Meals to remember
We sat around a long table on Maundy Thursday evening with a light feast spread down its length: chocolates, thin bread slices and fancy French cheeses, peanuts and cashews, dried apricots, strawberries, celery, tomatoes and broccoli — all provided by our pastor, Kevin Matthews.
I volunteered to read the Old Testament Scripture from Exodus about the slaughter of the lambs, the marking of the doorposts and the lintel, the feast of roasted animal flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, eaten with loins girded, staff in your hand — eaten in haste. About the sweet relief of being spared and protected: “The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you….”
Our observance of Jesus’ last supper draws from an older tradition, of course, because we believe that Jesus and his disciples were observing Passover during that last meal imbued with the portents of death and the sense that time together was fleeting and precious. It struck me that Christians and Jews share this deeply moving spiritual tradition and observe it almost simultaneously.
Jesus’ story puts a spin on the Passover story, of course, because here in this instance there would not be a reprieve. But there’s something about a shared meal that’s deeply moving, and I know that dynamic plays across both religious traditions. My friend Jane Redmont, who teaches at Guilford
College, began her homily for the service with an observation about the role of meals in the stories handed down to us about Jesus’ ministry. She said that the Gospels tells us about many meals Jesus shared with people — poor people, rich people, sex workers, in the countryside and in the city.
The part of Jane’s homily that really got to me, however, was her account of three premonitions of loved ones’ death — moments shared somehow with persons facing death and the blessing of having the opportunity to honor a relationship and say goodbye.
At this moment, I flashed to my own experience with premonition of death. It was an important moment in my life that, fittingly, was imbued with significance from the Jewish tradition.
First, I should explain my deep appreciation for the
work of the poet Allen Ginsberg. I’m pretty certain I first learned about Ginsberg in 1990 when my dad gave me a copy of Harper’s magazine containing a reprinted interview with the poet. Within a couple years I would be writing my own poems, going on the road and publishing. The work and artistic relationships of Ginsberg’s beat school of poetry gave me a model for how to do it. I strongly related to Ginsberg’s anti-war and anti-imperialist politics. And although I grew up as a heterosexual farm boy in rural Kentucky, I was attracted to Ginsberg’s Jewish-socialist-homosexual persona because it made him the ultimate outsider tilting spontaneous, heart-centered poetics against a dehumanized and institutionalized society.
Now, back to the moment — as mystical an encounter as I’ve ever had.
I was living in Brooklyn learning how to be a writer and engaged citizen, and flirting with the craft of journalism. I took the train across the East River for a collective reading of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” by a group of poets and performers in a bar in the Lower East Side. Based on the Jewish prayer of the same name, “Kaddish” was written by Ginsberg to mourn the death of his mother, Naomi.
My friend Cathy Tingle, who was my mother’s age, was dying of cancer back in Kentucky. It was December 2000. I knew that her time was short. This fact may have not been foremost in my mind, but it was certainly hovering in my subconscious.
Was it here in this passage?
Ai! ai! We do worse! We are in a fix!
And you’re out, Death let you out, Death had the Mercy, you’re done with your century, done with God, done with the path thru it — Done with yourself at last — Pure
— Back to the Babe dark before your father, before us all — before the world
Suddenly, like being bathed in a warm light, I felt Cathy’s presence surrounding me. I didn’t feel her death, but instead the blessing of her life, her love for me and for all in her wide circle, as if every kind gesture and act of conscience from her life were distilled into a singled diamond-like essence.
Cathy was the coolest person I ever knew. She was weird by the conventions of the world, but that’s usually the price one pays to live an authentic life. She raised three children by three different fathers. She worked as a teacher’s assistant and ditch digger — the latter was the better paying job, she said. She bought a deteriorating elementary school that had been decommissioned in the late 1960s with her boyfriend.
For most of the time I knew them, they had buckets in the main room collecting leaking rainwater.
Although Cathy attended church with my mom near the end of her life, that was the least noteworthy aspect of her faith. She had a Christ-like generosity and non-judging quality in her interactions with others. Her home, which we called “the school house,” was the site of annual “orphan’s Thanksgiving” meals for all comers. Alcoholic bachelors took up seats in the kitchen. Nomadic hippie families drove out from Lexington. Teenagers gathered in the main room and shouted the lyrics of Metallica’s “One”: “Hold my breath as I wish for death/ Oh please God, wake me.”
The school house was a refuge for intellectual rebels, malcontents, wounded souls and idealists.
Now I know that Christ was there also.