The Stone Boat: Ruth
by parishioner Emilie Øyen
The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest of the Old Testament, and has been claimed by some as the first short story. Most of us have some familiarity with the first part, the story of the woman, Naomi, widowed and both children dead as well, and the Moabite widow of one son, Ruth, who refuses to leave her, who says "where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." The story is thus often taken as one of devotion. Yet more of the book is concerned with the complications of these two women searching for someone who will take them in, be responsible for them, so they do not starve. Emilie Øyen responds to her reading of this book by once again finding the tangle of darkness that entwines love and from which love emerges. Her reflections point us to a great Christian theme, for Ruth is the great-grandmother of David and thus a key ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth; her story then is one that reminds us of God's great love emerging even - and especially - in the dark and desperate times of human lives.
- The Rev. Craig Townsend, Vicar
Remain This Night (three love scenes)
The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust. Ruth 2:12
I have just returned from three days in Paris with my husband and it was a beautiful time, with the sky a slate grey and the autumn cool and sweet, and yellow leaves were beginning to fall and they collected in the corners of the glass ceilings above the café terraces. There were not so many foreigners, and the Parisians were kind and even though the sky was cold, it was comforting. We stayed at the Hôtel Saint Michel on a narrow walled street that led to the Sorbonne in one direction and to the Panthéon in the other. It was a short, steep walk to the Seine from the hotel and in the mornings we would walk down to the river and watch the murky green current and see the people around Notre Dame, and the black espressos we drank were very strong, and after walking along narrow streets, and feeling reverent with candles, stained glass windows and prayers in ancient churches, we would sit for un petit vin and watch Parisians walking by in their coats, intent on their next errand. It was all there, Mallarme poems sketched across a wall, choirs in indigo blue robes, and stone angels flying off in every crazy direction. My husband held my hand when we walked, and we ate whenever we felt like it, and we ate well, and I smoked Gaulloises in a place that still knows how to experience pleasure without shame or fear.
But love isn’t always Paris on the Seine, is it? Turmoil can sweep through love affairs the way wars devastate landscapes. Even we have crossed landscapes ravaged by deceit, cruelty, or boredom. And there have been times when we've practically devastated each other. Just this morning I noticed that my husband had been taking all the good clothes hangers, and leaving my clothes piled on a chair. Also, sometimes he walks too fast and I have to absolutely scurry to keep up. But once upon a time I promised him that where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; that your people shall be my people and your God my God; where you die I will die, there I will be buried. It’s a rather solemn promise, and so for today I have decided to overlook the clothes hangers.
Some time ago, I lived in a house in Kigali with some humanitarian workers. It was a few years after the genocide happened in Rwanda, when 800,000 people were killed -- often by hand, often with machete -- within six weeks. It was hard to believe that four years previous people hid in outhouse pits for days at a time, mothers watched their children being murdered, and corpses floated down rivers in droves. It was hard to believe that entire extended families were methodically killed in the course of a sunny afternoon. When I gazed out from a veranda teeming with bougainvillea vines and potted birds of paradise, overlooking a valley of green, the traffic bustling along and the sound of voices and construction rising up from below, the horror seemed impossible. The Rwandans were still in shock and traumatized, but they were back at work. Orphanages were running, farms were being tended to, markets were bustling. Along every single road, everywhere -- always -- people were walking to somewhere.
The days in the house where we lived were bright and warm, but at dusk the house transformed. Each evening, at ten past six exactly, bats flew from the corner eaves of the house. They swooped above our heads as we sat on the verandah hearing the hymns being sung somewhere down the street. By nightfall, rock music started in the makeshift bar next-door, followed sometimes by shouting and table-thumping. On the night of the last game of the World Cup, a country that supported the Rwandan genocindaires was in the finals. I had been warned that there might be looting or random acts of violence if that country won, but the sounds of cheering from the bar continued even when the country took the lead. Later in the night, I could hear two men who had stepped outside the bar having a gentle but heated discussion. I heard one man crying to another and in the gentle lilt of the African accent, his friend assured him, “But you are still young. You are still so young…”
Two women -- thin, abandoned, vulnerable -- cross a bleak landscape. The earth they walk over is only recently recovered from famine and the landscape is steeped in blood. You can’t see the blood but the blood is there, under the surface. The women are alone, widowed, entering a place that is itself recovering from loss. The younger woman seems determined, but the older one is full of despair. She holds up a bony finger and shouts to all the world, Call me “bitter” for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty: why then call me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me…
The harvest in Judah has begun. Among the sheaves, the reapers are reaping and the gatherers are gathering. The owner of the field where the young woman, Ruth, has come to glean among the sheaves has a servant who is set over the reapers. You see, there is order returning to the land. And there is activity. People are walking unharmed along the roads, people are doing their jobs and tasks. But look closely: every face harbors some loss; every person dwells in pain. Every person is desperate to fill the emptiness they carry within.
However a landscape that is recovering from loss is something else too. A landscape recovering from loss is a landscape teeming with love stories -- endless gestures of kindness, people weeping and people listening, people yearning for one another. On some evenings in Judah, sensuality permeates the air as thick as the smell of the hay. There is compassion. The need for connection creates palpable longing. A sense of loss becomes, at times, desire.
I don’t know if Ruth is aware of the yearning. She is intent on survival, I suppose, when she goes to the field to glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight she shall find favor…
Whose maiden is this? Asks the owner of the field when he sees her.
And he insists she not glean in another field or leave this one. Keep close to my maidens, he tells her. Let your eyes be upon the field which they are reaping, he adds. And he charges the young men not to molest her. And he tells her that when she is thirsty, she is to go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn. Though she is not one of his maidens---she has come from another land, she is a foreigner, and she is a widow---he offers her some bread at mealtime, and invites her to dip her morsel in the wine.
The weeks pass. The harvests are finished and the workers are winnowing barley at the threshing floor. The owner is there too, and they are eating and drinking and celebrating together.
Go, my daughter, the old woman says.
Go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.
So she goes down to the threshing floor.
And when he had eaten and drunk, and his heart is merry, he lies down at the end of a heap of grain.
Then she comes softly and uncovers his feet, and lies down.
Who are you? he whispers when he wakes in the night to find her.
I am Ruth, your maidservant. Spread your skirt over your maidservant,
she whispers to him.
My daughter, do not fear, he says --
I will do for you all you ask.
May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter.
Remain this night, he says.
Lie down until the morning.
Remain this night.
We return to love. Again and again, do we not? We turn and return to love because love cannot be betrayed, murdered, tortured, or starved to death. We turn to love because that is God and that is how God uses us to bring the good out of evil.
In Paris the sky is cold and grey, the leaves are yellow and damp from last night’s rain. The leaves gather in and around the stone fountains. It is beautiful. Here we are, my husband and I, sharing our lodging and our people and our God. Today we are not suffering. I look across the table at this familiar stranger and think we are lucky to be alive, and together, and in Paris. Today we are still so young. We are gleaning in the fields behind the reapers; perhaps today we are even the reapers. I smile as a sense of malaise creeps in and settles, the way it does when you catch yourself in total peace in a foreign place.