After our morning Bible study, one of our new English friends dropped us off in the nearby town of Cluny— home to the first Benedictine monastery— for a walk-about and some lunch. We scrambled to get a bus back in time for our afternoon study group, which was now comprised of me, Michael, who could not communicate on his own, Rasmus, Michael’s main helper, Michael’s second helper, Hele, a nice Danish woman who spoke limited English, my aunt (who felt like taking the afternoon off), and Val, who had joined us the day before. She was one of those lively, chatty, country women who lived either in Scotland or France or both —it was hard to track all the details with her— but whose joyful spirit was a welcome addition. We had just found our little spot on the lawn when a new man approached. He reminded me of an oversized Colin Firth, simultaneously awkward and pompous. We welcomed him and, after learning that his name was Alistair and he was from Britain, we dove right in, turning to a quote by Father Basil Gondikakis. He was the abbot of a monastery on Mount Athos, who used mystical, poetic language to express his thoughts.
“With the example and the help of the Virgin, every peaceful and transparent soul, open to the divine will,
can become a Mother of God, according to grace, conceiving and giving birth to a little joy that transcends death.”
Beautiful, I thought, as the circle fell silent, pensive, grateful for the words. “Alistair,” I said, wanting quickly to engage him, “What do you get from this passage?”
He shifted his bulky frame in the small metal folding chair and said, “Well I don’t think there’s much to get. It’s fairly superficial.”
“Really?” I said. “How so?” I began to fear that he was so much brighter and more advanced theologically than the rest of us that my delight in the passage was about to be shown as folly.
“Well it’s about parenting, obviously. And I suppose that’s helpful for some. I mean, I know people who are always looking for parenting tips in the Bible and of course there aren’t any.”
I didn’t know where to start. The entire group fell dumbstruck. I don’t think I’d ever led a group of adults in which someone had missed the mark by that much. “I’m not sure it’s really about parenting,” I said gently. “I think it’s trying to say something about how each one of us —men and women alike — can give birth to a special kind of joy and hope, if we’re willing.” I quickly turned to the others. “That’s just my thought. Did anyone else have anything?”
“Well, I agree with Heather,” Val said, which didn’t seem to please Alistair. She then went on for another 7 or 8 minutes expanding —but not by much —on what I’d already said. Michael, usually a vocal contributor declined to add anything. Hele and Rasmus smiled vaguely as if a pleasant expression might help quell the growing tension. Alistair did not look at Val as she spoke, but when she was done he turned to me with his hand on his chin, his index finger posed along his cheek as if preparing to say something snide, or perhaps, have a photo taken for a book jacket. “How is it that you came to be the leader of this group?” he asked. “Are you a part of the Taize community?
“Oh, no,” I said, starting to wish I had stayed in Cluny, enjoyed another glass of Pouilly-Fuisse. “I’m just a visitor, like you.”
“I don’t understand, then, why are you leading this group?”
“Well, I guess, someone has to. I just got things started earlier in the week and it’s sort of stayed that way.”
Val chimed in, her hand on my back. “Heather does an excellent job. We’re very glad to have her.”
“Would you like to lead instead, Alistair? I’d be happy to have you do it.”
“No, no,” he said. “That wasn’t my point.”
“Well, would you like to pick the next discussion question?” This would be hard for him to do, as he had not read any of the material in advance, not because he didn’t have time, but because he seemed to find it all, in the words of Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, a bit “shallow and pedantic” for his tastes.
“No, no, you go ahead,” he said, and returned his attention to the patch of grass at his feet.
I looked at my lap, thumbed through the question prompts and the short readings, prayed silently for guidance. Looking up I decided we’d get a fresh start. “Let’s move onto Br. John’s questions for a minute. Question 1: How does the life of Jesus change our understanding of God? (to be continued)
I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but in L.A. it’s much safer to drop the F-bomb than the J-word in mixed company. If you’re in the South— Mississippi, Alabama, Texas— droppin’ Jesus’s name is no more controversial than ordering a Coca-Cola, but in the major coastal cities of the U.S., it simply isn’t done: say the name Jesus at a bar-b-que in West L.A. and be ready to be talked about later, and not kindly, with the emphasis being on your intelligence and lack thereof. Why? You could say Mohammed or Buddha or Wicca Master all day long and no one would bat an eye. What is it about the name of Jesus that is so shocking, so unnerving, so divisive?
On Friday morning, Br. John continued his talk on the name of God, speaking now, specifically, of Jesus Christ. He began to identify Him by his different roles and relationships. Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus, the Word of God. Jesus, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). And he said something particularly interesting and, at least to me, new: that our name is the part of us that turns towards others. It exists for the purpose of creating relationships. We delight in people knowing and remembering our names. We struggle to remember the names of others so that we might connect, or reconnect, with them. “A person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest most important word in any language,” according to Dale Carnegie. The name Jesus is the part of God that is seeking to be in relationship with each one of us. It is an invitation. An opening. God with a name tag on at the company mixer: HELLO, my name is….
It has become common parlance for the very people who would never use the name Jesus with reverence to exclaim Jesus Christ! (Or, a variation, Jesus H. Christ— not sure what the H is supposed to stand for). It is almost always used at the point of exasperation or rage; why? Are they trying to blame Him for something? Are they asking him to solve something? And if Jesus is nothing more than a fairy tale for the weak, low-aptitude masses, then why bring Him into it at all? Why not mutter Pinocchio or Lancelot or Harry H. Potter? Why is it that the word Jesus Christ is buried in our psyches to spill out like a reflex in the first place?
“I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand–I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, ‘You are my people.'” (Isaiah 51:16)
And so it is we have in Christ the name and the word and image of God. And in His people, the face of God made real through the love of Jesus. Here, my friends Joep and Karin from Holland (love the Dutch!) and the most luminous Chinese man, whose name I never got, but whose smile and joyful service as he cleared the dish tubs inspired me each and every day. If I knew how to form the characters to write Jesus in Chinese, I would call him that.
One might think that time spent in a monastic community anchored in ethereal chant music might pass in a dream state, floating effortlessly from one inspired moment to another. Someone else might have had that experience but for me Taize was a constant string of strategic and tactical decisions designed to maximize one-of-a-kind learning, prayer, and songtime, balance rest and caffeine-jolted wakefulness, and manage basic human needs— hygiene being one of them. Thursday night would be showertime. It was not the exact halfway point between arrival and departure, but if I waited until Friday the Pentecost mob, I decided, would have likely begun appearing making a shower stall even harder to come by.
By 10:00 PM, the bathroom was relatively quiet. It was a modern enough facility with a long row of toilet stalls on one side and shower stalls on the other. My aunt had the unfortunate experience of being in one of the bathroom stalls one morning when one of the volunteer cleaning crews came in. Thinking that the bathrooms were empty they sloshed a bucket of mop water along the tiled floor to get the cleaning started: she pulled her feet up so fast she almost fell in! But tonight there were only a few stragglers and I had my choice of stalls. I put my pajamas and my aunt’s trench coat on a hook and took my soap and shampoo out of the toilet kit. The shower was warm and delicious and I was thankful for the blessing of water. Just that. Just warm, wonderful water falling down over my— STOP. Nothing. Water done. I shivered and hit the button again and again the water flowed and my spirits lifted and — STOP. It was then I understood that the water was on a timer. My simple joy would be limited to 15 seconds increments.
It was enough.
When I was done and slid the comb through my hair and pulled the belt around the trenchcoat and stepped out into the cool Burgundy nite, looking up at the stars, feeling clean in a way that only comes after days of grunge, my only thought was Thank you God, and with that I curled up in my sleeping bag and fell into a thick sleep that lasted straight through til dawn. In the morning we dressed in silence and hurried off to prayers where I knelt on the floor, and with clean hair and a renewed spirit, joined in the heart song of all believers.
Journal Entry, Thursday nite:
“A hundred flickering votives, the slow devotions dancing and bursting, they move wildly, beyond all control, but never seem to blow themselves out. The flame holds steady fed by whatever the source of wind is here inside the sanctuary. The Spirit in us, we dance, we burst, we do not sit still containing His numinous light. How is it that they move so? Do my votives at home move like this? Gold orbs. I make them the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
The squared chunks of chimney brick house and contain the movement, allowing the flames to dance to the edge of extinction, kept safe, protected. Like the image of the boundary fence around the pasture, it holds us in, keeps us safe, but gives us free reign to run and dance, to gambol on the green grass, to serve, to love, to rejoice. “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go to the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1) See the way the lights are stacked, askew but balanced— not orderly, but perfect. Only the foundation bricks— the cornerstones — are at 180 degree angles. All the rest are cock-eyed, leaning, turning, holders of the Spirit, inside them the flames dance. At my feet, the reading for the night, “Above all, keep your love for one another at full strength, since love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Based on the gift they have received, everyone should use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God. If anyone speaks, his speech should be, like the oracle of God: if anyone serves, his service should be from the strength God provides, so that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To Him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4: 8-11)
After the group session I walked down to the Oyak, the Taize cafe that opens three times a day for a half an hour or so. The Brothers had come up with the idea for the small concession stand— where everything is sold at cost— to prevent vending trucks from coming into the village and taking advantage of the young people by selling them snacks at jacked-up prices. It was hot and I wanted a cool beverage and although I’ve never ordered an Orangina in my life (the name’s just too funny) in that warm afternoon, when my throat was dry, it was the most refreshing thing I’d every had. Cost: 40 cents US. I leaned up against a cafe table and began to pull at the threads of a recurring thought. “Can something be considered evil if the person doing it doesn’t know any better?” It was a question Rasmus had asked in our group— the only time he’d broken off from his duties as Michael’s translator (Opting for Joy, 1 & 2) to pose his own question. We had been discussing the idea of distinguishing between a person and the offense.
The argument toggled back and forth— both in the group and now in my own metronomic mind— between “is it really possible that they don’t know?” “Is not His word planted within each of our hearts?” “Do we not choose the path of light or dark?” and then the matters that spill from theology into the areas of child development… But What About…”children who are raised in extremist conditions? Who are taught only hate, war, darkness, violence? Do they really know? Can they know?” and then another outgrowth to consider “Are we viewing evil as being equal to sin, or is it an extreme, chronic and unrepentant form of sin?” “And if sin is the equal of evil, and if we are all born sinful, are we all not, also, evil, whether we recognize it or not?” But, But— Around and around I went, sipping my Orangina, snacking on a bag of Fair Trade paprika-flavored Yucca Chips.
I had learned a new term in a Bible study that spring. Curvatus in se. It was first used by St. Augustine to describe sin as “man turned in on himself.” It was the most revelatory description I’d ever heard and had helped me immensely in my understanding of sin. But still I wrestled with the idea of Original Sin, and the notion of children being sinful by nature when so much of their self-centered behavior is simply age appropriate and essential to growth at different stages. But, but— I was just about to flip this idea over on its head again when a man approached.
“May I join you?” We exchanged quick pleasantries, introductions —he was visiting from Germany, probably a little older than me— but then we both fell back into parallel silences filled with our own thoughts.
“You look like you have a lot on your mind,” I said, calling myself into the moment.
“Yes,” he said, “I have come with two serious problems to consider.”
Phew, I thought. So it wasn’t just me sitting here in the sunshine in the Burgundy hillside arm-wrestling with Original Sin. This oughta be good. “What are the two problems?” I asked.
“Well, my sister and I had a quarrel before I left and I’m thinking I’ll have to mend things when I get back.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat disappointed by the scope of his concern. “And the other one?”
“My son has just finished his studies and now he needs to find a job and I’m wondering what I should do to help.”
“How old is your son?” I asked.
I buried my smile in my Orangina before responding. Some answers are solved by theology and some by child development. “Don’t do anything,” I told him. “Your son is a grown man.”
“I know,” he said, sheepishly. “But-”
“He’s going to have to figure it out for himself.”
There are answers we don’t want to hear, but have to. Hard truths at the Oyak cafe.