Easter Sunday I joined my friends Peter and Greg for the 11:15 AM Celebration of the Eucharist at All Saints Church in Pasadena. The program for the service announced that it was to be a Festive Eucharist. And so it was. The church was filled to overflowing. Ushers scurried around somehow finding a space for each late arrival. There was such joy in the energy of the usher assigned to our area that her ushering itself became embodied prayer.
Little girls pranced around in their brand new dresses; one danced in the aisle throughout the service. Some of the women actually wore bonnets! The diversity of the congregation was represented in traditional dress that included elegant saris and regal kimonos. The church bulletin prints the Lord’s Prayer in English, Spanish and Korean with the invitation to speak the prayer “in the language of your heart.”
The music for the service was appropriately triumphant as befitted the occasion. The organist was accompanied by a brass and percussion ensemble. The youth choir led the processional, followed by the adult choir, the readers, the Eucharistic ministers and the clergy. There seemed to be almost as many people on the altar as were in the pews. One member of the youth choir was in a wheelchair and as he approached the steps of the altar, two other choir members produced a small unobtrusive ramp—seemingly out of nowhere—to assist his ascent to the altar.
Before the homily, an African-American woman recited Maya Angelou’s soul-stirring poem, “And Still I Rise.”
The poem, perfectly suited to Easter, climaxes with this jubilant stanza:
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
The gospel reading, Matthew (28: 1-10), recounts the story of Mary of Magdala and Mary’s visit to the tomb where they are greeted by the angel who announces the good news of Jesus’s resurrection.
The pastor, Mike Kinman, preached on this passage. “Three people”, he said, “rose on Easter morning, Jesus and the two Marys.” The homily focused on the rising of these two mourning “women of color” who had little expectation of a happy day when they rose from their beds that morning. Drawing on Ms. Angelou’s poem, he brought these two women to vivid life until the congregation was one with them in their grief and weariness as they trudged the path to the tomb and one with them again in their exultation at the angel’s good news that Jesus had risen.
The following Sunday my beloved friend, Harriet, invited me to attend a service at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a building that has fascinated me since my childhood. The Temple is located just a block away from St. Basil’s Roman Catholic Church which I attended with my maternal grandmother and my mother’s two older, unmarried sisters when I came from Denver for summer visits. Today, St. Basil’s is an imposing edifice which can hold its own even in such close proximity to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. When I was a child, however, the structure in which the St. Basil’s congregation worshiped was a small, unprepossessing, one-story, bungalow-style building that had neither the majesty of the Jewish Temple nor the mystery of the Masonic Temple located just a few blocks further west on the Boulevard. I had endless fantasies about the intrigues that went on inside the walls of these two exotic, palatial buildings. To me they looked like sets for the Burt Lancaster and Errol Flynn pirate movies I so loved.
There was nothing fantastical about Harriet’s and my reason for visiting the Temple. We were there to attend a Holocaust memorial which her son-in-law, Tom, had helped organize. The somber atmosphere was in stark contrast to that of the previous Sunday. There were pickets outside the temple although I never found out what exactly they were protesting. The metal detectors and security guards at the entrance to the temple accentuated the gravity of the occasion.
Over the course of nearly four hours two dozen or so readers recited, in its entirety, Night, Elie Wiesel’s wrenching account of his survival in the Nazi death camps. Some of the readers were celebrities, some were politicians, and some were the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors; two were elderly, frail Holocaust survivors, both women, who required assistance to walk to the podium.
A few days after the memorial, I purchased a copy of Night, which I had not previously read. One passage, in particular, haunted me as it was read at the memorial and haunts me today as I share it with you. Wiesel describes the prayers of the death-camp prisoners as they observe the New Year.
“Once, New Year’s Day had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Eternal; I implored his forgiveness. Once I had believed profoundly that upon one solitary deed of mine, one solitary prayer, depended the salvation of the world.
“This day I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself stronger than the Almighty to whom my life had been tied for so long. I stood amid the praying congregation, observing it like a stranger.”
When the reading was over we sat in silence for several moments and then the Rabbi invited the congregation to rise and recite Kaddish—a prayer recited in the daily ritual of the synagogue and by mourners at public services after the death of a close relative. Not knowing Hebrew, I listened as Harriet, her daughter, Amy, and her son-in-law, Tom prayed. Harriet and I have had endless spiritual conversations over the course of our friendship, but I had never heard her pray. It was all I could do to breathe.
“And still we rise.”
There is so much madness in the world right now, so much chaos, and so much suffering. Attending these two surprisingly complementary services in such short succession reminds me that there has always been madness, chaos and suffering in the world.
For the past several weeks I’ve avoided writing about the politics, bad governance, narcissism, hateful ideologies, epic arrogance, numbing violence, and blind greed that besets the world and desecrates the planet. It is, however, always on my mind. There is a constant ache in my heart and an angry frustration that I am so powerless to alleviate the suffering and anxiety that all of this brings to my family, friends, clients, colleagues, community and to the Earth itself.
And still, I rise. Each morning I rise as do the beautiful and courageous, still hopeful, people I encounter throughout the day.
There is such beauty and goodness in the world. Such kindness! I cannot and will not allow myself to become numb to it. I pay attention to it. I call attention to it. I write about it to remind myself, and you, that it’s still here.
A week after the Holocaust memorial, I flew to Minneapolis to teach a workshop on Artists and Archetypes for the Minnesota Jung Association.
On Saturday night, as I waited in the hotel lobby for my dinner companions, I was treated to a spectacular procession of more than a hundred men and women, all dressed in the traditional wedding attire of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, as they exited the hotel to board the buses that were taking them to the celebration. I have been to three Academy Awards Ceremonies and have watched as Hollywood royalty—permanent and temporary—paraded the red carpet. The regality and grace of the wedding party in Minnesota easily overshadowed any Hollywood award ceremony I’ve ever attended. The fabrics and colors were stunning as were the people who wore them. I refrained from taking pictures but when I got home, I googled “Yoruba wedding attire’” and found a few pictures to give you an idea.
In the midst of all the meanness in the world, here in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of all places, I am blessed to bear witness to this celebration of life, of love, of beauty. Pure joy!
My dinner companions and I drove to a nearby Italian restaurant. It was cold and rainy, trying to snow—at least cold by my California standards—my companions, who had driven up from Illinois for the weekend, mocked me. As we walked toward the entrance, I spied a lone magenta tulip and paused for a moment to admire it. “A minute ago you were complaining about the cold,” one of my friends chided me. “If the tulip is brave and hearty enough to be out in this weather,” I thought, “so am I.”
Waiting to board my plane home on Monday afternoon, I sat at the boarding gate and opened a book.
This spell-casting first sentence is from Commonwealth, Ann Patchett’s in-every-way marvelous new novel.
“The Christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”
I am seduced. This sentence is, I think to myself, as beautiful and perfect as the Yoruba wedding attire and the solitary tulip. It is also a masterpiece of comic understatement. The consequences of Albert Cousins’ unexpected arrival play out over 40 years. And that’s all I’m going to tell you. Read this book.
One of my solitary pleasures is reading on airplanes—no phone calls, texts, or e-mails to distract me from full emersion into the new universe of a good book. I remained lost in Commonwealth for the entire flight and was a bit stunned when the pilot said to prepare for the landing; I still had 50 pages left to read!
A dozen or so years ago, my friend, Mary Jo and I (we met freshman year in college) drove to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego to see the legendary Broadway star, Chita Rivera, in her autobiographical show, The Dancer’s Life. I don’t use the word “legend” lightly. Rivera is tied with the late Julie Harris for the greatest number of Tony nominations, a record 10 each. She received her most recent Tony nomination just two years ago for her lead performance in the musical, The Visit.
In 1957 Chita Rivera created the role of Anita in the original Broadway production of West Side Story. She was 24. Forty-six years had passed when we went to see her in A Dancer’s Life. In 1986 she was in a severe car accident. Her left leg was broken in twelve places and required 18 screws and two braces to repair. Many people assumed she would never be able to dance again. Since the accident she has danced and sung in five Broadway shows.
As we watched her in 2005, she reminisced about West Side Story and how choreographer Jerome Robbins had defined her as a dancer. As she spoke, a chorus of dancers moved in behind her in two diagonal lines. The orchestra played the first two notes of the Dance at the Gym. Ms. Rivera took her place in the line and she and the dancers struck the unforgettable pose that begins the dance. This 72 year old woman makes a gesture with her wrists with such precision that it could cut glass. In that moment she becomes the 24 year old Anita who originated the role. This woman has given her life to dance and she dances with the presence and mastery of a Zen monk who’s given his life to meditation or the dedication of a cloistered nun who has given her life to contemplation. Her dance is a prayer; it glorifies God. I grabbed Mary Jo’s hand and began to sob; she did, too. I whispered, “She just saved the world.” God, I thought, sees her devotion and decides, for the umpteenth time, to give us another day.
After the show, Mary Jo suggested we go backstage to “Say hello to Chita.” (Mary Jo, while not quite of the legendary status of Ms. Rivera is a well-known, highly respected Broadway veteran. She made her debut in the original production of Hello Dolly! If fact, she just returned from attending the opening night of the Bette Midler revival where she and the other surviving original cast members were feted with a party at Sardi’s restaurant.)
Chita Rivera fills a stage like almost no other performer I’ve ever seen. I expected a giant. To my great surprise, she is tiny, maybe 5’1” After Mary Jo introduced me to Chita, the two women chatted for a while. I stood to the side and basked, as I’ve had many occasions to do, in my great, good fortune.
Like the two Marys on Easter morning, like Elie Wiesel, like the congregation reciting Kaddish, like the wedding guests in Minneapolis and the solitary tulip outside the restaurant, like the perfect sentence that begins Commonwealth, Chita Rivera rises and rises and rises. There are an infinite number of ways to praise life.
The world is filled with madness, chaos and suffering but it is no match for the world’s beauty and resilience.
I’m betting the house on beauty and resilience.
Quote: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller