Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Prayers for Beauty in Hard Times

When I was a child growing up in the Episcopal church, I never understood the iconography of Jesus dying on the cross. To me it was a morbid image, and I stopped going to church in my early teens.

As an adult pondering the intersection between despair and beauty, however, I have come to see that this dominant image of Christianity does what Radical Joy for Hard Times does: it invites us to ponder for a while what is painful and sorrowful, that our hearts may be opened to love and compassion.

Therefore, when my friend Liz Maxwell, a rector at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City, invited me to lead a Radical Joy for Hard Times program for Lent, I accepted eagerly. Last Saturday, March 14, a small group of participants gathered in a little chapel just off the main sanctuary of this church, which is transformed five days a week into soup kitchen that has been operating for thirty years and now serves meals to 1,200 guests a day. Today, we sat in a circle as sun wafted through the stained glass windows and people talked about personal concerns in their own lives and about their wider concerns for oppressed peoples, damaged places, sick friends, and the ravages of the economic crisis.

Grief opens us up to compassion. As the Sufis, the mystical sect of Islam say, when your heart is broken, there is space for God to move through the cracks. The liturgical season of Lent, when Jesus died, precedes Easter, the springtime celebration of new life and shared joy. Suffering heightens our perception, too. In a state of sorrow, we perceive beauty with extra clarity, whether it is the beauty of nature determined to thrive or the generous act of another person— friend or stranger.

Our group witnessed beauty thriving when we went outside to the church’s small garden, right at the intersection of two busy streets in Chelsea. Crocus and daffodil buds struggled up through the hard soil, despite scraps of litter that had blown in during the winter. Birds sang in the trees, their songs muffling the noise of traffic. We concluded the gathering by writing prayers on white ribbons and tying them to the tree in the garden.

Many people are afraid to tap the well of sorrow that pervades life on earth. Why bother, we ask? What can any one individual do? And yet, merely by willing to see what is true and, even better, then to share that with others, we touch the reality of humanity. That simple act can infuse us with the determination to see more beauty and to act with more compassion.