by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM March 20, 2020
Sometimes the very element that can inspire, call us to awe, or put into perspective what’s happening around us is the one thing we don’t see because our focus is solely and entirely elsewhere.
I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, but a visit there is on my bucket list. I haven’t yet met anyone who traveled to that natural site and left without feeling something close to humility and awe in the presence of the canyon’s vastness and stunning beauty. But in More Together Than Alone, Mark Nepo relates that in 1540, Captain García López de Cárdenas, with the aid of Hopi guides, led Spanish soldiers down the magnificent rim of what we now call the Grand Canyon. He had been charged with finding the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, which were rumored to be cities of gold.
Nepo relates that the soldiers, not finding what they were looking for, “turned their backs on one of the world’s natural wonders and left. They showed no interest in the culture or wisdom of the Hopi nation or the Zuni people who had created the Seven Cities of Cibola. They only had one form of gold in mind.”
And so they left. And turned their backs. And failed to notice other kinds of gold right in front of them. Intent on only one thing, they were blinded to both the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and the cultural treasures of the Hope nation and Zuni people.
How might this story speak to us at a time when the attention of the global community is focused on the corona virus, COVID-19? Of course our attention rightly needs to be on following all the measures of vigilant self-protection, of caring for ourselves and for others in ways that prevent the spread of this highly contagious disease. And these practices must continue, along with our prayer for all those whose lives have been upended.
At the same time, we don’t want to miss another reality. Life as we know it has changed dramatically, but if our focus is only and entirely on the virus and nothing else, we risk being blinded to a form of gold right in front of us: acts of heroism and compassion and altruism and beauty unfolding in the midst of this pandemic and in our cherished histories.
How are we meant to be in a time of crisis? The witness of artists and spiritual leaders–and often they are one and the same—offers a response. We’re reminded of Paul Robeson, whose passport to travel into Canada was revoked because of his outspokenness during the civil rights movement. Denied the ability to cross that border, he parked himself at the crossing and sang across the boundaries from the U.S. to Canada. His body remained in the U.S. but his voice knew no restrictions.
We’re reminded of Vedran Smailovic, cellist with the Sarajevo Orchestra, who, on the day after the bombing of a bakery that killed 22 desperate people lined up for a crust of bread for their families, sat himself down in the rubble and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. He did this for 22 days in remembrance of the 22 people killed. The citizens of Sarajevo credit him with helping them to endure the siege of their city, keeping alive the hope that peace and beauty would one day return.
We’re reminded of Yo Yo Ma, seated in the shadow of a Texas border crossing into Mexico, sending the music of Bach to listeners gathered on both sides. He imagined it as a cultural bridge, an experience of beauty uniting both the people of Mexico and the people of the United States during a time of division and separateness.
We’re reminded of a nameless woman who, during an oppressive regime, boldly stepped out of a crowd, smiled, and placed a flower into the barrel of a soldier’s gun as he marched by.
These memorable acts of beauty are also acts of defiance. They are the artists’ way of reminding us that current realities, no matter how seemingly full of hopelessness, are not ultimate, that current realities are not the last word spoken from a bleak landscape. It’s not easy to remain hopeful in times of crisis, but these acts of defiance, these acts of creating the beautiful, are the artists’ emphatic refusal to give in to despair.
They are a reminder that even in these times, or in any time of crisis, beauty is all around us, if only we can see. We may find it in a Skype or Zoom chat, a phone call, a book, song, film, or video, a walk outside, a budding tree, a blooming house plant, and so much more. So in the midst of our new normal, what will we choose to notice, create, imagine, experience, or pay attention to today?
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
In the quiet, notice your breath.
Begin to intentionally inhale and exhale at a slower pace.
Sit with this slow breathing as you call to mind an experience of beauty.
Savor the memory and breathe with awareness for several minutes.
Place your trust in the Holy One and close with a deep breath.
Please hold in your prayer all who would have been part of any retreats or presentations I expected to be leading in March and April, as well as the groups or centers hosting those gatherings. For the safety and well-being of participants, those events have been canceled. May we all experience peace, good health, and moments of beauty during the coming days.
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