In 1942, the Nazis were actively and forcefully rounding up Jews in France. In the picturesque farming village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (in southern France), Reformed Church minister Andre Trocme inspired an entire village to change lives. And, as it turns out, the world in which we live.
Each of the citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon voluntarily risked their lives to hide Jews–in homes, on farms, and in public buildings; Jews who were being rounded up by the Nazi SS for shipment to the death camps. (It is said that there was not a single home in the village that did not shelter a Jewish family.) Le Chambon-sur-Lignon became known as the “City of Refuge.”
Whenever Nazi patrols searched the village, the Jews were sent, surreptitiously, out into the woodland countryside. One of the villagers recalled, “As soon as the soldiers left, we would go into the forest and sing a song. When they heard that song, the Jews knew it was safe to come home.”
Can you imagine the feeling when you heard the song?
It is estimated that as many as five thousand lives were saved–many given passage to Switzerland. One reason for this display of compassion? These French villagers were descendants from the persecuted Protestant Huguenots. Their own history of persecution connected them to the plight of the Jewish people hiding in their homes.
Perhaps that is true, I do not know.
But three things about this story struck me.
One, the extraordinary power of compassion (and the courage to practice compassion in a world that places a premium on power and control).
Two, compassion is born in the soil of vulnerability, humility and the awareness that we are all connected.
Three, the power of love and music to bring each and every one of us, home. Home, the place where we are given value and love and dignity, and from that place, value and love and dignity spill to the world around us.
What song did the villagers sing?
What kind of music represents freedom and safety and well-being and home?
Or maybe it’s not that important. The song, I mean. (Although I’m torn between a Mozart Requiem and Stairway to Heaven.) There is no denying our knee-jerk need to figure it out. But maybe, just maybe, the song is compassion. Plain and simple.
I only know that for whatever reason, the villagers choose love. They chose Grace. And the rest, well, the rest is history.
Sadly, we bury the music of Grace in rhetoric.
We bury the music of Grace in the need to be right.
We bury the music of Grace in the need to win.
I want a world where is it safe to come home. To be honest, my druthers would be that this all kicks in after life is tidy and all straitened out. That would be nice. Of course the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is filled with suffering. So much for tidy. Or for my wish to eliminate sorrow.
The (very old) Sanskrit word for suffering is Dukkha. (It can mean stress, anxiety or dissatisfaction.)
The contrast is Sukha, which can translate happiness (which throws me because I’m not real certain what happiness looks like, except that it seems to describe someone other than me).
What is helpful to know is that these words date to a time when humans traveled by horse or ox drawn carts, and the words were literally used to mean, “having a bad or good axle.”
Okay, I love this. (Plus I’m good at mixing metaphors.)
Yes, there will be ruts—life can be precarious and unsafe—but the axle (not the ruts) determines the ride.
Now back to our villagers and the song…
Everyone knows what it means to be afraid, or at risk, or at wits end, or without hope, or discombobulated, or fragmented, or tuckered out. More than ever we need refuge; safe places for sanity and restoration.
Okay. So what is next?
Mother Teresa was asked where she found her strength, her focus, her fuel. The fuel, she explained, is prayer. “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.”
To be replenished is to be reminded of what is true, of what tethers us. This is not just someone saying, “you’ll be okay.” But to know, at our core, that we are safe and we are home. And now we have something to draw on. And that means we have something to give.
In one of her journals (in the early 1900s), Raissa Maritain wrote, “Yesterday I had a good morning. Once again when I recollect myself, I again find the same simple demands of God: gentleness, humility, charity, interior simplicity; nothing else is asked of me. And suddenly I saw clearly why these virtues are demanded, because through them the soul becomes inhabitable for God and for one’s neighbor in an intimate and permanent way. They make a pleasant cell of it. Hardness and pride repel, complexity disquiets. But humility and gentleness welcome, and simplicity reassures.”
Yes. And I say that’s the oil Mother Teresa is talking about. Our sanctuary is not just for solace, but also indispensable as deterrent. Because with sanctuary, we build immunity; to not be as easily susceptible to fear, or to be at the mercy of every threat.
Our values — gentleness, humility, charity, interior simplicity — tether us.
And we are reminded of them when we hear the song that invites us home. However, here’s the deal: our story doesn’t stop when we hear the song. We leave different than when we came in. Now we sing it to others. The song gives us the power to change the paradigm. Even though there is suffering, the axle determines the ride. And the song always invites people home to safety.
I cannot tell you what song will bring you out of hiding. But I can tell you this: you have one.
Count on it.
And if you sit still, you may hear it. Really.
It is the song that reminds us we are beautiful, when we feel ugly.
It is the song that tells us we are whole, when we feel broken.
It is the song that gives us the power to literally give a damn, on those days when we feel done in.
Whatever it is, the song brings people out of hiding, out of unease and out of fear. The song invites courage and renewal and resilience.
And that, well, that is music worth singing. And it is the music of Grace.
Today our cat Roscoe died. It was a very sad day. His suffering was palpable. He lived a good long life. And brought us joy and companionship. As with many pets, they sing the song we need to hear.
But it is a reminder that life is fragile. Ephemeral. So I walk the garden. Because the garden reminds me. I talk with Fred and Ethel, our Mallard pair (their photo above), and with Irv and Dottie our wood duck duo. They don’t give me great advice. But they do my heart good.
Quote for your week…
We need stories that tell us the reason why compassion and the humane treatment of our fellows is more important–and interesting–than feathering our own nests as we go on accumulating property and power. William Kittridge
POEMS AND PRAYERS
When Someone Deeply Listens to You
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you
your barefeet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.
As the light of dawn awakens earth’s creatures
and stirs into song the birds of the morning
so may I be brought to life this day.
Rising to see the light
to hear the wind
to smell the fragrance of what grows from the ground
to taste its fruit
and touch its textures
so may my inner senses be awakened to you
so may my senses be awakened to you, O God.