Thursday, 11 June 2015

New Occupation

“As a young boy, the Prince of Dragonstone was bookish to a fault. He was reading so early that men said Queen Rhaella must have swallowed some books and a candle whilst he was in her womb. … Until one day Prince Rhaegar found something in his scrolls that changed him. No one knows what it might have been, only that the boy suddenly appeared early one morning in the yard as the knights were donning their steel. He walked up to Ser Willem Darry, the master-at-arms, and said, ‘I will require sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.’”
(from A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin)

I wrote that I sometimes wondered what my younger self would think if he could see me now. If he could have seen me last Thursday evening, he would have been astounded. First he would have seen me at evening prayer in a long white robe, in a square chapel, holding a priest’s garment while he walked round to incense the altar; then taking the censer and swinging it at the priest and the lone seminarian whom we could call the congregation (doing some violence to the etymology).

My younger self might have eyed all this sceptically, for it is not true (as has sometimes been supposed) that he ‘needed to see things’; some argument and an intense dose of poetry was required to open his eyes to the beauty and validity of sensory expressions of the sacred. Even my contemporaneous self (that would be me) is more moved by the aspect of order than by free-floating shininess.

Be that as it may, my sensitive and tender-skinned younger self would have been even more stupefied on seeing me, divested of my alb, run upstairs, change into sports gear, and get into the car for krav maga practice.

Krav maga, or, as I prefer to call it, קְרַב מַגָּע (I’m just showing off here; do tell me to stop) is a form of martial arts developed in the 1940s by a Hungarian Jew. Imi Lichtenfeld happened to be a boxer and a wrestling champion, skills which he put to use and modified in fights against fascist gangs to protect the Jewish community. After he got into trouble with the local government (which was not pro-Semitic), he left and ended up in Israel, where he started training paramilitary troops from 1948 onwards.

Unlike most Japanese martial arts, which have a certain elegance and focus on specific movements (as I understand it, having no experience with them), krav maga focuses on maximum efficiency in realistic attack situations. Every defensive move is accompanied by a simultaneous offensive move (and followed up by a few more). No holds are barred: all weak parts of the body are exploited (though, obviously, safety in training is observed: you don’t actually get to punch people in the face, which is a small price to pay for not being similarly punched yourself).

I have been training since the end of January. I had been saying since last Summer that I wanted to do some form of martial arts, and some friends encouraged me to try krav maga. So during my last exam month, I considered it was probably going to be then or never; and faced with that dilemma, I took the step. The fact that Deacon Prins practices kickboxing (and derives satisfaction from it in moments of pastoral challenge), and that Fr. Hagen once served with the Dutch Marines (and has learnt to kill people with his bare hands, as he told me afterwards), helped me to cross the threshold.

Since then, I have gotten scrapes on my toes, knuckles and elbows, my arms and wrists have been jarred by blocking movements, my lips have bled, my self-confidence has gone up, and it’s been great fun overall. One particularly fun moment consisted in meeting a person who had gone on the diocesan pilgrimage to Rome, in which around 800 people participated. I knew him from the pilgrimage as a father of two kids (including a young one that was kissed by the Holy Father!); he knew me as a seminarian, and when we saw each other again at the training centre, we had difficulty recognizing each other.

It has been educative as well. After the second lesson, you think you are stronger than the world; after the fourth, you find out you are not. The confidence boost comes with a realization that most attackers are stronger, faster, more resilient, and more merciless than your own hero fantasies make them. It’s good to discover that while holding a solid punching pad.

Yesterday I filled out and sent my subscription form to the national office of the IKMF (International Krav Maga Federation). In the evening I went to Haarlem for training. Around the beginning of the lesson, because of an unlucky foot movement by my partner (I think), part of my toenail tore. It took me a while to notice what had happened; we were concentrating on something else. Small droplets of blood were all across our corner of the room. I went to the reception, where I was skilfully bandaged by a concerned lady, and spent a significant time scrubbing my own blood off the mat (I almost wrote ‘mopping’, but it wasn’t that bad). Then I resumed training.

Now if I could punch, hammer and kick my thesis into completion…