A Christmas Story

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“Joseph. You’re awake – again.”
“Did I disturb you? I’m sorry Mary. I’ll be still. Go back to sleep – you need your rest.”
“Yes Joseph I do. But I also need to know why you’re sleeping so badly. Is something worrying you, something you haven’t told me?”
“No, nothing in particular.”
“Not the journey?”
“A little, perhaps. These godless Romans, telling everyone to go home to be counted. For what? Why can they not just ask where a man was born and be done with it? And your time will be very near. Of course I’m worried. And angry.”
“Yes that is true. All very true. But I know you Joseph bar Jacob. There’s something else and it is not a new thing, is it.”
“Hmmm. Where did you learn to look into people like that? You have such depths. New? No, it is not.”
“Oh Mary, I admit it – I have doubts. They go away and then come back to plague me. I’m afraid of how I will feel when I first look at the babe.”
“But Joseph, the angel. You may doubt me, but an angel of the Lord?”
“The angel was a dream, just a dream. A very powerful and deep dream, a dream unlike any I have dreamt before or since, but a dream for all that. Sometimes we dream about how we want things to be.
“And I don’t doubt you. It is very hard to explain – I know you believe this babe is the child of the Lord. But, well, things happen. I am a plain, practical man. I believe in what I can see, what I can touch, and hew and shape. I… it is all confusion, sometimes I believe, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes both at once, it seems. Help me Mary. Help me to believe. Tell me again how it was.”
Mary shifted in the bed, easing the weight of the child asleep in her womb, wondering how she could help her husband, who had been so good to her. Telling him again how the angel had spoken and how the Holy Spirit had covered her might settle him for a short time, but she wanted him to know in the way she knew. 
But she could not see a way. It seemed he would just have to suffer this, and she had to believe and did believe that the instant he saw little Jesus he and anyone else would know. While Joseph lay there, looking up at the rafters of their little room, she asked the Child within her what she could do. Almost before the question was formed she had the answer. Of course – it was obvious!
She took Joseph’s right hand in both of hers and looked at it in the dim light of the night filtering through the gaps in the shutter. She loved that hand, sometimes as hard as a spade but capable of such gentleness of touch and such fine work with timber, the right hand that could not only use tools but was itself a tool, the palm, the fingers, each part its own unit of measurement in his work. She held it to her cheek and kissed its palm.
Joseph just lay there looking at her, marvelling at her young beauty, still touched with a hint of childhood but with the strength and character of a woman.  As he watched, she put his hand upon her chest, just below her throat. As it lay there he could feel the beating of her heart, slow and steady.
Then she drew his hand down till it was resting on her round, swollen belly. Immediately the child kicked, just once. They smiled at each other. Joseph had forgotten all his troubles now, just marvelling at the thought of his life to come with this magnificent wife the Lord had seen fit to provide, with this child and, please God, many more.
Then Mary drew his hand down further. Joseph froze.
“Mary. No. Not during your time.  I can’t wait, but I’ll have to. There will be plenty of time.”
“No Joseph, not that. If you trust me, close your eyes and let me have your hand. Do you trust me?
“Yes, of course, but…”
“Then do as I say.”
The time of a few breaths passed. All of a sudden, Joseph was up like a sprung trap. One moment he was lying there rigid, eyes closed, the next he was on his knees on the bed staring at her like a man distraught.
“Lord, Lord forgive me! What kind of man am I, to doubt the word of an angel? How can the Lord forgive me? You are still a maiden! It is all true!”
“Yes I am, and it is, and the Lord is merciful. He will surely forgive a practical man his practical need to know. Now can you go to sleep?”
“Sleep? Sleep? How can you talk of sleep? I will wait for dawn and then go to synagogue, offer sacrifice and perform the rites of atonement. But we don’t have enough to give, not for this. Lord, what am I to do?”
“Listen to me Joseph. You will do nothing. You have done nothing wrong.  On the contrary, you have followed the words of the angel, even though you doubted. Who could not doubt? What is important is what you did, and you have done exactly what you should have because you are a righteous man.  We need our little enough store for the journey, and the babe. Don’t you understand? I was chosen, and so were you, by the Lord God himself. And you have followed His commands.”
 Her words seemed to wash over Joseph, leaving him light and clean, and suddenly deeply tired.
He lay down again beside Mary, turned to her, rested his hand lightly on her arm and closed his eyes. As he drifted off, he heard Mary whispering “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices…….”
“Joseph, they are getting closer together. Perhaps, five or six times an hour.  The baby will come soon.”
“We can hear many sounds from the town now – in less than half an hour we will be knocking on an inn gate. Will you last that long?”
“I think so. I don’t know. I wish Elizabeth were here.”
They were ascending a steady rise towards Bethlehem, whose lights they could see a couple of stadia ahead, but the road was poor, lacerated and deeply, dangerously rutted by the unaccustomed traffic. Mary winced each time the donkey put a hoof down heavily on the uneven ground. Joseph’s broad forehead was knitted with worry.
After what seemed an age, they came to the first inn on the outskirts of the town. It was humble affair, standing alone in a small group of houses. Each house had a well-fenced yard with a water trough; these were shepherds’ homes, and in the light of the early-rising moon the flocks could be seen dotted around the broad open expanses which lay all around.
It appeared that the inn had once been and perhaps still was an agriculturalist’s home. The rooms were in a separate wing added to the main building, which was approached by a broad staircase to the first floor; ground level was largely taken up by grain and tool storage and a byre housing a pair of oxen and a milk cow. Joseph’s heart sank as he saw a light behind the shutters of each room; the sound of loud talk filled the air. Someone was beating a drum softly and singing in one of the guest rooms.
“Joseph, help me down please,” called Mary. He ran to her side and she at once wrapped her arms around his neck. He lifted her easily and gently from the donkey’s back; she leaned both her arms on the animal’s back and breathed heavily in and out. The donkey stood still, as firm and steady as if it were something built rather than a free-moving beast. She rested her head on his neck, breathing in the sweet-musty donkey smell.
Joseph ascended the stairs and knocked loudly. He waited. Nothing. He knocked again, louder and longer this time. Soon the door swung open with a loud creak, to reveal a stocky man in his fifties, clad in a particularly dirty and wine-stained coat and an equally grubby round, flat felt hat. Though in all he was hardly a pleasant sight to behold, his eyes twinkled from the depths of his great white beard and crown of hair and when he spoke there was warmth aplenty.
“Peace be with you. But if it’s a room you want, I regret I cannot help you brother. Nor indeed, I fear, can any innkeeper in all Bethlehem. It’s a cold night to be sure but latecomers are having to take shelter where they can.
“I can feed you, we keep a plain but decent table, but then you’d be best heading into the town, where it will be a little warmer at least.”
“Sir, we are out of time. What are we to do?”
“Out of time, what do you mean, out of…” As his eyes took in Mary, leaning over the donkey’s back, her face creased as a contraction came, he understood and fell silent.
“How long, do you think?”
“Very soon. Within the hour, I expect although neither of us knows. It is our first.”
“Well, then we must do what we can. If you are not proud, the warmest place to be is down there in the manger. Three beasts and your donkey will do for a fire I should think. There’s no shortage of straw and I’ll have the boy bring some sack-cloth and we’ll see if we can’t get you some privacy. “
“Sir, you are gentle and good and we thank you with all our hearts. This child will be very special and you will have your reward in times to come.”
“Yes, well aren’t they all when they’re your own and as for reward, I can hardly merit much of that for a spot among the kine.”
“Sir I will be happy to pay as if for a room, for it will serve us as well as. We must hurry…”
“What, am I a Samaritan or Egyptian to charge a weary traveller of David’s people for a heap of straw? Please, spend your money on our good food by all means but that will be all. Now where is that boy? Eli, you scamp,” he shouted at the top of his considerable lungs. “Eli get here double smart, and bring the roll of sacking from the wool store. Eli! Get here, you!”
An hour later, Mary lay with the child on a bed of straw and a light rug. The boy, swaddled in white goats’ wool, gazed into her eyes with full, clear sight and understanding. It had been a quick, almost painless birth; what pain there was now seemed to have happened to someone else. She felt an unearthly joy. She knew now that her life, her real life, had only begun when the angel had spoken to her and she had felt herself covered with the Spirit. She understood as clearly as if the babe had spoken to her that her entire life, now, was to be love – love for the child, then the man, love for Joseph, love for everyone. Even, strange though it seemed to her, the Romans. Literally everyone. She felt another surge of joy, but again, as she had felt before, there was a shadow, too. Something dark in the distance, some terrible sorrow seemed to be way, way out there beyond her vision and reach.
She looked again at her little son and all thoughts simply washed out of her, all was forgotten.
Joseph was at the rough cloth curtain, gazing out.
“Mary, oh Mary, you must come and see this, something wonderful is happening to the whole world. The lights of heaven seem to have been turned up, as if every lamp was newly trimmed. Every star seems like a fire. The moon is huge and unimaginably beautiful. And I keep thinking I can hear music as if the very stars were singing, and yet when I listen harder, there’s nothing. Bring the babe; can you make it to over here?”
He turned to look at them. They were gone, at least as far as he and the world was concerned. They were in another world of their own, gazing at each other. He crossed the couple of paces and sank quietly to the ground beside them. She turned and looked at him, and smiled her beautiful smile.
“Peace be with you – is the Child in there?” A voice, firm, speaking in a foreign accent, was coming from just on the other side of the cloth. Joseph and Mary looked at each other, questioning.
Joseph rose and drew back the cloth. Three strange, exotic looking men, covered with the dust of long travel, stood before him. Some twenty or thirty paces away, clearly visible in the bright light, he saw a group of camels and a horse, attended by servants.
“Yes,” he said. “The Child is here.”

Patricia Cornwell – Scarpetta

I have recently started – and scarcely less recently stopped – reading this book.  Cornwell is revered among thriller writers. Kim Hill, if I recall correctly, is a fan. For starters, I suspected the title: ‘Scar’ and ‘Pet’ juxtaposed like that.  Seemed facile.
By page 13 we have a protagonist talking to a Dr Thomas, gender unrevealed, but clearly a psychiatrist.  The presence of a psychiatrist, particularly so early, worries me because psychiatrists in a thriller are often just a cheap trick, a lazy writers’ mechanism for creating a dilemma for a  character. They also allow the writer to dodge the challenge of revealing a character’s motivation and proclivities through words and actions.

That alone would not have led me to snap the book shut at page 22 with a huff of dissatisfaction. I was just tired of trying to piece together the first three or so chapters by guesswork, which we have to do because they are missing. At least, that is how it reads. We are simply thrown into the action when it is already well under way. Person A is fuming about something Person B has done but we have not a clue what that is or why A is upset about it. And so forth. Eventually, of course, we will catch up, cotton on, find our bearings. What has been achieved? Nothing. And since not one character has, by page 22, captured my sympathy or even piqued my curiosity, the book is a gone coon.
Perhaps Cornwell is suffering by unconscious, unintended comparison with Evelyn Waugh, whose ‘Sword of Honour’ I have just finished. Waugh was a miracle worker. He describes almost nothing, or at least nothing physical. Characters go places, say things to each other, events occur, we meet new people, the books just roll on like life and yet somehow they reveal an extraordinary amount. They teach us, entertain us, and in the end we have the illusion of having almost become Guy Crouchback, we know him so well, pity him, admire him, love him. And is if that wasn’t enough we have experienced the English language having been put through its paces like  champion show-jumper achieving a perfect round.

Will we ever see his like again?

Nietszche’s Error

Nietzsche was right, if only partly: most people live their lives cocooned in a host of glib little self-deceptions.  They will do anything to avoid the great crisis which would force them to stare straight at the truth about themselves, at what they have become, the crisis which would ultimately set them free.
Nietzsche realized that avoiding suffering and pursuing happiness was a vainglorious pursuit. What is necessary is to accept that suffering is inevitable and the real goal is to accept and learn from our suffering, to discover the most important and ennobling ability we possess – how much we can bear and stay straight and true.
No-one to my knowledge has ever expressed this better than Viktor Frankl, in ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ where he writes of his experiences in Auschwitz and observed that those who survived longest were those who found meaning in their suffering and a reason to endure it. Great book.
Neitzsche’s greatest error was his conviction that belief in God and the life of the spirit was an anodyne for the weak, a comforter to cuddle in the cold winter of truth. Because accepting God imposes heavy burdens. Never mind all the obligations to pray and attend Mass instead of lounging in bed on Sunday morning – they are actually pleasures. Prayer can be like talking with a friend, and Mass is beautiful, uplifting, social, musical, a real worldly pleasure.
No, the hard part is in following Jesus’ instructions, about which he was unambiguous and forthright. “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was imprisoned, and you cared for me.”
How about “If someone steals your coat, give him your shirt.”? Or “If your enemy strikes you on the cheek,  offer him the other cheek.”
Anyone who thinks these are metaphors is sadly mistaken.  Unfortunately, Jesus never added a rider to his injunctions. I wish he had said “Turn the other cheek (unless the bastard desperately needs a good hiding)” or “I was hungry and you surely would have fed me if you’d had a little more to spare and the time to get it organised, so you’re all good on that one.”
But he didn’t, and if we are to glory in the works of the Lord and truly fear no evil as we walk in the shadow of the valley of death, we have to deliver.
Worth taking particular note of, I think, is that reference to visiting prisoners.  Of all the many good works, Christ singles out visiting prisoners as one of the ‘must-do’s’. Why? He doesn’t single out the unjustly imprisoned, so it’s not about that.  I think it is because helping those in prison requires not only generosity but the all-important ability to suspend judgment. Succouring prisoners is like giving the thief your shirt; they don’t deserve it. Those who do so play an important social role, of course, because they counteract the natural tendency of the imprisoned to hate society and everyone in it. Rednecks who want to see prisoners given the stick, those who rant on about prison being a holiday camp do us all a grave disservice because they justify recidivism. I wonder I Jesus had that thought at the back of his mind?

Sorry Friedrich. You got that bit wrong.

Jungle Eats the Jungle Eaters

Delicious irony du jour: one of the world’s leading environmental criminals has met his end by crashing into the very jungle he was planning to despoil. Yep, Ken Talbot, head of (can you believe it) Sundance Resources (cue projectile vomiting by Robert Redford) and a bunch of his cronies jetting out for a quick gloat over the millions he would make by flattening a few million hectares of the Congo rainforest has instead flattened a rather small patch personally, using the plane he was flying in.
That’s not the really good bit, however. The good bit is, assuming the plane didn’t burn and I’m praying it didn’t, his body and those of his mates will be right now, as I write, providing a feed for the troops of those very monkeys who would have soon been driven from their homes by today’s dinner.
But wait – there’s more… What if those monkeys are poached for their bushmeat and sold into the European bushmeat market?
Then, my friends, the molecules and mitochondria and the fat cells and the protein chains from these robber barons will enter the food chain of some of the very people Talbot and his cronies pushed first into homeless poverty and then into exile. LOL, I say.
Of course it doesn’t stop with monkeys. By night, hordes of vermin, rats, mice, myriad insects take over to carry the work forward. Until, finally, the ants. Millions of them, chewing, snipping away every last molecule of meat until only bone, pure white bone, remains. If we were there, wherever ‘there’ may be, we might perhaps catch a glimpse of white, gleaming in the shaft of light briefly punched by the light plane through the vast unbroken canopy of the rain forest.
Being the contemplative sort, I like to ponder the (up to) half-million dollar watches limply encircling those skeletal radii and ulnae. For the sportsmen like Talbot, perhaps the Ferrari special editor’s edition, going at a snip for yes, one half of one million dollars? (You have to own a Ferrari to buy one, don’t you know?) For the others, perhaps the odd Rolex Aviator certified chronometer, or, slipping ever so slightly down market, a Tag Heuer or two.  Chronometers of course. Goes without saying.
Think of them. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick…..

PS. Two days later.

Unfortunately for my imagination, they found the plane and retrieved the bodies. Ah well….

Sin as the Cause of War

March, 2008
I am reading “Elected Silence”, the biography of Fr Thomas Merton, centered around his early life, conversion to Catholicism and his journey to a vocation as a Trappist monk.
At the time of the outbreak of the Second World War he is wracked with his conviction that the sins of the world in general and his contribution to the quantum of war-causing sins are the cause of this war.
When reading it I felt that he was drawing a rather long self-condemnatory bow to believe that his boozing in speak-easies and reading dirty French novels (his delicate 50s shorthand for the solitary vice) could be considered the cause of a global war. A touch of spiritual vanity, I thought. With Hitler shrieking at his deluded millions with an army of Satanic demons cheering him on, Merton’s puny sinning could hardly rouse the laziest and most insignificant imp in Satan’s army to take a role in that great and horrible war.
That was last night. I woke this morning and opened the newspaper to read that the Chinese military is gunning down protesting monks who have shown the temerity to circumambulate their shrine en masse, in public. They walk in contemplation, spinning their prayer wheels and reciting a prayer – probably Om Mani Padme Hung, or the Hundred-syllable mantra – Om Benza, Satu Samaya, Manu Palaya, Benza Sato Tino Pa…

Suddenly, according to eyewitnesses, a volley of thirteen single shots rang out and thirteen monks fell. The rest continued their circumabulation.

Last year, two Canadian ex-members of Parliament came to NZ to present compelling, probably irrefutable evidence, that Falun Gong devotees are being farmed for their organs.
It works like this.
Customers come in, mostly from overseas, and are analysed for their blood and tissue types. A selection is made from the meticulous records of the Falun Gong detainees (imprisoned without trial, of course) who are given three-monthly physicals and maintained in healthy condition despite their hard daily labours.
A group of preselected recipients is gathered in surgery. The chosen donor is wheeled into surgery, anaesthetised, and all his or her organs are harvested, fresh and in perfect health, and implanted into the wealthy recipients.
The donors, of course, never wake up.
Requiescant in pace Domini.
So this morning?
This morning I wake up to read that our Prime Minister, the former leftie peace marcher, certainly the best Minister of Conservation we ever had, is saying that we need to wait for confirmed information about this incident, we don’t have any confirmed facts yet, that nothing is to be gained by rushing into statements, etc.
She is hovering, pen in hand, to sign a Free Trade agreement with China early next month.
Meanwhile, such international champions of Human Rights as the US and the UK are scathing in their condemnation of the Chinese atrocities.
Oh, wicked woman, Ms Clark! Shame and eternal torment for her!
Alas, but no, actually. Ms Clarke is doing what she has always surpassed herself at: reading the will of the people and doing it.
So what has this to do with Fr Merton and his sins?
We want Helen Clark to keep her mouth shut. We want the millions of dollars that this Free Trade agreement will put in all our pockets.
We want the Olympic Gold Medals. The last time there was a boycott at the Olympics, the Russians and 13 other Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the 1984 LA games. Ian Ferguson blitzed his way to an undreamed-of four gold medals in canoeing, with Paul McDonald close on his heels and sharing glory in the double events.
Why? Because the gun canoeists from the Eastern Bloc didn’t show. If they had, Ferg and Paul might just have scraped through with a silver or bronze or two.
Our sports commentators said nothing about that and probably fair enough too, because many of those 1984 giants of East Bloc canoeing are dead or very sick today, cut down by the crude mega-doses of steroids which made them what they were.
So we cry: Just shut up, Helen, and it can all be ours again – special privileges from this hideous Chinese government; dare we even hope for a swag of medals from a partly boycotted Olympics.
Yes! Yes oh yes. We want it. Individuals want it. En masse the farmers, those men who were furious at the disruption of the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand (politics and sport don’t mix!!!) want it.
Our sins. Our greed. Yup.
Good on ya Helen!
Let us all pray that we can see, as Thomas Merton saw, that this is a personal issue for which we will and should be answerable.
Please people, don’t let this happen. Write to Helen Clark now! Write to your MP now! Say no. We don’t want the blood money. We don’t want prosperity on the backs of the corpses of monks and Falun Gong devotees.
We will choke on this prosperity. Oh yes, there’s this too – if it even said prosperity arrives. Because minnows don’t bargain with sharks. As soon as a couple of the big guys see how well we’re doing out of our cosy, turn-the-eyes-away-and-shut-your- mouth relationship with China, they’ll want the same. That will be when our now close chums in the Chinese Politburo stop taking Helen’s calls – bigger act on the other line, gotta run, love ya, missin’ ya already!
What suckers we can be.