It's Wednesday in Holy Week, and I'm singing nearly every day, so I'm not going to be around here much except for posting a few photographs. And, after all those Mexican posts, I need to take a litte break!
This wrought iron knocker and grill were on a door in Coyoacan, and now that I look at them I think it must have been the front door for a convent or monastery; the wooden panel behind the cross probably slides out of the way so the person inside can see who is at the door. All the buildings on that street had tall walls along the narrow sidewalk and you couldn't tell what was inside or whether they were residences or offices or public buildings of some sort. Occasionally a door was ajar, and you could peek inside into a beautiful, mysterious courtyard, or an entrance hall.
Best wishes to all who are observing religious holidays this week.
Our first day in Mexico was a national holiday as well as being a Monday - the day when most museums and many shops and restaurants are closed. A good time, we thought, to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Villa, as it's popularly called, since the site contains several churches and other buildings, is the most-visited shrine to the Virgin Mary in the world (over 20 million annual visitors) and the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Latin America -- reason enough to visit. But I wanted to try to understand something deeper about the devotion to "Our Lady" -- this particular apparition of the Virgin Mary -- whose image appears everywhere in Mexico City, and who seems embedded in the hearts of the people, whether overtly religious or not. I wondered what I would feel.
We reached the site after quite a long ride by Metrobus to the northern part of the city, and a walk through a residential neighborhood full of first-floor souvenir shops and small retail stores. Within the walls of the shrine, one finds a huge stone plaza, and around it, the new basilica shown above, and several former basilicas, progressively older from left to right, dating back to the 16th century. Two of these are shown in the picture below; all of these buildings are very large, and suffered considerable damage from the Mexico City earthquake in 1985; one was so slanted that it felt extremely unsafe, but people were still worshipping in it.
On the top of Tepeyac Hill, in the upper right, is yet another church, the final destination of most of the pilgrims who come here.
Here is the official Catholic account of the story.
On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac. Speaking to him in Nahuatl (the dialect of the tribe of the Aztecs) the girl asked that a church be built at that site in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the "lady" for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The first sign was the Virgin healing Juan's uncle. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found Castillian roses, not native to Mexico, on the normally barren hilltop. The Virgin arranged these in his peasant cloak or tilma. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Under the revisionist painting shown above, the caption reads "The Conversion of the Indians." You can see the Franciscan friars administering baptism from water held in an Aztec vessel, now serving as a font; above them, the Virgin of Guadelupe appears wreathed in smoke that billows from Popocatepetl. Through the Spanish Requirement of 1513, which was read aloud to the native people in Spanish, the Spanish monarchy had declared its divinely ordained right to take possession of the territories of the New World and to subjugate, exploit and, when necessary, fight the native inhabitants. Resisters were considered evil, in defiance of God's plan for Spain, and were forced to convert to Christianity or were killed. (Diego Rivera's murals in the Palacio Nationale depict what really happened.)
Below the painting is a reproduction of the famous image as it appeared on Juan Diego's cloak or tilma; the original tilma is displayed in the new basilica, above the altar, in an enclosure containing gases to help keep it in a state of preservation. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin became Latin America's first indigenous saint when he was canonized at this site by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Why, then, did so many native people become attached to Our Lady? Before the Spanish Conquest in 1591-21, Tepayac Hill had been the site of a temple to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. The Spanish destroyed it and built a chapel there in honor of the Virgin Mary. After they were converted to Christianity, the Indians continued to come there, addressing the Virgin as "Tonantzin." Whatever the truth was about the story of Juan Diego -- an indigenous man -- only a decade later, the Indians formed the core of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe: a devotion that continues to this day. As we visited the shrines and walked around the site, we saw hundreds of native people who had come with their families. There were very old women, walking with difficulty, supported by a daughter or son, and there were many young woman with newborn babies in their arms, bringing them to meet the Virgin for the first time, or to be baptized at a special building that is part of the Villa.
At the far end of the plaza is a raised area which affords a beautiful view of the entire site. I stood there and watched pilgrims crossing the rough stone plaza on their knees, toward the new basilica.
In the previous picture you can see a sign that reads "Mercado," or "market." Behind the main buildings is a large typical Mexican market -- a warren of interconnected tents and buildings -- full of souvenirs, and things to eat and drink. We stopped there for lunch: roast chicken with freshly-made corn tortillas.
You can see the roofs of the mercado behind this earliest church, where Juan Diego is interred.
Just above that church is this astonishing larger-than-lifesize bronze tableau of native people presenting gifts to the Virgin; from it, a path leads up the hill through beautiful gardens to the shrine at the top, the "shrine of the roses."
All along the path and through the gardens, people stopped with their families to be photographed.
There were professional photographers with tricky printers that produced large-format photos on the spot. Each of them had a shrine-themed photo-spot, some more kitschy than others. Here we have not one but two Virgins, a Pope, multicolored roses, and every stereotypical Mexican symbol you can think of. At the shrine, Pope John Paul II, "Juan Pablo," seemed second only to the Virgin in popularity; there is a huge bronze statue of him in the plaza. I didn't see a single image of Pope Benedict, but I'm sure Pope Francis will become popular here too.
A view of one of the older basilicas and plaza, as we climbed up the hill.
And some of the beautiful plantings. I loved seeing women carrying their babies in their arms, wrapped in a blanket.
The Shrine of the Virgin of the Roses, at the top of Tepayac Hill. Photography was not allowed inside; it was a simple, very old structure with a small dome, an altar, and some large paintings of the miraculous events.
Finally, we descended, becoming part of the large crowd enjoying a beautiful day, completely at ease in this shrine that clearly belongs to them. They were families on an outing; devotees coming to pray; people seeking some moments of peace and beauty in a crowded city -- but by their manner, their respect was clear: this was not a park like any other.
What did I feel?
At one point, crossing the plaza, I looked down at a stone beneath my feet and saw that, unlike its neighbors, it was covered with Aztec carvings. That is Mexico City: the past coexists with the present. They weigh upon each another in the stones of the buildings, mingle in the faces of the people. Our own past always seems both real and unreal, and so perhaps in this place with its unfamiliar and miraculous history I was able to suspend judgements and simply be present.
Did the Virgin appear to Juan Diego half a millenium ago? Does it really matter?
She is present today on this streetcorner in Escandon, and thousands of other corners, shop windows, tree notches, and public nooks throughout the city; as people pass by, they notice, pause, cross themselves. Her image appears in all the churches, and she is present in nearly every home in a ceramic statue, an image woven of palm fronds, or embroidered on a blouse, or molded into a folkloric retablo. She moves through the city around people's necks, or on their backs, and travels with strangers back to a far northern city: a dim image seen through a tiny crystal set in the cross of a rose-scented rosary.
In the end, I was touched by the beauty of the shrine, and I was moved by the old women, many of whom were probably not much older than me. There was a lot that I didn't understand, because I am neither Mexican nor Catholic, and a lot that I did, because I am human. I'm content to leave it at that.
The immense Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary dominates the north side of the Zocalo; we, like so many other visitors, graviate there. Cortez built his original cathedral on the exact site of the main Aztec temple his forces had razed, and although that church was destroyed, the present one was constructed in sections between 1573 and 1813. Of course this complicates the ongoing archaeological excavations of the Templo Mayor and Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, behind and to the right of the cathedral.
You can see the steps leading up to some of the pyramids, in the process of being restored.
Inside the cathedral, the main sanctuary is flanked by sixteen chapels, dedicated to different saints, and (in spite of the low light inside them) glittering with gold. Here are the organs; the choir of boys and men sings from inside that wrought iron screen.
This year I didn't take many pictures of the interior, but I did make a few videos, thinking they might provide a greater sense of "being there" than a still photograph. (Apologies in advance for the hand-held shakiness.)
The first video is of the exterior and the immediate plaza outside the main doors. The plexiglass inserts in the floor of the plaza allow visitors to look down into the original foundations. The video starts with the noontime ringing of the cathedral bells - which is done by hand - which is superseded by the sound of the ubiquitous harmonium/organ grinder.
On Sunday, we went to the 12:00 Mass, which is presided over by the Archbishop of Mexico, Norberto Rivera Carrera. Later I learned that the Archdiocese of Mexico was founded in 1530, and is the largest in the world. Accustomed to nearly-empty Catholic churches in Quebec, we were surprised to arrive and find no seats at all, so we stood for the whole service. Most of the congregation seemed to be Roman Catholics who were either local or visiting; there were only a few tourists wandering around disrespectfully, not paying much attention. (I'm sensitive to this from what happens in the cathedral where I sing; some tourists act like they're visiting a zoo.) Many people, however, were taking pictures so I felt like it was all right to do that. We did not take communion, but we did make an offering: it was gathered by navy-blue-suited women and men who passed traditional round palm baskets woven by native women.
The first video was taken during the organ prelude as the procession of clergy began. The second was taken during the Mass itself, as the choir sings a litany.
Afterward, the Archbishop went over to the left, behind a railing, where he greeted or blessed the people, wearing his mitre and holding his gold crozier, protected by watchful attendants. We went over and waited too, and eventually shook his hand and said gracias.
I'm not sure how I felt. It was definitely an experience, but of what, exactly? Was I a bystander, or a worshipper? I certainly didn't feel like a full participant, removed as I was by language and my non-Catholicism, which meant I wasn't welcome to take communion, but there is more to it than that -- in a Catholic mass as compared to an Anglican one, there is simply less congregational participation and more sense of hierarchical division between the clergy and the people, and also, symbolically, between men and women. I was disappointed by the lack of music; as in most Catholic churches now, the chants were very simple and there were no hymns or performances of the great repertoire of liturgical music that was written for the Mass. In a space like that, with two huge organs, fabulous acoustics and so many visitors every day, it seems like a missed opportunity.
One of my impressions was how different it was to see an entire procession of clergy and servers who were brown-skinned -- and yet this is the majority of the world. How color-blind we are, in northern North American Anglicanism -- how used to white-skinned, mostly Anglo-Saxon priests cut out of similar cloth. No wonder European artists have consistently made Jesus and Mary in that image, but how badly their representations fit the different, larger, and more devout population in the southern hemisphere, let alone in plenty of parts of the northern too. The Spanish high altar and gilded reredos shown above contain "white" images too, but in the front of the Metropolitan Cathedral (below), Jesus is black, and it's at his feet where people come to pray, light candles, and leave flowers.
Then, too, there is the absence of women clergy or other female role-models, which makes me understand even better why devotion to the Virgin Mary is so central to Latin American Catholicism, and why the appearance of Our Lady of Guadeloupe on a hillside to the north of Mexico City, back in the 1500s, created a cult of worship that persists strongly to this day. More on that in a subsequent post.
When I cross on the Rosemont/Van Horne overpass to Outremont, I always feel like I'm entering a different world. Down below, on one's bike during better weather, the change is less dramatic but still significant. The Mile End, with its boutiques and restos and young energy, is in the midst of gentrification. But this part of Outremont, close to the more industrial end of Van Horne, which then becomes a shopping street, is an enclave of Hasidic Jews. When I drive or bike on these streets I feel like time has gone backward, and that behind the hurried steps of the black-clad men and the women in black skirts and wigs with headbands or hats, often pushing old-fashioned baby carriages, lies a life about which I know almost nothing. I stop at Cheskies and buy a loaf of challah or some rugelach, but it is a commercial exchange, nothing more: ours are separate solitudes and will remain that way.
While in D.C., we went to the Washington National Cathedral on Sunday afternoon. I hadn't been there since singing with my choir from St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hanover, NH, at the bishop's invitation, on New Hampshire Day at least ten years ago -- and a memorable experience that was!
This time we arrived at about 3:30 p.m., before the 4:00 service of Evensong. And just as happens in the Montreal cathedral where I now sing, the choir of Men and Trebles (boys, in this case) was finishing their rehearsal as we walked up the long aisle of the nave.
While my friends looked around, I went up into the side chapel where the choir members were putting on their white surplices and waiting until it was time to begin the processional. I went up to one friendly-looking fellow and asked some questions about their schedule, and very soon we were deep into a happy conversation about lifelong choir singing, liturgical repertoire, Benjamin Britten, and the differences and similarities between the musical life of our two cathedrals.
Then I saw my friends starting to come up the chancel steps into the choir loft and realized we were going to be able to sit in the stalls: a treat that sometimes happens in big cathedrals. As it turned out, I ended up right next to the choir, facing the conductor, and across from the organ, so I could hear the performance and watch the director almost as if I were singing myself. Some of the young boys had absolutely beautiful, clear voices, and the men were professional and supportive, singing the tenor and bass parts. It was extremely interesting to watch and listen to another top-flight choir in action -- and, if I can be permitted a little bit of self-praise, it made me realize how very good our choir and our director really are.
There was netting above us throughout the space; we learned that this was a precautionary measureto catch any loose mortar, as restoration work proceeds on the damage caused by the magnitude 5.8 earthquake that struck the Washington area on August 23, 2011. The cathedral sustained quite a bit of damage but has been declared structurally sound.
After the service, which filled me with happiness and peace after a very busy weekend (that's what can happen when you aren't performing!) I visited some of the other side chapels, and took some photographs of favorite windows. Aren't they gorgeous?
All the windows in the cathedral are modern, and they are just as beautiful to me as the stained glass of Chartres or Notre Dame. The cathedral "is a privately-owned and operated non-profit organization that receives no federal or national church funding," and while it is staffed by Episcopal Church clergy and follows Episcopal/Anglican liturgical tradition, it is ecumenical in spirit. They try hard to make everyone feel welcome, and the architecture, carvings, windows, ironwork, art, and gardens -- many of which commemorate history and people from our own times -- are all well worth seeing.
Earlier that same day, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, there had been a Blessing of the Animals. In this press photo, Rev. Baylor blesses a pet mouse:
The vision statement of the cathedral is this:
The National Cathedral will be a catalyst for spiritual harmony in our nation, renewal in the churches, reconciliation among faiths, and compassion in our world.
“The king stablished all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.” (Le Morte d'Arthur, pp 115-116)
Yesterday was Pentecost, a major feast day in the Anglican Church. It falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter, and commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus' death. In Greek, Pentecost means "the fiftieth [day]" and originally refered to an ancient, historical Jewish festival commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In modern Judaism this festival is called Shavuot.
As had happened with the Jewish festival, in early Christian England, the theological observance of Pentecost was conflated with already-existing pagan ritual of Beltane. In the Arthurian legends, not only did the King have his knights swear their most solemn oaths on the day of Pentecost, he also refused to go into the dining hall until he had seen some miracle or wonder; it's one of the ways that Arthur's other-worldliness and spiritual leadership is shown in the legends, in contrast to Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery, as well as some of the other knight's acts.
In later England, though, Pentecost was more often called Whitsun, or Whitsunday. The Wikipedia has a good entry on the possible etymology of the name "Whitsun", or "White Sunday", in the late Middle Ages, and on the possible conflation of "whit" (white) and "wit" (understanding) :
"The name is a contraction of "White Sunday", attested in "The Holy-Ghost, which thou did send on Whit-Sunday" in the old English homilies, and parallel to the mention of hwitmonedei in the early 13th-century Ancrene Riwle. Walter William Skeat noted that the Anglo-Saxon word also appears in Icelandic hvitasunnu-dagr, but that in English the feast was always called Pentecoste until after the Norman Conquest, when white (hwitte) began to be confused with wit or understanding. According to one interpretation, the name derives from the white garments worn by catechumens, those expecting to be baptised on that Sunday. Moreover, in England, rather than the more usual red, were traditional for the day and its octave. A different tradition is that of the young women of the parish all coming to church or chapel in new white dresses on that day. However, Augustinian canon, John Mirk (c1382 - 1414), of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, had another interpretation:
Good men and wimmen, this day (Dies Penthecostes) is called Wytsonday by cause the holy ghost bought wytte and wisdom into Crists dyscyples, and so by prechying after in all Cristendom and fylled him full of holy WytteThus, he thought the root of the word was "wit" (formerly spelt "wyt" or "wytte") and Pentecost was so-called to signify the outpouring of the wisdom of the Holy Ghost on Christ's disciples."
However, today the liturgical color for Pentecost in our tradition is red: red for the "tongues of flame" that supposedly showed the presence of the Holy Spirit. Lots of parishioners, too, wear red on that day. Yesterday we had a liturgical dance by the kids, carrying trailing "flames" of yellow, orange and gold transparent cloth, three baptisms, and we sang a lot of special music - more about that later. I've never been too keen on the idea that the "Spirit" only appeared in the world at that time, and only to these early Christians, so I was happy that our Dean preached about the Spirit being present to all human beings, of all creeds and none, from the beginning of time. He also made a point of calling it "Her."
For our part, we had two services filled with music, much of it for eight-part double choir. In the morning we sang a terrific unaccompanied contemporary mass setting, the Missa "Cantate," by Bob Chilcott (unfortunately no recordings or videos of this that I could find.) It ends with an Agnus Dei written with aleotoric sections: that's where the singers are some instructions but then asked to improvise or repeat it individually and freely according to certain restrictions: these may be a set of notes or a specific phrase, and a time period. We then "gather" on a specified note at the director's instruction, and move on to the next section, which may be written out conventionally, or proceed to another set of instructions.
The effects created can be absolutely mesmerizing: murmuring sound clusters, voices emerging out of a cloud of sound, repeated words, created musical "atmospheres" in a less defined progression than usual, that invite a different type of listening experience: sometimes meditative and minimalistic, sometimes surprising, sometimes eerie, often emotional. I had never seen scores like this before joining this choir, and was really intimidated when I first had to perform them but quickly became fascinated. It was, as you can perhaps imagine, perfect for Pentecost.
We also performed another aleotoric piece, this one written by our own director, Patrick Wedd, for a Vancouver choral festival, on the Pentecost text (and one of the oldest hymns of the Christian church), Veni Creator Spiritus. Patrick's piece is almost all aleotoric, with certain voice parts singing the hymn, while others improvise on sets of given notes in the key of B-flat major. But in addition to the voices, the piece also includes a score for handbells: in this case, all the bells in the key of B-flat major. We have a beautiful multiple-octave set of Whitechapel handbells at the cathedral, and use them every week for the psalm chants, but not so often as part of other music. I like playing them (being an old instrumentalist at heart) so I had fun trying to coordinate my bell, the hand-written score, and my improvisational vocal part, while keeping an eye on the director and trying to turn pages and not drop anything -- my expensive bell in particular. Maybe one day we'll have a recording of this piece that I can share with you; I think it came off pretty well.
On the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, I facilitate a meditation/contemplative prayer group at the cathedral. This particular chapel is normally used for weekday eucharists and the 8:00 service on Sunday mornings; the altar is to the left of this picture, and usually there are about two dozen chairs set up in rows facing it. On Tuesdays I go in early to rearrange the room -- we move the heavy iron kneelers with a hand truck, and put down a plain white cotton carpet, set twelve chairs around it and move the others to the sides, and place a large candle - I bought this one from nuns in Mexico - on a low table in the center. After the daily office of Evening Prayer is finished at 5:45 pm, we turn down the lights and gather in this room; I usually give a brief talk or a reading or a guided meditation, and then we sit in silence for two periods of 20 minutes, with a brief break so that people who want to sit for a shorter period can leave. At the end we leave in silence, with a few people staying to help me put the room back into its normal configuration.
This week I had a little extra time beforehand, so I sat down and made a sketch, and then added some color later. One thing I'm discovering during this month is that I simply don't enjoy detailed, careful architectural sketching. Catching the feeling of a place is one thing, but I don't have the patience, inclination, or interest to do it perfectly. More power to those who do! (I didn't think I did, but now I know it for sure!) In fact, I'd like to try a charcoal or pastel drawing of this same space, to try to get the dusky ambience of it as the sun is setting.
During our meditation this week we had so many interruptions! There are the inevitable sirens and honking horns and loud voices from the street outside; the verger mistakenly turned the lights up when they should have been turned down; then there was a businessman, with briefcase and cellphone, who came into the church from the side door opposite us, couldn't get through the passageway to the back that leads to the diocesan offices, and proceeded to make a loud phone call expressing his annoyance and frustration to whoever was on the other end. Apparently he didn't see, or didn't look to see, that people were silently meditating across from him. One of us got up and helped him, gently ushering him outside and pointing him where he needed to go. In spite of all that, this week's gathering had a very good feeling: calm and deep, with a sense of the collective peace that sometimes comes from a group meditating together.
Interruptions are, as the Buddhists would say, "grist for the mill." They are the weeds in our practice, and one learns to be grateful for them, and for what they teach us. When I was beginning my own meditation practice, back in Vermont many years ago, it used to drive me crazy to hear the neighbor's lawn mower, or children's voices playing in the street. Now I'm rather glad that we don't meet in a retreat center set far away from "the world," but rather right in the middle of it, on the busy main street of a major city. Meditating in this sort of place teaches us that we too are part of the world, and the world is part of us. As Thomas Merton wrote: "One does not go into the desert to escape others, but to learn how to find them."
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.