While January’s Janus, the two-faced Roman god of gates and doorways, is always depicted as unrelentingly and ambiguously staring at the past and into the future, our God of Epiphany is embraced as forever creating new possibilities from within the womb of the present. I like to think of January, my own birth month, as the month of courageous beginnings. There is something of the child-beginner about January. In the natural liturgy of the seasons, we sense, at this time, the stirring of eternal newness. The very earth seems to be breathing more deeply in anticipation of Spring.
Short of nature itself, I suppose nothing or nobody more than a child epitomises the constant condition of readiness for beginning. Children’s delight in exploring the possible is the sacrament of God’s creative spirit at work in their hearts. In a former parish, St Benedict’s, we would remember how, in his famous Rule, the saint spoke to the young hearts of his monks. He began it with ‘Listen, my child, with the ear of your heart’ and ended, ‘With Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners.’ In his book ‘Crossings’, Mark Barrett OSB quotes Zen Master Suzuki; ‘In Japan we have the phrase shoshin which means beginner’s mind. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few’.
Beth and Norman are in their eighties. I remember a chat I had with them in January of last year. I had called to visit Norman in hospital after he had damaged his foot while making a frame for one of Beth’s beautiful paintings. In a matter-of-fact kind of way they asked me to recommend parts of Ireland suitable for their next move. And oh yes, Scotland, Wales or France would be fine too. All being well, they wanted to leave Ripon and head for pastures new. I was so impressed by their inner freedom. There was something childlike in their plans. And, as I left, Beth called out, ‘We could do with a quiet place; I’m learning to play the cello.’
There is something about beginning, or beginning again, that stirs our hearts profoundly. The relentless drive towards a new dawn, another start, is a pure gift of grace, an experience of God’s continuing enfleshment in our lives. God incarnates the divine self once more every time we die and rise in that tight place between failure and hope. From within his own darkness, the Irish poet Brendan Kenneally wrote: ‘Though we live in a world that dreams of ending/That always seems about to give in/Something that will not acknowledge conclusion/Insists that we forever begin.’
The angels of beginning have no set thresholds through which to enter our lives. Rather do they wait at the edge of our experiences, whatever the decade. It was suggested to the playwright 84-year-old Samuel Beckett that he should start taking things easy. ‘What!’ he exclaimed, ‘me retire? What, with the fire in me now!’ During any decade it is possible to begin a major voyage to the centre of our identity. A quiet imperative keeps nudging us towards new initiatives. Rebecca West reminds us that ‘It is the soul’s duty to be loyal to its own desires. It must abandon itself to its great passion.’ The poet-potter M.C. Richards holds that ‘The sin against the Holy Spirit is the sin against new life, against self-emergence, against the holy innerness of each person. It can be committed as easily against oneself as against another.’
Deep down, we are all masters/mistresses of our own destinies. Whichever way we chose, our decision will have been gradually reached out of a series of small, repeated beginnings along the way of our lives. Even if we have opted too often for the secure, for the burial of that one talent, there is still hope. We are creatures of the light. ‘We are God’s seed,’ preached Meister Eckhart, ‘and God’s seed must grow into God.’ Anais Nin wrote, ‘And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’
(taken from a Tablet article)