Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jesus and Lazarus

In homage to Terence McNally and Theodore Jennings

Asleep on his chest after the dinner they’ve shared with the others, the boy doesn’t really understand what’s about to happen, any more than the rest of them. They all imagine that somehow he’ll wave his hand and the fundamentalist thugs who are coming for him will drop to the ground. Or all but one of them: the one who’s betrayed him to the authorities knows well enough that they won’t.

His heart aches for this innocent, who’s too young to lose his first love–much less to the brutal death almost certainly to come. His desire to spare him such anguish almost swamps the fear he feels for himself.

But it’s all in motion now, and the shit’s about to hit the fan. Even if he wanted to flee, the chances of escaping the net they’ve cast around him for days are negligible. He’s staked everything on blind faith that somewhere--beyond the cold, calculated brutality of those who hate him, beyond the limits of imagination--some good can come of surrender to suffering at the hands of Power for the sake of Love.

He loves them all; has loved them to the end. This boy who slipped into his bed the first night he stayed in the house of the lad’s older sisters. The hairy, thick-chested fishermen he picked up on the shore of the lake. The one everybody still labels as a sellout to the Occupation. Even the politically correct zealot who's already revealed his whereabouts to the Temple mafia.

In the flush of the wine, he’s behaved tonight like an outrageous, theatrical queen: passing bread and wine around the table and telling them all that he’d feed them his body and blood if he could; halfway through the meal, stripping off his robe and washing their feet like a half-naked slave in a bathhouse, his erection tenting the towel around his waist while he cradled his beloved's ankle in his hand.

But he still means all of it. Nudging the boy awake, rousing the others from where they sit, some of them slumped and dozing, some of them gripped by silent, half-comprehending dread, he tells them, time to move on. Time to meet what’s coming next.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saliva, Mud

Tuesdays, the dozen of us who’ve gathered every week so far during Lent to make art together begin with a check-in before we move into our studio space. This week, we started by reading, from Chapter 9 of the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus healing a man born blind.

Jesus spits on the ground to make mud that he then smears on the man’s eyes. The local authorities freak out when he's cured. Getting no answers about how it happened that they’re prepared to accept, they finally drive him out of town. Jesus searches him out, and their conversation ends with Jesus saying, “I’m the one the prophecies are about. If you can see that, you’ve got your sight. The ones who can’t are blind.”

After we’d read the story aloud to each other, we took turns sharing one or two words, at most a single phrase, that had pulled us in. One of us–God bless him–chose, “Saliva. Mud.” It’s the weirdest detail in the whole story, the one least likely to get attention from pious readers. I can’t help but think the way it unsettles well-groomed reverence for a clean-scrubbed Jesus is somehow of a piece with the suspicious, hostile reaction he gets in the story itself. The Savior of the World isn’t supposed to treat bodily fluids and dirt like sacramental substances. Holy Spit is a South Park episode waiting to happen. If Jesus had an NEH grant, he’d lose it over this one, for sure.

Later in the evening, hands figured prominently in our studio work: their outlines sometimes traced carefully in felt marker; but more often covered up to our wrists in acrylic paint and then pressed, rolled, or smeared across the paper. “Saliva, Mud” turned into something of a mantra. What struck me was how readily others in the group embraced it, as eagerly as they plunged into paint when neater media lay to hand as alternatives. In the basement of a respectable, solidly middle-class Anglican church, what most answered our longings was the prospect of an escape from Purity into the riskier territory of Dirt Out of Place.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


One of my all-time favorite New Yorker cartoons is a drawing of two Buddhist monks sitting next to one another, one young, smooth, and puzzled of face, the other wrinkled and clearly cranky, snapping at his junior, “Nothing happens next. This is it.”

The further you burrow down into the joke, the further its petals will open out to embrace you.

I keep coming back to it because I feel in myself, all the time, the urge to find out What Happens Next. Somewhere deep down inside, I’m after the next big splash, the next peak experience, the next shattering revelation. When things just move along as usual, I easily take on the puzzled, naive expression of the younger monk–and in doing so, run the risk of missing that what’s needful is right under my nose. (In fact, probably is my nose.)

“This Is It” is a fair approximation of the oversimplified understanding of Zen teaching that’s insinuated itself into North American pop culture over the last couple of generations. But ironically, along with the stress on what’s right in front of us, the discourse of spiritual self-improvement tends to emphasize the big, cathartic, singular experience that will get us there: we’ll fully embrace the ordinary, just as soon as we get our money’s worth out of our trip to the mountaintop. We want a dramatic opening, a flash of intuition that bowls us over and makes everything different. Then we’ll settle down to accepting that everything’s just the same as it was before–except perfect.

The paradox of wanting it both ways is like being the young monk and the old monk at the same time. It’s also in a sense the paradox of the relation between the two main schools of Zen Buddhism, Rinzai and Soto. It’s Rinzai that long held sway in the American imagination, thanks to the formative influence of D.T. Suzuki.

Rinzai is the Zen of long, rigorous training and radical breaks in consciousness, of going nuts over an insoluble riddle and getting hit by your teacher with a stick when you get it wrong, over and over and over again; of the kensho, the opening, that cuts through illusion and reveals the inherent Buddha-nature of all things as they are.

Soto is the Zen of quiet of contemplation, of just sitting by a lake, or in front of a flower, or over a cup of tea. The distinction in Japan is a class-based distinction: Rinzai was long characterized as the Zen of the samurai; Soto was the Zen of ordinary people, of farmers and shopkeepers.

The Rinzai impulse as it plays out in New Age workshop culture can turn into the macho pyrotechnics of extreme spiritual sports, up to and including incompetently conducted sweat lodges that participants leave feet first.

The Soto impulse can lead to people passing around tacky polished stones with words like TRANQUILLITY carved into them.

I struggle with this all the time. I struggle with it these days while leading a six-week art-based Lenten practice, “Restoring the Wellsprings,” at the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto. Holding space for the dozen people who meet Tuesday evenings to share their inner explorations and make art together, I want it both ways. I tell myself I’m aiming to facilitate a place of calm where people can come forward in response to the still, small voice. But I also find myself asking whether I’ve made enough room for the heightened intensity that can come with focused interaction, the jolt of surprise that something profound and exceptional is opening up for them. The fact is, in striving for either, I’m also playing out the disparate desires I have for my own life.