Being Quiet, Discovery, Fear of the Dark, Loss

History, Architecture or Spirituality?

St. Anne’s. Built by Crusaders in  Jerusalem in 1130

What accounts for our fear of seeing Notre Dame ablaze? For the French it is the national symbol of their lives in the past, not least, its surviving World War II, but also recent births, marriages, burials, anniversaries, and Holy Days.

Do we fear losing the building itself? Its form through the last thousand years? Or will we lose our memories of walking through its doors under the vaulted roof, awed by its majesty, height, and vastness, while on a momentary stop with a ragtag group of college students on summer tour?

Does she capture the elusive Spirit who beckons each of us into communion with the holy? Is this true even for those of us who do not darken church, mosque, or synagogue doors, who claim spirituality only in being alive, who do not take time to listen to the silent heart? And true even for those who aspire to be in such a stunning, outrageously beautiful edifice that promises prayer when they cannot bring themselves to go to any old house for worship?

Yes, I was there, astonished. On first walking under the vault, I remember holding my breath, hardly able to see the roof so high above me. The vastness stunned me to silence.

How could we endure the destruction of such a place? A place that symbolizes…God? Could it be God who speaks in such grandeur? A god most of us cannot imagine, a god we blame because we attribute the state of the world today to “His” malpractice.  But could it be that the thought and sight of such a cathedral in mortal danger suggests to us the danger of losing a god we do not know at all? That something is there, even so? Some spirit?

What was it in 1160, when it had hardly a form? Or one hundred years later when it was complete. How did Parisians feel about it then? In those years, cathedrals were the center of the community…the Christian community that included nearly every person alive. Not only were prayers heard within, but just outside there were markets and celebrations, feasts and gatherings. It was where everything happened; the center of town.

I wonder how many of us understand the incredulity of the French people that such an icon could be destroyed. The dread that it really was burning. And then, how many of us can empathize with worshipers in our own country when their churches, mosques, and synagogues are burned? While not icons of a nation, they are icons of their communities, the center where births and marriages are celebrated and lives mourned, where prayers rise like incense as if we can hear them gathered in by God.

If you have no such sacred place, what symbolizes holy silence for you? Where does hope reside? How can others reach to celebrate your life and comfort you in death?

Notre Dame is all these things. The history of a nation since 1160, steadfast—like God—decade by decade, centennial to centennial. An amazement of design, creation, and story-telling for more than 800 years. And spirituality. Notre Dame captures the spirit of millions whether we worship with her or view her from afar.

Maybe church buildings mean more to us than we realize. Maybe that’s why some confused people try to burn them down.


Forever Saying Farewell

If you’re just waking up to the reality that loss is central to the human condition, you must be in dreadful shock. If you’ve experienced two such shocks within a year, you may be thinking your world is ending. Where is God? Isn’t “He” supposed to protect you from pain? Sorry, but death is a part of life. “If we live long enough,” James Hollis writes, “we will lose everyone for whom we care. If we do not live long enough, they will have lost us. As Rilke puts it, ‘So we live, forever saying farewell.’” [Swamplands of the Soul]

If this is your first season of loss, of your peers and their young spouses or children, vanishing summers and beloved homes, it may become only practice for more of the same. We live with sadness and grief among our seasons of joy.

There are means, however, to walk through even these seasons. Sitting at dusk in a comfortable chair, or in a patch of noon sun, may allow the tears to flow, pause, and taper off. Tears have an end of their own. Tears are in charge of how much they need to flow and when to stop. Taking an aimless drive may let the mind wander forth and back over a reverie that will never end. You can visit it at will.

Begin watching PBS Masterpiece Theater. Read a gripping best seller. Walk–rain or shine. Work out. Nap. Feel the empathy of other people’s losses and the world’s pain, and weep. It takes only hearing a song two of you loved to be transported immediately to the scene where you first heard it together. Eat a favorite meal, sense a familiar fragrance. We can cherish these gifts, these pain and joy-filled flashbacks, even though they ended too soon.

Singer Diana Krall’s latest album, “Turn Up the Quiet,” is her last album with her champion, the producer Tommy LiPuma, who died in March. “Though the shock hasn’t worn off, Ms. Krall has come to see ‘Quiet’ …as a testament to the values Mr. LiPuma embodied for her….‘He took such joy in life,’ she said. ‘He had a tremendous sense of humor, and he taught me the importance of taking the time to be with my family.’ As Ms. Krall has dealt with the losses in her life, she comments that “’It gets to the point where you need to laugh….we had so much fun making this record; that’s what I hope comes through.’”

Have I said, laughing? What to do while living through great loss is also to laugh, to continue a life that seems to, but does not stop. Of course we must laugh. A good wake includes laughter and tears, so closely related that we cannot tell when the laughter so easily turned to tears.

Be among good friends. See a therapist. Forget reaching anything like “closure.” We can’t shut doors on our losses. The experience of the whole person will always be with us, and our relationships continue. Back in the day my mother thought that flying saucers were angels flying in close to watch over us. Although she died in 2002, she still makes flybys today. My dad, who died in 2005, is less talkative, but he is a presence to me regardless, shyly smiling from his favorite chair.

Follow Wendell Barry’s advice: “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.” [Emphasis mine] Don’t worry about making a beeline to some politically correct goal. Nor about knowing where you’re going. Or what other people expect you to do, except this: …create life in the midst of grief, create love in the midst of loss, create faith in the midst of despair. Resurrect us from our big and little deaths….The only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.                                                                                                                                            [Barbara Brown Taylor]

Cathy Fransson











Recovering, All Over Again

I can’t quite make myself get going. The haunting horror of the killings at the Pulse gay club in Orlando hangs over my head so that I can hardly look to the heavens to see beyond it. How do I bring light, not to mention love, to others if my own heart is dark and afraid?

Some say, “This, too, shall pass.” But it seems to belittle the tragedy. I scour the New York Times and Facebook for ideas, projects, and movements that will limit people’s access, particularly to AR-15 machine guns. What group action can I join? Could churches across denominations, or associations like Faith in Action turn their corporate power against the gun lobby? Do we have that much power?

Why do things like Orlando happen? Why are they impossible to thwart?

William Hazlitt said, “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” So we experience the mass shootings that mount up in our current history, wringing our hands, feeling powerless.

A character in Herbert Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game laments: “…if only it were possible to find understanding….If only there were a dogma to believe in. Everything is contradictory, everything tangential; there are no certainties anymore….Isn’t there any truth?” [1943]

Well, yes. There are truths. There are commonly held truths. People of faith—of whatever kind—find meaning in their community held truths, a chosen understanding of how darkness, some say “sin,” comes into the world. And when darkness overwhelms the light of our privileged lives here and now, we gather together, march in solidarity, hear or read uplifting, motivating speeches and homilies and prayers, and then pledge energy and money toward new, more stringent guidelines for guns and mental health in our city, state and nation.

But inevitably, disaster will come again. James Hollis says, “To experience some healing within ourselves, and to contribute healing to the world, we are summoned to wade through the muck from time to time. Where we do not go willingly, sooner or later we will be dragged.” I find that each such dark experience teaches me something. And so does scripture.

Mt. of Olives; Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem

In the farewell talks in John, Jesus says, “Do you really believe? An hour is coming—in fact, it has already come—when you will all be scattered and go your own ways, leaving me alone; yet I can never be alone, for Abba God is with me. I have told you all this that in me you may find peace. You will suffer in the world. But take courage! I have overcome the world.” [Jn 16.31-33] We will suffer in the world. But we are not alone.


Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Like shooting fish in a barrel. Music so loud dancers couldn’t distinguish gunshots from base notes. No one could be heard if they tried to speak. So dark splashes of blood seemed at first like roses or swirls of color on white shirts or bare backs. Slowly, knowing and horror dawned together in the dark pre-dawn hours. Then the blast of the beat lessened, shouts must have been heard, people rushed to aid those who had fallen, and still the ghastly scene ran on for two or three more hours until the law was able to overpower the shooter.

Who would do such a thing? Intentional, well armed and well timed. Alone—without friends. Others so different from him, he believed they were wrong and he was right. They did not befriend him, so he rejected them. His religion empowered him. Strangers ought to be more like he was. But he wasn’t recruiting. This scenario blossomed in his brain. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel. So cool. So chilling.

What is it that causes a person to hate so intensely he or she builds anger into fervor. Hatred so pure nothing modifies or lessens it. It has to explode. The perpetrator sees nothing but death for those so free they’re dancing mindlessly and drinking and enjoying themselves, something he doesn’t allow himself. Or she has buried her own attraction to just this thing so deeply she hates those who can freely choose it. Hates to the point of murder.

In the aftermath, stunned, we eagerly need to know who the perp was. We know now he declared he had pledged to ISIS. He killed everyone he could to disrupt our ways and thus—this is the part that puzzles me—raise the flag of his religion. Really? His “religion” demands he kill? How unlike the major religions of the world, at whose heart is a law of love—especially for the stranger in our midst. How vulnerable we are to such ghoulish motives. How can laws ever protect us? We see ourselves in school rooms, theaters, dance halls, and malls, even churches, now vulnerable, now fearful.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. This is a human problem—the work of an angry man, a bully to his former wife. Any political or cultural or race group convinced it is right may force its “faith” on everyone. Even if it is part of such a group, no one is to blame. All are to blame for fomenting hate over love. For not welcoming the stranger, as all ancient faiths believed. It is a desert commitment.

In this world there are many reasons to hate and many reasons to love. It’s a choice. We who don’t shoot—even if we hate—have made choices. All of us share normal feelings that range from love to rage, wrath to laughter. Emotions move through us every moment as we interact with others and share our lives. Feelings move through us. And we recognize, evaluate, and express them as we can in safe places, or seek out safe people to share them with. We need to try to understand them, and to understand ourselves.

Pick up a stone to throw at an enemy. Or resolve to wait, to withdraw to think about why you’ve made an enemy. St. Paul writes, Every marvelous thing you may do with your life, if you do it without love, you’ve gained nothing. [1st Corinthians 13.]

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep scores of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [The Message 1 Cor. 13]

The Orlando shooter knew nothing of love, knew nothing of a death that is not the last word, but an opening of the gates to greater love. In fact I believe that a movement—not of death—but of love and solidarity can rise out of Orlando, out of Florida, out of states as well as cities, and out of rich and poor, young and old, GLBTQ, religious or spiritual and everything in between. We who love need to be smart, strong, and vigilant. The world is too wonderful for us to shrink to being so afraid we build walls instead of bridges. To work toward the sister and brotherhood we all crave, to do Tikkun olam (repair the world), we need to trust steadily in the Holy One, hope without ceasing, and love extravagantly. The greatest of these, is love.   [1 Cor. 13.13]





Lavish loving, Loss, Soul Work


I was just 12 when my beloved piano teacher Bernice died of brain cancer. Since the fifties were years when children were kept from the traumas of life, I felt shut off from telling her I loved her, even saying goodbye. I remember one rainy Sunday afternoon waiting in our parked car in Seattle at Virginia Mason while my parents left my brothers and me to visit Bernice. When they returned sober-faced, we stopped at St. James Cathedral to pray—unusual practice for us American Baptists. Awed by the space, the silence, the candles, I was drawn to prayer. I missed Bernice at our lessons and was frightened for her. And when she did lose her life, my parents would not take me to her memorial.

In a family much given to seriousness and not a little fear of doing the wrong thing, Bernice brought me laughter and joy, not to mention piano technique. Her vivaciousness prompted smiles even in my dad. When she and her husband Jim visited our home, making an uproarious entrance, it was usually Saturday night. We shared our pancakes. Mom scrounged for the coffee pot (my parents drank only tea) so that the fragrance of coffee accompanied the boisterous laughter in our kitchen—a wondrous visitation.

One of the four great truths is that there is suffering in life. And since most of us at my age are dealing with this reality every day, we need to help one another cope with the losses that come, rather than feeling singled out or badly treated, or that God is looking the other way. Quaker Parker Palmer comments, “The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death.” Jesus said, “I come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” Jn 10.10

 For years after I had become a competent pianist and organist, each time I began to play I dedicated my music to Bernice, not so much to my mother, a soloist whom I spent hours accompanying as she sang at memorials and teas and worship services. I had not heard all of Bernice’s music. Her song was cut off. I felt more bonded with her who championed my growing musicianship and my inner need for appreciation. Of course my talents were to be offered to God through others. But my parents saw to it that the gifts were given without having acknowledged the musician.

Whenever I remember Bernice, she is perched at my right hand on a small chair with one hand on the page of my music. I was eight then, warmed by her joy and inspired by her faith to live with hope in spite of the losses to come. In place of the darkness of her absence, she brought me delight that lasts to this day.