrs Rembrandt picture was a depiction of the prophetess Hannah. After all she is reading what appears to be a Bible. My own Bible is well thumbed and I like to think that as I age I will find myself in the story of the prophetess Hannah , or is that Anna? Anna, an elderly woman and the first evangelist, proclaiming Jesus’ advent, Anna, a woman reaching into an everyday event and finding there the redemptive action of God. And Anna, a model for women’s ministry in the early Church. Like Mrs Rembrandt I find life and meaning in my Bible.

Sometimes I walk into my bedroom and turn on the table lamp and there she is, sitting so comfortably in her lamplight that I delay drawing the bedroom curtains and sit on the bed and watch her. Outside it’s dark. Her face is partly shadowed and that might be the reason I’m most aware of her during the winter months. Of course it could also be the cosiness of her fur trimmed hat and jacket, but I think it’s more than that.

Winter in Warrandyte means cold mornings, mist drifting through the green of the eucalypts and evenings that close in before 6 o’clock. That morning mist is how I sometimes catch a glimpse of who God is, of the relationship between God and me. I see, but I don’t see. Just when I begin to think that I might understand the mystery of who or what is God, it’s gone.

Mrs Rembrandt sits there in my softly lit, shadowy bedroom reading her Bible and it seems appropriate that she and I would share our God journey. I’m fleetingly reminded of that lovely poem by John of the Cross where he describes walking through the dark to meet God, when God is too close to be seen with the senses but glimpsed with our birthright of inner light, something I glimpse in Mrs Rembrandt.  It’s a wintery thought and a comforting one that I resolve to remember the next time I feel the chill of what I describe as God’s absence.

Mrs Rembrandt and I have lived together for a long time now and I’m rapidly catching up with her. Soon we’ll be two old ladies swapping stories about our children and how well, or not, they have fared!  She’s lived in seven different houses and spent a couple of years in storage as well. Sometimes she hung on the living room wall, more often in the room where I write. Wherever she hangs it’s the way the light comes in from behind her that draws my eye.

She has been a still point in my changing world.

Judith Lynch

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Time to go inside

 

Next Sunday is Mother’s Day. If you would like a Mother’s Day reflection there are three in the Tarella Spirituality archives:

Mothering Women

In Praise of Women who Mother

A Litany of Mothering

I’m marking the day by returning (unofficially) to my family name. With a book due to be published later this year it seems more appropriate to do so under my own name. So in future I’ll be signing my posts Judith Scully (and not Lynch).

Meanwhile, here in Melbourne, it’s late autumn. After a summer of meals on the veranda, we’ve moved inside, blown the dust out of the window drapes and ducted heating and looked up favourite recipes for winter soups and slow cooked casseroles.

img_1625Michael Leunig, one of our home-grown prophetic voices, describes this season as ‘time to go inside. It is time for reflection and resonance. It is time for contemplation. Let us go inside.’ Each year as winter comes closer I find myself chasing slivers of sunshiny warmth, and just sitting there – doing nothing, or that’s how it seems.

Being warm and cosy inside when outside is just the opposite has its own kind of stillness. It carries with it an invitation to stop for a while, look back over times and places that have been lost or set aside in the outdoor busyness of summer. Even though we commonly call this reflecting, the way it drifts and swirls our heads is more like day-dreaming. Years back when I was attending a weekly theology class, my attention was hugely drawn to things other than theology- such as planning my outfits for the next week or re-designing the layout of the house I was currently living in. That’s day-dreaming!

I was well into the second half of life before I had the time, the energy or the discipline to understand that reflection involved more than a scattering of information about an issue, or responding intuitively to whatever is happening .The mid-life years were a time to accept that finally I was a grownup and issues that involved choice or loss, even religion or politics, were not as simple as I once thought.

It meant that I needed to get beneath the surface of an issue or topic, to look at it from lots of different angles, to recognise too that my emotions always lurked sneakily in the background and had an influence on my responses. I learnt that reflection was not something I could do in a hurry, or in front of the TV. Deep reflection is just that. It keeps working deep inside me while I do all the everyday stuff that fills my days.

Sometimes we need to day-dream and if we are to grow in wisdom then we need to reflect often and deeply, to stop hedging our thoughts with shoulds and leave space for the maybes. That’s creating a contemplative space.

Leunig says that moving inside gives time for contemplation.  It’s a word with religious overtones and theologians in every religion have written millions of words trying to explain what contemplation is. The word itself incorporates the word ‘temple’, originally seen as a place in the sky where deities lived and the buildings humans made to link it with their own yearnings.

The closest I can come to my understanding of what contemplation seems to be, is in the wintery image of an open fire. Some evenings when it is cold enough to justify lighting the lounge room fire, I sit there in a pocket of silence doing no more than being totally present to the flames as they tumble and leap while the colours blend and change over and over again.

Then it seems to me that contemplation is the quiet space we create within ourselves when we let go of unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others and accept our personal reality, where God dwells. Wordlessly we marvel at its simplicity and rightness.

 Judith Scully

 

 

Being Eastered

Easter celebrations are behind us, the kids are back in school and Anzac Day beckons. The days are closing in earlier and evening meals on the veranda are coming to an end. Somehow the realization that Easter is a season and not just a day has been lost, overtaken, forgotten!

That’s a shame, because more than ever we need Easter. We need to be eastered.  A while back at a regular Sunday Mass, I watched a chubby little girl, no more than 16 months old, dance her way through the Our Father. The congregation sang, she held tight to her father’s hand and danced in time to the music, ending with a decided shake of her nappy clad behind. It was the season of Easter and she was a dancing alleluia.

Right through Lent, even people who rarely attend church have an increased awareness of Jesus’s message to love one another. They raise money for others in need, train for fun runs, buy hot cross buns and anticipate Easter and its celebration. There are Palm Sunday processions, Good Friday prayer gatherings in local parks, church services. Come Easter Tuesday, we pack away any lingering alleluias with the left-over Easter eggs and move on to the next thing. Celebrating Easter

Young children find alleluia a difficult word to pronounce. Most adults  find it a difficult word to live.  All those els seem to originate from the high-pitched tongue trill perfected by rejoicing women from many African and Asian countries. The liturgy of the six weeks of Easter is punctuated by alleluias, because Easter is about more than the death of Jesus and the incomprehensible, faith-battering fact of the resurrection.

The risen Jesus left a trail of joy in his appearances. The women’s words tumbled over each other, their faces glowed as they burst in on the grieving apostles. There were meals sweetened with honeycomb and the physical presence of Jesus, the comfort of an unexpected early morning barbecue on the beach, the shaft of joy that flamed in the hearts of the Emmaus couple, the constant greeting, “Peace be with you”. For six weeks Jesus eastered those who missed him the most.

The memory of those days would carry them as they spread the Good News. Fear would always be just beneath the surface – fear that the task was beyond them, of the aggression they faced, the sacrifices involved. The joy of their Easter days overcame their vulnerabilities, became a strength that saw them through to the end and in time would give hope, strength and joy to each new generation of Christians.

We need that eastering just as much as the apostles did, maybe even more. We need hope that a world that has the weapons to kill each other will choose not to use them. We need to get a lot better at finding the joy that sweetens our Good Friday and Holy Saturday experiences. That joy can be elusive, it’s usually fleeting and it defies description. But it’s there, and we recognise it when we are conscious of an inner voice wordlessly saying, “Peace be with you”.

Judith Lynch

The space in between

The catalogues jamming my letter box suggest ways I can ‘make more of my easter’. Easter, they tell me, is for egg hunters, bunnies, heroes, the outdoors and relaxation. My church invites me to join them for three liturgies spread over four days, culminating in Easter Sunday. And once again I’m caught in a bind, because none of these invitations hit the spot.

Egg hunts are fun and already I’ve got some sneaky hiding places worked out to slow down my two young grandsons in their search for chocolate. Bunnies? Well in my part of the world rabbits eat newly-planted seedlings and dig holes where we wish they wouldn’t. The advertiser’s idea of a hero was more Spiderman than Jesus, though I suppose some connection could be made. And the long Easter weekend spent relaxing outdoors is an Australian institution.

During the couple of years I lived in a one shop and one pub town, our small Sunday Mass community planned an outdoor Good Friday stations of the cross. Beginning at the local cemetery and punctuated with stops for appropriate words, we straggled our way up a small hill and planted a rough cross on its crest. The words, the actions, the landscape, even the way the children jostled the adults for their turn to carry the cross, made it a liturgy that was relevant to those who were present.Desert bloom #10

It’s that right now relevance I miss in the church-based liturgies that mark Holy Week. I understand their symbolism, but they don’t touch my heart or move my spirit. I want to get beneath all the words, the sprig of Palm Sunday greenery, the foot washing, kissing a crucifix and craning for a glimpse of a little fire in a barbecue pan before taking my seat in the darkened church.

I long for a tangible recognition that the people in the pew and the billions across the world, like me, are all living out their own Good Friday and Easter Sunday stories. And like the Jesus story we read in the gospels, these two days are separated by Holy Saturday. Unlike the gospel story, however, our Holy Saturdays can last a long time.

We spend our lives waiting for the pain, grief and loss that go hand-in-hand with life, to abate, to go away, to ease. People living with the fallout of tragedy look for something they call closure. The Syrian grandmother whose whole family died in a bomb attack, rocks to and fro in a sea of pain, longing for the touch and sound of her dead children and her grandchildren. The people along the Queensland coast pick through their  muddy homes and workplaces, grieving the loss of possessions, longing for the clean-up to be over and life getting back into something they recognise as normal.

The followers of Jesus were plunged into a similar space after the horror of the Friday we call good. Two days later, behind closed doors, they were whispering excitedly and wonderingly about the possibility that Jesus was still among them.  Peace and joy came slowly. They needed time to come to terms with the fact that their lives had changed, that Jesus was still with them but now it was up to them to spread the good news.

The words and symbols of the Holy Week liturgy focus on the events of the days they commemorate. The commercial world ignores them all together. But all of us need more.  If we are to recognise the Easters of our life and discover the new life they hold, then we need to be reminded that God is always there, waiting with us as we face up to our own Good Fridays and struggle through our Holy Saturdays.

However you spend the coming Easter, may you find God in whatever gifts its lead-up and follow-through have to offer.

Judith Lynch

 

 

 

 

Prayer by heart

duck-pond-autumn-tree When I wrote Lenten Chocolate about a month ago, I said that my Lenten practice this year would be to spend time re-reading books that have nurtured my spirit in the past and others that might inspire me, and help me to find God in the material of my own life. I chose a couple of novels, but they didn’t make the grade, so they went back to the library. A couple more went into my op shop box for the same reason. That leaves me slowly getting through The Good People by Hannah Kent – beautifully written but challenging in more ways than one.

My re-read is the Thomas Merton book, New Seeds of Contemplation. I wanted his words to drift into my prayer. Reading Thomas Merton is like eating chocolate mud cake – best in small pieces. He makes me think-and sometimes squirm-as I recognise the places and times when I haven’t  measured up to be the person God has dreamed for me. This time, for some reason, Thomas annoyed me. I’m aware of his being a man of his times (he died in 1968), and he uses language that is religiously structured and sprinkled with he and men – never she. Definitely not woman-friendly, but I wondered why it hadn’t bothered me in the past.

I like to image women’s approach to spirituality and prayer as being like supermarket shopping., While men proceed at speed  up and down the aisle armed with a list, women saunter, up and down and back and around with a list in hand and the rest in their head, with space left for impulse buys and specials.

Women approach their God relationship much the same way. Men’s prayer and the way they talk about God-things tends to be direct and focused, quite formal, I’m tempted to say ‘man-to-man’. Women instinctively integrate the restrictions and complexities, the ups and down and roundabouts of their lives, into their prayer.

I learnt to pray in primary school, mostly in words that I was required to learn ‘by heart’ – only they didn’t touch my heart. My years in religious life were supported by a formal prayer structure and nurtured by books about prayer – mainly written by males. I learnt that personal prayer was like a ladder, and as I got older and more experienced spiritually, as I climbed it rung by rung, I would reach God right up there at the top. Praying was hard work.

Then I left religious life and with it the structured prayer that had bookended my days.  As the years have rolled on with their experiences, memories and turning points, the way I pray seems to change, just as my hair colour and styling does. But the stuff of my life was, and still is, the stuff of my prayer. Sometimes it is exciting and God feels very close, but mostly it’s as ordinary as the ever-changing clutter on my kitchen bench.

I see prayer as relationship with God.  It can be wordy, and it’s also something like my two year old grandson, home after a long day at child care, patting the sofa he was sitting on and telling Tim, his dad, “Sit here” – just wanting the closeness with his father for a little while.

There’s no right or wrong way to pray, there’s just lots of ways. Occasionally I need to remind myself that God is not timing my prayer. I might spend an hour sitting in the sun or strolling through a park, just being, letting God look after the concerns of life for me, and other days it’s a minute or two before sleep intervenes.  Prayer is like the everyday love that backs the relationship we have with those we love- 24/7, even when it’s not conscious.

So I’m back to wrestling with Thomas Merton’s choice of words as part of my prayer. If this is my Lenten chocolate, then it’s the 70 percent variety – a little bitter.

Judith Lynch