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He was a simple man: He loved his family, was fiercely loyal to his clan, and prospered in trading. Like new city dwellers living in seventh-century Mecca, he, too, sensed the restlessness, the discontent, brought about by too much change, too fast. With dull hearts, everyone amassed fortunes, grew fat. The centuries-old Bedouin ethos of providing for the marginalized, the destitute no longer seized imaginations.

Known as al-Amin, the Reliable One, he was also given to solitary prayer and retreats. Like those around him, he listened to stories shared by Jews and Christians with whom he traded: how their eyes glowed describing the revelations of Moses, of Jesus. And how he yearned for such a prophet from among his own people to confront their malaise and rejuvenate their spirits. But the shock of becoming such a spokesperson for Allah, the Arabic word for God, almost killed him.

We are talking about the prophet Muhammed (c.570-632 CE.), found within the pages of Karen Armstrong’s biography, Muhammad – A Prophet For Our Time (2006).

Her meticulous research, drawn from the four extant biographies composed after the prophet’s death, reveals a man of hilm: patience, forbearance, compassion and mercy; not a man of the sword. For twenty-three years, under duress, the angel Gabriel/ Spirit seized his spiritual faculties and provoked him to recite revelations streaming from the heart of Allah. Inherent within these recitations, later compiled into the Koran, was a rigorous discipline few had the inclination to practice: it was too costly.

As Karen Armstrong points out, Muhammad’s modernity lies precisely in this discipline. Therein, still lies the way to Life’s fruitfulness.

 

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“I can dance! I can jump! I can run! I can work! I can play!” so sings the ecstatic Amahl, the lame shepherd boy, in Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera for children of all ages, Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951).

Set in Bethlehem, a fiery star, “as big as a window,” lures Amahl into the December hills where he pipes his heart out, one melody after another. An impossible dreamer, he frequently frustrates his widowed mother, further impoverished by the recent sale of their sheep. Piercing cold, hunger, no fire in their hearth, only sleep’s oblivion keeps death at bay. However, from out of the night emerge Melchior, Kaspar, and Balthazar, kings/astrologers and their page, seeking lodging in this widow’s hovel. Stories of their star-quest for another king quicken Amahl. Like their visitors, he will bring a gift, his crutch, all that he owns. In that decision, his withered leg throbs with new wholeness. He stands tall. He will have a life. He sings.

What was it that compelled Amahl to disregard the need for his crutch, without which he remained immobile, this reckless heart-gesture that gave its all? What did he see in that moment? What empowerment that changed everything?

Unfortunately, many of us still hold on to crutches, of whatever stripe, to inch us through challenges, to enhance functioning, to conceal our human foibles from others and ourselves. What would it be like to stride free from such hobbling compulsions and enjoy the sun’s warmth on our backs?

Perhaps in 2019, we’ll find out. May it be a very Happy New Year for you and your loved ones!

 

Imagine the terror of a ten-year-old boy suddenly facing the nozzle of a submachine gun held by an SS soldier, after having been slammed against the courtyard wall with its butt. It was Jo Joffo, waiting for his older brother on the Rue de Russie in Nazi-occupied Nice, France. It was summer, 1942. For over a month nasty inspectors interrogated him and his brother at the Excelsior Hotel until they were finally released. This experience ripped Jo Joffo from his childhood with its games of marbles and jacks, with ringing doorbells and other pranks.

This boy would later become a French author whose 1974 memoir A Bag of Marbles narrates this gripping flight to freedom, a hair-breath away from the enemy. So deep was the memoir’s appeal that it was translated into eighteen languages.

Such stories of survival still speak. From a safe distance, we observe and learn from others who have suffered heart-wrenching losses and survived murderous occupations of their countries. Yet, our times are not that different. Subtle forms of “occupation” still abound: social media, fake news, and addictive substances that manipulate attitudes, thoughts, and choices and keep spirits in bondage to Evil. Indeed, Jesus cautions us whenever we step outside our homes: “Be like sheep among wolves, cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)

The Plaza Frontenac Theater in St. Louis, Missouri, is currently showing the second film adaption of this memoir A Bag of Marbles; Christian Duguy directed it with English sub-titles.

Available on Amazon

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