Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-45

‘Practicing love’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

Today our Advent symbol is paua, which in this context is being used as a symbol of strength and beauty that provides sustenance to the body, just as love is the greatest of things and provides sustenance to the spirit.  Paua can withstand the tide, holding fast to the rock it is attached to and as we eat of its body, we see the beauty hidden within its shell.  During this time of Advent, we remember that Jesus was born to bring love into the world, even unto death.  I wonder if Advent is also the time when we are all reminded of our call to bring love into the world.  Like Mary, we carry it deep within, our challenge is to let it be born again in us, this Christmas.

It’s an easy enough thing to say, that we are ‘called to bring love into the world’ but there are a number of aspects to being human that can make this quite challenging.  Sometimes others can make it quite difficult to love them, sometimes we don’t make it easy to love ourselves.  We get distracted by our own feelings or reactions to what others do or say, around us.  We can put up walls of self-protection which even though they can be useful at times, can also turn us into fearful characters thus blocking us from love.  Love is meant to enable us to put others first, but it can take an act of will to lay down our own stuff in order to actually do that!  Contrary to what some say, love doesn’t always come naturally, often we need help and we need practice.

Back to the paua.  I was interested in why the person who compiled our Advent liturgy and symbols this year, chose paua.  Dan and I were so pleased to find something to use this year that is anchored in New Zealand, something earthed in our whenua.  The species of paua that we find in New Zealand waters are only found around our shores so this is an image unique to our land.  The liturgy talks about paua being a symbol of strength and beauty.  There is strength to be seen in the way the paua shells cling to the rock withstanding the tide, which must be a powerful force at times.   The shell presents itself to the world, as being pretty ordinary and indistinguishable at first glance.  But if you can get beyond the shell, you will find the great beauty that lies within.  You could say that these are shells that hide their light under a bushel!

In poking around to find out about paua I found a NZ Geographic site where they invited us to climb inside a paua and experience what they experience.  It’s quite extensive but I learned a lot from it and maybe you will too:

Just for a few moments picture yourself as a paua. Visualise yourself gliding into the tide slow and steady. Get tactile with that rock as you start tearing off some tasty algae with your rasp-action teeth. 

Uh, oh. A starfish bullyboy on a hungry prowl triggers your one big muscle into a super-spasm as you cling on for dear life. You are famous for your tenacious grip.  Maori used to compare their most determined warriors to paua upon the rocks, able to overcome their opponents with stubborn strength.

Hold on until the danger is well past. Then unwind. Snack on a little extra algae before changing wave patterns deliver a warning of turbulent seas to come. Not only will that mean it is harder to hang on to your rock, but swirling sand may clog your gills in diabolical irritation. You must seek the safety of deeper water.  You’ve learned the rhythms of the ocean, and moving to that pulse is a breeze to you. When the surge goes your way, relax your foot muscle and skate the slippery algae a few centimetres. When the surge reverses, kick-start that muscle and hang on!

Ten metres down, amid tangled trunks of kelp, is about as deep as you ever go. Food is scarce here, your favourite drift algae few and far between. There is little time to eat, anyway, as you tuck down tight hatches battened, so to speak, riding out rough seas beneath a rocky ledge.  Climbing out of your twilight zone when the storm has passed stopping frequently to graze greedily on lush slopes of algae could take several days. There is no hurry: unusually low spring tides are keeping you from venturing too high.  In any event, you’re not much of a venturer. Over the course of a year you will roam no more than a kilometre of coastline, although your daily dances with the tides mean you actually crawl many times that distance.  It’s a placid life, but the warming waters of early summer will really get you going. If you are a male paua, you will eject millions of sperm into the swirling water column. You hope some of them will meet and fertilise the multitude of tiny eggs simultaneously being sown by nearby females.  Oh, what fun to be (a paua) beside the seaside!”

Battening down hatches, riding out storms, making the most of the available kai around us, and just getting on with life.  I can relate to all of that!  Despite the fact that I have never before taken a moment to consider anything about the life of a sea snail species we call paua.  I have admired the prettiness of the opened shells and that’s about it.  While I really love most things we can eat from the sea, paua is not high on that list for me, although I know it is for some.

So as a symbol of strength and beauty that provides sustenance to the body paua does pretty well.  Of all the things that sustain our spirits we are told that love is the greatest. (1 Cor 13:13)  But it’s not always easy to hang on to that rock of love – the paua may have much to teach us about tenacity!  Paua have learned how to live in and with their environment.  They hold on to the rock that anchors them and thus ride out the storms.  If the rock that anchors us is God and God’s love for us then learning how to live in and with this has to be how we use that symbol of strength and beauty.  The call to be loving is never done and we need to live in ways that don’t block that flow of love that God gifts us. 

This week I came across something that my friend Richard Rohr had written about another tool that can help us in our call to be loving.  He was talking about the importance of practice.  And it got me thinking about our need to keep practicing being loving.  Rohr talks about practice being an essential reset button that we must push many times before we can experience any genuine newness.  He says, “Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are practicing all the time. When we operate by our habituated patterns, we strengthen certain neural pathways, which makes us, as the saying goes, “set in our ways.” But when we stop using old neural grooves, these pathways actually die off!  Practice can literally create new responses and allow rigid ones to show themselves.”

We seem to understand this with sport, or music – we know we have to practice to form new patterns and strengthen ourselves so we can perform better.  Apparently, it takes twenty-eight days of repeating something in order to form a new habit.  I think, for me anyway, around food patterns there is another element needed, willpower!  But I do know that regular practice goes a long way to forming habits.  I could probably manage a few scales on the piano after having the practice of them drilled into me in my younger days.  Likewise, start to pray the Lord’s Prayer in a rest home and you realise how regularly that prayer has been prayed throughout many lifetimes.  In the church we have a great many rituals and practices some of which have been around a long time.  And there are others which have fallen to the side throughout the years.  Rituals and habits are often dismissed as meaningless these days but they only lose their meaning when they slip into repetitive obligations.  Then they lose something and instead of inviting people into something new and wonder-filled, they can leave them frozen in their first child-like understandings of the rituals.  If we don’t grow in the rituals, they can become transactions rather than transforming experiences.  You might have heard such things when some people speak of communion.  Maybe they say, I don’t understand it so I won’t bother with it.  Well, I’m not sure any of us fully understand what happens when we receive communion, but that doesn’t mean that nothing happens through the repeated experience.  Understanding it is not a prerequisite, openness is though.  Like all rituals communion should be open enough to transform you, to take you somewhere new and lead you to a bigger understanding of God and of yourself. 

Likewise with love.  How many of us can really say that we fully understand it, or what makes it work, but that shouldn’t stop us from entering into the receiving, and the giving of it.  They say that practice makes perfect, but there is no suggestion in that about how much practice, or how we know when we have reached perfection.  So, we keep on practicing.  We keep building our muscles until love becomes deep in our bones and the fabric of who we are.  Love becomes an instinct which kicks in before self-protection or concerns around whose turn it is, have a chance. 

We learn tenacity and strength from the paua, we learn to look for beauty within.  We learn that love, the greatest thing of all, which sustains our spirits, needs practice to grow and flourish in our lives.  We learn to stay anchored to God who gifts us love and life and enables us to withstand the storms. 

Richard Rohr goes on to say, “Divine Loving is so pure that it never manipulates, shames, or forces itself on anyone. Love waits to be invited and desired, and only then rushes in.” 

This Christmas will we be, like Mary, open to inviting love to enter and take us somewhere new and transforming?