I found in the woods in Maryland a wildflower, the bloodroot flower. It blooms very early in the spring, around the time of Lent and Easter, depending on when Easter falls. The reason why it’s called the bloodroot is because the root itself, if you press it, you break it, you’ll get a red dye that can be used as a dye. But the bloom itself only lasts a day. But it comes out of the sepulcher of the earth. And what it leaves is these heart-shaped leaves. And that is a microcosm of resurrection for me.
I have a wild imagination. You know, I mean, I’ve described the stakes in my vegetable garden in the wintertime as crosses on which bodies are draped, you know. I don’t mean that in a gory sense. The geese in the sky remind me of the crosses that pilgrims have carved into ancient Christian sites. I think there are signs of the cross all over creation. How do you account for that? Well, clearly, we’ve forgotten, we’ve forgotten paradise, we forget God. And that’s why I think we have scripture to remind us.
—Vigen Guroian, from his interview with Krista Tippett in On Being’s “Restoring the Senses: Gardening and an Orthodox Easter”
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
An Easter Sunday. A Sacred Echo. Solidarity in a Small Hell of Our Own
by Pádraig Ó Tuama, guest contributor
A sign hangs on the wall of a Taizé community in Burgundy, France. (photo: forteller/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
It is Easter week. This week, we remember the events from Thursday’s meal to Friday’s torture to Saturday’s silence and Sunday’s mystery.
Years ago, 13 years ago in fact, I fell apart. I was 22 and I had already been sick for a year. It had started with a bad flu that had never gone away. After 12 months, I was bewildered and dizzy and achy, confused with a fatigue and an illness that would take a further five years to diagnose and a total of nine years to recover from.
Up until that point, I hadn’t spent much time contemplating chronic illness. However, after a year of being ill, hearing doctors’ opinions, berating myself with my own opinions, I was firmly contemplating chronic illness. When you are chronically ill, there are some things to learn — you must learn to relate to your sickness, and you must learn to relate to your feelings about being sick. In the face of these two lessons, I was gutted with a raw fear in the face of the unknown.
For Lent that year, I read a chapter of Job every day. It was less a religious exercise and more an exercise of survival. I needed some kind of echo of the bewilderment, loneliness, and confusion. Job became a friend. I heard his grief, and I heard his sadness.
Taizé community celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. (photo: Damien Mathieu/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
And, for the last two weeks of Easter in 1998, I went to a monastery in eastern France for two weeks of silence. Looking back on it, it might seem unwise — responding to a hollowness inside me by going to a place of silence. I don’t know what prompted me to go, but I went. I was welcomed by a gentle monk who showed me to my small room and told me that it might not be a good idea to read all the time.
“Il faut écouter, avec les oreilles de tendresse, à ton propre silence,” he said. “You must listen, with ears of tenderness, to your own silence.”
Ha! I was petrified of that silence. I read The Lord of the Rings in five days flat.
It took 11 days before I began to relax. By that time, it was Holy Thursday, and the time when the Last Supper is remembered. That morning, the brother spoke to the pilgrims gathered for a few minutes after breakfast to set a tone of inspiration for the day. He noted how Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke, “I have earnestly desired this meal.”
He didn’t paint a picture of a Nazarene who ran to the arms of Roman torture willingly, but he depicted a character who believed enough in a way of life to take that way of life to the death. The monk spoke about how Jesus lived the last days of his life in a way that was faithful to the life he’d always lived — calling enemies and dispossessed ones “friends,” having concern for his mother, accepting help from a Cyrenian stranger, looking for moments of life while life itself was draining away.
I don’t know what happened, but somehow, I began to breathe. I remember I was sitting in a chapel, listening to a German nun tune an eclectic zoo of musicians into some kind of harmony. Nothing cataclysmic occurred — it was just that I began to fear my own darkness a little less. I began to feel where I had only known numb and lonely survival. I began to feel that if I am here, then perhaps I am here with a companion. There were few words of prayer; there was a deep sense of accompaniment. I began to recognise that I didn’t need the words to describe the chronic illness that was indescribable.
That Easter Sunday I cried. Not because of some miraculous resurrection. I had eight long years to wait before my health began to improve. I cried because, in the words of an old monk, I heard an echo of an understanding that went beyond words, and, in that echo there was companionship.
Tree at Taizé community in France. (photo: etch indelibly in the mind/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Years later, when studying theology, I came across Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Von Balthasar is noted for many things, one of which is his poetic retelling of Christ’s descent into hell. He said, “Jesus descended into hell. He is dead with us, and disturbs our loneliness. … God, in the weakness of love enters into solidarity with us who find ourselves damning ourselves, in the form of the crucified brother abandoned by God…and in such a way that is clear to the sinner that God-the-Forsaken is so for my sake.”
Each year on Easter Sunday I find myself moved. Not because there is a happy ever after ending to all of our stories. It is quite clear that there is not. I am moved because of a sacred echo of a hope that there is solidarity for those who feel like we inhabit a small hell of our own experience. The hope of Easter doesn’t damn this hell with a bleaching light. Rather this hope enters and squats with us. The celebrations of Holy Week for me are not about cataclysmic resurrections, but about being moved to follow in the life of the Nazarene, bravely entering into loneliness with a small spring of consoling company.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, a native of Cork, works in Belfast, Northern Ireland as a faith & peace worker of the Irish Peace Centres. His poetry and writing can be found at Hold Your Self Together.
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Rooting the Poetry of Resurrection in the Garden of Eden
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
In a Dominican priory in Salamanca, a relief depicts Mary Magdalene contemplating the empty cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified and searching for Truth. (photo: Lawrence Lew/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
In the beginning was poetry.
The book of Genesis, as Ellen Davis has observed, starts with a liturgical poem. The creation of the cosmos can only be communicated, the ancients knew, through language that speaks to the imagination — that unity of intellect and emotion, which was for the biblical writers the restless human heart.
Images and metaphors are primary speech, conveyers of truth — durable yet pliable, precise yet ever expansive in the vision of the world (and ourselves) they set before us.
That they were describing biological or geological processes would never have occurred to the redactors of the Bible’s foundational stories. Not because they were uninterested in or incapable of such description but because the truths they were telling were not available within discursive speech; the reporting of facts was not the business they were in. For most of the Church’s history, interpreters of biblical language understood this.
And then there were propositions.
With modernity came the quest for scientific certainty and singularity of meaning. Texts were read in the same way that ore was mined from the earth: you dig and dig and the Truth, like a nugget of gold, is eventually dislodged. You extract it with your best tools, dust it off, and hold it up to the light for all to admire. This Truth, this narrowly defined, singular “meaning” of this or that text, became an object of adoration and it wasn’t long before modern Christians were worshiping the Bible itself rather than the One to whom it points.
And this Bible, moderns continue to insist, speaks in propositions: The Word of God as a collection of truthful statements that must be assented to. Christianity as a list. Do you believe the right propositions?
The resurrection stories in the four Gospels differ significantly from one another (as do the Creation stories in Genesis 1-2). What might it mean for us to recover — in our living, in our worship, and in our preaching — the poetic possibilities of these stories? Could we stop straining toward explanations for the inexplicable? Could we trust that Jesus’ friends — to their own incredulity as much as anyone’s — experienced him fully alive after his tortuous death and that this is not so much a scientific fact to be endlessly probed as it is gospel — genuine good news — to be lived?
And can we see the poetic genius of St. John who brings the resurrection story back to Genesis’s cosmic beginnings in a garden?
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
—Gospel of John, 20:15
Jesus is the patient gardener. He is the “tree of life.” He is the new creation. And in him we live.
From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in — black ice and squid ink —
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In his corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.
—Mary Karr, “Descending Theology: The Resurrection”
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.