It's Easter Monday and spring has finally started in Montreal. Most of the snow is gone, the sky is brighter, and the first shoots are poking up through the soggy earth. Yesterday, as I arrived very early at church to begin a long day of singing, I was greeted by a patch of purple crocuses in the lawn: not open yet, but unmistakable. Even color might make its way to this grey northern city before long!
During Holy Week I struggled with resistance to the focus on tragedy and suffering. Some years the difficult part of the story is actually fruitful for me, but this year that wasn't the case. It took all the way through Saturday before I figured it out -- and for that I had to go back to Mexico.
On Good Friday, I sat in the baptistry, trying to meditate between our musical responsibilities, and -- bizarrely, I thought -- all that came to me was the image of people dancing in a park in Mexico City. We had gone to visit the handicraft market at La Ciudadela, where I took the picture at the top of this post. I walked around the entire vast market, looking at pierced tin stars and embroidered blouses, blown glassware and painted tiles, whimsical painted wooden animals from Oaxaca, colorful sombreros and woven rugs. Finally I returned to this young woman's stand, drawn back by the colors and careful Indian handwork and unique embroidery styles of the bags she was selling. After we talked with her and bought a few pouches to take home as gifts, we walked out into the nearby park, where salsa music was playing.
The park was full of people, from babies in arms to the very elderly. A lot of them were dancing. And not just fooling around: these were people who knew how to dance, and looked like they'd been doing it their entire lives. It was a neighborhood event. The atmosphere was completely relaxed; everyone was out, enjoying themselves. Was it a special day, we wondered? No, we found out - this happens every Saturday in this barrio. Other neighborhoods do it on different days or evenings, so if you are really into salsa, you can go around and dance just about every day!
The feeling was so happy, it was infectious. J. wandered around with his camera, and I stood on the edge, smiling, moving in time to the music, watching the joy of the people dancing so beautifully under the violet jacarandas.
There was a shrine of flowers and an image of the Virgin that had been put up in a tree (see the arrow at upper left). This, we found, is pretty typical. Religion is everywhere; it's as much a part of ordinary life as air or food. Homemade shrines with figures of saints, candles, flowers and sometimes incense are just as likely to be found on a streetcorner or near the entrance to a shop as in a church or park; as people pass by, they notice, and some cross themselves. The Virgin of Guadaloupe, in particular, seems to hover over the daily life of the city, protecting and watching the dance of life.
I had been standing there for fifteen minutes or so when this elderly gentleman appeared in front of me, holding out his hand. It took me a moment to realize he was asking me to dance - the last thing I had expected to happen, though maybe it had been obvious that I really wanted to try! I smiled and lifted my shoulders and eyebrows, miming to him that I was pleased but didn't know how. He shrugged, an elegant and eloquent Latin shrug, and swept one hand toward the dance floor: Don't worry, I'll show you. I smiled and took his hand. We danced: I clumsily, he delightfully; his friends on the sidelines clapped and smiled encouragment as I looked over, laughing and happy. When the dance finished he bowed to me and I thanked him, and then his friend took my hand for another dance, their warmth and generosity something I won't forget.
My former rector and friend, the Rev. Canon Henry Atkins, had a number of colorful souvenirs from his years in Latin America on the desk and walls of his office. He had worked as a priest in El Salvador during some of the most difficult years; he had known Archbishops Oscar Romero and Arturo Rivera. I asked him about these tokens once, thinking he must have some tragic memories. He smiled. "You know," he said, "I went to Latin America thinking the people there would teach me about suffering. In fact, they taught me about joy."
When we returned home and got on the airport bus to ride back to Montreal, I looked around at the snow and ice, and the grim silent faces of the other passengers, dressed in their black and grey coats. Across from me was a Mexican woman, about my age; I overheard her son-in-law explaining to someone that he was picking her up for an extended stay here, where he and her daughter and their children lived. The woman had on a warm coat in a beautiful shade of aqua, and she too was looking around, bewildered. I thought about the Mexican equivalent: a crowded and noisy bus or metro car, filled to overflowing with color and music and people selling things, a natural extension of the vibrant, chaotic, and entirely real life on the streets. By comparison, she -- and I -- had just landed in a frozen, monochromatic, silent world. It felt so ridiculous I almost burst out laughing. What are we doing to ourselves?
So, yes, in the affluent north, we do need to be reminded of the suffering and poverty and violence of much of the world. Actually, though, we're pretty good at feeling guilty and miserable. We have a lot more to learn about how to be truly happy, about how to live fully, how to appreciate the simple beauty that life presents every single day, how to embrace each moment and each other -- especially each other. This week, as I sang, I knew in every vibrating part of my body the joy that comes not just from the arts but from giving your best effort, and from doing something with other people for a greater goal. That makes me so happy - in spite of the fatigue, the concentration, the late nights - that I experienced joy as the dominant emotion, joy in the midst of a story of immense suffering.
And that's the thing. The ultimate Gospel message isn't one of death, but resurrection. Whether you interpret that literally or symbolically, the point is not to stay at the foot of that cross, or the crosses that we all bear, but to live and to love, learning to see that new life can happen, in spite of great difficulties, every moment of every day.