The new year has begun. I admit to wondering what this new year is going to bring. Last year was bad enough, could this year be worse? Could it be better? Could it be just a repeat of the old year?
We expect New Year’s to give us a new start. We hope that it will be a good start, but many times it isn’t. Loved ones who have celebrated Christmas with us suddenly die soon after New Year’s is over. Crises that we have experienced in life don’t stop at 11:59 PM on December 31 and at 12:00 AM everything is swept clean. Usually, it feels like it’s just more of the same, or at least that’s our perception of it.
Today we commemorate three medieval mystics and writers that aren’t the most commonly heard of or read. Richard Rolle, who lived between 1290 and 1349, was English as were the other two mystics. Rolle wrote religious texts, translated the Bible, and was a hermit. He was also a mystic, and people of his time read or heard his books and used them as guides on how to be closer to God.
The second man, Walter Hilton, was born in 1340 and died on March 24, 1396. His writings were widely read during the 15th century and were considered guidebooks for a spiritual journey to Jerusalem.
The third is Marjorie Kempe, who was born around 1373 and died sometime after 1438. Her writings or dictations were mostly concerned with her spiritual journeys around England and the continent. She reported that she met with Julian of Norwich and Julian accepted that Marjorie’s visions and her profound spells of weeping were manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
Oddly enough, people still read the writings of these three, even though they are centuries old, and are sometimes difficult to understand. However, people still look to them for guidance in getting closer to God.
It seems that not everything old should be put by the wayside and only the new or the contemporary should be accepted. We look at the stories of Jesus which are over 2000 years old. Even though these stories are written down after Jesus’s death, we still read them for spiritual guidance on how to live a Christian life. We look at stories such as the one for today about Jesus eating with the tax collectors, and we translate it into a context that we understand. The tax collectors were considered traitors and thieves who made their money by overcharging those who owed taxes. They were a very unpopular group. Today we would see those as probably the homeless, or those living in extreme poverty, or even people who just aren’t like us. There are people we wouldn’t share a table or a bus seat with, or even a neighborhood. We build walls to keep those people out. That’s nothing new; humankind has been doing that since the dawn of time. The only thing that’s changed is which groups are being blocked and which are being allowed through.
So where my going with this? I’m asking for myself because it seems to be rolling around in my head that there are things that are old, that I feel are important, and there are many new things that I think are essential as well. When I read a translation of the book of Marjorie Kempe, most of the time I wanted to shake the woman and tell her to quit making such a ruckus in public places with her wild outbursts of crying. Her tears were a reaction to feeling the suffering of Jesus which was strongly emphasized at that time. I couldn’t take a steady diet of Marjorie Kempe as a mystical example, but I can read her as well as other mystics and learn from them just as surely as I can from modern writers like Bishop Charleston or Joan Chittester. They use old stories and make them seem new. Their use of ancient traditions as guides to forming new ones help us to understand the concepts we need to learn and practice.
I’ve been dreading this new year. So far I haven’t been disappointed. It seems to be picking up right where the old year left off, and that’s not what I was hoping would happen. But as the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and change for the better certainly hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps it will just take time, that and work on behalf of those who were excluded in Jesus’s time and who are excluded now. It isn’t going to get done unless we do it, and that means speaking, actually working to make the world aware that old problems are not solved without everyone understanding what’s at stake. Hopefully, we will learn in this new year that we are the change that God wants us to be
So in this new year, I guess it’s time to look at the old, to take the important things that we find there and move with them into new settings, new words, and new understandings. Still, we should treasure the old because we are people of tradition, and we should appreciate that which has gone before us as well as what is going with us now. Maybe New Year’s is a good time to consider that.
With hope, trust, and work, we can make a difference in the world. It’s an old dream renewed.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.
Image: New growth on eight- to ten-year-old Douglas Fir tree, Olympic National Timberland, near Olympia State Park, Washington; National Archives at College Park [Public domain], found on Wikimedia Commons.