One of the most vexatious and controversial aspects of Christianity is the idea behind current observances of Christmas, i.e., that an invisible force, called by Hebrews “Jahweh” or “the Lord God,” chose to become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Terminology used by theologians and historians down through the ages includes the doctrinal idea that Jesus is “consubstantial” with God, i.e., he and God are of the same substance or essential nature. Another common way to explain this phenomenon is to speak of a “triune” God, composed of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, thought by some biblical historians to be a way for monotheism to expand itself into something closer to earlier Egyptian/Greek/Roman religions founded on the idea of many gods to whom people prayed for specific things.
How much to emphasize the humanity of Jesus has been hotly contested for centuries and continues to divide Christians today. Those who play down his life as carpenter accent that period between his first time to preach in a synagogue, when all the priests recognized an extraordinary prophet, until his crucifixion at the hands of Romans who feared the effect this man’s words were having on a populace they needed to control utterly. Others find in his human development and mundane practices a profound connection to our own struggles and joys, so stress is laid on the extent of the invisible God’s love for us humans shown by being willing to experience what ordinary mortals experience. I belong to this latter group, so I much prefer the Apostle’s to the Nicene Creed because in the shorter and older creed, we find this crucial phrase: “he suffered death and was buried; he descended into Hell.” Whenever I say that phrase, I am struck again by how precise the framers of this creed were in wanting humans to realize that an all-knowing being was willing to experience even the worst possible fate, albeit only for supposedly three days between Good Friday and Easter. To me this signals that whatever “God” is to me has tasted the fiercest distance from godliness, so the God of my understanding can identify with and render solace to me in my lowest and worst moments of doubt and despair.
So I love it when we sing at my church a carol that speaks of Jesus as an infant and then a little child, laughing and feeling sad just like I did when I was little; who is hungry and tired but loves to play and run around just like I did. And it is a particular song, sung each Christmas Eve at the late night vigil that moves into Christmas mass, that catches the ineffable essence of what I think happened in that manger where Mary and Joseph, immigrants traveling to register as legal residents, were allowed to stop because Mary was going into labor and no respectable .inn would take them in as guests since they were not “proper” citizens.
It’s entitled “Mirabile Mysterium.” Mirabile means “wondrous to behold,” while mysterium is an alchemical term for unknown elements thought to make up new matter or a substance seen as an elemental or pure form of something else. In other words, the perfect phrase for “the birth of the baby Jesus.” Though the original text for this piece was written by Jacobus Gallus, the version I hear was commissioned for the choir at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The occasion was the installation of the tower bells and its composer, Anne Kistofte, incorporated the pitches of our bells which are the flat keys of the piano. People playing hand bells ring these pitches as the choir sings the original Latin words, while the huge bronze bells are ringing outside. I’m told by Teri Larson, the choir director, that the doors of the huge Basilica were flung open at the inaugural ringing–surely a highly metaphysical moment for those in the congregation. The piece always moves me to deep tears because the clear and unusual chording touches parts of me not usually accessible, the way music can do. I listen to the Latin and sense what is being said by how it sounds and how my body reacts to those pure sounds. Then when I get home, I read what the words mean in English and I drop all skepticism about the “logic” behind my belief that somehow an invisible presence is taking on human form in order for me, a human, to feel closer to an invisible presence.
Here are those translated words that I have no need to try and parse into logic. Instead I let them help me feel part of something incredibly bigger than my quotidian life in this terribly flawed world:
An innovation is made upon nature; God is made man;
that which he was, he remains,
and that which he was not, he takes on,
suffering neither commixture nor division.
I am inordinately fond of bunny rabbits. What follows is a summary of experiences, feelings, and data in support of this assertion.
When I was a little girl, I begged my mother to let me get a bunny for Easter. Finally relenting, she agreed on one condition: the rabbit would never set foot inside her house full of antiques. So my mass of soft whiteness lived in a wire crate kept near the back door. Though I kept asking if he might not just spend nights in our basement, Mamie never relented. One morning, after a rain that I knew had been unpleasant for my bunny, I went out with breakfast to find his little body spotted with his own blood and his head missing entirely. I was inconsolable for weeks and was never allowed to replace him.
For years in Minneapolis, when I went to the state fair, my favorite place was the barn that housed show rabbits. Especially endearing were the lop-eared ones. I would stand by their cages for long stretches, speaking softly to them and wondering if they wished they were in some woods or at least back at the farm.
At some point after I’d been exposed to theories of reincarnation, I became convinced that I’d been a rabbit in some previous manifestation. Having share this with a friend, I was delighted when she presented me with a charming netsuke of a little tan bunny standing upright with an expression of quiet wisdom on its tiny face. It holds pride of place on my bedside table where I look at it every night when retiring and every morning before I get dressed for my day.
Some years ago, another friend referred me to a belief in someone’s mythology that there is not a man in the moon but rather a rabbit with a broom. His or her job is to sweep the moon to rid it of dust or other debris. When humans began going there, I felt sorry for that creature since we were leaving large mechanical objects resistant to flimsy broom actions.
Neighbors who garden, as do I, constantly complain about rabbits who eat emerging tulip blooms or gnaw bark from shrubs in winter. To fend off such invasions, they spray Lysol or sprinkle red pepper grinds or construct chicken wire fences around individual tulips or azalea bushes in late April. I, on the other hand, am always honored to find a small bunny in my back garden when I emerge at about 6:45 for my morning walk. I stop very still and begin speaking in a low voice saying something like “Hello, Bunny, I’m so happy you’re in my yard. Don’t be scared, I love you.” The bunnies who visit me never eat my tulips or gnaw my shrubbery because they sense how closely I identify with them.
Now we come to why I’m thinking once again of my long attachment. Recently I saw the movie “The Favourite” about the court of Queen Anne, the ruler of England in the early 18th century. Anne lost over a dozen children to miscarriages and stillbirths. In the film, her bedroom includes several elaborate cages that house many little rabbits, accumulated to replace the lost children. They are let out to scamper about while the queen sits on the floor in a childlike pose to pet and talk to them. Attending women are expected to follow suit. The first time the bunnies were released, I almost squealed with delight as I watched them playing with each other and the humans. This movie is a scathing account of the debauched life of the period, especially of the male figures at court who are either ridiculous fops or prune-faced advisors who tolerate having a woman sovereign. But the story of the queen and her two “favorites” is full of displaced ambitions, powerful lesbian eroticism, destructive competition, and painful losses for all three characters. Near the end, when the younger favorite, Abigail, shone reading a book while supposedly watching the rabbits as they run around the room, puts her elegantly shod foot on top of one of them. It was excruciatingly painful for me, inveterate devotee that I am of bunnies. I thought, “If she kills this rabbit, I may have to walk out of the theater!” At a crucial moment, after the innocent bunny has made some small but pathetic sound, Abigail lifts her foot and the movie proceeds to its very sad conclusion.
In the days since this latest reminder of my love for rabbits, I’ve kept returning to this particular image because I see it as symbolic of the entire culture of the movie. The tiny creature must try to survive being under the heel of the young woman intent on maintaining power no matter who gets hurt. Servants in the court are under the heel of the royals. Royals in the court are under the albeit gout-ridden heel of Queen Anne. Sarah Churchill Marlboro is under the heel of a culture that expects females to be adornment rather than people of substance and passion. Abigail is under the heel of her own avaricious drive to regain status after being displaced and forced into servitude. And the Queen herself is under the heel of accumulated grief and a compulsive relationship to food as a substitute for a sweetness she seldom enjoys. Suddenly this sometimes over-the-top spoof of monarchy and male vanity exposes various levels of discrimination still in full display in our own culture. And the icon that brought this to my mind is a sweet little black and white bunny rabbit.
In 12-step programs, Step 3 is seen as crucial by many–“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” Many new to these programs may be experiencing difficulties with the word or concept of “God,” so substitutions abound: Higher Power, the Universe, the group itself, Nature. When I first sat in 12-step rooms, I was angry with my inherited ideas of God because representatives had acted in ways I found immoral and reprehensible. A wise veteran in the program suggested that I insert the name of my favorite author, so I directed my insouciant prayers to Virginia Woolf–and it worked. Recently, a woman who’s been in a group we share for 30-some years spoke on the step for that day’s meeting. It was Step 3 and she focused on just what “will” involved for her at this stage in her life. After sharing some standard definitions, e.g., “the power of making a reasoned choice” and “the particular desire, purpose, pleasure, choice of a certain person,” she began musing more personally. Pointing out that “willful” and “willing” must share the same etymological root, this woman spoke movingly about her own journey from trying to “fix” her relationships by being willful to inhabiting a space where openness prevailed.
In the time since I listened to this wise person’s thoughts, I’ve come to some telling realizations of my own about these two words. Growing up around a mother who loved me and who needed a lot of attention from me, I became quite willful in that I felt it necessary to grit my teeth and form emotional (and sometimes literal) fists so I could stand my ground and assert my young will just to remind myself that I existed as an entity separate from hers. When she “punished” me by making me sit in a closed room without books or crayons, I willed myself into a positive place where I made up fascinating stories in which I starred as hero/villain/helpless victim. In one such episode, my mother stood on the other side of the door that shut me out of life and said “All right, Honey, you can come out now.” My little willful self stayed in the room for additional minutes, telling myself I was not finished with MY story. In later life, as I bungled my way through one relationship after the next, the common denominator was my militantly willful belief that I knew just what the other person should do to be successful/healthy/happy/loving, only to find myself repeatedly coping with that other person’s gradual but sure retreat from me and our shared life.
Finally, I relented just a little and walked into an Al-Anon meeting where a bunch of other women of all sorts sat for an hour listening to each other’s stories of trying to give up “fixing” other people (being “willful,” surely). Instead they spoke about a slow and painful coming to understand that such behavior not only cost them friends and intimacy but finally exhausted them emotionally and physically. I remember one story in particular: a group member told us that a new friend had asked her how she was. She had responded by saying “Well, Harry is drinking again but I’m trying to show him what to do to stop.” That person’s willfulness ended up erasing her from the equation except as the person trying to run another person’s life. Gradually, as I listened to those much further along a recovery path than I was share what it might mean to approach life with open hands rather than clenched fists, I began to ease up just a fraction and, significantly, to ask who I was in myself rather than in relation to some other human being. The program was asking me to put myself first, not as an act of selfishness but in order to know where I start and stop and someone else begins. The process of doing this seems to me now the process of moving from “willful” to “willing” because meeting life with open hands and heart means I relinquish control over method and outcome. I even get to live in the moment more often and that’s amazingly fresh ground to occupy.
People who know me grasp early own that I have set ways of doing things in my home: shoes off at the door; no water used in the beautiful cobalt blue kitchen apron sink because water drops might spot the dark blue surface; Patches, my beloved kitty, eats her dinner at 5:10 p.m. even if going on or off daylight savings time seems unreal to her stomach. Well, I’m clearly becoming much more “willing” these days because at my recent gathering of women friends to mark the Winter Solstice, I made a sign that I taped to the front door. It read in part “NO NEED TO REMOVE SHOES.” I told myself I was saying that because we were experiencing a dry and unseasonably warm string of days, so shoes would not “track” unwanted debris into my house. The first people who arrived were a couple I’ve known for forty years. They stood at the threshold open-mouthed and said “We don’t know how to act!” Though we all laughed, and though several other attendees remarked about being thrown completely off kilter by the sign, I understand that being “willing” rather than “willful” means being flexible. It’s new territory but I find it like it and am thinking of other little “signs” I can make to myself about relaxing some rule that may not even be functional any longer, whatever its original purpose might have been. As I recently abandoned a long-standing policy around recording facts when filling my gas tank, I couldn’t even remember why I had agreed many years ago to start keeping such a detailed record of this mundane process. As I tossed the little booklet full of such minutiae into recycle, I smiled. “Willing” seems to carry unexpected benefits to me, let alone what it may bring to those who choose to relate to me.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) currently is hosting an exhibit entitled “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” composed of many rooms filled with artifacts many of which have been discovered by oceanic archeologists led by Franck Goddio. The cities, which turn out to be one large cosmopolitan metropolis, are Thonis and Heracleion, and the exhibit is terribly impressive. I’ve just spent time going through the rooms with two friends and marveling at the scope of what has been found and by the sheer magnitude of this undertaking. There are statues rising 17 feet into the air, some perfectly in tact, others missing an arm or part of a leg, yet others pinned together because found in fragments at the bottom of the sea.
As usual at such exhibitions, there comes a point for me when I can’t concentrate on each isolated object and so I begin to browse amongst the show cases, stopping only when something strikes my fancy. This stage of my observations in museums always interests me because it casts light on my own attitudes and approaches to life’s infinite variety. So I want to talk about two pieces from the MIA show because they claimed my full attention as I saw them and they linger in my mind’s eye now that the experience is over.
One is mammoth while the other is infinitesimal. The mammoth item is a life-size statue of a bull called Apis, made from a stone native to Egypt called dionite. There is not a single blemish or sign of wear or tear. Rather the figure commands his room in the museum much as he must have done in his original shrine. The story of Apis appeals to me because it involves a culture’s assigning huge spiritual importance to a creature not from the human realm. It seems that the people worshiped Apis and so always had a single stunning bull to fill this iconic role. Once the current bull died, there would be an elaborate process of finding the next one, akin to what happens in some Eastern cultures when the head lama dies. The particular animal made into the statue I witnessed is stunningly beautiful, exuding contained energy in his flanks and torso. After I’d stared as close to the figure as the exhibit allowed me to do, I moved to stand before his face and suddenly the icon took on an entirely different mien. The eyes are soft and inviting, the nose downright aquiline. And his little head is topped with a few strands of intricately curled hair above which is a mirror-like crown denoting his importance. Finally, standing facing this giant creature, I notice that his right hoof is poised like a ballerina who is about to move weightlessly ahead. The sheer delicacy of the hoof itself reinforces the sense of delicacy and grace. I was in awe of the sculptor’s ability to give me such oppositional feelings depending on where I stood in relation to Apis.
The other item that drew and kept me so long I’m sure people wondered if I’d fallen into a momentary trance. Perhaps I had done. What I was glued to was an amulet the size of a child’s “pinky” fingernail, as my friend suggested. Mounted on the thinnest of metal sticks with its own, small circular magnifying glass, the object depicts in minute detail the Eye of Horus or wedjat eye. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus and Hera. It seems Horus’ uncle, Seth, god of Chaos, gauged out Horus’ left eye as they fought over the throne of Osiris. The god Thoth restored most of Horus’ eye and Horus promptly offered his eye to his father, Osiris, to restore him to life. These little amulets came to symbolize body wholeness and health, associated with the moon that recovers its wholeness over fourteen days of waxing. Appropriately, then, when Osiris died, his corpse was cut into fourteen pieces to help him achieve wholeness. It seems these finger-nail sized tokens were offered for thousands of years and somehow the archeologists managed to find the one I gawked for so lons (and one other in another room of the exhibition) unharmed by centuries of being submerged in sea water. If I try to fathom why this particular bit of culture fascinated me so completely, I just come up with how we humans can put so much meaning into such small packages sometimes. My friend likened the little amulet to netsukes, those similarly tiny figures held in such high regard by Japanese worshippers.
So, my time at the MIA, ambling through this impressive example of passionate attention to the detailed work of archeological discovery and recovery has rewarded me with at least two memories I can reclaim any time I look back on the morning in the gallery rooms. And I will feel closer to those Egyptian worshippers when next I am my own church filled with its art objects reflecting awe over something ineffable but powerfully attracting over centuries of contact.