“But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” Romans 7:6
A Gypsy, a Jew and a Muslim: three wise women have already borne gifts to me as this season of anticipating light begins. Their generosity has helped me recognize the gift of freedom.
A Romanian Gypsy, Nicoletta, bears the gift of perseverance. She sits two days a week in front of the Jesuit Faculty here in Paris where I am studying theology. She has no legs. She holds out a plastic cup casually. When someone drops a coin into it her smile broadens.
We have shared several moments together over the past three years. Last week I mustered the courage to ask her about her situation. Nicoletta was in a train accident at the age of 18. Later, she married and had a son. Her begging income helps support him “to give him a future,” she says.
Her husband left her long ago. “He’s miserable with the new one,” Nicoletta chuckles.
Then, in a grave tone, she confides: “My son does not know I do this. I am very well respected in our neighbourhood. It would upset him.” Nobody pushes Nicoletta’s wheelchair for her. She takes the bus alone each time she comes to earn a little extra by her powerful presence. When I have been discouraged some days, she has reminded me that being healthy is all that counts. Her dyed jet black hair is always carefully coiffed. Its grey roots mark years of endurance.
Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur bears another kind of courage. A wife and mother of three, she is also the author of rousing prose like this:
"As long as there is no progress on the question of women, there can be no progress on any question of otherness, whether the other is called migrant, homosexual, non-believer or non-practitioner. Woman is the first Other with a capital "O."
One Friday evening I visited the service for children she has initiated at the reform Jewish temple. Inside, beyond the guard at the entrance who wears a bulletproof vest, the place was brimming with an air of delight. As Delphine got ready to share her sermon, kids accompanied their parents in a giddy dance. An elderly gentleman sat down with me to explain the protocol of the service while his granddaughters settled into their seats nearby. On the other side of me, a lady who bore an uncanny resemblance to my own grandmother sat calmly. Later, the same woman grabbed me in a firm hug as Delphine exhorted us to embrace each other. She had just finished sharing the tale of two brothers who were so considerate of each other that neither ever wanted for love or nourishment.
The full story is worth a read. Here is a link to some reflections on it: https://jewishaction.com/religion/jewish-law/whats-the-truth-about-the-legend-of-two-brothers-and-the-temple-mount/ As you will see, there is some debate over its origin, but like so many spiritual stories, its truth is far more important than its provenance.
At the Grand Mosque of Paris, a gracious Arab lady named Afia bore the gift of hospitality one cold autumn morning. I often go to the Mosque’s library to write. Sometimes I stop before the entrance to the men’s prayer room. There, a latticework panel is described as having been fashioned to cast a ‘discreet light.’ In the basement where the women pray, Afia draped a scarf over my head and then knelt next to me. Intent on our devotions, my frustrations at the ways men and women are ‘organized’ in our world at large dissolved as I simply gave myself over to prayer.
Emboldened by such gifts, I was able to receive from a fourth woman. Louise sits at the welcome desk in the alcove of one of the Catholic Churches I attend. When I asked where the confessional was, she pointed to a dark corner where some grim looking people were waiting. The atmosphere over there was not inviting. So I sat down in front of her to begin my confession. "I am not ordained…” she protested, but as I persisted she relaxed in her chair to listen. “I can’t absolve you... but I heard you!” She exclaimed afterward.
"Well, then I am absolved" I replied. “And peace be with you.”
Taking my leave, I vowed to be a discreet light advancing to meet the arriving illumination of our Winter Solstice. The kind of healing, truth, inspiration, and understanding these women imparted is transforming my view of our oft wintry world.
Magdalena Randal is an artist and filmmaker from Nova Scotia currently studying in Paris.