Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Christmas Tree as Icon, Inviting Us to Contemplate the "One Holy Circle" of Both Dark and Light

Be still and know
that day and night,
dark and light,
are one holy circle.

– Jokhim Meikle

At this time of year I can't think of a better image to serve as a reminder of Jokhim Meikle's wise observation than that of a Christmas tree, aglow in the beauty of the night.

My housemate Tim and I set up and decorated our tree last night.

As often as I can during Advent, I spend part of each evening simply sitting in the darkness and looking upon the softly-lighted Christmas tree. I might recite a prayer that's particularly meaningful to me, play some Sufi music, or just sit in silence. Focusing on the tree's depths of darkness and multi-colored lights can sometimes feel like gazing into another universe, another world. It's a time of quiet reflection and prayer, to be sure, with the tree serving as an icon, a window into the beautiful mystery of the "one holy circle" of both light and dark – the blessed paradox – that surrounds us . . . and calls us to transformation.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Advent: The Season of Blessed Paradox
Advent: Renewing Our Connection to the Sacred
Thoughts of Waiting . . . and a Resolution
The Centered Life is an Advent Life
Something to Cherish
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 1)
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 2)
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 3)
Advent 2011: Thoughts and Reflections (Part 4)
Mystics Full of God
Christmas Baubles
Christmastide Approaches

Related Off-site Links:
Why Does Advent Matter? – Susan Stabile (Creo en Dios!, December 5, 2014).
Without An Experience of Extravagant Love, We Have No Hope to Become Better: An Advent Reflection – Matthew Myers (Bondings 2.0, November 30, 2014).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

In the Dance of Light, Eyes of Fiery Passion

The Privileged Lovers

The moon has become a dancer
at this festival of love.
The dance of light,
this sacred blessing,
this divine love
beckons us
to a world beyond
only lovers can see
with their eyes of fiery passion.

They are the chosen ones
who have surrendered.
Once they were particles of light
now they are the radiant sun.
They have left behind
the world of deceitful games.
They are the privileged lovers
who create a new world
with their eyes of fiery passion.

(translated by Deepak Chopra and Fereydoun Kia)
from The Love Poems of Rumi

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
A Dance of Divine Light
The Art of Dancing as the Supreme Symbol of the Spiritual Life
Never Say It is Not God
Lovemaking: Pathway to Truth, Harmony and Wholeness
Ramesh Bjonnes on Rumi and Shams as Gay Lovers
Rumi and Shams: A Love of Another Kind
Prayer of the Week – June 2, 2014
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace

Image: Stéphane Haffner and Emiliano Simeoni, photographed by David Vance.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Something to Think About . . .

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Something to Think About – November 26, 2013
Capitalism on Trial
R.I.P. Neoclassical Economics
Quote of the Day – March 28, 2011
Remembering the "Radical Ethic" of the Catholic Worker Movement
Quote of the Day – August 17, 2011
John le Carré’s Dark Suspicions
John Pilger on Resisting Empire
A Call to Emphasize Catholicism's "Sweet Spot"
Agreeing with the Vatican

Related Off-site Links:
The Pope’s Take on Capitalism – Andrew Rosenthal (The New York Times, November 26, 2013).
Will Capitalism Destroy Civilization? – Noam Chomsky (, March 2013).
From Jesus' Socialism to Capitalistic Christianity – Gregory Paul (The Washington Post via The Progressive Catholic Voice, August 14, 2011).
Capitalism's Dismal Future – Paul Mattick (The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 13, 2011).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Quote of the Day

If your concerns about violence are limited to property damage and looting, and you have never shed two tears for the history of institutional violence, murder, colonialism, segregation, lynching, genocide and police brutality against peoples of color, your words mean nothing; they mean less than nothing. Your outrage, in such a case is grotesque, an inversion of morality so putrescent as to call into question your capacity for real feeling at all. So long as violence from below is condemned while violence from above is ignored, you can bet that the former will continue – and however unfortunate that may be, it is surely predictable. If you'd like the former to cease, put an end to the latter, and then I promise you, it will.

Related Off-site Links:
No Indictment in Ferguson Case; Chaos Fills Streets – Jim Salter and David A. Lieb (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, November 24, 2014).
Ferguson Cop Darren Wilson Will Not Be Charged for Killing Michael Brown, Grand Jury DecidesMother Jones (November 24, 2014).
Highlights of Testimony in Michael Brown Shooting – David A Lieb and David B. Caruso (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, November 25, 2014).
Ferguson Protester Slams Arrogant CNN Host: "We Have a Right to Be Mad, Our Anger’s Justified" – Elisabeth Parker (Addicting Info, November 25, 2014).
Ferguson Cop Darren Wilson Is Just the Latest to Go Unprosecuted for a Fatal Shooting – Jaeah Lee (Mother Jones, November 24, 2014).
The Ultimate White Privilege: Darren Wilson and Being “Afraid for Your Life” – Katie McDonough (Salon, August 21, 2014).
Officer Darren Wilson's Story is Unbelievable. Literally. – Ezra Klein (Vox, November 25, 2014).
Missouri Grand Jury Shows Impact of Systemic Racism – American Friends Service Committee (November 24, 2014).
Congressional Black Caucus Denounces Ferguson Grand Jury – Kendall Breitman (Politico, November 24, 2014).
The ACLU Response to Ferguson – The American Civil Liberties Union (November 24, 2014).
Ferguson: Mistrust in Criminal Justice System Formed by Long History of Discrimination – Richard Cohen (Southern Poverty Law Center, November 24, 2014).
The Grand Jury System is Corrupt, and the Darren Wilson Case Shows How to Fix It – David Feige (Slate, November 18, 2014).
Michael Brown's Family: "Let's Not Just Make Noise, Let's Make a Difference" – Laura Clawson (Daily Kos, November 24, 2014).
Ferguson Protests vs. White People's Riots – Sally Kohn (CNN, November 20, 2014).
How a Century of Racist Policies Made Ferguson Into a Pocket of Concentrated Despair – Joshua Holland (, October 27, 2014).
"No Justice, No Peace" in Ferguson and Across America – Nekima Levy-Pounds (Star Tribune, November 25, 2014).
17 Steps Civil Rights Groups Recommend to Prevent More Cop Killings and Stop Abusive Policing – Steven Rosenfeld (AlterNet, November 25, 2014).
Seven Ways to Demand Change If You're Feeling Hopeless and Helpless After Ferguson Decision – Robbie Couch (The Huffington Post, November 25, 2014).

Car Plows Through Protesters During Ferguson Rally in South Minneapolis – Libor Jany and Nicole Norfleet (Star Tribune, November 25, 2014).
Videos Show Nationwide Protests Over Ferguson DecisionYahoo! News (November 25, 2014).
Brown Family Blasts Prosecution, Wilson Speaks – Tom Foreman Jr. and Jim Salter (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, November 25, 2014).
Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop – Chase Madar (The Nation, November 25, 2014).
Riot as the Language of the Unheard: Ferguson Protests Set to Continue in Fight For Racial JusticeDemocracy Now! (November 25, 2014).
The Meaning of the Ferguson Riots – Editorial Board (The New York Times, November 25, 2014).
What Do the Newly Released Witness Statements Tell Us About the Michael Brown Shooting? – Laura Santhanam and Vanessa Dennis (PBS Newshour, November 25, 2014).
Ferguson Grand Jury Papers Full of Inconsistencies – Holbrook Mohr, David A. Lieb and Phillip Lucas (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, November 27, 2014).
Everything the Darren Wilson Grand Jury Got Wrong: The Lies, Errors and Mistruths That Let Michael Brown’s Killer Off the Hook – Paul Rosenberg (Salon, November 26, 2014).
What the Ferguson Protests Mean for Religious Progressive Activism – Shannon Craigo-Snell (Religion Dispatches, November 26, 2014).
KU Journalism Major Shreds "Case" Against Mike (November 29, 2014).
Darren Wilson, Ferguson Officer Who Shot Michael Brown, ResignsNBC News (November 29, 2014).
"Not One More Darren Wilson, Not One More Mike Brown": National Protests Continue Ferguson StruggleDemocracy Now! (December 1, 2014).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Prayer in a "Summer of Strife"
Quote of the Day – July 13, 2013

Image 1: Protestors run away after police deployed tear gas during a demonstration on November 24, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Image 2: A line of police officers prepares to advance on protestors during a demonstration in Oakland, California November 24, 2014, following the grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage)
Image 3: A couple embraces as a grand jury's decision is delivered on November 24, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Prayer of the Week

'Mid All the Traffic of the Ways

'Mid all the traffic of the ways,
turmoils without, within,
Make in my heart a quiet place,
and come and dwell within;
A little shrine of quietness,
all sacred to thy-self,
Where thou shalt all my soul possess,
and I may find myself;
A little shelter from life's stress,
where I may lay me prone,
And bare my soul in loneliness,
and know as I am known;
A little place of mystic grace,
of ego and sin swept bare,
Where I may look upon they face,
and talk with thee in prayer.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Intimate Soliloquies
The Source is Within You
The Soul Within the Soul
Quote of the Day – November 16, 2011
Michael Morwood on the Divine Presence
The Harvest Within the Heart
There Must Be Balance
May Balance and Harmony Be Your Aim
Richard J. Foster on Prayer
Karl Rahner on the Need for Prayer
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Image: Subject and photographer unknown.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Model of Leadership Offered by Jesus: "More Like the Gardener Than the Owner of the Garden"


I've spent a good part of today shifting and sorting through papers and documents dating back to the mid-1990s. In the process I discovered a piece I wrote for the Dignity Twin Cities newsletter in 1997. It was written in response to then-Archbishop Harry Flynn's remark that "the pastor is the head honcho." It's interesting to read the response I penned in light of recent revelations that detail Flynn's – along with his predecessor's and successor's – scandalous lack of leadership in response to the decades-long clergy sex abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Perhaps if an alternative model of leadership other than that of "head honcho" had been promoted, say, a model that was open to a range of perspectives and which allowed for accountability and transparency, then the archdiocese might not be in the mess it's in today. Drawing on the insights of Donna Schaper, my article from 1997 offers an alternative model, one which although reflective of the gospel message of Jesus, is still yet to be fully embraced by the church's clerical leadership.


Archbishop's "Head Honcho" Model of Leadership
at Odds with Gospel Message

By Michael J. Bayly

Dignity Twin Cities Newsletter
March-April 1997

At one point during the question and answer session of the February 22 Archdiocesan Assembly Day, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn commented on the role of the pastor. "The pastor is the head honcho," he said, "I would be less than honest with you if I let you go home today thinking anything else."

The archbishop's comments were in response to concerns related to the archdiocese's commitment to the servant model of leadership. "Canon law explicitly states that pastors have the final say in all parish matters and disputes, and Catholics must respect such authority," the archbishop said. "It would be wrong to think that, in a parish, the pastor doesn't have the last word. He does."

The archbishop's comments and in particular his choice of vocabulary, say much about one model of leadership operative in the church. Yet there are other models, a fact which makes this issue worthy of theological analysis and reflection. Undeniably there is a need for leadership at the parish level. Yet must this leadership be personified by individuals whose model of leadership revolves upon having "the last word"? There is an element of fear and mistrust inherent in advocating and insisting on such a model; an element that is totally alien to the trusting and compassionate model of leadership embodied by Jesus.

In one of her Lenten reflections, author Donna Schaper writes on the leadership of Jesus She notes that Mary Magdalene's confusing of Jesus with the gardener on Easter Sunday morning indicates "the radical nature of the risen Christ: he is more like a friend, more like the gardener, more like a woman." Continues Schaper:

[Jesus] is not big but little, not strong but weak, not above us but one of us. We will be raised from the dead when we understand that Jesus is accurately confused with the gardener. He is more like the gardener than he is like the owner of the garden.

Schaper goes on to apply this example of "gospel democracy," and the "friendship model" of leadership it facilitates, to ministry. She notes, for example, that:

We minister in a world that is ideologically hostile to the gospel, that word from God in which Jesus says to all the disciples, not just the ordained ones: "I have called you friends." Here Jesus is illuminating us to a radically new relationship between people and God . . . It is like a garden we all work in together, not a garden where one is employed and the other the employer.

This "democratic understanding" of the resurrection, Schaper contends, is ironic as it places "even more responsibility on the individual and the autonomous while basing itself fully in the grace of the common." Given Archbishop Fylnn's recent statements, one could contend that the hierarchical church has a tendency to view with suspicion and fear both this autonomy and grace, and to demand in their place the installation of "head honcho"-type figures.

We as church, however, do not require "head honchos" – individuals more concerned with the question Who's in charge here? than questions such as What are the responsibilities of a leader in this particular situation, this particular parish? or What and where are the checks and balances for the model of leadership active in this parish? Such questions are the hallmark of authentic leadership – a mode of being that acknowledges and celebrates the diversity of the Christian church and understands that true leadership cannot be monopolized.

Perhaps for those present at the Archdiocesan Assembly Day event the archbishop's citing of "official" church teaching was an adequate response. Yet for many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Catholics well acquainted with the fallibility of so-called "official" teachings, the archbishop's response raises a plethora of questions and concerns. We and others know that a "because our tradition says" response reflects a model of church (and thus revelation) that has a strong tendency to ignore (even condemn) specific experiences of the sacred in human life. In so doing, tradition is placed before truth – a situation untenable for followers of Jesus.

Accordingly, the church should abhor the term "head honcho" and the sexist and militaristic elitism it implies. Likewise, the ecclessiastical model that such a term readily springs from needs to be transformed into one that more truly reflects the reality that it is the spirit of the Risen Christ which is the one true pastor of the church; the reality that this spirit speaks through the life experiences of all people regardless of their position within (or outside) the male-designed and dominated structure we call church hierarchy – a structure that by its homogenous founding and maintenance cannot adequately represent or speak definitively for the richly diverse reality of the church as understood as the people of God, the Body of Christ.

Ultimately we must all take to heart the gospel call to be a priestly people. Our pastors, male and female, should exemplify this call in a distinct though non-elitist way. The exact nature of their vocation is certainly not what the official church advocates as articulated by Archbishop Flynn. Instead we would all do well to listen to the spirit active in the lives of the poor and disenfranchised – GLBT people included – so as to ascertain a clearer understanding of the role of the pastor. What is needed throughout the church is a compassionate willingness to truly hear – not just to merely listen and then fall back on church doctrines. What is needed is a trusting and vulnerable openness to the voice of the spirit present in the life experiences of others – a willingness, in other words, to take to heart Mary Pellauer's observation that "If there's anything worth calling theology, it is listening to people's stories, listening to them and cherishing them."

In short, we are all called to be continually making leaps of faith – not because our position or rank demands it, but because our call to be followers of Jesus demands it. Self-authenticated action is the hallmark of true leadership, regardless of whether or not such action is framed within positional and/or functional roles. And in taking such action, it is the example of the humble shepherd and the Easter-morning gardener that we are called to emulate.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Genuine Authority
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Gospel Leadership
Remembering Oscar Romero
Bishop Gumbleton: A Priesthood Set Apart and Above Others is Not the Way of Jesus
Francis: The Servant Pope
Nicole Sotelo: "Jesus Was Not Focused on Priesthood"
Bishop Gumbleton: It Isn’t the Church You’re Being Asked to Say Yes To . . . It’s Jesus
A Uniquely Liberated Man
Answer to a Troubled Liberal Catholic
Tony Flannery in Minneapolis
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
My Response to Archbishop Flynn
For the Record

Related Off-site Link:
Betrayed by Silence: How Three Archbishops Hid the Truth – Madeleine Baran (Minnesota Public Radio News, July 14, 2014).

Image: Artist unknown.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Something to Think About . . .

"Gender, Gospel, and Global Justice," the third international conference of Women's Ordination Worldwide, will take place in Philadelphia, September 18-20, 2015. To register, click here.

Related Off-site Links:
We Have No Shortage of Vocations. What We Have is a Shortage of Vision – Christine Schenk (National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 2014).
Pope Francis and Christian Conservatives Team Up to Promote Patriarchy – Patricia Miller (Religion Dispatches, November 20, 2014).
Cardinal O'Malley: If I Started a Church, I'd Love to Have Women Priests – Teresa M. Hanafin (Crux, November 16, 2014).
End Marginalization in the Catholic Church – Roy Bourgeois (The Washington Post via The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 17, 2013).
St. Mary Magdalene: How the Apostle to the Apostles Subverts Patriarchy – Meghan Clark (Millennial, July 22, 2013).
Ministry, Not Maleness, is the Theological Starting Point for the Priest – James Moudry (The Progressive Catholic Voice, February 18, 2009).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Sister Teresa Forcades on Queer Theology
No Patriarchal Hierarchy, No Rigid Conformity
Thoughts on Ordination, Intellectual Dishonesty, and the Holy Spirit of which the Prophet Joel Speaks
Fr. Roy Bourgeois: "We Need Women Priests in Our Church For It to Be Healthy and Complete"
Quote of the Day – May 4, 2014
Angela Bonavoglia on the Church's "Continued Demonization of Women"
Roger Haight on the Church We Need
Clearing Away the Debris
“We Are All the Rock” – An interview with Roman Catholic Womanpriest Judith McKloskey

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Quote of the Day

How did [the] collapse [of the National Organization for Marriage] occur so quickly? I have three theories. The first is that casual donors grew weary of NOM’s execrably hateful campaigns and craven refusal to face public censure. In 2013, the group’s anti-gay rhetoric sounded barbaric and, at a fundamental level, simply impolite. Even if you didn’t like gay people, you probably didn’t want to associate with such a rabid crowd.

My second, related theory is NOM’s donors are increasingly terrified of being unmasked. For years, the group flew under the radar, and donors could give anonymously. But since the Prop 8 debacle, the indefatigable Fred Karger and his merry band of campaign finance lawyers have been fighting in court, successfully, to force NOM to disclose its donor lists. As the Brendan Eich controversy illustrates, having your name linked with an anti-gay cause can irreparably tarnish your public image. For anti-gay Americans without the backbone to weather harsh criticism, a NOM donation simply isn’t worth the risk.

My third theory—and probably the most likely one—is that NOM’s former donor base has simply lost interest. The battle is over. They know it, and they’re moving on. Gay marriage is here to stay. . . . [A]nyone not totally blinded by bigotry can see pretty clearly that NOM is waging a war against the inevitable.

– Mark Joseph Stern

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Exposing NOM's "Shameful" Behavior in Minnesota . . . and By Extension the Shameful Behavior of the Roman Catholic Clerical Leadership
A Message for NOM (and the Catholic Hierarchy)
Misplaced Priorities: Knights of Columbus Donate Big to NOM
NOM's Minnesota Battle Plan
MN Sen. John Marty Responds to NOM's Gay Marriage Attack Ad
Quote of the Day – April 8, 2011
Marriage Equality: Simple Answers to NOM's Complicated Lies
At UST, a Rousing and Very Catholic Show of Support for Marriage Equality

Related Off-site Links:
How the National Organization for Marriage Doomed Itself to Collapse – Mark Joseph Stern (Slate, June 6, 2014).
NOM, In Secret Partnership with Catholic Archbishop, Other Elites, Forms New Group – David Badash (The New Civil Rights Movement, June 18, 2014).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Source is Within You

Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world.
The forms may change, yet the essence remains the same.
Every wonderful sight will vanish, every sweet word will fade,
but do not be disheartened,
the source they come from is eternal, growing,
branching out, giving new life and new joy.
Why do you weep?
The source is within you,
and this whole world is springing up from it.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Michael Morwood on the Divine Presence (Part III)
The Sufi Way
Quote of the Day – November 16, 2011
Doris Lessing on the Sufi Way
The Soul Within the Soul
Intimate Soliloquies
Clarity, Hope and Courage
Sufism: A Call to Awaken
In the Garden of Spirituality – Hazrat Inayat Khan
In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
In the Garden of Spirituality – Kabir Helminski
The Soul of My Love
"Joined at the Heart": Robert Thompson on Christianity and Sufism
Rumi and Shams: A Love of Another Kind
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Image: Subject and photographer unknown.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Remembering Olga Nikolaevna and Her Sisters

November 3 was the 119th anniversary of the birth of Olga Nikolaevna Romanova, eldest daughter of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna.

I'm sure the tragic fate of Olga is known to most people. After the February Revolution of 1917 and the tsar's subsequent abdication, the Romanov family were detained in Russia. In July 1918 the entire family – Nicholas, Alexandra, their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, and son Alexei – were brutally murdered in Yekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks of the Ural Regional Soviet. The Bolsheviks had come to power the previous October.

One of the things that draws me to the Romanovs' story is how through their responses of fortitude and love during the months of imprisonment leading up to their murder, they came to perceive more clearly the strengthening and transforming presence of God. This resulted decades later in their canonization as passion bearers by the Russian Orthodox Church.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been fascinated by the story of the Romanovs since high school, when I saw Franklin J. Schaffner's film Nicholas and Alexandra on Australian TV. Since then I've read numerous books on the Romanov family, the latest being Helen Rappaport's The Romanov Sisters, published earlier this year.

The Romanov Sisters is subtitled "The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra," implying that previously unknown or "lost" information about the young women has been unearthed. In reality, like the Romanov books by Robert K. Massie, Greg King, Carolly Erickson, and Peter Kurth, Rappaport's book relies heavily on the memoirs of a number of members of the Russian imperial court who had close contact with the Romanovs and who survived the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution so as to share their first-hand recollections. These people include the Tsaritsa's close friends Anna Vyrubova and Lili Dehn; Pierre Gilliard, the French language tutor to the Romanov children; court official Count Paul Benckendorff, and the Tsaritsa's lady-in-waiting Baroness Sophia Buxhoeveden. True, many of these accounts are highly subjective; they are memoirs, after all. What many of the more recent books about the Romanovs provide is balance and objectivity. Yet in terms of observations of the Romanov children, the memoirs mentioned above are the first and, in many ways, the last word. The gift of a good writer like Helen Rappaport is to weave the different observations and stories from these often forgotten and/or out-of-print memoirs into a single compelling narrative that resonates and appeals to contemporary readers. I'm happy to report that Rappaport accomplishes this task.

Right: Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana with a young wounded soldier and an unidentified doctor.

What I most appreciate about The Romanov Sisters are its chapters documenting the two eldest sisters' work as nurses, or "sisters of mercy," during the First World War. Olga and Tatiana were joined in this important and often difficult work by their mother. In time, the work proved too taxing for Olga, who unlike her more focused and practical sister Tatiana, found it increasingly difficult to cope with the trauma of some of the operations she witnessed. By 1916 Olga was taking on a reduced workload, mainly taking temperatures, writing prescriptions and machining bed linen. About the 20-year-old Olga at this time Rappaport writes:

A French journalist who had been granted the rare privilege of meeting Alexandra and the girls at their hospital remarked in 1916 that there was "something of the serenity of the mystic about Olga Nikolaevna." It was a trait that perhaps more than anything defined her Russianness and one that became more pronounced as the war went on. Olga seemed more and more lost in her own private thoughts about the kind of life, and love, that she longed for. One day at the hospital, she had confided to [her friend] Valentina her personal "dreams of happiness": "To get married, live always in the countryside winter and summer, always mix with good people, and no officialdom whatsoever."

You know, every time I start to read (or re-read) a book about the Romanovs I find myself hoping against hope that it will end differently; that somehow the family will escape Russia and be spared the brutal death that awaits them in the cellar of the Bolsheviks' "House of Special Purpose" in Yekaterinburg. One cannot rewrite history, of course, and so there was no marriage or home in the country or life without officialdom for Olga . . . or indeed any of her siblings.

Still, without in any way glamorizing or condoning the repressive autocratic system over which her parents ruled, I want to acknowledge and honor Olga Nikolaevna, her sisters, and the noble and good work that she, Tatiana, and their mother did as sisters of mercy. I do this by sharing (with added images and links) the following excerpts from The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport.


When Russia went to war in the summer of 1914, it was faced with a desperate shortage of nurses. With massive losses of almost 70,000 killed or wounded in the first five days of fighting, the Russian government predicted that at least 10,000 nurses would be needed. Stirred by patriotic duty, legions of the fashionable and aristocratic ladies of St. Petersburg – or rather Petrograd, as the city was quickly renamed – as well as the wives and daughters of government officials, and professional women such as teachers and academics, rushed to do medical training and embrace the war effort. By September, with the need for nurses increasingly acute, the Russian Red Cross had reduced the usual year-long training to two months. Many women did not make the grade and with it the right to be called sestry miloserdiya – sisters of mercy – as nurses were termed in Russia.

From the day war broke out the Tsaritsa was determined that she and her two eldest daughters should play their part; in early September they began their Red Cross training, taking on the self-effacing titles of Sister Romanova, numbers 1, 2 and 3. Although Maria and Anastasia were too young to train they also were to play an active role, as hospital visitors. No one represented the female war effort in Russia more emotively than did the Tsaritsa and her daughters through the two and a half long and dispiriting years of war that preceded the revolution of 1917. Everywhere – in newspapers, magazines and shop fronts – one prevailing, iconic image dominated – of the three imperial sisters of mercy soberly dressed in their Red Cross uniforms.

. . . During their training . . . Olga and Tatiana came under the watchful care of Valentina Chebotareva, the daughter of a military doctor, who had been a nurse during the Russo-Japanese War [of 1905]. "How distant they were at first," she recalled of the tsaritsa and her daughters' first days. "We kissed their hand, exchanged greetings . . . and that's as far as it went." But Alexandra soon told the staff that they were not to pay them any special attention and things quickly changed. During their training the three women were to observe [procedures] in the operating theatre and then graduate on to assisting during operations, but their primary duty in the first days was to learn how to dress wounds. The days were particularly long for Tatiana, as she was still completing her education and often had an early morning lesson. Immediately afterwards, and before they started work, the tsaritsa and the girls would stop to pray before the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God at the little Znamenie Church . . . before arriving at [the hospital] at around 10 a.m. to change into their uniforms and begin work.

Above: Tatiana (center) assisting in a medical procedure.

Right: Olga performing her duties as a Sister of Mercy.

Every morning Olga and Tatiana were tasked with changing the dressings of three or four patients each (though this increased as the war went on and the numbers of wounded went up) as well as undertaking the many menial tasks required of them – rolling bandages, preparing swabs, boiling the silk thread for stitching, and machining bed linen. At one o'clock they would return home for lunch and in the afternoon if the weather was fine they would sometimes go out for a brief walk, a bike ride, or a drive with their mother, but most often they returned to the hospital to spend time with the wounded, chatting, playing board games or pin-pong with them and in the summer months croquet in the garden with those who could walk. Often they simply sat knitting or sewing items for refugees and war orphans while the soldiers chatted to them; sometimes they went off and sneaked a cigarette in their rest room. Always, inevitably, the cameras would be taken out at every opportunity and photographs taken of themselves with their wounded officers and friends. Some of these were later reproduced as postcards sold to raise funds for war relief. Other photographs the girls carefully pasted into albums and shared with the wounded later.

. . . In the evenings some of the men gathered round the piano in the common room and sang – which Olga and Tatiana particularly enjoyed – but the best days were festivals or holidays, when they would be joined by Maria and Anastasia, and sometime even Alexey. On evenings when they went back home earlier the girls would often end up telephoning the hospital for one last chat with their favorites.

Above: The Romanov siblings in 1916.
From left, Olga, Alexei, Anastasia, Maria, and Tatiana.

The Romanov sisters and their mother were not spared any of the shock of their first confrontation with the suffering of the wounded and the terrible damage done to their bodies by bombs, sabres and bullets. Joined by [Alexandra's close friend] Anna Vyrubova in their training, they were thrown in at the deep end, dealing with men who arrived "dirty, bloodstained and suffering," as Anna recalled. "Our hands scrubbed in antiseptic solutions we began the work of washing, cleaning, and bandaging maimed bodies, mangled faces, blinded eyes, all the indescribable mutilations of what is called civilized warfare." Sometimes Anastasia and Maria were allowed to come and watch them dressing the wounds, and from August 16 the older girls began observing operations, at first civilian ones for appendixes and hernias, and the lancing of swellings. But soon they were watching bullets being taken out and on September 18 a trepanning for removal of shrapnel; five days later they witnessed their first leg amputation. Once qualified they would be assisting – Alexandra usually handing the surgical instruments to [the surgeon] and taking away amputated limbs, the girls threading surgical needles and passing cotton-wool swabs. On November 25 they saw their first wounded man die on the operating table; Alexandra told Nicholas that their "girlies" had been very brave.

Left: Tatiana and her mother assist in a medical operation.

. . . With Nicholas away for much of the time at Stavka – army HQ located at a railway junction near Baranovichi (in today's Belorussia) – Alexandra sent him regular updates on their daughters' progress. On September 20 she told him what a comfort it was "to see the girls working alone & that they will be known more and learn to be useful." They seemed to adapt quickly to the new demands made on them, and, as [their French language tutor] Pierre Gilliard observed, "with their usual natural simplicity and good humor . . . accepted the increasing austerity of life at Court." Gilliard was especially impressed with their thoughtful attitude to their work and the fact that they had no problem covering their beautiful hair in the nun-like nurse's wimple and spending most of their time in uniform. They weren't playing at being nurses – which from time to time Gilliard observed in other aristocratic ladies – but were true sisters of mercy.

Above: Tatiana and Olga working in a hospital ward.

Above: Maria and Anastasia visiting wounded soldiers.

Right: Tatiana with Vladimir Kiknadze, a 2nd lieutenant in the 3rd Guards Rifles Regiment.

. . . Precise and even bossy at times, Tatiana could, for some, seem too serious and – unlike Olga – lacking in spontaneity. But she was already ready to help others and her ability to apply herself in tandem with her altruistic personality made her admirably suited for nursing work. Whenever [the haemophilic] Alexey had been ill she had helped nurse him and followed the doctors' instructions with regard to medicines, as well as sitting with him. She was also unquestioningly tolerate of the demands of her mother; she "knew how to surround her with unwearying attentions and she never gave way to her own capricious impulses," as Gilliard recalled, which was something that Olga was increasingly prey to. Indeed, in everything she did Tatiana Nikolaevna would soon prove that she had perseverance of the kind her more emotionally volatile older sister lacked. Many of the nurses and doctors who observed her – as well as the patients themselves – later spoke of her as being born to nurse.

Left: The Tsaritsa and her daughters, photographed in 1913.

The outbreak of war so soon after the celebrations of the [Romanov dynasty's] Tercentenary had inevitably brought a complete turn-around in the popular perception of the Romanov sisters as lofty princesses. With their mother calling a wartime moratorium on the purchase of any new clothes for the family, official photographs of the svelte young women in court dress were replaced by images of the older sisters in uniform and their younger siblings in rather plain, ordinary clothes that belied their imperial status. Alexandra felt that the sight of herself and her daughters in uniform helped to bridge the gap between them and the population at large in time of war. Some saw this as a terrible miscalculation: the vast majority of ordinary Russians, especially the peasantry, still looked upon the Imperial family as almost divine beings and expected their public image to project that. As Countess Kleinmikhel observed, "When a soldier saw his Empress dressed in a nurse's uniform, just like any other nurse, he was disappointed. Looking at the Tsarina, whom he had pictured as a princess in a fairy tale, he thought: 'And that is a Tsarina? But there is no difference between us.'"

Right: Empress Alexandra with wounded soldiers.

Similar expressions of distaste circulated among the society ladies of Petrograd who noted with a sneer how "common" the Grand Duchesses' clothes were, "which even a provincial girl would not dare to wear." They disliked this demystification of Imperial women – and worse, their association with unclean wounds, mutilation and men's bodies. They were horrified to learn that the Empress even cut patients' fingernails for them. Alexandra's neglect of protocol – her acting as a common nurse – was seen as a "beau geste," "a cheap method of seeking popularity." Even ordinary soldiers were disappointed to see the Tsaritsa and her daughters performing the same duties as other nurses or sitting on the beds of the wounded, rather than maintaining their exalted difference. "The intimacy which sprang up between the Empress, her young daughters and the wounded officers destroyed their prestige," said Countess Kleinmikhel, "for it has been truly said: 'Il n'y pas de grand homme pour son valet de chambre' ['No man is a hero to his own valet"']."

Be that as it may, many wounded soldiers came to be grateful for the care they received from Alexandra and her daughters during the war. In August 1914 Ivan Stepanov, a nineteen-year-old wounded soldier of the Semenovsk Regiment, arrived at the annexe at Tsarskoe Selo with his dressings unchanged for over a week. Conscious of his dirty appearance he felt discomforted at the prospect of being helped by the nurses who surrounded him in the treatment room – one of them, a tall gracious sister who smiled kindly as she bent over him, and opposite her two younger nurses who watched with interest as his filthy bandages were unwrapped. They seemed familiar, where had he seen these faces? Then suddenly he realized. "Really, was it them . . . the Empress and her two daughters?" The Tsaritsa seemed a different woman – smiling, younger-looking than her years. During his time in the hospital Stepanov witnessed many such instances of her spontaneous warmth and kindness, and that of her daughters.

– Helen Rappaport
Excerpted from chapter 14, "Sisters of Mercy," of
The Romanov Sisters (St. Martin's Press, 2014)

Above: Alexandra, Tatiana and Olga – Sisters of Mercy.

Above: Grand Duchess Olga with her mother, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna,
and younger sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia.

NEXT: The Tragedy of the Romanovs, 100 Years On

Related Off-site Link:
Four Sisters: A Review of The Romanov Sisters – Lara Feigel (The Guardian, March 30, 2014).

Recommended Books:
The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal Witness to the Russian Revolution – Helen Azar (Westholme Publishing, 2013).
Princesses on the Wards: Royal Women in Nursing Through Wars and Revolutions – Coryne Hall (The History Press, 2014).
Russia's Last Romanovs: In Their Own Words – Helen Azar (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia – Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade, 2014).
The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg – Helen Rappaport (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010).
Nicholas and Alexandra – Robert K. Massie (Random House reprint edition, 2000).
Thirteen Years at the Russian Court: A Personal Record of the Last Years and Death of Tsar Nicholas II and His Family – Pierre Gilliard (Forgotten Books reprint edition, 2012).
The Real Tsaritsa – Lili Dehn (HardPress Publishing reprint edition, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Remembering the Romanovs

Monday, November 17, 2014

Doris Lessing on the Sufi Way

A year ago today acclaimed author Doris Lessing died at the age of 94.

I remember and celebrate Doris Lessing today by sharing excerpts from "In the World, Not of It," one of her many writings on the Sufi Way. It's an essay I find particularly helpful, and one that was first published in the 1974 book A Small Personal Voice.

That East must ever be East and West must be West is not a belief which is subscribed to by Sufis, who claim that Sufism, in its reality, not necessarily under the name, is continuously in operation in every culture. Sometimes invisible, it is at times offered as openly as goods in a supermarket. When this happens, it is is expected by them that there will be hostility from . . . authoritarian bodies. During well over 1,000 years of connected literary and psychological tradition, embracing Spain, North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East, they have almost invariably clashed with narrow thinkers. . . . Some past patterns are unfamiliar to us; others can still be instructive, for in one form or another they repeat themselves.

Hallaj was dismembered in Baghdad [in 922 CE] for blasphemy. . . . Suhrawardi was killed in 1191, the charge including "atheism, heresy, and believing in ancient philosophers." Ibn El Arabi of Spain was hauled before an inquisition of scholars in the twelfth century, for immodesty in pretending that love poetry could be spiritual, when it was pornographic. Sarmad was executed in India in 1563 for exposing his body; he was alleged to be a Jew or of Jewish origin. Jalaluddin Rumi was accused of publishing trivial folktales in the guise of spiritual writings.

. . . The charges are always the same. The academic scholars persecute, claim apostasy, ignorance, dubious parentage, desire for power over the people, danger to public order, self-advertisement and the circulation of spurious, superficial, or irresponsible literature. But in spite of these accusations, in spite of persecution often followed by judicial murder, the Sufi teachers subsequently became major spiritual authorities to the Islamic world. Most of these Sufis were literary men, and all were marked by their inability to accept the dogmas of their current "establishments." Once safely dead, they could be unofficially canonised, but during their lifetimes many suffered grievously.

But perhaps this treatment was not surprising: people persecute or ignore what they do not understand. And there was something particularly provoking about the Sufis. What, for instance, could a medieval theologian make of a man who called himself a mystic, was interested in [humanity's] evolution to a higher level, was associated with scientific work?

it is against this sort of historical background that it can be useful to view Sufi literature, which exists on many levels, from simple entertainment to truths that "lie under the poet's tongue." Codes and the cryptic had their practical, as well as their spiritual uses.

. . . Sufism believes itself to be the substance of that current which can develop [a person] to a higher state in [his/her] evolution. It is not contemptuous of the world. "Be in the world, but not of it," is the aim.

But the inability to believe in the combination of the mystic and the practical is not only of our time.

Roger Bacon, the Franciscan monk, lectured at Oxford from Sufi books in the thirteenth century: it was for his recommendation of Sufi practices that he got into trouble with his religious authorities. Lully of Majorca praised Sufi methodologies, was "a devotee of Arabian mysticism" (Professor E, W. F. Tomlin). Today he finds a place in scientific literature as the inventor of a digital computer. Rumi, poet and mystic, stressed a theory of evolution eight hundred years before Darwin. Shabistari, a thirteenth-century Persian Sufi, writes of the mystic way while emphasising the unbelievable power which could be released from the atom. Al Ghazali wrote of the collective unconscious in relation to medical and psychological techniques. Hujwiri of India, at the time of the Norman Conquest of England, was writing (in a book about Sufi saints) that time and space are identical. Jar Sadiq and Jabir (Geber), the fathers of Western chemistry, were Sufis. Baba Farid had commercial interests and Rumi had to defend him for it – as probably would have to be done today.

For claiming that human enlightenment must be achieved by working with the material world, innumerable Sufis were isolated from potential well-wishers, because of the inculcated thought that they must be superficial if they lived ordinary lives and were concerned with the practical welfare of [humanity]. It is to be hoped that this ancient bias will not be strong enough to keep people's minds closed against what Sufism is offering now.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
My Travels with Doris
The Sufi Way
In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
Sufism: The Call to Awaken
Doris Lessing Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature
Doris Lessing and the Challenge to Go Beyond Ideological Slogans
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
Clarity, Hope, and Courage
Remembering Doris Lessing, 1919-2013

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Images: Michael J. Bayly.