Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Franciscan Monastery and Later That Night

Almost noon. On the grounds of the Franciscan monastery in Northeast DC. About 100 years old, the monastery, designed with a Jerusalem aesthetic, intends to convey the Franciscan’s historic duty as Christian stewards of the Holy Land. With little training or instinct for the visual arts, I can only guess at how well the architecture accomplishes that goal. But it works for me, non-Christian that I am.

The grounds and building include all manner of replicas of grottoes and catacombs venerated in Catholic tradition. The Stations of the Cross are here, of course. I am not moved by the power of these images, I think, but I am affected by my awareness of the impact that the stories of Jesus and the early Christians have on many believers.

That awareness leads to some sympathetic vibration with the faith of others, a contact high, perhaps. I am awed by the stories that humans tell; awed by the storytelling ability that must be one of our first collective cultural achievements. When did people first tell stories that move audiences to weeping, to earnest devotion, to heroic sacrifice, to stoicism and, even, to voluntary suffering?

There are plenty of stories in Jewish tradition that accomplish these things, but none that I know of that feature a being who is both man and god. Feeling receptive, but in no way reverent, Under a low, overcast sky, on the exuberantly lush and landscaped grounds, I begin walking the stations. By the time I reach the second station, I succumb to the urge to memorize them, and I do, more easily than I expected.

Jesus is condemned to death. And I am the sole witness.

Jesus takes up the cross. It is a strikingly cruel and unusual prelude to crucifixion, a Roman form of execution reserved, I think, for troublemakers, thieves and rebels—enemies of the state.

Jesus falls the first time. An emotional response actually begins to well up in me, but a couple, carrying a child and trailing others in their wake disrupts the solitude and I move on.

Jesus meets his Holy Mother. Simon helps carry the cross, an act of courage and human devotion. Veronica wipes Jesus’ face and will be remembered forever. Jesus falls the second time. Jesus exhorts the pious women.

Jesus falls the third time. Gazing at the scene, I feel the brutal impatience of the man who is urging Jesus up the hill.

Jesus is stripped of his garments. This is truly the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. Jesus is nailed to the cross. I am not prepared for the ache I feel. Jesus dies on the cross. Jesus is taken from the cross. Jesus is carried to the sepulcher.

It’s over. I have surprised myself and felt some part of what I imagine faithful others must sometimes feel. This story of a Jewish priest who suffers and dies and rises to become something else is a most potent story, the foundation story of a kingdom on earth. Jesus suffers, consoles, forgives and transcends, but is rooted in the earthly and, even, the profane (if you buy into Nikos Kazantzakis’ version of The Last Temptation of Christ).

And then I think of Marge Piercy’s He, She and It. To protect the Jews of Prague in the 16th Century, Piercy’s version of Rabbi Judah Loew creates a being of great power, who is neither a man nor a god. The Golem of Prague, like Jesus, suffers from the burden of his mission and his difference from others; suffering is his fate. But there is great power in this story, too, magic.

At the risk of proposing something that sounds like “two guys walk into a bar…” I wonder what counsel Jesus and the Golem of Prague might offer each other. Humans might evade their obligations to each other and to their communities, but they don’t do so with easy consciences, one might say to the other. And so they create us to lift the burden from themselves.

And so it goes, Kurt Vonnegut, would add, were he drinking at the same bar at the time and overhearing Jesus and the Golem as they consoled each other and teetered at the brink of overindulgence.

Oddly, Pope Benedict XVI drinks here, as well, but he only comes in for a single shot of schnapps late in the evening. One can see him stiffen at the very sight of Jesus and the Golem drinking together. Benedict barely acknowledges Jesus with a nod and takes a stool at the end of the bar.

It is obvious that he can’t stand Vonnegut, either, though Vonnegut loves to ask him how he’s doing. Benedict sniffs shortly, as though in the presence of a bad smell. I want to say, loosen up, man, but I don’t want to sour my relationship with him.

This is not a guy who will easily give up the habits of a lifetime. After all, before he was pope, Benedict was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. A couple of centuries ago, the Prefect would have been known as the Grand Inquisitor, and would have had the responsibility for prosecuting people like Galileo for various heresies and, in many cases, torturing and executing heretics. I don’t think Benedict is that dangerous, but it’s still possible that Vonnegut, if he weren’t already dead, harbors a death wish. But that’s another story.