Saturday, September 11, 2010

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Yesterday my students and I talked about Abraham.  Our seventy minute class turned into a full 90 minutes, as we processed how timely this discussion was in light of other discussions about burning Qu'rans and building sacred centers near hallowed ground. We interrogated the meaning of the word covenant and that unbroken thread of faith that acts as a cord, tying our hearts and our actions to something bigger and older than ourselves.  We looked at a family tree, tracing with our fingertips the lines from Abraham to Levi and Dinah, and stopping with Moses. We spent a good bit of time unraveling the story of two sons, Isaac and Ishmael who went their separate ways and never looked back.  We chewed on the meaning of sacrifice, compassion, and ownership over words and stories. We studied images of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Mosque of Abraham, contemplating the meaning of sacred space.  We had a discussion about the now-frequently used phrase this time of the year: "Never Forget."  As one student said, "If we haven't forgotten about all of this history we are learning, how could we forget this?"

I asked one girl who had visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem to read these words from a Muslim text recounting the story of Abraham's sacrifice to God, which she did beautifully:

                            As the boy lies stunned on the altar, God gazes down with pride and compassion and promises to grant his  any prayer. "0 Lord, I pray this," the boy says. "When any person in any era meets you at 
\the gates of heaven-so long as they believe in one God-I ask that you allow them to enter paradise."

She commented after reading this, "You know, I am a devout Jew.  And my name is Arab.  When I went to Jerusalem, we visited a famous Muslim bakery that bore our family name.  And the family gave us sweets and welcomed us into their kitchen.  So I guess what this means to me is that we are all family after all, whether we are descended from Isaac or Ishmael.  And maybe that is why the Muslim text doesn't identify the boy as  one or the other.  Maybe like me, he is both."

Spiritual inquiry at its finest. 

I thought of  the Yeats poem, The Second Coming, set to song by Joni Mitchell with the title, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I have always loved this song and the urgent imperative behind the title phrase.  So we listened to it - an impromptu exposure to two artists with whom the girls were not familiar.  What a lovely way to meet both at once:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
                                                 -William Butler Yeats

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joni Mitchell

"Wow," said another of my students, "will we ever learn how to stand up straight?"  I looked at the girl who is both Isaac and Ishmael.  She shook her head slowly and said "Maybe it is the burden of faith that makes us slouch."