Reflection 9th October 2011
The other weekend we took a trip up to Charmey to see the cattle and goats brought down from the high summer pastures for the winter. It was an amazing sight to see. All those cows with Tannenbaum branches and flowers between their horns, and the sound of the bells. And the Alp Horns! The harmonies of them bring me to tears. I also loved the blue shirts of the townsfolk.
I also loved the way that the young people were involved in the process. There were teenagers of all people dressed in costume, and leading flocks of sheep or goats or individual cows. There was cheese on sale (all Gruyere) which was identified by the individual property (if not the cow or goat) from whence it came! The roads were jam packed, coming and going.
On the side, people will tell you that most of the cattle are trucked down from the alps, and that the festival is for the tourists. But be that as it may, I did not get a sense that this tradition was dying out for lack of something significant going on. There are still young people willing to learn how to play the Alphorn. There are still young people willing to dress up and go in the procession. There are still people who do not think it is silly to spend hours creating these big floral and pine arrangements to go between the cows ears. I do not think this is just all about creating a show for the non-rural dwellers, and about making money. Sure, there is a lot on sale. There is a lot of cheese bought. But to my sensibilities, the festival feels genuine.
Then the other day our boxes arrived. This was a bitter-sweet occasion. We lost a lot of things that were dear to us, but broken! But we received a lot of things that make life good. The coffee machine makes good coffee. The knife block and sharpener means sharp knives. The moveable chopping board makes for pleasurable cooking. The cookbooks make for recipes we love. The spices make for curries! The bikes have arrived, so I can get some physical exercise, and work off some of the emotions of the day!
Here is another thing I noticed this week. When I first came to St. John’s on the formal visit, I loved the Chapel. Robyn said ‘There is not enough room in St. john’s house for you to have your ‘prayer room’, because we will need this space for guests. I saw the truth of that. What made the decision easier was the beauty of the Chapel. Now I go in there every morning to say my prayers, and I love t. The light is so warm and ‘surrounding’ and the pictures and altar piece is beautiful. I have my notebook and other devotional articles with me there. I can say with the psalmist (and the hymn writer) ‘I love the place O Lord, wherein thine honour dwells.’
These three sets of circumstances that I have mentioned speak to me of ‘what holds me’ or, in the case of the bringing down of the cattle, ‘what holds a community’? The very first thing in the creation story in genesis is that God begins the process of differentiation. A structure begins to appear, that marks off the waters so that human beings can be ‘held’. This is echoed again in Psalm 104 where the psalmist says ‘…The waters stood above the hills. At your rebuke they fled, at the voice of your thunder they hurried away. They went up to the mountains, they went down to the valleys to the place you had appointed for them. You fixed a limit which they may not pass: they shall not return again to cover the earth.’
This differentiation marks the beginning of culture. It is the culture of the Swiss rural people that creates the rhythm of their lives, in connection with the seasons. Psalm 104 also reflects this cultural element as it describes the way in which the beasts come out at night when the people sleep, and then in the morning, when the people go out to work, the beasts lie down in their dens. It is in fact like one of those Swiss clocks, that have a wheel in them with people coming in and going out of doors.
The description of this kind of ‘right ordering’ of life, be it in rural traditions, or in having a kitchen set up or in a rhythm of prayer is what the Hebrews called ‘Peace’ or ‘Shalom’ or a right ordering of things.
But there is a danger of relying for ‘order’ on things that cannot deliver what they promise. Robyn told me about a sermon from Henri Nouwen that she saw on U-Tube. He was talking about the kinds of things people rely on, and how to rely on anything else other than the fact that we are beloved of God is to put our trust in things which cannot deliver.
Again, the psalms come in handy. They say ‘As for the gods of the nations, they are mere idols. It is the lord who made the heavens, beauty and power are n his sanctuary.’ Coming to Switzerland has meant a lot of changes for us. It has meant leaving a lot behind even though we are already forming links here we are still in a kind of ‘in-between’ phase. Naturally we ask ‘So what is holding us together?’
For me it is the round of prayer in the Chapel that is most important. It is there that I am reminded of God’s love for me and that despite the difficulties of the present, we are surrounded by love from God, and then from the members of God’s family here, the congregation. This is the piece of ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’ that I am really glad is part of my life. Then comes the bike!
People talk about St. John’s as being a ‘traditional’ congregation. Ever since the first words that god spoke in creation there has been ‘tradition’. The question is not whether there is going to be ‘tradition’ or not. The question is ‘What traditions still give life?’ Clearly for the teenagers of Charmey there is life to be had in participating in the ‘Désalps’. I would love it if we found ways too to find ways for our young people to find their role in the Sunday Eucharist so that they could participate more. The ‘Sunday Larks’ idea was a good go at this, and I’m sorry it stopped. I hope that we can do some experiments that will go some way to broadening the numbers and ages of people who can take an active role in the Eucharist. I think that this is one step along the road to introducing them to a culture and tradition that will ‘hold them’ and be able to deliver a solid foundation for life.
So there are really two themes in this reflection. One is about my question to myself: What holds me? The other is about our tradition and the young. How can we make room for them in the way that seems to be the case in Charmey?