American writer and Eatonton, Ga., native Alice Walker wisely pointed out in her most famous novel that it doesn’t set well with God when, in the course of our going to and fro, we aren’t observant of his awesome handiwork and we, the self-absorbed, pass by the color purple.
The season of Lent takes care of that. By turning us inward, Lent turns us outward. Like Jesus facing his own desert days (40, the Bible recounts), we confront the many forces competing for our souls and our sanity. It takes the absence of color for us to get the sheer luster of the color purple.
That’s why the early church fathers and mothers took to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine – retreated from the clutter and clamor of the “church” and embraced lives of desperate simplicity. Desert spirituality of the fourth and fifth centuries was an intentional movement away from “self” toward the “Other.”
That Other was the Divine, the Creator, and was for the desert sojourner the focus of his or her love as it was centered on the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). The movement toward this love began with examination of the self, a peeling away of one’s pretensions so that in that turning inward the soul ultimately could be turned toward God and neighbor … could not only glimpse the color purple but luxuriate in it.
That Lent is so tied to the seasonal transition of winter to spring affords us the opportunity to see creation itself be “recreated” – our gray gardens begin to be infused with their lavenders and purples until they dare profess their radiant palettes. Winter is so crucial to the transition, and maybe we will all the more appreciate what spring brings after those hours many of us recently faced hibernation and darkness.
Like our fathers and mothers in the desert, many of us stripped of all means of communication with the outside world did what we needed to do – we turned inward, we were quietened even as the long nights were punctuated by the sounds of the groaning creation around us.
That journey inward is generative – even in the desert there is the gift of garden and oasis. One has only to look at the artistic process to know the stripping away of the self is redemptive and transforming. The genius of an artist like Martha Graham majestically mirrors this process. Graham made dance a soul project. Her works like Appalachian Spring being presented here tonight by her company for the first time in Augusta’s history (thank you, Augusta Ballet), transformed movement so that the body reveals the soul and in the words she so often quoted “I did not choose to be a dancer. I was chosen.”
Just how chosen she was is revealed in her work Lamentation. Seated on a low bench dressed in gray jersey, Graham’s knees were projected widely to each side. With only her hands, face and feet visible she moved upward and downward, tracing the movement of a soul as it culminates in a cry of anguish: her hands clasped together as she allowed her movements to telegraph the depths of her soul’s sorrow.
On the night of Jan. 8, 1930, a woman in the audience at Lamentation’s premiere asked to see Martha backstage. Weeping profusely, she explained to Martha that her 9-year-old son had been killed by a car months ago. Unable to express her emotion, imprisoned by her own grief, watching the dancer rocking with anguish and baring her soul, the mother was released and she confessed as she cried out through her tears and collapsed in the dancer’s arms, “You will never know what you have done for me tonight.”
Seeing purple can do that to a soul.
THE REV. BERNARD MASON IS A RETIRED SUPPLY PASTOR SERVING AT MANN MEMORIAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH IN AUGUSTA.