Beware of narrow vocabularies and two-dimensional world

The great “back to school” migration has begun… public transport packed with excited or anxious children, proud or worried parents and other happy or annoyed passengers who observe this happy noise and energy. In fact I am building up my own excitement for continued studies in Latvia University which begins on Monday.

In Latvia (and many other post-communist countries) it is called the Day of Knowledge. I think about my studies with far more expectations for myself than for my professors.  They certainly have lots of knowledge in their scientific fields and different styles for conveying it to us but ultimately it is up to me to take it or leave it or store it for later. I love my field of study – theology and religious studies – because it wrestles with the truly important and relevant questions of human life. One classmate who would not describe himself as particularly religious commented that he came to this faculty to explore the big question of “Why?” Don’t we all?!

There is one thing that I absolutely love about being a student again. The libraries! There is not enough hours in the day and not enough days in year to take full advantage of these amazing archives of human exploration and resources. Our faculty has a small one but still it is one of my favorite spaces in the whole building. Books, books, books… thoughts, concepts, reflections, facts, thesis, questions, answers, arguments, paradigms, worldviews, research… and words, words, words.

Recently I read a small, short manifesto book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder, a prominent American historian. He wrote that “the effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal.”

He also reminded of authors and thinkers like George Orwell whose novel 1984 portrays a world where “one of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official vocabulary. Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else.”

It feels like George Orwell novel when our societies/politicians/media/we become narrow in our vocabularies. Or words gets changed, diluted and become meaningless.

Word like ‘humility’ should mean “the greatest among you shall be your servant. Fōr whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Jesus Christ)

Word like ‘greed’ should mean “Do not covet” or “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Word like ‘dignity’ should mean “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” (Aristotle)
Where is your mental armory? How do you develop it?
IMG_2626

The beautiful old library at Trinity College, Dublin (from personal archive)

 

 

Irish way of turning Darkness into Light

For those who noticed that I took a little break from writing… there are times when you just have to give full attention to the people you are with, seize the moment and enjoy it. So, I had put the computer away. And who wants to be on computer when you are visiting the beautifully green and ancient land of Ireland?

Now back in Riga I reflect on my favorite thing to see in Dublin – the Book of Kells. Probably the most beautiful book I have ever seen is Ireland’s most precious cultural treasure. It continues to amaze every time I visit the exhibition at Trinity College Dublin. This handwritten copy of the four Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ which was completed around 800 AD is so beautifully decorated and hand painted that it continues to inspire artists and scientists on how the authors actually did it. Many of the illustrations are so microscopic and intricate.

Most academics believe that this ancient Latin manuscript was written in a monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland. It became the principal house of a large monastic confederation. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland. Most likely they brought the manuscript with them or produced parts of it in Kells.

The famous paintings include symbols of the evangelists Matthew as the Man, Mark as the Lion, Luke as the Calf and John as the Eagle, the opening words of the Gospels, the Virgin and Child and a portrait of Christ. The Chi Rho page which introduces Matthew’s account of the nativity is simply stunning and widely considered the most famous page in medieval art.

Some years ago I read a book “How The Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. His main thesis was that the tradition of monasteries, including Saint Columba  and the monks on the island of Iona where ancient manuscripts were gathered, copied and cared for, helped to preserve the cultural treasures of Europe and other parts of the world. I know one thing for sure – there was much more happening in the Middle Ages than what we were told in  school. When I was growing up in Latvia, we were still taught the Soviet/communist version of the world history. Of course, no mention of monks, monasteries or any positive contribution of religion to our cultures.

I am glad that the term ‘Dark Ages’ is not used anymore… because there is Light and Darkness in all ages. People and communities make choices and respond to the times they live in. Some choose to take what is not theirs and destroy what they have not built. But other choose to give away what they have received and build for the future generations to be blessed and to enjoy.

Hopefully we don’t have to save civilizations anymore but we do know that the choice between the Light and the Darkness is always with us… Thank you, the Irish, for reminding us of these timeless truths!

chi-rho-page

Chi Rho page (photos from internet)

Latvian:

Vispirms sveicieni tiem, kuri ievēroja, ka es pāris nedēļas ‘atpūtos’ no rakstīšanas… jā, ir reizes, kad vajag veltīt visu savu uzmanību mīļiem cilvēkiem, nepalaist garām kaut ko īpašu un to izbaudīt. Un kurš tad grib sēdēt pie datora, ciemojoties tik skaisti zaļajā un senatnīgajā Īrijā?

Tagad atpakaļ Rīgā es pārdomāju vienu no lietām, ko ir tiešām vērts redzēt Dublinā – Kellu grāmata (saukta arī Ķeltu vai Kēlu grāmata). Uzdrīkstos apgalvot, ka šis Īrijas nacionālais kultūras dārgums ir visskaistākā grāmata, ko esmu jebkad redzējusi. Tā glabājas Trinitijas koledžā pašā Dublinas centrā. Ar roku rakstītais manuskripts satur četrus Jaunās Derības evanģēlijus par Jēzus Kristus dzīvi un ir krāšņi un meistarīgi izrotāts ar miniatūrām un viduslaiku ornamentiem. Tas turpina iedvesmot māksliniekus un zinātniekus, kuri pēta, kā to vispār varēja tik smalki un mikroskopiski izveidot un uzzīmēt.

Kellu grāmatu datē ap 800. gadu, un tā ir rakstīta latīņu valodā. Lielākā daļa pētnieku uzskata, ka tā ir sarakstīta klosterī, kuru 6. gadsimtā Aijonas (Iona) salā, Skotijas rietumu piekrastē, nodibināja Sv. Kolumbs. 806.gadā salai kārtējo reizi uzbruka vikingi, un daudzi mūki tika nogalināti. Pārējie atrada aptvērumu Īrijā, jaunā klosterī Kellas ciemā. Visticamāk mūki šo manuskriptu atveda sev līdzi no Aijonas, vai arī tas tika pabeigts Kellā.

Slavenās ilustrācijas attēlo četru evnģēlistu simbolus. Matejs simbolizēts kā Cilvēks, Marks kā Lauva, Lūka kā Jērs un Jānis kā Ērglis. Katra evanģēlija ievadā ir skaisti zīmējumi. Gan Kristus portrets, gan Jaunava ar Bērnu ir ievērojami mākslas darbi. Viena no slavenākajām un visskaistāk ilustrētajām lappusēm skaitās Mateja evanģēlija ievads par Jezus piedzimšanu. Patiess viduslaiku šedevrs!

Pirms dažiem gadiem es lasīju Tomasa Keihila grāmatu “Kā īri izglāba civilizāciju” (How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill). Viņa galvenā tēze bija, ka viduslaiku klosteru un mūku tradīcija, tai skaitā Sv. Kolumbs un kopiena Aijonas salā, kur tika savākti, glabāti un pārkopēti neskaitāmi senlaiku manuskripti, palīdzēja izglābt šos Eiropas un Tuvo Austrumu kultūras dārgumus. Katrā ziņā viduslaikos bija daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā Apgaismība mums apgalvo. Un daudz vairāk Gaismas, kā man tika mācīts skolā Padomju Latvijā, kur par mūkiem, klosteriem un vispār par reliģijas pozitīvo ietekmi uz Eiropas kultūras attīstību netika minēts nekas. Jo tā laika vēstures versija uzsvēra, ka reliģija ir ‘tumsonība, varaskāre, vardarbība un turklāt meli, kuros dzīvo dumjās masas’.

Tas ir labi, ka vairs nav populāri lietot apzīmējumu ‘Tumšie viduslaiki’… jo visos laikos un laikmetos ir bijusi gan Gaisma, gan Tumsa. Cilvēki, kopienas un tautas izdara izvēles. Vieni izvēlas ņemt to, kas viņiem nepieder, un iznīcināt to, ko paši nav cēluši. Otri izvēlas dot citiem to labo, ko ir mantojuši un saņēmuši, un celt tālāk, lai nākamās paaudzes var dzīvot labāku dzīvi.

Cerams, ka mūsu paaaudzei nav jācīnās par civilizāciju saglabāšanu, tacu mēs zinām, ka izvēle starp Gaismu un Tumsu ir vienmēr mūsu priekšā… Paldies viduslaiku mūkiem Īrijā, ka viņi mums atgādina par šīm nemainīgajām patiesībām!

Navigating through fake news, stupid news and no news

Honestly I feel very challenged. This is getting harder and harder and some days my brain simply revolts and screams at me. “Stop stretching me so thin! Stop feeding me this stuff! Give me something good to chew and digest that will bring life! Give me a break… period.”

We are taught to be critical thinkers and we know the importance of critical analysis. But the current atmosphere feels as if we have put things in reverse. The more advanced we become with technological skills, the more primitive we become in communication. The more we know, the less we care. The more we read and see, the less we understand. The more we scream, the less we listen. It is miscommunication on steroids.

First is the invasion and epidemic of fake news. Of course, we have always lived in a world with slanted and corrupted news, but it used to take some effort, time and money to spread false or fake stories. Now it does not cost anything.. Anyone can create a website or a news portal and simply copy and paste and alter photos and spread fake news. Plus, make money while doing it. It does not matter if those fake news are malignant or benign – they erode our trust in any news source.

Recently I spotted two fake news stories on my friend’s Facebook. One story was political and it looked like a deliberate effort to create bad image of the leaders in the Baltic states. Something did not add up and I checked the facts. It turned out to be a fake story. Then I noticed that some people had started sharing it and I decided to inform my friend. He quickly removed it from his wall. The second story was more innocent and it was posted on a Christian website as a story of some big miracle near Israel. I noticed the headline photo which I had seen in another story posted on CNN. It had nothing to do with Israel or a miracle. It had to do with Sudan and climate change. Again I decided to inform my friend.

I did not think that these friends of mine were knowingly spreading false or fake stories but I did not want for people to start sharing. I would expect the same reaction from my friends – if they see something I am saying/ sharing/ posting/ publishing  which is false or fake, they should let me know. It is impossible to stay truthful without the help of others.

Also, we see the invasion of “fake facts” or “no facts” in the mainstream media and politics. I am not talking about traditional empty campaign promises. I am talking about pure fabrications. Politicians can utter them and go unpunished. Media can publish them and go unpunished. In the end it is nobody’s fault and life simply goes on. Only people become even more disillusioned and pessimistic. And without trust our societies cannot be healthy and functional.

Secondly, we are bombarded with stupid news. This is the junk food that my brain complains about as I am guilty of consuming it, too. Let’s see “how is Brad and Angelina’s divorce proceeding? what are the experts saying about the experts about someone’s tweets? how to travel around the world and act stupid? how to be obsessed with food and only food?” Honestly, will I have to live with Mr. Trump as the biggest news headline for the next 4 years? Yes, he will be the president of the most powerful and influential country in the world, but he is not the center of our universe.

Which brings me to the last challenge. The challenge of “no news”. I have practically given up on the big TV channels like CNN and Fox News which used to be news channels. Now they are 24/7 talk shows. Opinion upon opinion upon opinion… Opinions are not news!!! Also, people tend to share opinion columns more than the actual news stories. It is boring to read and search for the facts, right? And who wants to bored in our exciting world of opinions, “hot air”,”world news in 60 sec”, “out of sight, out of mind”, etc.

I also have an opinion therefore I write this blog or journal but, sorry to disappoint you, this is not journalism. I am grateful and honored that you read my reflections on peace building but let us not simply recycle each others opinions. Let us search deeper and think harder!

4

This is my thinking face (photo from personal archive)

 

Peek into my library…

One of my New Year resolutions is to read even more books. I love reading and through the work and travels I have collected a small library. Unfortunately my library is scattered – most books are in Latvia, many in USA and a few in Thailand. I have a dream that one day I will be able to have a proper office with a nice big desk and all my books within a reach.

I have friends in Minnesota who have this great book-reading tradition called “Theology Pub”. They read one book per month and then meet at a local pub for discussion and reflection. If I lived in Minnesota, I would join them. I love a good discussion and thought-provoking books. The last book they read in 2015 was “Jesus and the nonviolent revolution” by André Trocmé.

I was not able to join the discussion. (So, if any of you have read it, I would love to hear your thoughts.) Timely and relevant book even though the author died in 1971. André Trocmé was a French protestant minister who led a nonviolent resistance in south central France during WWII. The people of the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon saved thousands of Jews by hiding them in their barns, farms, homes. Their actions were very much inspired by their theological beliefs that every human being has a God given dignity and worth and no system or government has right deny it.

Here is a glimpse into André Trocmé’s writings: “Every nation is inclined to equate its fundamental values with the institutional shell built to protect and express them. Consequently its leaders are tempted to use lies to defend the truth, violence to protect the peace, and persecution to save charity.” He talked about (and practiced) nonviolent resistance to evil. God is love, so André Trocmé argued that we have to use different kind of weapons – the weapons of the Spirit.

Continuing the thought: “The state – the way of power – can only work from the past to anticipate the future and determine its course. As long as the church abandons its calling, that state will know nothing of repentance. But the church in its midst does know repentance, and it knows only that, and it bears witness to that before the state, for the healing of the nations. If Christ’s followers do not surpass the state in justice, they do not belong to God’s kingdom; they leave the world to fend for itself in the agony of its abandonment.”

I like reading autobiographies of people who either inspire me or give me something to reflect upon. For example, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” by Gandhi or “The Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton, an American writer/monk. Also, “Light Force” by Brother Andrew, telling the story of his work in the Middle East.

Last year I read “I am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel laureate, and “A Journey” by Tony Blair, the former prime minister of UK. Regardless of what you think of Tony Blair, I was very interested in his experiences in the peace process in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. It gives a lot of insight into mediation and conflict resolution processes and challenges.

Then there are lots of books on forgiveness and reconciliation. At the top of the list would be “Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace”, “Exclusion&Embrace” and “The End of Memory” by Miroslav Volf, a Croat theologian and thinker who teaches at Yale University. I highly recommend anything he has written.

Since I promised only a peek, this is a short list. I look forward to more good reading this year. Also, friends in Latvia, my ‘library’ is open for anyone…

Next time I am in Riga, I intend to spend some time at the National Library which, besides a great collection of books and resources, has the best view of Old Town. Who would not want to enjoy it?!

IMG_2150

 

 

 

Where to begin?

If you wanted to study about reconciliation, where would you start? Well, I started with Google search… It can be quite overwhelming to dig through all the resources and information available but eventually I found what I was looking for – School of Reconciliation and Justice (SORJ) in Harpenden, England.

I read the introductory statement of SORJ: „Our aim is to train individuals or teams to work in many different areas of society that need God’s work of reconciliation and restoration. If You want to be involved in peace building in an area of conflict; or if You want to be an advocate for the voiceless; or if You want to develop a restorative justice team in an inner-city; or to work in the political arena; this school will help you in developing your plans and your heart to serve God in these areas. During this three month school, we will be training with international practitioners, researching current issues of conflict or injustice issues, and taking time to seek God’s heart for reconciliation and justice around the world.”

When I told my husband about this course, he was very supportive until he found out that it was in England. Why? England seemed far far away from Burma border. Weren’t there similar study courses in Southeast Asia? Most likely there were, but there was something special that drew me to this particular school. This training was born out of a movement called Reconciliation Walk.

To quote  Reconciliation Walk website: „This movement was born in response to the 900th anniversary of the Crusades, an epoch that represents the failure of the Church to embody Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. Through an apology and thousands of face-to-face meetings between Western Christians and Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians, we sought to erode the bitter legacy and mythologies of enmity that originated with the Crusades.”

Middle East road

The Reconciliation Walk was a real peace-road; a literal walk across the path of the first crusade.The participants were bringing the message of peace, forgiveness, and hope across the nations of Europe and Middle East. I wish I would have been able to participate in something like this but I also know that there is a unique journey for every one of us. I cannot walk in someone else’s shoes or actual footsteps, but I will have my own path to make and my own footprints to leave.

I was looking for not only theory, but the practice of reconciliation. With such topics as Character Development of the Peacemaker; Foundations of Reconciliation and Justice; Principles of Forgiveness; Origins of Conflict; Faith, Geopolitics, Nationalism and Tribalism in today’s Conflicts; Effective Peace building models for transforming communities; Conflict Mediation; Restorative Justice and Advocacy, this seemed like a great place to start.

So, in 2010 I boarded a plane from Bangkok, Thailand to London, England. Little did I know that this school would be much more than I expected or bargained for.

DSC00700 copy