Friday, December 30, 2005

Pope John Paul the Great

I have been reading a review of the year in the Catholic Herald which brought back many memories of Pope JP2. As we are a Catholic-Jewish family and it is currently Hannukah as well as Christmas, I thought I'd share a story with a Jewish theme. After the death of the Pope a fellow congregant from Tevye's synagogue visited to offer sympathy. (Aside: Yet another little piece of evidence of the stature of JP2, as were the glowing letters of sympathy and tribute sent to our Church by a number of Protestant Churches in our town.) He also brought with him a book containing a story he thought I might like to read. This is the gist of it ...

Early in the Second World War a young Jewish couple were living in the Krakow ghetto. Seeing the way things were going, the mother managed to smuggle their only child, a boy, out of the ghetto to a kind woman living in nearby village who agreed to care for him for as long as necessary. All the mother asked was that she should always remember that he was Jewish and when things were once again safe she should make arrangements for him to be raised in his own faith. After the war it became clear that the parents had perished along with the rest of the Jews of Krakow. By this time the foster-mother had come to think of the child as one of her own, and regularly took him to Mass with her. As he was now orphaned she decided to have him baptised and requested baptism for him from the young parish priest. Gently questioning the woman about the boy's background, the priest established that he was Jewish and that the parent's wishes were that he should be raised accordingly. He refused baptism. Realising that it was her duty to follow the mother's instructions, the woman managed to trace relatives of the boy in America and he was sent to live with them. The foster-mother kept in touch and many, many years later, the man - now a committed Jew - received a letter from her following the election of Pope John Paul II. She wrote to tell him the name of the priest who refused to baptise him ... Karol Wojtyla.

I wonder now whether Tevye's family also had a distant connection with Pope JP2. Tevye's father came from what was then the German Free State of Danzig, and is now the Polish Gdansk. By 1939 the family were scattered. The father had died in 1938. Two brothers escaped to England and a third, Joachim, was living with his mother Marie in Wadowice, Poland - the home town of Karol Wojtyla. Knowing that the future pope had many friends among the Jewish community there, I can't help wondering whether he ever knew Joachim and Marie. We will never know, as they did not live to see the Polish pope, or even to see their family again. Marie perished during the war, we think in Auschwitz. Joachim survived the war but died of TB a year or two later without ever being able to rejoin his brothers. For myself, I am grateful to Pope John Paul the Great not just for his inspired leadership of the Catholic Church and his personal example of Faith lived to the full, but also for his love and respect for my husband's people.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A white Christmas

After a dull, grey Christmas day we got snow this week. I love snow and we rarely get more than one or two sprinklings in a year. Hidden behind the Chiltern hills it rarely reaches us in anything more than a half-hearted way. This time it was only our usual inch, but the temperatures have stayed low so it hasn't turned into slush and everything has taken on a white glow. Yesterday we went with various neighbours - five adults, three children and a dog, as well as our own family - to a local country park. The children and dog had a great time playing in the snow, and the fresh air and exercise did the adults good! One neighbour brought flasks of hot chocolate which we drank by the side of a frozen lake. The snow covered trees were stunningly beautiful and for once I remembered to take a camera.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

In Memoriam: Barbara Brown

A friend of mine died today. I only ever "met" Barbara by email, but came to know her as a courageous, faithful woman with a deep love of the Catholic faith she found some years ago. We shared a love of literature and posted favourites to each other across the Atlantic. The bravery with which she and her family faced her battle with cancer was an inspiration. I thank God that I had the opportunity to know her, if only from a distance.

Eternal rest grant to her O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Oops, forgot another highlight

... the BBC's Doctor Who Christmas special, anticipated by us all for several months since the last series finished. We loved Christopher Ecclestone's Doctor, who in my opinion was up there with the greats (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker), and wondered how David Tennant's version would match up. So far, so good. The doctor survived a vicious assault from a Christmas tree, and recovered consciousness just in time to save the earth from an equally vicious assault by aliens. All just as it should be! Wonderful to see a classic from our childhoods back.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas ups and downs

A rather random review of our Christmas ...


A packed Church for the Children's Mass on Christmas Eve. Living in an almost entirely secular country, a Church filled literally to overflowing is a rare and wonderful sight. OK, it isn't the most peaceful, reverent Mass of the year, but it is a joyful one.

Playing alongside Angel in our Church music group on Christmas Eve. This time last year she had never even picked up a trumpet; now she is a capable young musician, keeping up admirably with older, more experienced players and sounding good. Proud mama time!

Smoked salmon rolls for breakfast.

Christmas pudding with brandy sauce and custard.

Star's pleasure in a bright pink, crown shaped bedroom doorbell which allows her to record her own message. (Star has spent quite some time recently trying to construct doorbells!)

Time with family and friends.

A wriggling baby!


Star in tired, whingy mode at Mass. Unfortunately, in our under-sized, over-crowded Church the only place to put the music group (and its junior offspring) is in a highly visible position right next to the altar. Fortunately, Star was mostly hidden behind the Christmas tree.

Trying to load music onto an MP3 player that came with the most abysmal instruction manual I have ever seen. Literally worse than useless.

Making a grab for the top shelf of the fridge at the same time as Tevye and contriving to knock an entire tub of cream over him. Tevye's sense of humour temporarily deserted him, though he did admit later, when no longer dripping, that it was quite funny.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The deeper magic from before the dawn of time

I read with interest this blog entry about Christmas Christians. For ten years I was a Christmas Christian, from the time I refused to continue attending the Methodist Church with my parents, until the year that I realised that I could no longer put off becoming a Catholic. During that ten years I rarely missed going to a midnight Christmas service, sometimes Methodist, sometimes Church of England, although I don't remember ever darkening the doors of a Church at any other time. At some point my faith journey touched rock bottom, and for a while I counted myself an atheist, yet something about Christmas drew me to Church each year. Gradually faith returned, first with a vague theism and ultimately an acceptance of the essential Truth of Christianity. Finally I acknowledged that if I believed Christianity to be true then I had no choice but to act accordingly, and for me that pointed directly at Roman Catholicism. Despite never having entered a Catholic Church except as a tourist, and never having knowingly spoken to anyone who was Catholic, I gathered every ounce of courage I possessed and went to Mass for the first time. Once again, Christmas was the trigger - my first Mass was on the first Sunday of December, 1985.

I've been pondering why Christmas kept pulling me towards Christ despite myself. As a child I loved Christmas and all its trappings. I still do! Everything from the excitement of putting up the tree and feeling the weight of a stocking on my bed on Christmas morning, to singing carols, opening windows on an Advent calendar and attending Church on Christmas morning. Magical. And I wonder if that is the key. The true magic of Christmas is so much more than just the secular trappings and the little excitements; it is a window through which we glimpse the connection between heaven and earth forged by the birth of a baby in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. This, surely, is why the Christmas Christians come out of the woodwork each year. The magic of Christmas draws them towards "the deeper magic from before the dawn of time" it represents. Each year some of those Christmas Christians will come a little closer to its true meaning. And I remain eternally grateful that I was one of them, and in time learned to see the "deeper magic" for what it was.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Pregnancy Milestones

Yesterday I had my first obstetrician's appointment, at 14 weeks. Here in the UK most routine antenatal care is provided by community midwives, but due to "advanced maternal age" (45) I've been put into the consultant care system where I see an obstetrician at the hospital as well as my local midwife. I had a suspicion I was going to be pressured over my refusal to have testing for Downs Syndrome, but beyond warning me of my "high risk" the doctor didn't pursue that one. He launched into what sounded like the beginning of a long list of potential problems for older mothers - higher risk of high blood pressure, higher risk of kidney problems (due to high blood pressure) ... and then fizzled out and admitted there wasn't anything else significant to worry about! As my blood pressure is good, and I've never previously had a problem with it, I'm not going to waste time worrying about that one unless it arises. After that he checked me over and I got to hear the baby's heartbeat for the first time :-). I've already seen it on a scan, but it's reassuring to know all is still well. I'm appreciating the miracle that is pregnancy more this time around, partly because I'm older and wiser(?), but mainly because the very fact that I'm pregnant now seems such a miracle in itself.

I took advantage of being out alone to pass another pregancy milestone and buy maternity trousers and a top. I'm not large enough to need it yet, but clearly heading in that direction fast. My current wardrobe is reduced to two skirts that are beginning to get tight, and some trackpants I bought for the gym which I accidentally bought a size too large - fortunately as it turns out!

Onwards and outwards ...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Book Review: The Greatest Gift

While I'm on the subject of the magi, I'll recommend one of my favourite Christmas picture books - or, more accurately, an Epiphany picture book: The Greatest Gift by Susan Summers. This retells a Victorian story about a fictional fourth wise man, Artaban. Delayed at the beginning of his journey when he stops to help a dying man, he misses the caravan of the other three magi and is forced to follow on behind. After many years of travel he finally reaches Jerusalem just as the King of Kings he is seeking is to be crucified. The precious jewels he brought for the king have all been sold for the benefit of others, and he is painfully aware that he has nothing left to give to the King. Of course, the reality is very different ... "When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was in distress, you comforted me. As often as you did these things to the least of my children, you did them for me." This is one of those books that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

Caspar, Melchior ... but where is Balthazar?

Yesterday was the day for putting up our Christmas tree and Nativity set. For the first time Angel and Star decorated the tree by themselves, while I supervised with my feet up on the sofa (mostly). They did a good job, with only one minor outbreak of frustration when Star couldn't quite reach to get the star on the top. Star then moved on to setting out the Nativity scene. We started family life with squishy plastic figures from the Early Learning Centre. Not elegant, but toddler friendly. This set survived several years intact, apart from the sad disappearance of one of the three kings. The kings are important here, as we have them journey through the house from Christmas Day onwards, arriving at the stable on Epiphany. After a couple of years with only two magi, and with Star no longer a toddler, we upgraded to a Playmobil Nativity set. After some time sorting out figures, animals and extras, Star announces "Mum, there are only two kings". Not again! Not to worry, the absent king must surely be in the box with our other Playmobil people. We check the box. No king, though he has apparently left his cloak there. It looks as though the best we can do is to disguise a wizard as Balthazar. I'm determined to have the full complement of magi making their journey this year!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Getting Started

I set this blog up on Saturday morning. Here I am on Monday morning with nothing written. Several times over the weekend I've looked at the blank space on the blog page ... and moved on to something else. Procrastination! How to begin? Jump straight into my life with an event from our day? Write a long and detailed introduction? Nope. Write something. Anything. Just get that blank space looking less blank and I'll be away. Note to self: remember to be more sympathetic when darling daughters baulk at the sight of an empty page waiting to be written on!