By Carla McKenzie Throughout this year I have been challenged more than ever to let go. I have been challenged to become aware of and to let go of the layers of myself that I have built up or unthinkingly accepted and to unlearn ways of being and doing that take away the freedom of myself and others. As the year came to a close and the church entered the season of Advent, which is a time of hopeful anticipation for the joy of Christmas, I felt the challenge to ‘let go’ take a very literal form: cutting off all my hair. A week into Advent I went to a very poor part of the rural Eastern Cape to visit a family who were very kind to me a number of years ago, welcoming me into their home to live with them for a number of months in a setting very unfamiliar to how I had grown up. It was a time of immense learning and opening up for me. It has been a while since I had last visited and it was wonderful to reconnect. I was struck, though, by what had changed within me since I was last there and what I had accumulated. Attached to things I was first ashamed to realise how much clothing I had brought with me. Contrasted to the material poverty around me, my amount of luggage was a symbol to me of how much, materially, I still have, how much more I have than I need, and how attached I can be to it. I was ashamed, too, when I realised how concerned I was about things becoming dirty or torn when playing with children or helping around the homestead. Attached to my plans I also began to notice how rigidly my plans and ways of doing things had become – how this affected my emotional availability. Perhaps it was in small ways only noticeable to me, but I sensed how hard it was for me to respond freely both to immediate need as well as spontaneous graces offered to me. I felt that I had developed a certain inflexibility in responding to both the pain and joy around me. I was, to some extent, shut off; detached. It was in these two realisations: of my attachment to my material things and my attachment to my plans and conception of myself as I was comfortable being, that I noticed a detachment from who and what was going on around me. A ‘closedness.’ An ‘unfreedom.’ A gentle nudge During this visit, I was following a set of daily Advent reflections that I had been given. I was continually drawn to the first chapter in the gospel of Luke. There are many beautiful things I love about this chapter, but I was drawn most to the openness and readiness of Mary. Mary, who is considered by many the first disciple, is admired by Christians as a wonderful example of how to follow Christ. Humble and free, Mary is deeply open to the graces of God. She is radically detached from her own plans, false identity and ways of being. This is her freedom. Mary is bravely trusting, with the firm belief that from God comes only good things and availing herself for this. In the first book of the Gospel of Luke, I love the Magnificat, Mary’s humble yet bold soul-song, in awe of the God who: “scatters the proud-hearted” and “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly.” Who “fills the starving with good things, sends the rich away empty.” Mary marvels in this God and is open to how God works in surprising ways to achieve these things. This contrasted with my own ‘closedness’ to the immediacy of people and relationships, realities and experiences around me. I noticed too, how this overflowed into my prayer life (or perhaps the other way around?) which felt formulaic and detached. I began to feel a gentle nudge that my layers of unnecessary attachment were too many and they were dragging me down. This was my ‘unfreedom’ that I was limiting my ability to listen and respond to God and to others. I knew I needed to let something go. Growing ‘indifference’ St Ignatius speaks of a positive form of ‘detachment’ or ‘indifference,’ (http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/the-meaning-of-detachment) which is a concept I have been thinking more and more about lately. His idea of indifference, is not (as it may sound) a version of apathy nor the kind of negative detachment I was experiencing but rather; freedom. If I am ‘indifferent’ in a situation, or a relationship, if I come without a particular agenda or interests to protect, I become better able to listen. I am flexible. I come more available to meet the particular needs of the particular situation. Like Mary, I become more able to receive the graces of the present. Letting something go And so it was on the journey home from my visit, knowing that I needed to let go of something, that the idea came to cut off my hair. With all the excitement and nervousness of what would be for me a big change, I resisted initially and yet knew instantly it was what I needed to do. A few days after arriving home I did it. I tied my long hair into a pony tail and snipped it off, my brother shaving off the rest. There was no ‘a-ha’ moment. No sudden change in how I felt. Indeed, some of the same problems I had noticed on my visit persisted now that I was home with my own family. But in the following few days, I felt that little bit lighter, more compact. Somehow in the physicality of the change I felt an inner readiness and lightness. In the physical openness of having no hair around my face as I have been used to, I felt that little bit more of an inner open-ness. After Advent Advent is a time of preparation, for making room anew in our hearts for the peculiarity of Christian faith: the Incarnation – the hopeful paradox of a God who enters into our humanity and who does so in the most unexpected of ways. God entered on what would be considered the peripheries of society as a poor refugee, as a vulnerable baby, born to a young Palestinian woman of no social standing. This is where the light of the world comes to and from. How on earth would we have seen this coming, continue to see this happening if we don’t, like Mary, cultivate ears, eyes and a heart open to the God of surprises? And so, in my personal act of letting go, I thought of cutting my hair as a clearing out to welcome in. With Advent now passed, my prayer is to try continually to cultivate a readiness like Mary’s and to carry the seeds of that into the new year, open to grace from whatever surprising avenue it may come. About the Author Carla Mckenzie I am an adult convert to Catholicism, which happened much to my own surprise and that of those around me. I live in a vibrant catholic student community and am studying medicine, which occupies much of my time and thoughts. The rest I spend balancing my desire to read the omnipresent pile of books next to my bed and spending time with family and friends, being outdoors: hiking and surfing. I love the church most for its misfit mystics and eccentric saints, and for being able to follow Pope Francis on Twitter. Oladapo Omotade Ogidi Great move Carla…best wishes!