The Alchemy of Love
The burning of Notre Dame in Paris this past week was a reminder of how fragile and precious life and the structures in our lives can be - even for stones that have stood for hundreds of years. We were reminded not to take what we value for granted. Before the fire, the cathedral struggled to raise funds for needed restoration and repair; after a billion dollars poured in.
The Washington National Cathedral - where I spent my 53rd birthday - is also in need of repair still broken and damaged after the 2011 earthquake. I spent a morning there last month, reading, meditating, writing and praying on forgiveness and reconciliation.
I prayed for my own heart to open for forgiveness; I prayed for the forgiveness of those I have hurt - out of my own fear and my own hurt. I prayed for the wounds in our civic life too. I prayed for estranged friends - one in particular who would go to Notre Dame and lite a candle for me whenever he was in Paris.
And this past week I thought of all the candles over the centuries lit in prayer in Paris in Notre Dame.
Cathedrals are welcoming homes for all outcasts, hunchbacks, gypsies, the poor, the hungry and yes the sick. For me, here in DC, the National Cathedral is a place of refuge and retreat and very beloved to me - a place to forget all my troubles and to pray. We come as pilgrims and as refugees looking for rest and refuge.
I can’t even imagine the enormity of the loss for all of France, for all of us. Notre Dame matters to art lovers, history lovers, architecture lovers, literature lovers, Paris lovers, French lovers.
The fire burned so quickly Monday. Even while we watched the flames conflagrate and consume, our love grew for that structure we took for granted. Only amid flames do our values and gifts crystalize.
And getting sick can be like that. When we watch our lives go up in flames, we too suddenly realize all that we took for granted - our abilities, our freedoms, our sleep, our ease. Oh yes, how easy everything really was before as opposed to after.
Notre Dame means our mother in French - embodying the feminine aspect of God’s love for us. That this occurred during Holy Week seems to only have made the pain more acute - for this is a week when we remember the shadows of life and the pain of being in a human body.
Bear with me as I continue discussing the shadows and pains within the traditions and stories of my own faith. I was too weak this Holy Week to make it to most of the services. The lesser known Tenebræ service of shadow is stunningly beautiful. Maundy Thursday, which celebrates the Last Supper and the initiation of the sacrament of communion, gets its name from an Old French word meaning command and specifically refers to Jesus’s new command that night “to love your neighbor as I have loved you.”
And the anniversary of my baptism is Easter - specifically the Easter Vigil which is Saturday night. It’s an incredible service at the National Cathedral that begins with a bonfire and ends with bells. It’s an auspicious night for a baptism as the entire church is reborn on Easter. So perhaps being baptized on that night at three weeks of age marked me as a person in whom religious grace and faith would always flow and flavor.
As background, I’m an Episcopalian now (like Mayor Pete, very much like Mayor Pete). My parents raised me in the Lutheran faith with many religious rituals and routines. Amazing Roman Catholic nuns over nine years of schooling instilled in me a love of all the romance (the smells and bells) of the Catholic liturgy and tradition as well as a strong sense of social justice. I joke I’m a Protestant in my head and a Roman Catholic in my heart, but my faith, faith really, is not quite that simple.
As I was missing services this week, I contemplated the story of this week - the Passion story. The word Passion in this context comes from the Latin word for suffering, and enduring pain. Consider how lost and abandoned Jesus was - the governor of his homeland Judea washed his hands of him. The crowd called for another thief, Barabbus, to be released to honor Passover. His friend Judas betrayed him to the authorities. Another friend Peter denied him three times before the morning the rooster crowed, as Jesus predicted. Peter said, oh no I won’t, I would never deny I knew you. But Peter did.
I mean all of that must have been infuriating.
And agony. And in fact, the period after sharing the Passover meal with his friends, after the Last Supper, and before his arrest is called The Agony in the Garden. Jesus went for a walk to pray and asked a few of his friends to come with him so he wouldn’t be alone.
I often wonder what Jesus thought about during those hours between dinner and dawn in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. We know this story so well that elements are clichéd - washing of hands, before the cock crows, all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
Jesus must have questioned himself, questioned his choice to abandon his life as a carpenter and start preaching, questioned his challenging of the status quo and the powerful, questioned his selection of friends, and questioned his path. He must have questioned everything and asked why.
And he must have been very, very afraid.
Jesus’ sweat was said to have become blood because of his emotional anguish.
To get beyond the rote recitation of the very well known story, I find the practice of Lectio Divina very beneficial. Meaning "Divine Reading," Lectio Divina is a traditional Benedictine practice that guides us to enter, embody and embrace the text of the scriptures to make them come more alive in our lives now.
This spiritual practice helps me to go beyond simply reading and intellectualizing a story (especially well-known ones) so that I experience the stories in a new way. I aim to see and understand the meaning and points anew and perhaps differently. I hope by doing so I can bring the relevance into my heart and not just into my head. And most essentially, to be able see the story as one that is still true and relevant to my life today.
Through this method, we can experience and feel the reality of the story.
So I try to enter and contemplate how Jesus must have felt during that long night of insomnia and dread.
Three times he asked for help. He asked for escape. He asked for relief and an end to his agony.
He articulated prayers and words of humility :: “Yet not as I will, but as you will,” and “may your will be done.” He tried to trust. To let be.
Then he found his friends asleep. Asleep! So much for being with him.
He must have felt utterly alone. Alone and terrified.
As the sun rose, when the police came and arrested him, all of his friends fled. All of them.
He was literally abandoned by everyone while he was most afraid.
When my mother was dying, I brought her a nail that resembled the traditional image of a nail used to crucify Jesus.
She then said to me something that to me showed how awful her physical suffering was because she could not see clearly something that she herself had taught me.
She said - “If it wasn’t blasphemy, I would say I knew what is was like for Jesus on the cross.” She saw her identification with Jesus, with Jesus’ agony, fear and aloneness, as showing contempt for him. As a lack of reverence to him. As insulting to him. As arrogant to put herself in his shoes. As a belittling of his “sacred suffering.”
I reminded her of what she taught me - “No Mom, you have it backwards. It’s not about us knowing what He experienced, but rather that He knows what we experience. As humans. And how truly awful it can be. Because it is awful and so hard. God - through Her Son - intimately and actually knows what this human suffering is like and sees and understands - all the pain and darkness and fear. And that happened so that we know at times like these, the dark and difficult times, that we are not alone. So we’d be comforted knowing that God, that She knows - not in Her head, or know Her heart, but knows in a human body. And we can know that what we feel and endure, in our imperfect, painful human bodies, is something Jesus also actually, really felt. That’s the very reason he became incarnate at Christmas. He humbled himself to share our humanity. Just so that at times like these we would know this - that we are not alone. You are never alone.”
We are not alone. You are not alone.
We humans may have long nights of insomnia. We too may be abandoned by our government, by our communities, by our families and even by our friends. We too may question the choices we made in the past. We too may feel utterly alone. And we too my be utterly afraid of tomorrow.
We too may pray for humility, for trust and faith in the future. We may ask why, why, and why?
We may. And we do. We all do. And no it’s not sacrilege to feel so, or say so.
It’s just that those of us who are sick or dying live closer to those questions. Sometimes way too close. And too often. Our anguish feels like our sweat and anxiety turns to blood so much so that we are weakened and depleted - so drained that we can’t do anything to change anything. We are humbled.
And what happens in the rest of the story? Three days later Jesus basically changed everything. He rose from the dead and became love. He became a love that transcends everything - life and death, now and everlasting, body and soul.
In the resurrection, love transforms everything. Resurrection is the ultimate makeover, the most dramatic before/after embodying all the wonder and delight of a completely new life.
Let’s remember that even in the traditional story - recorded by men - three women, all named Mary, were the ones who abided Jesus’ pain and witnessed Jesus’ suffering at the crucification.
The women had the strength to do that.
And then they were the first humans who recognized him in his resurrection and transformed form. They recognized love first. And when they first reported what they saw and knew, no one believed them.
No one believed the women.
Regardless, they knew the truth. They were awed by their experience of the resurrection. They were changed by love - love, hope and faith. Those women had faith in the resurrection and changed the world. The Pascal mystery - whatever happened that Sunday - turned darkness into life and death into life. And those who live closest the darkness and to death know best how bright that light and life is.
I leave you with this quote by the Rev. Frederick Buechner -
I think it is hope that lies at our hearts and hope that finally brings us all here. Hope that in spite of all the devastating evidence to the contrary, the ground we stand on is holy ground because Christ walked here and walks here still. Hope that we are known, each one of us, by name, and that out of the burning moments of our lives he will call us by our names to the lives he would have us live and the selves he would have us become. Hope that into the secret grief and pain and bewilderment of each of us and of our world he will come at last to heal and to save. - from the sermon "Hope" - originally published in A Room Called Remember and later in Secrets in the Dark
“Hope that we are known...that into the secret grief and pain and bewilderment of each of us…he will come at last to heal.”
This week, recognize your own strength. Acknowledge what you witness and have witnessed. Do not deny the horror. And mourn as you need. Be brave and have faith despite the fear.
I know hope can be painful. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses told them - when they were afraid of the way forward and fearful of dying in the wilderness - “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14) Trust hope. Be still and trust.
And forgive yourself. Forgive others. Maybe they know not what they do. And are doing ongoing. And how deeply they are hurting you by fleeing what they can not see and what they can not abide. By not even trying to understand.
And in your long, dark lonely nights - practice the alchemy of love.
Practice love towards others, especially those who have abandoned you due to fear (and like Peter the apostle may shed tears of shame).
Practice love towards your community but also to those who are outcast, whom you may outcast.
And most of all practice love towards yourself.
That’s the most magical alchemy of all.
Happy Easter as we celebrate rebirth. And happy Passover for those celebrating liberation and freedom. And happy Ostra (the Celtic name for the spring equinox) and happy full moon too!
Here’s to the hope, freedom, faith and the new beginnings of springtime!
And yes, in talking with my mom, I referred to God with female pronouns. My mother once had me and my siblings go through the hymnals in the church changing all the mankinds to humankinds and changing other gendered pronouns to neutral ones. And yes, my mom was amazing.
EXTRA ELEMENTS OF INTEREST
The Ancient Math that Sets the Dates of Easter and Passover
”The three calendars occasionally line up in strange ways. In 2018 and 2019, the first night of Passover fell on Good Friday. This won’t happen twice in a row again until 2113 and 2114, according to Dreyfus.”
by Rev. Gurdon Brewster
Chapel of Saint Augustine of Hippo at the College of Preachers on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral
This is one of my favorite sculptures because of the portrayal of unconditional acceptance and love. From the artist - “The bronze figures are placed in the center of the Celtic cross where different worlds come together to make “all things new.”
The Agony in the Garden
by William Blake (c.1799–1800)
The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb
by William Blake c. 1799–1800
(close up of the three Marys above)
The Three Magdalenes
by Andre Sacchi 1634
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
Beethoven - Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op.85
by Ludwig Van Beethoven
Performed by Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Miserere Mei Deus
by Gregorio Allegri
Sung by King's College Choir, Cambridge
Miserere is a psalm in which mercy is sought, especially Psalm 51 or the music written for it. Composed around 1638 this most famous Miserere is a type of music that dates from the 1400s - a type of Gregorian tones made of three note chords that was mostly used for vespers. At one point the Vatican forbade this music to be transcribed and only allowed this to be performed at the Sistine Chapel. The mystery around it can be heard in the music still. Hearing this work performed live is a highlight for me of this special week.
Today Allegri’s Miserere is one of the most popular a cappella choral hymns. I had the honor of hear Paul Schwartz perform his version at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. (It’s also stunning and can be seen here)
Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)
by Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd-Webber
Sung by John Legend
Jesus sings this song in which He confronts God about His coming fate, ultimately accepting it by the end of the song.
Architecture of Notre Dame
The Heritage of Notre Dame - Less European Than People Think
I loved this summary - totally fascinating. Diana Darke is a Middle East cultural expert with special focus on Syria, Turkey and the Middle East. A graduate in Arabic from Oxford University, she is the author of several books on the Middle East.
Historian uses lasers to unlock mysteries of Gothic cathedrals -
A tech-savvy art historian uses lasers to understand how medieval builders constructed their architectural masterpieces.
This article went viral this past week and the professor who did this work taught at my alma mater Vassar College before he died from brain cancer in November 2018. I remembered seeing and learning about Vassar Associate Professor of Art Andrew Tallon’s work in a fantastic Nova episode from December 2015 Building the Great Cathedrals.
Restoration of Notre Dame May Be Part of Professor Andrew Tallon’s Legacy
This is a lovely homage to Professor Tallon that also summarizes much of the national coverage of his work over the last week. Here is a CBS This Morning report ::
Who in your life offers you unconditional love?
What art or architecture or music touches your soul?
How can you practice the alchemy of love? Who needs your love?
What would you love to forgive? In yourself or in others?