Today is a day that echoes with loss and grief.It is a morning filed with headlines of unspeakable fear and sorrow as historically catastrophic fires obliterate the overcrowded refugee camps in Greece and rage across the West Coast, leaving over 10% of Oregon's citizens homeless. It is the anniversary of the terrorist 9/11 attacks.
What to do with so much sorrow, so much suffering?
"Fight, flight and freeze" are often named as the three typical responses to deal with traumatic events, but there is a fourth way: create.
My mentor, psychotherapist Francis Weller, has written one of the wisest books I know. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal for the Sacred Work of Grief should be required reading for all of us during this dark time. Over the past fifteen years, I have participated in almost a dozen grief rituals he has led where I have witnessed the powerful effects of people sharing their stories of loss amid a profound weekend ritual that includes community singing, writing practices and altar building. "We are not meant to carry grief alone," Francis always reminds us. "It is too large to digest". We need each other in order for grief not to get "stuck" in our bodies . You can listen to one of Francis's talks on grief here.
The very first thing in a grief ritual is to create a shrine of beauty constructed of pictures and symbols of loved ones woven with candles, flowers, bowls of water, stones, branches and boughs, and other elements of nature. Over three days, we read and write poetry and share letters of remembrance to our lost loved ones. And then, we cry together. For hours we collectively weep the unshed tears, witnessed and held with compassion as we are sung to and sometimes cradled in the arms of strangers who quickly become friends. I have watched time after time as in three short days, people have moved from numbness and abject despair to a sense of connection, intimacy and hope. The transformation I have witnessed over the years with hundreds of participants is nothing short of miraculous. You can learn more about his pioneering work at www.wisdombrdige.org
What I experienced at the Grief Rituals mirrored Dante's teachings. The movement out of Hell is a communal journey, a sense of "we are all in this together".Dante's journey up the Mountain of Hope is a pilgrimage that is woven with the remembrance of ancestors long gone and the commitment to bring hope and light to the generations to come. It is very clear in Purgatory that the often painful process of transformation is only possible when we share it. Without one another's support, we would be lost in Hell, blown about by hot winds ("flight"), locked in brutal combat ( "fight") , or, like the citizens in the lower regions of the Inferno, immobilized in ice ("freeze").
Creating beauty is the first and most essential step in the alchemical process of transformation known to poets, artists and musicians over the centuries. Bach poured his grief over his wife's death into the Chaconne ( performed here by violinist NIgel Armstrong); Beethoven poured his broken hearted remorse into the his late string quartets (listen here to the Cavatina from Op. 133) after his adopted son attempted suicide .
In the coming months, a virtual community will gather online to share the story of how creating beauty became the pathway for Dante Alighieri to move through grief, fear and rage in the aftermath of loss and murderous betrayal in the 14th century The vision Dante created- in which healing happens through community and recovering our lost and forgotten memories of the Good- became the Divine Comedy, described by TS Eliot as the single most important literary work ever created.
Dante's healing vision reached out across the centuries to become a touchstone of hope for those who came after. On Sunday, we will discover how the Divine Comedy became Rodin's lifelong obsession, the source of the three sculptures you see on this page. Orpheus et Eurydice, Danaeid and the Thinker each contain an expression of a story of loss.
We will also discover how Dante's example of creating beauty in the face of grief became the saving model for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The border edge of Beata Beatrix contains the promise of meeting his Beloved again in Paradise. By joining his own grief with Dante's, Rossetti created not just a breathtaking memorial to his wife Elizabeth Siddal: he was able to open a door to personal transformation and become a light for the next generation of artists.
The initiatory threshold to Paradise is to drink of the waters of remembrance- of all the love we have known and all the good we have been given. Dante's Prayer (click here) is a heart opening , Celtic influenced song written by Loreena McKinnett about the Divine Comedy and its creation in the midst of grief. " Please remember me" is the repeated refrain.
There are so many creative ways to remember the ones we love- and we don't have to be Dante, Beethoven or Rossetti to do so. My stepfather died unexpectedly in his sleep six months ago. Because his passing happened the very week that California began its COVID lockdown. there was no opportunity for a typical funeral or memorial service. Instead, my mother took to heart the impulse to honor her husband by doing what he loved most: planting seeds and pruning trees.
This week, in his memory, she has gone door to door with vegetables from her garden and peaches ripe with sweetness, giving them away to her neighbors in his memory. It is a far more fitting tribute for a man who was dedicated to nurturing the incarcerated youth he tutored at a reform school and summer camp than any stone memorial could be. I know that part of what created the bounty from her growing garden these months were her own tears. It is a lesson for us all in grief management: in times of despair, plant seeds of hope, and then give it away to feed the hunger of the world.
Remember to look for the beauty. Even with ash falling from the sky, roses bloom, Even with sirens off in the distance, the owl calls to the hidden moon. Even in the midst of sleepless nights, there may come dreams that will console you.
As a prescription for holding the sorrows of the world, I invite you to take down the memory book of your imagination and see how much kindness and goodness you can recall. And then, when you have the memories --of a word or a gesture given to you in a time of need-- reach out and say thank you to the person who comes to mind. And if you cannot pay it back (because they are gone or unfindable or maybe even unknown), perhaps consider paying it forward instead. Because in a world that is darkening quite literally day by day, we need to be the light. In a world that is teetering on the edge of despair, we need to become the hope. In a country fraught with discord and division, we need to make of our own hearts a place of harmony and of our lives a bridge of peace. But we can only do that when we drink from the well of memory of beauty.
The smoke is just beginning to clear from the fires that have beset my nook of Northern California. I have been holding my breath for weeks as flames ravaged so many places I love. Three retreat centers near and dear to my heart were in dire danger of burning and evacuated friends took refuge in my music studio as ash fell from the sky. As they fled the fire's path, they had to make quick decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. Times like these call all of us to pay deep attention to the question: what really matters?
Last night, knowing that my dear friends were safe once more, I returned to my studio. I felt such gratitude as the last rays of the sun kissed the late summer roses in the garden and an enormous orange moon peeked through the eucalyptus trees. For the first time in weeks, I could see the stars. This matters, I thought. This. The moon and the stars and the sound of the owl and the knowledge that those I love are safe. This. I could finally breathe again with the sense that my worst fears had not been realized and that there was still hope. As a sweet and fragile sense of peace swelled inside my heart, my favorite lines from TS Eliot's poetic masterpiece, Little Gidding, floated through my mind:
Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
I first read and memorized those lines during a very dark time in my life as a teenager when my only other solace was the music of Beethoven. What it took me thirty years to discover is that TS Eliot penned those very lines during World War 2 after the darkest time of his own life. At the point of total collapse and breakdown, what saved him from complete despair was also the music of Beethoven ( which is why "Little Gidding" is one of "Four Quartets") and the Divine Comedy.
Barry Lopez wrote,"Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memories. This is how people care for themselves. ”
In this time of rampant fear and social upheaval we need to feed ourselves with stories of hope. We particularly need icons of resilience: images of real life heroes and heroines who have not just survived enormous obstacles, but who have brought out unbelievable beauty from the ashes of their lost dreams.
Foremost in my Pantheon are Hildegard of Bingen, Ludwig Van Beethoven, St Francis of Assisi. All of them are connected through Dante-- and all of them found their way through the Dark Night of the Soul in ways that can guide and inspire us right now.
September 2020 marks the 700th anniversary of Dante's Divine Comedy. The impact of this epic poem can scarcely be grasped. Its story of healing has reached out to shape, change and inspire countless readers, artists, poets, philosophers and even scientists across the centuries.
Dante's story was penned in the aftermath of utter catastrophe and social upheaval. Penniless and condemned to die after a revolution in his native Florence, Dante spent the rest of his life wandering in exile, "learning how bitter is the taste of borrowed bread". Many scholars believe that Dante himself was initially suicidal as he contemplated the fate brought about by political and religious corruption. Instead, he drank in the stories from the library of the man who sheltered him-- and then poured his whole heart into creating the Divine Comedy. Dante's tale of redemption was nothing less than a story that saved his own life- and then transformed the world.
In Dante's epic vision, the difference between Hell and the Mountain of Hope (Purgatory) is not how "good" or "bad" you have been. Rather, the souls who are bound for Paradise are on a communal journey: of interconnection and transformation, whereas the citizens of the Inferno are stuck in dysfunctional and divisive patterns they cannot or will not change.
In the Divine Comedy no one can find their way through the dark woods alone. Dante makes it abundantly clear throughout his allegory that in order to thrive and become our best selves, we need connection to both the past and the future. As we develop imaginal relationships to our ancestors and to those beings of wisdom who can model for us what is possible, we are guided to new lives of purpose and joy.
Where the Fire and the Rose Are One is a four part series that will explore the connections between Dante and the great artists, poets, saints and composers across the centuries: TS Eliot, Franz Liszt and St Francis will complete this quartet of salons that begins on September 13 at 10:30 am with Inspiration and Obsession . In this first 90 minute salon, we will explore theme of stories that shape us as we discover how the Divine Comedy was the fount of creativity for two of the greatest artists of the 19th century: Auguste Rodin (whose Thinker above is Dante in the act of dreaming up the Divine Comedy) and the founder of the PreRaphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti, depicted his own wife Elizabeth Siddal as Dante's muse in the painting you see below, Beata Beatrix.
Dante 'will also weave his way through my FREE webinar on September 17, 8 am -10 am PST) offered through Humanity Rising, Harmony of the Cosmos: What Pythagoras and Hildegard Can Teach Us in a Time of Global Pandemic will culminate with Paradiso's final vision of the Symphony of the Spheres - a mystical vision shared by the 6th century BCE mathematician and the 12th century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen.
The final lines of Dante's poem are a revelation that it is "Love that moves the sun and all stars". I think of the invisible threads of love that bind together Dante, Hildegard, TS Eliot and Beethoven with you and me. I like to imagine each one of these resilient beings is now a star shining down from afar, urging us to bring forth the beauty that dwells deep inside even in the darkest of times. Together, perhaps they will light your own path towards harmony and hope this autumn.