Tuesday of Holy Week I sat in the sanctuary at Melbourne Beach and watched Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion with just a handful of people. The Passion follows the Gospel exactly, with interspersed arias commenting on the events. It is staged, not as theater, but as a meditation or a prayer. Thomas Quasthoff, a highly regarded bass-baritone from Germany, brought the depth of the story to life as he sang from a soul that only someone with the physical deformities he lives with could possess.
The best way to describe the experience is that it reached into my heart and unlocked portions that I intentionally do not open. They are the places where I store my sadness.
I suspect you have such places within you as well. These rooms in my heart contain my most painful memories–wisps of the voices and laughter of those I have loved who were taken from this world when their lives had only just begun. They contain an accumulation of sorrow based on human’s capacity for cruelty: world events, tragedies, injustices, passages we’ve read and movie scenes we’ve absorbed that can never be unread or unseen.
It occurred to me as I was watching that I keep these rooms in my heart under lock and key because I have this sense that if I go into them, my tears will overtake me and I may not come back out.
When I was very young, my grandmother would ask my brother and I to go into the basement cellar and get a ball jar of peaches she had canned. She always asked us to do this in an offhand way; she continued on with her cooking fully expecting us to go and be back promptly with the item she needed.
My brother and I negotiated every step as we descended to that cold, dank place. In the cellar, there was a small window at the top of the cinder block wall where a small bit of light came through, muted by cobwebs in front of it and the muddy rain that had left marks on the glass.
When we finally reached the last step, one of us would run into the cellar, grab the ball jar filled with the peaches, and race back to the bottom step where the other would be waiting, one hand on the railing, the other extended to pull in the brave runner before the cellar had a chance to suck them back into its lair. The tension that accumulated through this ritual then gave way to delight as we squealed and raced to the top of the stairs together, free once more to soak in the sun through windows not marred by webs or rain.
That’s what it felt like at the end of St. Matthew’s Passion. The music and artistry of the performance forced me to go into the cellar of my heart and acknowledge the scary things I keep there. I emerged with my breath quickened and my senses more alive. Inspiration coursed through me in a new way. It was as if my efforts to not disturb my collection of sadness had been taking the energy that was now set free by doing the very thing I had so carefully resisted.
When the dishes were cleared away and the scent of beef stew and biscuits still lingered in my grandmother’s warm kitchen, my brother and I would sit at the table with our family and let the warm peach cobbler rest on our tongues a few seconds as we savored its sweet syrup. I can feel the corners of my closed mouth turn up with the memory even now.
My new experience showed me this: it is as if on Maundy Thursday, we go into the cellar. On Good Friday, we reach the bottom stair and see the cobwebs and the grey stone walls looming. And on Easter, we race from the tomb, carrying the Good News – the prize that will bring us comfort as we savor it with all those who gather with us at the table.
St. Matthew’s Passion reminded me that we don’t get to the cobbler unless we go into the cellar for the peaches. And that our sad is rarely as all-consuming as we fear, especially when we open the door to it with our sisters and brothers who go to the entrance with us, holding onto the hope of resurrection.
I imagine Jesus now, with one scarred hand on the railing, and the other reaching out to pull we who are fearful, through our fears and into the marvelous light.