Tag Archives: God

And Sarah Laughed…

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and sarah laughed

One day, God took with him two angels and went visiting, disguised as a wayfaring stranger.  Abraham, obeying the ancient laws of hospitality ran out to welcome the weary travelers in.  He ordered a lamb slaughtered and sent Sarah to bake bread.  Seating the stranger in a place of honor, he offered him wine, dates, almonds and salty olives.  God, pleased with Abraham’s kindness to strangers, promised that Sarah, who had been barren her whole long life, would soon bear a son.  Sarah, eavesdropping on their conversation from within the folds of her tent laughed to herself at the idea.  God heard her and asked Abraham why she laughed.  Sarah, frightened, denied that she had. “Yes you did,” said God.

What a strange and wonderful story this is.  I’ve read several interpretations of Sarah’s laughter – some describe it as a peal of joy, others as a snort of derision.

In the entire Bible Sarah is the only person who is described as laughing.  Laughter is mentioned in a few other places and a couple of times groups of people laugh scornfully, but no other individual laughs. This is an old old story, repeated hundreds of times before it was written down more than six hundred years after it was first told.  Why did this little detail of one woman’s quiet laughter survive?

I found a great article by Richard Restak on the psychology and physiology of laughter.  Basically, laughter releases endorphins that make us feel good.  It relieves stress, alleviates anxiety and lowers our blood pressure.  Laughter also dispels nervousness, eases social situations and creates feelings of companionship and good will. Laughter can also be derogatory, self-deprecating or ironic.

Maybe God’s insistence that Sarah acknowledge her laughter was a way of underlining the importance of laughter.  Maybe, it meant, “don’t undermine your own human nature.” Perhaps it serves to remind us to stay present and take ourselves less seriously.  Consider how important the issue of reproduction was and still is to many women.  Then and now, it bears directly on honor, shame, status, fulfillment, personal happiness and identity.  Sarah had been living with the burden and shame of being barren for her whole life. Her reaction to Hagar and Ishmael indicates great defensiveness around the subject.  Maybe the story tells us that relaxing our hard grip on the identities we create for ourselves opens an opportunity for change.  Look how often women who try for years to become pregnant finally conceive after giving up and going on vacation or adopting a baby. There are many ways of being pregnant with things other than babies – dreams, projects, causes, art.  For any of them to come to fruition we need to relax, breathe, and let go of outcome.  We need to laugh.

Especially we need to laugh at ourselves and the absurd situation of being human.  It difficult to be self-aware. Consciousness is both blessing and curse, it can heal but also cripple.  Laughter, a phenomenon that even now scientists cannot entirely explain, explodes paradox and shifts our perspective. It breezes like a cleansing wind through our darkest passions and most twisted assumptions, if only we let it.  The story tells us to remember, honor, and use this gift as an antidote to suffering.

In this collage we see Abraham relaxing together under the trees, drinking wine.  Sarah, having heard her name spoken, leans against the tent pole eavesdropping on the conversation.  Traditionally in those days, when a man and woman were depicted together in a work of art, particularly if they were “man and wife,” the woman would be drawn smaller than the man.  Here I’ve reversed the tradition because it is Sarah’s story that interests us; her emotions drive the story and it is her laughter we remember.

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Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael

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Sar and Hagar

There’s so much to say about this story it is hard to know where to start.  We usually begin with an overview.  So, here we see Sarah the barren old woman who has been promised a child by God himself.  Even after the promise, this mythical child is a long time coming.  Worried about Abraham not having an heir from their own family (Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister) , Sarah has sent her handmaiden Hagar to lie with Abraham and bear his child.  That child, according to Jewish tradition, now belongs to Sarah and Abraham.  (Echoes of this practice reverberate down through the centuries in both real life and story.  Consider surrogate mothers and Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

The starry heavens behind the three characters represent God’s covenant with the two women – he has promised them both that nation’s will arise from the seed of their sons.  In this collage Isaac has not yet been conceived and Ishmael is still a little boy.  Jealousy has already begun to bedevil these women.  The heavens also represent the ubiquitous God, who just can’t seem to keep from meddling in these people’s lives in the most clumsy manner.

In reading the Bible stories about women, keep in mind how seldom women are named and how little description surrounds their names. When a woman is named we can assume her story held great import for her contemporaries and that the story associated with her holds enough meaning to continue to reverberate down the millennia.

Hagar looms the largest for me in this story. She is the least powerful figure here; even her fertility can be co-opted.  Nevertheless, Hagar haunts every action and even God keeps track of her comings and goings.  We can deduce from the story that she is a straightforward woman, lacking in subtlety or cunning until motherhood empowers her and she becomes proud, defiant, stubborn and ambitious for her child. I can’t help but identify with her.  She seems to represent the status and position of so many women today, in this country and around the world.

Perhaps Hagar and Sarah together represent the precarious nature of motherhood.  The women in this tale are both hostages to fortune.  They live and die at the whims of men and their gods.  On the one hand, fertility bestows a certain amount of power; on the other, women are easily interchangeable. Perhaps the meaning lies in what these women fail to do, rather than in their actions.  Perhaps, we are being shown how divisive and enervating jealousy can be; how it saps the strength and diverts the will to the point that the welfare of children becomes compromised rather than enhanced.

We don’t know how Hagar felt about being sent to Abraham’s bed.  Was she repulsed by his age?  Or attracted by his power and prestige?  Whichever it was, once pregnant she began to enjoy her new status.  No doubt, as her time approached she was relieved of many duties and when she gave birth to a son – well the feasting and rejoicing are easy to imagine.  It all went to her head, and she began to put on airs and disrespect Sarah.

Remember that Sarah and Abraham are very old by this time and Sarah has spent decades living down the shame of being barren.  The fact that she has been a beautiful and desirable woman makes it all the worse; makes her feel like a fraud.  Perhaps, all along she has harbored a sneaking suspicion that her childless state may be the fault of Abraham.  Now that the younger woman Hagar has borne a son, even that secret comfort is denied her.  Hagar’s airs, which may be just the normal delight and pride of a new mother, act like salt in Sarah’s wounds. The humiliation and shame of a lifetime overcome her.  Sarah beats Hagar and Hagar runs away, taking the baby with her.  However, God isn’t done with these people.  He sends an angel to talk to Hagar and convince her to return.

There’s a blank in the story here – one of many.  In Jewish tradition the rabbi’s often make up a scenario to fill in the blanks.  These are called midrash and they are teaching anecdotes that carry a moral or make a theological point.

What I imagine happened here is that when Hagar ran away, Abraham was furious and worried.  I imagine he berated Sarah for driving Hagar away.  Perhaps Sarah, too, was horrified at losing her son.  No doubt they sent out search parties and prayed for them to return.

We can extrapolate from other stories in the Bible, that Hagar would have been welcomed back with rejoicing and forgiveness.  In my version, when Hagar and the baby came back, the two women come to an agreement; sharing the child and living harmoniously for a time –  at least, until Isaac arrives on the scene…

To Be Continued…

The Dark Lord

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I’ll be on vacation next week without my studio, so Michelle will have to twitch the first prompt of our next tale herself.  I really loved working with this Hindu myth.  As always, I learned and was nourished from the deep interaction with story our process  provides.  Krishna inspires me; for that I am deeply grateful and leave you with this poem in his honor.  ~   Christine

His couch lies ready

linen strewn with marigolds

bedposts hung with silk

Where is the Dark Lord?

 

In the wet grass – footprints;

forgotten bracelets,

Where is the Dark Lord?

 

Laughter light as spider silk

spun to snare a blue-skinned god

floats fragrant on the dusky air

slides like an errant wisp

of perfumed hair across his lips

burns like whip-lash, bends

the sacred mouth and strings

it with desire.

 

Echoes fade.

Cows low

nightingale sings.

The Dark Lord lifts his pipe.

 

Notes fan out like soft-nosed ferrets

quartering the grazing ground, dodging

clumsy hooves to nose past crimson saris;

ride streams of spurting foaming cream,

flash cobalt sparks round a brass-rimmed milking bowl.

Cream spills white across the black-churned earth.

 

Gopis desert their lowing cattle, beating

up-turned jars like drums.

 

Constellations shift and shimmer

Universes disappear.

 

Krishna blows sweet longing down his flute

 

Worlds reorder.

Brass-bound jars set up a timpani

each milkmaid drops her gold embroidered hem

into a sister’s calloused palm and spins.

 

Red silk settles in circles.

The naked god comes forth.

©2013 Christine Irving

Krishna’s Flute

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Krishna'sflutewk#3,4

Krishna’s Flute
Little Krishna & the Fruit
Week# 3, 4

The flute of Krishna means the flute of revelation. Krishna lived like a human and he was a prophet. His story is told in the Epic Mahabharata. Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, is based on Krishna’s life.
The Bansuri is a transverse flute made from a single hollow shaft of bamboo with six or seven finger holes. It is an ancient instrument associated with cowherds and pastoral life in India. Krishna was a master at his flute, enchanting every living creature to dance to his tune. In the tale of the Women of Braj, who became spell bound and danced their love and devotion while listening to Krishna play. (see Christine’s essay.)
Krishna’s flute teaches love. “Ah! How alluring is the melody of your music! It seems you are not a flute, but a magic wand.” When the Gopi women asked the flute about its magic the flute replied, “I am but a lowly reed, hollow inside. I know neither magic nor any arts of attraction. I am simply a forest reed, all hollow within and bereft of any beauty. Krishna, my lord, lover and bearer, calls this attitude of mine the greatest virtue and is extremely pleased with it. He over and over whispers into my ear-hole this excellent teaching: ‘Empty your self and I will fill you.’ I have realized its truth, and I obey it to the very letter. This is magic, if magic you will call it. This is my strength. It is he who sings through me and enchants you all. My dear friends, if you too empty yourselves … he will fill every nerve and atom of your body with his love and life. Does the pervading air not fill a jar when it is emptied of other stuff? He will not leave you even for a moment, and will sing through you the sweet melodies of harmony and peace to the whole world.”
In paintings of Krishna he is often shown playing his flute. I show in my collage the young Krishna playing his flute, standing at the portal of his temple which is the universe. He is surrounded by other children. He is also attracting cow herds and sheep. He revels in the affection and love of his mother.
“Stop it! Stop!” all of them shouted from the top of the tree. All the little heads popped out from among the branches … in my collage, I have the heads of his brothers around the right side of his temple’s doorway. They symbolize the brothers outraged by Krishna eating the fruit. As children often do, they run to the mother to tattle on their sibling. Much to their disappointment the mother does not punish Krishna. In fact, she hugs and kisses him.
In this collage I include the heavens because Krishna is the avatar of Vishnu the maintainer of the universe. This is shown in the story when Little Krishna is asked to open his mouth. His two brothers are by his side. Even the little girl on the pillar of his temple is hoping to catch stars to put into her basket. When Krishna plays his flute all is right with the world. Some say that Krishna’s Flute is the “Voice of eternity crying to the dwellers in time.”