This week commemorates two of the most important figures of wisdom. Today is the feastday of Mary Magdalene and Sunday marks the birthday of the great Depth Psychologist Carl Jung. You might not think that a first century Jewish woman and a 20th century son of a Swiss Protestant pastor would have much in common, but in fact, they are profoundly kindred spirits, united across the centuries in their quest for authenticity, truth, wholeness and healing.
Jung believed that our modern Western search for "perfection" was actually very dangerous. In our quest for perfection, we cut off and disown parts or ourselves, project them on to other people, make them into a scapegoat and then seek their destruction. When we cannot bear to acknowledge the difficult and messy aspects of being human, we try to deny these parts of ourselves, which leads to violence towards self or other. In his job as psychiatrist at the finest mental hospital in Switzerland, Jung saw that the most extreme psychosis was the result of his patients disowning parts of themselves and trying to suppress their memories. His patients were cured not be "fixing" the problems that created their suffering, but often simply by acknowledging the conflict . Through the process of listening deeply to the pain (and often honoring it through ritual and art), healing happened.
Jung was fascinated for the later part of his life by the so-called "Gnostics" of Alexandria, Egypt. These men and women of the first few centuries were on a spiritual quest for inner illumination and they recognized that the hardest battles to win are the ones we face inside as we try to confront and subdue the inner voices of shame, doubt, blame and fear. He called the Gnostics the world's first depth psychologists, and felt that they had prefigured everything he had discovered in his decades of scientific study and psychological analysis.
Jung was thrilled to learn that a cache of 52 books treasured by these wisdom keepers had been discovered in 1945 in the caves Nag Hammadi. One of the folios was actually bought by the Jung Institute, smuggled out of Egypt and given to him on his birthday: it is now known as the Jung Codex.
It took decades for the entire collection of rediscovered books to be archived, translated and published, but what it revealed after Jung's death in 1961 echoes so much of what Jung developed in his theories. "If you bring forth what is in you, what is in you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you, " reads the Gospel of Thomas.
In this first century collection of the teachings of Jesus , the last saying, or Logion, describes a confrontation between Simon Peter who wishes to banish Mary Magdalene from their circle because, he says, "Women are not worthy of the spiritual life" . Jesus defends her ( as he always does with women in both Canonical and non-Canonical scriptures) and affirms, " I myself shall lead her to become Anthropos".
Anthropos is a Greek word that has been dreadfully mistranslated into English as "male". Andros is the Greek word for male, but anthropos is actually the root word of anthropology and it means more closely, "fully human".
What does it mean to be "fully human"? To balance our head and heart, body and soul? To integrate the masculine and feminine within us and open in our full potential? This is the quest for wholeness to which Jung dedicated his entire career. "The privilege of a long life is to become who you truly are", he said with a twinkle in his eye in his later years.
Today is the feastday of the woman whom the Gnostics described over the centuries as the personification and embodiment of Wisdom, the Apostle to the Apostles, the Teacher of the Teachers and the woman who was led to wholeness and complete healing.
Beginning in the fourth century as Christianity began to systematically cut off and destroy parts of itself (especially the body and sexuality through St Augustine's doctrine of Original Sin), this disciple who had been the most loyal, courageous and faithful member of Jesus's inner circle was cut out of the Christian story, erased and replaced with an image of an adulteress and a prostitute. She became what Jung would call the "Shadow bearer" of Christianity, reduced and defamed and defiled for centuries. And yet, despite her marginalized place, she continued to awaken healing and wholeness in seekers of wisdom from saints like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Sienna to so called 'sinners" like Rainier Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. It was Mary Magdalene's example and teachings that gave astonishing courage to the Medieval Cathars who went to the flames singing hymns of peace during the Albigensian Crusade.
Many people believe we are poised on the knife edge of self-destruction. What might it take to turn the tide? Carl Jung was asked after the dropping of the atom bomb if he believed humanity would survive. His answer was, "If enough people do their inner work".
May it be so. I encourage you to seek out classes and teachers in the Jungian tradition. The Houston Jung Institute, the Salome Institute in Portland, Oregon and the Assisi INstitute of Depth Psychology are some of my favorites. Mythica will be offering a whole year of classes with a Jungian perspecitve- including courses on Dante, TS Eliot and the Gnostic Gospels.
The works of Marion Woodman, Richard Rohr and Marie Louise von Franz are rich and insightful while the books by Robert A. Johnson ( such as "Living Your Unlived Life" and "Inner Gold") are th emost accessible introductions to the depth work we all need to be doing at this time,
"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.
The image above is one I took this past week as soon as the trails of my beloved Helen Putnam Park opened up. How grateful I have been to immerse myself in the sensual pleasures of sunlight and stars, the smell of freshly cut hay and the sound of frogs, crickets and birds. The simple beauty of the natural world has been a balm for my soul and made me feel an ever deepening connection with the poets across the centuries. I think of Mary Oliver's lines from her poem "Mindful" in which she exults:
Every day I see or hear something
that more or less kills me with delight,
that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen, to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself over and over
in joy, and acclamation.
Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary, the common,
the very drab, the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar, I say to myself,
how can you help but grow wise
with such teachings as these –
the untrimmable light of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made out of grass?
I am pretty sure that Mary was having what I call a " conversation across the centuries" with Walt Whitman. In her autobiographical series of essays Upstream, Mary Oliver had written about how important Whitman was to her, that she felt he was "the brother I never had" and her imaginal mentor during times of deep loneliness and alienation from the world (see a NPR article here) . I suspect that my favorite line in "Mindful", the one of " the prayers made of grass" was her nodding homage to Walt Whitman's alpha and omega, Leaves of Grass. First published as a slender volume of 12 poems in 1844, the collection achieved scandal and notoriety because of its frank and earthy appreciation of the human body and the valley of sensual delight with such poems as "A Song of Myself and "I Sing the Body Electric".
At first, Whitman's work was decried and banned as "immoral". A turning point came with the support of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lauded a subsequent edition as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that Americas has yet contributed" .
Whitman continued to add to and refine Leaves of Grass until the end of his life. On his deathbed, he wrote to a friend, "L. of G. at last complete -- after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts he land, and peace & war, young & old".
Was Whitman a saint? A sinner? A scoundrel? Depends on whom you might ask. During his lifetime, he was regarded by some preachers as dangerously immoral. For others, like Henry David Thoreau, he was a prophet of authenticity, the godfather of liberation bridging the world of nature and humanism. Born into financially challenged circumstances and almost entirely self-educated,Whitman encountered widespread opposition to his work during his lifetime. He witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Civil War when he walked on foot to tend to his wounded brother. Despite the unfolding challenges of his life, he was nonetheless able to give voice to hope, wonder and joy. He believed deeply in freedom, democracy and reconciliation, holding within his being the need for individual freedom and the desire for harmony and unity. In his writings, he encourages us to"Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you." and to "regard everything in the universe as a perfect miracle". He saw when he looked at his own life that despite the challenges on the surface, "there is no imperfection in the present and can be none in the future. And I will show that whatever happens to anybody, it may be turned to beautiful results". Above all, he encourages us to sing with joy the celebration of our own true selves. Whitman's legacy lies in how powerfully he encourages us to celebrate life and the messy, imperfect but glorious experience of being human.
This Sunday will mark the 201st anniversary of this extraordinary individual. In celebration, Mythica invites you to "One Hour of Madness and Joy" a Virtual Salon where we will tell stories, recite poems and play music that reflects the energizing and optimistic spirit of the Grandfather of American Poetry. Joining me will be my dear friend Hari Meyers, a dead ringer for Whitman himself.
A master storyteller who has presented one-man shows on Parsifal, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and Celtic myths, Hari has been immersed in the life and works of Walt Whitman for the past few years. Originally, we had planned for Hari to present his show at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum with a ticket price of $30.00, but like so many in -person events in these past months, it had to be canceled. Now, in honor of Whitman's birthday, we offer this celebration now to you as part of the emerging " "Mythica Feastdays" series of virtual salons celebrating the great guiding lights of culture who can help us keep our flame of hope alive. In the continuing spirit of accessibility, this is a pay-what-you-can offering. If you can contribute the asking price of $30.00, thank you. If you are financially challenged, please come anyway and offer what is comfortable (even $5) during these challenging times. And if you are moved-- as several patrons have been-- to offer additional support to underwrite those who need scholarships, we send you a thousand blessings.
Whitman's deep commitment to excavating his interior life in a spirit of affirmation of the potential goodness of humanity places him squarely in the center of an ancient tradition. This Tuesday evening at 6 pm PST, I will offer Part 2 of "The Way of the Hermit" where we will encounter the history of individuals from Egypt to Ireland. These "Desert Fathers and Mothers" and Celtic monks followed the call of a different drummer to pursue lives away from the madding crowd of the masses in order to live lives of authenticity and inner celebration in harmony with nature. Part 3 will conclude on June 4 Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. Click here to register now.through the Salome Institute of Jungian Studies.
As we approach Whitman's birthday, I want to invite you to consider who else you might want to celebrate this year. Mythica is creating a calendar of feast days from Bach to Dante, Clara Schumann to Mary Oliver. Who do you think deserves a salon where we celebrate the Good, the Beautiful, the True? What figure from the past has been a beacon of light for you who encouraged and empowered you? Write and let us know.
Seldom has a man had such an influence on so many fields and yet been so little known by name. You have probably heard Erik Satie's haunting music for all of your life, but never known who composed it. His exquisite Gymnopedies were an essential part of creating the melancholy and enigmatic atmosphere of films like My Dinner with Andre, Man on a Wire, Being There and The Painted Veil.
As a composer, he had a profound influence on Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, John Cage, Philip Glass and the entire minimalist movement.
Of equal importance, Satie is considered the grandfather of the surrealist movement of art, film and literature. The list of painters who were influenced by his ideas reads like a "Who's Who" of 20th century art, with Magritte, Picasso and Dali all paying homage to him through their work. Picasso and Satie even collaborated together with Jean Cocteau for an avante-garde ballet, Parade, which featured live zoo animals.
Sunday will mark the birth of the man known as The Velvet Gentleman. His signature gray suit and umbrellas (he had over 20 identical ones) were a hallmark in any weather in Montmartre and known to all the young Bohemians of Paris who gathered to drink a glass of absinthe, read his manifestos and listen to his witty pronouncements on esoteric religion, mythology and the creative life.
Satie's sense of the absurd was legendary. His friend Claude Debussy once accused his music of being "shapeless". In response, Satie dedicated to him his next work, called sardonically, Three Pieces in the Shape of A Pear- a series of five (and not three) piano duets.
In that playful spirit, I invite you to an online ZOOM surreal salon for Satie the day AFTER his birthday, on Monday, May 18 at 11 am PST. During our 1 hour and 17 minute salon, I will tell my favorite Satie stories, play live my favorite pieces like the Gnossiennes and the Gymnopedies, and trace his imprint on 20th century art as we discover how some of the most important threads throughout culture are often the ones we don't actually know by name.
For those of you who might want a "jump start" on this evocative man, I suggest watching the video Satie and Suzanne, a suitably dreamy film layered with his piano music and dance choreographed by Cirque du Soleil that evokes his one and only ill-fated romance with trapeze artist and artist Suzanne Valadon
on I once heard an Episcopalian priest define a "saint" as "someone who has brought light to the world and created a path of hope for others to follow". Personally, I prefer that definition to many others because it is so open and inclusive. Traditionally, "saints" were acknowledged by having feast days where special music was played, poems (psalms) were read and stories about their lives were told. Sometimes, there would be special treats, as in the Yemes (egg yolk cakes) de Santa Teresa served in Avila, Spain or the Madeleine and Navette cookies distributed on Mary Magdalene's feast day in Provence.
I am in the process of creating my own "calendar of saints" that includes not only the mystics of the spiritual realms like Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and St. Francis, but also the "saints of culture": Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Dante, Clara and Robert Schumann, Emily Dickinson, Carl Jung, TS Eliot, Fra Lippi, Gustav Klimt. In my opinion, their lives and works also deserve annual celebrations and reverent attention and devotion.
Today in my calendar is the Feastday of Gabriel Faure. A sensitive young boy growing up in the Pyrenees mountains, his love of nature was only exceeded by the call of music. Faure would sneak into his school's chapel whenever he could in order to play on the organ. One day, an old blind woman heard him-- and somehow persuaded his father (a butcher) that Faure's extraordinary gift should be nurtured and supported.
Faure became a very successful organist in Paris-- but his compositional gifts were barely acknowledged. It was only because of the friendship of an American sewing machine heiress that the composer did not succumb to utter despair: Winnaretta Singer supported him in mind, pocketbook and spirit until a scandal rocked the musical world and brought Faure much deserved prominence and recognition. Faure went on to become the President of the Paris Conservatoire and opened the doors to women, one of whom was his student Nadia Boulanger. A dedicated and generous teacher like her mentor, Nadia was the force that shaped Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass and virtually every other great American composer. So, in a way, you can regard Faure as one of the greatest of grandfathers of modern music.
The Catholic church will never canonize Faure. Some of his behavior was scandalous: quite the ladies man, he was fired from one of his church jobs for showing up to play the Sunday service one morning in his evening wear after staying out all night dancing and drinking. He had no patience or deference for convention: he would leave his post at the organ to go outside to smoke a cigar when the priests would preach because he couldn't bear listening to their sermons. Faure's aversion to the orthodox doctrine is clearly manifest in his glorious Requiem where he refuses to incorporate any vision of hell. His music, however, might be just the heavenly thing you need when you are crying out in grief (try his Elegie, for cello and piano) or lging to melt into sublime bliss (the Pavane) or yearning to have your melancholy reflected in an exquisite mirror (try Apres un Reve)
Faure's story is proof that genius requires many things in order to survive, and perhaps the most important of those things is friendship. Watch the 20 minute impromptu facebook lecture I lived streamed on Faure in honor of his birthday here- and look for future Feastdays of Satie (May 17) and Robert Schumann (June 8)
What a challenging and chaotic time we are living in.
As we are informed daily, there is no known vaccine that will keep your body safe from the COVID 19 virus. There are, however, time-tested strategies that can help keep your heart buoyant in times of despair. There are three practices that are particularly important to save us from dis-ease: gratitude, beauty and love. These may not be able to change your outer circumstances, but they can significantly alter your inner experience. I know, because I have felt the "immune boosting" effects of all three during one of the most disastrous weeks of our collective life.
On Wednesday, I led a day long retreat on "The Garden of Possibilities". About 30 brave souls gathered from across the San Francisco Bay Area at the stunningly beautiful Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael. We met in the exquisite chapel to sing Taize songs and read Mary Oliver poetry; we drank in the inspiration of the art of Andy Goldsworthy and the story of Hildegard of Bingen. We took time in silence to journal in the garden, meditating on the beauty of the daffodils and hummingbirds, and sharing from our hearts with one another in dyads.
It was a sweet and tender time that had capped a week of unforgettable and marvelous experience. Sunday I had performed with the astonishing violinist Nigel Armstrong in Inverness. Monday had a beautiful tapestry of Mediterranean Music from the Middle Ages with the luminous singer Catherine Braslavksy and poetry of Rumi recited by Hari Meyers and Doug Von Koss at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.
Storyteller Hari Meyers and Musicians Gary Haggerty and Catherine Braslavksy at the Petaluma Museum
I was packing up my books to depart from the retreat when I received a phone call: my beloved step-father Doug had died that day. I immediately drove three hours to tend to my grief-stricken mother. Over the next forty-eight hours I wrote his obituary, helped my mother sign the death certificate, made arrangements for his cremation and tried to plan a memorial service in the midst of the Corona outbreak. At the same time, my fiancé Carl was out of the country and there was concern whether he would be able to return to the United States as international airports began to shut down. In the middle of all of this, I received one cancellation after another for every concert, class, pilgrimage and lecture I had planned on for the next six months. As of Saturday morning, there remains not a single paid job left. Like millions of other independent contractors, adjunct faculty, musicians and entrepreneurs who are affected, there is no insurance, sick leave or financial employment safety net for me.
These are three situations that would have sent me spiraling into the depths of despair and terror before, and yet I felt surprisingly calm, grounded and at peace. Why? I think it has much to do with the deepening of the practices I had adopted for Lent: to spend time every day in nature and to immerse myself in beauty and gratitude.
For weeks, I had begun each day hiking through the trails of Helen Putnam Park near my home, watching the sunrise from a meditation bench where I read poetry. I had practiced opening my eyes to learn to notice more and more beauty, observing each new cluster of wildflowers that popped up, taking time each night to bid farewell to the moon. I had been offering a steady stream of concerts and lectures that illustrated the fact that the most astonishing beauty can be brought forth out of times of darkness, death and disaster.
Every day, I had been keeping a journal of what I had witnessed and experienced that had touched my heart with goodness, beauty and kindness. Every day, I had been playing music by Bach and Dvorak that had been written in the midst of terrible grief and loss. Listen, for example, to this gorgeous piano quartet written by Dvorak.
I had a reservoir of resilience to draw on because day by day, I had been filling my cup with beauty. This allowed me to move grief into creative action: writing poetry, composing music and in so doing, holding on to hope.
MOdern neuroscience teaches us that we need practices that cultivate both the awareness of and the remembrance of the Good and the Beautiful, in order to have resilience. Knowing this, each day during this time of confinement, I will post a link to music, a poem or image to Mythica's Canticle page on Facebook that speaks to these critical themes. I invite you to join the group and do the same. Keeping a collective journal of acts of compassion an inspiration can inspire us each to hope and provide much-needed resilience for our challenging times.
Fill your cup with beauty. It is still here to be found. Even on a day when disease ran rampant, the daffodils are beginning to bloom.
Even on the day after Death came knocking on my family's door, there were still thirteen cherry trees bursting with vitality, their white blossoms raining onto the mortuary driveway. On the flatscreen of your computer or tv, it may be a nightmare unfolding, but outside, in the garden, it is spring. Let the sun sing to you, let the moon pour her love into the fractured cracks of your being. Every day, remember to fill your cup with beauty. Then, together, we can offer a cup of kindness back to a world so desperately in need of compassion.
Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
From Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
I've just had the most wonderful dive into The Divine Comedy, offering lectures in Napa and a three-day retreat in Inverness. Revisiting Dante was a wonderful reminder of how much beauty can be found even in the midst of despair. The great composers, artists and writers of the world didn't wait until life was calm before picking up the paintbrush or the writing pen. Rather, they channeled their pain, grief, anxiety and fear into courageous acts of creativity. The Divine Comedy was written in the midst of financial catastrophe, rampant political corruption and personal despair in the years after Dante was exiled with a death sentence over his head and all his property confiscated. Bach's sublime Chaconne in d minor for solo violin was the outpouring of his broken heart after returning home from a business trip to find his beloved wife dead and buried. Beethoven's magnificent sonatas were composed as his deafness mounted and liver disease overtook him. Rumi's ecstatic poetry was birthed as an imaginal pathway to reunite with the mystic spirit of his beloved soulfriend Shams of Tabriz, who legend has it, was murdered by his own inner circle.
Too often we think we will make time for beauty and creativity after things "settle down". I hear people say they will make time for beauty after the stock market stabilizes or the Corona Virus is contained or after the next election or (fill in the blank).....But for Dante, Beethoven and Bach, life never "settled down" and got easier. They each created light in the midst of the growing darkness, light that shine on us still. It may well be that it was only the beauty that they brought forth in their acts of creativity that gave them the strength to endure and have resilience to hope.
In the escalating fear of headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that life has always been -- and always will be-- tenuous, uncertain and fraught with anguish. This is not news. In fact, it is the First Noble Truth in Buddhism. However, it may be helpful to be reminded that things have been much, much worse throughout history. The Corona Virus is nowhere near as deadly as the Flu Epidemic of 1918, which claimed almost two hundred-thousand lives within thirty days. The flu was nowhere as lethal as the Black Plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, when 30-60% of the population of most large towns died. What our ancestors did in the face of true epidemics like these can give us pause and inspiration-- and a pathway of consolation.
The Laudario, two collections of extraordinarily beautiful music were penned by anonymous artists in the midst of the Black Death plague. Their songs of lamentation were sung as the guild members tended the dying and buried bodies in mass graves in Florence; the songs of joy were danced in the woods outside Cortona where the celebrants gathered to remember St. Francis's call to praise all of creation and befriend the entire cycle of life, offering even "Sister Death" a place of honor in their dances.
Ultimately, no one is immune from suffering and death. The question is, will you inhabit your days fully, drinking from the well of beauty while you are here? Can you unleash your creativity to give voice and shape to your longing, love and even loss? If you can, you will have found a path worth following, one that might well soothe your anxious spirit and offer an oasis of beauty, a sanctuary for your heart in times of trouble. In the poetic words of Mary Oliver, when death comes, will you be "a bride married to amazement? Will you be "the bridegroom taking the world" in your arms? Our ability to open to joy, Dante's Paradiso informs us, is directly related to our capacity to our ability to behold beauty. In times of distress, enlarging this capacity seems a matter of great urgency. What can you do this day to open your heart to more beauty?
How deeply we are all in need of a softer world and a gentler way of being.
It is easy to see the rough edges and sharpness in the constant bombardment of noise laced with insults and toxic shards of our culture of discourtesy. Less obvious but as deeply insidious are the ways we mercilessly persecute ourselves. Both the outer crudeness of our increasingly hostile society and the relentless barrage of inner criticism that many of us endure are largely to blame for the rising tides of despair and depression in the world. Caught between these two forces, it is a wonder that there is any joy or hope to be found! And yet there is- nestled in the still point between the voices that shout "too much" and "not enough", there is a quiet place inside the heart where despite the outer turbulence of the world, we can sink in and find the still small voice that whispers "enough" and "just right".
We are in the first few days of Lent- a forty day period that has a really bad rap in our modern world as signifying pious and dour deprivation. But actually, I have come to embrace the Valentinian spirit of this tradition. The Valentinians believed that the deepest truth of the human being is that it holds the promise of goodness and beauty. We are "good seeds" that have yet to reach our fullest potential because we have fallen on rocky ground, or been choked by cares and concerns, or are overshadowed by fear and anxiety.
Lent is an invitation to ask ourselves the truly important questions: what stands in the way of me becoming the best version of myself I can possibly be? How might I clear away the weeds so that I can thrive and unfold in my fullness? What are the patterns that get in the way of peace and joy? What are new habits of heart I can cultivate to lead me to tranquility?
For myself, I have come to the realization that I suffer from a subtle form of gluttony. That's right: gluttony. I pile so many activities (mostly work) on my plate that I am often in danger of total collapse. This triggers a terrible cycle where there is simply not enough time to do everything (from spellcheck to laundry to practicing piano) which leads to my doing less than my best which triggers huge feelings of failure and shame and then creates more anxiety, and before you know it, I can't sleep through the night for fear that everything in my whole life will fall apart and everyone will be mad and disappointed in me and I WILL HAVE RUINED MY WHOLE LIFE AND BE A TOTAL FAILURE.
Have you ever gotten on the downward spiral of the Escalator of Vicious Thoughts? Have you also been assailed by the critical voice that is the Prophetess of Total Catastrophe? So often, she is often accompanied by the Grand Inquisitor of Regret, who comes armed with a complete assortment of whips, chains and torture racks. Before you know it, they have me locked inside the cell of What Should Have Been or If Only I Hadn't and then I find myself in an inner form of hell. I am so busy tied up in the Persecution Chamber that I miss the gorgeous sunrise or the smiles of the children who are trying to flirt with me at the market, and I don't even see the rainbow or hear the song of the lark. I think that process is what the early Christians meant when they talked about "sin" and "evil", two words that underwent woeful mistranslations in the centuries since they were first uttered in Aramaic. In the ancient days, "sin" was an archery term that meant "to miss the mark". Evil was a word that meant "bitter, hard or unripe". I can tell you when I pass the tipping point of gluttony, I miss the mark in a big way by losing the ability to see the beauty and love that is right in front of me. It's a short step from this blindness to to a state of bitterness and self hatred.
I am going to be spending Lent moving towards breaking this awful habits of self-flagellation and gluttony It won't happen all at once. In the meantime, I pledge myself to a little more softness, a little more mercy and to gently move to a more sustainable way of being.
The Valentinians, Pythagoreans and the Celts all believed that there were certain practices or "habits of heart" that helped us tune in to the beauty and goodness that is our deepest essence and find balance. Music, nature, poetry, silence and sacred conversation were considered the royal quartet that could guide you to finding harmony within an often turbulent world.
During this season of Lent, may you remember the messy beauty that lives inside your own perfectly imperfect human heart. May you find ways to nourish and nurture this essential goodness in the days to come and find yourself opening to live days of ever sweeter and more joyful juiciness.
As the fires raged and smoke swirled in Sonoma County, I found moments of unexpected grace and joy tucked between the waves of fear and anxiety. Without power, cell reception or water at my home, I took sanctuary at St. Columba's Retreat House in Inverness. A little community of old friends and new refugees formed, pooling our resources each night to prepare a simple supper. Afterwards, we gathered together by candlelight to share in meditation and music, praying for all the brave firefighters and those who might be in harm's way. In the dark, we all felt our vulnerability but as a community it made it us feel deeply tender and connected with one another. The music held us in a profound way, binding us with one another and leading us from fear to hope. I was able to shift my own perspective from feeling frustrated (because of all the "normal" things I could not do) to feeling a deep sense of reverence for my ancestors, most of whom never had electricity or power or heat of any kind. I found myself remembering the stories of my Norwegian grandmother during power outages of World War II when there was not enough food to be found, and of relatives who were born during covered wagon expeditions as they crossed the frontier of the heartland. My small inconveniences opened up a deeper sense of humility, awe and wonder that the challenges of the week were-- and are-- the everyday realities for my ancestors and for millions of people on the planet right now. These feelings bubbled out from me into an improvised musical prayer which was captured by someone's cell phone. My friend Nancy Castille set my music to images from the past week. You can watch and listen here.
What my ancestors knew well to do in times of fear, darkness and depravation was how to share. Today on All Saint's Day, I especially honor my grandmother Evelyn, who nursed a neighbor's hungry infant along with her own in Immigration Canyon in Utah during WWII when baby formula could not be found. I think of my other grandmother Astrid who could "make shadow of a chicken soup" when no meat could be found. Even in the most difficult, dangerous and impoverished circumstances under Nazi rule in Norway when her husband was being tortured for his efforts in the Resistance, she never ceased to search for and create beauty, gathering the most delicate wildflowers and colorful leaves for table decorations from the forest, melting old candles together so new ones could be made.
My earliest memories of both grandmothers is of them singing to me, and of encouraging me to sing back to them. It is a memory that lives inside my blood and bones, along with the determination to, like them, bring forth generosity and beauty even in the darkest times.
Tonight, I will sing for them once more as I light candles at St John's in a ritual of remembrance for our Taize Evensong.
In the Ancient world, such rituals expressed the very purpose of music: to be medicine for the soul and to connect us with the eternal. By singing together, the Ancient Greeks believed we found the common ground of our humanity, dissolving our differences, opening to expansion and healing our grief.
I invite you to join me tonight, bringing a picture of a departed loved one for our altar, or to join with Mythica next Sunday, November 10 when we will share music and poetry of 2,000 years in an interfaith ritual for peacemaking.
In this time when the veils are thin, may you find yourself singing the songs of your own grandmothers, and bringing forth the beauty that is inside of yo