Poem: “Bethel”

About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.

The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.

I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.

But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m  learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.

In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.

Bethel
by Jordan Denari

This spot

where I place a stone
where the sparrow falls
and hovers like love over the waters
where He breaks a branch,
a rung on the ladder,
     and His foot touches earth near me.

where there’s a ringing in my ears,
     a tight, breathless squeezing
where fire passes between
     two wrestling beings
where I’m shoved into a cliff face
     and down into a ditch.

where a ram is found in the thicket
where mothers clutch branches of date
     and sal trees
where a father runs to me, though I was a long way off.

where the Lover leaps across the hills
     and knocks at my door
     so sweetly asking for your address.

where the lilies no longer toil and spin
where light is poured back in
where the stone is rolled away
    and the Gardener calls my name. 

Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.
Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.

Me and Mary Magdalene

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. (Mark 16:1)

I press my face against the pink, veined marble slab, smeared with a fragrant oil that lingers on my neck and hands.  As I push myself from the cold ground, a tension forms in my throat and my vision blurs, but I can’t explain why I’m crying.

Why do tears build above my lower lids, if I know that this rose-colored stone is not where Jesus’ body was washed and wrapped?  If I know that this black sepulcher, whose ashy walls rise into the shadows of the ancient church, is not its final resting place?

Wandering through the empty darkness, I find the chapel of Mary Magdalene situated next to the sepulcher, where a small group of priests, nuns, and brown-clad monks chant the Latin Mass.  The words are strange to my ear but the familiar intonation, which I haven’t heard in months, awakens the waters deep within the well of my chest and draws up buckets that slosh over my lap.  So I sit in Mary’s pews, crying, not wanting to leave the tomb.

And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave. (Matthew 27:61)

~~~

Days later, I wander through a garden, the purple light of dawn rising over the rock-hewn tomb, and the breeze gently tapping the trees’ leaves.  I’ve imagined this place countless times before—even the red flowers that pop through the dirt and the boulders resting on their sides.

The worshippers packed in rows for the sunrise Easter service are only apparitions that float away like mist, and their loud songs of praise are muffled by the quiet coos of doves resting in the twisted arms of olive trees.

Like the woman with dark hair and a red shawl who waited in this garden many years ago, I too sit alone, waiting for a friend to call my name.

And just like he promised, there he is.  On the stone steps, under the green branches that dip and bend.

He pulls me in, my face pressed into the crevice of his shoulder.  Into the white, woven linen that smells of the oil I spread across the pink marble.

I am drawn in, sown in tightly like the threads that rub against my cheek.  I wonder if this embrace has lasted for eternity, and then realize that eternity itself is this embrace.

When he steps away, and when the mist condenses into human forms once again, the scent of oil lingers in my hair.

I feel a flutter of white wings, splashing around in the waters of my chest.  The wind slips across my neck and drags a trail of clear water down my face.

I now realize why I cried in the dark church.  It’s because I, like Mary, desire to be close to Jesus.

And, I cry here, in the brightness of the sunrise, because I, like Mary, am so desired by God, and pulled into his warm embrace.

She turned around and saw Jesus there…[He] said to her, “Mary!” (John 20: 14, 16)

~~~

This piece describes my visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which are both considered potential sites for the Jesus’ burial and resurrection.  My experience in the garden was shaped by my favorite resurrection account in the Gospel of John, which was read at the sunrise Easter service I attended there.   

I would like to thank a Georgetown Jesuit who introduced me to this story, which has greatly shaped the way I approach my life with God.

Last Easter, which was coincidentally one year ago today, I wrote about Mary Magdalene as well.  That reflection, Praying with Mary Magdalene, is closely linked to this one.

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
A pilgrim reverencing a stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that commemorates the washing of Jesus' body before burial in the sepulchre. The slab was only placed in the church within the last two centuries, to replace a 12th century one that was there previously.
A sculpture in the chapel of Mary Magdalene in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus appears to Mary after the resurrection.
In the Garden Tomb at sunrise on Easter Sunday.
The red flowers that I'd always imagined in the Garden Tomb, without knowing they were actually there.

Easter Sunday: Praying with Mary Magdalene

"Mary Magdalene of the Tears" by Tanya Torres (2010)

In the purple light of the morning, sitting front of the empty, open tomb, Mary Magdalene weeps in the garden alone.  ‘How could they have taken my Lord? Who did this?’ She pushes herself up off the rock, wiping under her eyes with her red scarf and wrapping it more tightly around her.  Once again, she peers into the darkness of the cave and begins to climb in, knowing she won’t find her friend but hoping to sit in the place where he last rested.  The scent of myrrh and burial spices mix with the aroma of red flowers outside.

Jumping back, Mary sees two winged men in white, sitting on the platform where the body was laid.  Feeling a gentle hand grasp her elbow, she spins around to find another man behind her.

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’” (John 20:15)  She pleads frantically, wanting nothing more than to know the whereabouts of her teacher.

The man peers down, looks into her eyes, and when he says her name, she recognizes him as her friend, her savior. In a mix of laughter and sobs, the friends embrace, as the pinkness of dawn creeps across the grass and seeps into boulders’ cracks.

In the Gospel of John, from which this resurrection account is adapted, Mary’s prayer is simple.  She asks God, the gardener, about the whereabouts of Jesus’ body.  All she wants is to find and protect his body, in order to honor his life and work.

God answers Mary’s prayer, but not as she expects.  He doesn’t give her what she asks for, but something better.

He Qi's "He Is Risen"

Often our prayers are like Mary’s.  Though we ask for one thing, God surprises us with another.  This doesn’t mean that God isn’t answering our prayers.  Rather, God’s answers are better than ones we could ever imagine for ourselves.

After she meets the resurrected Jesus, Mary runs into the city to tell the apostles.  I imagine her running with a lightness in her chest, sniffing back happy tears, and praying a prayer like this one:

I asked God for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn to obey.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise
I asked for power, that I might have praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given real life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hope for;
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among, all men, most richly blessed.

–A prayer found in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier

Happy Easter!