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Tag: holy week

holy week, promised land, and the spiritual practice of making do…

“why is this night different from all other nights?”

year after year for all the years we’ve been circling ’round tables when the paschal moon is at its plumpest and pinkest, telling and retelling the story of exodus — of plagues and passover and a promised land just out of reach — that question, the first of the four questions traditionally asked by the youngest, sharpens the focus on the holy act of separating time. setting aside particular hours, according to particular rising and setting of the moon in the heavens, lifting those hours out of the ordinary, sanctifying. making holy. erecting cathedrals of time, in the words of abraham joshua heschel, the late great rabbi and thinker, who wrote:

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.

this year, the question — why this night? — carried particular resonance. and its sister question, why is this week different from all other weeks, begins to burrow into the holiest questions quivering just beneath the surface of all this 20-second hand washing, and bleach-and-water spritzing and tying of masks round our smiles.

in a week woven with tradition — with particular prayers in particular places, particular recipes, particular gatherings year after year after year — it’s all broken open. it’s all in shards and pieces we assemble and reassemble as best we can.

i think here of the japanese art of kintsugi, beholding the beauty in the brokenness, not occluding or hiding the cracks, but filling them in with rivers of shimmering radiant metals, gold or silver or platinum. deeply understanding the infinite wisdom of rumi, the sufi mystic: “the wound is the place where the Light enters you.” or the resounding redemptive truth of hemingway’s glorious line from a farewell to arms“the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

and in this old house where we weave passover and holy week, where the retelling of the parting of the sea, the fleeing from evil pharaoh, the pestilence and boils and locust and darkness, the slaying of the firstborn (the litany of plagues that visited upon egypt) interlaces with the stories of the last supper, the betrayal of judas, the flogging and crowning with thorns, the crucifixion, i found salvation in the spiritual practice of making do.

and there, in the straining of imagination, in the redefining and refocusing on the essence at the root of each strand of tradition, in scouring the pantry, in testing the powers of my own ingenuity, i began to see in sharp focus the extraordinary blessing in reinvention, in improvisation, in the promised land just beyond my reach. in the imperative of bypassing any and all shortcuts. working just a little bit harder. discovering joy at each tiny triumph.

take the chicken marbella.

IMG_1425over the decades since the silver palate cookbook was first published in 1979, and over the decades at the passover seder where i’ve marked the first night of prayer for 36 years, that glorious rendition of chicken and olives and prunes has become synonymous with the jewish rite of spring. add to that the fact that my home-bound freshman in college happens to love it, practically licks the plate of it. (and these days — passover or not — i’ll climb any mountain to bring him one iota of everyday ordinary un-quarantined joy.)

IMG_1432i’d decided a week ago that, come heck or high water (an apt expression in the season of red sea crossing), i was going to muster up a pan full of that vernal succulence. eyeing the few parts of chicken in this old house, i tucked away a package of breasts at the back of the freezer, knowing i might not fetch another till this pandemic is ended. i happened to find just enough dried prunes in the pantry to realize i was halfway there. olive oil, oregano and garlic, i scrounged up with little worry. brown sugar, ditto. white wine i found in the dark and dingy corner of the basement. it was the spanish olives that presented the hurdle. so i made do: i found a few lonely olives, black ones not green, at the back of the fridge. and i stirred it all up like nobody’s business, rejoicing all along the way that i’d found a way — through scrounging + improv — toward chicken marbella.

next up was the seder plate: where in the world does one look for a roasted shank bone in the depths of pandemic? and was i really going to sacrifice one of the six lowly eggs in the fridge for a ceremonial platter of symbols? i was not. so off to the cupboard i trotted, reached for my half-dehydrated markers and scissors. grabbed a sheet of printer paper, and voila, shank bone, egg, and — the hardest procurement of the week — one square of matzo, all kosher for passover. haroset — the apple, walnut, cinnamon and wine meant to remind of the mortar used by the slaves who built pharaoh’s pyramids — that came courtesy of the many-years-old bottle of manischewitz concord grape wine stored in that same dingy corner of the basement, and a stash of walnuts left over from christmas.

but, when we sat down to our laptop, dialed into our zeder (seder by ZOOM, the cyber salvation of the red-ringed siege), we had ourselves a proper seder table, from marbella to matzo, the ingenuity way.

all that making do, all that finding my way — deciding what’s worth the effort, what doesn’t matter — it’s becoming a meditation in mindful distilling. take nothing for granted. turn in to your own toolbox of tricks. never mind the easy way. do away with the unnecessary.

have you noticed that barely-enough makes for extraordinary? have you sensed the keener attention you pay when so little is taken for granted? when i sliced into a ripening pineapple the other morning, and discovered it was perfectly golden and sweet, not hard and pale yellow as it sometimes can be, i felt a sigh of pure joy riveting through me. you would have thought i was an arctic explorer staking my flag in the pole, so triumphant did i feel at suddenly beholding my cache of pineapple perfection. when’s the last time you remembered for days how sweet your pineapple was?

and so it is in the time of corona. when a trip to the grocery store — or a ride on the el, or rubbing elbows with the stranger wedged in beside you at the movies or museum or ballpark — without fear of catching a potentially fatal infection might never again be taken for granted.

we are all, collectively, living and breathing improvisation. expanding the boundaries of what we thought we could do (heck, i’m now very best friends with the sourdough starter bubbling away at the back of my fridge, and i’m zooming into book groups all over the globe, chanting with monks hundreds of miles away). we are looking out for each other in ways we might not have before (sending meals to ER departments, sharing seeds with the neighbor next door).

the brakes have been halted on this mad-paced world. and yes, it’s filled with heartbreak upon heartbreak. jobs are being cut (i lost one of mine). paychecks are being slashed (happened here, too). magnificent glorious souls are breathing their very last breath afraid and alone (dear God, praise the nurses and doctors who step into those holiest of shoes). the obituaries (some of them being written in the room just above) will make you weep (and they do, day after day).

but inside of all the uncharted fear, and the bureaucratic ineptitude that might make you furious, this holiest week is upon us, and it’s teaching us lessons we might never have otherwise learned.

in the nooks and the folds of making-do, i’m paying closest attention to those deepest essentials. and therein lies the holy way home.

what making-do moments have you encountered this week? and what lessons spilled forth?

a housekeeping note: you might have noticed that all week long, in the comments of each week’s post, i’ve been tucking away especially succulent morsels i happen to come across in my cyber adventures. as we’ve long considered this our shared kitchen table, it seems more than apt to leave little bits of deliciousness all week long. so be sure to click back, and scroll through the comments, where i’ve left a bevy of links and snippets of poetry. 

before i go, here’s one i clipped from a letter the great george saunders wrote to all the fledgling writers at kenyon college whose spring quarter was snatched away. he wrote a beautiful long letter, but this one paragraph i saved just for you:

from George Saunders to Kenyon writers:

There’s a beautiful story about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Her husband was shot and her son arrested during the Stalinist purges. One day she was standing outside the prison with hundreds of other women in similar situations. It’s Russian-cold and they have to go there every day, wait for hours in this big open yard, then get the answer that, today and every day, there will be no news. But every day they keep coming back. A woman, recognizing her as the famous poet, says, “Poet, can you write this?” And Akhmatova thinks about it a second and goes: “Yes.”

may we all find poetry, even amid the pandemic….

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and now i enter deep into my holiest hours….the triduum of holy week….

(p.s. that’s our zoom seder screen shot above, same characters year after year after year. beloved mary schmich, the brilliant pulitzer-prize-winning chicago tribune columnist, wrote about it….here.)

into the depths

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all week in this old house, we’ve been burrowing deep into ancient and timeless stories. the story of the exodus, pesach, the retelling of the jews’ escape from slavery in egypt, a retelling that elie wiesel, the late great nobel laureate and holocaust survivor, called “a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.” it is a retelling stitched with blessing, and question, and story.

its leitmotif, “you were strangers in a strange land,” God’s words to Abram, a call to radical empathy, a call to ever open our hearts to those who are strangers, marginalized, in our midst.

after three nights of seder, of coming to tables filled with people we love, after cups of wine, and reciting of plagues, after singing dayenu (the hebrew word for “enough,” as in God’s love would have been more than enough, in a rising series of praises — “if God had only created the world and not brought us out of egypt, it would have been enough”), we pivot to the holiest hours of holy week — or i do anyway.

i am deep now and deepening. i hear the cry of my soul, being pulled into timelessness, into sacred hours and space. i burrow into the stories of the last supper (the seder of Jesus and his twelve apostles), of gethsemane, of the betrayal by Judas, of the mocking and crowning with thorns, of the bone-crushing cross shouldered by Jesus as he stumbled along the trail to his crucifixion at golgotha, the hill just outside jerusalem, the hill where he cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me,” and then, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” the whole arc of anguish and redemption in two short utterances.

it never fails to draw me deep into the nautilus of prayer.

and so, late yesterday, as the slant of light grew thin and thinner, i was pulled into a jewel box of a medieval stone chapel, its leaded windows a mosaic of cobalt and ruby and aquamarine. i was alone. i had only my prayer and my deepening.

today will be more of the same. the hours of silence, from noon till three, the hour, we’re told, when Jesus let out his final surrender, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” when he breathed his last, and the sun’s light was extinguished, i will do as generations before me have done: utter not a word, follow my prayer to the hushed place within. i will keep my holy vigil for the suffering that once was, and the suffering that goes on to this day, to this hour.

in both the story of exodus and the story of the crucifixion, we are called not only to honor them as ancient and long-ago narratives. we’re to infuse them with the now. to employ them as holy script, as instruction, imperative, to find in their depths the modern-day call to action: search for the stranger, embrace the stranger. set a place at your table, and make it the finest you have. love even your enemy. forgive your enemy.

turn yourself wholly and finally to God.

both stories, a call to radical empathy. both stories, imploring divine surrender.

both stories i’m burrowing into this week. this week of ancient and timeless holiness. this week with wisdom for now.

may your holy days — however they come — be deep and be blessed.

and happy blessed birthday to my beautiful little ella today turning eight, and to my beloved mother-in-law ginny (the chair’s most loyal reader perhaps) whose day is tomorrow. 

seeds cast to the winds…

our house this week has been aswirl with all that comes in that holiest of weeks, the week at our house when, so often, passover and easter glide in and intermingle.

i’ve been in the kitchen, digging out the pint-sized processor my beloved jewish grandma (the one i’d felt was mine, from heart, if not from birth) shipped to us back when our firstborn was just born, and she decided, upon his birth, that it was the one thing i needed, so she boxed it up in florida to send our way, lest i choose to someday whir the baby’s veggies to a pea-green paste.

i made charoset for the first time in years, the apple-wine-and-walnut mortar, the one set upon the seder table, a table we’ve not set here in years and years, but did this year because the rabbi who usually leads us all in chants and jewish mysticism, he’s had a bumpy year and couldn’t manage yet another room of crowded tables.

i pulled the “silver palate” cookbook off the shelf, decided after much debating with myself, that the only feast that symbolizes passover for me is the chicken marbella, page 86, the one we’ve feasted on for 20-some years at a dear friend’s second-night seder. and so it is; it’s now our first-night feast, now that i too know how to grind the head of garlic, stir with spanish olives, prunes and capers, an aromatic cloud that filled the fridge for one whole night and next day long.

i roasted egg and shank bone. i boiled up matzah ball soup. ordered gefilte fish from the fishman. watched my boys sink in their forks, and smile from deep-down places.

and now, with the pantry stocked and freezer too, with foods that have no leavened grain, no grain at all, save for ground-up matzah, we carry on the catholic end of the week, the holy week, the days of awe for me.

and while i sometimes find myself in lonely place, alone at church on palm sunday, for instance, i have found in this end of the week, quiet joy, unexpected joy.

last night my little one sat beside me at holy thursday mass, the mass that remembers the last supper–a seder, after all. he curled into my side, entwined his slender getting-longer fingers in mine. he asked me questions throughout, and i whispered answers, so quietly moved that for once i was not alone at church.

and today, good friday, a day i’ve long marked in silence from noon to 3, in remembrance of jesus on the cross, jesus suffering, my 6-foot-3 rower told me he was skipping practice. why, i asked? because it’s slotted for noon to 2, he said, matter-of-factly, and it’s good friday.

i quietly felt a glow.

i have not been one to try to wedge my boys into the practice of my religion. i’ve not tried to wedge anything at all. i have offered up all i have. i have made the seders, left out holy books, asked plenty of questions, tried to answer questions without easy answers.

we have, every night since each boy was born, whispered a litany of prayers, a head-to-toe veneration and then some, before sweet child slipped into slumber.

i have put out shabbat candles every friday. made fish for most shabbats, a subtle catholic-jewish intertwining.

i have walked to the lakefront with my boys, tossed bread upon the waves, cast sins at the jewish new year. savored the ritual, felt deep-down blessing at the many roads to the holiest of holies.

i have honored the sacred in all its forms. but i have not demanded, not sulked. oh, i’ve shed tears, though, but not when anyone was watching. i’ve felt the price of living in a home where two religions were offered. i’ve felt the sting of their pointed questions, of not knowing if they believed at all.

it’s a far lonelier road than most anyone will tell. i have tried hard to make peace with carrying on my quiet flame, believing all alone, of being without my boys on holy thursday night when the time came to take off my shoes and have my naked feet washed by strangers, and to return the blessing all alone.

and this year, i am quietly and deeply moved that i was not alone last night, and will not be alone this afternoon in my silent vigil.

it is dicey business, this growing up with deep cords of faith, in a world where the secular is drowning out the sacred. it is double hard to try to teach two religions, when there seems barely room for one.

it is not wise, i figured out, to demand belief. there is no such demanding.

in the end, we can only light the candles, set the seder table, cook fish for each shabbat, revel in the glories of the good times, and pray to God that in the darkest hours, our children will find the seeds that we once planted. and those seeds somehow will swell and burst with the tender beginnings of a vine that someday will carry them to the heaven that surrounds us.

that’s my prayer this holiest of fridays.

and how do you pass the seeds of faith to your children, or to the ones you so love?

no darker day

all night i tossed and turned, wondered if i would write how lonely it is. how achingly hard. to be the sole believer in a house i call home.

oh, there are others who believe other things. just no one else who believes what i do.

no one else who spills tears at the thought of the story, deep thought. deeper story, the one of today, the one of good friday, no darker a day.

no one else who came with me to church last night, who stripped off their shoes, stood in line, knelt down to wash the feet of another. no one else who knows what it felt like, how it wrung me right out, the man i don’t know, his deeply brown hands, tenderly, thoroughly, washing my feet.

it is, was, a wholly powerful moment. metaphor, yes. but literal, too. sensual, really. warm water was poured, my bare bumpy feet there in a bowl, a white porcelain bowl. no ceremonial sprinkle and wipe. not this. no.

i could barely look up. couldn’t breathe. all around me, humility loomed. filled the church, right up to the rafters. this church where i went–unlike the one of palm sunday–is a church that i love. it is filled with people of colors, filled with bodies so broken, but spirits that look to be whole.

beaming and grinning and shaking a shaker, the young handsome man strapped to a wheelchair. the boy with the face that is pretty much mangled. the one who was blind. the old lady who only could shuffle, and barely at that. all of them, there. so very there.

for three hours, i think, i was bathed in all of the ritual. the latin, the spanish. the incense, the candles. the bread and the wine. oh, and the song. cello and tambourine. children with bells. and the pouring of water on bare naked skin.

even i, a soul who’s felt not very holy of late, i was pulled right back to the flame deep inside. long long ago, a story was put there. a story i simply believed. over the years, it got jostled around. couldn’t be. yes it could. hmm, i wonder. oh, geez, i don’t know. i don’t even know anymore.

it’s the sad sorry fallout from hours and hours of listening, and hearing the people you love, people whose thinking you trust on all sorts of matters, come down, on this one, on the far side of the fence.

it’s the part of the jewish-catholic equation that isn’t much aired. and sometimes i think that it should be. it might untangle a knot.

there’s the words of the rabbi: you can’t believe it both ways. and the words of the priest: you love the same God. and then there’s me, sometimes lost in the middle.

it’s not likely to happen, perhaps, if you didn’t start out deeply believing. or caring too much. but on both of those scores, i raised my hand.

and that’s where the rub comes: after 20 long years, two-fifths of my life, of listening to scholars who find it all rather unlikely, but even moreso, watching the pain on the face of the man who i love on that long ago sunday of palms, or hearing the words of my firstborn when he says he finds it mostly improbable, my whole core has been shaken and rattled and, sometimes i fear, broken to bits.

i hold onto shards. pray for the blue glowing flame not to go out.

but then, on a night like last night, i go in a church, i take off my shoes and it all floods right back. the whole power and glory of a church that holds up this day, and the ones just before and right after. says, look at this. look how human and horrid and broken we all can be. look how this one single soul was betrayed, was mocked, was beaten, was made to carry a cross. and he died without raising his voice. except to cry out: “Father forgive them. they know not what they do.”

it’s a moment, i swear, to carry me far. it’s a moment i thank holy God for. each year, i come back. and many hours between.

but the hollow deep hole in my chest, when i feel all alone, and not very certain, it makes for some hours of unbearable darkness.

and how uncanny it is that this day, no darker a day on the calendar, somehow is lit from behind. like that sun through the clouds. or a star breaking through in the murk of the night.

it might be, just might be, a soul, after all, that refuses to succumb to the doubt.

perhaps, in the end, that’s what my easter miracle is. the maybe that turns to a yes. the yes that won’t fall to eclipse. do you struggle, when it comes to believing? what brings you home, time and again? is it the power of story, or the break in the clouds? i send you blessings, as we all wait out the darkness, counting on light to come in the dawn.

transforming time

this week is holy, my calendar tells me, my church tells me. some wee small voice deep inside me tells me too. i don’t feel so holy of late, though. feel ragged and worn. tangled, too. like the branches that jut from my pine, the one whose trunk i stared up and into, trying to find, maybe, some sign of nesting begun.

the challenge this week, then, is to take time that feels ragged, feels spent, and see if maybe, just maybe, i can start to build holy.

perhaps, like mama bird, out collecting old string, and tatters of cloth, i can take little bits of each day. maybe even each hour, and start to weave something that feels like a soft place for my soul. my soul needs a nest, needs a roosting place. my soul needs somewhere to perch. somewhere to swell, feel full.

i walked myself into church yesterday. felt wholly alone. it wasn’t a church that whispers my name. it’s stone, piled on stone. but it’s not far from home. and it is holy week, so i thought i should be there.

i remembered the words of my mother, perhaps the lastingest words she’s ever uttered: don’t let the church get in the way of God. i gave that a try. i tried, really i did, to pay no attention to the girl next to me, a teen with tight pants and big furry boots, who kept checking her iphone for something. the time maybe. a text from a friend. i didn’t notice till later how her brother must have spent his palm sunday, shredding the palm into bits. leaving it there, in a heap on the floor, where someone not looking might step, might crush it into the slate.

instead, i listened to the story. i wept right along. i thought a lot about suffering. how the dominant metaphor here in my church is a God who suffered in ways no human should know. but i suppose there has always been solace that at least, no thanks to the dark inhuman hours of the passion of Jesus, we are not alone.

still, every year, when i listen, when i hear about thrashing and stripping and mocking, i wince, then i swallow back tears. more often than not, the tears spill anyway. i can’t hold them back. don’t want to. they sting. and shake me down deep.

i think, as i swipe at my wet messy cheeks, about unbearable sins, ones then, and ones now. i cannot stand, either, all the stories i read in the papers, the ones about women and children and men, all put to insufferable deaths, or just barely escaping. and living instead with the frames, endlessly looping, of the horrors that always can come.

it is a sobering start to a week in which we live it again, the betrayal, the trial, the slow march to death on a cross among sinners.

achingly, slowly, we live it again. in vigils that last for hours and hours, late nights in a church where the pews get harder and the air, always, gets thinner and staler, tougher to breathe, till you think you might wobble right down, or give up the ghost.

since i, like emily dickinson, of late, find my church more in the woods than the pews, i will do an odd dance this most holy week. i will step into the place of the candles and incense. i will hear all the stories again. i will kneel and wash the soles and the toes and the calluses, even, of a stranger. i will genuflect, and make the sign of the cross.

but i will try to make holy the hours that shroud all the church time. i will, for this one week especially, try to push back the things of the world that distract me, that pull me away from the point. and the whole heart of the matter.

i will, if i can, stop the worry about runs on the bank, and layoffs at work. i will try to forgive all the slights and cold shoulders. will, if i can, excuse the snapping of tongues, and the mists of unholiness that seep through the cracks in the door and the windows i’ve opened for air.

i will try, for starters this week, to listen for whispers of God all around me. i will look for the pure shafts of light, the ones breaking through branches.

i will collect, as much as i can, the ribbons of cloth and bits of stuffing from pillows. i will build, if i can, a fine nest. a place where my soul, once again, can roost, can give birth once again and again, to the thin-shelled belief that this time all around us–these hours, these minutes, these breaths–all are anointed, are holy.

are ours to inhale, if we just settle down and start breathing. again.

how and where does this holy week find you? i find solace in the partitioning of time, in the marking of days and weeks and seasons as holier, perhaps, than others. the challenge is to find holiness in the everyday. it is always the challenge. particularly, i find it now. how and where do you go to find a breath, a heartbeat, that you know is one that is sacred?