Martin LeFevre: The rain came down in sheets as the sun shone brightly low in the western sky. To the east, the most vivid rainbow I’ve ever seen arced 180 degrees across the sky, the prismatic bands of color almost too intense for the heart to bear. Never was the insight, “color is God” more clear.
Suddenly, there was a phenomenon I’ve never seen before. Two lavender semi-circles appeared slightly below the rainbow, thin rings distinct from the rest of the spectrum of color. The whole scene – rain, sun and rainbow — appeared both vibrantly real and inexpressibly ephemeral.
Today is Palm Sunday. Beyond the irrelevant encrustations of Catholicism and Protestantism, beyond the crumbling Christian cornerstone of “He died on the Cross for our sins,” can we in the West gain new insight into what actually happened with Jesus’ crucifixion?
Shortly before the pandemic, I initiated a series of dialogues with the Trappist monks at New Clairvaux Abbey, 20 minutes north of town. Cistercians, as they’re known more formally, are some of the strictest and most devout monks in the Catholic tradition.
I made an appointment with the previous abbot, Father Thomas, who graciously received the ‘fallen away’ Catholic and gave me a tour of the old chapel reconstructed within the new church, as well as the extensive grounds, which contain row after row of grapevines from which the monks produce high-quality wine.
The highlight was a visit to the Ovila
Chapter House, where the monk’s six times daily prayers begin at 3:30 a.m. and end with Compline at 6:30 p.m. It was rebuilt from stones from a 12th century monastery that sat idle in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco for decades after Randolph Hearst imported them from Spain and then lost interest in restoring the chapel in California.
Father Thomas lovingly showed me how the ancient stones were rebuilt to form the heart of the new, concrete block church. I traced the marks that medieval stonemasons left below portals and ribbed vaults that exemplify the transition between Romanesque and Gothic architecture in the 12th century.
Recognizing the authenticity of my contemplative life sans religion, I was honored to be invited into the monk’s sanctuary for the dialogues. A half dozen penetrating talks took place with a few of the well-educated monks, including the present abbot, Father Paul-Mark. On the last occasion, I asked the group a question that I’d grappled with after some years of experiencing the numinous during my meditations in nature.
Knowing full well I was wading into the deepest spiritual waters of Christianity, I inquired: We’re taught that at the end, just before Jesus died, he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Do you feel he really said that?
Yes, they all immediately replied. Responding with a mystic’s confidence tempered with a man’s humility, I responded: Do you realize what that means? It means Jesus himself didn’t understand what went wrong.
Needless to say, they didn’t agree, but to their credit, not one of the monks reacted, or treated me like a misguided neophyte or outright heretic. We simply talked about it.
I spoke from my heart: I feel the greatness of Jesus, and the reason that he occupies a special place in the hearts of so many people in the West and around the world to this day, is that he was a human being who didn’t understand what went wrong, yet did not turn against God or humankind, but retained his faith and love to the terrible end.
There was a moment of pregnant silence. The monks saw the insight was from a mystic’s understanding. There was no argumentation; the mystery of Jesus’ death hung in the air. We left it there, and parted on good terms, and I hold the brothers in my heart.
Alone, after the stillness of completely meditative states, the philosopher reemerges with his questions, reason and logic. Why, beyond theological treatises and centuries of belief, was Jesus scourged and crucified?
Jesus triumphally rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey not to signify his imminent crucifixion, knowing that he would die as the ultimate sacrificial lamb for our sins, but to herald the fulfillment of prophecy. The early Church invented a meaning for his crucifixion and inverted the cross, and we in the West have been living in its growing shadow ever since.
Clearly, Jesus was a threat to the established order, both of Pilate’s Rome and Jewish high priests. From a historical perspective, that’s enough of a reason. However there is a deeper level, and question: What was Jesus’ divine mission?
It wasn’t simply to overthrow the established order and build a just and humane society. It was something far deeper and greater – to bring about a revolution in the human heart.
In that he obviously failed, though the failure was of the people of his time down to ours, since it wasn’t he who needed to transform, but we.
As a much more recent religious teacher said near the end of his life, acknowledging his failure to awaken people, “No teacher, however illumined, has changed the basic course of man.” So the human condition remains a bottomless well of ignorance and suffering, growing outwardly better even as it grows inwardly worse.
Though none of us can hold a candle to Jesus, we cannot give up on humanity, even if man is doomed. Can enough of us begin to live his unvarnished teachings at this, the darkest hour of man?
Here are a few things that speak to me that Jesus undeniably said:
“Let the dead bury their dead.”
“Truly I tell you, unless you return and become like children, you can’t enter the kingdom of God.”
“No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but on a lamp-stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.