Sheila Cassidy is an English doctor who suffered imprisonment and torture in Chile in 1975, for treating an injured guerilla. On her return, she tried her vocation as a contemplative nun, before taking up medicine again in Plymouth.
Since her prison experiences, Christmas has taken on new depths of meaning: the birth of hope in the most inhospitable circumstances.
THREE Christmases spent in a monastery have left me with a precious legacy: a familiarity with the Advent liturgy and thus with the messianic prophecies. My great delight and a deeply personal liturgical act these past two years has been to illustrate some of the texts.
Last year it was an immense collage with the Mountain of the Lord in the centre, the wildernes;4 and dry lands'exulting, and all the peoples of the earth streaming up to it. While the year before it was a 50 foot frieze of The People That Walked in Darkness'. This second text is the one that still tears my heart open because, for me, the people that walk in darkness will always be the peoples of Latin America, and in particular. the people of Chile.
The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light, on those that live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone. (Isaiah 9-1).
Perhaps Christmas is an articulation, a celebration of the amazing truth that, however deep the darkness in which the oppressed live they have indeed seen a great light — they have found cause to hope. In her book. Marked for Life, Maria Boulding speaks of the spiritual life in terms of a journey in the dark during a storm. Just as it seems impossible to go any further a flash of lightning illuminates the path and then
is gone again — but once the path has been seen, albeit for a split second, it is possible to walk in faith.
God knows, Chile has been a land of deep shadow the past seven years since the coup. I remember so well the first Christmas. the queuing five hours for a chicken, the toast raised to absent friends so many of whom were in prison or in exile and, most deeply imprinted on my mind, the strains of the last post ringing on at midnight into a street silent and blackened by curfew.
1973 was the year of the deep shadow — of hours spent on the balcony in a darkened house Peering at figures with machine guns half hidden in doorways or on the street corners; it was the year of the helicopter which flew without lights each night over the city, like a giant bat looking for prey. And of course it was the first of the many years of the prison Christmas — Christmas on Dawson Island: cabinet ministers with frost bite and heartache huddled in a wooden hut in the snow. carving pebbles as presents for their wives. Christmas in Chacabuco: doctors, folksingers, trade unionists, labourers, sweating in the desert. bending copper wire into bracelets and writing poetry.
When they want us to keep being a number, without a soul, destroyed. they forget, they forget, that though everything may be lost on the way homes, goods. so many broken ties, they forget, forget, that the Chilean is made of oak and luma.
never bent by a storm, they forget, forget, that in the sky there is an indestructable star, Our star, which will be always our goal, our course and our guide.
Christmas '74 — Tres Alamos and Melinka. Seven women raped in the Lusa Grimaldi on Christmas Eve, The guards got into trouble — it was bad for security, And '75 — Trcs Alamos again — Some new faces, some old, for Luz Ayress, her third Christmas, in prison — hard to take when you're 25 and full of love and life. Happy Christmas, '80 Luz, wherever you are in exile. One of the new faces was mine: a Gringa among the Chileans. a Catholic among the Marxists — but just one woman among 600 prisoners cooped up in a concentration camp. For me there will never be a Christmas like that one. The Ambassadors' Harrods fruit cake mixed with biscuits to feed a hundred; Christmas Mass in a prison yard with a real baby unto us a son is born unto us a child is given.
Happy Christmas Javieria — your fifth birthday now. And Christmas 1980 — in the Casa Correcional. in the Penitenciaria, in God knows what other miserable, lonely goals: Right there where the light of the sun lost itself more than a century ago ...
Even there. Christmas will he celebrated because in the land of deep shadow a light has shone; because a Child is born. Perhaps this is the secret of Christmas: the birth of new life. of hope, in the most improbable and inhospitable circumstances.
Could it he that the very darkness of prisons make it easier to detect the first rays of light? When there are no Oxford Street illuminations, no fairy lights on the Christmas tree. the first light of Christmas Day dawns amazingly bright.
The stripping away of the superfluous, of the trapping of life. however lovely, leaves us free to appreciate the beauty of the essentials. This is especially true of things of the spirit. If I had not lived and worshipped among a persecuted people, as a member of a Church stripped of all but its T-shirt and trousers, I would never have been able to cope with the tassels and phylacteries of "First World" Christianity.
Lovely indeed are the carols that rise up from the choir of Kings College Chapel on Christmas Eve — but lovelier still was the sound Of a hundred imprisoned girls as they strained their voices to bring Christmas love to their men folk the other side of the prison wall. La Cancion de la Alegria — Beethoven's hymn to joy — seemed a fitting carol for the people who had seen a great light.