It’s a cold cloudy afternoon here, 38 degrees. We’ve seen several days of sub-zero temperatures this month, which means the buffalo are growing long thick coats. Out the window in front of us, they are using their heads as snow shovels to get to the grass beneath the crusted ice. If you listen, and the wind is just right, you can hear them talking to each other in deep-throated rumbles. Like the echo of thunder in your dreams, buffalo voices seem to call to human beings, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years, promising that springtime, warmth, and renewal are not too distant. It’s a comforting sound. Probably because somewhere deep in the human consciousness, their voices mean food is near, and you and your children are safe.
For those who’ve asked, Pia and her son, Storm, are doing great. Pia’s arthritis seems to be a little better this winter. She’s rarely limps, and when she does, we wade out through the snow to give her meloxicam. We put her in the creek pasture this summer where she had to climb steep rocky mountainsides for months. The abrasion wore her hooves down, and that’s helped a lot. We hope she continues to do well through the rest of the winter.
We’ve been working on a series of short stories, which you might think is easy after writing novels. It’s not! When you write a novel you have hundreds of pages develop characters and weave a tale. Short stories demand instant characterization and bare bones plotting. We’re enjoying the discipline immensely.
And it’s interesting that the best writing is lonely writing—at least it is for us. Especially in the winter when we are snowed in here for days, or even weeks, the outside world ceases to intrude and the imagination is set free to fly to otherworldly spaces. A truly lonely writer uses words to establish a meaningful connection with an unknown reader, a sympathetic ear that will listen and try to understand that loneliness, that search for meaning.
So, in the spirit of the holiday season, we want to tell you the story of four people: St. Francis and Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, and Louis Massignon and Mary Kalil. Regardless of your religious persuasion, or lack thereof, we think it’s a meaningful story, especially in light of world events.
In 1219, Christianity was in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, to which St. Francis objected because he believed it unchristian. Francis taught that Christians should go among the “Saracens” as servants not warriors. After the defeat of Christian forces by Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, Francis travelled to Damietta, on the Nile just outside of Cairo to see the Sultan. The two men spoke, and at one point, Francis offered to enter a furnace to prove his love of the Sultan and the truth of Christ, but the Sultan graciously declined the offer. They prayed together—and for each other. Neither converted. Both went their own ways.
Almost six hundred years later, in 1912, Louis Massignon, a Franciscan tertiary, met Mary Kalil, an Egyptian Christian working with Muslim service organizations. After twenty-two years of striving for the greater good of their community, they decided to make a vow. Together, they went to the ruins of the Franciscan church of Damietta, on the exact spot where Francis had reputedly stood and pledged to offer their lives for their Muslim brothers and sisters, “not so that they would be converted, but so that the will of God might be accomplished in them and through them.” For Louis and Mary, it was a process of badaliya, which is the Arabic word meaning to take another’s place in the battle, to substitute your life for theirs. Mary wrote: “We entered the Franciscan church with three great windows looking out over the Nile and palm trees swaying behind them. I prayed with intense devotion and a kind of magic that are hard to explain. I told Massignon how sad I was to see this town, where so many Syrian Christians had come, where my ancestors had lived, of which nothing remained. I clung to the pillars of the altar. Massignon said, “You are marked for a vow. Make a vow”—but what vow? “The vow to love them.” I said, “That’s impossible.” He said nothing is closer to hate than love. “Vow to give your life for them.” …I made the vow. I vowed to live for them, to give my life for them. Massignon said, “…we cannot really accomplish it unless we assume bodily in our lives and hearts the sufferings of others, their bloody wounds…. Our Badaliya is a reminder for everyone, and first of all for us, of the first Christian duty: welcoming the other, the stranger, the neighbor who is closer than all of our close ones, without reserve or calculation, whatever it costs and at any price.”
No matter your beliefs, we hope you can welcome the other, the stranger, and the neighbor this holiday season.
Glad Tidings to All,
Michael and Kathleen
Gude, Mary Louise, Louis Massignon: The Crucible of Compassion. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.