Friday, December 16, 2011

The Flame and The Dry Bush (A Christmas Reflection)

December 14, 2011 at 4:06pm

The title is drawn from Khalil Gibran's Sand and Foam, one of this famed Lebanese American artist-poet's inspirational works which I have drawn many insights at different points in my life. The quote as completed goes this way, "I am the flame and the dry bush, and one part of me consumes the other part."

As the year draws to a close, with the frenzied rush for gifts, gadgets and the gamut of holiday madness, I have put away the tinsel and wrapping paper for the time being. I had taken San Francisco's aging BART, the line that spans Richmond to Millbrae, shivering from the frost and gusts of cold wind. The ride was uneventful, one that was like many, save for an event that lingered with its ironic images before I boarded for the ride home.

San Francisco is alive with the holiday spirit, with red bows on trees and lamp posts lining Market Street. The emporiums have a variety of Yule decor, enticing the pedestrian to spend their dollars on massive sales for gift giving, or hoarding. But I could not help but dwell on the irony of it all. San Francisco is a walker's paradise, with a wide array of historical buildings, quaint corners, squares and heritage sites. Before reaching my designated Bart stop at the Civic Center/UN Plaza, twin spires of gold caught the corner of my eye along 10th street, blazing under a wind swept afternoon sun. It was, I presumed a church, and unfamiliar with such a pleasant discovery and with time to spare, I started to walk towards it, as if drawn by a magnet. Being a Tuesday, I figured it would be just right for my regular St. Therese devotion in another "find" I was looking forward to unravelling.

The walk was like some of the strands that one sees in the city by the Bay. Hooded and huddled in some corners were denizens of the streets, ambulant and ambivalent. A Medical Cannabis Dispensary was a stone's throw from the church, and unlike chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the sidewalk had holiday cheer, courtesy of a well lit prescription no doubt. 

As I drew near to the statuesque edifice, lights were flashing on a bright sunshiny day. And the scene on the fenced in wooden doors of the Church was a stark revelation. The lights were from the San Francisco Police truck, as the remnants of homeless occupiers on the sidewalk were being dispersed from their refuge. The Church, as it were, was an abandoned hulk, a massive and elegant derelict with its grand imposing doors strewn with graffiti. Slow moving homeless hold outs were being asked to leave the area, with their precious possessions dismissed as junk on shopping carts, pushed aside. Abandoned lengths of cardboard and wooden cutouts were being loaded on the police truck to be hauled away, their use dismissed for disposal even as they may have served their owners well, as welcome mats for rest and sleep from the harsh elements. A police officer was patronizing and somewhat respectful of the slow lumbering pair, I saw moving away from their sanctuary, the well sculptured lines of a beautiful abandoned church the backdrop for this inconsequential event. Certainly, this perfunctory operation of the city's law enforcement brigade would not merit any headlines, or even the page 4 next to the obituaries. 

I could only dwell again on the sheer irony of this spectacle happening just after Gaudete Sunday of my second Advent season on the West Coast. A small place of sanctuary on a sidewald denied to the deprived and despondent, in front of a massive, unused, unmoving building that used to be a house of worship and solace. A later cursory Google search revealed that what I had thought was to be a monumental find, turned out to be defunct St. Joseph's Church. It is a sad remnant of the realities of the new millenium's socio-economic debacles, as it lies undeveloped after having been acquired by a developer who wished to keep the statuesque architectural gem intact within a planned redevelopment project as its centerpiece. But the earlier financial crisis before this present one had stymied it all. Hence, the former St. Joseph's Church languished, its perimeter strewn with discarded junk and derelict nomads the city deemed fit as inappropriately located in a business district of this city by the bay. 

A church that no longer served as one, named after my own patron saint, its golden domed spires a marvelous pantheon visible for miles around. Found and foraged for the memory that I would carry for this season. And so this is Christmas. Winding my way, weary and wondering, I was caught in the irony and the imagery of this December experience. And as in many of previous flights like this, it was the wellspring of Gibran that I chose to draw from, for reflection. And thus, the flame and the dry bush struck me as the most appropriate counterpoint to my encounter. 

Beneath all the blessings I have been fortunate enought to enjoy, and the many that I am certain will come my way in the days ahead leading to Christmas day, the fires of the season would also engulf the spirit that prevails all around me. I can only hope that those homeless brothers being thrown aside could find themselves solace, their "room at the inn" on another cold and bitter eve. Despite the hallowed halls of monoliths that no longer harbor lost and wandering souls, and frostbitten hardened bodies, and all the opulence of an otherwise libertarian government, there can only be dispersal, depression and destitution. Would we truly feel what Christmas means, with hardly a care or a commitment to live up to its true spirit? Coming home from this recent experience, I am consumed by it all. Still thankful to the eternal message of whispering hope and the call to the faithful. For in the city of David, a Savior is born. Wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a manger. Born of Virgin named Mary, safely secured by the strength and fortitude of an obedient Carpenter, named Joseph. A Saviour is born. Let us adore him.

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