Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Passion and Action in Holy Week

-- By Tom Phillips

Why do we call the last days of Jesus's life on earth his "Passion?"  The answer surprised me.

 I always thought "passion" referred to the emotions Jesus felt and expressed during his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word originates in Christian theology, and its first meaning is simply “the suffering of pain.”  Its second definition is “the fact of being acted upon, the being passive.”   

Andrea Mantegna, "Ecce Homo" c.1500
In “The Road to Daybreak,” the late Catholic teacher Henri Nouwen wrote that the moment of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane is “a turning point from action to passion. After years of teaching, preaching, healing, and moving to wherever he wanted to go, Jesus is handed over to his enemies. Things are no longer done by him, but to him. He is flagellated, crowned with thorns, spat at, laughed at, stripped, and nailed naked to a cross… From the moment Jesus is handed over, his passion begins, and through this passion he fulfills his vocation.”    

Nouwen says that though we tend to think of our lives as what we do, passion is really a much greater determinant. What is done to us counts for more than what we are able to do on our own. In the case of poor, imprisoned, enslaved or disabled people, what is done to them is all or nearly all of life. Their only freedom is how they respond.    

If Jesus had not suffered and died on the cross, he might have been remembered as a charismatic rabbi who taught his disciples a radical form of Judaism.  The action of his life was not all that different from other itinerant religious teachers.  It was in the passion, the “drinking of the cup” that he fulfilled his vocation -- to show the way through suffering and death to life.  

After the resurrection, Jesus spoke to his disciple Peter about the kind of death he too would die:  “When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)  

He said this to indicate not just the kind of death Peter would die, but where any of us may be bound.  When my wife’s grandmother was near 90 she developed Alzheimer’s Disease and couldn’t live on her own.  So the family took her to a nursing home.  She tried to walk out, failed repeatedly, and finally died in a place not her own.  The same happened to my mother, who died cursing her surroundings in an overdecorated hospice, a place she did not wish to go.  "Get me out of here," she kept muttering.    

Jesus’ end is still a mystery. We hear orchestral settings of the “Seven Last Words of Christ,” but these disparate sayings from different gospels don’t add up to a coherent whole.  The only one that seems unmistakably authentic is the cry of agony, the only “last words” recorded in Mark, the earliest of the gospels.  “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabacthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Mark 15:34)  This sounds like Jesus was losing his faith on the cross, but in fact he was quoting scripture, a psalm of David, a psalm that ends with deliverance.   

Thinking about our own lives in terms of passion rather than action puts them in a new light.  The test of character is not so much what we've been able to accomplish, but how we respond to what happens to us.  I've tended to see what happens to me as an annoying interruption, an invasion of my privacy, an assault on my integrity, rather than a God-given or existential circumstance.  Holy Week is a chance to honor ourselves less, and life more. 


-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips
"Ecce Homo" by Andrea Mantegna, c,1500

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just Say What?

-- By Tom Phillips

When I was a little boy, my mother told me about a sacred syllable with mysterious psychic powers.  Om” or “Aum” was said to be the sound of all sounds, rolling up from the deepest recesses of the throat, echoing through the cave of the mouth, then closing with a meditative hum as the lips closed, sealing in its secret wisdom.   

In my twenties and thirties, at the Integral Yoga Institute on 13th Street, I chanted “Om” assiduously.  The instructors said chanting it could produce a state of perfect peace, and it seemed to work, at least within the confines of the yoga institute.  However, the effect faded as soon as you hit the street.  I tried walking on 42nd Street, the busiest, noisiest, most colorful and seductive street of all, looking neither right nor left, inwardly chanting “Om.  It could be done, but it felt stupid.  This was a way of willfully devaluing the hubbub around me, and clinging to my calm center, but it didn’t really block anything out, just placed me at a psychological distance from my surroundings.  It was the aural equivalent of navel-gazing.   

As a Zen student in my thirties and forties, I chanted Buddhist sutras and prayers in circular, repetitive form.  These greatly calmed the mind, and invoked powers of compassion and insight, and determination to drive on toward enlightenment.  But given the great complexity and subtlety of Buddhist philosophy, there could be no one syllable that said it all.   

As a harried worker and anxious father in my forties and fifties, I copied Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!” This provided temporary relief when frustrated or exasperated.  It was like an explosion, a blowing off of the whole impossible situation.  It amused my co-workers, but had little or no spiritual value.   

During these years I was not consciously looking for a one-syllable answer to life’s problems.  But something in me was still scanning the vast universe of sounds and letters, like a beachcomber waving his metal wand over the innumerable sands, searching for a lost gold ring.  And one day, reader, I found it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cuisine Soignee a la Brigitte

-- By Tom Phillips

My wife is a Presbyterian minister, the solo pastor in a thriving, active suburban church. Many days she comes home from work in late afternoon, then heads out again across the George Washington Bridge for an evening meeting.  My job is to keep her nourished, healthy and happy, and let her know how much she is loved and appreciated at home.  All this can be accomplished with a delicious home-cooked dinner, dished up on time.  I take this as a duty and a delight, in the spirit of the woman who taught me most of what I know about cooking, and who blessed our marriage from the beginning, in more ways than she knew.  

If you think I’m talking about my mother, you couldn’t be more wrong. She hated to cook, and never learned how.  “Food is fuel,” she fumed, refusing to put any more than minimal thought and care into her meals.   No, the woman who taught me was Brigitte Catapano, proprietress of Chez Brigitte at 77½ Greenwich Avenue, the smallest restaurant in New York, where I dined alone most evenings in the 1970s.