Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and so I thought I would write a post in preparation. I suppose I could have written a piece and released it on the actual day itself, but I want to look at this holiday from a slightly different angle and suggest an idea for something that each of us could do on February 14th.
When I was thinking about what to write that might suit this theme, the usual ideas came to mind: of love and relationships, of being alone and finding trust in a period of waiting, or of being with another while maintaining one’s own identity and self-respect. And yet I realized I was confining myself to topics revolving around romantic relationships, which we typically associate with Valentine’s Day. The origins of Valentine’s Day, however, do not suggest such a restriction. The holiday began in honour of St. Valentine, a Christian martyr in 5th century Rome, and associations with romantic love were not forged until the 14th century under the influence of Chaucer and his courtly circle.
In our contemporary society, Valentine’s Day seems to be defined by its connection to romantic love, or conversely, to the opposite of romantic love: that is, singlehood. We are burdened with images of romantic love, but also with catchy slogans about how it is okay to be single and how a person does not need another person to complete their life. It is probably not possible to dissipate these now tightly held associations, and I am not trying to suggest that the erasure of such links would be a good thing. But, what if Valentine’s Day did not have to be just about one or the other?
I am a creative person and have often defined myself by my creativity. But sometimes I experience what I might call creative erasure. My mind, formerly filled with ideas and dreams, words and stories, becomes a blank slate. The prior rush of passion and ambition slows almost to a still.
I think that self-definition based on the mind is a habit into which we often fall. We speak of the body, of the heart and soul, but when we attempt to isolate the most fundamental aspect of self, we tend to focus on the mind. We ask, “what is it that makes me me?” and thus confront the question of personal identity. What makes identity secure? What allows it to endure over time so that we can say we are the same person now as we were a year, a month, a week before? Perhaps we have the same body, or possess a soul that is pure spirit and so superior to matter, or perhaps our psychological experiences are the key to self-discovery.
One of the greatest indignities is to be treated as though you do not exist. Being is the most fundamental aspect of life and of self, one that precedes and is presupposed by all other aspects. To be something (smart, beautiful, kind, fearful, lonely, weak) is first and is always to be. If someone tells us, then, that we are beautiful, smart, good or noteworthy in some way, we are gratified, flattered, affirmed, perhaps happy. But if that same someone lets fall the thread of our being after the words have ceased their echo, those former words lose their meaning.
I entered quickly, through sliding doors that parted like a shining sea. The aisles were well-stocked with food, aggressively proclaiming freshness and appeal. For a moment I was stranded, adrift among the stands, which formed a maze winding to the end of the store.
But it was only a moment.
Some shoppers were consulting lists or studying competing brands intently. Others darted from row to row, accumulating piles of produce; others still were probing vegetables and fruits, in pursuit of that elusive unblemished product.
Although the dying days of 2015 are gone and 2016 is already a week underway, the New Year is still sufficiently new that I’d like to take a look back at the journey of jensul.ca so far and at what is next to come. I officially launched this website at the end of September and since then it has been up and running with approximately three to four weekly posts for 15 weeks.
I am so grateful to all of the people who have read any of the posts at jensul.ca and those who have subscribed to my weekly newsletter (if you haven’t done so and would like to, just enter your email address in the box at the top right of the site). All of the feedback I have received is so meaningful and encourages me to keep writing and sharing my thoughts in this forum.
It’s hard to recall my first encounter with hockey. I have memories of watching the game when I was young. It was background noise then but in a comforting sort of way. My dad would lean forward, eyes focused on the screen, and I would glance up occasionally from my book to catch sight of the tiny figures darting back and forth from one end of the rink to the other. The rules were irrelevant to me (in other words, I didn’t understand them). I simply tried to follow the progress of the puck, though sometimes a black speck on the surface of the screen looked so convincingly puck-like that it prevented my fulfillment of this goal.
When my older brother started playing hockey, I became his number one fan. For the ten years that he played, I don’t think I missed a single game. In the early seasons, I was admittedly oblivious to much of the action on the ice. I arrived at the arena with my fully stocked bag of books. But even then, something about the rink was so alluring. I don’t know what it was about the cold hard bench or the loud echo of the boards, or the angry buzzer that announced each period’s end. I don’t know why I felt such joy as my voice blended with the other fans to give a rousing cheer, or why I waited so proudly for my brother to emerge from the dressing room after each game, his hockey bag draped over his shoulder. As my family walked to the parking lot, I had the honour of holding the hockey stick, and it was like a waving flag. I don’t know what it was, but somehow each little detail melded together until the rink felt like home and the game- the game was ingrained in my nature.
For this week’s Advent reflection, I want to do something a little bit different. It has to do with an “O Antiphon,” and if you’ve never heard of this before, don’t worry: because I hadn’t either until my brother recently explained what it was, and shared with me the beauty of these sung prayers. Antiphons draw on religious texts, and enter into the liturgy throughout the church year. Traditionally, from December 17th to December 23rd (the final days of Advent), seven special O Antiphons are sung. The ‘O’ is an invocation, a direct address made to the one who is coming: they all look towards Christ’s Advent, using different names for Christ from the Old Testament.
Here I have included the text of the O Antiphon for December 21st, both in the original Latin and in a translation found in poet Malcolm Guite’s book of Advent reflections, entitled “Waiting on the Word.” Whether or not you know any Latin (I myself am in the process of learning), I would encourage you to read it aloud or to yourself as best as you can, at least to hear the musical and prayerful sound of this ancient language. You can listen to my audio recording of the O Antiphon here:
There are few pleasures in this world equal to a good book.
I lean into my chair and fold back the cover. The initial pages pass slowly, as I become acquainted with the voice to whose thoughts I now have access. However, as the story accelerates, I am immersed in this new sphere: the colourful sea of vivid emotions and depictions of reality all contained within the book.
In reviewing the opening sentence of this piece, I wonder if I have chosen wisely. I described a book as a pleasure; reading is then by extension a pleasurable activity. This may not seem controversial, coming from a bibliophile, but the more I think about, the more I believe I have erred in my word selection. Reading is pleasurable, of course, but the word alone is insufficient to encompass the pursuit as a whole.
The third week of Advent focuses on joy, and on Sunday the pink candle was lit beside the flames of the flickering purple candles beside it. Advent is a time of waiting, a time of darkness and long stretched-out silence before the great light and the revelrous celebrations of the king’s coming. And yet the third Sunday of Advent, in Advent, speaks of joy. This poses a question, at least to my mind: can the two (waiting and joy) be reconciled?
Before delving into this question, I want to look at a few quotations concerning joy to see what possible insights they hold for our topic of discussion. The first is a Bible verse from James: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” (James 1:2). Here trials are equated with joy: joy is given as a name to describe difficulties and darknesses that inevitably appear along the human journey. What’s more, no qualifications or conditions are applied to these trials. Instead, they are considered joy whenever they arise, not only in specific circumstances or at specific times. The verse does not say that trials can be considered joy, but that they are nothing but joy and they are so in all times and in all places and regardless of external factors.
I have said it before and will likely say it again, but I believe strongly that all humans are creative beings. This is not to say that all humans exercise their creativity or even recognize their creativity, but that the capacity to create is embedded inside each human self, not only a select few. It also goes without saying that such creativity, even if accessed according to its potential, would be lived out and expressed in a different way in every person, since no two people ever leave the same imprint on our earth.
What does all this have to do with running? In my opinion, the act of running is inextricably linked with the creative urge, the desire to create that dwells within the human soul. It may seem as though the two are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The former (the act of running) concerns the body: that is, the physical aspects of a person. The latter (creativity) instead revolves around the mind and the soul: the mental or spiritual domain. However, I think we enormously limit ourselves if we compel these different realms of self to abide in isolation. The diverse pieces of personhood (mind, body and spirit) were not intended to be self-contained, separated from one another in neat, compartmentalized boxes. Rather, they are blended and intertwined in surprising and unexplained ways, and only when they are permitted to fulfill their natural unity can the person truly experience a fullness of self. Thus, the way I see it, the physicality of running can lead very easily into the creative sphere.