Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Her name is Judith and she was a student of mine. She was in her seventies and sat in the front seat every class. She was a Romanian Jewess. I became very fond of her. She would take notes each class. She was almost childlike in the joy she took in being able to relate philosophical themes to her own previous reading and experience.

As I grew to know her, she made my heart dwell on all that is good and beautiful in life.

I noticed the numbers on her arm one evening and immediately knew what the faded blue ink meant, though I did not say anything.

She asked me to dinner to her home one night. The evening started with the usual introductory light conversation.

She saw me looking at her arm.

She said, "I know you know."

And I said, "Yes."

And she spoke. She was sent to a Nazi concentration camp as a teenager. Already married, she lost her husband and her entire family. They were all gassed. All that she loved, all that she knew, all that was hers, were taken from her.

She cared not about the existence of a God, she said, and did not say this with a trace of anger or bitterness. It was more like, "Well, if he somehow is, all well and good, but history has made me dwell on other things." I felt a strange but disconcerting peace with her as she said that. Something deep, very deep, in me shifted.

We shared wine. She filled my glass as she spoke. And I listened deeply.

She was a living reminder of unspeakable cruelty and horror. She had lived through hell. And yet, remarkably, she impressed me as living a very kind and loving life, a day to day existence, not worrying about what might happen the next day or the next hour. Something about her was so keenly attuned to the present that she drew you into the singular and passing moment that was to be shared and savored. I think she learned through her suffering that whatever is of goodness in life is rare, is to be shared, and is not to be questioned. Indeed, the sense I had from her was that goodness must be shared. There was an imperative quality to her goodness. It just "is" and is good - but you must have some!

I felt a holiness to her.

I think of her every Easter season.

Consider, Jesus said, the lilies of the field, and how they neither toil, nor spin, and yet have more beauty than all the treasures of Solomon. Consider, he said, the birds of the air, who are cared for by God, and who do not want.

Who cared for her, and for all that she cherished and lost? Where were You, God?

May I consider Judith this day, and say that she knows something of eternal life? She lives from a deep reverence for so many things. I have a sense of violating her very being should I try and find something of You in her. I think she deserves to accuse You of abandoning her. Your God no longer informs her horizon. Yet, I must be honest with myself, in that she imparted to me something of God's mystery. I hope that she would grant me that, and not be offended.

She gave me a bowl of soup that night, to take with me and have before going to bed, because, she said, the night was cold. But I left her home with such a feeling of warmth, I cannot remember the cold at all.

I just remember a woman who endured suffering and gave up on You. Yet if You decide to show something of Yourself to her, that will be fine with her. You will be welcome at her table. Meanwhile, she is busy about her life, imparting to others no message other than her goodness and warmth. I like to think that You entered her life long ago, though I could never have told her that. She was too busy with the present moment, sharing her wine, her wisdom, her soup, her very life.

Perhaps many things we call religious are in truth a sacrilege, and many things that we discard as profane are in fact on fire with grace. Or, hopefully, grace is, as Bernanos said, everywhere and we have no language for that. Soup can grow cold as words try and fathom such things. A night can lose its enchantment if the source of it all is probed too deeply.

I hope that the language of God has something to do with dinners, with compassion, with warm soups and people who in their anger reject You and yet become You.

I do not think that it really matters what she may or may not know about You. You have already come to her, and given her your best. I think that I ate my soup in silence that night, after I got home, knowing that Judith touched my heart so deeply. Did You speak through her? And You never used words? Just soup, given to me by a woman who survived fire and hatred. A woman who so long ago abandoned any hope for You, and yet who fed me, wanted me to be warm. And who is still kind. She had and has every right to hate. She had and has every right to curse You. She had every right to curse me and to curse all who profess to know You. Yet - what else can I say - she was and is a grace and a power, a woman brimming with life and goodness. She was crucified and yet loves.

I can only pray to be like her and to learn from her, and to hope that if You are still a Stranger to us who profess your name, I took some soup from You on a cold winter's night.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Holy Land

A letter arrived a week ago from the Holy Land. A friend of mine was there for two weeks, her first visit there, and she wrote to me from Jerusalem. She wrote with such joy and gratitude, being in the same place where Jesus was. She wrote in ecstasy and I had the impression that she could not find words adequate enough to convey the sense of awe and reverence that overwhelmed her during her stay.

I have known Jean for more than thirty years. We have shared many good times over the years and I have especially fond memories of dinners at her home, with her husband Carl and their daughter and four sons. I was assigned to their parish in 1976 and they welcomed me into their lives. Jean loves candles. Whenever I came to their house for dinner, she would arrange candles on the table and I remember watching them burn their beauty as we chatted about so many things, over shared food and wine. The lights from those candles have long moved somewhere else, for I know that light travels and, somehow, it never really goes out, even though the wicks die and the wax burns away. But the light is born, and moves on and on, carrying with it words and memories, as far as the most distant star.

I believe in such things, even though I do not think about them all the time. But every now and then I read something that inspires me to wonder about this mystery of life, with all its wonders, and how close something is to each of us that is extraordinary and within our grasp to hold. Life – all of life – is a gift from God, kind of like an eternal candle that he sent from far away, and when we share love and memories, food and wine with each other, there are eternal dimensions to it. A day may seem done, as we turn out the lights above us or on our tables, but something has happened with each sunset. Something new has been born and has begun its travel, its growth, into and through the cosmos that is all about us and within us.

Easter is still a fresh memory. As I write this, I think about the readings that have taken place in our church the last few weeks. Many of the Biblical readings have to do with the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. They are astonishing in their import. He appears many times, and at first is unrecognized by those who knew him. He eats with his disciples, speaks with them, walks with them, stays with them. He then allows them to see what he is and who he is – and they realize that he is everywhere – in the breaking of bread, in the gathering of those who love and those who are looking for love.

Religious memory is an odd thing, when you think about it. We use words and images to remember Jesus and mark off days on our calendars to appropriately celebrate how he is with us. We look to the past to illumine the present. Yet the past speaks only of his presence in the “now.” Religious festivals serve to heighten an awareness of the divine in our lives. And that is all well and good.

The Holy Land has definite parameters. There are borders and streets, Faith is a light given to many, in various manifestations. It is refracted through the patterns of different beliefs and is evidenced as such in the many diverse places of worship that make the Holy Land a site of pilgrimage for millions of seekers of the light that is God. It is sad that we have enshrined the light we believe to be God, in a holy city, but are at a loss as to how to enflame that same light as it exists in each of us. Some day, I believe that the most cherished hope of all believers will come true – that we will learn to worship, in love, side by side and not be threatened by different articulations of belief.

Jean flew home, filled with memories of all that she had seen and heard in the Holy Land. She experienced the wonders of that place we call holy because Jesus walked there, dined there, loved there, suffered, died and rose there. And these things we rightfully enshrine and hold sacred.

I am sure that she had friends over for dinner since returning home. I would bet that she lit candles and placed them on her dining room table, and shared with her friends and family her time and joys in the Holy Land. And she, like men and women of long ago, will once again talk of the wondrous presence of God that she experienced in a far off place. Perhaps she will hope someday to go back. Until that hope comes to pass, she will abide in the love of her family and friends, lighting candles along the way, talking of life, sharing her food and wine, and, all the while, the One she seeks will be with her. The One who came from afar and who truly is every meal, every word and gesture of love, every Light that makes of this entire earth a Holy Land.