Just keep asking…

As you read this, I am winging my way to Columbus, OH, the landing point for my return trip to the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing Conference at Kenyon College.  My experience there last year changed my view of myself as someone who writes forever, so I thought that I would go back for a little more transformation.

One of the greatest things about this conference (and there are so many) is that it pushes me to read things that I might never otherwise read because, well, I don’t read much fiction.  But I simply have to read what has been written by my teacher for the week.  Last year it was Amy Gottlieb’s The Beautiful Possible.  Working with Amy at Kenyon, I learned about the use of juxtaposition in storytelling, and I learned to set free my more descriptive self in my writing.

This year I’ll be working with Beth Kissileff, so I’ve been reading her novel, Questioning Return (2016).  Actually, I already had it in my electronic book pile, before I found out that I would be working with her this summer, so I was happy to dive in and get reading.

The two books could not be more different — in terms of context, language, characterization, reading experience, and more.  Both are great and important works that speak to our human struggle with a life of faith and with, well, just life.  I feel a little ashamed, though, that it took me until almost the last chapter to realize that Questioning Return has been very carefully crafted around the very theological tool that sparks my own journey of faith — the question.  The question, the need to ask it, the need to search for the answers that may never come, the need to craft a life around the continual asking of the biggest questions –in fact, for me, it is the question as category that is the main character of this book, not the narrator, Wendy Goldberg.

Wendy is in Jerusalem on a Fulbright Scholarship to complete her dissertation, gathering information about Americans who have made aliyah, or a return to their homeland and to deep practice of the faith of their ancestors.  Along the way,  she meets many different kinds of people, at many different places along their life’s journey.  And she asks of them — and of herself — many questions.  Some are asked to further her research, others to clarify her own life. I have to admit that, for most of the book, I did not like Wendy Goldberg very much.  I kept reading because of the stories of the  many people who shared with her their lives and their own questions.  These stories told with intense detail the practices in each of their lives that expressed their own Jewishness.  They told the stories of their own struggles to fit that Jewishness into a world that is mostly harsh in response to any kind of expression of faith — those were the riveting passages that moved the story forward.  For me, Wendy is, at best, an audience to all that goes on around her rather than a protagonist.   Until the end that is, which I won’t share with you, of course.

Of particular resonance for me was Wendy’s interview with Rahel, the harpist.  Rahel came to Jerusalem as a music student, looking for more in life than the music business she experienced during her time at Julliard had to offer.  Her struggles are much like mine — where does music of the world fit in a life of faith?  The music world is not welcoming to those of us who want more life than practicing and competing for performance opportunities.  But Rahel’s advice to Wendy rings true, at least for me.  You cannot separate the things of this world from your life of faith and be a whole person.  We are happier when we experience our wholeness; we are closer to God then, too.

We, along with Wendy, have a chance to experience the ritual seder in many different settings, and it is at one of these dinners that the central meaning of the book became clear to me.   Wendy, with her friend Uri, is at the Passover Seder of some friends of Uri’s parents.  At the table, they are seated in front of a work of modern Israeli art that featured Sigmund Freud as its main theme.  The artist himself, Oren, is present at the table.  A Seder dinner has many parts, but the one that is most relevant here is the time referred to as the questioning. There are set questions in the ritual, but, at least in this account, these questions seemed to lead to others.  Each person at the table asks a question, not of the people in the room, but of life.  The practice provoked discussion in the room, and, perhaps in the participants.  Wendy, feeling that she did not have much to contribute to the conversation (which had been very serious), looked up at the painting and asked, “What would Freud say?”  In response, Oren offered this piece of wisdom to us all:

Freud would say, with your friend, confront the question; truth can only be got at if the question is, em, confronting.  How did he do hees analysis?  He asked the questions.  That is the power of the Seder, our willing to continue to ask. …And that is the genius of Freud; he was villing to ask.

Freud was willing to ask.  Millions of people of faith sit around a table every Friday evening and they are willing to ask.  We must never, ever, let go of our willingness to ask, because the question is the fuel that moves us deeper into our knowledge of ourselves and our world.  Jung called it individuation; others may have different names for the process, but it all comes down to a willingness to ask the ultimate questions again and again.

Keep asking.  There may never be a final answer, but keep asking to your very last breath.  That’s what I learned from reading this wonderful book.

Turn my mourning into dancing…

“You have turned my mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11),” such beautiful, comforting words.  I am, right now, in the middle of one of those difficult times in life, a time when mourning and grief fill my heart and my days, and sit alongside the joy of remembrance and the continuing if somehow diminished presence of a deep and abiding gift of love in my life.  The current state of my life is the topic for another forum, but, this present experience has caused me to seek comfort in reading, as usual.

It is often a long path to the right words. My search began with questions that arose during my ecumenical experience at Kenyon College’s Beyond Walls program a few weeks ago.  The time we spent together in prayer, experiencing morning prayer in many traditions, led me to further research into healing services and traditions in the practice of Judaism. And that research led me to learn that, in much Jewish prayer practice, it is the custom to begin each day by reading the text of Psalm 30 I quoted above:  “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent (30:11-12).”

That might have been enough for some, but, sometimes, friends, I just can’t let an idea go.  This was one of those times.  My focus on Psalm 30:11-12 210937led me to — surprise — a book:  Turn my Mourning into Dancing:  Finding Hope in Hard Times, a collection of Henri Nouwen’s sermons and writings, compiled and edited by Timothy Jones in 2001.

Jones constructed the volume around the theme of “Five Movements through Hard Times,” and in it, we read Nouwen’s thoughts about the dance between suffering and grace, the pain we cause ourselves by holding too tight, the pain we inflict when we make idols of illusory things, the destructive role of fatalism in modern life, our manipulative human spirit, our need for acceptance, and finally, the last and most difficult chapter, “From a Fearful Death to a Joyous Life,” a chapter that I will need to read and read again and read again.

I think that if I were to choose one quotation to sum up the writings gathered here, it would be this:  “Life is a school in which we are trained to depart (p. 95).”  We may fight that lesson along the way, but we will all eventually complete the course. Nouwen’s words just give us some suggestions for homework along the way that might just make the class a little easier on us.

These years since Nouwen’s death have seen the creation of many of these composite volumes of his writings, drawn from his lectures, sermons, and private notebooks.  Most of these compilations, like this one,hold to the promised theme only lightly.  It is in the first section, “From Our Little Selves to a Larger World,” that Nouwen embraces most closely, and most comfortingly, the images of Psalm 30:

Mourning makes us poor; it powerfully reminds us of our smallness. …And as we dance, we realize that we don’t have to stay on the little spot of our grief, but can step beyond it.  We stop centering our lives on ourselves.  We pull others along with us and invite them into the larger dance. …As we dance and walk forward, grace provides the ground on which our steps fall.  Prayer puts us in touch with the God of the Dance (12, 14).

I cannot read these words, and the words of the Psalmist, without thinking about the words of Sydney Carter, the American hymn writer who gave us the words to “Lord of the Dance (1963),” words I have sung so often set to the American Shaker tune Simple Gifts:

Dance then, wherever you may be.
I am the Lord of the Dance said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

As Nouwen puts it, “If mourning and dancing are part of the same movement of grace, we can be grateful for every moment we have lived (17).”  My job, along the way, is to remember those last words of the Psalmist: “…you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent (30:12).”  Homework, indeed.

I know, that with the gift of hindsight, I will find the beauty in these days of pain and letting go, but Nouwen’s words do help me find a little perspective in the present moment.  Maybe, just maybe, the music of the dance is not so far away.