In the story of Inanna descending the labyrinth to see her sister Ereshkigal, she had to leave some outward emblem of her power at the gates at each turning. The symbols that represented her identity as the Queen of Heaven were stripped away from her, one by one.
What are the images of your identity that you cling to? What “clothing” hides the true and essential you?
In the daytime summer worlds, certain aspects of my self serve me and help me to do the work I am meant to do. But here in the darkness, on the way to meet with my shadow-twin, all the trappings of my personal power and identity only get in the way of the deep recognition of self, shadow and all.
Right now, I am trying hard to live with the picture that I have everything under control. While there’s a certain truth and effectiveness to faking it until I manage to get back in control of things, I think that holding on to this image of myself is actually hindering the work. I am desperately behind on the grading, more than is comfortable for me or for my students. Every day, every evening, there’s something that pulls me away, takes energy and time that I need to get my work done. Still, I pretend to myself that I’ve got this under control. I think it’s time to relinquish that emblem of my sense of personal power, admit that I don’t have everything under control, and make a plan that will help me to catch up. Here, in the dark of the eleventh day, I lay down that piece of myself.
I cannot meet my shadow self and understand her, truly, until I can look honestly at my daytime self. I have no stone to lay at this turning, as I do when I walk a labyrinth in real time. Here is a long, sighing outward breath to symbolize my relinquishing of this inner belief that I am in control of things.
Envisioning: (At the beginning of Advent, my pastor asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.
Today, I think of the people of Le Chambon, France, who resisted the Vichy attempts arrest Jewish people by hiding people in their homes. As a village, a town, a region, they did what was right, not because they wanted to be heroes, but simply because it was right. They held a vision of what is the right thing to do–quiet, dedicated harboring of people in danger for their lives–and in doing so, actively resisted the violence of the political machine in which they lived.
Here we are at the turning into the fourth passage, another day’s journey into the cool darkness.
After a day of really focusing on my breath, I find that I am breathing more deeply, breathing more steadily, although there were moments yesterday when I felt I had split off my core from my head. Like I was breathing from a solid inner steadiness, feeling the ground, but my head was filled with wings.
I was trying to help students meet a contest deadline, and all day they kept coming into my room with last-minute questions about submitting their poetry and stories online. This is one of my great joys, watching them take risks and put themselves out there. I got both anxious and giddy. I lost a couple papers that I needed because I lost my focus. It all came together, and I got most of my own work done, and I think all the young folk got their pieces submitted. Still, the flurry and the bustle made it harder for me to be as present as I could be for a student near the end of the day who lives in a high stage of anxiety. I have been trying to help him to be a more independent writer, and I sort of pushed him out of the nest a little yesterday while I helped another student in the class to complete her contest submission.
I’m not beating myself up, just trying to note how I had a perfect moment to practice what I was preaching about holding a steady breath for others who are anxious, and I missed the chance. I wonder, had I taken two more minutes quietly helping my anxious student set up his document, breathing steadily beside him while he began his work, breathing evenly while we talked about deadlines and how he has plenty of time to complete his short essay, might I have been able to make his afternoon a little calmer and less fraught?
We’re not called on to calm everybody else down. I know I couldn’t have single-handedly solved this young man’s anxiety. Still, it was really the perfect chance to practice the calming breath. It is helpful to look back at the passage we’ve just come through and consider how I might have negotiated it with more intention.
How was your own breathing yesterday? Did you have a chance to steady your own breathing, or to help someone else to breathe through an anxious moment? Shall we continue with strong, calming breaths today? Today, I will step more intentionally into that space of intentionally grounding into my breath when I am with others who are in anxious or dramatic spaces, observing whether it helps to bring us closer to calm.
Breathe in, holding a keen and conscious awareness of the energies swirling around us. Breathe out calmness and quiet, stillness and steadiness. We have our breath. We have these lights that we carry. All is calm. All is bright.
Envisioning: (On Sunday, Michelle asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)
This is a powerful story, and it’s already been beautifully told by many others. It’s the story of how a community in East Berlin in the 1980s, repressed and suppressed by a harsh and controlling SS, held a ploughshares vision for peace and justice, and contributed to the change that brought about the fall of the wall. Here it is in the words of Simon Smart:
“A less known but vital part of the story was the German Peace Movement that began in East German churches from about 1980. Among a population driven to paranoid suspicion and fear by the pervasive network of Stasi officers and informers, the churches became a base for community discussions and agitation for change. They provided a rare forum to express hunger for individual freedom and a peaceful resolution to Cold War conflict.
In September 1983, at the Protestant Church Congress in Wittenberg, German Pastor Friedrich Schorlemmer organised to have a sword melted down and turned into a ploughshare. This provocative demonstration was picking up on the Old Testament’s vision of peace in the prophets Isaiah and Micah. In East Germany, this became a powerful symbol of a non-violent push for change. It’s remarkable he got away with such an overtly political statement — in those days, and in that place, most people did not.
But it was the grungy, unremarkable city of Leipzig that became the epicentre for popular opposition. From 1980 the Church of St. Nicholas, with only a small congregation of worshippers, began to host Monday night “Prayers for Peace” meetings. Under Pastor Christian Führer, these meetings, which would begin with people reciting the beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount — “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God” and so on — soon became a regular meeting where believers were joined by anyone interested in discussing environmental care, disarmament and the right to travel freely.
Momentum built over time. Those gathered would end the meeting by marching together through the streets calling for change. By 1988, 600 people would meet on a Monday. This swelled to 4,000 in September 1989. When, in early October of that year, the government cracked down with arrests and beatings, the stage was set for serious confrontation and the possibility of brutal violence against the protestors. The government promised as much and hospitals were readied for the carnage to come.
On 9 October, in an atmosphere of resolute defiance among both the protestors and the authorities, 6,000 people (their number including hundreds of Stasi officials) turned up to the church, and another 65,000 in the surrounding streets. It was easily the largest anti-communist demonstration in the country’s history.
The crowd set off on a march, holding candles and linking arms, waiting for what seemed an inevitable massacre. Organisers feared the worst but implored their people not to give the riot police any excuse to act against them. The marchers held banners proclaiming, “We are the people,” and called out their slogan, “No violence.” Astonishingly, inexplicably, the guns remained silent. “The only thing [the government] weren’t prepared for was candles and prayers,” said Pastor Führer.
Fifteen days later, 300,000 people turned out on the streets of Leipzig. It became the inspiration for the escalated popular opposition around the country that put so much pressure on the East German regime. These were vital ingredients in what eventually bringing down the wall. Leipzig earned the nickname the “hero city.”
In the days of the Nazi threat, the German church’s story was one of catastrophic failure — collusion, widespread cowardice and self-interest. The role of churches in the demise of communist East Germany, while only one of many factors, is a brighter story. Players in this drama, like Christian Führer, represent some of the best the church has offered: commitment to the greater good; true community engaging, not only the faithful, but those outside the church in a common and righteous cause.
These figures also embodied the radical and counterintuitive teaching of Jesus to resist evil but to refuse violence in doing so. That kind of rare commitment has, on occasion, produced surprisingly positive outcomes: Martin Luther King, Jr and the Selma marches; Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in post-apartheid South Africa. The Leipzig protests, and ultimately the fall of the Berlin Wall, belong in that noble tradition.”
Today we make our turning into the second passage. Yesterday’s journey was quite pleasant, really, as I looked around and saw how many are taking this journey with us. That’s the paradox, isn’t it? It’s a solitary journey that we walk in community, a journey of silence that contains the whispers and singing of others, a joyful anticipation and a recognition of deep grief and pain. Can we hold both sides of the story, center ourselves within the paradox? Sure, we can. Labyrinths are funny that way. They’re disorienting and confusing, and you can never really know where you are, and yet—unlike the fragmented turnings of a maze—the pathway is a single twisting line. All we have to do is to follow the next twist ahead.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us that we were made for these times, echoing Mordecai, the loving uncle in the ancient story, telling his niece Esther the Queen: “Perhaps you were brought here for just such a time as this.” Esther risked her own life to save her people from a capricious and arrogant ruler. As we journey today, let’s ask ourselves: What are we willing to risk in these times? What will we put on the line?
Simply walking into this labyrinth is a risk. We do not know what is around the next bend, what monsters lurk deep and unrecognized within the shadows of our psyches. But walking together, holding our lights high, whispering to each, “I’m here; don’t be afraid,” we can find our way through.
Yesterday, we thought about those burdens in our packs. I have one that I don’t know how to carry, and it asks that question about what I am willing to risk. I’ll put my pack down a moment here and take it out. Open it up. See, all that rage and grief and uncertainty swirling around in there? I want to be one of the ones who stands in the gap here when my country still has not returned the children to their parents, when no one seems to know what to do to make that happen. I want to speak out, to speak truth. But I don’t know how, exactly. So it all just swirls around in there, taking up space and making my pack so heavy.
Take a moment to explore one of the burdens in your own pack, one that you don’t know quite what to do with. Write about it in your journal, or tell a friend about it. Write a song or poem, or paint a painting. I still don’t know exactly how I am going to resolve mine, but it feels lighter now. Maybe this December journey will shed some light for me. For you, too.
Envisioning Peace: Yesterday in church, Michelle asked us to hold Isaiah’s vision of a world in which the response is peace and understanding rather than violence, ploughshares rather than swords. She asked us to consider situations in which people chose the peaceful path. During Advent, I’m going to look for stories and ideas that hold this vision.
For today’s story, I hold in my mind the vision of Queen Esther taking the risk onto herself, speaking her truth, and averting the genocide of her people. I think that one of the ways in which people step into the ploughshares vision is to choose a third path. Instead of simply capitulating to the injustice or taking up arms to fight it, this path does resist and stand up to the oppression, but with truth instead of weapons.
I think this is just what our times are calling for. How can we envision this third response?