Do not pass "go". And do not wait. Just trot right over to my friend Paul Overton's blog at Every Day is Awesome. If you tend toward tears when in the presence of beauty and noble actions, have a hanky handy.
In the Harry Potter series, there is a scene in which Luna Lovegood tells Harry that she, too, can see the horse-like creatures that pull the Hogwarts carriage. The thestrals, which are invisible to most of the other students, can only be seen by those who have witnessed, and accepted, death. Harry, who in the earlier books thought the coach flew on its own, had watched powerlessly as Voldemort killed Cedric. Once he has accepted that death, he sees the beasts for the first time.
They are described as horses with wings. But they bear no resemblance to the creatures we see on tee shirts and the covers of notebooks marketed to young girls, horses which tend to resemble Arabians, with their refined features, flowing manes and tails, and lovely floating action.
Nothing can prettify a thestral. Dark-colored and skeletal, with the naked leathery wings of a bat, it is fanged and carnivorous. Unless it is running free, it must be fed, and to do that, you have to go deep into the woods, their preferred habitat. Of course, the woods are not safe, and neither is the thestral. But, though never docile, it is useful and clever, with an unerring sense of direction. This last quality is particularly helpful, because we must often walk where the path is not marked, and wrong turnings are all too easy to make. It's also vexing, because we're human, and we often can't hear where our wise souls want to go. I think this combination of helpful and vexing is an attribute of the divine, and so I have a great respect for thestrals, and for J. K. Rowling for capturing them in words. I am fascinated by her vision of a direction-finder that can serve anyone, but is only visible to those who have witnessed and accepted death.
All creatures great and small, living and mythological (not always a contradiction) embody some aspects of the divine. Everything bears the fingerprints of God. Though the appearance of these beasts seems frightening, one must look again. After all, who is it in scripture whose appearance is so terrifying that the first words heard are always "fear not!"? Hint: it's not Satan.
The grave is empty.
And Mary Magdalene has seen the living Christ.
In the gospels, Jesus appears first to the women who have been his followers. All four evangelists specifically mention Mary Magdalene; in John's account, Jesus calls her by name, asks her not to hold on to him, and sends her to tell the men what she has seen. She goes, and does so.
The men don't believe her.
I've been thinking about this a lot as I've gazed at paintings, icons, and frescoes of Jesus' appearance to Mary, and listened to and sung music written for Easter. So many visionaries over the centuries have tried to catch the Uncatchable in paint, in stone, words, music. Then we have framed the pictures, roped off the statues, cleaned up the language, pinned the music to paper. We think we might contain the Holy Spirit like a unicorn in a tapestry.
How hard we work to keep a fence around it! "Come, Holy Spirit," we pray in church, and gesture toward the gate. But do we whole-heartedly open it, welcome her, and offer her a chair? Heavens! Let her sit, and the next thing you know, she'll be taking over! No, we sit, straight-backed and decorously still, while wild songs whisper and clamor in the very stones under our feet.
I have become convinced that some people see and hear differently. They can't help it. They are compelled to track the Wild. Some are saints. The rest of us are artists, and art is how we share what we've seen and heard, in the medium to which we have an affinity. That's our job. We are tour guides, we are reporters, and we do our best to tell the stories. Sometimes it's frightening: some stories are too big.
As the Virgin Mary said "yes" to God, and bore Jesus, the Magdalene said "yes" to Jesus, and bore the too-big story of his resurrection. "Do not cling to me," Jesus said, "but go and tell." Would there have been any gospel according to anyone else had she not run to tell? Was she afraid, giving voice to this impossibly wild song? Was she angered by not being believed? We can't know. We only know that she did it. She did it. She did it. And now it's our turn.
Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia, alleluia.
There is a word heard more often in churches in the season of Lent than in the rest of the year: sin. It's in the prayers, it's in the sermons, it's in the hymns, and it's an uncomfortable, squirm-in-your-seat word. It makes me think of the scene in Evelyn Waugh's novel, Brideshead Revisited, when Julia (Catholic, and married), says to Charles, with whom she is having an affair:
Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night…. 'Poor Julia,' they say, 'she can't go out. She's got to take care of her little sin. A pity it ever lived,' they say, 'but it's so strong.'
It's like picking at a wound, like holding on to a viper. It hurts, but still one can't let go. "Oh Lord," prayed Augustine, "make me chaste, but not yet."
Your spiritual tradition may use different language, but we all have some term that means "messing up in a big way". The Greeks had a word for it: hamartia (ἁμαρτία),which is borrowed, I have been told, from archery. It means "missing the mark". That is the term Paul used when he wrote, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God".
When I take my eye off the ball, I miss it. When my mind wanders from the bullseye, so does my shot. Oh boy, do I know it! Time after time, I pick up my bow, aim at the target, and then, between my intention and my action, or as T.S. Eliot wrote, between the idea and the reality / Between the motion and the act, falls the Shadow… or the bright distracting thing. My mind says "ooh, sparkly!". My arrow of desire wobbles and goes off-course. I hit neither target nor distraction; even worse, that arrow may injure some innocent thing that was in the way of my careening.
I want to learn how to draw the bow, and be still in my mind and, keeping my eyes on the target, hit the mark. "Purity of mind," said Kierkegaard, "is to will one thing". There is work to do here; sometimes the best I can do is to will one thing at a time.
And that's my Lent so far.
I received a comment on one of my blog posts yesterday, which is not in and of itself unusual – and thank you all for that! But the post was one I wrote in September 2007, on the occasion of Madeleine L'Engle's death.
I was surprised.
Somehow, it had never occurred to me that something I wrote two and a half years ago would still be part of the conversation, even though I am never surprised when people tell me they love "Scotch and Soda", or "Je Voulais", which were recorded in the 1970s, for heaven's sake. I'm deeply grateful when that happens, but not surprised. So, apparently I've had a little trouble generalizing. I'd seen that writing is like singing in one way – both are conversations – but missed another. – the conversation is not bound by time. As one who relishes reading old books, I am feeling a little silly about that, and also very jazzed.
It thrills me that you read what I write, and that you care about the things I care about, whether it is the song of a bird or the way someone sings the national anthem, a passage of scripture or a cool blog, the chill of a winter night or the warmth in Elizabeth Taylor's eyes.
So, thank-you, D H-T, for your comment about Madeleine yesterday. Thank you all for your time and thoughtful attention. You might not know how much you mean to me, but I sure do.
I dreamed of a snowstorm last night, and when I woke this morning, it was in fact snowing, just enough
to make me laugh. Now, I did not have to be out in the world today, but I might have been better served by something – anything – forcing me out, because I had a sadness on me that would not budge. Times are hard and I'm tired. And restless. Those who know me well know that these are historically the times in which I pack up and move to another city, or at least move the furniture around, or repaint my home, because placement of objects in a space and colors of walls are things I can control.
There'll be no moving things around today though. Why? Because yesterday I found some furniture on the street and hauled it into my nest like a Labrador fetching sticks. Big sticks. Logs, really: iron lawn furniture. I have the backache to prove it. If I am careful, and I pay attention, it will pass in a day or two.
Other kinds of pain last longer. My neck has been fragile since a car accident in 1978. My foot hasn't been right since a horse stomped on it in the 90s. I would gladly be without these hurts – imagine turning my head without an ouch! and wearing gorgeous shoes onstage and at the meet-and-greet! But I may always have the scar on my chin that sometimes aches, and always need corrective lenses. If any of these difficulties are taken away, I will be all like, you know, OMG thanks!
Heart-hurts last, too. When my marriage failed, when my dogs died, when I didn't have enough money to buy food, when I was living in a tent, I spent nights on the ground crying so hard I vomited. I wailed and sobbed, begged for release, pleaded for time to regress to when I'd had a faithful husband or that beautiful frisky puppy, a roof over my head, and dinner every day, and anyone anywhere who cared about my singing. While I was living through these things, I would have given anything to be able to hurl them away.
But now… I don't know who I would be had I not experienced them. They are the many reasons I recognize someone else's pain when I see it. Why I (sometimes) know enough to stay present and keep silent with a friend. Why I talk to strangers. And why I grieve and rejoice for people I've never met. How would I know what I now know, had I not been on the floor, broken?
In the beginnings of religion, the practice of human sacrifice to the gods propitiated the uncontrollable deities. People were broken, burned, offered up. Not simple slaughter, this taking of life was so sacred that the act was hedged round with rules and rubrics. In Leviticus, there are pages and pages of very precise instructions of how these rituals must be performed.
And then something remarkable was introduced: a new kind of human sacrifice. The prophet Hosea proclaims what the Lord has told him: I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Hold on a minute. Cutting out someone else's heart won't do it anymore? I have to offer my own?
Yes. Steadfast literally means "fixed in place". Figuratively, it means constant and unwavering, sure and continuous. Steadfast love is our job. But a heart has to be opened before it can love in that way, and that's going to hurt. We can try to protect ourselves by locking our hearts up tight, but there is no safe strong enough. Sooner, later, inevitably, life itself will break in and savage us. Maybe this is what is meant by a verse which has always puzzled me: the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12).
These are hard times. There is plenty of heartbreak available. Afghanistan. Iraq. New Orleans. Iowa. Tucson. Haiti. Japan. Libya. The abandoned elder who lives next door. The woman who lost her job. The child losing heart in the inadequate school. The challenge is plant my feet in what I've learned, and use it, and use it, and use it, steadfast.
Here are the first and second portions of The Gods Aren't Angry, a talk by Rob Bell. You can continue on your own through the other eight portions, should you desire.
Some of his thoughts on propitiatory sacrifice and repentance remind me of the writings of both René Girard and James Allison. I had forgotten the huge impact their work had on me… because I am human and can "forget" even the most shattering things if they make me have to be too big and free and full of spirit. I am grateful for being reminded that, when I am asking myself, "just who do you think you are?" that the answer is "more than I thought".
I can't remember what tracks I followed through the "interwebs" to arrive at this video. That's so often the way, isn't it? One turns to the computer with a perfectly straightforward question, something one needs to know, and then an hour later looks up to realize one has been seduced by Mr. Google. Again. I was looking for a way to renew my car registration online, that much I remember. Or perhaps I heard a faint little tweet.
Somehow I landed at Rob Bell's website, and this video. His name was familiar. Pastor of a large church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he sparked controversy recently with his newest book, Love Wins. There has been a buzzing of hornet talk in the evangelical community. The book in question is not yet available; the release date is March 29th. This suggests that more folks might be upset by it than have actually read it.
The video and the "disturbance in the Force" have caught my interest. I'll be reading…
Sometimes, when folks find out I am a jazz singer, they think that means I make up everything I sing. Over the years, students have told me, in various ways, that they want to sing jazz so as to be relieved of having to learn the melody of a song. We place a high value on personal expression in this culture; we don't like being told what to say, and we tend to think that something spontaneous is more "real". Witness the popularity of so-called reality shows, and radio call-in programs on almost any topic. But there is a power in shape and limits.
I belong to what some people think of as a cold and formal church. As an Episcopalian, I take part in a liturgy that is scripted and choreographed. Some say it is impersonal, and I acknowledge that I have on occasion sat in some pretty chilly churches as prayers were read in monotones or sung so elegantly that they became concert pieces. Annie DIllard wrote:
I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.
"Come Holy Spirit," we pray, "but not too close. Thanks so much."
There is another side to the issue, and I have become reacquainted with it this week. The events unfolding in Japan while all the usual catastrophes continue their appointed rounds in the rest of the world (New Orleans is still suffering, Haitians are still starving, Qaddafi is still killing his people, and American schoolchildren still can't read very well) are so profoundly overwhelming that I don't know what to say. I can't say anything, I can't contain my grief, and I am all over the place like sheep without a Border Collie. I need form.
So I have been deeply grateful for the set prayers like the Lord's Prayer and the collects, the words that have been used for centuries. They hum in my memory like songs, and like songs, they help me groan and cry, and bring me back to trust and to the calm focus that births action.
Strengthen your servants, O God.
My mind cannot hold the magnitude of what has happened in Japan. Earthquake. Tsunami. Radiation leak. Each of these is a tragedy difficult to imagine. Taken together, they are horror beyond imagining.
There is so little most of us can do. But we can contribute money; Episcopal Relief and Development and Doctors Without Borders are just two of the many wonderful organizations already on the ground in Japan. I lift my hands in prayer for those who are lost, for those who are hurt, for those who are afraid, for those who are alone, and for those who are on their way to help.
More than 2500 years ago, the psalmist cried:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me.
I have grown weary with my crying;
my throat is inflamed;
my eyes have failed from looking for my God.
In your great mercy, O God,
answer me with your unfailing help.
Save me from the mire; do not let me sink;
let me be rescued from those who hate me
and out of the seep waters.
Let not the torrent of waters wash over me,
neither let the deep swallow me up;
do not let the Pit shut its mouth upon me.
Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind;
in your great compassion, turn to me.
Ps. 69:1-4, 15-18
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer