Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Today, January 6th, is also known as Epiphany, when the three kings apparently visited Christ, twelve days after his birth. Some people–the English come to mind–still do celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas. Usually, by January 6, I am ready to take down our decorations which I am (starting) to do today. It is always a laborious process for me, like so many organizational tasks (but a closet or cupboard, especially if it is food-related? I am all over it...). In Appalachia, the custom of Old Christmas is likely a thing of the past but perhaps there are readers here who can elaborate on that. That link provides more information than I can and here is another. IMAGE–Giotto's "Adoration of the Magi," 1304-1306, one of the fresco panels he was commissioned to paint for the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua, Italy. While I studied these frescoes extensively in college, I have never actually seen them. Here is an interesting modern interpretation of the frescoes, with more photographs.

I am a great one for epiphanies and I am always open to them throughout the year. Sometimes the awareness is external, from other sources or friends or even family, and sometimes it is from within. Over the years I've learned that my intuition–call it female, my soul, my alter or the God-voice–should never be ignored. It is our most primal gift and should never be feared, but embraced. I believe it is the same thing that would have caused us to perk our heads up from the campfire and listen to the cracking of sticks in the woods. What prickles the hairs on our neck. What makes the deer in our fields pause, listen, and respond. What, at times, just clicks.

I've had epiphanies that radiate from within me, like an enveloping warmth. I've had them when being very still and almost seeing an inverted external radiance from the natural world around me, like a glimmer on another realm and then, just as quickly, it is gone again and the world looks the same as it did only moments before. An epiphany is like a voice of great clarity or the manifestation of the divine. I've had friends tell me of a booming external voice or hearing only the faintest whisper. At its most basic, an epiphany is "a light bulb moment." Any way we experience it, we should listen.
Adoration of the Child (1439-43) by Fra Angelico

One of my favorite moments in The Common Book of Prayer, the Episcopal service liturgy with which I grew up, was a benediction spoken after communion: "The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding. Keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord." I always took it to mean that we should listen and keep our minds open to God's wonders and wisdom, but don't spin it for your own purposes. God and his "peace" are beyond our understanding and I don't believe we as mortals are supposed to always have all of the answers or solve all of the mysteries on Earth, either. But we are to be open to them and to discovery (and yes, that includes scientific discovery, too). That, to me, is what Epiphany is all about: being open to the wonder and the mystery of it all. To behold something so great from something so very wonderful that even three kings were brought to their knees. What writer Madeline L'Engle termed "the Glorious Impossible" in her book of the same name (and one of my favorites in our Christmas books) reflecting on the birth of Christ through Giotto's frescos: Possible things are easy to believe. The Glorious Impossibles are those things that bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips.

I watched a disturbing film this vacation in the wee hours of the night, when the rest of the house was sleeping, that I probably shouldn't have watched. Occasionally I am just a sucker for the morbid–or at least trying to understand a person's psychology, what makes us as mortal infallible humans "tick." [I am also a fan of redemption but there is none in this movie and there is no happy ending, either, which is why it is not for the squeamish.] Seven was about a serial murderer, played to the chilling hilt by Kevin Spacey (as good a performance as Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, just not as much screen time). In his mind he was carrying out a plan of atonement, in what he claimed were God's whisperings to him, for the seven deadly sins: gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy and wrath. [I think I've got that right...] In his own mind and deeds he became jury, judge and executioner in the name of God. [Yet, it is not really clear who is whispering, just that this guy has issues with mortal sins, big time.]

What I realized is that we all have an inner voice of sorts but that some of us use that voice differently–and that some of us use God's voice, or what we perceive to be God's voice, for great hurt and harm, sometimes even persecution or a minor, but self-interpreted, judgment call. Perhaps that has been my greatest lesson here in the Bible Belt: God is used as a cross, shield and even a crossbow at times. But I have to wonder what he would really have to say about what is often said or done in his name?

I am aware this is just a fictional movie but yet we have many modern and historic examples of sociopathic and narcissistic leaders who have listened to their inner voice, too. And many psychopaths, certainly. So when is that voice evil and when is it good? I suspect it is evil when harm is being leveled, when intolerance is preached, when personal and wider boundaries are crossed, when tears are shed or blood is spilled. This can happen in a home or a country. Goodness is so very easily seen but evil can be more hidden and at times even defended, by individuals or entire governments. Perception and reality can be two murky concepts.

And yet, there are so many "good people" and glimmers of good, too. It's the high and mighty–and often the terribly insecure–among us who want control, to bring us down, to be the first to throw stones. It can be the ultimate in persecution and, sadly, it is at the root of what is dividing this country–and world–right now into two very different political and social realms.

There is a wildness here in our new world that is refreshing and open and yet there can be menacing voices in the woods, too. I see despair all around me. Poverty, drugs, people who won't or can't work and have just given up from generations of despair. But I also have encountered people who are, on the surface perhaps, all clean and shiny and allegedly Christian but their appearance masks great judgment and probably even greater unhappiness. We also have people "around" who have outright stolen wood, hay and fencing materials from us and yet go to church every Sunday. It is a dichotomy that ingratiates or amuses, depending on the day. [I've often thought we should just leave out extra food and hay like the Scandinavians do for their barnyard Tomtens: so they'll bless their farm rather than pillaging it.]

I've always preferred real: true grit, honesty, and an attempt at mutual understanding and respect, even if there is not agreement. "Good fences make good neighbors," wrote Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall, but make sure you provide a gate that opens both ways once in a while. [Then there is that great expression: "If you don't like my gate, you don't have to swing on it!"] The people most dear to me in my life are not afraid to challenge me or tell me like it is and neither are they afraid to validate and support who I am and respect my own journey. They are also not afraid of my authentic self, the one that radiates from inside and not on the surface–which, depending on the day, varies from dowdy to downright pleasant. All I ask of others is that they not judge my own journey as I try not to judge theirs–but sometimes you just have to take different paths to the same end point.

Teddy and the Bear-with-No-Name (I never named her!) are still a part of the family and have always sat in old chairs. They wear some of my daughter's clothes from when she was a little girl. I try not to choose favorites and love them both.

Then there is that most marvelous, scruffy, ready-to-toss out old stuffed animal or doll. Do you remember that most magical children's story, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams? Did you ever have something that you loved so much that the poor thing got so bedraggled or patched back together? Each of my children had (and have–of course I still keep them!) one of those: Addie had a Raggedy-Annie doll, "Annie" that my mother bought from a doll maker when she was one or two, Henry has a mohair bear that my father (Grandpa) gave him, "Teddy," of course, and then there is Eli's "Piggy," who came in his Easter basket when he was a toddler. Piggy is no longer pink but has faded into a pinkish-gray and much of his plush hair has worn thin. Each doll or animal is covered in love.

I still have my father's mohair bear, "Teddy," that he gave to me in my early childhood and that my grandmother tried to replace with a newer model. I wouldn't have it and I remember my father smiling at my youthful defiance–we're talking before the age of five (and yes, I was a precocious brat but that's beside the point here). I even remember overhearing their conversation at my grandparents' house about it: "Jim, you have to get rid of that old bear!" "No, Mother, Cathy loves him." I still have the replacement bear, too, that my grandmother was pleased to give me that day but my father's bear is still my favorite in my own nursery arsenal.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

So here is to growth and meaningful introspection and to earned and well-deserved shabbiness–to becoming real in our journey. To learning from our own voices and to hearing the voices of others, too, even if at times, we don't want to hear them. We can even choose to tune them out or turn them off, certainly, but make sure you at least listen, first, or keep an open mind and heart. Acknowledgment is always good, too, if not polite and gracious. Even as I age I can't ever imagine not keeping an open mind to new possibility, friendship, outlook, change or a different perspective or way of doing something. I tell my children that even though I have a lot of education and the paper to prove it (sometimes I question if it was really needed, but don't tell my children that!), I'm still a student and always learning. I will forever be a seeker because, as much as I am comfortable with old and sentimental or well-worn things and concepts, a new idea or way of being can sometimes be a revelation. Perhaps even a "glorious impossible."


Yvonne Napier said...


I just want you to know how very much I look forward to reading your writings.

I love your style and I just want to say how blessed your family is in having someone like you (and how blessed your readers are too).

God bless you and yours, Happy New Year and I look forward to reading more of your comments in the future. Good luck with your growing farm!

A fan,

Yvonne Napier

Catherine said...

Dear Yvonne,

Thank you so much for your kind words and I'm glad that you enjoy my blog.

A very Happy New Year to you, too! As I type this it is starting to snow and we're supposed to get 8-10 inches! A blog to follow, I'm sure.

All best, Catherine