One day in Lent went like this: another scattered stupid day of laundry, a crazy amount of mediocre cooking, bad feelings about myself and my negligible achievements, and attempts to pull myself out of self-absorbed self-criticism. Scurry, scurry, worry, worry, and meta-worrying about worrying. Tiring.
I got simple things done – a haircut, but only after wasting inordinate amounts of time surfing the web for “flattering haircuts for older women,” printing some images, doubting, looking for signs, irked at having to make all these decisions myself without clear divine commands. (Maybe the command I didn’t hear was, “Is this really important? Please live with more gratitude and now-ness.”)
That night, trying to decide whether to add doing a textbook to my list of tasks, I went to a Taize service at a local Church, a ritual I got into last year with my friend, Marilyn. I love to watch the candles, flickering as if they have a soul. Sitting in the dark, the computer well out of reach, I try to spare thought for others, think about Jesus in Gethsemane. Up above the altar, a big, round stained-glass window shows that scene, idealized. Why, I wonder, is Jesus’s face raised to the sky in prayer? Why that posture? Wouldn’t his head be down on the stone in agony and pleading? Around him are brilliant reds like chili peppers, and stunning blues. Closer to the congregation, two white lambs stand guard, one proudly holding a denominational banner, apparently with its leg. I wonder (but not in a harsh way) why martyrs need clean robes and how lambs can super-proud without dirt on their wool. Is this representation of myth an acknowledgment that daily life has so many dirty clothes and animals acting like animals? What would it be like if the lambs in church looked real, silly and fearful with maggots in their tails? What if Jesus looked like an everyday person in a country under occupation? Maybe we would find it hard to hope; maybe we’d resent being reminded of the world too much around us.
I believe in the value of ritual. Though not Catholic, I like to observe Lent in an interfaith way: a little bit of Ramadan for solidarity with the poor, a little bit of Judeo-Christianity for depth in simplicity, a little bit of Native American enlightenment through solitary retreat, a Jungian belief in the balance of feast and fast. In an unorthodox way, I decided to try out the experience of relinquishing several needless things during this period between Mardi Gras and Easter: candy was the first thing. For years, I never ate candy and somehow I’d started eating it regularly. The second thing was crabby negativity, a lifelong habit. You can guess which one was easier to give up.
Unfortunately, while sitting in the Taize service, which is mostly singing simple and beautiful lines, my mind was 70 percent on the sound of my own voice – where it breaks, where it gets unpleasantly squeaky and screamy on the high notes. I remembered how much better I used to sing in high school and tried using more breath support, but it didn’t work. Luckily, there were better singers around me, and my voice blended in.
When it was time to speak aloud our prayers, I thought of my late brother, Tim, and tears stung. I have never gotten to acceptance; it’s just that the rage and pain and refusal floated further down the river, invisible unless I followed and looked for it. If I bring it to mind, I am laden with the unhappiness in his life, the move to a big city, my parents’ divorce, a crappy school, a cramped apartment, no health insurance that would have caught his juvenile diabetes. Helplessness and rage. Why can’t we undo life? How do people really let go of wrong and injustice? I know they do it. I read about it frequently. I decide to turn my thoughts to the good parts of his life (his guffaws: “Kermit on a bicycle!”, my mother’s fondness for him as he imitated a commercial, “Timbo!”; his pride in bringing home a four-inch bluegill caught from the creek with a leaf tied on a string. I praised the catch, cut its head off, gutted, floured, and fried it: a tasty bite; he didn’t want to eat it, just to catch it).
My thoughts turn to my mother-in-law, and for a moment, I can only recall “Mom,” not her real name, but I feel close to her. I say aloud the names of all my family, the names of neighbors we have a dispute with, friends.
The lector reads a Bible verse. Last time it was the one about the odds of a rich man getting into heaven being worse than a camel going through the eye of a needle, but that was followed with a verse about how with God, all things are possible. Comfort indeed to the bourgeoisie in attendance – that includes me now.
This time the reading is from the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verses 42-43: “Nevertheless, among the chief rulers also many believed on him, but because of the Pharisees, they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue. For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”
I wondered, How does this apply to me? What am I doing mostly for others’ notice? What about that textbook? Is that partly about notice and praise? When I came home, I looked up John and read more. What a story of power and prejudice. But first, I read the preface to the King James version written by the translators and saw the echo, 1600 years later, of the weak chief rulers mentioned in John: an amazing fawning upon power to the extent of blasphemy, calling the king the “Author of their true happiness” (“under God,” small proviso); giving the king honor and praise and soliciting him to take their side in the controversies occasioned by colleagues’ jealousy and sheer wickedness.
In the book of John are many touching events I’d forgotten: Thomas saying, “Let us go and die with him.” Amazing courage. Jesus going back to visit his friends, Martha and Mary, even though they live near Jerusalem where many times he has barely escaped capture.
The gospel of John in the King James version refers, “The Jews” in a most unpleasant way, as if Jesus wasn’t a Jew himself. Maybe those verses are responsible for some Christians thinking Jesus wasn’t a Jew. Some divisions among the Jews appear, of course. Over and over, class and region questions come up: “How did Jesus learn to read? How does he know scripture? Has anything good ever come out of his town?”
But reading the leaders’ arguments, for the first time I sympathized with the synagogue hierarchy too. Is it unreasonable to fear that the Romans would destroy the whole nation if it became too restive? Better to sacrifice one person than the whole group? Wouldn’t most of us under the same alarming circumstances, consider such thoughts, especially if that one person was someone not close to us, but from a “bad neighborhood,” and that one person lived with a reckless disregard for power? Is the life of Jesus an argument for total risk? It seems so.
Several times during this forty days or so of Lent, I’ve gone to this Taize service, and was glad I did, glad to see my friend and sit together in the pew, watch the candlelight, sing and ponder the songs, be willing, at least, to love my neighbor, practice this ritual with others, imperfect like myself, then walk in the rain to our cars and talk a little afterward.
As for my Lenten sacrifices? Candy, it turned out, was amazingly easy to give up. I never even felt seriously tempted though it was right there in the cupboard. Such a heartening surprise. Except for the day of Easter itself, I believe I’ll let it go again. Negativity? Well,…that’s a doorbell that rings again and again. Sometimes I get up to answer it. Sometimes I let it ring.