The White Snake

One time, not in my time, and not in your time but in someone’s time, there lived a young man with clear eyes, a quiet mind and a gentle heart. And because of those qualities, so remarkable yet so little valued, he came to work as a servant for the king. The king treated him like a …servant but came to depend on his judgement and hard work, to the extent that over time, the young man rose to be head of the royal household.

One day, the queen reported her golden ring stolen and because the steward had access to the privy chambers, they accused him of stealing it. ‘Return it by morning or die’, the king told him. But as he hadn’t taken it and had no idea where it was, he sighed, tidied his affairs, such as they were, and went out for one last walk in the forest.

He’d not been walking for long when he came to a sunlit glade, with beautiful purple-headed fritillaries spreading out before him. Suddenly, across and along the path in front of him moved a white snake towards him. Now, snakes being snakes, most people are afraid of them and would lift up a stick and to bash it on its head. But the young man simply looked at the snake and smiled. The snake’s golden eyes stared back, its long green tongue flickering out towards him. Suddenly, it smiled before shimmering into the long grass.

Strange, thought the young man and stranger still, for when the nightingale started singing overhead, he could understand every word. And when he returned to the palace, he could hear the sparrows giggling, talking about the queen who dropped her ring carelessly out of the window, only for the white duck to swallow it. The young man had the duck arrested  and squeezed it hard until it to give up its prize.

The next morning, the king was so happy with the young man who had gotten the ring back, perhaps also feeling a little sheepish, though not enough to say sorry, that he offered the young man the pick of the palace jobs for life. But the young man with the clear eyes, the quiet mind and warm heart had decided it was time to move on. And he asked the king for a horse, some food and a little money. The king resisted at first till, reluctantly, he agreed to the request and so off set the young man along the track and into the forest on a great adventure.

The light shone dimly through the dense oak and lime trees, which lined the forest trail. With night falling, he tethered his horse and climbed up into the branches of a tall tree to sleep for safety’s sake. He marvelled at the wisdom of bats, the exploits of owls, the endless sexual problems of nightjars and the homely tales of the hundreds of insects, sharing their home that night.

The next morning, he travelled on and soon the trail descended through alders and willows towards the lake. He heard splashing and wailing coming from within the reed bed. Three young salmon were thrashing about amid the reeds in the shallow water, stuck. The young man took pity on them and picked them up one by one and threw them into the deeper waters. The salmon raised their heads out of the water and called out, ‘We thank you. We thank you. We salmon remember the river our mothers swam in, the very gravel where we were spawned and we will not forget your bright eyes, your gentle heart and kindly mind. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on uphill through scrubwood forest of rowan and pine. The ground grew sandier till he was suddenly shook from his reverie on horseback. He could hear a shrill, sharp voice coming from the top of an anthill in the middle of the track. The ant queen was commanding her army of ants beneath, berating him for coming too close to her nest. The man dismounted and bowed before the queen, apologising for his inattention. Next, he spent a good hour reworking the path so that it wound round the anthill. Afterwards, the queen of the ants called out to him, ‘Thank you, thank you. We ants remember. We solve complex problems by ingenuity and team work and we will not forget your bright eyes, your courteous heart and your kindly mind. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on, higher into the upper reaches of the forest where birches and scrubby juniper grew out of craggy rocks. There was a commotion up above and three black shapes flopped downwards, bumping onto the mossy floor ahead. The parents of these three young ravens had dumped their dementing offspring out of the nest to fend for themselves. They would die for lack of food, they complained and the young man, perhaps, remembering his own treatment by the king, jumped off his horse and hacked off the horse’s head. The ravens fell straight away on the big fleshy eyes and, after gorging themselves, called out to the young man, ‘Thank you, thank you. We ravens remember. We apply intelligence and strength and travel long distances and we will not forget your bright eyes, your generous mind and your warm heart. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on on foot till he came to a luscious, green valley, where woods of oaks and holly stretched ahead on either side, passed through orchards plump with apples and cherries and on through pastures filled with fat cattle, knee high in the long grass, resting from the sun under elms and ash. The path brought him to a great city, where the noise of the people and traffic and chaos drowned out all the sounds of the birds and wildlife. He could barely hear himself think but it was here that he fell in love with the Princess.

You think he would have had enough of royalty but he saw the Princess’s loveliness and loneliness through the shield of indifference she protected herself by. He took her pride and haughtiness, her snobbery as a guard against the exceeding flattery of suitors and indulgence of the king. And it was here he decided to go a’courting in the springtime to seek her hand in marriage, even though it may cost him dear, his life. For the Princess set each suitor a challenge and if they failed, they died the next day.

The following morning, the Princess took him to the sea shore and threw a golden ring into the sea.   Well, he knew he had no chance of finding it, so he smiled to himself, sat down on his haunches but then heard three voices in unison. He looked up and there were three full grown red salmon, surfing towards him on a big blue wave. The middle one dropped a white clam at his foot, just as the retreating wave carried them back to the sea. The young man opened the clam and inside lay the ring. He laughed happily and gave it to the young Princess.

But she didn’t want to marry a servant and so demanded another challenge, a second proof. She took him into the palace orchard and opened the contents of ten sacks of millet seed, spraying them all over the ground. ‘Pick up every single one and put them back in the sacks.’

The young man sighed, looking around him, then up at the fluffy clouds shifting across the blue sky. What could he do? Then, there was a ruffle in the grass. It grew like whisperings and there he saw the elegant ant queen riding at the head of her army. She gave orders to her ants and, by morning, they had filled all ten sacks.

Still, the Princess was not satisfied. She did not want to marry a servant and so demanded another task, a third proof. ‘Bring me back an apple from the Tree of Life’, she demanded. How, what…where..? The young man had no idea where to find the Tree of Life and realised he would die the next day. So, he tidied up his affairs, paid up his small bills and wandered into the forest one last time, till he came to a green linden tree and sat down under its canopy for a rest. The bright sun dazzled his eyes but he could just make out three dark shapes flying in the sky, diving and soaring, dipping on the warm breeze. Then, one of them let an object fall out of the sky. The young man with the clear eyes, the calm mind and the caring heart held out his palm and caught the apple from the Tree of Life. He laughed and ran back to the city.

He cut the apple in two and gave one half to the Princess and ate the other himself. She fell in love with him at once with his clear eyes, his quiet mind and kind heart and they lived happily ever after.

 

Things may not always be what they seem. This story starts with a snake and ends with an apple and yet paradise is not lost. It is found. And for many people, salmon are cold and slippery; ants destroy everything in their path and ravens come as messengers of 

death and doom. They say that a young man with clear eyes, a calm mind and a warm heart can win no fair lady. But it need not be so…

Never underestimate the joy that a man or woman can gain if they have clear eyes, a quiet mind and a gentle heart.

 

 

With thanks to The Brothers Grimm and, particularly, to Sara Maitland for her retelling of the story of The White Snake in her wonderful book, Gossip from the Forest.

the day of small things

I’m told some 110 friends gathered together at Liverpool Quaker Meeting House to discuss20151107_141042.jpg matters relating to peace and security. We were very fortunate to have three academics from Bradford University Department of Peace Studies, Caroline Hughes, Rhys Kelly and Ute Kelly, leading the sessions. Our hope was to leave refreshed and enthused, amid what looks more and more like a desperate world.

 As a parent, it is so difficult to disentangle completely, even when aware…

We were joined by Teenage General Meeting (TGM) and there was also a children’s group, exploring the same issues. So, what were the questions? To start with, we were asked to think about a world we wished for. I wrote ‘…safeguarding a world for our children to grow up in.’; a perfectly reasonable hope yet, as we heard, the world looks in greater peril.

“I’d rather be reading Russian novels than studying where my pension contributions go…”

Our colleagues from Bradford University took us through the critical thresholds facing us: the biosphere, diversity of species, land use, atmospheric pollution, ocean acidification and the interactions among them, compounding the problems. We are fast running out of safe space. There are, thankfully, some positive trends: divestment, renewable energy, a world ready for change, grassroots organisations (Transition Towns, Food Sovereignty Movement) coming together from different contexts and gaining momentum. Would it be enough in time to influence the world’s leaders at the climate change talks in Paris?

What if the partners of the world’s leaders withheld sex until they stopped sending their children off to war and made peace instead?

I needed cheering up so went in search of the children’s meeting. Taking it in turns, they were telling the story of Sadako, a young Japanese girl, who lived in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. Sadly, she died young but dedicated her end days to making paper cranes, the symbol of Peace in Japan. She aimed for 1,000 and got into the 800s. In the Memorial Garden, there is a statue in her memory with these words written at the base, ‘This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.’

 A stranger approached and asked ‘who are you? Why do you live in a cave, powered by solar power?’ ‘I am your neighbour…I live here because they have taken my house and I don’t want to let my land go, to lose my sheep. I won’t be able to feed my family without them. And we have been here for generations. We know this land, every curve and bend of the hills and valleys, the shape of each rock, the flow of the streams. We are part of this and this is part of us. I have to stay and do what I can, even though I am afraid.’

Back at the plenary session before lunch, we shared our misgivings and hopes: to respect our cultural differences and understandings; a willingness to change while holding onto our values; flushing out vested interests. We heard a lot about global corporations, the military, oil, energy and food production. ‘Who is in charge? Surely, they have grandchildren. Don’t they care about what happens to them?’ ‘There aren’t any votes in climate change.’ (Not yet, anyway) Meanwhile, China, India, Russia, Brazil are all catching up with the West, which consumes so much.

“Your coffee is at the end…”

In the mid-1940s, a small group of Quakers left the US because they refused to fight in the armed forces. They came to Costa Rica, which had laid down its army where they bought a mountain top forest, called Cloud Mountain. Today, there is a thriving peaceful community, a model of environmental wellbeing, where everyone feels safe and here they belong.

In the afternoon sessions, some of us sang songs and played music together. Others worshipped in Experiment with Light. From the Peace workshops, we tried to pull together our ideas. One friend began, ‘We didn’t do much in our group. We had a lovely chat, getting to know each other better, rather than talk about nebulous concepts. We spoke about our lives, our peace networks; the challenge of dealing with different cultural values and mores; the costs of economic growth…but we didn’t come up with any answers, except aim high and keep trying. Realise your personal energy is finite, so choose your priorities and use the influence you have.’ This could be by writing to your MP, holding a street party, spending time with children or guerrilla gardening. All are so valuable. ‘There isn’t one big solution’, she ended. ‘Any solutions are likely to be multiple and varied.’ I’ll start there, I thought. That’s where I am. Although, actually, I’m not starting, am I? Or you, most likely? We are all involved in many different ways to varying degrees for some time now. Fairer to say, I connected with her here with what she was saying and I will share her group’s ideas with others.

“We need a velvet revolution.”

A friend mentioned that the Greek word for home is Eco. Eco is where we live. At home, we heard about the lovely poppies, made of modelling clay, by the all age group. And TGM presented us with a tableau of many coloured poppies. The friend leading the art sessions reminded us that using clay, as with other art forms, is very, very relaxing and that creativity affects all of our actions and emotions, leading to inner peace and further activity.

The paradox is that there is so much good happening in the world while, at the same time, too much anger and hate. Strangely, love may be expressed greatest in the places where there is also the greatest suffering and where communities have so little material wealth. I hope we can still keep hoping…and acting… for positive change. Most social change in history, I read once in The Friend, comes about rather surprisingly by peaceful means and cooperation rather than by force and violence. For most of our time, it seems, very little has happened worthy of recording.

At the end of the day, a friend approached me, who’d once been a stranger, and asked me some questions. When I arrived this morning, who was I? And who am I now? How have I changed? And how is the world more secure and peaceful as a result of me being here on this day? I looked into her eyes before answering, then offered her my hand and smiled. She took mine in hers and smiled back at me, her eyes holding mine. ‘I think the children have it’, I said. ‘…when they say we need the ‘P’ word. We need prayer and the practice of prayer. And we’re not on our own. We’re all crew now on the ‘Good Ship Quaker’. Everyone knows where we’ve sailed from. We know where we are anchored today. And tomorrow, well, we will set sail and see the where the wind takes us. We live adventurously and we have the best pilot.

Be still and know that I am God.

20151107_140721.jpgReport on Lancashire and Cheshire Regional Gathering,held at Liverpool Quaker Meeting House  on Saturday 7 November 2015.

References

The day of small things (Zech 4:10), referred to in Quaker Faith and Practice 19.43 in a letter by Isaac Penington – http://qfp.quaker.org.uk/passage/19-43/

Further explorations

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Capitalism: a love story by Michael Moore http://www.michaelmoore.com/movies/capitalism-a-love-story

The Peace Kit by John Lampen

Psalms for Praying, An Invitation to Wholeness, by Nan Merrill