An Aged Isaiah Remembers

Chagall - Isaiah, 1956. Lithograph, 31.8 × 24.1 cm.jpg
Marc Chagall, Isaiah, 1956. Lithograph, 31.8 × 24.1 cm. Private collection.

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By his wounds
You have been healed.

By his healing
You have been wounded.

By his wounds
You shall be wounded.

By his healing
You shall be healed.

By your wounds
He has been wounded.

By your wounds
You shall be healed.



Broken Vessel

broken body
broken heart
forever hanging
held by
the crying love of the Spirit

his wound
my hurt
our blood mixing together

his open arms
my nailed hands
pierced together

we share
the birth pain
we partake
the letting go

we release
the life to become
we form
the theology from the womb

we groan
with hope
we sob
with agony

creation is fully alive
lives flourish without blemish



Liminal Space


I stood between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean recently, watching an ocean liner passing through the Panama Canal. The giant ship was moving slowly, almost unnoticeably, between the narrow banks. With the help of locomotives, the gigantic body of the ship was moving forward within 60cm of the banks on each side. Yet the liner needed to trust the water to uphold her body and the locomotives to take her through the narrow canal. During the 8 minutes of waiting between the gate to the lock and the valve, she patiently waited for the water to gradually reach another level. She did not stop moving forward – however painfully slow and helplessly depending on the water below and the need to trust the engines beside. She envisioned the wide-open sea ahead that would eventually embrace her after this bottleneck and then 8–10 hours of transit on the canal.

For me, this is a perfect image of a liminal space. It is an in-between space, a transition and a threshold. It is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next’, a place of waiting and not knowing, a place of now and not yet. The wise tell us that it is also a place of transformation. In the waiting, we let it form us. However, we often find ourselves caught in the process and still waiting for the moment of transformation. We can experience various degrees of uncomfortableness, disorientation, dizziness, grief, vulnerability and even bodily reactions like tears or tiredness in this space. We may feel restless and disorientated. We may feel lonely and that we have got into a dark hole not being able to get out.

Like a hen hatching an egg, the egg has been broken yet life is yet to be formed. We don’t know what it will become. There are mixed feelings of grief and hope, fear and uncertainty, waiting and expectancy. Like on a stormy sea, we feel dizzy and sick, not being able to survive, left alone holding the wheel and steering the ship. Like Tom Hank’s film Terminal, we are caught between two countries, rejected by both and stuck in an airport going nowhere.

This is the world we live in – global displacement, refugee camps, migrant movement, political trauma of native people, villages overtaken by shopping malls. People are on the move globetrotting yet don’t talk to the neighbours across the street. Despite the ever-increasing speed of technology, we find ourselves more and more isolated and lost. Anxiety and frustration creep in and continue to fill this age, as if we are ‘waiting for Godot’ who will never arrive.

How do we navigate our own lives of transition? How do we live in an age of postmodern displacement and dislocation? As we open the pages of the Bible and lift our gaze to the Crucified one, we find a God calling his people out of comfort zones to a place of discomfort again and again whether it is in Exodus or in Exile. It is the same God who woos them to the place where they truly belong, somewhere they call home. This paradoxical place they stand on is the biblical liminal space, somewhere between the wilderness and the Promised Land, between homelessness and home. In the New Testament, the disciples were called from a self-assured life to the way of brokenness. In the light of the Cross, they wrote the Gospels and Acts, which heralded a new human history. The Spirit of love breaks in, speaks to the womb and brings the darkness to the light, brokenness to transformation, nothingness to everything.

This awareness gives us hope and vision to live here and now fruitfully and welcome the invitation to go deeper in our faith – to listen attentively, struggle genuinely, and question authentically even with our uttermost nihilism. The liminal space is the richest mine to explore this treasure, and trust courageously the hidden fingers that guide us.

Liminal Space

invites us
to put our ears
on the ground
to hear the sound
from the basement
of our hearts

to enter into the room
with courage and curiosity
to push darkness
to touch the unknown
to dance in-between the gap
though our senses are numb
our eyes are blind
our voice has no sound
till we are used to this hollow ground

nobody, nothing, nowhere
thoughts tangled in a mass
sweat intermingled in a pool

our bodies move
…………..let go

whatever comes
whatever emerges
whatever settles
the divine surgery
…………..let come


Xiaoli Yang is a theologian, poet, and spiritual director. She lives and plays on Wurundjeri land and in the Middle Kingdom. Details about her latest publication can be found here.

‘“Jerusalem” was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it’. A review of John Newton’s The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune

the-double-rainbow.jpgJohn Newton, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009). 224 pages. ISBN: 9780864736031.

John Newton’s engaging book, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, examines the Ngāti Hau community that Aotearoa’s best-known poet James K. Baxter was instrumental in establishing at Hiruhārama, on the Whanganui River – ‘the country’s first and most influential experiment in “hippie” communalism’ (p. 38). As Newton notes in his Introduction:

The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pākehā majority ignored Māori culture, not just to the cost of Māori … but also to its own detriment. Pākehā, he wrote in 1969, a few months before he first moved to Jerusalem, ‘have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years and have taken nothing from it but a few place-names and a great deal of plunder’. Pākehā culture’s material dominance was accompanied by an arrogance and ethnocentrism which left it spiritually impoverished.

He cites Baxter:

‘Ko te Maori te tuakna. Ko te Pakeha te teina …’ The Maori [sic] is indeed the elder brother and the Pakeha [sic] the younger brother. But the teina has refused to learn from the tuakana. He has sat sullenly among his machines and account books, and wondered why his soul was full of bitter dust …

And then offers the following commentary:

The cost was everywhere to be seen, but nowhere more plainly than among urban youth. For Baxter, their wholesale disaffection was a realistic verdict on the society they had inherited, a mainstream culture whose spiritlessness and meanness – to say nothing of its arrogance towards its neighbours – deserved no better. In the Māori world, by contrast, and particularly in Māori communalism, he believed he could see an alternative to this atomised majority culture – a system of values that answered to the longings and frustrations that he recognised, both in himself and in the young people around him. To establish an alternative Pākehā community that could ‘learn from the Maori side of the fence’ was to help restore, symbolically, the mana of the tangata whenua and to begin to resuscitate a Pākehā culture that was choking to death on its own materialism. (pp. 11–12)

Such constitutes the earth from which a functioning intentional community at Hiruhārama budded, a community made up largely of those for whom mainstream Aotearoan society meant fatherlessness.

While concerned to not diminish Baxter’s part in the formation of the Ngā Mōkai community but rather to place it in the context of a larger ‘utopian experiment’ (p. 88) he initiated, Newton seeks to ‘offer a stronger account of what Baxter achieved at Jerusalem by bringing into focus its collaborative dimension’ (p. 16). He properly contends that what the 41-year-old Baxter set in motion, and towards which the baby-boomer ‘orphanage’ of the damaged which was his living poetry bore witness to, was something considerably bigger than Baxter himself, and that the unique cohabitation and set of cultural negotiations which was embodied in the Whanganui River communities (particularly Ngāti Hau, Ngā Mōkai, the church – which was ‘threaded through the life of the river’ (p. 59) – and the Sisters of Compassion) draw attention to implications far beyond both Baxter or to the communities themselves. This, of course, is of the essence of Baxter himself, that before he was a hippie, he was ‘a Catholic, a Christian humanist, and an aspiring Pākehā-Māori’ (p. 36), he was a poet-prophet charged not simply with interpreting the social environment which he inhabited, but of actively improving it, of giving material shape to it. The book is loosely divided into three main sections: an introductory phase that addresses the pre-history of the community and Baxter’s first year of residence; a middle section that covers its heyday; and a downstream phase that describes the community’s various offshoots, and considers its legacy. The result – for the reader prepared to follow the narrative – is the stripping away of ‘cultural safety’.

Newton details further upon what we know of Baxter from other places while eloquently introducing us to a host of other equally-fascinating characters – Father Wiremu Te Awhitu, pā women Dolly, Alice, Lizzie, and Wehe (who are often remembered as ‘substitute’ mothers (p. 89)), Aggie Nahona, and Denis O’Reilly among them. He also highlights Baxter’s visionary kinship with French-born nun Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert with whom he shared ‘a staunch commitment to Māori, and to spiritual love as the first principle of a hands-on social mission’ (p. 45). Newton argues that this part of Baxter’s history ‘doesn’t get acknowledged in Baxter’s rhetorical point-scoring at the expense of the mainstream church. Without it, however, his own Jerusalem “orphanage” would never have eventuated. In one sense the debt is symbolic or poetic: the presence of the church at Jerusalem draws te taha Māori into dialogue with the other key spiritual driver of his later career, namely his Catholic faith … Baxter brought his showmanship, and his personal (some might argue, narcissistic) sense of mission. But he also brought with him – embodied, or enacted – the self-interrogation and social radicalisation that had seized hold of the Catholic Church globally in the wake of Vatican II. After the Berrigans and the draft card burnings, after liberation theology, what did the Christian mission imply in the context of ongoing colonial injustice?’ (pp. 46, 47).

Jerusalem was Baxter’s riposte to all those Pākehā institutions – the churches, the university, the nuclear family and so on – whose lack of heart and small-minded materialism were now failing Pākehā youth in the same way that Pākehā culture had always failed Maori. In looking for a remedy for the failings of Pākehā society, he found his prime inspiration in the communitarian virtues that he saw among Māori: aroha, mahi, kōrero, manuhiritanga. This was ‘learn[ingJ from the Maori side of the fence’: his community was to be modelled on the marae. Of course, in offering this open door the commune depended entirely on the hospitality of Ngāti Hau … But the commune was not just a place to live – a material shelter for whomever happened to be there … it was also a piece of political theatre. And the commune’s significance as a political intervention depended for its fullest expression on publicity: it was intended, at least in part, to be a spectacle, a City on a Hill! At the same time, it was integral to the kaupapa that it be open to all comers. This was the paradox that Baxter was confronted by: the more effectively this vision was communicated, the more would it lead to a pressure of numbers that would overwhelm the commune’s own capacity to provide for itself, and which eventually must wear out the patience of the local community. (p. 65)

Yet Newton is at pains to point out throughout his study that Hiruhārama is bigger than Baxter. Indeed, the bulk of the book is given to defending and illustrating this thesis, that Hiruhārama after Baxter entered into a period of unforeseen maturity, and particularly the maturity of its relationship with the pā. Community life under Greg Chalmers’ leadership may have been less eventful, but those years from 1972 do more to fulfil Baxter’s hopes of regenerative partnerships than those prior.

Two chapters are concerned with articulating the events birthed following the final closure of the community at Hiruhārama, and to highlighting that while a distinctive phase of the Ngā Mōkai narrative had reached its end, its impulse didn’t die with the community itself. Newton draws attention to a network of loosely affiliated houses – from flats and private homes, to crashpads and urban shelters, to far-flung intentional communities – which functioned as homes-away-from-home for a diasporic Ngā Mōkai whānau, a ‘network of initiatives which imported the Jerusalem kaupapa back into urban contexts’ (p. 154), and there ‘offering a dispersed community the chance of reconnection, reaffirmation and renewal’ (p. 164). He recalls Hiruhārama’s various germinations at Reef Point, Wharemanuka, and Whenuakura. ‘With the shutting of the original commune, these “shoots of the kumara vine” [became] the focus of the Ngā Mōkai story. It’s here, in this ramshackle archipelago, that those who had been touched by Jerusalem attempted to keep alive the kaupapa’ (p. 131).

The penultimate chapter, ‘Baxter’s Wake’, re-spotlights Baxter, and is given to argue that Baxter’s literary legacy and his social legacy are ‘shoots of the same vine’ (p. 169):

‘Jerusalem’ was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it, its logical destination, even its most vivid accomplishment. In his burial on the river we find Baxter the poet and the Baxter the activist inextricably entwined. This integration was precisely his ambition, and the fact he achieved it is what makes these events still resonate. (p. 171)

So Newton appropriately accentuates Baxter’s formulation of the poet’s ethical task to be no mere interpreter of society but one who endeavours to make society more just: ‘It is this sense of embodied ethics … which leaps into focus when we think about Jerusalem’ (p. 179).

The Double Rainbow is the fruit of an incredibly-impressive amount of extensive and laborious research. Newton commendably resists romanticising Baxter, Baxter’s vision, or the Ngāti Hau ‘classroom’ itself. Those engaged in Baxter’s work and who want to better understand his Jerusalem Daybook or who are interested in his biography, those seeking to understand, assess, and inform Aotearoa’s multi-cultural, historical, and spiritual landscape, those wanting to listen and to speak intelligently into contemporary debates about the relationship between government authorities and badge-wearing gangs carving out their own neo-tribal identity, and, more broadly, to a nation fascinated with re-carving a new national identity which buries settler mono-culturalism in its wake, and those devoted to the challenging work of inspiring, creating, leading, building, replanting, and closing local and grassroots communities will be well-served to have Newton’s essay in hand. An invaluable and timely record, it is also certain to inform, impress and inspire.