Lent never fails to challenge me, even when my life is filled with blessings and I’m not in the mental place I’m usually in where I can truly sit in the solemnity of the season. I spent many years there, so perhaps my recent joys are God giving me a little break. For that, I’m grateful.
Even so, Holy Week this year has laid a heavy symbolism upon the world with the fire at Notre Dame. I have nuanced, conflicting feelings about the entire event that I could present as overly wordy paragraphs, but succinct points are probably better.
- Notre Dame is one symbol among many of old ways of doing church that simply do not resonate as much with the general population in the 21st century for a myriad of reasons: the church’s ties to colonialism, white supremacy, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry and exclusion being among the chief pillars that make my generation question whether the church really means what it says.
- Sometimes, old ways of church must burn and die for the true message of the gospel to come through.
- The season after Easter is Pentecost, where we remember how the Spirit came down and expanded the gospel beyond the social/cultural barriers that humans had placed upon it. Pentecost is fire. Notre Dame burning during Holy Week is steeped in this symbolism.
- I love high church. High church is where my faith meets my intellect. I find all cathedrals and chapels cute and charming. I think chanting is hauntingly beautiful so when I heard a woman on the news describe the particular architecture of Notre Dame–how perfect it was for medieval chanting–I had to step away. The loss of that hit me deeply.
- The gathering of people singing “Ave Maria” as the church burned is a poignant reminder of why we have the old hymns. There is something about their ability to capture despair and praise within the same song that is more opaque to me in contemporary Christian music (as much as I enjoy certain songs in that genre).
- There was never any question that Notre Dame would be rebuilt or receive financial support. Meanwhile, churches in Louisiana targeted by racist and therefore anti-Christian ideology do not have that same support network.
- The third most important mosque in Islam also burned on the same day.
- Churches die all the time. New churches are born all the time. Some old ways cannot survive into the future of church.
When the seemingly immutable structures and ideas we grow up with and find comfort in falter under heat and pressure, there doubt comes in to compliment faith. There cannot be a mature spirituality without uncertainty. This is what hit me most a few months ago when I finally listened to mewithoutYou’s new EP and LP. “Bethlehem, WV” particularly hit me in the deepest core of this feeling.
For this and several other reasons, I ended up writing a tribute poem to the tune of this song. Fellow mewithoutYou fans will catch the references and hopefully appreciate them. The only commentary I’ll make on the piece is that I went to college in St. Davids, PA, where years before I attended that school, mewithoutYou played one of their first gigs.
St. Davids, PA
[to the tune of Bethlehem, WV by mewithoutYou]
How in this cosmic sphere can we faithfully insist
That joyful challenge line “I do not exist”?
It falls down from on high, in dryness and in rain
And we sing those coded songs with piousness, in vain
I heard you mumble something ‘bout intelligible lies,
Naming towns I’ve never heard of beneath endless skies.
And the winds came blowing through my sweater poorly knit
As I passed empty stands in a market dimly lit.
A yellow spider crawled out from a rotting plank
And asked what kind of God the insects stop to thank.
I searched my mind for something but found no quick relief
So much for certain answers from our deepest held beliefs.
And on the path ahead, a great fire in the night
To light our mangled torches, on the left and on the right
Together let’s approach this metaphor with grace
For every time we dressed our fragilities with lace.
A prophet left a note here on the coconut estate:
“Does ever Your great love grow weary of your saints?”
The smoke obscured a building ten thousand stories high
I craned my neck and bid my certainty goodbye.
The sea contained within the fish–makes little sense to me
But does not God still speak in clever mystery?
I passed an orange spider through mostly vacant streets.
It assured me that the crow had found something to eat.
In everyone I meet and everywhere I look
I find shadows of that train crash in each ancient book
You twist an old-time blessing in a garden overgrown
And I know it for its difference on this longish journey home
To think that what began in one nine seven nine
Would comfort me with songs of disappointment every time
While Jacob has his ladder with its well-worn grooves,
I’m still waiting for that day when you say “we’ll all improve.”
The horses’ hay now flattening beneath our savior’s head
We watch our teachers wander off to cows of red instead
And since all circles presuppose they’ll end where they begin
I think they might come back with heretics as friends
For now we simply wander, picking grapes from the vine
And waiting til it’s our turn to be crushed into wine
Is that saying still engraved on the mouth of the glass?
Are four word letters strong enough to make this unease pass?
A brownish spider came to me, its legs stuck in a leaf
And said “You know they’ve killed that cow and turned it into beef”
I can’t say I’m in anguish or even that surprised
For I’ve seen wordless truths in apparition eyes
Which knocked so gently on my door–I should’ve opened wide
My Lord can you connect the circles, points, and dotted lines?
This light here in the evening comes alone to the alone
So we can someday say “In darkness, the light shone.”
The foxes now are captured; both worlds converge as one
And David shrugs and says “I guess my reign here is done.”
These alphabetic points scream life’s meandering walk
We fill the air with crazy, false, and dreamy alright talk
A pale horse trots ahead of us, our gaits in slow decline
I took the nature of your songs
And tried to fasten it with mine
(I hope you don’t mind)
On a Pennsylvania road
On a Pennsylvania road
On a Pennsylvania road
I did just as I was told