Today was a ridiculous day of tiredness and crankiness. But Mead, my dramaturgical fairy godmother, is back in town, and will be reading the new, Haley-less, 33-pages-shorter draft and we’ll hopefully be meeting soon about changes . . . so look forward to that soon. Also, I’m starting to brainstorm actors, and that’s always totally fun. I was completely drawing a blank on Molly for the longest time – just had no ideas for who could do it well. And she’s in like every scene, so you can’t get away with just anybody . . . anyway, last week I had this just really out-there idea of someone who is completely nothing at all like how I pictured the character but yet I’m kind of thinking she’d be perfect and now I can’t stop thinking about it . . . I haven’t asked her yet, or talked to my director about it, so no names yet. But it’s someone I adore. And you all will too. I think this could be rad.
Anyway, since I don’t have much in the way of process stuff, I thought instead we’d play with theology! Most of you who know me know that when I’m not a playwright or a grantwriter, I’m a Catholic youth minister. One of the things I’ve been doing for the last few years in my Confirmation class is a form of prayer called “lectio divina”, or “holy reading.” This is a Benedictine practice of basically reading aloud and reflecting from a sacred text; it’s read out loud three times and first you just listen in silence and soak in the words, then you listen again and pull out a word or phrase that spoke to you, then you listen a third time and ponder where God is speaking to you, or what message is being given to you, through those words. It’s best to have three different readers; it’s an intentionally communal, oral prayer practice that dates back hundreds of years. The Benedictines live this practice daily in the Psalms. I do it with Leonard Cohen.
I have such a ridiculous fangirl crush on Leonard Cohen it’s not even funny. Hilariously, it’s not even like the old-school fedora-wearing Chelsea Hotel sex machine Leonard Cohen I have a crush on. It’s Leonard Cohen the religious pluralist, the Jewish-Buddhist monk who was fascinated by Jesus. There are artists – Shakespeare and the Beatles are the two that leap to mind first – who are so universally beloved and enjoyed by millions because they can become a blank slate. They can be whoever you want them to be. Anything can be projected onto them. My roommate Jenny loves the Beatles as much as I do, but her Beatles and my Beatles are totally different. I was a theatre major, surrounded by Shakespeare geeks all through high school and college, but their Shakespeare wasn’t necessarily mine. It’s like that with Leonard Cohen. My Leonard Cohen is a dark, messed-up guy with a complicated life full of love and anger and death. He’s the guy I discovered while I was enduring the debilitating terminal illness of my mother, the guy who talked me through my anger and hatred and bitterness towards God, who let me go to those really dark and scary places I had always blocked out before. At heart I’ll always be more of a Cole Porter girl than a Leonard Cohen girl, but I need him every once in awhile, to remind me to let myself feel lost and adrift and abandoned and enraged when that’s what I really feel, that it’s okay to want to scratch and kick and bite and claw at someone because of how much you’re suffering. My Leonard Cohen was the inspiration for this play, as well as one of the spiritual anchors in my life. I think my monks would approve.
Why do I subject teenagers to this every year? Well, my personal opinion is that Christianity in general – and Catholicism in particular – doesn’t do a great job these days with affirming for kids and teens that doubt is okay – more than just okay, it’s part of life. The writer Anne Lamott says “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” Doubt is part of faith. We all have times when we struggle and wrestle with what we believe, when we’re afraid we might be wrong, when we don’t know if the beliefs we grew up with still hold true . . . and as soon as you say, “Welp, sorry, you’re asking tough questions I don’t feel like answering, so we’re kicking you out of the club,” or you give a sunshiney Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know answer to a real and challenging question a teen is asking you from your heart – that could be the end for them. I’ve seen it happen. Holding onto your faith is hard enough in the best of circumstances, but when you’re in a period of life like I was with my mom, or when you’re living through all the struggles and challenges teenagers today have, demonizing doubt is the worst thing you can do. I like my kids to know that there is no hole so deep that God can’t pull you out of it. And when you say, “We’re going to talk about how having doubts about God is totally okay, and BTW we’re going to do it using a writer who refers to God as a pinhole of light in a wall smeared with filth,” they DEFINITELY pay attention.
So without any further ado, I now present to you Claire’s Totally Awesome Tried-and-True Nondenominational Half-Caf No-Foam Try-It-Even-If-You-Aren’t-Religious Lectio Divina on Leonard Cohen, As Seen On TV And In Claire’s Confirmation Class At All Saints. Please, please do try this at home. And if you want to know my personal favorite, the last three lines of “When I Have Not Rage” are like my personal mantra.
“Do Not Leave Me Where The Sparks Go Out”:
Doubt and Fear with Leonard Cohen
● Get comfortable. Sit, lay down, sprawl out, however you’re best able to listen and meditate.
● Start with your first poem. Choose someone in the group to read it out loud, slowly and clearly.
● After the reader is finished, everyone should take a minute or so in silence to reflect on what they just heard.
● Choose a second person to read the same passage again. This time, listen for words or phrases that speak to you or catch your attention.
● After the reader is finished, go around in a circle and share the word or phrase that caught you. Don’t share why it stuck out for you, or explain it, or say “I liked this because . . .” Just quote the words and let them resonate with everyone else.
● Now, have a third reader read the poem. This time, focus on a time when you might have felt the same way as the poem’s narrator, and how it might echo your own relationship with God in some way.
● After the third and final reading, take five to seven minutes for either silent meditation or silent journaling.
● After the time is ended, it’s up to your group whether or not they would like to share and discuss their reflections, or simply pray in silence for awhile.
● Repeat the exercise again with your second poem. Do everything as before, except that when you get to the third time through reading it, try to focus on where God is in the poem and what He might be saying to you.
● After your second silent journaling/meditation time is ended, discuss what you thought of the poems and how they resonated with you. Share impressions, phrases that stuck out, and how they might echo your own experience, doubts, fears, etc.
I Draw Aside the Curtain
I draw aside the curtain. You mock us with the beauty of your world. My heart hates the trees, the wind moving the branches, the dead diamond machinery of the sky. I pace the corridor between my teeth and my bladder, angry, murderous, comforted by the smell of my sweat. I weakened myself in your name. In my own eyes I disgraced myself for trusting you, against all evidence, against the prevailing winds of horror, over the bully’s laughter, the torturer’s loyalty, the sweet questions of the sly. Find me here, you whom David found in hell. The skeletons are waiting for your famous mechanical salvation. Swim through the blood, father of mercy. Broadcast your light through the apple of pain, radiant one, sourceless, source of light. I wait for you, king of the dead, here in this garden where you placed me, beside the poisonous grass, miasmal homesteads, black Hebrew gibberish, of pruned grapevines. I wait for you in the springtime of beatings and gross unnecessary death. Direct me out of this, o magnet of the falling cherry petals. Make a truce between my disgust and the impeccable landscape of fields and milky towns. Crush my swollen smallness, infiltrate my shame. Broken in the unemployment of my soul, I have driven a wedge into your world, fallen on both sides of it. Count me back to your mercy with the measures of a bitter song, and do not separate me from my tears.
In the Eyes of Men
In the eyes of men he falls, and in his own eyes too. He falls from his high place, he trips on his achievement. He falls to you, he falls to know you. It is sad, they say. See his disgrace, say the ones at his heel. But he falls radiantly toward the light to which he falls. They cannot see who lifts him as he falls, or how his falling changes, and he himself bewildered till his heart cries out to bless the one who holds him in his falling. And in his fall he hears his heart cry out, his heart explains why he is falling, why he had to fall, and he gives over to the fall. Blessed are you, clasp of the falling. He falls into the sky, he falls into the light, none can hurt him as he falls. Blessed are you, shield of the falling. Wrapped in his fall, concealed within his fall, he finds the place, he is gathered in. While his hair streams back and his clothes tear in the wind, he is held up, comforted, he enters the place of his fall. Blessed are you, embrace of the falling, foundation of the light, master of the human accident.
All My Life
All my life is broken unto you, and all my glory soiled unto you. Do not let the spark of my soul go out in the even sadness. Let me raise the brokenness to you, to the world where the breaking is for love. Do not let the words be mine, but change them into truth. With these lips instruct my heart, and let fall into the world what is broken in the world. Lift me up to the wrestling of faith. Do not leave me where the sparks go out, and the jokes are told in the dark, and new things are called forth and appraised in the scale of the terror. Face me to the rays of love, O source of light, or face me to the majesty of your darkness, but not here, do not leave me here, where death is forgotten, and the new thing grins.
You Who Pour Mercy Into Hell
You who pour mercy into hell, sole authority in the highest and the lowest worlds, let your anger disperse the mist in this aimless place, where even my sins fall short of the mark. Let me be with you again, absolute companion, let me study your ways which are just beyond the hope of evil. Seize my heart out of its fantasy, direct my heart from the fiction of secrecy, you who know the secrets of every heart, whose mercy is to be the secret of longing. Let every heart declare its secret, let every song disclose your love, let us bring you to the sorrows of our freedom. Blessed are you, who opens a gate, in every moment, to enter in truth or tarry in hell. Let me be with you again, let me put this away, you who wait beside me, who have broken down your world to gather hearts. Blessed is your name, blessed is the confession of your name. Kindle the darkness of my calling, let me cry to the one who judges the heart in justice and mercy. Arouse my heart again with the limitless breath you breathe into me, arouse the secret from obscurity.
When I Have Not Rage
When I have not rage or sorrow, and you depart from me, then I am most afraid. When the belly is full, and the mind has its sayings, then I fear for my soul; I rush to you as a child at night breaks into its parents’ room. Do not forget me in my satisfaction. When the heart grins at itself, the world is destroyed. And I am found alone with the husks and the shells. Then the dangerous moment comes: I am too great to ask for help. I have other hopes. I legislate from the fortress of my disappointments, with a set jaw. Overthrow this even terror with a sweet remembrance: when I was with you, when my soul delighted you, when I was what you wanted. My heart sings of your longing for me, and my thoughts climb down to marvel at your mercy. I do not fear as you gather up my days. Your name is the sweetness of time, and you carry me close into the night, speaking consolations, drawing down lights from the sky, saying, See how the night has no terror for one who remembers the Name.
Not Knowing Where to Go
Not knowing where to go, I go to you. Not knowing where to turn, I turn to you. Not knowing what to hold, I bind myself to you. Having lost my way, I make my way to you. Having soiled my heart, I lift my heart to you. Having wasted my days, I bring the heap to you. The great highway covered with debris, I travel on a hair to you. The wall smeared with filth, I go through a pinhole of light. Blocked by every thought, I fly on the wisp of a remembrance. Defeated by silence, here is a place where the silence is more subtle. And here is the opening in defeat. And here is the clasp of the will. And here is the fear of you. And here is the fastening of mercy. Blessed are you, in this man’s moment. Blessed are you, whose presence illuminates outrageous evil. Blessed are you who brings chains out of the darkness. Blessed are you, who waits in the world. Blessed are you, whose name is in the world.