“I don’t know how many times I can do this,” Miriam thought, as she stirred her morning cup of tea and listened to the strains of the Bach Mass in B Minor that streamed from the radio. She couldn’t listen to such music without thinking of those dear days gone by when she had sung in the church choir. She missed the Latin and the glorious polyphony that always lifted her spirits and seemed to provide a window into heaven. She missed the solemnity of the Mass when there weren’t so many distractions to interfere with her being able to concentrate on the Sacred Mysteries being celebrated before her.
Then she could adore in near rapture as the bells rang, summoning her attention to the action at the altar. The smoke from the thurible swirled in graceful puffs. It was particularly thrilling when a ray of sun pierced the stained-glass window and shone through the incense smoke. She always took that convergence of indicators to be a sign of God’s presence and blessing.
She nibbled a piece of jellied toast from which the crusts had been carefully removed. Strawberry was her favorite flavor. If she disciplined herself and relished each bite, her toast could last for a quarter of an hour. And she could offer her morning prayer following upon her pronounced grace.
Her gaze wandered over her kitchen so neatly kept. The floors and counters glistened. She could not tolerate clutter and prided herself in keeping everything in its proper place and the surroundings, spotless. There was a time when there was more of a challenge to her tidiness before her sons had grown and left the home, before her husband told her it was over and he was leaving for a fresh start.
She had not known how to respond when he made his announcement that for years he had felt stifled. What could he have meant? She had pondered his words over and over again and decided he must have been going through a mid-life crisis. He’ll come back someday, she thought. She prayed about that. Wait and see. One day he will realize what he had with her and come home again. She had already decided that she wouldn’t ask any questions. In fact, she would be grateful if he would not share any details of his sojourn away from her, or his dalliances. She would pick up from where they had left off and simply go on.
The clock was inching toward ten. She would have to be getting on her way soon. Her journey would take an hour and fifteen minutes. She wanted to be there by noon. Her path had been carefully charted. She had tried several different routes and settled on the one she took to be the most direct and free from traffic snarls.
As Miriam prayed, she stared at the picture of her son and his partner on the breakfast bar. She always got teary as she saw the rapturous smile on John’s face. His eyes are closed as he leans into Joshua’s chest whose arms enfold him. Joshua smiles broadly and defiantly into the camera.
How long had John, her first-born son, been dead? Could it possibly be a year next month since the choir had sung Stabat Mater as the casket was rolled into the church for the funeral Mass? Joshua, by then confined to a wheel chair, had propelled his way up the aisle in the midst of the family’s procession. Miriam had wondered how many judging eyes had looked away rather than be confronted by the evidence. She had been grateful for the full church and the luscious music specially chosen for the event. She wondered how many of those in attendance were moved and had gone on to wish that kind of music could be part of Sunday Mass again. Afterwards, she was relieved when no one voiced condemning or condescending remarks about john and Joshua.
She rinsed her teacup and placed the cup, saucer, and the plate for her toast in the dishwasher. She carefully wiped any crumbs from the table and straightened the chair. She opened the refrigerator and removed the soup and the wrapped food items that would be Joshua’s noon meal. Steamed chicken breast. Mashed and buttered potatoes. Mixed vegetables. And a bit of bread pudding for dessert. She placed them in her wicker basket. She looked over the containers and hoped she hadn’t forgotten anything. Finally she walked into her bedroom, glanced into her vanity mirror to be sure she looked presentable, put on her coat and gloves, and knew that she was ready.
She opened the back door. When she heard the music, she thought twice about turning off the radio. But then she thought what a comfort the music would be as she re-entered her home after her time with Joshua.
Miriam couldn’t resist looking up to the window as she stepped out of her car with the hope of catching a glimpse of the two of them smiling and waving. The window was empty and the curtains, drawn. Miriam walked up the stairs to the apartment that had been John’s home, too. Her throat always tightened as she fought the expectation that he would open the door when she rang.
She pressed the doorbell and waited a few seconds before letting herself in. She closed the door behind her and paused for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior light. She breathed in the heavy and stale air and thought about cleaning their living room after Joshua had eaten. She knew her touch was needed. That was fine with her. She opened a window in the living room and welcomed the gentle breeze that ruffled the curtains.
“Joshua. It’s me.”
She placed her basket on the dining room table and then made her way down the hall to his room. She rapped once on the door and opened it. The room was dark, the air, stagnant. He lay on his back, propped slightly by two pillows. He had a quilt pulled up tightly to his chin. She could see the stubble on his chin and could smell that it had been some time since he had bathed. Why had her stomach always been so sensitive to foul odors? Oh, God, she thought, get me through this.
She sat on the side of his bed and took his hand. She told him what a joy it was to see him again. She always looked forward to their weekly visit, she said. “How are you feeling?” she asked, as she brushed the hair from his eyes.
“I think I am better this week than I was the last time you were here.” He coughed. Miriam reached for a tissue and wiped his mouth.
“You’re looking better, too,” she said. “I’ll bet you’re getting stronger. It won’t be long and you’ll be taking walks outside again. Just you wait.” She felt his hand squeeze hers ever so slightly. “I’ve fixed your favorite food for lunch. I even brought a lovely white wine to go with the chicken.”
Silence hung heavily between them. She knew that their relationship had strengthened. It wasn’t that long ago that idle chatter had filled every pause. Now there were times when they could be content just to be in each other’s presence. She could read. He could nap. There was peace. But today, the silence was heavy again.
“Joshua, may I?” she asked. He looked at her in a moment of uncertainty. She saw tears well in his eyes as he nodded. She went to the bathroom and filled the tub with steaming water. She added bubble bath to make the bathing more festive. She placed his razor and shaving cream on the side table. Then she returned to Joshua’s bedside and lifted his covers. She leaned over him and put her arms around him to lift him. She felt him tense at first touch and then relax as she helped him from the bed and supported him in his trek to the bathroom. She sat him on the closed toilet and started to turn away and leave him to his bath. His arms hung by his side as he stared into the tub. Then Miriam said again, “May I?”
Carefully she removed his pajamas and stifled a gasp as she was confronted by his gauntness. Then ever so gently she helped him lower himself into the water with an audible sigh. She soaped the washcloth and washed him, hoping she would not tear his skin that hung on him like parchment. She shampooed the wisps of hair on his head and rinsed the suds away. His eyes stared fixedly at her as tears rolled down the hollows of his cheeks. In a whisper barely audible he said, “I think of you as mother. I hope you don’t mind, but you are mother to me.” Miriam hummed a lullaby as she had when John was a little boy.
Later Joshua lay on his stomach and she rubbed his back with aloes. Then she helped him roll over and she buttoned his pajama top. Finally, she massaged ointment into his feet, wiped them, and put socks and slippers on his feet.
“You rest, my dear,” she said. I’ll heat up our lunch and then we will sit at table and share our meal.”
She set three places and poured three glasses of wine. She placed a bread roll by each plate. She set John’s picture near his plate and smiled. Then she noticed the curtain stirring in the living room.
“It’s good to be with you again,” she said. “It seems like such a long time.”
Who can understand the Trinity? Should anyone try? Isn’t it the nature of Mystery to be partly grasped even as the essence escapes comprehension? The Mystery of the Trinity – that is how God is revealed to us who believe. Three persons in one unique nature – God. Father. Son. Holy Spirit. Creator. Redeemer. Sanctifier. One God.
Often, as I pray, I sit before the Rublev icon of the Trinity. Three gloriously clad winged beings sit about a table on which is placed before them a bowl containing the slaughtered and roasted lamb. As I ponder, I can get lost in the icon even as it invites me to enter. Gaze at the mystery and the wonder that is God and become filled with awe. Be humbled as you realize you are invited to enter and complete the circle. It is the nature of the icon as art to be a window into heaven that draws the beholder to come in.
How many times over how many years have I pondered this glorious work? How many times have I struggled to interpret the signs it contains? How many times have I wept at the layers of meaning, the depth of Mystery captured there? Over the years I have prayed for guidance. Always there is silence. Yet, as my prayer time concludes, I feel encouraged. It is the Lord who says: Do not be afraid. I go before you. Come. Follow me.
It is the Father who sits at the left. The heavenly blue fabric, worn by all three, is nearly covered by his ethereal robe of indescribably color. Who can see God? He points to the Son, robed in blue but in earth tones, too. Divinity and humanity come together in the Son. Eyes fixed on the Father, the Son points to the Spirit, the One he sends, the one who makes known all that Jesus taught to beings incapable of comprehending without the Spirit’s said.
Drink in the imagery that emerges in the backdrop. Does that craggy rock about the Spirit represent the steep climb involved in being with the Lord on The Way? Is it the hill Jesus climbed with the burden of sins in the cross on his back, the hill that all those invited to follow him must climb, and once there, die with him? Above the Son is the oak of Mamre, which stood near where Abraham saw the three angelic creatures in the text that is Rublev’s inspiration for the icon. The tree towers over the Three and over the table of sacrifice. The tree provides shade in the heat of he day. One can pause thee and ponder life’s decisions, the faith decisions necessary to make if one is to walk with Christ. It is the tree to which Jesus was nailed that transformed the instrument of defeat and death into the tree of life, our reason to hope. The crag leads to the tree that stands between it and the house above the Father. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. Dying with Christ on the tree is the means of access to the heavenly dwelling.
It was some years before I came to realize that it is not enough to sit and gaze at this masterpiece and so remain apart from it. The truth is, if one prays before the icons/he must yield to the invitation to complete the circle at the table and enter the relationship, the Community that is the nature of our God. Baptism comes to mind, that bath we enter to die and rise, to become identified with Christ, and so recognize that Community lives in us. Nothing separates us. We are one with each other and with the God whose love called us into being. You see why I wept? It is all too wonderful
Leap to God’s words in Genesis at the very dawn of creation? Let us make the earthling in our own image. God breathes life into the clay of the earth. The creature that results cannot live alone and in isolation. The Creature, and all those who share in that creature’s nature, must live in communion that reflects and is part of the community that is God. That community is spousal. That community is intimate friendship in one who is the other half of my soul. That community is church with a membership wide and diverse that is Christ’s body and that shares the life that is the Trinity.
The table in the icon shimmers white, as do the haloes around the heads of the Three. Beyond gold, white is divine. For us the Table is the primary symbol of the presence of Christ and of his sacrifice. The Table is where we are invited to gather and celebrate Eucharist and so share the meal that is Christ’s Body and Blood. That meal transforms those who partake in it. They become his body and so are sent to live what they have eaten, daring to give primacy of place to the poor as a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.
The Triune God loves unconditionally all those made in God’s image and likeness. All are welcome here. Mercy. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Take and eat. Take and drink. And when we do, the whole Church is present and God reigns.
Forgive me if I have rambled. There is much more that comes to mind as I ponder this holy icon. I know that I will continue to pray with it and wonder at its power and mystery. I may fear it. But may the Spirit empower me to enter and so to live.
Much of what passes for religious art irritates me. Perhaps it is because a type of piety is often depicted with which I cannot identify. The saints appear dower, epicene and effeminate. Untouchable and ethereal, in no way do they seem part of the world I inhabit. Insipid is a word that comes to mind.
I don’t mean to be irreverent. Excuse me if I come across as disrespectful. Certainly I do not mean to be an iconoclast. It is just that I think religious art ought to be so much more and ought to depict the struggle of those on the Way with the Lord. Their courageous character should emerge and so inspire. I think of a wood-carved statue of Monica, Augustine’s mother, which I had the privilege to stand before and ponder. The woman stood, head uncovered, staff in hand, and faced into the wind that tugged at her hair and garments. She stood undaunted. Valiant comes to mind.
I remember visiting a church and wandering from art piece to art piece, all the while wanting to retch. My desire was to encounter representations of people whose humanity I share. Granted, the statues represent those already in glory. But I want to be encouraged by them as they were in this world, to see their fragility, to see examples of those who came to understand with Paul that I can do all things in him who strengthens me. And apart from him I can do nothing. Christ is the only explanation for the success of those who walked in the trenches and engaged in the struggle.
What occasions these words on this day of Pentecost is a stained-glass window I saw that represented this feast. Think of the words in Acts: And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, (a hurricane, perhaps) and it filled the entire house in which they were…and there appeared tongues of fire. The placid group in perfectly pleated and flowing robes seemed all too tranquil, free of agitation and disturbance, unlike shat should be the reaction of anyone caught in such a storm. Wouldn’t their clothes be challenged by the wind? Wouldn’t fright register on a face or two? Wouldn’t at least one hold his/her hands to the ears against the noise? I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine sitting calmly while fire descended upon me and danced overhead.
This was not a recurrence of something that had happened before. The group did not know what all of this meant, or how they would be transformed by their experience. They did not know what Christ meant when he said, behold, I make all things new. Where is their terror as their world turns upside down and they come to realize that they will never be the same again?
I am reminded of the words of a theologian who remarked that she was surprised that safety equipment wasn’t distributed to people as they came into church for worship. Don’t they have any idea what they could be in for? Her question: What if it were to happen this time? What if we, the assembled, were to see clearly what we believe happens when we baptize? How could we calmly watch as one of our beloved descends into this pool of abundant water that is both womb and tomb? Wouldn’t we tremble as the earth quakes and the heavens open, and all creation pays heed to the Voice calling the one by name and declaring him/her to be My Beloved One? That’s what the Voice said of Jesus in the Jordan.
Wouldn’t we need seatbelts and life jackets if the Word washed over us and, broken open, entered and transformed us? Wouldn’t we have to hang on for our dear lives if, as hands raised over us and the elements on the altar, if when the Spirit is invoked, like the bread and the wine, our very substance yielded to be transformed into Christ’s body and blood? What about our having to be broken and distributed to be Christ’s loving presence in the world? This action that is Eucharist demands all this of those who take and eat.
We are celebrating Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit, the birthday of the Church. Shouldn’t we experience the pangs, the labor pains, as this new creation is brought forth? I wish our icons and our Liturgical celebrations confronted us, shook us to the core, and called us to that new life Christ’s dying and rising began, rather than lulling us with their romantic piety. It is impossible to identify with those who walked this way before us if they are so stoic. Our art and our rituals should make us realize the wonder of the call and the impossibility of responding without yielding and being empowered by the Spirit.
Then we could stand in awe as possibilities dawned on us. Imagine what would happen if, as did that gathering on the first Pentecost, we threw open the doors and, filled with Christ’s love, and animated by the Spirit, we rushed into the public square and spoke heart to heart with those we met there.
Of course we might have to pour out our lives to convince them. But isn’t that what Pentecost is all about?