In the great plains of South Africa, there’s a poor farming community called Nieu-Bethesda. One of the small houses stands out from the rest. The yard is full of statues – cement camels and mermaids, wise men and angels, and lots of owls. They are bizarre and whimsical and beautiful.
The inside of this house is as unique as the outside. The walls and ceiling are painted all kinds of colors, bright sunshine yellow, blue as deep as the sky, greens and oranges and red. There are mirrors everywhere. And the walls are covered in small pieces of broken, colored glass, sparkling like glitter.
This house, known as the “Owl House” was the home of a woman named Miss Helen Martins. She spent her lifetime struggling with depression and significant grief after her mother died in the 1940’s. To stand up against the despair’s shadows, Miss Helen did everything she could to bring light into her life. She painted color on every surface and mirrors wherever she could. She put different colored glass through a coffee grinder to make a sort of glitter, gluing the reflective pieces onto the wall. She made her sculptures.
Nieu-Bethesda didn’t get electricity until 1991, but Miss Helen found ways to multiply light. On my tour of this house, turned museum, the guide brought a large cloth to cover the colored glass window so that the room became completely dark. And then he lit a candle — just one candle — and the room became alive with light. The mirrors were perfectly placed to catch the flame of the candle and throw it to another mirror and then another. That one light danced all around the room. And the pieces of glittering glass split and multiplied the light into tiny stars.
This Sunday is the beginning of Advent. In these weeks before Christmas, we bring to God our longings, guilt, and griefs, and like Miss Helen, we light candles. We light them both to shine a light of truth on our own hearts, but mostly to watch for Christ coming into the world. We trust that the light shines in the darkness, both in the world and in our own hearts, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
With the light of hope burning bright around us, our acts of kindness and works of mercy, our bold creativity and quiet prayers are like mirrors on the wall or glass glittering like stars. So this Advent, let’s be like Miss Helen, and live in ways that make that light multiply.