Nine portions of beauty, nine portions of sorrow

“Ten portions of beauty God gave to the world,” sang Fuad Dagher, Canon for Reconciliation Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, in the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. “Ten portions of beauty God gave to the world,” he sang, “nine to Jerusalem, one to the rest. Ten portions of sorrow God gave to the world, nine to Jerusalem, one to the rest.” Dagher sang and spoke powerfully of the need for justice, reconciliation, and peace for all the people who live in the land of the Holy One.

As I sang along to the refrain of this song, I confess I wondered how enthusiastically my new friend Fuad would sing it if he saw the astonishing beauty of the Olympic Mountains as the sun sets behind them and covers Seattle in gold. But I won’t quibble. I understand the song, and on this my second trip to Jerusalem, I can appreciate both the beauty and the sorrow that distinguish this great city, for both good and ill, among all the beautiful and heartbreaking cities of the world.

Monrovia is another city that has received generous portions of beauty and sorrow. This week I am part of a group of about a dozen members of the Virginia Seminary community (students, staff, and faculty) who have traveled to Jerusalem to meet with groups from Tanzania, the Diocese of Jerusalem, and Liberia in the Building Dialogue across Conflict project, an effort designed to deepen relationships and conversation between different members of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Our efforts will culminate in a joint paper and other writings, but our primary purpose is to practice this dialogue ourselves, hopefully to return to our homes with a greater understanding of God’s mission for peace in the world. The other day, we listened as our friends from Liberia told some of their stories.

Over the years, I occasionally encountered the name of exiled leader Charles Taylor and read about his involvement in the conflicts in Liberia, but I did not know until this week that Liberia suffered two civil wars over the years of 1989-2003, and that several generations of Liberians have been profoundly traumatized by that conflict. I certainly did not know about the Zogos, the many young people in Liberia who have gotten lost in a terrifying world of drugs, homelessness, and ongoing social and political disruption. Some of them have been found in graveyards, literally living in the vaults of graves, suffering prolonged and profound drug addiction, the children and grandchildren of a terrible war.

And I did not know about the mothers of Liberia, many of whom lost their whole families, who became catalysts for peace by laying their bodies down upon the soil of their land in perpetual prayer, refusing to do anything but pray for peace, until finally, after incalculable suffering, peace came. These mothers refused to play their part in the normal functioning of society, demanding instead that life will not continue unless their husbands and brothers and sons put down their weapons. Lying prostrate in the mud, their spirits rose mightily in power. I quietly smiled as I thought of the ancient play by Aristophanes, “Lysistrata,” in which the women refuse to sleep with their husbands until their husbands pursue peace. But in Liberia, this was not farce, not even a little.

So much beauty; so much sorrow.

One of my friends on this mission, Valerie Mayo, is recording our thoughts and reflections for video materials that will be published in the coming months. As we prepare to be interviewed by Valerie, she wants us to reflect on hope. Where do I find hope? Do I have hope? What is hope? I think I have my first answer. I find hope in Jesus, who died and was buried.

This is what I mean. The other morning, I walked from St. George’s College to the guest house nearby, and it was one of the times of day when Jerusalem’s nine portions of beauty shine vividly: in the early morning, before the punishing sun, the breezes are sweet and the multitudes of birds, like the mothers of Liberia, simply will not be silenced. In that moment of beauty in this City of Peace, I reflected again on the Zogos, the lost children who sleep in graves. Their plight throws up in my face the reality of death in the midst of life. Their suffering cannot be ignored. Where is hope? How is hope not simply a facile mockery of all this suffering?

My first instinct was to find hope in their mothers, their aunts, their grandmothers, their elders who lay face-down in the mud until justice would come to their land. Yes, there is hope in these women, in their determination, in their boundless passion. God is with these women; God speaks with their bodies; God proclaims life in the midst of death in their voices. But I noticed a quieter, yet deeper hope in my heart. I noticed that for some reason I felt hope in the children themselves, lost as so many of them are in a terrifying world of illness, loneliness and death. “Yet even at the grave,” we sing in the burial rite of the Episcopal Church, “yet even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” In Liberia we encounter our fellow human beings literally living in graves! And yet, I felt in my heart a quiet yet persistent hope that God is there with them in those graves. Christians proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, who by death joined us in his resurrection, and who by his burial in a grave hallowed all of the graves of our beloved dead. Christians find Jesus in the graves of the Zogos; we find Jesus not only in the majestic beauty and tremendous courage of the mothers of Liberia, but also in the center of the most fearful and lonely heart of a Liberian youth. Somehow, some way, Jesus is there, too.

Hanging on the wall back home is one of my favorite images of Our Lady of Sorrows, a painting of Mary that evokes for me the depth of her sorrow, a sorrow she freely accepted, the sorrow of an inconsolable mother whose son was killed. Even after the resurrection, I see in Our Lady of Sorrows an awareness that things will never be the same. She watched her son die: nothing can take this sorrow from her. Yes, her son triumphed over sin and death and reached deep into hell to pull Adam and Eve, our forbears, from the graves they had dug for themselves. Yes, Mary knows this hope. But there is hope even before the hope of resurrection. There is hope in the heart of the inconsolable, hope in the eyes of the sick and the lonely, hope in the drug-addled but beautiful bodies of the Zogos. Our Lady of Sorrows does not bid us to wallow in grief. Her tears are not maudlin. Her anguish is not an endless, deathward cry of despair. Her sorrow proclaims this Gospel: Mary’s son joins us in the darkest graves we construct for ourselves. In his death on the cross, Jesus lies down in death as the Human One in a sarcophagus made by us, a vault of death that is the work of human hands. And so, then, hope is found here, in this awful place. It is a Holy Saturday hope. No one in that darkness is alone, for Jesus is there. No one in that darkness is lost in despair, for Jesus lies alongside them. No one in that darkness fails to glimpse the first faint rays of golden light that gleam in the midst of death.

This is where I find my hope. Right here, among these graves. All my life I have constructed my share of graves, for myself and for others, and one day I will be placed in a grave of my own. All our glad songs of praise and thanksgiving cannot obscure the reality of our many graveyards. No, they only clarify that reality, and force us to look at it unflinchingly. Death is all too real. But our Lord Jesus has gone even into these graveyards, and there we truly encounter the Good News of resurrection. There we sing our song of beauty and sorrow, and there our threefold song of alleluia finds its most joyful refrain.

Our Lady of Sorrows, by Christina Miller.

Our Lady of Sorrows, by Christina Miller.