Be the Light: Alakananda Ma's 2017 New Year's Letter

Be the Light.jpg

And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light and relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame.
Therefore we thank Thee for our little light, that is dappled with shadow.
We thank Thee who hast moved us to building, to finding, to forming at the ends of our fingers and beams of our eyes.
And when we have built an altar to the Invisible Light, we may set thereon the little lights for which our bodily vision is made.
And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.
O Light Invisible, we give Thee thanks for Thy great glory!

TS Eliot from Choruses from the Rock

Greetings dear ones,

On 24th December, Sadananda and I kindled the menorah for the first night of Hanukkah. As the flame burned down, we set out in the biting cold to celebrate the lighting of the Christ Candle at First United Methodist Church. "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." Not for forty years has the first night of Hanukkah occurred on Christmas Eve as it has done in 2016, bringing together the rededication of the Jerusalem temple with the birth of the miraculous babe in Bethlehem. Both stories offer hope and renewal in a time of darkness and oppression.

When my parents were young children, clouds of darkness were gathering over a Europe already shattered by the horrific war in which their fathers fought. They were fourteen years old when the Second World War broke out. Six years later, seventy million had died in battle, bombing, starvation and genocide. Even as a young medical student, thirty years later, I walked each day past a bombed out London church. Yet, in the face of the horrors of war, the resilience of the human spirit reasserted itself. The ending of the war brought a determination to create a more peaceful world and more just and open societies. The UN was born on 24 October 1945. In 1949 came the Geneva Conventions, seeking to limit the atrocities of war and promote basic humanitarian values. The great ideal of the Enlightenment, liberal democracy, began to spread across Europe and become a normative political ideology. And on 25 March 1957 the Treaties of Rome were signed, laying the foundation stone of the European Union, based on the values of human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights--hard-won lessons for a Europe grappling with the legacy of two appalling wars.

Today, many of us in the United States and Western Europe take liberal democracy and the rule of law for granted as our inalienable birthright. Others of us-- African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ, religious minorities as well as refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, shine light on the gap between these ideals and their implementation in daily life. None of us are truly free or equal until all of us enjoy these inalienable rights in full measure.

A new year, 2017, is taking birth in a world shaped by the ideals of the Enlightenment. And again, just as in my parents' childhood, dark clouds are gathering with the rise of far-right populism and authoritarianism. Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is leading his nation away from promised democratization to escalating authoritarianism. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has cheerfully compared himself to Hitler, saying he would be "happy to slaughter" 3 million addicts. Urged on by far right populist Nigel Farage, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, isolating itself from the great project of the Four Freedoms. And the election of self-described populist Donald Trump has energized America's white supremacists as well as Europe's extreme nationalist parties. With the appointment of Steven Bannon of Breitbart News as Trump's chief strategist, the far right is ready to enter the mainstream.

According to Jan-Werner Muller, "populists always, at heart, reject pluralism, and claim to be the exclusive and moral representatives of "the people" and their interests. It is therefore, above all, a moralistic imagination of politics... Once in office, they tend to describe the opposition as illegitimate, immoral and "enemies of the people" -- this polarization is a key element of what populism thrives on. Just like Chávez and Maduro said those who voted against him were infiltrators and traitors, Donald Trump referred to "millions of illegal voters" who explain why he lost the popular vote."

"It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." This quotation, attributed to sources as disparate as Confucius, Eleanor Roosevelt and a Unitarian minister, shines forth as a flame to clarify our confusion and warm us as we shiver in anxiety. We are the ones who can brighten the gloom and avert impending catastrophe. We can't take freedom, equality, liberty and justice for all and the rule of law for granted--and perhaps we never could. The checks and balances offered in our constitution can be removed at the stroke of a pen. We the people are the only real checks and balances. Are we ready to arise for justice like the Standing Rock water protectors and the Black Lives Matter activists? When we see minorities assailed, are we ready to stand with them? Are we willing to allow the Geneva Conventions become a dead letter as hospitals are bombed and civilians starved in Syria--or will we call the governments of the world to account? Are we willing to allow all the humanitarian gains of the last seventy years to wither along with the hopes of unwanted refugees shivering in tents--or will we advocate for them?

I usually suggest simple, health-oriented New Year's resolutions. This year, I invite you to BE the one you are waiting for. Democracy, the rule of law, pluralism, and international humanitarian law are inherently fragile, for they represent our highest aspirations as a society and international community. If we forsake the dream and vision, they will be no more. Dystopia awaits us if we do not uphold these ideals. And sustaining democracy and humanitarianism requires more than a click on a petition site. Here are some simple tools:

  • Use the Indivisible Guide to borrow strategies from the Tea Party in order to resist the Trump Agenda. Or, if you prefer, use these same strategies to advocate for refugees or push for a just resolution of the war in Syria.
  • Support organizations like the ACLU that are standing up for our civil liberties.
  • Support charities that are helping refugees:
  • Want some weekly action items to help you work on behalf of our democracy and protect minorities? Look at this site.

As TS Eliot said, the darkness reminds us of the light. Instead of despairing or cowering under the covers, we can light our little candles as beacons of hope. If we fail, at least we lived in integrity and sowed seeds of hope for future generations. If we succeed, freedom and democracy will be stronger than ever before.

Wishing you a joyous New Year and peace and prosperity during 2017!

With my love and blessings always

Alakananda Ma


Alakananda Ma December 2013

Child of the dark time

I long for light

Recall the light.

Lights before I came into the world

Cranley Mews menorah kindling

Behind blackout curtains

In the days when London burned

And no church bells rang.

Lights that welcomed me to the world

Sodium lamps glowing on icy streets

Advent candles calling to Emmanuel.

Lights of childhood

Yule log in the hearth

Lantern in tent,

Lamps shining through leaded glass

Pooling on cobblestones,

Sunlight on warm brick wall,

Shafts of light through stained glass windows.

Trinity wharf lighthouse

Illuming London docks

Ipswich harbor lights

Reflected in the Orwell

Ship lights, port red, starboard green.

Lights of faith

Sabbath lights

Lumen Christi shining in dark church

Tiered arati lamps

Circling before Shanta Durga,

Sea of butter lamps at Svyambunath,

Divali lights floating down the Ganges.

Lights of joy and sorrow

Birthday candles, yahrtzeit candles

Kirtan votives, romantic candles,

Wildfire blazing on Bear Peak,

Starlight in the desert,

Firelight by full moon.

Child of the dark time

I seek the light

Light in face, in smile, in eyes

Light of spirit, light of love

Light of lights

Beyond the darkness.

Child of the waning year

I see the light

Hidden in the hearts of all.