It’s the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen: Benedictine, theologian, composer, healer, preacher, visionary, political figure, doctor of the church. For my money, Emma Kirkby is still the perfect soprano, and A Feather on the Breath of God, originally released in 1985, is still the perfect recording of Hildegard’s music.
It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it:
Somebody has to be the bad girl, somebody has to
wear the red dress, somebody has to be the shadow
cast by the light of the pure and perfect heroine
and hero. Buffy has Faith and the Virgin Mother
has Mary Magdalene.
Whore, harlot, sinner,
sorceress, maudlin, melodramatic, carrying
the repressions of two millennia along with
the fragrance of Eros in her little broken jar.
The broken vessel, the woman with seven devils,
the heir of Jezebel and foremother of Crazy Jane.
Passionate, devoted love, focused attention,
commitment, first witness to the Resurrection,
demoted to the camp follower, the eternal sinner.
On this your feast day, Mary called Magdalene,
uncover your long red hair and shake it out,
make your earrings and your bracelets ring,
lift up your arms and dance like your foremother
Miriam, sister of Moses, beating her tambourine
on the shore of the Red Sea because the forces
that enslaved her people are vanquished.
We will celebrate with you the liberation
long-delayed, the redemption of the red lady,
the fragrance of erotic love arising from
the broken jar, the broken heart, the passion
which is life as well as
death and also life eternal.
Lorna has better, wiser words for this day than I did: A look at the tale of Lludd and Llefelys and the plague of May.
Today is Beltane, and I know what you are thinking.
You are thinking about Maypole dances and frolicking in the woods, about sex as a sacrament of the sacred. You are thinking about rising with the dawn to bathe your face in the dew and carollers on Magdalene tower singing “Sumer is icumen in”. You are thinking about Julie Andrews as Guinevere singing “The Lusty Month of May” and group rituals you can’t attend because of lockdown. You are sighing heavily and googling “solitary Beltane ritual”.
I’m not thinking about those things. I’m looking out my ninth-floor window, watching the birds wheel by, watching the clouds gather and move on, gather and move on, and thinking about an older Beltane. I’m thinking about the Beltane of old Ireland, when two great bonfires were built and the cattle were driven between them, for protection, for purification, before they were led out to pasture for the summer. I’m thinking about Beltane as the mirror of Samhain, a spooky time when the Fair Folk are trooping and if you wander into the wrong part of the woods, you might not come back.
Should we be lighting the bonfires and driving our cattle between them? Should we run between them to be purified of the virus? Are the Fair Folk roaming the empty streets and smelling the flowers while we stay indoors? I don’t know. All I know is that I, myself, have never felt less like Beltane.
My ex used to say that Easter Sunday was the cast party for Holy Week. Once you have come through the evening Eucharist of Maundy Thursday, a service of around two and a half hours on Good Friday that includes multiple sermons and, excuse my language, a fuck-ton of chanting, and then the darkness, fire, more chanting, water-throwing, multiple readings, costume changes, and THE GLORIA WITH ALL STOPS OUT of the Easter Vigil, even the average person is kind of tired by Sunday morning. Those of us who sang or served as acolytes during the marathon are as punch-drunk as the loser in a boxing match, and our singing voices are burnt out. (My ex also said that you hire brass players for Easter morning to cover up how tired the choir will sound.)
Of course I had none of that this year, not even as a person in the pews. I couldn’t help but be moved, even shocked by images of Pope Francis in an empty St. Peter’s Square, carrying out the pageantry as best he could with a skeleton crew of acolytes. We’re all doing the best we can right now, with our spiritual practices, with our jobs, with our necessary isolation. One of my Jewish friends and her wife celebrated their Passover Seder with friends over Zoom and proclaimed, “Next year in person!”
I ventured forth this afternoon with the intention of getting one last purchase of Easter chocolate. I came home with some Cadbury Mini-Eggs, two Lindt milk chocolate bunnies, and two other purchases I hadn’t planned on:
Happy Easter, happy springtime, happy life-going-on. Bring home something that flowers.
I set out to blog this month about my spiritual journey, about memories of church and religion and how I wound up a pagan and polytheist. On the one hand, I have unexpectedly found myself drawing wisdom from the wells of the Church again, without giving up my devotion to gods other than Jesus. On the other hand, I have run up against how much of my journey I’m not ready to blog about yet, intertwined as it is with my marriage, which ended in divorce after twenty years and then ended a second time with my ex-husband’s death from cancer.
If we were not at the mercy of this pandemic, my workplace would have been closed for the Christian holy day, and I might have gone to church for the first time in several years. If I had gone, I might feel just as empty and speechless as I do right now. What do you talk about, what do you write about, when you have seen your god die and have buried him, in a tomb that didn’t even belong to him? The liturgies of Good Friday are a slow wringer that leaves you dry and flat, but I feel like that so much of the time right now.
I will leave you tonight with a gem of English church music proper to this time of year, the Lamentations of Jeremiah as set by Thomas Tallis.
Today is Maundy Thursday, and I miss the liturgy I cannot attend tonight, in the midst of quarantine. It is one of the most dramatic liturgies of the whole year. The readings and psalms of the Eucharist revolve around the institution of the Eucharist, that is, the Last Supper when Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples and told them to break bread and drink wine together in remembrance of him.
After which he was arrested by the Temple police and interrogated by the priestly authorities, and turned over to the Romans as a terrorist the following morning.
All four of the Gospels tell slightly different accounts of Jesus’ Passion, but as is usually the case, Mark, Matthew, and Luke are in general agreement, while John has a completely different take. John depicts Jesus striding forth into the torchlight of a troop of armed soldiers to confront Judas, practically holding out his hands for the cuffs. But the other three Gospels say that after the Passover meal, Jesus requested some private time, accompanied by his three closest friends, Peter, James, and John, and holed up in a garden called Gethsemane to pray and come very, very close to backing out.
It’s clear that Jesus came to Jerusalem intending to provoke a confrontation. It’s clear that he expected that confrontation to end in some way with his own death. Now that he’s on the brink of that final commitment, he is mortally, humanly afraid. And he is deeply disappointed that his friends, instead of praying with him and bearing witness to him, fall asleep while he prays.
In my churches’ tradition, this vigil in the garden is acted out with great ceremony. A piece of consecrated Bread is kept aside from the Eucharist and wrapped up, together with some of the wine. It is carried in procession, with an ancient plainsong hymn, to a side chapel decorated like a garden, where it will be set up in a position of honor and left overnight.
Once the Bread and Wine have been removed, a terrible and shocking thing happens. All of the decorations and furnishings of the altar, the chancel, the most honored place in the church building, are removed. The priest and the acolytes strip down to their cassocks and begin to carry out the books, the candlesticks, the censer. The flowers, the frontal, the fair linens are taken off the altar, revealing the bare stone. Even the rugs are rolled up and the kneeling cushions taken away. Most shocking of all, the great hanging lamp which reminds visitors of the sacramental presence of Christ is lowered from the vault and put out, not to be rekindled till the Easter Vigil. While this takes place, Psalm 22 is recited or sung: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Walking out of the bare, dimly lit chancel of a church after singing that psalm over and over is, indeed, like walking away from a naked body lying on the ground, vulnerable and helpless. Walking into the Chapel of Repose, where the sacramental body of Christ is kept, where candles are still burning and the air smells of incense and flowers, is a blessed relief, a reminder that the story is not over yet.
The ancient tradition of the Church is that we do not leave Jesus alone in the garden. His closest friends let him down, but his living friends and followers are going to make up for that. Someone must be in the chapel all night, watching and praying. When I was a child, we did in fact leave the church doors unlocked all night and people could come and go. There was usually a sign-up sheet and people would write their names in for an hour or two. Nowadays few if any churches do this, for security reasons; people may remain to pray on Maundy Thursday or come in early on Good Friday, but no one remains through the night.
I don’t remember exactly how we decided on this, but one year in my early twenties, I and two friends at my church decided that we would stay and keep vigil all night. We could take turns easily enough; there would always be at least one person in the chapel while another could come or go and the third could kip on the couch in the priest’s office, which was cold but otherwise comfy.
It was quite cold in the church that night; I wore a striped shawl that had been my mother’s, handmade in Peru. I spent much of that night sitting cross-legged on the chapel floor, the shawl forming a small tent around me, reading the Revelations of Julian of Norwich and finally finishing the text, which I had been grappling with for a couple years, and praying, deeply. In the silence, in the cold, with the presence of Walt or Tim beside me, the rest of the church dim. I think that our rector came over once in the wee hours to make sure we were all right, and then again early in the morning, but after it got light, to relieve us. Tim and I were both still in the choir at that time, and Walt was our head acolyte, so instead of going home to sleep all day after our vigil, we all suited up for the Good Friday liturgy at noon.
It was, until my initiation with Antinous, perhaps the profoundest spiritual experience I had had. To be alone with my god, with two dear friends who were as committed as I was, and with the words of a spiritual teacher who has never left me, beloved Julian of Norwich. I was young and healthy and possessed of a singleness of heart that I lost somewhere along the way, and I entered into something vast and loving.
I hope that this time next year, churches will be open again, the virus will be a memory, and I will attend this evening’s liturgy and stay afterward, in the garden, to watch and pray as long as I can stay awake.
On this day the seed is planted:
The earth being soft again after winter,
the early flowers being in bloom,
the hens laying, the rabbits mating.
On this day something bright and
incomprehensibly swift lands on the sill
of a sleeping girl and wakes her
with its rarified fragrance, frankincense
and jasmine and just a hint of myrrh.
On this day the offer is made:
beloved, favored, mother,
the son of David, the ruler,
god with us.
In the trembling of the angel’s wings,
like an anxious dove’s, the girl sees
all that was not spoken: the silence,
the gossip, the looking at and the looking
away from her swollen belly,
loneliness, death–not hers but his,
and the long years after that, outliving
her memories in a foreign land. She cups
the spoken and the unspoken together
in her thin brown hands, holds them,
drinks: I am the handmaid of the Lord.
Be it unto me according to thy word.
Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple of Jesus, but he was also a kinsman of Jesus, a wealthy man due to the tin trade as well as a devout Jew. When Jesus was a youth, he went with his uncle several times to the island of Britain on trading expeditions. There he met the druids, who were like the priests and rabbis of his own people, except that there were women among their numbers, and learned much from them, for he was the sort of child who asks too many questions.
After Jesus was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea had him buried in the fine tomb which he had had built for himself. He kept with him the cup which he had provided for his nephew’s last Passover feast, in which Mary of Magdala had caught some of the blood and water that gushed from Jesus’s side when it was pierced with a Roman lance.
After the resurrection, Joseph retired from his business and set off for Britain again, taking with him the holy cup sanctified by Jesus’ death and a number of followers of Jesus, mostly older men like himself. In Britain he wandered through the isle, telling the good news of Jesus, until he came to the place called Avalon, a haven for the druids and a college of learning. There, when he planted his staff in the earth, it took root and began to grow into a tree, which he took as a sign that he should remain. The druids welcomed him and his people as fellow students of the Mysteries and gave permission for Joseph to build a small church in Avalon and housing for his people. The druids honored the miracle of the staff that became a tree, and there were friendly relations between them and Jesus’ followers. People went to the druid groves to hear their music and their colloquies, and the druids and their people came to partake of the sacred meal in memory of the Lord Jesus.
But times change, and new Christians came to the isle accompanied by soldiers, proud men who called themselves bishops and insisted on a separation between druid and Christian. They condemned the druids and their wisdom, drove them away from the love-feast, and even offered violence to them. Joseph, now miraculously old, knew that he should depart this life soon, so on the night of a full moon, he went out and met the chief druidess, the guardian of the sacred well, and with her help, he concealed the holy cup and the two vessels of blood and water which had come from the body of the crucified Lord. The chief druidess placed the cup and the vessels with the other sacred things, the sword made with metal that fell from heaven, the immovable stone, the ancient wand which had belonged to the first of the chief druids, and told the novices that it was the sacred cup of a goddess, the lady of the springs. But Joseph had told her that someday, the druids of Avalon might be asked to render back the cup that was now sacred to both the older mysteries and the new.
Joseph died, and the chief druidess died, and though the secret was kept, people have been looking ever since for the missing cup that held blood and water from the body of the Lord, the wine of the Eucharist, the pure water from the springs of Avalon. People have been looking for that wellspring of compassion, knowledge, mercy, joy, and peace. They have not yet found it, and the land is becoming very arid, without the cup, the world is growing very old. Yet still people seek the Grail, and they look to Avalon, remembering when the druids welcomed Joseph, who welcomed them in turn to the sacred banquet, and a staff cut in Palestine grew and flowered in the isle of Britain.
(Originally posted on Antinous for Everybody, 7/31/2015)