December 30, 2011
My nephew gave me a beautiful blank book for Christmas. It has a hard cover with an elaborate Celtic design and a delicate brass closure. The paper is ivory-colored and the lines are generous. It’s a little temple of a journal, and I look forward to bowing down at the inner altar there.
Nick is a substance abuse counselor. He came by this work honestly: he was an addict. Like so many of us who have descended to the depths of darkness and been liquefied like caterpillars in the cocoon, the only thing that made sense to Nick after his miraculous recovery was to be of service. This is why I, as a bereaved mother, sit with other mothers. This is why Nick, at 21, is an increasingly sought-after youth speaker in his area.
Confession (don’t tell Nick): I don’t journal anymore. Since I’ve become a published author, my lifelong writing practice has fallen away. Where I used to fill a notebook every couple of months, now it takes me a couple of years. Most of my entries consist of dreams I don’t want to forget. But that’s about to change. Nick gave me a beacon for Christmas, and I’m going to follow its light back home to myself and start writing for me again.
Writing has saved my life. As a tormented teenager, convinced that no one understood me or ever would, writing was the way I came to understand myself. My journal was the vehicle for navigating the inner and outer worlds. Writing was not only a psychological exercise, not only a hearth around which I told myself stories, it became a place of prayer, a holy inner sanctum, and I knelt there to praise my Beloved. When Jenny died, I wrote my way through the fire. I observed and recorded the vast array of feelings and epiphanies, and I reached out for her in the pages of my journal, conversing with her, listening for her voice.
Did I ever tell you that I know Natalie Goldberg? Not only know her, but adore her. Natalie has been my big sister ever since I met her in 1973 when I was twelve and she was only twice-twelve. Natalie was hired as the English teacher at the little hippie free school I attended in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Sitting around the wood fire with a circle of a dozen preteens in the hand-made Hogan that served as our classroom, Natalie, who was involved with Zen, developed something she began to call “writing practice.” This led to her groundbreaking book, Writing Down the Bones, and to the many books that flowed from Natalie’s revolutionary blending of writing and spiritual practice. I was her earliest and most eager disciple, and we have maintained a close connection ever since. Natalie has been one of the most important mentors of my life.
I remember when I first started doing serious spiritual practice. I was around fifteen and was studying with a rather unskillful self-proclaimed Sufi teacher. He seemed to disdain my writing practice as too worldly, and so I tried to abandon the relationship I had built with myself through writing, and I closed my notebook. For a time. But I could not stay away. I found excuses to return to my journal: recording exercises he gave me so I could practice them on my own, and then reporting to myself on the results of my spiritual experiments. But poetry crept into my efforts to compose objective accounts. Passion infused my discipline. Pain ransomed my captive heart. I slowly sneaked home and entered through the back door. The charlatan guru never even noticed.
Have I abandoned myself again, this time in a more subtle, insidious way? Has my professional path become an excuse for betraying the sacred inner dialog that happens thorough journaling? Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. I think I’m going to open Nick’s beautiful blank book and introduce myself to myself again. How about you?
Happy New Year. Welcome home.
Here is an excerpt from an email I recently received from a student who attended one of my Beautiful Wound workshops a few years ago, in which she thanks me for introducing her to writing practice:
It [writing] has been a key to my healing. I have always journaled but this writing is different. It is more an observation of the world around me. The natural world, the nature of life…I am finding my spiritual path through this avenue and my God has become so big and so real. Not the God in the box so neatly tied with string that I had tried to accept in the past. (Babs Cashion)
December 8, 2011
Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching says,
When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”
This is from the Stephen Mitchell translation. Another beautiful version of the Tao Te Ching was re-released last month by Vintage (Random House). Four decades ago, my dear friend and editor, Toinette Lippe, took a chance on an obscure project blending a fresh translation of the ancient Chinese text by Gia-Fu Feng with stark and luminous photographs by Jane English, and the resulting book sold over a million copies and continues to sell more than any other translation. The new fortieth anniversary edition is stunning.
I was first gifted with a copy of the Feng & English translation when I was sixteen, living on my own in a tree-house in the redwoods of Mendocino. I read and re-read that book a hundred times by the light of a kerosene lantern, until the words of the Tao were imprinted on my heart. I was thrilled a few years ago when my stepdaughter, Kali, asked if she could have my copy. I told her it was my oldest possession, and she promised to cherish it. Little did I dream that the editor of that book, who opened the floodgates to spiritual publishing in the 1970’s, would become my editor for GOD OF LOVE (to be released in April 2012).
The Fall semester at UNM-Taos, where I teach philosophy and religious studies, is almost over. This year, I took it upon myself to offer a critical thinking course. It’s a core requirement at main campus, so, being the entire philosophy department here in Taos, I felt I owed it to the community to make the class available here. Of course, I emphasize critical thinking in everything I teach, but I had avoided that particular course. Why? Because I’m not that good at it.
A formal course in critical thinking is essentially a logic class. And while I consider myself to be a deep thinker, a creative thinker, a subtle thinker, I have never been a rigorous analytical thinker. For me, ideas have always been works of art. I appreciate the aesthetics of ideas, and am a little shaky on the formal structure of reasoning.
But my main weakness is in the area of popular culture. I grew up without television, and have not had TV throughout my adult life. I get my news from NPR. I have no idea what the hottest product trends are or which politicians have most recently cheated on their wives. The critical thinking class is predicated on the ability to analyze what’s going on in the mainstream. I still spend my evening reading sacred texts by candlelight! Can you think of a worse fit?
I did this to myself last year, too. I felt this obligation to teach a basic ethics course. The topics were all the hot-button issues like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and genetic manipulation. This required that I be well-informed about the latest political debates on these subjects. I tried to stay one step ahead of my students, but often fell two steps behind, which was obvious to everyone.
Teaching these two classes has been extremely humbling and very educational for me. For one thing, I remembered something I thought I had learned decades ago: my strongest teaching happens in the realm of joy, when I can romp through the subject matter I love—the mystical teachings at the heart of all the world’s wisdom ways, for instance—rather than try to pour myself into a box in which I do not belong and try to conform.
But even more important was the reminder that “The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” When I am not in complete control of my material, it forces me to back off a little and let the students lead. By empowering them, I find that they inevitably dig into their own resources and stand up shining. They teach each other. And in doing so, they build community. I am given the grace to bear witness to this community-building. It feels like watching peace on earth unfolding before my eyes.
Twenty years ago, I co-founded Chamisa Mesa High School—an alternative school for gifted teenagers who did not fit in the mainstream. We empowered the students to govern themselves, and we guided them with a light touch. What resulted from this experiment was a circle of kids who loved each other deeply, protected each other passionately, and governed themselves peacefully.
It has never been in my nature to be an authority figure. But I have often been blessed—both in the academic classroom and in spiritual retreats—with experience of witnessing my students turn to each other, draw one another out, and mutually support the gifts that emerge.
Maybe I learned my lesson this semester: I don’t need to be all things to all people. I can’t be. I will return to teaching the courses that bring me the most joy–World Religions, Eastern Religions, multi-cultural Philosophy 101, Existentialism—and offer my students the very best of what I have to share. But I will take with me the reminder to lead with a light touch, so that those who follow me are really following themselves, and following the Tao.
As it says in verse 17 of the Lippe, Feng & English translation: When actions are performed without unnecessary talk, people say, We did it!
November 27, 2011
Recently, my dear friend Nancy Laupheimer, founder and director of the Taos Chamber Music Group, invited me to write a poem in response to Schubert’s Noturrno to open a concert whose themes centered around this period of darkness and introspection. Here is the piece I wrote and performed last weekend for the program.
Be patient, my heart.
The time of the cave is coming.
The season of quiet.
The deep drink of stillness
you have been thirsting for.
Secret, luminous darkness.
Fruitful, radiant night.
Your access has been paid.
All year you have made
an offering of your life,
Flung your treasures into the
clamoring hands of the world.
You have lost yourself in the lyrics,
Recollected yourself in the silence,
Forgotten again and again
where you come from,
Where you are meant to return.
You have filled your belly
with the season’s harvest,
Grown robust on bowls of chile and beans,
Apple muffins spread with honey.
You have split and stacked your kindling,
patched your cloak.
There is nothing left undone.
Drop the distractions, now,
and head home.
The door is open. Go in.
Deeper and deeper inward.
Enter the womb of the world
and take refuge there.
This is not the season of sorrow,
but of gratitude.
The extravagant, fiery beauty of autumn
heralds the coming of the holy quiet.
Be wildly, voluptuously quiet.
Embrace your solitude like the child
you never thought you could birth,
Like the lover
you thought had died in the war,
who parts the curtains
of your innermost chamber
in the middle of the night
and slips into bed beside you.
November 16, 2011
My first post-grief blog! Not that I am “over it” or “moving on” but rather that I am checking out a world in which I no longer lead with loss, yet rest in the sacred suchness with which death has gifted me.
Here is an excerpt from my upcoming book, GOD OF LOVE, in which I am exploring the distinction between the classic “interfaith” movement and the emerging “interspiritual” quest. Put simply, the interfaith movement is comprised primarily of ordained representatives from established faith traditions who are seeking to impart and acquire knowledge of one another’s religions, to foster empathy and acceptance. The interspiritual quest is more about immersing ourselves in the practices at the heart of various spiritual paths, and experiencing them from the inside.
A little more than a hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda—beloved disciple of the God-intoxicated Indian saint, Sri Ramakrishna–came to the West and convened the first World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. This event marked the birth of a global dialogue of faiths, a conversation that has been unfolding ever since. The interfaith movement has been characterized by the sincere effort on the part of religious believers from all the world’s major faith traditions to build tolerance, trust, and mutual understanding. In light of the historical atrocities committed by powerful institutions in the name of God, this dialog has been both liberating and healing.
Now, at the dawn of a new century, it’s time to go deeper. It’s not enough to seek an intellectual orientation toward other traditions. We need to plunge into their mystic heart and let them transform us. (Thanks to the late Brother Wayne Teasdale for coining the delicious term, “interspiritual.”.)
This is exactly what Ramakrishna was up to. He did not politely approach Christianity and agree to tolerate it. He enfolded Christ into his own blazing heart and met him there, in the fire of love. He kept a picture of the child Jesus and Mother Mary on his altar, along with Kali, Krishna, Tara, and the Buddha, and offered incense to them every morning. He repeated the name of Allah throughout the day with great devotion, and experienced a vision in which the Prophet Muhammad merged into his own body. He adored the Divine Mother in every form; it was through her that he experienced all paths reconciled. Ramakrishna actively practiced diverse faith traditions, and their particular objects of devotion regularly brought him to tears of ecstasy.
Immersion in the well of any single spiritual tradition dissolves the forms that limit the Divine. Repetition of any of the Holy Names carries us to a place that transcends all naming, where we rest in the One Reality. Ramakrishna says that it is not necessary to renounce the formalities of religion. When you place your devotion at the feet of whatever spiritual ideal is most natural to you, “formalities of every kind will simply disappear from your being.”
October 22, 2011
With the changing of the season and the approach of the 10th anniversary of Jenny’s death, I feel something shifting in me, and I have the urge to track it, and then I want to let it do whatever it’s supposed to do: fall away, maybe; or turn into something else.
This year I turned 50, which seems like a significant thing. Half a century on this planet, in this body. I feel strong and fit, creative and sensual, and bold. Last week I handed in the manuscript for GOD OF LOVE. Paul drew out my own most passionate, provocative voice, and Toinette helped me shape every sentence. I feel what we made together was something like a fine wine, and I look forward to uncorking it in April and passing the cup around to the whole world. Now I am crafting the proposal for the next book (a secret for now), and am getting ready to drop down into a new creative project. Darshan with the saints and masters. That’s what I get to do for a living. Hang out at the feet of the timeless wisdom beings. The pay is meager, but the payoff boundless.
What seems to be happening is that my focus is broadening. I watch as it expands beyond the realm of grief and loss—that dark fire in which I have been sitting, those waters of mystery I have been navigating in my solitary row boat, the secret medicine I have been brewing and dispensing—to encompass more of life. When Jenny died and Dark Night of the Soul came out (same exact day, remember?), I learned to bear witness to my own suffering and show up for my own death and rebirth, and to make of this process an offering to others who are faced with a similar transformational loss. I have been faithful to this process, and I always will be, yet other things are beckoning now. The band just came back on the stage from break and started up a new set. I am being asked to get up and dance. Every cell in my body says yes. I am saying yes.
And so this blog will reflect the shift as it unfolds. As with This Beautiful Wound, I will continue to share stories from my own experience, because stories are the universal language we use to understand ourselves and each other. In a world fragmented by misunderstanding, I offer my own stories as a campfire around which my companions might take refuge on their journey through our shared wilderness, and I eagerly sit down to listen to yours. I will undoubtedly continue to share memories of Jenny and the healing path I was carried on in the wake of her death and my grief. But I will also speak of the unifying teachings of love at the heart of the world’s faith traditions, and how we might harvest those fruits and bring them back to feed the hungry world. I’m not sure what will splash from the rim of this new cup. I’m curious.
For those of you who are grieving, please know that I have not given up on you. I continue to hold you close in my heart, and I light a candle for you every day. I am still and will forever be a member of this terrible beautiful tribe of parents who have lost a child, and sitting among you is the most honorable thing I have ever done. I am simply ready to speak of life now, too.
September 22, 2011
On this last day of summer,
one month before your yahrtzeit,
I grieve you as if the
accident was yesterday.
I am astonished (again, and yet again)
by the power of grief.
I had almost forgotten.
Maybe it’s because
this morning the cloth
slipped off the file box
where I keep your papers
and I squatted down,
opened the lid
I had not had the courage
or the strength
to open this box till today.
They were all love poems.
Love poems to me.
I did not cry.
I made myself comfortable
and read all your little messages:
the Valentine’s cards
with glittery hearts,
the requests that I not
kiss my boyfriend in front of you,
the notes you wrote
about how desperately you missed me
when I was a single mother,
and you were exiled at home
with this babysitter
or that one.
There was a fire of longing
in your little-girl voice
that made it impossible to imagine
we could ever be separated,
that made me nearly grateful
that you died instead of me
so that you would not have to endure
this anguish of loss.
I carry it instead.
I am the mommy.
It was only later this morning
when I turned on my computer
and read about the senseless execution
of Troy Davis
that I wept.
The tears burned hot in my throat,
streamed from my eyes,
a storm of sorrow
I was powerless to resist.
It rose again during
exercise class at the gym.
I had to leave,
flee to my car,
where I could freely sob.
I mourn the death
of every mother’s child now
as if it were my own.
The protective layer
has been stripped from my heart
and I am totally permeable.
A father’s wailing
at the grave site of his baby
penetrates every cell of my body.
And so does the sweetness of
a chickadee landing
on the stone of our garden fountain,
dipping to drink.
Soon it will be ten years
since you died.
I feel something shifting
inside my life now,
expanding my focus
beyond grief and loss,
beyond the fire of tragedy.
I make small moves in response,
refer mourners to bereavement groups,
minimize references to grief counseling
in my public profile.
I square my shoulders
and begin to look up and outward
toward the next step on my journey,
a journey that’s more about joy.
my sweet little girl,
though the raging fire of loss
has subsided, mostly,
and glows now like a warm ember,
soothing, rather than punishing,
there are still days
like this one
when a sudden wind
blows in from the desert
igniting the flame all over again,
and I am consumed
with loving you,
with missing you,
with gratitude for how
completely you loved me.
September 8, 2011
Four deaths in as many weeks. First a dear family friend recently diagnosed with late-stage cancer embraced her dying, reluctantly at first, then with astounding grace, surrounded by a tribe of remarkable women singing, soothing, feeding, and finally praying her across the threshold. Then my best friend (in the midst of tending our mutual friend dying of cancer) found the body of her beloved ex-boyfriend who drowned in his cistern which he had been sealing and, overcome by fumes, fainted and fell in. Then the son of dear old friends was beaten up on a dark street, sustaining fatal brain damage, impelling his parents to make the hardest decision a family can make: to remove life support. Then a beautiful baby girl died at eight months of injuries sustained at birth in a botched delivery, and we buried her in the cemetery where my own child is buried, two days after my Jenny’s birthday, chanting the kaddish and sitting shiva with her parents and three-year-old brother on the adobe floor of an earthship high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In between, I facilitated a circle of beautiful broken hearts at Omega Institute for my annual Beautiful Wound retreat, bearing witness with the fullness of my body, heart and soul. Meanwhile, our grown children grapple with ongoing life challenges, requiring our continuous intervention.
I am empty. Not in the positive sense of having managed to step out of my own way and rest in the space between the thoughts. This is not a mystical encounter with sunyata. This is exhaustion. I have been sick for two weeks and cannot seem to shake of this flu bug. I think I know why. I have lost the balance between responding to the needs of my community and the necessity to tend my own vessel. So I am trying to pull back a little now, draw my focus inward for a while, returning my attention to my writing. I feel a bit like Dr. Frankenstein though: I have created this monster, and now it has a life of its own, and will not be so easy to subdue. My intentions were good, but the price seems to be higher than I can afford.
I know I am not alone in this syndrome. Many of us who have experienced shattering loss feel compelled to show up and sit in the fire with other members of our human family as they endeavor to bear their own versions of unbearable sorrow. It’s the only thing that makes sense. We clearly recall how comforting it felt when a friend sat quietly on the couch and held our hand while we sobbed, how lovely it was when a neighbor dropped off a pot of homemade stew, how strongly we needed to tell every detail of our loved one’s final twenty-four hours of life and how someone dropped everything to listen. We want to be that person who throws a lifeline when a grieving person is drowning. Yet after a while we fatigue, and risk going under ourselves.
I wish I had good advice for you, but I’m afraid this is a case of the blind leading the blind. What am I going to do? I’m going to make an effort to eat and sleep a little more. I am going to walk in the woods no matter how tired I feel, because my connection with the earth is a guaranteed infusion of life-force. I am going to decline requests for grief counseling for a while. I am going to write and edit my new book, teach my college philosophy classes, go on dates with my handsome husband, and forgive myself for not being able to heal all the wounds of the world.
August 29, 2011
A shamus is a guy who takes care of handyman tasks around the temple, and makes sure everything is in working order. A shamus is at the bottom of the pecking order of synagogue functionaries, and there’s a joke about that: A rabbi, to show his humility before God, cries out in the middle of a service, Oh, Lord, I am nobody! The cantor, not to be bested, also cries out, Oh, Lord, I am nobody! The shamus, deeply moved, follows suit and cries, Oh, Lord, I am nobody! The rabbi turns to the cantor and says, Look who thinks he’s nobody! (Arthur Naiman, Every Goy’s Guide to Yiddish)
Most spiritual traditions teach the value of casting off self-importance and allowing the boundaries of the small self to melt into sacred suchness. This is not about unworthiness, but rather a reflection of the reality of our essential interconnectedness with the web of all life. While there are numerous spiritual technologies that have been developed to facilitate this process of dis-identification with the small self, it is not really something we can do. Instead, it is a gradual (or sometimes sudden) matter of discovering who we really are: a drop in the vast ocean of the divine. Beautiful, yet ephemeral.
A state of deep meditation can yield these holy moments. They can also happen in the midst of ordinary life: walking on a quiet beach, chopping garlic for dinner, listening to chamber music, making love. I am grateful every time they occur. These tastes of “no-self” can be intoxicating.
Paradoxically, such experiences can sometimes fool me into thinking I am something special, like the rabbi and the cantor. Those poor schmucks, I catch myself thinking. They’re all walking around believing they’re somebody. Don’t they know the whole point is to realize they’re nobody (like me)?
I can usually spot these attacks of spiritual vanity as they arise, and they make me smile. I have come to recognize the thoughts for what they are: illusions, all dressed up like Elvis, strutting around the stage, but their fly is open. They are naked, fooled into believing they are wearing the emperor’s finest clothes. My task is to tenderly wrap them in a cloak of humility and send them on their way. The same traditions that tempt us to congratulate ourselves for achieving states of grace also outfit us with the cloak of humility, which we are called upon to put on again and again. No shame. Just another opportunity for yielding to love.
Grief can have the effect of stripping us of spiritual pride. Whatever props we had constructed to hold up meaning in our lives, whatever mastery we thought we had achieved through the careful cultivation of spiritual practice, come tumbling down in the earthquake of loss. We are disabused of any illusion that we are special, or specially entitled, by virtue of our spiritual discipline and any rarified states these practices have engendered.
What irony! Grief and loss saves us from ourselves. The blessed state of nobodyness we had been striving for all those years on the meditation cushion comes upon us with a rush of flame, and we are consumed. Whoever we thought we were is annihilated. For fleeting moments, at least, we can rest in the reality of our humble membership in the family of all that is.
I think this is why I love being with grieving people. They are the most authentic beings I know. Their hearts have been purified by fire, and they radiate.
July 26, 2011
Please excuse the prolonged silences. They are not contemplative silences, I’m afraid, but rather the artifact of being on an intense book birth-line (I finally came up with an alternative to “deadline”)! I am 90% finished with my new manuscript, GOD OF LOVE: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity, & Islam. As you may know, this is my first book entirely in my own voice, as opposed to translations and commentaries on the teachings of the mystics. It’s been scary and exhilarating. I’m thrilled by what’s been emerging. The book will be released in April of 2012.
I had an insight about the relationship between my particular experience of profound loss to my writing in general. For a long time I have assumed that I would write a “grief book” – and I still may – but I see now that all the deaths in my life, and my daughter’s especially, inform everything I write. John of the Cross’ teachings on the dark night of the soul, and Teresa of Avila’s on the exquisite longing of the soul for union with the Divine, are inextricably entwined for me with conscious grief as a spiritual path. And so I cannot possibly write about the unifying teachings of love at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths, for instance, without deeply drawing on my own experience of the radical unknowingness and unbearable yearning that accompanies the death of someone I loved beyond life, and also that quiet sense of cosmic perfection that most of us are too shy to talk about but most of us hold in delicate paradox inside our broken hearts.
If my editors agree, I will post relevant excerpts from the ms over the next few months. Until then, I will continue writing and refining, and thinking of you all.
If you have not already done so, I invite you to consider joining us at the beautiful Omega Institute in upstate New York August 21-26 for our next Beautiful Wound gathering. We will read powerful poetry & prose (both sacred and profane!), share our stories through conversation and writing, sit in silence, and sing to the Beloved. It is an extraordinary opportunity for building community of the heart. I would love to share it with you, if it feels like a good fit to you or someone you love. Details are on my website: http://www.mirabaistarr.com
July 10, 2011
This is an excerpt from my book in progress, GOD OF LOVE. It is from the chapter called “Indwelling Presence: The Feminine Face of the Divine.”
Sometimes, the masculine paradigm can be a doorway to the sacred feminine. Here in the Sangre de Cristos, the southern region of the Rocky Mountain range where I live, an ancient religious brotherhood, called Los Hermanos Penitentes (The Penitente Brotherhood) has survived in tact for over four hundred years. Because of the remote topography of these high desert valleys, the sixteenth century Catholic Church could not provide priests for all the outlying communities of Spanish settlers. As a result, the people had to take responsibility for their own religious life. Drawing on medieval religious pageants from the old country, local communities developed a series of rituals that centered on the Passion of Christ, and especially focused around the sacred time between Good Friday and Easter.
Until recently, the activities of the Brotherhood were secret. Outsiders were not welcome to either participate in or observe Penitente rituals, and as a result a multitude misunderstandings and superstitious stories surrounded their activities. Thanks in part to the efforts of hermanos like my friend Larry, who is also a historian, the beauty of the Hermanidad is now beginning to be accessible to non-members. For the past few years on Good Friday, Larry has extended an opportunity for visitors to respectfully observe an essential Penitente rite: el Encuentro (The Encounter). Not long after my fourteen-year-old daughter Jenny was killed in a car accident, Larry invited me to el Encuentro, and this experience became one of the most healing moments of my harrowing journey through grief.
It was the Mother who mended my heart.
We are invited to gather at noon on Good Friday in the dirt parking lot outside the Holy Trinity Church in a small village at the foot of a mountain. Across the road, nestled among the willows, is the morada, the low, windowless adobe building where most of the private Penintente ceremonies take place. Los hermanos divide into two groups, accompanied by their wives and las Verónicas, the young women dressed in black who represent the girl who brazenly tore off her veil and wiped the sweat and blood from Jesus’ face as he labored under the weight of his own gallows up Golgotha Hill. They are about to enact the Passion of Christ.
One group lifts a hand-carved statue of Christ from his casket in the morada, where he lies all during the rest of the year, sets it on their shoulders, and begins to slowly walk toward the church, chanting the ancient Spanish liturgy in loud voices fueled by religious emotion. The other group takes Madre Maria down from her altar in the Church and moves with her slowly toward the oncoming hermanos who are carrying her Holy Son, Jesucrito, and singing their own sacred songs. Jesus and Mary will “encounter” one other in the parking lot.
As the two groups draw near to each other, the cacophony of separate prayers reaches a crescendo. Hermanos are weeping as they call out to Jesus and Mary, urging them to be strong in the face of such terrible persecution and suffering. The minor key of the chanting, the booming bass, the two different melodies and rhythms, and the wrenching sorrow of the Penitentes, all meet in an explosion of mystical energy as the leader of one procession meets the leader of the other and gently tilts Jesus down to momentarily rest against Mary’s shoulder.
But they do not linger. “Go away from here, Mother,” Christ cries out, through the chanting voices of the hermanos. “I do not want you to see me like this!” And the man carrying Jesus pulls him away. The man carrying Mary pulls her away. The blended procession divides again, and each group walks slowly backwards, chanting and weeping, and the encuentro is over.
I dropped to my knees in the parking lot. No one could understand my pain like Mary could. She too was a mother who loved her child beyond all description. She too came face to face with her child’s suffering, death, and her own shattering. In that moment, I spontaneously reached out to Mother Mary, pouring my anguish into her open hands, lamenting and consoling and thanking her all at once. She received me with quiet yet unmistakable mercy.
After my own private encuentro with Mother Mary, I never again felt quite so alone in my loss. I still suffered – I still do – but she shares my pain, and that makes my burden lighter.