The Philadelphia Orchestra, Broadcasting on television, Is playing Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6 In an otherwise empty Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall— Empty, without an audience, Because of the virus that has changed the world In weeks, days. Right behind the orchestra are the empty seats Mother, Daddy, and I held as our season tickets.
Beethoven, Daddy’s favorite. As I listen, my emotions rise, fortissimo, Chords of pain, Waves of feeling riding waves of magnificent sound Carrying a magnificent, hard-to-believe-it-ever-was past.
When I was a little girl, Daddy played a recording of Beethoven’s 6th for me, Narrating the story told As the symphony’s movements unfold.
I feel and see moving toward me in silent procession, Now crowding together in their joyous, Suffocatingly sad throng, My life’s vast gifts of miraculous memories.
One morning when I had escaped from Plattsburgh, New York, and the job I loved at the college I detested, I sat in a Montreal natural-foods restaurant and wrote a poem about my ideal day. The poem—now more than twenty-five years in the past and long misplaced—explained that I would write all morning in my city (ideally Montreal) apartment. Then at noon I would meet a man of my heart, also a writer, for a long lunch at the restaurant where I was composing my poem. The man and I would share what we had written that morning. And then we would return to our solitary writing. Perhaps the man and I would meet again in the evening—my poem didn’t explain. Whether with the man, with another friend, or alone, I would no doubt choose to spend nearly every evening at the opera, concert hall, or theater. But certainly the man and I would repeat, over and over, our mornings of solitary writing and our sharing over lunch. We would each be glad for what we, ourselves, had written and fully fascinated by the work of the other.
I love Montreal—and New York City, Paris, Rome, and other captivating cities—and a day such as my poem described continues to retain its full measure of appeal. But the years have spun on and I am living now in a large retirement community outside of Philadelphia. No one gets to my age without loss, and I have known and know intense loss. But I am also finding years full of ideal days—ideal, of course, within the frame of life as it now presents itself.
Ideal for me comes in a variety of guises. I love my courses, taken and taught, at the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I have more than once, at the end of a full day of classes, said aloud, “I loved, loved, loved today!” I likewise love my church choir and my activities in our community: billiards, a writers’ group, tap dancing and line dancing, an annual musical. Above all, I love the people with whom I share these activities. And I thrive at the nearby Franciscan Spiritual Center; the Franciscan sisters fully live their spirituality. They’re as radical as I am—but a lot better at putting their beliefs into practice by serving the world community.
Now in this time of the coronavirus, all my classes and group activities have been suspended. But I am still finding beautiful days because I still have the joy of one of God’s profound blessings in my life: my best friend in this world, my sister of the soul though not of blood. Every evening, I pack something for supper and walk over to my friend’s apartment within the community where we are living. Her apartment is larger than mine, so at her place, we are able to do our social distancing—six feet apart—and yet visit and share our reading and wrestling with its meanings; our experiences, thoughts, and emotions; laughter; the devastating news; and the pleasure of each other’s company. And each evening, my friend and I share with each other what we have written during the day.
The virus is devouring the planet For us who took meandering, Nearly at will, As the way our world spun; We who are blessed With generous measures Of strength and possibilities Wandered our neighborhoods And far beyond As means allowed And inclination prompted.
But now a trip to choir practice Is an act of courage, daring, Perhaps irresponsibility, Endangering others, Harming those I love.
How could a time, Decades, have been When for us— The blessed ones Not living, or enduring, In famine, poverty, infirmity, Subjugation, or war— Only time and budget impeded Our exploring the globe?
And now we avoid trains and planes, Restaurants and theaters, Gatherings at church and school, And touching one another.
Throughout the eons, Lives have been transformed, Darkened or destroyed; We feared Earth’s annihilation By inundation or asteroid, But our present world and ways Are trampled by a microbe Unheard of when the old year Stepped away a season ago, Ceding time and space To a new decade holding hope Now dying, But seeking resurrection.
Entering a church in Rome, I step out of time into stillness and peace between moments of ordinary life. A few tourists pause in front of the frescoes. Someone puts coins in a slot to illuminate the apse for photographs, and then the light is dusk again. Romans from the neighborhood pray silently in the pews. A priest is busy at the altar with some preparation. Time stays suspended until I step back out into the street.
The first Swiss Guards my friend Dora and I saw stood in their costumes in front of the gate to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica. We had just entered Piazza San Pietro through the middle of the embracing colonnade, and I was feeling unequal to branding into my memory the details of the piazza, Bernini’s colossal columns, and the basilica itself. In guidebooks, the scene looked untouchable and remote. In life, the scope, flamboyance, and magnificence were just as extreme, but when I was standing inside the scene, it also felt welcoming.
Within the Basilica di San Pietro, with its shimmering splendor, I found a living church, not merely a museum, in spite of the treasures. I was a Quaker then, not yet a Catholic, but I’d always felt at home in a Catholic church. I felt so even there in St. Peter’s, the grandest in the world. Perhaps a reason was that Catholicism had woven through my life. For a time in college, I had played the guitar for the local folk Mass—that was the late 1960s. I remember strumming along as we sang, “And we’ll sing a song of love / Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia.” I’d studied medieval Church history fairly extensively in college and had later dated a former priest for a few months.
After Dora and I entered St. Peter’s, Michelangelo’s Pietà was just to our right; Bernini’s swirlingly ornate ninety-foot altar canopy, the Baldacchino (Balachin), was straight ahead. Bernini remains one of my favorite sculptors because his captivating, often graceful saints, angels, and other figures have strong personalities. Restraint was not Bernini’s watchword.
I couldn’t absorb more than a little of the rich vision the basilica offered, and so I did such things as look up into Michelangelo’s dome; stare at Bernini’s Monumento a papa Alessandro VII, with its skeleton hand holding up an hourglass from under marble draperies; touch both of St. Peter’s feet, not just the right one as was expected; meditate by the tomb of Pope John XXIII; and sooth my sense of inadequacy in grasping it all by resolving to come back many times over the years.
Our map showed the Vatican Museums (the plural is correct) to be located right next to the basilica, and they were, but the entrance was a ten-minute walk around the Vatican walls, past the wagons selling souvenirs and bibite (soft drinks). Because it was by then about two o’clock, to enter the museums, we didn’t have to wait in a line like the two-blocks-long throng we passed one morning later in the week. It had drizzled a little as we’d left St. Peter’s, but the only real rain fell while we were inside the museums, climbing up and down stairs, walking from room to room, from masterpiece to masterpiece.
Visiting the Vatican Museums was a succession of, “Wow, this is here!” and “I wish I could assimilate all these wonderful things”: the Hellenistic Period sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, a Roman emperor’s mosaics and stone bowl the size of a small swimming pool, Raphael’s School of Athens, and the grand prize at the end, the Sistine Chapel. I thought, “Popes are chosen in this room. Michelangelo himself painted these scenes. Now I’m standing here. I’m numbed by the responsibility.” I willed myself to see, really to see, the images I had looked at so many times in reproductions—above all, God giving life to Adam and the Delphic Sibyl, my favorite. From time to time, an official hissed, “Ssh!” to the milling crowd.
We reached the bottom of the museums’ dramatic, wide spiral staircase and stopped into a small snack bar to rest and drink mineral water. Dora was ready to return for a nap in the convent guest room where we were staying, and I set off for Castel Sant’Angelo. Loving opera as well as churches, I wanted to see the setting for Puccini’s Tosca.
The next day, after exploring the Pantheon—where I felt the stones hadn’t yet absorbed the overlay of Christianity—we were ready to find the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. This church is almost adjacent to the back of the Pantheon, but we took a circuitous route down the wrong street and around the block, so that I decided to ask directions from a woman of perhaps sixty who was talking with two men. I liked her appearance and manner, which were typical of the self-confident, friendly, and efficient middle-aged and older Roman women I saw throughout the week—the kind of woman I want to be.
Following the woman’s instructions, we walked around another corner and were then in front of Bernini’s statue of an elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back. I love elephants for their wisdom and personality, as Bernini apparently did, too, and I had admired pictures of this statue. So rounding the corner was one of my many gratifying Roman moments of desire opening up into reality.
There behind the elephant was Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with its plain exterior that leads into interior color and light—Gothic, but with its own Roman character, so that the church is not just a small transplanted cathedral from the North. Santa Maria sopra Minerva is beautiful, with its celestial blue-and-gold vaulted ceiling. At one time, a Roman temple to Minerva was on the site—hence sopra Minerva, meaning above Minerva—and when I sat in that church, I was with those ancient Romans, as well as with centuries of Christians. The great religious buildings of the world reach across time.
Every church I visited in Rome was filled with works of profound beauty inspired by the artists’ devotion. I could not hold information about all of the art in my mind. Because of the vast magnificence, I could barely even see each fresco and statue clearly and consciously. All I could do was store the most outstanding impressions, buy books for later study from the small gift shops, and carry with me the feelings I found in the air as I sat and walked in each church, absorbing its aura formed by the centuries.
I had seen pictures of the inside of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and Andrea Bocelli’s Aria video was filmed there, so I wanted to wander through the basilica, turning pictures into experience. There was Michelangelo’s sculpture The Risen Christ, and I found St. Catherine of Siena, co-patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis), interred beneath the altar—but without her head, which is in Siena. Wandering beyond the altar to the left, I came across the tomb of the 15th century painter Fra Angelico, important to me because my father and I took an art-appreciation course together when I was a senior in high school, and I first heard about Fra Angelico then.
When I joined her, Dora was sitting in front of the Cappella di San Dominico, also to the left of the altar, and meditating on a statue of the Madonna with three children—Jesus and two St. Johns. Dora had lighted a candle, and I lighted one, too, for the people meaning the most to me. I wish it had not been the only candle I lighted in Rome, because a prayer for the wellbeing of another is not an empty gesture.
The churches of Rome carry a sense of permanence and meaningful tradition. Traditions have the potential either to support or to bind, depending both on the traditions themselves and on the way they are used or misused. Some are excuses for continuing injustices—for example, the traditions that subjugate women and those in whose name violence is committed. Other traditions, the kind that deserve nurturing, link us to other people without pushing away or diminishing those who do not share our traditions.
By the time I visited Rome, I was not finding a sense of permanence and tradition in my own spiritual experience. While I thought my religious views meant I would not make a good Catholic, I felt more spiritual satisfaction from sitting in a hundreds-of-years-old Catholic basilica than I did from meditating in my own Quaker meetinghouse, where, by then, all but the barest traditions seemed to be kept assiduously scraped away.
When I was a little girl, vibrant Quaker traditions were maintained and nurtured, and in those days the Meeting felt welcoming and so comforted my parents and me as a place where we belonged. Then we were a part of something worthwhile that had been built up over time, even though Quakerism’s centuries are many fewer than those of Catholicism.
For the first few years after my parents and I joined Friends Meeting, when I was five, every Sunday morning before meeting for worship, a lively woman played the piano for us children to sing songs and hymns. I loved to sing. Then for many years, after meeting, adults and children sang together, always ending with the same hymn:
As we leave this friendly place, Love gives light to every face; May the kindness which we learn, Light our hearts till we return.”
Meeting was a friendly place, with older Quakers who still used “thee” and “thou” and were looked up to and respected for their ministry, with younger adults who took an active role in the life of the Meeting, and with children of all ages. At Christmastime, we children decorated a mitten tree for needy people, acted out the Nativity story, and made gifts to sell at the Meeting’s annual fair.
By the time I visited Rome, nobody sang hymns in the meetinghouse anymore, most of the “weighty Friends” were gone, and those of us who were left sat scattered around the meetingroom on Sunday morning, often, it felt to me, without much intimacy and shared spiritual energy.
When I was in Italy, I wasn’t yet ready to turn Catholic, but I did want to take my Quaker heart into St. Peter’s and Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the other churches I especially loved in Rome—Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Maria della Vittoria—gaze at the art that appealed to me and up into the ornate ceilings, and think about all the people of the world to whom I was linked through this art and architecture: those who created it and those whom it has helped to make their way in the world and understand life’s mysteries.
The shades-of-blue oriental rug Now in a church classroom, The classroom where our choir practices, Is, I feel, I sense with my spirit’s eye As well as my eyes for physical sight, The rug that for all the decades After the braided rug of my childhood Covered our den floor at home, The room in our little white house Where my mother and father and I Shared dinners on our card table, Night after night, When I visited from other states, When I lived back home again, Home where I still remain In my heart.
Just before the house was sold,
The rug was sold
And seems to have found its way
To the room where the choir I love
Sings melodies and harmonies
For the church that is now
My spiritual home.
Living on our rug at Christmas,
We three hung stockings on our fireplace,
No matter our ages,
With blue-and-white tiles in the red-brick hearth,
With Daddy’s mother’s painting above the mantel—
The painting hangs in my bedroom now.
We rested our feet
On the pretty rug
As Mother sat facing the fireplace,
With Daddy across from her,
And I in between,
And after our Quaker-silence grace,
We shared our days,
Analyzed our dreams,
And one Friday night
Ate our last meal together.
On the rug’s patterned loveliness,
Wrote letters and journals,
Sang songs at the piano:
“Let the Sunshine In”
And “The Church in the Wildwood.”
On the blue-hued rug,
I was not always happy,
Often not the way I wish to have been,
Kind and serene,
But inviolate love
Lived always in that room.
At choir practice
I stare at the rug,
Searching for evidence
Of the years
It decorated and cushioned our lives,
Giving us its beauty;
Though tangible signs elude me,
Because I feel our love
Still held in the fibers of the carpet.
Perhaps I am mistaken:
Maybe our family rug
And the rug in our church classroom
Are not the same;
Even if such is truth,
I visit weekly in choir practice,
The rug offering ringing memories,
Speaks to me saying
My journey on into the years
Continues warmed and made beautiful
Through love unchanged by loss and time.
As my friend and I drove to church,
Meandering on a road offering trees and loveliness,
We saw ahead an imposing being
Resting on an overhanging bare branch.
A raccoon first came to mind—
Such was the creature’s size—
But then we saw and understood
The white beaked head,
Eyes searching sustenance:
The only bald eagle I have seen
Out of the sky
In all my decades of living and wandering nearby.
The eagle gave the best of the day’s sermons: Our world, God’s world, Embraces eagles and humans, Oceans and cities, Elk and agriculture, Hunted elephants and hungry children; The choice is not between such as you and such as we; The choice is between Reverence for God’s creation— Care for the Earth and air— Between that and nothingness.
I want to be told
My writing is approved.
I have elevated you
So my own assessment
So my conclusion
That I have written well,
Put worthwhile thoughts
Into phrases and images
To inspire reflection,
Is to be crumpled,
Deemed of merit
And anyone else
Inhabiting the judgment seat
Of the moment,
And so I despair.
And so I prayed:
Dear parents, dear God, dear guides, dear angels, please help me to find my writing way. What is the way I can use writing to serve and also to find my wholeness, my serenity for the time in this life remaining to me? Please help me; please help me. If writing about books is the best way for me to help, what is the focus I should take? On what aspect of books should I focus? Is it on the lessons, the insights from each book. . . . Or perhaps I should combine that approach with inspired writing . . . and with poems, even if others don’t usually seem to know what to make of my poems. Please guide me. Thank you, dear ones and God. Please guide me to the answer, to the enduring way forward. . . .
I was given this answer:
We want to help you, and will help you if you are able to still your mind enough to listen, to hear. What is most important for you is your message, not the vehicle through which you express your message. Be clear about your beliefs, as we think you are. But to help you relax and move forward, write an in-depth piece setting out your gospel, as your understanding shows you now. Your understanding will continue to change and grow through ongoing conversion, continuing revelation, and so the pieces you write will reflect your spiritual evolution. But the principle holds: be thoroughly clear about what you want to say, and vehicles to express your understanding will open to you. You had things backwards, worrying about finding a grand vehicle for writing when all you need to move forward is to be immersed in your understanding. Namaste
And so I have begun moving forward by expressing some of my central beliefs:
Every person, without exception, has gifts to offer the world.
Most individuals need encouragement from others, from us, to recognize and cultivate their gifts fully.
To value others’ gifts above our own is to denigrate and obscure God’s gifts within us—leaving not only our lives but also the world itself poorer.
We are each part of God and loved by God, regardless of our religious affiliation (or lack of affiliation).
Every human being is equally valuable, to God and to the world. Gender, age, and infirmity do not change this fact. (Note: Denying women the right to become priests is about power, not Christianity.)
God is within all of creation.
A single consciousness links all creation, including every human mind, and that consciousness is of God.
If we do not protect and love the Earth and all creation, we do not love God.
Fear is a powerful producer of hurtful, harmful behavior.
If we can understand how the world looks to another person, we can better understand her or his behavior.
Success is wrongly defined as power and status over others.
The essence of being a true Christian is being kind and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31).
Without kindness and love, religious practices are meaningless and are a significant source of suffering, prejudice, hate, and violence.
If we feel inferior to others and fear rejection and isolation, we may struggle to be kind and loving.
Honoring life means respecting and protecting all of life, including the planet itself and nonhuman animals. Protecting some lives at the expense of others is not Christianity (or any other spirituality) in action.
We must address the causes of suffering and harmful behavior, and not only respond to their symptoms.
There is an afterlife, a heaven, and we will rejoin our loved ones there. Even as we continue in our earthly lives, we and our loved ones in heaven continue to be a part of each other’s existence.
Heaven to at least some extent corresponds to our needs and desires. (“In my Father’s house are many mansions,” John 14:2.)
Based on the evidence I have read, reincarnation exists, but I think that we have a choice about returning and that soul growth continues in heaven as well as during earthly life. Perhaps it is not that I, Winifred Hayek per se, will return but that a new personality that is another aspect of my soul may come to earth for a human life. Maybe somewhat as Jesus is both an individual human and God, our own souls experience human lives but are at the same time more than those individual lives.
Religious and political leaders who preach division and who seek to control through fear and feigned superiority are false prophets.
Lived examples are more persuasive than words. At the same time, we must speak up against injustice and on behalf of others.
Our individual thoughts and words help to create the world in which we live.
Rituals are valuable if they help us to feel nearer to God and closer to all the souls across the planet and throughout time. On the other hand, if we think that our traditions and precepts serve to show our superiority to outsiders, our theology is among the causes of misunderstanding, bigotry, hatred, poverty, violence, and war.
No one can know the entire truth of who and what God is and how creation came to be. Over the course of our lives, we have the responsibility to use our own ongoing seeking to accept or refute, expand, mold, and clarify the religious teachings we have encountered.
Because there is that of God in each of us, we have the capacity to listen to and learn from the best within ourselves, and personal experiences can be powerful teachers.
The idea that good people (i.e., those practicing our religion) will live charmed lives and that other people (those who haven’t joined our church) will suffer is false and pernicious. Jesus was not only good but was also God, and he suffered. His mother, Mary, suffered. Suffering is an inevitable part of being human and helps to temper and teach our souls. As Franciscan Richard Rohr writes, “We must all carry the cross of our own reality until God transforms us through it. These are the wounded healers of the world, and healers who have fully faced their wounds are the only ones who heal anyone else.”
I don’t think God cares about my church membership unless it helps me to become more loving and kind and to see that all people are one within God.
Hell does not exist. Some souls in the afterlife are far from the Light of God, but these souls have the opportunity to grow closer to the Light.
The arts and humanities have as much to teach the human race and are as vital as the sciences.
God never gives up on us, and neither should we give up on ourselves or others.
We hear from a wise Franciscan,
“Pray as you can,
Not as you cannot.”
And I translate,
“Write as you can,
No longer as you cannot,”
Or barely manage
And with suffering.
Writing, like singing,
Is my prayer.
I sing with joy,
Insouciant in spite of my small,
But in writing
I seek my voice’s power.
So I am to “write as I can write,”
But how is that?
It is not as I have written,
And not as I have so far
Prayed for my writing,
Begging to be of service,
Begging to count,
Craving to take my place,
To find my place.
It is not as I have sought the means
To earn my keep,
To stop staggering
A few paces from the edge.
And so how can I finally write?
What that I have considered,
Pondered, and explored
Is of my soul,
And what is of yours, and yours,
And only mine as I think
It ought to seem?
How can I write
In order, finally,
To share the prayer of words
From my own spirit and being,
My own days and meaning?
 Our Franciscan teacher was quoting the Benedictine priest John Chapman (1865-1933).
In The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage, Joan Chittister (Convergent Books, 2019) writes, “The prophet is the person who says no to everything that is not of God. No to the abuse of women. No to the rejection of the stranger. . .” (15). She goes on to explore in depth what it means to be a modern-day prophet and asserts that we are all called on to be prophets. Yes we must help those in need, but we must also address the causes of suffering, from the suffering brought by hunger and violence to that brought by the destruction of our air, land, and oceans. Reading Chittister’s book and attending an Advent retreat at a nearby Franciscan Spiritual Center prompted this poem:
Trying to Follow the Star
I wish to be a prophet of everything And so am a prophet of nothing, Wanting to right all wrongs And caught in the snare of wanting.
What, and where, is the star I am to follow?
I have been drawn by alluring lights All my life, Many casting beauty and meaning, But then I have wandered, Mistaking others’ stars for mine.
And in a world, a life, of surface glow with faded centers, The brilliance of the true seems dimmed, eclipsed, But if I turn my eyes away And into the pure darkness Of the soft, benevolent night, I will see the miraculous constellations Holding peace, joy, and God And bathing us in starlight.
I can set out again, Even at seventy— Just now I resisted Writing “seventy,” Fearing others will see Me as less Than I think I am Or try to be.
I walk fast, Dance, Make a point Of lifting, Bending, Being the go-to kid— Happy I can, Glad to help, And with something to prove To me, Working to be needed, Wanted, Included, Useful, Not left out.
So much is behind: Though I do not know The time ahead, I understand the difference Between potential And impossible.
But yes, I can set out each new day Better ready for the journey Than I have been before; The decades Nourish seventy: Years of stumbling And years of blessings Give a measure of guidance— Where to explore And where not to step again— Offer endurance, Acceptance, Optimism, Courage, Joy Discovering, Embracing New and familiar vistas Gracing Whatever is still to come.