Monday, September 23, 2013

A Catholic Muse?

in the city where the music began
i hear the song of my life in your voice
yours is the clamorous “te deum” of the bellsyours the fingers of the early morning suntouching my face and the crown of my head  
—Lowinsky, “to the lost nurse of a childhood in Florence”
in red clay is talking p. 30

A Secret Catholic Soul

For a Jew, I have a very intense relationship with Catholicism. I find myself mesmerized by news of Pope Francis, the new Pontiff who castigates the church for being obsessed with people’s sexual behavior, forgetting love, mercy and social justice. Why should this make me feel so glad and hopeful? Why should I get all weepy and emotional? 

Maybe it’s because my childhood was steeped in Catholic church music. My father, a musicologist, focused on the music of the church in the Renaissance. My young sense of the sacred was shaped by Gregorian Chant and the Stabat Mater of Josquin des Prez, Pergolesi, Palestrina and Scarlatti. I experience the holy in churches, mostly when in Italy. When there I light candles for my beloved dead, and for friends and family who are suffering. Dan and I have just returned from a trip to Italy. My favorite church on this trip was the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome. This medieval church embodies, in image and architecture, my experience of inwardness and interiority.

The Basilica feels deeply feminine to me and I love the animal presence. It’s strange to feel so at home in Italian churches. There is a family story behind this. I wrote about it in The Sister from Below:
The Lady of Florence is in the sound of the church bells. She is in every glimpse of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, as I turn the dark corner of some narrow street and see her radiance anew.…She draws my eyes to Brunelleschi’s great red Duomo and suddenly I feel alive, full of inexplicable joy, as though I’ve come home after a long journey. Do I hear a voice say: “You can never get lost, as long as you keep sight of the Duomo.”
The Duomo, Santa Maria di Fiore, Florence
The Lady of Florence appears to me like the virgin of the annunciation in the painting by Fra Angelica, surprised out of some deep place, and at once disoriented by the news the angel has to tell her, and strangely calm…
Annunciation by Fra Angelico
The Lady of Florence is a graceful Italian woman, walking down an old cobbled street in a pair of elegant shoes, or buzzing about on her Vespa, trailing a lovely scarf…I feel quintessentially myself when I am here. Familiar. Beloved. Yet who is the one who loves me only in Florence. Who is it I seek whom I cannot quite touch?…
In the family stories there was a nursemaid, or was she a neighbor, Lydia…How can one touch the one who formed you when you can’t see her face, can’t understand her language?…Perhaps I should invoke the Lady…It seems too simple. And yet, when I sit down alone on my poetry porch, wrap myself in my red and purple shawl, and focus inward, she appears. I feel as though I am a child again. Her eyes are green and she looks at me as though I am the world’s most beloved child…I say, You are here. You remember me. 
Of course, because you remember me. I told you I would always be with you. You were so young, I thought you wouldn’t understand. But you did. You’ve come back.
We had a special bond, you and I…There you were, so delicate and small, so burdened with your mother’s heavy load. You looked more like me than you did your own mother. People thought you were mine as we wandered the piazzas and you dashed into flocks of pigeons, proclaiming your magical powers. Your Italian ass so good you could have been mine…I liked to dress you up. You loved this…I liked to take you out to see the saints, the Madonna, to pray in the churches…I understood you better than your own parents did. You were so relaxed with me, so playful. Around them you turned into a little grown up. I couldn’t bear the fact you had not been baptized, that you’d not go to heaven. Here in the city of Dante, I wanted you to be baptized so we could be reunited in Paradise. You were all excited about it. You loved the ritual, the Latin prayer, the priest. You told your father, how could you not? You were his child. 
He flew into a fury. How could I do such a thing? It was a violation! A desecration! How absurd! I was consecrating you forever. And in any case your father spent more time in churches and knew more about Gregorian Chant and the mass than do most Catholics. I suspected he had a hidden yearning, a secretly Catholic soul. But, as you know, there was no talking to your father.

A Secret Jewish Soul

Fast forward a number of years, from that active imagination which brought me the voice of my lost lady. It is 2013, the International Association of Analytical Psychology Conference in Copenhagen. Fisher King Press (FKP), a Jungian press, has a big presence among the book tables. Publishers Mel Mathews and Patty Cabanas, who have published five of my books in the past four years, are present. I feel flooded with my gratitude to them and with amazement at what they have accomplished. They now have 41 psychology titles, 8 poetry titles, 15 fiction titles plus books on creativity, astrology and ecopsychology.

I had shopped The Sister from Below around for seven years with no luck. Even Jungian publishers seemed squeamish about taking on a book that was essentially a series of acts of imagination. Synchronicity and my friendship with the Israeli analyst, Erel Shalit, whom I met at an Expressive Arts Conference in Bulgaria, led me to Fisher King. Erel has published many titles with FKP.

At the book launching party for three new Fisher King titles, Mel Mathews told his origin story—the short version. He’d been a tractor salesman. He had a big dream, got into analysis, and understood he needed to write novels. Then he couldn’t find a publisher. In the way of synchronicity he happened to rent a home from a man who knew the book business inside out. So Mel started a publishing house. He was drawn to Jungian writing and ideas and decided to make that his focus. As I listened to him I thought that his story followed the archetypal pattern of the “Jungian Way—” big dream, synchronicity, listening to the inner voice that tells one to change one’s life.

In the way of synchronicity I learned that Mel too had a love affair with Florence. In fact, he was in Florence when working on the cover of The Sister from Below.

The three titles that were being launched that day, to a pleasingly large crowd, were The Dream and its Amplification, edited by Erel Shalit and Nancy Furlotti, which I wrote a blog about last month, Marked by Fire: Stories of the Jungian Way, a book I edited with Patricia Damery and have written about frequently on this blog site, and a play, On the Doorstep of the Castle, by Elizabeth Clark–Stern. Both Elizabeth and I, in speaking of our books, expressed out gratitude for (at long last) finding a publisher open to the creative imagination. FKP is a haven and a godsend to many of us Jungians who write out of our subjective experiences, dreams, conversations with inner figures and wanderings in the irrational. Strange to say in the Jungian world, but it’s taken an “outsider” with his own compelling “story of the Jungian Way” to open up the publishing world to us.

Elizabeth and her colleague, the wonderful dancer Lindsey Rosen, performed the play one evening. In the way of synchronicity I found myself weeping, not only because the play is extraordinarily moving, and Elizabeth and Lindsey are fine actors and movers, but because it hit on of so many of my obsessions:
The Jews in Medieval Spain
The Inquisition
Conversos who are secret Jews
Kabbalah and the Feminine Face of God
Active Imagination and its earlier incarnation as mystical prayer
The conceit of the play is fabulous. A young converso, Alma de Leon (Lindsey), who is a descendant of the famous Kabbalistic rabbi Moses de Leon, applies to become a novice under the tutelage of Teresa of Avila (Elizabeth), a Carmelite nun said to be “the most awake woman in Spain,” “a woman who receives raptures from God.” Alma is suffering from an “aridity of soul.” She wants to learn how to receive the divine. She also clearly needs a sanctuary from the dread hands of the Inquisition.

Teresa, as she is played convincingly by Elizabeth, is able to convey to the audience the experience of being answered by an inner voice, by an other who has a different point of view, a larger wisdom. I identified with Teresa, though my inner figures are very different. That look of listening, on the face of a Saint deep in prayer—hearing the voice of the divine—or on the face of the poet in reverie—suddenly hearing the voice of the poem begin to sing—or the face of one engaged in active imagination, when the figure in a dream begins to speak—voicing a wisdom unknown to the conscious mind—that feeling of wonder, delight, awe—is one I know well. This mystic, this saint, who, it turns out, is a converso herself, gives me a sense of lineage both as a Jew and a Jungian.

In the way of synchronicity, wandering through museums in Italy on our later trip, I saw that expression on the faces of many saints. Here's an image by Rubens of Teresa of Avila.

Teresa prays to her God for counsel about whether to take in this young converso who knows Teresa’s secret and could betray her to the Inquisition. Should she take this risk? We watch her face light up, listening:” You want me to fight for her…You know what it is to be an outcast Jew?”

With Alma’s encouragement Teresa has the courage to write down her encounters with the divine, risking the fires of the Inquisition. With Teresa’s guidance Alma finds her way into her own Kabbalistic vision of the feminine face of God. The two women struggle with each other, support each other, go out into the world to touch the lives of the poor. By the end of the play the whole audience was in tears, and Elizabeth and Lindsey got a much–deserved standing ovation.

Elizabeth has the courage, the creative freedom, to bring together a historical figure, Teresa of Avila, and a fictional figure, a creation of her own imagination, Alma de Leon. She says:
I was aware of the twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, Edith Stein, who chanced to read Teresa’s autobiography and realized it was what she had been searching for all her life. She converted to the Carmelite order, yet could not curb her criticism of the Pope, who turned the other way while the Jews were being led to the death camps from Italy. Her public denunciation eventually resulted in the Gestapo escorting Edith and her sister, Rosa, to Auschwitz, where they were exterminated in 1942. 
I was so moved by this story I began to imagine a young Jewish woman, living in 16th century Spain, who, like Edith Stein, was searching for something to feed the longing of her soul. “What if Teresa and Edith met?” I thought, with a sense of great excitement. I did not transpose Edith directly to the 16th century, but began to research the story of the Jews at that time. The character of Alma, Spanish for soul, emerged in vivid dreams and images from the dusty plains of central Spain.
She describes her creative process, very much like active imagination, requiring inward listening, allowing her characters to lead:
I tossed out my preconceptions and ideas about the story, and just let the characters guide me. Alma had Edith’s courage, but was not a philosopher. She was a woman of the senses, the earth, the arts.
The figure behind the play, Edith Stein, struggled and died in the breach between her Jewishness and her Catholicism. In the way of synchronicity, I hear from Elizabeth that she and Lindsey will be performing the play in their home town of Seattle, in a church which houses a Jewish congregation in the basement. The minister and the rabbi are excited, because they have been looking for a way to bring their communities together. Elizabeth and Lindsey have created a bridge between the Jew and Catholic, the mystical and the quotidian. I felt my soul and my imagination reflected throughout their performance.

Later, in the Italian part of our journey, Dan and I walked across our beloved Ponte Vecchio, in Florence. We had not been here since the late ‘90s—the trip I wrote about in The Sister from Below. I thought about the new Pope, that the word Pontiff means bridge-builders. I remembered what the Sister had said to me about the bridge:
Look at the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge over the Arno that survived the Nazi bombings in 1944, with its elegant jewelry shops and its arches. You can see that it is actually two bridges, especially at night. There is the flesh and blood bridge, full of tourists…There is the other, deeper bridge, insubstantial, with its reflected arches and yellow shops on the dark waters of the river. They touch each other, these two bridges, reflect on each other, can’t be without each other, and yet are inhabitants, like you and I are, of different realms.

Dan took this photo:

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy