“Magic, With Salt” by Andrea Greenwood – May 25, 2008
Magic. With Salt
May 25, 2008
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words Lot’s Wife, Anna Akhmatova 1922
Lot, holy Lot, trailed God’s messenger,
an angel so vast and bright, it devoured the black hill,
but uneasiness shadowed his wife, whispered strong, filled her:
‘It’s not too late, there is time to look back, still
at the red towers of Sodom, the land where you were born,
at the square where you sang, the yard where you sat to spin,
the second story windows looking out from your cosy home,
the family bed, blessed when your children’s life entered in.
Her eyes were still turning when they were forever stitched shut
by a bolt of pain that seized her
and sent her legs like roots into the stony ground,
Her body flaked into tranparent salt.
Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no real significance
Yet in my heart she will never be lost
She who gave up her life to steal one glance
Story Orpheus and Eurydice
Be warned: this story is beautiful but tragic. It begins with Orpheus, the best musician that ever lived. One strum of his lyre, one note sung, and beasts would crawl to him, rocks would shift their moss to move to be closer, trees would tear their roots to be closer to him. He had more power than we regular people do, because he was the son of the Muse Calliope. But Orpheus was a mortal.
He lived his life simply and without a care until the day he met Eurydice. She was a Dryad; one of the nymphs that lived in the oak trees and helped to make the forest enchanted. They fell in love and it meant everything to them. They were so happy, simply caring for each other. But there were other men who also wanted Eurydice , and did not care how she felt. She ran from one in terror, without watching her step, and that is when a terrible thing happened. She stepped on a poisonous snake! The venom from its bite killed her at once and her spirit went to the Underworld. Orpheus was inconsolable. He cried and cried. His grief was bitter, but he did not let sadness slow him down. He decided to take action.
He descended from this world to the Underworld through a cave, and climbed down and down until he arrived to cross the River Styx. He passed through crowds of ghosts and presented himself before the throne of Hades and Persephone and he sang them a song about his sorrow. He promised that he was not spying on any secrets from the Underworld, and he knew that the three-headed dog with snaky hair that guards the entrance to the Underworld was stronger than him. He just begged the gods to let him have his wife back., saying that she had died sooner than she should have because of the snake.
“Eros has led me here,” Orpheus said, “Love is a god all powerful on the earth, and, from the stories I have heard, that is true here as well. I beg you who live in this silent place, unite again the thread of Eurydice’s life. It is our destiny to end here, sooner or later. One day Eurydice ill rightly be yours. But till then grant her to me, please! I beseech you. If you deny me, I cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both.”
Persphone’s heart melted and a tear rolled down her cheek. Even Hades could not help weeping. They let Orpheus through to Eurydice, and she came from among the newly-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot. Orpheus was permitted to take her away but he was warned very carefully: Eurydice would follow him into the light of the world and once she entered the sunlight she would be changed from a shade back to a woman. But if Orpheus doubted, if he looked back to see her, she would be lost to him forever. Under this condition they proceeded with Orpheus leading, and Eurydice following. They climbed through dark, steep passages in total silence, till they had nearly reached the outlet into the cheerful upper world, when Orpheus began to rejoice that his wife would be with him soon. He listened, thinking Eurydice would now begin to carry the sound of feet falling, and in a moment of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following, cast a glance behind him, when instantly she became a shadow that was whisked away. Stretching out their arms to embrace each other, they grasped only the air! Dying now a second time, she said a last “farewell,” – and was hurried away, so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.
Orpheus was torn apart — by grief, by wild animals crying at his mournful singing, by Zeus, angry that Orpheus had seen the mysteries of the underworld; by his own prophecy that he could not live without Eurydice, by what had happened. Orpheus was torn apart, and cast to the winds, and if you listen, you can hear him sing in them still.
Reading: Looking Back at Lot’s Wife Rebecca Goldstein
It was one of the stories from Genesis that most frightened me as a child: the story of Lot’s wife. She was told not to look, and she looked; and her punishment came swift and horrible. Frozen in the moment of her transgression. exposed to the eyes of all in her act of rebellion, she was transformed into a spectacle of salt, reduced to an element vaguely ridiculous, as if to turn back any notion of pity in us. And for what? She was told not to look, and she looked.
Why did she look? I asked the second grade Hebrew school teacher, who was telling the story.
It doesn’t mater why she looked, my teacher answered. God told her not to and she did. She thought she could get away with it, but of course she couldn’t. Nobody can get away with anything. God sees all.
That God sees all was a lesson my teacher was anxious to impress upon us at any opportunity, and it was a lesson that I as a child accepted without question. It was clear that God’s seeing all was a consequence of God’s being God. My teacher’s response therefore seemed irreproachable so far as its theology went. It was on the level of human psychology that I felt it falling short.
Specifically, I didn’t believe that Lot’s wife had thought she could get away with it. I wouldn’t have thought so, and I was a mere child, living in pallid, nonBiblical days. In vivid contrast was the picture of Lot’s wife: fleeing the accursed city, the shrieks of the damned in her ears, and in her nostrils the sickening stink as heaven’s fire and brimstone came raining down behind her. God had warned her that he would come, and he had come: in the version embellished by rabbinical tradition told to us by my teacher, his very Presence had descended, along with a host of 12,000 angels of destruction. It wasn’t the moment to think one could get away with very much of anything.
I wasn’t about to press the issue any farther with my teacher, but I was fairly certain that whatever it was that had made Lot’s wife look back in her flight was in the nature of an overwhelming compulsion ( a concept with which children tend to be well acquainted): the sort of irresistable urge that makes the whole question of whether or not one is going to get away with it pretty much beside the point.
What therefore seemed to me very much to the point was the question I put to my teacher: what forced Lot’s wife to look back, and — even more to the point — would I have felt driven to do exactly the same?
You begin to see why the story frightened me. Up to now in Genesis the villains had been recognizably villainous — a brother who killed a brother, egomaniacs who brazenly questioned God’s authority and erected claims to their own imagined supremacy.
But looking where one is told not to look?
Had Lot’s wife, I wondered, looked back simply because she had been told not to, as I unfailingly sneaked a peek while standing between my mother and sisters in our pew in the synagogue during the recitation of the priestly blessing that was said on the holidays? I had been warned by mother to avert my eyes from the bimah, where the priests were chanting their spooky melody, lest I be blinded by the Presence descending upon their upraised hands. Beneath my lowered lids I could see my two sisters dutifully turned away, facing the back of the synagogue, as all the congregation was turned away…. Did Lot’s wife and I share the same perversity of nature that compelled us to take stupid risks for no very good reason at all? And was it for this that her punishment had come swift and horrible?
Or was it rather for the whisper of a doubt, soft but irrepressisble, that is perhaps always spoken in such actions as looking where one is told not to look? Were there moments in history during which God simply would not tolerate the existence of a skeptic?
The symbolic significance of the gesture of looking back was not lost on me. A child’s knowledge of nostalgia is one of the mysteries of childhood. Perhaps it wasn’t so much that there were moments of forbidden doubt as that there were places that merited no sense of attachment. Was it the regret and longing she had directed back to her home in Sodom that had drawn God’s wrath down on her?
Sermon: Magic, With Salt
Perhaps it is because I trained as a historian, but one of the first reactions I have to these transformative stories about the dangers of looking behind — Orpheus and Eurydice; Lot and his wife — is puzzlement. What is wrong with examining what is past? Why are the architects of these tales; the ancient Greeks or the Hebrew writers so determined to teach us to blindly obey; to look ahead the way horses do, with the patches on the sides of their heads ensuring that nothing in the periphery; nothing which is not directly in front of us commands our attention? It is true that there are times when the past can be dangerous. Dwelling on what has been can swallow us whole; ruin us for the lives that are ahead. But these stories do not dwell at all; there is one simple glance, and instant destruction.
And it is odd, too, that the way the stories play out we almost forget the context each is set in, which is complete devastation. EVERYONE is dead; yet these women are singled out as dying; with some human culpability. What does it mean to be described as dying when the setting is the underworld, or a city which has been set on fire by God, where the norm is to be dead? Even though the city burns all around, the death of Lot’s wife’s death stands out, because she could have lived. All she had to do was keep focused on the future. Same with Orpheus. His wife could have lived if he had just had enough faith to look ahead instead of checking behind. So, are these stories about a lost future — Eurydice dying now a second time — or about a longed for past?
Somehow, it makes me think of baseball games, when the coaches start yelling at the kids to just run; get to the base; don’t look to see where the ball went. Perhaps there is something in us that cannot quite get oriented without knowing where everything is; how that ball is going to come back at us. Sure, we could be safe if we just ran blindly ahead. We would have a better chance of winning. But some of us need to see things ourselves; feel compelled to look even when we would be better off not doing so. Maybe it has to do with differing ideas of what it means to be “better off.” What good does it do to get safely home if it isn’t your old familiar comfortable home; the place of love that orients you and lets you look out upon the world?
So I have been puzzling over this story of Lot’s wife. It is used as a punishment; as a deterrent for those who would question authority, and of course it goes on from using one woman as an example to condemning gay men and blaming this holocaust on them — but I just can’t seem to read it that way. This story is part of a much larger one in the book of Genesis, in which Abraham brings his nephew Lot in search of a good land for their people, but sometimes in our Western, rational way, we see a roadmap, or principles to live by instead of a story arising from tugging on a dense, emotional knot in which family engagement and the good life are tied to each other in extricable ways. We tell a story and one part of the knot is untied, pulling us to confusing new places, where we are still connected, but are dislocated.
John Updike once said that a good story ends with an open door, and one of the gifts of Unitarian Universalism is that we can walk through that opening. Meaning is not circumscribed by tradition or doctrine for us. After the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, some parts of this story about Lot’s wife resurfaced — the images of sinful cities bringing God’s wrath; the division of people into those who deserve to move into the future and those who do not; but also the fear that looking back might petrify us; the destructive nature of spectatorship. Lot’s wife seems to inspire both admiration, and a justification of punishment. Her glance backwards becomes the reason for her transformation. Looking at our losses might weaken us; looking at ourselves through a new lense might kill us. Being safe comes to mean being strong which comes to mean not changing or being changed.
But what if this is not a story of punishment? This unnamed woman who cares enough about where she has been and the lives she is responsible for is turned into salt, and that seems significant somehow — salt is essential; and in a way, maybe this story is not about a woman who disobeyed a command, but is the story of what it means to be a parent who loses her children; who loses everything. Her daughters were left behind in this city that had been their home, and like Orpheus leaving Hades, she needed to look and see if they were following. They weren’t. She saw what became of them, and is transformed into a pillar — not burned up into rubble like everyone and everything else, like all that she loved; but a pillar — and that pillar is salt; a precious commodity that lets us float on the water; that gives food taste; that restores us. Perhaps it is not Lot’s wife who is being punished at all. Maybe this is a meditation on what attachment costs: that we can love our children so much that one glance at the grief of losing them pulls us backward; demands that we experience what they experience; to be one with them in every aspect of their suffering. As Rebecca Goldstein said in the reading, it is a compulsion. It is not about thinking you can get away with anything. And, in all seriousness, does it make any sense to view this story as showing only that God wants us to be righteous and follow his command to move forward; to never look back? Which parent would you rather have; the one who stopped and searched for you, or the one who has fled? Which God would you rather have: the one that wants to control our actions, or the one that tells stories to inspire a deeper compassion? Did God perform this magical transformation into salt because this woman’s desire to see her children was not forgivable, or because it was, in some sense, a beautiful need; one that summed up the purpose of life?
All too often, what we see is a product of what we believe, and not the other way around. We narrow our vision to fit what we know. The story of Lot is about a relative of Abraham who obeys God because that is how the chosen people survive. It is difficult to think beyond what we expect; to shift the frame of reference, and it is especially hard to do this because we think we are seeing clearly. I started thinking about this because I had a son who was obsessed with magic. He was possessed by a desire to perform magic tricks, yet was incapable of doing so because he believed in magic. How ironic: to be able to be a magician, you have to understand that it is all illusion; trickery; manipulation. You can’t believe in the wonder you are creating; but you produce spectacles that give hope to others, implying the possibility of real magic in the world. What my son wanted was to be a conduit for mystery and wonder; someone who could joyously show others the supernatural. But a magician has to understand that there is no supernatural in order to give the illusion that there is.
It is both fascinating and somewhat common-sensical to me that magic, like Unitarianism, is a product of the Reformation. This is because the Reformation inserted the use of reason into religion; began turning to nature for explanations of mysteries that had previously been ascribed to witches. Understanding how things happen creates a world which is relatively predictable, and that means we can use nature’s effects ourselves. Inevitably the idea of magic tricks as entertainment followed. Magicians know that we interpret what we see through what we have experienced, and so they can trick us in very simple ways; which are yet moving; which do connect us to some sense of mystery.
So is magic about skepticism? I often think of stories told about those of us raised in Unitarian Universalist church schools. where we looked for naturalist answers to Biblical stories of miracles. I don’t think people were intentionally training us to be skeptics, but when stories of mystery, danger, excitment and thrill such as the Israelites escaping from the Egyptians across the Red Sea got explained by sand bars, you can see why people might have thought we missed the point. Last year Adam Gopnik had a long article in the New Yorker, and in it he writes about magic as an intellectual experiment in empathy that spurs growth. It is not about tricks; about putting one over on anyone else. And even though the magician has a different position than the spectators, it is a relational activity. There is no effect without an audience, and the audience cannot be passive. Even when we have an idea of how a trick works, we don’t have a full explanation of why it works — we are moved by this odd, invisible presence of the magician, who lets us experience some of the more profound aspects of life simply because he or she knows how our minds work. We are outreasoned, and it sets us thinking. We know that nothing truly supernatural happened, but we cannot figure out quite what did occur. It stimulates us to try to think in new ways, and we can begin to see how limited our thinking has been. What a magician shows us is how routinized we are; how we have let ourselves become dead to new possibilities; how stuck in experience we are.
Whether the story about Lot’s wife being transformed into a pillar of salt is proof of a God who has magical powers, or is proof that religion is somewhat quaint and vaguely ridiculous depends upon what you already believe to be true about God and religion. As a story instead of a proof text, it is far richer — and not as easy to dismiss. We are in a predicament: this is a trick of transformation which we cannot fully process. Did God really do this? Or are we responsible? Does it tell us that it is destructive to witness things, or does it affirm that losing our children kills us? Does it mean we should obey commandments that tear at our soul, or that it is worth the price to follow out hearts? And there is the salt, which stays with us, in our tears; in our blood, in everything we feel and in any life we pass on. The memory of this loss is in us. Maybe Lot tells us that survival is possible, but perhaps not what we would choose. It is an open door inviting us in to a world where all is not known.
In anything relational, the end of the story is not the point. How can it be? In magic, the finish to a trick is not the point of a trick; in life, we don’t really want to know how it ends. The beauty is in the unfolding; in the possibilities; the growth. This makes it sound like growth inevitably follows from new experience, but it doesn’t. Anything new creates stress, and mostly we respond to that by shutting down, by narrowing our focus, by not looking back, and not looking too far ahead. This lets us survive. But research in psychology shows us that what creates greatness in people is a different response. If we can let things be complicated; if we can manage to take a wider view and expand our awareness, there is the possibility of being lifted; of feeling ourselves rising to the demands of a world we have yet to truly see; of changing in ways that force us to lose all that was familiar, but let us be present in new ways.
This spring, there have been quite a few articles about the meaning of the photographs which came out of Abu Ghraib; partially inspired by a documentary about them, and partially because the military cases against the soldiers who took the photos have concluded. What those photos mean now seems markedly different from what they conveyed when they were first printed. Although the pictures remain the same — grinning American soldiers with their thumbs up in front of captive, victimized prisoners or even corpses — we now know a lot more about the people, and what they thought they were doing. It makes the whole idea of looking back at things complicated. We think that witnessing something will make us compassionate. But it doesn’t; not necessarily. Sabrina Harman, who is the smiling private in many of these pictures, wrote about having trouble getting the images of the tortured prisoners out of her head. She described one man handcuffed backwards and naked to a window, with underwear puled over his head, and said “He looked like Jesus Christ.” We hear that description — and I think Harman genuinely felt this, too — as a way of conveying our horror at torture; as a way of protesting. But it is a description that works against our own intentions; a description that puts these images into a story we already know, with a meaning that is determined. It is not the story the pictures really tell. It is like Lot’s wife. She is a refugee, fleeing her burning city; her children lost in the rubble. Her home is gone and she is destroyed, but we are not compassionate. We are judgemental.
The prisoners who were tortured are Muslim. That is actually the reason they are being tortured, and tortured in ways to specifically offend their religious sensibilities. How can we call them Christ-like without compounding the injuries we have already inflicted? Somehow, by comparing these prisoners to Jesus on the cross, we put a story with a completely different context on these people, and in fact obliterate who they really are. We end up using the images to give meaning to the torturers rather than those who suffer, and we do it to help ourselves cope with what we are seeing. Comparing someone to Christ sounds like an empathic response, but it isn’t. It is a way of forcing something new into a familiar story; a story which exonerates us and makes it easier for us to move forward; easier to find a home in this land.
Later on in the essay I read from this morning, Rebecca Goldstein goes on to explore more of what she thought might be happening with Lot’s wife. … “a meaner sort of motive behind her action suggested itself,” she writes. “one that would remove her to a safer distance from myself: a cold enchantment with the drama of death. The summer we had spent at the seashore I had seen for myself how the crowd had gathered around the boy who had been pulled unconscious from the ocean. and how the voice and face of this crowd had quickened with a strange excitement, as if it were almost glad for the event. Did Lot’s wife have such a strong taste for the theater provided by others’ tragedy that she could not keep herself from stealing a glimpse of the flaming spectacle? And was it for this that she had been turned, most appropriately, into the stuff of tragic spectacle?”
Voyeurism or skepticism, nostalgia or bravado: what moved her to look, and risk all? This question could be asked of those military staff in the photos, and probably of every single one of us who has suffered some assault on humanity so grave that we cannot quite think straight afterwards. We struggle to know which direction to look; to not resort to a script; to let this new pain in and change us. We do not want to transform suffering into something anything other than what it is, but it is hard to assimilate changes as devastating as the ones which incinerate our pasts; our ideals and the way we understand human nature. We need an imagination that is wider than our experiences; indeed, imagination can let us hold together things we experience as tearing us apart.
Alan Shapiro, a poet in North Carolina, wrote an essay called “My Tears See More than My Eyes”, a title he borrowed from his teen-aged son, who is the subject of the essay. The younger Shapiro is in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt, and this essay begins as a narrative; telling the story of visiting, of families scurrying in to the corners of the room attempting to find some way towards privacy in an environment which communicates a distrust of anyone being alone. The visitors grapple for a physical assimilation of the extremely intimate knowledge of reality that has been forced upon them: someone they love has gone where it is forbidden to go; they have seen the secrets of the underworld and cannot return to the living; not quite. Where do we go, in this room kept watch by those who demand obedience; whose eyes only meet to communicate rational demands, not shared pain? Shapiro looks back. The narrative ends and becomes a searching memory, asking how did we get here; how can we get back to the days before we knew this place of suffering; and if I figure out what road led us here, can we get our old life back? It is Orpheus, having the snake’s venom removed from Eurydice’s foot so that she can limp past the gates of hell, with death just a bad dream. But the backward look ends when Shapiro’s son keeps asking “So, Dad, can I come home now? Please, Dad; can you take me home?” This is not something they are allowed to decide. Control belongs to something outside the family. They live in a new place.
Shapiro is a poet, and so for him this moment is where imagination has to step in; where he needs to stop looking backward and begin to envision a new future. He can’t simply keep going; nor can he just look back; but he needs to do both; to begin spanning the distance between both realities: we will go on, and part of us has died. My son is not just my son anymore. Grief has taken us through a gate where all the other shadows live, and though I may manage to pull him back through to this side, we will not ever see things the same way. His tears have seen more than our eyes can. Home can never mean what it once did; it doesn’t mean being completely safe. Loss transforms us in ways we could never have imagined. All of life will be flaovored with it, and yet we are not weak. We are pillars, even if those who move blindly forward cannot see the truth.
Long, long ago I either heard or imagined someone to say that prayer was a connection between memory and hope, and ever since I have seen prayer as a place. It is the door we live in, pulling the past and the future into a frame for us. On one side of us are memories — a lattice work of time, woven together and full of imperfections. On the other side there are these vague but solid hopes for the future; foggy shadows of people we do not want to lose; suffering we do not wish to endure planted alongside an obelisk of sure strength; an unwillingness to let ourselves be defeated. Above us, bridging the two sides, are our prayers; the sacred canopy under which we live; the sun bleached and tattered streamers of our hopes and dreams, testimony to what we have witnessed; what we have loved; what holds us up, what we will pass on. Our whole lives are prayers. But they are not prayers for anything; they just are living prayers; and the beauty is in the unfolding, and our ability to take an ever wider view. There is no aim; we are just witnesses to all the unfolding.
Closing Words: Memorial Day for the War Dead by Yehuda Amichai
Memorial day for the war dead. Add now
the grief of all your losses to their grief,
even of a woman that has left you. Mix
sorrow with sorrow, like time-saving history,
which stacks holiday and sacrifice and mourning
on one day for easy, convenient memory.
Oh, sweet world soaked, like bread,
in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God.
“Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”
No use to weep inside and to scream outside.
Behind all this perhaps some great happiness is hiding.
Memorial day. Bitter salt is dressed up
as a little girl with flowers.
The streets are cordoned off with ropes,
for the marching together of the living and the dead.
Children with a grief not their own march slowly,
like stepping over broken glass.
A flag loses contact with reality and flies off.
A shopwindow is decorated with
dresses of beautiful women, in blue and white.
And everything in three languages:
Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.
A great and royal animal is dying
all through the night under the jasmine
tree with a constant stare at the world.
A man whose son died in the war walks in the street
like a woman with a dead embryo in her womb.
“Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”