Thursday, August 6, 2009
There and Back, Part 6: The Desire for Hermitage
Seven years ago, my sister took vows as a Buddhist. She had watched the planes destroy the World Trade Center from her office window. Her friend's fiancé was killed that day; they were able to identify him from a severed arm bearing a distinctive tattoo. Shortly thereafter, she began attending a Buddhist meditation center with a friend, and then with her boyfriend. Though at one point she'd been a daily Mass-goer, she, along with her boyfriend, took Buddhist refuge vows in a public ceremony on Mother's Day, 2002, a clear, cool day. I attended the ceremony, in which she was given a dharma name that translated as "the turquoise light of liberation," which struck me as very beautiful. I remember distinctly that I closed the street door of the building where the ceremony was held on my foot, and that it hurt like hell.
My sister, a brilliant, beautiful, and kind young woman, had a troubled adolescence, during which she had to contend with some truly frightful events and experiences particular to her life. After many years of difficulty and sadness, she found peace and a certain measure of personal transformation in her meditation practice. She and her boyfriend married and moved across the country. She advanced in her Buddhist practice, took more vows, and is now a meditation instructor and a mother.
During the time that she was beginning her Buddhist practice, my sister tried to persuade me to take it up with her (I had not yet come back to the Catholic Church; that would happen later that year). I went to one of the public meditation and lecture sessions at the Buddhist center with her, and was vaguely annoyed to discover, while looking around at the other attendees, that they were a suprisingly homogeneous and self-selected group. All were white, dressed in expensive artsy-casual attire, and were incredibly good-, as well as successful-, looking. I don't remember what the talk was about, beyond that it was generally an exhortation to the acolytes to practice Buddhist meditation because it was the right thing to do.
Despite my cynicism and misgivings about all of this, I thought a lot about my sister's invitation to join her on her path. It really seemed to be working for her; her wild and suffering heart appeared to be almost tamed. And the aesthetic sensibility of Buddhism was extremely attractive to me. I had visions of utter simplicity: a clean-swept bare floor; a room with white walls, interrupted only by a framed print of a single black-inked brushstroke; a window opening onto a maple tree, whose leaves I would contemplate with detached reverence as they changed from green to red to gold and then dropped, reminding me of the transience of all things. But most of all, I was attracted to the feeling of emptiness, the feeling of peace, that seemed to arise from accepting all phenomenona exactly as they were, without attachment, without hope.
Then, at my brother's urging -- he positively raved about it -- I attended the Renaissance Tapestry exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum on the day that it closed. The galleries were quiet and nearly empty that day in the middle of the week, and I walked through the darkened rooms in a slowly awakening sense of astonishment at the beauty and richness of the tapestries, almost of them illustrations of passages fromt the Bible, that almost drove me to my knees. The tapestry that affected me the most was Raphael's "Miraculous Draught of Fishes," above. I felt quite the opposite of emptiness when I looked at it. I felt like I was drinking great drafts of life that were filling me up. It dawned on me then that this was my tradition and the tradition of my forebears, this aesthetic of fullness, of joy in the created world, made possible by the certainty that the world was, after all, created by a God who loves it and us. At that moment, though I had not fully come back into the Catholic Church, I knew I could never definitively leave it. Here was my tradition -- Italian, Catholic, humanist -- and I could not successfully supplant it with another, no matter how attractive.
A priest once told me that it's better to be without peace and with God than to be at peace without God. On this, the sixty-fourth anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb, I am reminded of the different sorts of peace offered by two different cultures, faiths, and traditions. I pray that my sister will find the lasting peace that she seeks. Although I don't want to see her relatively recent peace destroyed, however, I hope even more that she will find the truth in the faith and tradition of her childhood and her heritage.
There is a sensibility shared by both Christianity and Buddhism, however: that of the longing for hermitage, the notion of an encounter with the Truth that can take place only in solitude. Here is a musical example that beautifully expresses this longing, shared across traditions: "The Desire for Hermitage," the last song in Samuel Barber's 1953 song cycle Hermit Songs, written for Leontyne Price. Though I can't vouch for the dance interpretation or the recording quality, the vocal performance is outstanding, and the soprano -- who appears to be quite a fascinating person -- has a quality in her voice that is reminiscent of the great Price. The texts of the Hermit Songs are taken from marginalia scribbled by medieval Irish monks in the corners of the manuscripts they were illuminating; this excerpt was translated by Seán Ó Faoláin.
Ah! To be all alone in a little cell
with nobody near me;
beloved that pilgrimage before the last pilgrimage to death.
Singing the passing hours to cloudy Heaven;
Feeding upon dry bread and water from the cold spring.
That will be an end to evil when I am alone
in a lovely little corner among tombs
far from the houses of the great.
Ah! To be all alone in a littie cell, to be alone, all alone:
Alone I came into the world
alone I shall go from it.
May God grant us His peace on the anniversary of the tragic bombing of Hiroshima.