And remain silent?
Arthur Schopenhauer, 30 July 1804, on descending Schneekoppe mountain
A little more than a week ago my son, Eric, grandson, Erick, and I set out to climb Old Rag Mountain, in magnificent Madison County. We got a somewhat late start–noon had already passed when we set out on the Ridge Trail, at Nethers, for the five and a half hour trek–meaning that our return by the Saddle Trail, along the gentler, south slope, would be completed in a steadily descending dusk. The autumn cool was perfect for hiking, with pale sunshine coming through the haze as we trudged the ascending trail–until the haze deepened into mist and the mist into cloud.
At 3268 feet, Old Rag is not the highest peak in the Shenandoah National Park; that would be Hawksbill, at 4050 feet, aptly named for its sharply curved face. Hawksbill stands a couple of miles southwest of Old Rag, and hosts the Appalachian Trail. But Old Rag stands apart. Instead of the smooth contours of the long Blue Ridge, it is capped by crags and huge boulders. No wonder Old Raggedy is such a popular climb–not a bother but a blessing, to have fellow-climbers at some of the wildly steep-and-tight spots, ready to give you a hand or a fanny-boost. Son Eric, a serious runner, scaled the rocks handily. Grandson Erick scrambled and leapt, scorning my warnings about the dire consequences of a sprained ankle. I labored along, as steadily as I could–what was Goethe’s motto? Oh yes: “Without rest, without haste.”
The sun disappeared as we ascended. A chilly breeze moved me to don my previously discarded sweater once again. I had been up Old Rag several times before, but had never ascended into a low-lying cloud, as we did this day. So, no grand views of the valleys far beyond and below? Just all this fog? I knew the mountain’s way of fooling you into thinking you were almost at the summit, only to discover that another summit, and yet another, lay somewhere beyond those massive rocks. What playful, superhuman forces put them here? (And how can we help personifying them?)
On the last ascent we came into the sunlight again, as if emerging from Plato’s Cave into another, a brilliant, world. We were set afloat. Arthur Schopenhauer, who crafted a whole philosophy out of pessimism, had his mountaintop experience by reaching the peak at sunrise: “Like a transparent ball and much less radiant than when one views it from below, the sun floated up an cast its first rays on us, mirrored itself first in our delighted glances. . . .”
One suspects that old Schopenhauer, who as a young man felt he could not “climb and remain silent,” came to recognize that language reaches its limits in the face of our most profound experiences. Bone-deep weary, I felt at once exhilarated and quieted. Schopenhauer has been compared to another Teutonic sage, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What one cannot speak about one must remain silent about.”
The descent from the mountain top remained before us. Again the sun faded into the fog, as we negotiated the long, darkening, rocky path, step by step by step. Now Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seemed more sensible than Arthur or Ludwig: “Ohne Hast, aber ohne Rast.”
Here follow words written to honor the memory of a great friend, a colleague in Unitarian ministry, and one of the most extraordinary men I have known. How so? That story is told in the oral history I wrote with his cooperation several years ago, Feribacsi In His Own Words (see publications page of this blog).
My words were occasioned by the funeral of the Reverend Nagy Ferenc (Francis Nagy, pronounced “nadge,” with last name first, as in Hungarian usage), affectionately called Feribacsi (“Feri-bachi”), who died this month, aged 97 years, at his home in Sighisoara, Romania (or as the Hungarians prefer, in Segesvar, Transylvania, attached to Romania on account of the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered the old Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War.) That’s a lot of explanatory parentheses, but they should not make us think of the people and the land of Transylvania (Erdley, in Hungarian) as utterly foreign, or even weird (the home of Dracula and all that). They are friends, they are members of the oldest continuous Unitarian church community in the world–dating from the 16th century–and after several decades behind the Iron Curtain, they rejoiced in being rejoined to the Europe that was their historic homeland.
This historical background is implicit in my remarks for Feribacsi’s funeral. I did not attend in person, but the Reverend Torok Istvan, another great companion in the Transylvanian Unitarian ministry, graciously translated and conveyed my words for the service, held at Ferenc’s home church in Segesvar. –GKB
In memory of Nagy Ferenc
At whatever age a man should die, it seems too soon. Our hearts were not prepared to lose you, dear Feribacsi, from the land of the living. Nor could they ever be prepared, satisfied to accept your passing without a pang, without the heart’s silent protest. Now it must be spoken for all to hear: in your community, among your grieving kin, among all of us who loved you. For this is our witness:
We love you still, and so we know that you are present still—your great benign presence among us, living still in our hearts, living in our lives so long as we shall live, living always in the communion of saints, and sinners too, gathered round the throne of God, just as we gather here.
You received us gladly when we first came to your enchanted land, so like a fairy-tale princess under an evil spell. In your many years you saw the rise and fall of dreadful regimes, and you embodied endurance, good humor, and steadfast faith among your people. This was your triumph. Where had we Americans been all those years—cowering on our side of the Iron Curtain? Your indomitable spirit helped your people to break the spell. For us your “Let’s go!” spirit—carrying us from church to church up and down the land—helped us to break through the isolating barriers that keep strangers from being friends.
Our congregations, your Segesvar and our Arlington, became partners. We did the most radical thing in the world: introduce people to one another. You and dear Piroska came to meet our people, to preach and sing your songs with us, to see our Capitol city, to enjoy our country home, dubbed Campicello by a U. S. Navy captain, with a pond that you dubbed our “pocket sea.”
Of our many journeys to your land, most memorable was racing from Seged to Segesvar on a Sunday morning. I was to preach, in this very church your father built! Piroska played the organ on and on during our delay, but you were calm and confident of our arrival. Also most memorable, the church in Feheregyhaza that you (not to be outdone) built by dint of your own creative drive. It is a beautiful structure that binds the old and the new in one–just like our liberal faith, as you said in our oral history, published as Feribacsi in His Own Words.
Also most memorable, traveling together to Kukullosard, with its ancient church in an ancient village named for an ancient princess. Coming from afar, you said the village with its surrounding hills called to mind Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem, about the hen who gathers her brood under her wings. It is an image of the peaceable kingdom, the community of God.
Ferenc, may you rest well in the eternal community of God.
George Kimmich Beach and BarbaraKresBeach, MadisonCounty, Virginia, U.S.A.
This picture was taken last December, at the Children’s Museum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Barbara and I were visiting our new grandson, Aiden. I liked the image of the young man (16 months old) intently engaged, and the old man (just turned 78) already in the background, looking on, pondering. So I chose this image to accompany the author’s blurb on the back-cover of my new book, The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark, and I dedicated the book: ”For Aiden Charles Beach and his rising generation.”
The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark
by George Kimmich Beach
And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness, and he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. Mark 1: 12-13
Intriguing questions addressed in the book:
Jesus proclaims, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Was this a colossal blunder, foretelling the imminent end of the world? Or was he calling people to reach out in faith and grasp the healing presence of God?
(See Chapter 4)
In Mark, Jesus’ ethics seem pragmatic or even calculating, as when he says, “The measure you give will be the measure you get,” and “Forgive so that you may be forgiven.” Do these admonitions contradict the idea ofunconditional love and forgiveness?
(See Chapters 12 and 31)
Mark says that Jesus “did not speak to them without a parable.” Never? Why would he constantly veil his message in figures of speech and obscure stories that even his disciples fail to understand? What unlocks this secrecy?
(See Chapter 14)
The oldest manuscripts of Mark end abruptly, with three women discovering that Jesus’ tomb is empty. Resurrection appearances such as those found in the other Gospels are absent. What can it mean that Mark only says, “He goes before you into Galilee”?
(See Chapter 40)
About the author
George Kimmich Beach is the author of Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams (Skinner House Books, 2005) and Questions for the Religious Journey (Skinner House Books, 2002). He has edited three volumes of essays by James Luther Adams, including An Examined Faith (Beacon Press, 1991). A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and Wesley Theological Seminary, Beach served Unitarian Universalist churches in Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia, and an urban ministry in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Madison County, Virginia.
How to order
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Send orders to Campicello Press, P. O. Box 419, Madison, VA 22727-0419
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From the “Introduction”
A pathway into the origins of the gospel is also a pathway forward from the present, toward the future we choose. This book seeks to uncover that pathway.
All that we know of Jesus and his original message is derived from a few ancient texts, among which the Gospel According to Mark is particularly fascinating and often perplexing. Mark came first among the four Gospels of the New Testament, and as such planted the seeds from which subsequent traditions, especially those in narrative form, have grown.
The Seminal Gospel is an exploration of Mark and an extended personal reflection on what his telling of the story of Jesus can mean to us today. Its two focal points are intimately related. One is Mark’s text, taken so far as we are able, on its own terms. This especially means resisting the temptation to overlay our preconceived ideas about Jesus and his message on the text. The other focal point is simply what we, the readers and the author, bring to our reading. How distant our world is from the first century world of Jesus and the others vividly portrayed by Mark! And yet the humanity and passionate concerns of these people is immediately felt. In their story I recognize my own story. My hope is that readers who follow my explorations and reflections may more fully discover their own stories.
These two focal points are in tension with each other; but taken together they can generate significant insight. Like the two points which define the arcing line of an ellipse, they hold the promise of joining fuller understanding of a central religious tradition to fuller understanding of ourselves as spiritual beings. This kind of outward exploration and inward reflection will require of us a certain effort, perhaps forty days’ worth—here offered in forty chapters for convenient, if not easy, daily consumption!
This book culminates a labor of research and writing which has extended, desultorily, over several years. From time to time I’ve asked myself, to what end did I embark on this journey? At length I have answered: to rediscover the origins of the gospel, the good news, brought by Jesus. In my attempts (however desultory!) to follow the pathway he blazed for us, I have sought to understand where it leads today.
The study has taken the form of a devotional and educational exercise. Without originally so intending, I came to divide Mark into forty segments. Some readers may want to make the reading of Mark’s Gospel a spiritual practice during the forty days of Lent. But any forty days or more days will do! Taking time for patient reflection is what counts.
The commentary is intended to stimulate and focus the reader’s understanding of the story of Jesus that Mark tells. We do this best, I think, when we actively interrogate the text, asking, for instance:
- Who does Mark think this Jesus is, and what do I think about him?
- Setting aside all the ideas about Jesus I’ve picked up over the years, what puzzles me, or surprises me about Mark’s way of telling the story?
- We often hear people say they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” Why does Mark’s Jesus not use either of these terms?
- What insights do I gain into what it means to be faithful—for Mark in his world-age? And for myself in this world-age?
In his essay, “Naming God,” the noted philosopher and Biblical scholar, Paul Ricouer, writes:
Naming God, before being an act of which I am capable, is what the texts of my predilection do when they escape from their authors and their first audience, when they deploy their world, when they poetically manifest and thereby reveal a world we might inhabit.3
In this book Mark is the text of my predilection, and I find that it invites me to name God in my contemporary life-experience.
For those who are accustomed to questions of defining God, or of proving (or disproving!) God, naming God may seem an exceedingly odd notion. But with spiritual awakening comes the paradoxical recognition that God is by definition indefinable. And still more certainly, the recognition that attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God founder on the fact that they must presume to have defined God before they begin. (Often they will say, “Well, everybody knows what ‘God’ means! The only question is, does this God exist?” But the premise in this line of thought is entirely false.)
The present work is a personal and reflective commentary on the Gospel of Mark. More pointedly, it is an invitation to the meta-noia—the radical rethinking of my experience that Jesus’ first words in Mark, the first Gospel, call for. Professor Ricouer helps frame the central question of the inquiry into this text of my predilection. Does it deploy and poetically manifest a world we might inhabit—a world in which the gospel is available to us as a main-spring of faith? More simply stated: Does this ancient text enable me to name God in my contemporary experience?
Consider that your first answer may be, “No,” or perhaps, “No, but I’m intrigued.” Religious understanding requires, I believe, not just sight but insight, breaking through the crust of appearances and being grasped by something vastly deeper. So caveat lector! Before you enter Mark’s world, consider that it may prove seductive.
G. K. B.
Mourning is the homage our bodies, our minds, our souls pay to grievous loss: lost lives, lost dreams, joys, hopes, and expectations, lost innocence, lost innocents. Our first need in a time like this, when loss on an incomprehensible scale has come upon us, is to mourn. Only our souls can tell us when it’s “enough.”
Music, such as the prayers beautifully sung by the rabbi and the young Muslim boy in the Newtown memorial service this week, enable us to grieve as does nothing else I know. I am longing to hear again Henryk Gorecki’s masterpiece, Symphony No. 3, called “Three Sorrowful Songs.” (We have the deeply moving recording with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman.)
Poetry too can be a solemn reminder of our need, if only to stop. This week my heart stopped for another Emily Dickinson poem:
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth –
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting things away
We shall not need to use again
The grief-swept heart is also a hearth, and its sweeping is a humble task. What then are the tasks to which we who count ourselves among the dedicated community are called? (I do not think you need to be a member of a “religious community,” but I do think you need to see yourself as part of a community dedicated to the common good, responsive to its needs.)
The first task of the dedicated community is to open a space for mourning in our personal and social lives. There is always the temptation “to pass by on the other side,” unlike the Good Samaritan, or to pause briefly and soon forget. The entertainments brought us by the mass media — with the exception of some broadcast and print news outlets– will do everything they can not to let us “stop for Death,” to shut mourning out. This tragic massacre calls upon us to weep with those who can only weep until we and they have wept enough.
The second task is to tell the truth: A demonic evil has visited us, yet again. Has this rough beast finally got our attention? “We know who you are!” the demons cry out to Jesus (see Mark 1:24) — a strange testimony to the way in which a blessed presence brings evil out of hiding, out into the open, hoping to shock and awe us with postured self-importance. “Demonic” signifies deeds that twist what is good to evil ends. Being pressed by Piers Morgan on CNN to justify the absence of gun controls, an unflappable gun seller said, “The truth is shooting semi-automatic guns is fun.” I’d never heard “fun” so stoutly defended, as if he took us for idiots. Demonic expression often takes such grotesque forms. The United States of America is shamed among nations for its culture of violent “fun.” Our task is simply to tell the truth about guns, video games, movies, sports, even art— starting with ourselves.
The third task is to give voice to righteous anger: What keeps our society on its knees, worshipping at the altar of this culture of violence? We have made of “freedom,” precious freedom, an idol, a stuffed scarecrow of a god. We have twisted the image of God – the spiritual freedom in which we are made– into a license to please ourselves and never stop. But of course anger is never righteous unless it is directed to good ends, unless it takes our spiritual freedom in hand and puts it to work. For instance, to enact gun regulation at least as serious as our regulation of ladders, to fund mental health programs at least as much as we fund the TSA, to eliminate obsessively fascinating gratuitously violent entertainments of all sorts.
We can be gratified that President Obama, by saying that we must act as a society to end the violence such as we have seen in Newtown, Connecticut, has heard the public outcry, at last, and has called for legislative action. He has once again showed himself to be our Pastoral President — a calm and consoling leader, calling the flock to support one another, praising Newtown’s example of courage and compassion before the world. Knowing that a minister is also a community organizer, he also said that we, America, must do better by our children and by even ourselves, in concrete and costing ways. He thereby puts not only us but also himself on the spot, actually to do it!
But lest we too quickly pass by this ugly visitation, Death — this eruption of demonic fury, laughing in our faces as it crams the innocents into its maw — lest we fail to stop and ponder the meaning of this meaninglessness, I want to cite Ross Douthet’s column in the New York Times, December 16, “The Loss of the Innocents.”
“In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed—babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of five locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.
“Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God—a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.
“ ‘Can you understand,’ he asks his more religious sibling, ‘why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? . . . Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?’
“Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at ‘too high a price.’ Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth ‘the tears of that one tortured child.’
“It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.
“In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
“In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today—besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow—is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
“That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
“The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable—the shadow of violence, agony and death.
“In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.”
Journalists and poets have become our theologians. Who will be our prophets?
From the least of them to the greatest
every one is greedy for unjust gain;
And from prophet to priest,
every one deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
Saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.
Jeremiah 6: 13-14
On December 2 the New York Times reported: “Israel’s announcement on Friday that it was moving ahead with zoning and planning preparations for the [4.6 square mile area known as E 1] . . . would connect the large Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, dividing the West Bank in two. The Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem would be cut off from the capitol, making the contiguous Palestinian state endorsed by the United Nations impossible.”
We have reached the tipping point in public awareness that the so-called “two state solution” has slipped beyond our grasp, never to be retrieved. Year after year the Likud-led coalition of Israeli parties has claimed that it wanted serious “peace negotiations” with the Palestinians. Now it is apparent to all that the nice picture painted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–“two sovereign states living in peace side by side, one Palestinian and the other Jewish Israel”—is a myth designed to mask the truth. She knows this, of course, but finds it inexpedient to say so. We’ve known for many years that, with the Likud ascendancy, hard-line and religiously fundamentalist Israelis have sought to spread Israeli settlements as rapidly as possible in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (which they call “Judea and Samaria”). To this overarching aim they seek to perpetuate the occupation of Palestine and keep the massive military aid flowing from the United States. The U. S. Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, loves it.
The idea of a truly independent Palestinian state—With its own military? With equal rights to water resources? With a right of return from the Palestinian diaspora? With a shared capitol in Jerusalem?—is utterly out of the question to dominant Israeli public opinion. The best we can foresee is a Palestinian Bantustan, or two, or three, with economic conditions kept so meager that any talented Palestinians will emigrate. I find myself painting a picture that Netanyahu himself could love! Only one problem: It will be an apartheid state, dotted with impoverished, semi-autonomous reservations for the natives, united by figurehead leaders, as we see today in Gaza and the West Bank. If this picture looks familiar, it’s because this is pretty much what we already have.
For a long time we’ve imagined that, somehow, a just peace would be negotiated. President Bill Clinton invested a lot of political capitol in the effort, and got burned. President George W. Bush, sensing it was a loser, and didn’t even try. Then came President Barack Obama, whose advent was crowned as if with leafy fronds on Palm Sunday: Hail the Nobel Peace Laureate! His only efforts have been to protest—ever so mildly—the expansion of Israeli settlements as “not helpful to the peace process.” Which Mitt Romney, predictably, called “throwing Israel under the bus.”
So, what’s brought us to the present tipping point, the collapse of the “peace process” in quest of “the two-state solution”? The Israeli response to Mr. Abbas’s successful bid for United Nations recognition of Palestine as a “non-member State” (rather than “Entity,” as at present), announcing thousands of new homes for Israelis to be built in occupied East Jerusalem. The overwhelming vote left the United States in splendid isolation from world opinion. So much for Mr. Obama’s repairing of our national reputation!
Obama has remained silent on the issue, allowing his minions, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Susan Rice to carry the political water for him. Both justified our vote against recognizing Palestine in this minor way, saying it will be “a setback for the peace process” and “changes nothing on the ground”—words that are true only in the sense that the Israelis, as they well knew, would punish the Palestinians with another massive building program in occupied territory. It had long been planned, the New York Times reported. U.S. protests against these building projects have a ritual quality; there is no follow-up, military aid is never at risk. The retaliation nicely serves the real Likud goal, sealing their illegal annexation of East Jerusalem with irreversible “facts on the ground.”
In East Jerusalem in 2007 I saw the banners placed high on buildings celebrating the 40th anniversary of the “annexation.” Even then I was naïve enough to be shocked. (My sermon, “Journey to Israel and Palestine: What I Saw, What I Heard, What I Felt,” is now posted on the “Addresses and Sermons” page of this blog.) Although the annexation and the settlements in occupied lands are illegal under international law, the U. N. is unlikely to do anything about it. We can expect Hamas, from its base in Gaza, to continue it’s sporadic attacks on Israel. Are these rockets counterproductive? A hopeful view of the situation says No, not helpful. But recent experience suggests that such attacks actually garner moral support. This comes both from within the Palestinian bloc and from much of the world, which stands horrified at the massive Israeli military responses.
Ironically, these attacks also serve the Likud interests, for they maintain the psychology of a mortal enemy on their borders, needed to justify their continued expropriation of Palestinian land.
The upshot of this demonic situation? A one-state solution! It’s time to drop the two-state myth. Let the whole of Palestine/Israel be one country. Would it be a democracy, enfranchising everybody? Maybe, some day. Would it still have racially segregated and unequally funded public schools, among other indicators of legalized injustice? Maybe not, some day. Look how long it took the United States to address these issues, and we’re still far from done with it. Though I suspect the world no longer has that much time; something will explode, first.
A writer of “romance” novels in a recent interview said that her stories are popular—among other obvious reasons—because they have the kind of endings people naturally wish for, happy endings. I’m afraid that this commentary does not have a happy ending. “From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely, . . . saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” Call these words a “Jeremiad” if you wish, but know that Jeremiah was considered a true prophet because his prophesies proved true.
G. K. B. (Photos taken in 2007 by G. K. B.)
. . .such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
William Butler Yeats supplied an explanatory footnote to these final lines from “Sailing to Byzantium”: “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sing.” Only art–“the daughter of hope and memory”—can achieve permanence, an imagined perfection. All else is transient.
Now I have sailed, I mean flown, to Byzantium, the ancient Greek city that Emperor Constantine renamed Constantinople in the Fourth Century to glorify himself, and the conquering Turks renamed Istanbul in the Fifteenth. The Old City, called Sultanhamet, is commercially vibrant, with its mother of all shopping centers, the Grand Bazaar, and crammed with monuments of political power and cultural grandeur. The Emperor’s palace is gone, the Sultan’s palace remains, beautifully preserved in stone and enameled tile.
A short walk from the palace we find the huge Blue Mosque; our volunteer guide was a carpet salesman we met when we paused in front of his store. He explained the features of the structure (called “blue” from it’s magnificent interior blue tiles) and its functioning in Islamic practice. The wall-to-wall carpeting marks out spaces for the men standing or kneeling for prayers, close-packed shoulder to shoulder “lest the Devil slip between you.” (Women are kept from view, lest the Devil. . . .) Faith lends solidarity, and solidarity, faith. How articulate this layman was about his religion, and how glad to share it with us!
Yes, we did go to see his carpets, and no, we didn’t buy. My attitude soured when he suggested that the 9/11 attacks were known in advance and perhaps instigated by our government. I argued briefly with his conspiracy theory and left it at that; such a discordant note was a reminder of the persistence of suspicions and enmities. Even in this seemingly tolerant society—few young women cover their heads and arms—is rooted in a cultural identity sharply distinct from our own.
Only one other time did I feel the urge to question an interpretation of history. An attractive, outgoing young guide, leading us on a hike through the fantastic landscape of Cappadocia (“mushroom” pinnacles, cave dwellings, an underground city) explained that after World War I a million Christians from the region had moved to Bulgaria, and a million Muslims had moved from Bulgaria to Turkey. This most ancient Christian land was now almost devoid of the people who made it so, and the final cleansing came less than a century ago! Our guide made the forced uprooting of populations sound like a mutually agreed exchange. I didn’t question her version, but let it pass for amity’s sake. After all, many peoples and many faiths had succeeded one another in this land.
This too set me to thinking about the succession of civilizations and their defining religious faiths: the greatest structure of them all, Santa Sophia—or in Greek, Hagia Sophia. It was built between 532 and 537 under the emperor Justinian—but let us give the architects due credit!—by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. The following year it was consecrated to Holy Sophia, a feminine designation of the divine rooted in the Wisdom books of Hebrew scriptures. It is called “one of the most perfect examples of Byzantine architecture, its chief feature being its enormous dome, supported by piers, arches, and pendentives [the arched supports for a dome], and pierced by 40 windows, which crowns the basilica.”
In 1453 the Turks added minarets, effaced its Christian iconography, and declared it a mosque. High on the interior walls are huge, circular placards—canvass on wooden frames—bearing inscriptions from the Koran. It is a museum, now, devoid of worshipers. Yet in its art, proud daughter of memory and hope, the sacred remains.
As you may have read, the Turkish government has been seeking the return of ancient works of art taken by Western collectors, now in museums. That seems fair, even if Islam had nothing to do with most of these works. It would also be fair—but far less likely—for Turkey to return Hagia Sophia to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Vast human sufferings and cultural depredations have come with the succession of religions and civilizations. Nothing reminds us of this more vividly than the marvelous Archeology Museum in Istanbul: a few beautiful artifacts remain.
A succeeding religion lords it over its conquered and dispossessed predecessor; it also hates those who claim, in turn, to succeed it. In truth all are transient and stand in need of the holy wisdom that finds permanence in this common human condition. May we feel compassion for all, affirm respect for all, deeply appreciate all. Standing awestruck in Hagia Sophia, that was my prayer.
G. K. B.
I have learned some practical things from Barbara. For instance, in the use of language, written or spoken, “Be specific and you’ll be terrific.” Or when a clear-cut judgment is called for, recalling what Martha Graham said to her in a dance class, a few years ago, during a particularly excruciating exercise: “My dear, either the toe is pointed. . . or it is not.” Such words become family by-words. Like the New Yorker cartoon depicting a statuesque woman on the TV screen, clobbering a piece of meat while a man leans eagerly forward and declaims, “Sock it to ‘em, Julia, baby!” Years later Barbara took her framed, kitchen-spattered copy of the cartoon to a book signing where Julia Child happily autographed it.
The caption became another oft-repeated by-word, a quick way of saying what Emerson said more elegantly, “Nothing great has been accomplished without enthusiasm.” Do other long-married couples do this—accumulate one-liners, apt phrases, specific sayings—that come up in a day’s conversation again and again? No doubt. Barbara and I have had an uncommonly long time to do the accumulating. We married on June 21, 1958, “the longest day and the shortest night of the year,” as her mother Elsie, eyes wryly squinting, reminded me. We were very young.
Barbara has accomplished a great many things since that day, and never without enthusiasm. The following tribute to her attests to the fact, in one realm of her hyperactivity:
2012 Louis C. Cornish “Living the Mission” Award
For Outstanding Contributions to International Partnership
Presented by the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council to
A founder of the UU Partner Church Council, present at the initial 1993 organizational meeting in Charlotte, NC, Barbara has made constant, adroit and abundant contributions to the UUPCC and to international awareness among Unitarian Universalists. As a Board member until 2009, Barbara was a shrewd representative to the Czech Unitarian Church, playing a crucial role as negotiator, diplomat and advocate for the integrity of the Czech Unitarian Church.
With management acumen, good sense and great humor, Barbara nurtured policies and practices that have strengthened the foundation of the UUPCC. As Secretary, the President of the UUPCC, she smoothed the transition from an all-volunteer organization to one with a vital partnership of engaged volunteers and capable staff. Never parochial in her loyalties, always she has reached out to other international organizations to collaborate in mutually beneficial ways, negotiating memoranda of understanding with the UUA and other collaborators. Valuing work both global and local, she was instrumental in the development of the Greater Washington Area Partner Church Council.
Barbara’s smile lights up every room. Whether by dancing in consort with her first husband Kim or with administrative savvy and derring-do, Barbara brings passion, prudence and joy to our common commitments. We are delighted to celebrate all that she brings to the international UU community, to the UUPCC, and to Unitarian Universalists everywhere.
[signed] Richard Van Duizend, Board Chair, June 2012
The funny thing is, it’s all true. I just wish she’d stop introducing me as her first husband. After all, we still work “in consort”!
I’m proud of Barbara’s achievements, and delighted that the Partner Church Council has honored her for her manifold efforts for international liberal religion and its institutions. It’s an astonishing record—in which, please note, she didn’t just volunteer—they drafted her again and again. The citation understandably focuses on her PartnerChurch work—which has been local, in Arlington and Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as national and international. There’s more.
Barbara was UUA Delegate and Treasurer of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists for several years, with memorable meetings in Spain and Germany. (On the last of these I came to Oberwesel, on the Rhine above the Lorelei rocks, to rescue my veritable Rhinemadschen, hospitalized after a bruising fall.) She was the keynote speaker for the International Association of Liberal Religious Women, in Kochi, India. They drafted her on the spot to help moderate subsequent sessions of the IARF Congress, for which the Dalai Lama spoke—no, radiated blessedness. On our Philippines adventure, last winter, see my previous blog posting, “The God Who Made the Earthquake.”
The beat goes on. When the UU women of the Southwest were organizing the first International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women, in Houston, three years ago, they drew Barbara first into the organizing committee and finally into the Presidency of the fledgling organization. No wonder. (She has stage presence. She strikes up conversations with strangers. She lights up the room. Her beau coup phone conversations are punctuated with laughter.) Some 600 women from 18 countries came to that first gathering. Transylvania Unitarian women have now taken the lead to organize the Second Convocation, in Maros Vasarhely next October. We’ll be there, Barbara out front, I the trailing consort.
I’ve often noticed that when Barbara talks about her childhood, all the stories are drawn from age 7 or earlier: Life in SlavicVillage, Cleveland, Ohio, in the family compound around E. 52nd and Broadway. Did you notice, in the citation cited above, the strange story of her being a “shrewd representative to the CzechUnitarianChurch”? It’s inexplicable, except for her motivation–SlavicVillage lives!
I, being thoroughly suburbanized, missed such myth-laden geography. But I did not miss Barbara’s development as a student (and dancer) at Oberlin and Harvard, a high school English teacher, a modern dance teacher with children, a liturgical dance leader in five UU churches I served as minister, a researcher and writer on museum education and on children’s museums, a TV arts education developer, an editor of two national education journals, president of the Holbrook and Kellogg Co. (name invented from my waspish-sounding ancestors); publications director and finally a Director of Strategic Corporate Relations for Management Concepts, Inc., a training company in Fairfax County, Virginia.
What did they teach at MCI? So far as I can tell, specifically two things: FOCUS and EXECUTION. She already knew that from Martha Graham. I used to say her real job was talking to strangers–on the phone, at big conferences, wherever she happened to be—for the good of good ol’ MCI. All this did not, emphatically did not, come easily. They are not selling widgits.
Nor have I mentioned ongoing volunteer work, with a foot in two locales—serving on the Boards of the upstart Madison County Education Foundation, and the Fairfax County Arts Council. One year she organized the Council’s International Children’s Festival, and was scolded by the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China for inviting the Children’s Folk-Sport of Taiwan to participate: “Mrs. Beach, do you not know that Taiwan is NOT a country?”
How did she learn to do all that? By raising two sons and, so far, one husband. By the noble vocation (and serious human relations training ground) called Minister’s Spouse. Or Consort, if you prefer. By teaching, dancing, and really great cookery. By being specific, by keeping the toe pointed, and by socking it to ‘em. –GKB