"Mache Dich mein Herze, rien" has been my favorite aria for almost 30 years. For my twenty-second birthday, I went to the Carmel Bach Festival to hear my first performance of the St. Matthew Passion. At the time, I was a secular humanist dabbling in Eastern philosophy. But when this three hour musical drama arrived at this song, my heart cracked open. All that autumn, I sat in in the listening library of the San Francisco Conservatory, pressing repeat to listen to this song over and over while tears poured down my cheeks. "Make clean my heart, " is the translation of the lyrics first line, and indeed I felt a huge catharsis begin to occur, softening and opening my heart in a way I had never imagined.
"Myths" have been described as events that are always true, regardless of whether or not they happened. If we approach St. Matthew's Passion as an archetypal mythic journey, it requires us to confront some excruciating truths: how a man can suffer and be tormented to death while a crowd of bystanders looks on with eagerness and encouragement; how political leaders and religious authorities can conspire to create injustice and horror; and how family and friends can be broken apart by grief as they helplessly witness tragedy unfolding. This is the archetypal pattern we are witnessing with Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others
We are living in a moment where we are watching so many of these themes play out before us on a daily basis. As the institutionalized inequality and racism of America is exposed and the callous brutality of our systems is laid bare, many citizens are reaching for the word "atonement" to describe what might be needed as a response to the centuries of horrors perpetrated on the Indigenous People of this land and the Black citizens of our country -- not to mention the daily crucifixions of our environment.
What continues to give me hope in the face of the relentless assault of fresh horrors is to remember how much beauty is still possible even in the face of catastrophe and injustice.
As but one example of the indomitable capacity for resilience of the human spirit, I invite you to marvel at the performance below of Bach's aria by Thomas Quasthoff. Listen to the depth and richness and majesty of this voice and let it reach into the depths of your heart. And then, I invite you to google other youtube videos of this extraordinary singer. What you will discover is that this unbelievable voice belongs to a man who was born with severe birth defects due to in utero thalidomide exposure. A mere 4 foot 5 inches tall, Mr. Quasthoff has severely malformed arms and legs. Because he does not have typical hands, he could not play piano and was denied entrance into the musical conservatories of Germany. But passion and perseverance triumphed, and he became a Grammy Award winning baritone-- and a professor at the very school that denied him admission as a student.
Lauded as the finest Lieder singer of his generation, he was beset by illness and family tragedy that conspired to make him lose his voice prematurely and he retired from the stage in his fifties. Yet, once again, resilience triumphed, and after a few years of seclusion, he took to the stage again to conduct. The piece he chose for his debut? Bach's St Mathew Passion. Read more about his journey here
Josephine Baker, an African American, was born into abject poverty in St. Louis on June 3, 1906. She overcame a horrific and abusive childhood, endured race riots in St Louis where she hid out as a child in a church from a lynching mob. Her comedic and dance abilities were her ticket to fame and fortune in Paris, which embraced her with wild acclaim-- and far less racism. She became the toast of the town, the highest paid entertainer in Europe, a legend in her lifetime for both her dancing and singing-- and then, the first black actress featured in a major motion picture.
During WW2, Josephine turned her castle in the Dordogne into headquarters for the French Resistance movement and then risked her own life to work as a spy smuggling messages written in invisible ink inside her music to the Allied forces in North Africa. She was rewarded by Charles de Gaulle with the Croix de Guerre for her heroism..
After the war, she went back to America to combat racism and was a pioneer of integration in her shows. Josephine became the only woman invited to speak at the March on Washington .
She then turned her fairytale castle in France into a haven for a "Rainbow Tribe" of adopted children. She wanted to make a statement that humanity could live in harmony, so the children were of multiple races and religions, and she gave her heart to the world until her final days. To see excerpts of a performance she gave the year before she died and hear the story of her unflagging generosity, click here
The statue below commemorates Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century Rhineland mystic who was enclosed (some might say "Imprisoned") as a child inside two small rooms in a Benedictine monastery. For thirty years, she lived as the companion of a harshly ascetic, self flagellating nun.
What these two women share is more important than the differences between them across the eight centuries that separate their lives. Both were models of resilience, fountains of creativity, lions of courage and beacons of hope. Both embodied the concept of Fierce Compassion- qualities that each one of us desperately needs right now. Each of them was acclaimed for their artistry and musical skills in their time, but also became a force for political change. Each lived in such a way that affirmed the dignity and rights of the vulnerable. Each one challenged the corruption and injustice of their time through creative, non-violent action. Each one of them changed the world- and each one of them has a message for our times..
Like so many of you reading this, I have struggled with the question "What can I do?" over the past few weeks as I have watched in horror the images of racial violence and police brutality. In these times of increasing fear, I find that returning to these heroines offer both courage and balm. This is the music I have been listening to this week, sung by my dear friend Catherine Braslavksy and accompanied by extraordinary illuminations of radiant beauty. Both the music and the images were created by Hildegard after the decades of her confinement. That such beauty is possible in the midst of her times of unrelenting war and injustice gives me strength. The lyrics affirm that "Compassion and love abounds in creation, from the deepest depths to the tips of the stars". Hildegard believed intensely in the goodness of the Earth, in science and in nature. She believed that in part due to the corruption of institutions and tyrants, we forget that every human being is made in the Imago Dei: the image of God. She believed that music, art and nature were essential practice in "re-membering" who we are called to become. Below is her image of the Song of the Cosmos. Blind and deaf as we have become, we cannot see the beauty of all the souls surrounding us who sing their song of love. I like to imagine Hildegard and Josephine side by side as they sing us onwards to a new world, a future of hope and honor and dignity for all the world.
Josephine Baker once said, "To realize our dreams we must decide to wake up. Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one's soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood."
May it be so.