Monday, June 28, 2010

Wrapped Him in Swaddling Clothes

Swaddling clothes consisted of a blanket that was softly wrapped around the baby to keep him warm, and linen bands bound more tightly to keep the blanket in place and the child immobile. Hundreds of thousands of generations of children were swaddled all over the world without any seeming harm or deformity. Apparently it promotes sleep and passivity. They don't cry. They feel safe. It would seem babies need less freedom than we give them. The freedom to thrash their limbs wildly and cry out for someone to hold them, someone who might or might not come, is not all that much appreciated by babies. They like the feeling of being held tightly and safely, of all decisions being made for them, of others being in control. With the baby nice and swaddled, trussed up like a larva, the parents could work. The baby would not begin to look for food until the bands were loosened, so the mother could very much set her own feeding schedule.

Jesus is, of course, the most famous swaddled baby. We hardly ever see him in the full get up, however. Medieval artists would depict a baby in a pretty gown, as worn by an older, mobile child, and renaissance artists progressed to portraying him nude or loosely draped in a cloth. The reason for not showing the confining bands was possibly located in an area of tension between the divine nature of the child and the purpose of swaddling, which was plainly to restrain the baby. Swaddling was also considered necessary to ensure the baby's limbs grew straight, and - some said - to prevent the baby plucking his own eyes out. So it was unseemly to show Jesus in bands. But it was such a part of childbirth - to immediately swaddle the child - whether in Bethlehem, Judea, first century Rome, or tenth century Germany, that it had to be in the Gospel. What sort of a birthing would it be if the baby were left unswaddled?

I love this Madonna and Child by Guariento d'Arpo because it shows the place of swaddling in the average family's life, and it's such a warm and intimate moment between mother and child. It could be any mother and child. It's the primal emotional bond of the human race, that same bond that worked our salvation. Here Mary has finished her work and is now seeing to the baby. She has unwrapped the bands and loosed the underblanket so Jesus can move his limbs. The first thing they do is have a cuddle, cheek to cheek. This is their moment for play. The blanket falls about him in graceful folds, still showing the wrapping pattern over arms and feet.

I sense the painter was a man with happy memories of being swaddled or of his own children in their swaddled phase. I love it. May God save the souls of all the painters who made such images for our delight. Amen.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Mourning Becomes Impossible

There's no mourning anymore. That's just a fact. In Jane Austin novels it's six months in black and six months in violet. In my youth it was six months in black for the women and armbands for the men. But I don't know what it is now. It's a few days, if anything. Everybody wears black so much anyway: look into any hairdressing salon - they look like everyone belonged to them just died. And you didn't call to the house in my youth, unless specifically to make a mourning call. The bereaved were still invited to weddings and so forth, but were expected to decline. People left them alone, and that was o.k.

Now no-one leaves anyone alone.

I'm bereaved and I don't want to meet anyone. Your loved one dies and at first you're busy making sandwiches and answering the phone, then you're busy replying to messages and thanking people, then you're busy clearing up and paying people, but there comes a day when you're not busy anymore. Then you just want to sit in your house and look out the window.

It's very much frowned on, I know, and I get told I cant let myself go and I need to seek closure (whatever that is) and I should 'get out there' and so on. I get told this by people who are afraid all this sitting and looking will end in depression. They love me and they don't want that to happen. But they truly don't understand the difference between me and them. They have no religion. They don't understand what I'm doing when I'm just sitting....I'm letting God explain to be why my loved one had to die, why all my loved ones will die, why I will die.

It takes time to talk to God. It's not done in a prayer - it's started, but not done. No, God picks up the conversation sometimes ages later, when I'm just sitting and looking out the window. I cant speed that along. I wait for God. And I reckon that's what mourning is about, allowing people the time and space to talk to God and then feel the answers as they come slowly and whisperingly.

But the world wont wait for that. The world doesn't understand that vocabulary anymore, so we have short cuts - supposed short cuts - to the mysterious 'closure'. Counsellors and anti-depressants - sign up for a life time's addiction, but don't have a sad face at work and don't hide in your home (although your home is supposed to be your safe place to hide).

I wont go for that. This is too important to me. I'm going to mourn in the old fashioned way.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Happy Death

My dear sister tried many times to talk to me about her impending death. Educated by a lifetime of soap operas I knew the right thing to do was refuse to hear - there would be no negative talk, no sad pauses, no acknowledgement of reality. So every time I visited was like a birthday: I had presents, gossip, music, fun. I would keep on and on until I made her laugh. On her behalf I refused to accept death. It must have been so trying for her.

Because, really, what business of mine was it? She was succumbing to a most terrible cancer, buying precious weeks with aggressive treatments that made the days won too painful to bear. What right had I to censor her attitude?

Of course, I wasn't the only one. the whole family was at it - being positive. Positive of what? Mainly, I think, we were scared stiff. Death had stalked into the middle of our village and was carrying off the fair maiden. And we couldn't do a thing about it.

Finally, when she wanted to get some business done she made me sit down and listen. I was to have a treasured possession of hers after her death - WHICH WOULD BE SOON. No, no, I cried, but at that stage she didn't have the time to waste indulging me. It would be soon and she had things to do in preparation. She arranged her will and her funeral in the kindly and efficient way she had lived her life. As I knelt by her coffin I was still saying 'no', in the selfish and inefficient way I have lived my life. I know she's in Heaven, or going there very soon. I know she forgives me, because she always did. I miss her very much, and I'm so sorry I could not contribute to her happy death.