There was a very fine film that came out a couple years ago that you may have seen: “Of Gods and Men”. It’s about a community of Benedictine monks at Tibhirine in Algeria who got caught up in the violence of war. The agonizing question for them was whether to leave for their own safety or stay in order to continue their ministry to the people of the village.
They decide to stay. One evening, sensing that they face grave danger, they have a last supper together. A good meal, some nice wine, and Swan Lake. The dialog and laughter fade, the clinking of dishes and glassware fade, and a recording of the stirring Overture to the ballet swells. The poignant opening theme in dark B minor played by an oboe over tremulous strings and a harp doing what harps do. Then the spine-tingling opening up into a major key—surely one of the most euphoric moments in music—a kind of musical transfiguration. Glory in 19th century Imperial Russian terms, which is pretty glorious.
The choice of Swan Lake struck me as an odd juxtaposition: what did French Benedictine monks in Algeria have to do with Tchaikovsky and tutus and swans and sorcerers? Was there any connection? An intentional choice by the film makers? Was it the sheer beauty of the music? Was it suggesting that the monks’ last supper was itself but an overture, an overture to death and transfiguration, resurrection? Who knows? In any event, Swan Lake is a tale of good triumphing over evil, redemption through love; death, transformation and apotheosis: themes very much grounded in Russian Orthodox Christianity.
The morning after this last supper we see the monks being led into the distance through the mist, never to be seen again. It’s a very moving film which I heartily recommend. “Of Gods and Men.”
A few weeks ago I heard exactly the same piece of music used in another production, this time a Broadway show: Billy Elliot. And a very fine show it is: lots of Broadway razzmatazz and a heartwarming story to boot. It’s about a little boy from the coal mining region of England who, against all odds and against all cultural norms, decides he wants to become a ballet dancer. And, with a lot of sheer grit, a big change of heart by his dad and some sacrificial giving by the locals, he’s on his way.
One scene in particular moved me very deeply and has gotten stuck in my head. It’s a kind of waking-dream sequence that uses the Swan Lake overture. We see Billy alone (almost alone) in the dance studio, beginning to go through the usual ballet class exercises. And, just because it’s a Broadway show, instead of holding a ballet barre for balance, he holds the top of a chair, twirling it balanced on one leg. And behind him, and unseen to Billy, we see a mature, professional dancer going through the same classroom routine and twirling a chair on one leg.
After a bit they begin to dance together. Little boy Billy dances with adult Billy, who he doesn’t actually see. Boy Billy swoops and swirls across the stage as if he’s flying lifted overhead by adult Billy. Then, to top it all off, a cable drops from above, Billy is fastened to the cable and then he really flies. And it’s Swan Lake all the while, spine tingling and euphoric.
So, why did I find this particular scene so moving, why has it lodged in my brain? There could be some personal resonance: I’m from a coal mining area and, against mid-western 1950’s cultural norms, I got it into my head to be a musician—I even dabbled in dance for a few years. And I played Swan Lake excerpts on the piano for ballet rehearsals and classes. But I think it’s more than that.
Here’s what I think it is: there is personal resonance for all of us, we’re all Billy Elliott, going through our rudimentary exercises in our child-like way–what we are to become has not been revealed (as 1 John puts it), and yet we live with this unseen presence, the presence of the larger, more mature self, the unseen presence of the new and true self. This new and true and completely healed and forgiven self already exists in the heart of God, this resurrected and transfigured and fully alive self—and it accompanies us as we make our way through this world. We’re often completely oblivious to this new being that we are becoming. But occasionally, sometimes we sense it—sometimes, like the little kid in the show, it even helps us dance, even helps to fly.
“When he is revealed, we will be like him…” [1 John 3:2] But Christ is with us already, even now, and in Christ is all that we are to become. That which we are to become animates us even now. All yesterdays and what was before them are in Christ; all todays are in Christ; and all tomorrows and whatever is beyond them are in Christ. The fullness, the completeness of our being is in Christ and Christ is in us. He comes to us as the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Truth about our own beings.
Some of you know about our Monastic Internship Program. This program is for young people who may not feel called to monastic vows, but sense the value of living alongside a religious community for a season of life. You may remember Tedi, Cassandra, Rob, Nancy and Ruben from last year’s program. We have three new interns this year, just arrived last week: Seth Woody, Andrew Sinnes and Waylon Whitley, whom you’ll enjoy getting to know.
We had a conversation a few days ago about what our hopes and expectations were for this year. I didn’t say much at the time, just that I hoped they would have the best year of their lives. I’ll be more specific now: I hope our new interns will learn obedience. (Did I just hear a thud?) Obedience is big in the monastic life. But by obedience I don’t mean “Aye, aye, sir; whatever you say, Br. Mark, sir!” There is actually very little of that in the religious life. I mean obedience in the original Latin sense of listening, deep listening, deep attentiveness. (The monks of Tibhirine came to a corporate sense of their need to stay put through deep listening: it was not a decision imposed by the abbot.)
“What we will be has not been revealed…” But, we can be obedient to this new being: we can be attentive even now to the unseen presence of our new humanity, our renewed humanity. Our SSJE Rule of life reminds us that “We are called to be obedient to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ.” [SSJE Rule, Chapter 12]
The vision is here, the dream is here, the unseen presence is here. What we are to become is dancing along with us even now, just out of sight, as we go through our rudimentary exercises in our childlike way. If we listen, if we are attentive, if we are obedient to this new, true self in Christ, it will lift us overhead and help us fly.
How will we recognize this unseen presence? He is present in Love. He is present in Joy. And in Peace. In Patience. Kindness. Generosity. He is present in Justice. In Forgiveness. He is present in Beauty. In Grace and Truth. And Gracefulness and Graciousness. And in singing and dancing. And in sunlight on rivers and in swans on lakes.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” [1. John 3: 2]
What we shall become is already here. May we all listen to him.
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