Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Pilgrim's Peace

These two words appeared in my mind yesterday. It felt as if I were in the eye of the storm - the world rushes by, things demanding attention, work to be done, shopping, cooking, dishes, and I am able to look at it as if from the outside, not unmoved, but unaffected, and, oddly enough, humming a Latvian church hymn, about peace flowing within me like a river. And then, out of nowhere, the words jump at me - pilgrim's peace.

I am not familiar with the experience. Nor have I ever used these two words before. I never thought about making a pilgrimage, although Taize comes quite close, now that I think of it. I remember waking up in tents in below freezing temperatures, walking to the bathroom some 50 metres away, and rushing to prayer on a cold morning in Burgundy, with an absolute certainty that we will not so much as sneeze. And we never did! No sneezing, no coughing. Well, someone I know did demand meat, and I, rather uncharitably, thought this must have been exactly what Israelites were saying in the desert... Apart from having to put up with grumbling, no harm has ever occurred despite modest circumstances.

And I suppose pilgrimage is exactly that - getting by day by day on whatever the Lord provides, not thinking of tomorrow, remembering that one is here for something else, something that satisfies more that food, or wine, or clothes.

I know two people who just went to a Taize meeting this year. They don't know each other, but - who knows - perhaps they will meet there. Perhaps not. In a sense, they will be united even if they don't. When I was 16, Taize meant a whole world to me, literally even. I think I met people from 16 different nations in one day, and the fact that we all managed to understand each other, that we could pray together, revealed to me something new about the Lord. I saw Babylon reversed, thousands of people of all tongues and nations united by one common language - of prayer, of course, but also, more specifically, Latin. We all spoke one language. The mother tongue of the Church. And we understood it perfectly.

There is a Russian stand-up comedian, who, oddly enough, went to the same school I did - years before me. He became famous in the 1990's for his jokes about 'stupid Americans'. Americans don't know how to cook potatoes (???), Americans can even sell you a navel-warmer if you ask for it, Americans and all the tourists in general will never understand our mysterious Russian soul... Things like that, extremely annoying and silly, but perhaps adequate in a country that had been isolated from the outside world for 70 years. What an experience like Taize did to me was, of course, that I could never comprehend his jokes, could never laugh at them or even listen to them. I was blessed to see that, ultimately, we are all the same. In God, that is. In Him there are no distinctions.

Now, many years later, when I say Our Father in church, I sometimes see all the people and places, all the churches, chapels and cathedrals where we have attended Mass or prayed. A cathedral in Genoa, a stuffy church on Panarea, an airport chapel in Milan, the never-ending Maltese churches... People lifting up their hands to their heavenly Father. Good or bad, recollected or not, in faith or in doubt... I suppose, this, too, is Babylon reversed.

And now I have been granted this special grace - peace. I still have to pack, remember to take with me certain things and take care of finances, but it almost feels as if I were already at my destination, already there. It's as if all the pressing matters are not worth worrying about anymore. And whatever happens, I'll be in the middle of it, in peace. Well, travelling alone in the Middle East, I will certainly need peace, but this is so much more than that. It's an encouragement and a blessing from the Lord, a way for me to know that I won't be travelling that special road in vain. How beautiful!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Looking Back at the Year 2009

2009 has been a fruitful year, rich in impressions and experience, a year of transition, of fight, the first year lived in full communion with the Church. Living the life of the Church has kept me wondering - where have I been before? Why haven't I done this earlier? Why have I been neglecting my happiness, my calling, the fullness of my Lord?..

It has also been a year when I travelled more than I could afford - and perhaps more than I will be able to afford in the nearest future. 'The year of travel' has been a celebration of finishing my studies - and for that I cannot thank enough. Whereas in 2008 I had to work full-time, write my Master's thesis full-time and take part in Catholic RCIA along with a prayer group full-time, the year 2009 was supposed to be the time to get away from it all and enjoy my newly found free time. Or rather, the time I could spend on things I didn't have to do.

In January, I have officially graduated with an MA in Philosophy from the University of Oslo.

In March, we went on a cruise in the Mediterranean with MSC Fantasia, a rather overfilled but luxurious ship that took us through four countries and seven cities in the much welcome spring sun.

In April, we went to Malta for the Passion week and Easter, a trip planned nearly a year in advance. Having been completely fascinated by this country on my first visit there in 2007, I wanted to experience it more closely, not in some boring hotels with bland furniture, but during a Christian festival, somewhere authentic, in a place that would reveal the soul of the island, its rich history and culture, that would help understand its peoples better. I found it after much searching. We rented one of the newly restored apartments in Valletta, from Valletta Suites ( We lived in an eclectic place, with antique furniture and British china. We saw Good Friday processions, exhibits and church decorations that seemingly took us several hundred years back. And we absolutely loved it!

May and June have been difficult. Sooner or later, after the honeymoon of conversion, such a time would have come, and I thought I was prepared - but I wasn't. The nature of the challenges is irrelevant here, but they did seem like enormous mountains towering above me, covering the sun... My immediate impression was that of Israelites who turned around and saw the Pharaoh following them, unwilling to let them go. I felt the fury of the ancient enemy who was furious and wouldn't let me go. And, lost and weak, I was carried by the Church. I haven't experienced anything like this before. Sacraments - confession, the Eucharist - gave me the strength to fight hour by hour. I remember talking to a preast who last year administered to me 5 sacraments in 48 hours. He read a Mass for my intentions. And the victory was on our side - even if for a while.

July was the time of trial again. I knew I had to confront and win over what I was only avoiding before. The image of Pharaoh chasing after his slaves was as vivid as ever. At first, I failed rather miserably, trusting in my own strength and terrified at the lack of it. Again, details are irrelevant, but as I was reading the lives and sayings of Desert Fathers and Mothers, I realised we now share the same experience - what they called 'fighting with the demons'. I read that one desert hermit, after a whole night's fight, cried out to God: "Lord, I have never done anything good in my life, but I beg you, let me do it today!" I surrended, cried out to God and remembered that dying to myself means relying on God. The victory was mine. Its fruit was beautiful.

In August, I was in Ukraine for a brief 4 days.

In September, I went to Gozo (the smaller of the Maltese islands), this time on my own, for six days in a beautiful rustic house a stone's throw from the citadel ( On the way there, I managed to utilize four hours between my flights in Pisa and see the famous tower. On Gozo, I swam, went to churches, and blissfully did nothing before visiting my dear Holy Cross Abbey in the UK. They graciously organised their support group to meet around the dates of my coming, and I was blessed to meet the like-minded souls, beautiful people whose love and openness continue to be an encouragement for me.

In November, I was blessed to be chosen to represent Norway at the European meeting of the Catholic Charismatic renewal. Fully aware that throughout my life I was drawn to the contemplative rather than the charismatic dimension, I went anyway. I am eternally thankful for the people I met at the meeting, the precious time that we shared together, and the joy in the Lord that we have experienced. It has not become easier for me to identify myself with the Charismatic movement - frankly, I don't believe I have ever been called to that either - but it now has names and faces for me, and I love them dearly.

In December, my employer has graciously given me a pay raise and opportunity for career growth - besides allowing the three month unpaid leave, to be in Jerusalem in 2010. So, from tomorrow on, I will start packing. On January 4th, I am leaving for Israel. I will be living in a convent on Via Dolorosa for three months, before going back to Oslo on Easter Monday. Praise the Lord for making it possible!

My plans for 2010? I pray for a fruitful time in Jerusalem, and I hope to be able to finally come to the US - to visit my dear cousin in Nashville, and to attend CHNI conference in Columbus, OH.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Great Silence

I have no idea what is it that makes me weep and weep and weep as I watch this film by Groening, who reportedly waited 16 years to make it... But I do - weep and weep and weep. Until I am fed up with weeping. Due to unidentified problems with my nasal passages that eventually led me to join the club of Nasonex users, weeping is not good for me. So I must stop.

The Great Silence is like looking at God face to face - no sound, no word, no image, because He is so much more that any sound or image I can possibly perceive. And that is a taste of eternity, a taste of what it is like - living eternal life. Not what it will be like, what it is, because our God IS. Of course, there is this incredible sadness at all the things that have gone wrong - today, yesterday, and all the days before. Speaking when I should have been silent, sleeping when I should have been awake - and being awake when I should have slept. Doing that stands in the way of being. I am always too busy doing.

Groening must have been so THERE by the time he left the Charterhouse. Those long shots of the elements - water, fire, ice, skies, rays of light - say it all. The icicles melt. Speckles of dust in a ray of light. When was the last time you watched them? I must have been 8.

It is terrifying to think that I had no time to watch speckles of dust in the sunlight. I had time to watch TV nonsense, to read obsceneties, to worry about the things that might happen, but I haven't had time to BE for 20 years.

Love. It is most felt in the silence. I don't know how to explain it. But each time I watch The Great Silence, a presentation of a Carthusian Charterhouse in the French Alps, I am struck by this experience of LOVE, wordless, soundless, speechless, and yet so present, almost touchable LOVE, born in the darkness of contemplation, in the cloud of unknowing...

I want to keep this love. But I can't. That's why they are who they are. It would have been an illusion and silliness to pretend you can be a contemplative in the world in the same way you can be in the Charterhouse.

As a Catholic, I know that when I go to the Communion, I also participate of their gift, because we are all one body - they pray for me when I have no voice. Praise the Lord for that! It is a mystery that is beyound explanation...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A Living Doll

(Do you remember the song? It suddenly rang out in my years. ...Gotta do the best to please her just 'cause she's a living doll...)

The inspiration for writing this blog entry is a Japanese film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, whichI was privileged to see a couple of weeks ago. His recent Still Walking is, by the way, the winner of Oslo Kinos lanseringspris and will now be running in film theatres.

I fished The Air Doll out of the blue, one of several hundred festival films, one I never heard of, one I picked by accident just to watch a Japanese film by a reputedly famous director.

It kept haunting me ever since, coming back through memories of the things I read, gender discussions, other films, spiritual conversations and even all things Japanese.

After ten minutes of watching it, I remeber thinking - I cannot believe a man filmed this. The first thing my friend told me after it was over, was: was the director a man? Yes, my dear, the director was a man. Paradoxically, this was the most spiritual film I have ever seen, specifically Christian films aside. The fact that it reminded me of the controversy discussed in the link above - whether women have souls - is I think in line with what the director intended, even though his creation is so multi-leveled it is bound to have a life of its own.

Why is it a paradox that I found this film spiritual? You see, it is about an inflatable sex doll. A cheap one. Her owner comes home every night to her, talks to her, dresses her, eats with her, and... you know. She is a sex doll, after all. Made to be a substitute. Made to fulfil sexual desires.

But she finds a heart. She opens her eyes and starts to breathe. She finds a heart and starts to lie. Empty inside. Understanding her emptiness. Even her name is someone else's. Looking for the Other. The Other that is not a substitute.

The film was shockingly correct in pinpointing the modern/permeating attitude to sex, but also the sense of emptiness and loss, this all-consuming search for the real thing, for the Other in all the things that only increase empriness and drag further away from reality. However, one aspect of it, what I reacted most to, was this 'living doll' thing, something the classical feminists would have been incredibly proud of, whether it was the director's intention or not. Of course, the gender tension takes on a rather dramatic turn in the very end, but it only reinforces what we already understand. Nobody wanted her to have a heart. A slim, lovely, silent, dressed-up beautiful doll. Who never has a headache, mind you. Why would she need a soul???

Highly recommended! I think everyone could relate to the big-city emptiness Kore-eda presented, and the gender problem cut to the heart. Grown-up men were all teary-eyed in the end and my friend told me she would have started weeping aloud had it not been for fear of humiliating me in public...

Saturday, 3 October 2009

On Taize and lectio divina.

Taize prayers have meant a lot to me for various reasons for a half of my life now, even though it is a river that I never enter twice.

Yesterday, while praying, or singing, or whatever one may call it, I realised the Taize practice was much like lectio divina. Of course, I had no idea what lectio divina meant 15 years ago, when I first got my taste of Taize in Wroclaw, Poland. But instinctively, I realised even then that the repeating texts somehow penetrate my thoughts, envelope them and then rise above them, taking these thoughts into a prayer, dedicating them to God. Distractions are somehow a very minor problem with a Taize kind of prayer.

What occurred to me yesterday, and what I had no idea of before, is that the practice of lectio divina has exactly the same pattern and purpose - repeating the Word, chewing on it, until it becomes part of you, until it becomes part of your thoughts, the ever-present threads of memory and ideas and realisations. And it shouldn't matter that some of these thoughts have nothing to do with the Word that I medidate on. The whole purpose of the practice is to offer them to God along with everything else, good and bad, to consecrate my whole self by the healing word.

Expressed in words, this all sounds very dry and clinical. I think this is because it is understood by practicing. With the added dimension of music and harmony Taize songs made the practice real and present for those who never felt drawn to institutionalised religion. I could only praise br. Roger's genius...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

One of my days on Gozo

It is pleasantly hot, nothing like the excruciating August heat. The house I am staying at is gorgeous, neither words nor pictures do it justice. The lower floor is some 300 years old, used to be a manger, with holes in stones for tying the animals still intact. There is a huge roof terrace, a courtyard, an inner well, a balcony onto which two bedroom open, it is a paradise! And in a quiet dead end street lined with plants in huge pots.

Church clocks beat time every quarter of an hour. Technically speaking, I don’t even need a watch here. I think they stop some time during the night and start again at 5 am. Oh yes, from 5 am on, life begins…

I started my first day on Gozo, rather confused yet, and unable to find the right church, with a mass at 10 am. Then prayer in front of the crucifix.

What is it about Malta that makes me prioritize the right things at once? I have only been gone for 5 months, and yet again - people who are important are forgotten, the mass and prayer that should be the centre of all life, of all day, are somehow shoved aside. Not neglected, but just, somehow, not in the centre. Is there too much to do in our over-civilized world? Too many choices? Too much information?

In Marsalforn, I got on a bus, and as the driver was starting the engine, I noticed with my side vision that an elderly lady one row behind me on the other side made a sign of the cross and characteristically kissed the crossed fingers. As much as I was tempted to think of this being directly related to the Gozitan/Maltese driving technique, the recent Scripture came at once - never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Yes, it’s that simple, isn’t it?

When I prayed in front of the crucifix in the basilica today (St George), I suddenly thought: “This is where I want to be, yes, exactly in this niche, in this corner tucked away from the world, in this place, in this state of mind”. After a few seconds had passed, I realized this was exactly what Peter wanted to say when he saw Our Lord transfigured on the mount. He wanted them all to stay as they were - in that feeling, in that place, in that moment. The Lord didn’t answer him anything…

Neither did he answer me, of course, but as minutes passed by and I looked at the crucifix again, I almost saw it. Peter couldn’t stay. Neither could Our Lord. He had to go to the cross. As a matter of fact, so did Peter. We all have to follow in the footsteps of our master, and if even he could not remain in that state forever who am I to expect perfect choices in perfect circumstances? I remembered my last evening in Whitland last year and the way I suddenly saw the cross as my own… I suppose, it will only be in heaven that we will actually be able to experience this perfection constantly.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Whitland, day 5

Time is somehow of a relative significance in a monastery, as you grow to live and fight day by day, but I can't help remembering St. Mary of Egypt, who lived alone in the desert for 47 years, and yet managed to keep track of all of them, despite (or because of?) the fight of the first 17. She was obviously totally awake and alert all of this time.

Today, a lot of local people came to Mass. One of them, a 91-year-old gentleman, who is still not ruling out the possiblity of getting married once again (but it will have to be love at first sight, you see), knew our late bishop Gran when he was a monk at Caldey. Now Caldey is a place everyone else here - except me - visited at least once. It is a beautifull island off the cost of Pembrokeshire, Wales, not far from Whitland, where Cistercian monks live. I keep hearing stories about Caldey, one lady translated the poems of a monk from there, another wrote a book... When I voice how inadequate I feel in this welcoming environment, I only hear that we all started somewhere.

My irritation at the fact that I am more welcome in a place I am visiting for a second time than in a place I have lived and worked in for 9 years is apparently obvious, because I am constantly being asked, why on earth do you live in Norway? I don't know the answer to this question, because I have pondered it for all those nine years, and, admittedly, there was always something the Lord was accomplishing in my life. So, I guess, the answer is, because it was God's will. He has always made a point of reminding me I am only a pilgrim on this earth.

Now I am part of another fellowship of pilgrims who share one thing in common - neither of us can stay in a place the charism of which we belive we share, and we have to find ways of taking this charism to our respective homes and living it out. While this part of my pilgrimage is yet very personal and I am not prepared to discuss it in depth even with myself, the place to live part is somewhat more open to discussion. Not rushing things, I would like to hope that one day, indeed, I will get to live in a place where I can speak English daily. Since 1997, the answer to this prayer has always been NO - and there was always a reason for it, so it yet remains to see whether my wishes are at all reasonable and good. But, at the very least, it is good to know you are welcome someplace you love...

The simplicity of forgiveness

There is something I have come to feel very strongly about, that much of the mistakes of the past four month, much of the turbulence of these months, would have never occurred - had I chosen the road of unconditioonal forgiveness from the beginning. I am not at liberty to discuss any details of this period, but I am totally convinced that much of the struggle could have been avoided by unconditional forgiveness on my part - for my own sake.

The only way to advance, and, at times, to survive spiritually, is to live a life of forgiveness. It should not depend on the matter in question, its gravity or how the other person or people or organisations feel about it. Nor does it mean to condone or justify what has been done to you, because of course people do terrible things to other people, that can never be justified or accepted. The problem is, if I do not forgive - it is my heart that becomes hard, it is my life that becomes a compromise, it is my prayers that become hollow, my health, my sanity, my spirituality that suffers. So for me, living in a state of grace, means, first of all, to accept God's forgiveness, which in turn leads me to forgive, unconditionally and at once, whatever wrong may have been done to me.

I suddenly realised again the utter stupidity of trying to be God and instead somehow punishing myself for what has already been done to me. Well, I suppose, that is the value of silence I am living in now, isn't it...

Saturday, 29 August 2009

My Riga Article

The name of this post is also a link to my Riga article on

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The readings this week have been really special, and isn't it strange how things you think you know by heart suddenly come alive? I will side with those who say they never actually read their Bible the way they started to when they became Catholic.
It is as if I saw with my own eyes the rich young man who approaches Jesus and asks him what does he have to DO to have eternal life. Why is Jesus so dismissive, why doesn't He reveal Himself? The young man's question echoes another question from John 6, when the people asked Jesus - what MUST WE DO to do the works of God? Remember His reply, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."
To the young man, Jesus replies that only God is good. He doesn't say anything about faith, but he urges him to keep the commandments. This is a paradox in what I see to be a teaching on the grace of God as opposed to futile human efforts. The paradox is somewhat illogical because, when the young man says that he has already been keeping the commandments, Jesus suddenly makes an outrageous proposition. But God is above our logic. And Jesus saw right through the young man's self-righteousness. Not that he didn't work in the Father's vineyard - Jesus didn't denigrade his efforts. But the young man's salvation lies with Jesus and He is right there - His Lord and His God...
This time, when I was reading these passages, I noticed the young man's question, "what do I still need to DO?" He seems to be aware he lacks something, there is a longing he cannot satisfy by his undoubtedly moral and exemplary life. I think Jesus's eyes were softly smiling when He was saying "Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven". And then your heart will be at rest, and you will be free to follow what I am offering you. "THEN COME, FOLLOW ME".
What did these words mean to the young man? Did he realize he wasn't really saving himself by trying to look good, to please his own ego? I think Jesus cut him to the heart with these words. Impossible to follow, and that was precisely the point. The word of God is life, and obeying the commandments was to give life to the people, but here before Him stood the Word incarnate, offering him life, and the man couldn't accept it. He grew to trust his own efforts to the point he could not accept the grace of God.
It was an offer of a life with no security for tomorrow, an offer that defies all logic and experience, a burden that is light one day and seems impossible to bear for five more minutes another day. They will spit in your face and throw you out of the synagogue you love so much - and I will ask you to love them and forgive them from the heart. There is no certainty and no effort of yours you can rely upon - because every step will seem impossible until you actually make it. And what is worst of all - in the depths of your heart you know this is the only thing you need...
The young man went away sorrowful. I am imagining the insane situation of him selling all his posessions and running joyfully after Jesus, to embark on a life of a penniless vagabond, and later a martyr. But there is one important word here - JOYFULLY.
As one anonymous man wrote, I thought if I didn't indulge my habit, I would die. And when it turned out that I didn't die, I was shocked to find out it was possible to live without it. But he never would have found out, would he, unless he denied himself the very thing that held him captive... And I think it is only when someone dares to let go that they find out what it means to live by grace. Is it easy? Oh no, it is the most difficult thing in the world! And the worst part is that you have to do it daily :-) :-) :-)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

I rejoiced when I heard them say - let us go up to the mountain of the Lord...

It is amazing how time flies. Four and a half months from now I will be leaving for Jerusalem. A pilgrimage in a way, yes. And God willing, something more than that. A desert, perhaps? Or a land of milk and honey? I don't know... The only thing that is certain - if I get there, that is - I will not be a tourist. Not a sightseer. I will be living for three months in a convent in a Muslim quarter of the Old City, trying to feel it with my skin and see it with my eyes - and describe it with my words.
I have been preparing for this for two years. I'm not 18 anymore, so I can't just grab my two bags with all my belongings and take the first bus out of here, as I used to. There are loans, and jobs, and stuff, and bills... Endless array of things to arrange. Sometimes I wonder if I have fallen prey to what I was trying to escape -materialism, love of things, being stuck in one place full of expensive crystal and never knowing what life really is about. I am going to Jerusalem to find out.
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." Mark Twain

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Paradise - Lost

To Vera and Otari Mirianashvili. I remember

I have a vivid memory - I walk uphill, up the steep stairs with my mother, picking pomegranates as we go, carrying bags from the market in the evening, then we turn right and open the gate... and the smell... Fig tree leaves in the evening, a very special smell... Or I thought it was fig tree leaves. I think that's what it smells like in the south (yes, silly us, we had exactly the same word for it as Norwegians do - no country, just south).

That memory came back when I first came to Naples, to visit my friend who lives halfway up Vesuvius. At that time, I haven't been further south than Prague in more that 15 years. I said, Oh my gosh, it smells like childhood!

I remember fragments. We used to walk this white seaside promenade. Streets were wide, so unlike dark and claustrophobic Riga. There were coffee shops, and grandpa used to sit with me for hours, drinking those tiny cups of turkish-style coffee made in hot sand, and talking to everyone he knew - they also happenned to drink coffee for hours - Greeks, Georgians, Abhazians... Yes, I actually remember the sand where the coffee was made. We drove from the airport, palm trees all around, and in the middle of the roundabout was a huge pig. Grazing. Or something. Well, it was no Four Seasons. We had to queue for drinking water on the junction of five streets (halfway up a mountain...), because the pressure of water pumps was not high enough. But then, there were grapes, and figs, and wine, and I played with cats and swam in the sea.

People visited all the time. One Russian man sold books. Grandma and grandpa had a library. Real LIBRARY. When I learned to read, I simply scanned the shelves in awe, picking books that I didn't even understand. They had a leopard skin on the couch, head intact. She was an artist, he - a retired military officer working in an enlistment office. She was the only person in our family with a gift for languages. She was Russian, he was Georgian. The white paradisial city where all lived happily ever after was Sukhumi.

There are moments I feel we are all gone with the wind of change. But while some things are just painful, this story is horrific in its brutality and meaningless suffering. There are no winners in wars. A war is a battle between God and devil for the souls of men. All of this is true. But wars also have faces. And when it comes down to faces, all wars are the same. The only difference is - some faces you know.

I remember leaving. I sat on a bus and I wept and I wept and I wept. Neither then nor now am I a person to weep in public. I must have been about nine, and while I couln't put my feelings into words yet, I think they were as real and authentic as anything I feel now. I was starting to understand that loving means hurting, that getting to know a place means saying good-bye to it, and the inevitability of this scared me. Every time the bus made another turn, which revealed more of the amazing mountain scenery, I wept even more. I saw mountain rivers, lakes, gorges and valleys, and I didn't want to leave. Years later, my mother mused whether I knew. I didn't, of course. But we never came back. We never will.

The war began in 1992. It was meaningless, like all wars are. It wasn't well covered, and somehow the the period 1992-1993 was rich in wars, all over the world. The Soviet Union collapsed, the communist money had to be divided, the land had to be divided... Then, it seemed unreal. This just couldn't happen. Would you imagine tanks in your favourite seaside resort? When peace came, everyone believed it would last. The children were ordered back to school under the threat of expulsion, the troops were disarmed, the families came back...

Sukhumi is now the capital of Abkhazia, a self-proclaimed republic that is not recognized by any country in the world but Russia. It was part of Georgia then. Actually, thanks to Stalin. The man (and he was Georgian...) loved to vacation there, he had a sense for beauty, remember, and beauty there was...

It was Georgian troops that were disarmed by September 1993, to prevent clashes between separatist Abkhazians and Georgian army, with Russia acting as a peace broker... Two weeks into the official school year, on September 16th, the war broke out again. This time, there was no hope. The people fled. They tried the planes, the planes were shot down. They tried the boats - most were sunk. The was a mountain pass, my aunt and cousin fled through it, as did many others. 500 died in the cold, most survived. Her parents stayed.

When the city was taken by Abkhazians... - what shall I say? People are dehumanized in war. Neighbours murdered their former neighbours, one nation had to eliminate the other, does it matter, does it have to be said? 20 000 people died. Do their stories deserve to be told? Raped, butchered, shot, burned, buried in their backyards, tortured to death... Russian women murdered for marrying Georgians. Do we need to know? A 70-year-old teacher of military education walked past a gas filling station (taken by Armenian militants) and saw a butchered body of a Georgian man hanging above, with a sign posted : Georgian meat for sale. He walked inside and blew up himself and all the miltants around.

I wonder if he knew grandpa. They must have been the same age. Am I being brutal? Do you think he was a terrorist?

The grandparents in Sukhumi died a natural death. I last spoke to grandma in 1997. My aunt did surprisingly well. She didn't come to a social security system, in fact she came to Moscow, a city where you can't even go to a doctor unless you have a registration stamped in your passport. But after surviving the mountain pass, they came to human warmth and love, their relatives, and open doors. She is now a Russian citizen and owns her second apartment in Moscow, no loan, no credit...

Most people who survived have learned this one thing. Something I remember learning too. Human life is precious. No matter our disagreements, no matter our colour, religion, backround, anger, hatred, desire, our past and present - human life is the most precious thing on this planet. Nothing is more precious than the life of another human being.

I met a guy from Sukhumi a few years ago in Oslo, he used the same route to escape. Well, there was just one route. He was sent back from Oslo to a city he hasn't seen for 10 years. It is still a beautiful place. But you don't want to live there anymore.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

I went to church to pray yesterday, and as I walked in, four people had just started praying the Rosary out loud in English. Why not, I thought? Even though I intended to spend 20 minutes in silence, the Lord may have wanted me to get to know His mother better, something we ex-protestants are always in need of...
It was very special. This unplanned-for Rosary praying reminded me of Maundy Thursday in Valletta this April. The Maltese have a tradition of visiting seven churches on Thursday night or Friday morning during the Holy Week. The Body of Christ is carried to an Altar of Repose that is usually decorated with flowers and statues and candles. After the Mass, the faithful would go to make seven visits to any of the Altars of Repose, spending any time from a couple of minutes to a quarter of an hour or longer before our Lord.
In Valletta, where I stayed, the number of churches far exceeds seven, so we never had to go anywhere far for the visits - which I thought were a good tradition to imitate. I wasn't prepared for the power of the moment, though.
The first church I entered seemed incredibly noisy. I am used to adoration, but I am also used to silence in church. This place seemed to buzz like a beehive. What an unusually talkative population we've got here! I admit thinking. Then, when my eyes and ears got used to the sounds and symbols around, I noticed a pattern in the noise. It sounded like prayer.
Oh but of course! The people were not chatting leisurely, they were praying the Rosary. Aloud. Two middle-aged British gentlemen behind me prayed a decade in English together and left for another altar. A family with a pram squeezed inside. Some were kneeling, some were standing, and reciting a decade, usually in pairs, husband and wife, mother and daughter, taking turns to say the Hail Mary, then perhaps linger awhile and leave to give space to the newcomers.
The Republic street was surreal that night. Filled with tourists by day and completely empty by night it looked like a scene from a typical pigrimage site that Thursday. Men, women and children with rosaries in their hands, candles on the ground, the buzz from the open overpacked twenty-something churches.
We took turns to pray the last decade in St.Dominic's just across the street from our house. Feeling sad that it was only seven visits, and not twenty-seven, I contemplated the two angels placed in fromt of the altar. One was holding a cluster of grapes and some wheat while the other was holding a cup. It was a beautiful thought that in his omniscience Jesus, the Incanate Word, may have drawn strength from our prayers during that hour at Gethemane that began His sorrowul passion...

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Some thoughts on Luther and Anabaptists...

Have you ever heard of the book The Martyrs Mirror?

It is an account of Christian/ Anabaptist/ Mennonite martyrs. I was once presented it (actually, parts of it) as a book "every Christian should read", and indeed I have often heard Martyrs Mirror mentioned by modern-day Baptists when they refer to the Protestant doctrine that the 'true church' has somehow persisted throughout the centuries, in direct opposition to the institutionalised Church (and we all know which one that is...).

The bottom line has always been that Martyrs Mirror is a dedication to all true Christians throughout the ages who have been persecuted, murdered by the Inquisition and finally given their voices by the advance of the Reformation.

The full text of the Mirror can be found here:

The rhetoric is easily illustrated by the following quotes on account of the rite of baptism:

"We do not find it stated by a single authentic author [...] that during the first two centuries any one departed from the foundation of Christ's true order of baptism, that is, from baptism upon faith, by changing this, the true baptism, into a vain or infant baptism; but it appears that in the third century there were men who not only originated, but also put it in practice and administered the same; yet it was adopted only in a few places."

"Ambrose was baptized in adult years, at Milan, though his parents were Christians. He advanced sound views on baptism, against war, of the sacraments, etc.
Ephrem, Gregory of Nyssa, the Councils of Laodicea and Elibertum, and also Optatus Milevitanus, give correct views on baptism
(by this the book mostly means that these sources confirm that baptism can be given to an adult person)

"We shall begin the fifth century, concerning baptism, with the fifth chapter of Jacob Mehrn. History of Baptism, [...] "Henceforth we shall not dwell upon quite so many testimonies taken from the ancient fathers and church historians, as had necessarily to be the case in the preceding centuries, in order to prove that during the first four centuries after the birth of Christ, infant baptism had neither in the holy Scriptures nor in the authentic books of the teachers of the church, a firm foundation; that is, that it had been ordained by Christ, or that it was an apostolic institution or tradition." "

So far so good. The Anabaptists' method of supporting their ideas is familiar: the Church Fathers, the Apostolic Tradition, the Counsils (and they seem to have undertood well that the Canon of the Scripture was not yet established in the centuries referred to). Note this last paragraph particularly - the authentic books of the teachers of the church, a firm foundation ... apostolic tradition...

Eventually, of course, the Church becomes institutionalised, and the account of the latter centuries is basically an account of the resistance movement of true believers, abounding with quotations and historical references, some of them quite interesting. The account ends with the 16th century, "the century in whichLuther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, and afterwards Calvin in France, began to reform the Roman church; and to deny, oppose and contend with the authority of God's holy Word against the supposed power of the Roman Pope, and many papal superstitions, however, in order to avoid too great dissatisfaction, as it seems, they remained in the matter of infant baptism, in agreement with the Roman church".

Written by non-violent, Mennonite Anabaptists, the book seems to approve of the Reformers, and only accuse them of compromising the belief that had allegedly been held throughout the centuries - that of adult baptism - for the sake of pleasing people.

Alas, the Reformers were not equally non-violent. When it comes to Luther, the matter is straighforward, as usual. In 1530 he writes:

"If some were to teach doctrines contradicting an article of faith clearly grounded in Scripture and believed throughout the world by all Christendom - for example if anyone were to teach that Christ is not God, but a mere man and like other prophets, as the Turks and the Anabaptists hold - such teachers should not be tolerated, but punished as blasphemers" (Commentary on the 82nd Psalm)

Huh, Turks and Anabaptists? So much for the hidden one true church?
Is Luther exaggerating? As a matter of fact, no. He is speaking of different Anabaptists (there were many). Luther is referring to the Anti-Trinitarian Anabaptists, who may have been influenced by the writings of Servetus (Calvin strongly advocated death penalty for the latter). They held a council in Venice in 1550 and formulated a statement of belief, that declared, among other points, that Jesus Christ is not God, but man, born of Joseph and Mary, but filled with all the powers of God... Ironically, when the persecution started, this group sought refuge in the lands ruled by - yes, the Turks (cf. Latourette, A History of Christianity, v.II p. 792).

The Martyrs Mirror advocates a completely opposite view of Christ, that smacks of Monophysitism:
"and also another ..., who was censured because he held that the body of Christ was not of the substance of Mary" (an account of the martyrs of the second century-emphasis mine)

"They also asked me whether I did not believe that Christ had received flesh and blood from Mary. I said that Christ came by His divine power out of heaven, was conceived in Mary through the Holy Ghost, and born of her, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and became like unto us in all things, except sin, so that He was not born of the blood, nor of the will of the flesh, and did not receive flesh or blood from Mary"

"We also spake with the Jesuits, and with others, about the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in which we did not agree, for they said that He had flesh and blood from Mary. And I said that He is the Son of God, who was born of the virgin Mary, since she had known no man [...]That which she received (mark well) did not come from her; else it would be of the earth, as was Mary, and as are all the children of Adam."

"who, among other things, believed and confessed with Menno Simons and all true believers, that the Son of God became man for our sakes, and that He did not receive His humanity from Mary or any other source, but that the eternal Word or Son, became Himself flesh or man."

So much for Mary.

I have read somewhere that in the ancient world it was widely believed that women only carried children in their wombs and gave birth to them, while it was solely a man's semen that actually produced a child. I can only speculate in regard to the origin of the doctrine of these particular Anabaptists, but this is certainly not the belief of the Church, ancient or not ancient. The Fourth Ecumenical Counsil of Chalcedon states in the year 451: "Following the holy fathers we all, with one voice, define that there is to be confessed one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ [...], of the same substance with the Father according to the Godhead, and of the same substance with us according to the manhood, [...] begotten of the Father before all time according to the Godhead, [...] born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to the manhood..." The parallelism of these lines is self-explanatory.

So when Martin Luther rages against the heretical doctrines of Anabaptists he does it with full authority and conviction of someone who is backed by Church history and the Word of God, as he understands it. That the same Word of God is understood differently is another matter, but here is what Luther writes:

"That seditious articles of doctrine should be punished by the sword needed no further proof. For the rest, the Anabaptists hold tenets relating to infant baptism, original sin, and inspiration, which have no connection with the Word of God, and are indeed opposed to it. . . Secular authorities are also bound to restrain and punish avowedly false doctrine . . ."

Just to clarify the matters - these were not mere words. Inquisition was not the only force behind executions (nor was Inquisition merely a Catholic invention - I am referring to the Orthodox equivalent, which is, however, beside the point here). According to Dave Armstrong, Mennonite historian John D. Roth estimated about 4000 Anabaptist martyrdoms in Europe, between 1525 and 1574: a little less than half of them were committed by Protestants, and about one-quarter of those (roughly 500) in Luther’s province of Saxony.

God bless those poor brave souls who gave their lives for what they believed in, and perhaps every Christian should read the Martyrs Mirror, but I would rather every Christian study history, and study it well...

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Divine Mercy and The Feast of the Holy Trinity

I should have been writing this for the feast of the Holy Trinity Sunday last week, but now that we're in the ordinary time of the church year again, one extraordinary memory of my childhood reminds me of the great feast that we have just celebrated...

The year was 1989, the chestnut trees were in full blossom, the tour bus was a loud ugly Hungarian-made oddity, the roads were ranging from aspahlted to gravel but most of them bumpy as heck anyway, toilets had no toilet paper and there were no borders. It was the Soviet Union. The country that is no more. Only a year ago, in 1988 Moskow commemorated 1000 years of Christianity in Russia and many have for the first time read something positive about God. The famous icon of the Old Testament Trinity was restored. Church-going was not common, and I for my part had little understanding of it since my family were all atheists, parents and grandmother and cousins alike.

It was May 11th, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, I was 10 years old and in a middle of a bus excursion through Lithuania, led by an allegedly gay chemist with a sense for hidden gems and historical places. He must have been 50-ish and worked in the same institute with my mom. The man's energy could only be envied. There was no time for shopping, no time for idle talk, this was all business, we had to climb every hill, crawl into every cave, hear a story of every strange house, explore nooks and crannies of the land and, well, go into every church. For me, Lithuanian churches were a revelation. Coming from a religiously tolerant yet lukewarm (and Soviet!) Latvia where churches were for the babushkas, the uneducated and much feared ever-sober Baptists, I was literally shocked by what I saw. Young and old, simple and sophisticated, country and city, modest and immodest - all flocked into churches. Especially that day, for the feast, the sight was incredible, unlike anything I've seen or anything I could have believed. What was there I had to know about a God that did not exist?..

Did you know that the first Divine Mercy image was painted in Lithuania in 1934? St Faustina lived there during that time, and the original painting is in Vilnius in the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy This is one of the many places I would like to visit and re-visit in Lithuania. I want to see the shrine of our Lady of Šiluva, a place of pilgrimage since the 17th century especially popular during the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady on September 8th. Once, in early September 1979, the Soviet authorities have closed off all the roads leading to Šiluva due to an alleged pig epidemic... The Hill of Crosses was leveled three times by the Soviet authorities, crosses burned, yet the stubborn Lithuanians would bring new and start it from scratch, only to be taken down again. The rumour had it the authorities even planned to build a dam on the nearby river to flood the area. The regime gave up under Gorbatchov, but the freedom of religion was actually not re-established until 1990. Yet there is one more place I want to see above all, yet I know neither name nor location, just a few phrases in my diary.

The bus stopped by a fenced church. Of national importance, we were told. Since it was a feast, people flocked to Mass and we could take a peak but had to leave to look at some caves. It was a reasonable thing to do, not do disrupt. I think there were some steps leading up to a white church. It was packed. There was holy water and a crusifix on my right, and people would come in and kiss the crusifix, kneel, and then tried to make their way inside. A family of four came in, a young mother, a young father, and two children. They all knelt, in a manner that made me think it was a most natural thing for them to do, reverently yet comfortably. I thought I had to kneel too, together with them, I wanted to so much, yet I had no idea how. As the singing began I knew I had to stay. My mother came for me. I don't think anyone else really went in, and if they did, they had left by then. We had to go to the caves. No, no, how can I leave doesn't she know I have to be here? We will come back, they will have a procession after the Mass and we will come back for the procession. Oh, we will be back.

I wish I could remember anything about the caves, as the story was interesting, and might also have helped in locating the church, but I don't. The problem was, I had to be somewhere else. I wanted this church to be my home. I wanted to kneel with them. Why, how would I do this and what would I do afterwards, I had no idea. But even if there is no God I will believe in Him, I thought. Somewhow, it felt as if I had no choice but to believe.

Once we were back, they were selling crusifixes and images in the fenced churchyard, and I wanted to buy one, it cost 5 roubles. Or a smaller one, for 3. No, I didn't ask for one. Somehow, it could hardly be appropriate. I commented on the crusifixes though, and my mother mused, yes, but what would we do with one? Indeed... The procession was amazing. Singing, embroidered cloth, vestments, priests, monks and nuns, images, choir, and people coming out from the church, joining them, singing. Now our whole group was present, and I could watch, watch, watch, wanting to cross that invisible line that separated me and the people I longed to call my own. Even if there was no God I will believe in Him. I was not baptised in childhood. I want to be what they are. How will I ever? I have to walk with them. Catholic. Of course, I had no idea how to become a Catholic.

A year later, Lithuania proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union, and every morning as the sun rose over it the churches in Riga rang their bells for the neighbour country. I thought it was so beautiful that we prayed for them. In May 1990 we went to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, and as we were crossing the street to enter the monastery, a woman asked my mom whether she was a believer. No, she replied. And she? the woman asked, looking at me. On no, she is too young yet, my mother said. Once again, I knew better than to say what I most longed to say, but I looked well into the eyes of this woman when we said good-bye.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

All that I can give

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living." (Mk. 12:41-44)

Today's reading is one of those places in the Scripture that keeps expanding its meaning as you go in your walk with the Lord. Perhaps this is because few of us can easily grasp the nature of giving to the Lord, what pleases Him as opposed to what pleases me, what He needs as opposed to what I need. I often heard it and often said it - how we need to make Jesus the Lord of our life, to take up the cross daily... And I often thought I understood and yet that same understanding would evade me whenever I tried to keep things for myself - be it my sins or my posessions.
I often felt like the poor widow when I came to the Lord to pray. More often than not all I could bring were my own wandering thoughts (ranging from today's shopping list to what transport should I take from the airport six months from now) and my tiredness. Or else I would want to impress the Lord with the beautiful words I'd say and the good things I've done... His presence makes it difficult to hold on to these things, but in tiredness and doubt it is somehow easier to realise that I am indeed poor. All I have is myself and my time to give to the Lord. Everything else - all the good things - comes from Him. All the bad that I've ever done comes from myself.
Today, re-reading this Scripture, I thought whether I had preferred to contribute out of my abundance rather than out of my poverty. It was so easy to give from the things I was good at, to help with translations, to discuss the Scriptures, to give money when I had it, to say a kind word when I was in a good mood... The widow had nothing to give but a last penny, and yet Jesus was impressed because He saw to the heart. God is not impressed by the rich sacrifices, by gifts given to Him who is the giver of all gifts, but something else impressed Him - trust. And the total surrender of everything, even the embarassing, the insignificant, the poor. It seems that holiness is not about becoming perfect, but about refusing to have a will of one's own.
When I contributed out of my abundance, and might have slowly started cherishing the idea that the Lord would be impressed, did I bother to give the Lord my poverty? The poverty of my faults and sins and addictions?
Today, the contribution of poverty for me means giving up, offering up what I thought I could do myself. Giving up my right to be angry, my right to be offended, my right to retaliate, my right to run the show, my right to indulge in the drug of my choice - be it chocolate, nicotine, lust or gym - even in my sleep, giving up the right to be the lord of my life.
For I can, of course, choose to be that lord and hold on to little things and try to maintain control even by doing the kindest and seemingly most selfless of acts. But I think in today's reading Jesus says He is not the least bit impressed. He would never be able to grant the freedom to those who hold on to their selves, - He wants the last penny. All of it. To let go - and let God.
Thy will, not mine, be done.

Monday, 25 May 2009

The Red Shoes by H.C.Andersen

This is one of my favourites, a parable of rare insight. Presently, I shouldn't perhaps be using my own words and explanations - but let the story speak for itself:

The Red Shoes

THERE was once a little girl,—a very nice, pretty little girl. But in summer she had to go barefoot, because she was poor, and in winter she wore thick wooden shoes, so that her little instep became quite red, altogether red.
In the middle of the village lived an old shoemaker’s wife; she sat and sewed, as well as she could, a pair of little shoes, of old strips of red cloth; they were clumsy enough, but well meant, and the little girl was to have them. The little girl’s name was Karen.
On the day when her mother was buried she received the red shoes and wore them for the first time. They were certainly not suited for mourning; but she had no others, and therefore thrust her little bare feet into them and walked behind the plain deal coffin.
Suddenly a great carriage came by, and in the carriage sat an old lady: she looked at the little girl and felt pity for her, and said to the clergyman,—
“Give me the little girl, and I will provide for her.”
Karen thought this was for the sake of the shoes; but the Old Lady declared they were hideous; and they were burned. But Karen herself was clothed neatly and properly: she was taught to read and to sew, and the people said she was agreeable. But her mirror said, “You are much more than agreeable; you are beautiful.”
Once the Queen travelled through the country, and had her little daughter with her; and the daughter was a Princess. And the people flocked toward the castle, and Karen too was among them; and the little Princess stood in a fine white dress at a window, and let herself be gazed at. She had neither train nor golden crown, but she wore splendid red morocco shoes; they were certainly far handsomer than those the shoemaker’s wife had made for little Karen. Nothing in the world can compare with red shoes!
Now Karen was old enough to be confirmed: new clothes were made for her, and she was to have new shoes. The rich shoemaker in the town took the measure of her little feet; this was done in his own house, in his little room, and there stood great glass cases with neat shoes and shining boots. It had quite a charming appearance, but the Old Lady could not see well, and therefore took no pleasure in it. Among the shoes stood a red pair, just like those which the Princess had worn. How beautiful they were! The shoemaker also said they had been made for a count’s child, but they had not fitted.
“That must be patent leather,” observed the Old Lady, “the shoes shine so!”
“Yes, they shine!” replied Karen; and they fitted her, and were bought. But the Old Lady did not know that they were red; for she would never have allowed Karen to go to her Confirmation in red shoes; and that is what Karen did.
Every one was looking at her shoes. And when she went across the church porch, toward the door of the choir, it seemed to her as if the old pictures on the tombstones, the portraits of clergymen and clergymen’s wives, in their stiff collars and long black garments, fixed their eyes upon her red shoes. And she thought of her shoes only, when the priest laid his hand upon her head and spoke holy words. And the organ pealed solemnly, the children sang with their fresh sweet voices, and the old precentor sang too; but Karen thought only of her red shoes.
In the afternoon the Old Lady was informed by every one that the shoes were red; and she said it was naughty and unsuitable, and that when Karen went to church in future, she should always go in black shoes, even if they were old.
Next Sunday was Sacrament Sunday. And Karen looked at the black shoes, and she looked at the red ones—looked at them again—and put on the red ones.
The sun shone gloriously; Karen and the Old Lady went along the foot-path through the fields, and it was rather dusty.
By the church door stood an old invalid soldier with a crutch and a long beard; the beard was rather red than white, for it was red altogether; and he bowed down almost to the ground, and asked the Old Lady if he might dust her shoes. And Karen also stretched out her little foot.
“Look what pretty dancing shoes!” said the Old Soldier. “Fit so tightly when you dance!”
And he tapped the soles with his hand. And the Old Lady gave the Soldier an alms, and went into the church with Karen.
And every one in the church looked at Karen’s red shoes, and all the pictures looked at them. And while Karen knelt in the church she only thought of her red shoes; and she forgot to sing her psalm, and forgot to say her prayer.
Now all the people went out of church, and the Old Lady stepped into her carriage. Karen lifted up her foot to step in too; then the Old Soldier said,—
“Look, what beautiful dancing shoes!”
And Karen could not resist: she was obliged to dance a few steps; and when she once began, her legs went on dancing. It was just as though the shoes had obtained power over her. She danced around the corner of the church—she could not help it; the coachman was obliged to run behind her and seize her: he lifted her into the carriage, but her feet went on dancing, so that she kicked the good Old Lady violently. At last they took off her shoes and her legs became quiet.
At home the shoes were put away in a cupboard; but Karen could not resist looking at them.
Now the Old Lady became very ill, and it was said she would not recover. She had to be nursed and waited on; and this was no one’s duty so much as Karen’s. But there was to be a great ball in the town, and Karen was invited. She looked at the Old Lady who could not recover; she looked at the red shoes, and thought there would be no harm in it. She put on the shoes, and that she might do very well; but they went to the ball and began to dance.
But when she wished to go to the right hand, the shoes danced to the left, and when she wanted to go up-stairs, the shoes danced downward, down into the street and out at the town gate. She danced, and was obliged to dance, straight out into the dark wood.
There was something glistening up among the trees, and she thought it was the moon, for she saw a face. But it was the Old Soldier with the red beard: he sat and nodded, and said,—
“Look, what beautiful dancing shoes!”
Then she was frightened, and wanted to throw away the red shoes; but they clung fast to her. And she tore off her stockings: but the shoes had grown fast to her feet. And she danced and was compelled to go dancing over field and meadow, in rain and sunshine, by night and by day; but it was most dreadful at night.
She danced out into the open church-yard; but the dead there do not dance; they have far better things to do. She wished to sit down on the poor man’s grave, where the bitter fern grows; but there was no peace nor rest for her. And when she danced toward the open church door, she saw there an angel in long white garments, with wings that reached from his shoulders to his feet; his countenance was serious and stern, and in his hand he held a sword that was broad and gleaming.
“Thou shalt dance!” he said—“dance on thy red shoes, till thou art pale and cold, and till thy body shrivels to a skeleton. Thou shalt dance from door to door; and where proud, haughty children dwell, shalt thou knock, that they may hear thee, and be afraid of thee! Thou shalt dance, dance!”
“Mercy!” cried Karen.
But she did not hear what the Angel answered, for the shoes carried her away—carried her through the door on to the field, over stock and stone, and she was always obliged to dance.
One morning she danced past a door which she knew well. There was a sound of psalm,—singing within, and a coffin was carried out, adorned with flowers. Then she knew that the Old Lady was dead, and she felt that she was deserted by all, and condemned by the Angel of heaven.
She danced, and was compelled to dance—to dance in the dark night. The shoes carried her on over thorn and brier; she scratched herself till she bled; she danced away across the heath to a little lonely house. Here she knew the executioner dwelt; and she tapped with her fingers on the panes, and called,—
“Come out, come out! I cannot come in, for I must dance!
And the Executioner said,—
“You probably don’t know who I am? I cut off the bad people’s heads with my axe, and mark how my axe rings!”
“Do not strike off my head,” said Karen, “for if you do I cannot repent of my sin. But strike off my feet with the red shoes?”
And then she confessed all her sin, and the Executioner cut off her feet with the red shoes; but the shoes danced away with the little feet over the fields and into the deep forest.
And he cut her a pair of wooden feet, with crutches, and taught her a psalm, which the criminals always sing; and she kissed the hand that had held the axe, and went away across the heath.
“Now I have suffered pain enough for the red shoes,” said she. “Now I will go into the church that they may see me.” And she went quickly toward the church door; but when she came there the red shoes danced before her, so that she was frightened and turned back.
The whole week through she was sorrowful, and wept many bitter tears; but when Sunday came, she said,—
“Now I have suffered and striven enough! I think that I am just as good as many of those who sit in the church and carry their heads high.”
And then she went boldly on; but she did not get farther than the church yard gate before she saw the red shoes dancing along before her: then she was seized with terror, and turned back, and repented of her sin right heartily.
And she went to the parsonage, and begged to be taken there as a servant. She promised to be industrious, and to do all she could: she did not care for wages, and only wished to be under a roof and with good people. The clergyman’s wife pitied her, and took her into her service. And she was industrious and thoughtful. Silently she sat and listened when in the evening the pastor read the Bible aloud. All the little ones were very fond of her; but when they spoke of dress and splendor and beauty she would shake her head.
Next Sunday they all went to church, and she was asked if she wished to go too; but she looked sadly, with tears in her eyes, at her crutches. And then the others went to hear God’s world; but she went alone into her little room, which was only large enough to contain her bed and a chair. And here she sat with her hymn-book; and as she read it with a pious mind, the wind bore the notes of the organ over to her from the church; and she lifted up her face, wet with tears, and said,—
“O Lord, help me!”
Then the sun shone so brightly; and before her stood the Angel in the white garments, the same she had seen that night at the church door. But he no longer grasped the sharp sword: he held a green branch covered with roses; and he touched the ceiling, and it rose up high and wherever he touched it a golden star gleamed forth; and he touched the walls, and they spread forth widely, and she saw the organ which was pealing its rich sounds; and she saw the old pictures of clergymen and their wives; and the congregation sat in the decorated seats, and sang from their hymn-books. The church had come to the poor girl in her narrow room, or her chamber had become a church. She sat in the chair with the rest of the clergyman’s people; and when they had finished the psalm, and looked up, they nodded and said,—
“That was right, that you came here, Karen.”
“It was mercy!” said she.
And the organ sounded its glorious notes; and the children’s voices singing in chorus sounded sweet and lovely; the clear sunshine streamed so warm through the window upon the chair in which Karen sat; and her heart became so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it broke. Her soul flew on the sunbeams to heaven; and there was nobody who asked after the Red Shoes.