The Midnight Hour or WTFWJD?

by Elizabeth Cunningham

It’s the midnight hour (i.e., between 3:00 and 4:00am when you can’t go back to sleep) before the dawn of Pentecost. For a week I have been struggling intensely with my core beliefs—and core pathologies.

Those of you who have read The Passion of Mary Magdalen will be familiar with the prologue “In the Night.” The Priestess Whores of Temple Magdalen welcome all comers, for the stranger might be a god or an angel. Or Jesus himself, as turns out to be the case when a Samaritan arrives with “a sick man near death,” and Maeve opens the gate she’d barred for the night.

If you follow this blog, you also know that I direct the Center at High Valley at the site of my mother-in-law’s former school. We are about to move into an apartment on that property, and we will be selling our secluded house in the woods.

High Valley has certain Temple Magdalen-like qualities. The school my mother-in-law ran for many years was home to kids with a variety of learning, emotional, and behavioral problems, which all have labels now but didn’t then. It was a place where misfits fit—including me when, as a high school dropout, I worked there as a sort of tweeny maid. The Center still has that quality, one I treasure. Our celebrations are open to people of all faiths and no faiths. The atmosphere is welcoming, the structure is organic. We often joke that we are an unintentional community. Just like at Temple Magdalen, we don’t have meetings, we have parties, music jams, storytelling, homemade arts and entertainment.

As many of you also know, I am descended from a line of Episcopal priests. I can recite much of the Sermon on the Mount by heart. The Gospel passage that is most indelibly imprinted on my psyche is from Matthew 25: “I was naked and ye clothed me, hungry and ye gave me to eat, thirsty, and ye gave me to drink, sick and ye visited me, in prison and ye came unto me. Inasmuch as ye have done it onto one of these the least of my brethren ye have done it unto me.” These verses are on my grandfather’s memorial plaque. They were at the core of every sermon my father gave in or out of church. They also informed my vision of Temple Magdalen.

So when acquaintances asked me to offer space at High Valley on a barter basis to a troubled woman, I said what I would call a complicated yes, though my gut would have preferred a simple no. The woman has no car (we live ten miles from shopping), can’t do much physical labor (our major need) and is in rocky shape emotionally. Moreover, our tentative retreat space is downstairs from the apartment we will be newly inhabiting. I did manage to say no to a summer internship (after much agonizing) but I said yes to a three week retreat. Those approaching me on her behalf felt sure that a change from her current environment would lead to a breakthrough.

The woman responded to my offer enthusiastically but asked to bring with her a man with mental and emotional problems far more severe than her own. I’d met him, and my gut was having a fit, but my first response to her was a mild: “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” which of course she ignored. Then I said my first simple no: “The offer is to you, not to him.” Her numerous appeals that he be included became increasingly manipulative and, as I held firm, vituperative. In the end, she refused to come without him.

There was more than one sweated midnight hour during that week. One session began with: “At Temple Magdalen, they would have taken in both of them….” Suddenly Maeve interrupted and brought me up short:

“You are not going to go all fundamentalist on me! First of all, I have no intention of starting a religion. Second, Temple Magdalen and High Valley are not identical. At Temple Magdalen, we had a lot of staff, and we had two wealthy benefactors. So stop this line of thinking right now.”

Wow, I thought. There could be a blog post in this. Some people do refer to The Maeve Chronicles as their bible. You could argue that Maeve and I have rewritten the New Testament—but not to create a new orthodoxy! Temple Magdalen is a phenomenon not an institution. Moreover, The Maeve Chronicles end with a song called: “All Temples Fall.”

Despite Maeve’s admonishment, the midnight hour before Pentecost finds me fretting once again about my failure. “I wrote the Prologue (I say to myself–again). But I can’t live it. I am a hypocrite!” “Jesus Christ!” Maeve says, fed-up. “You have such a Christ complex. Go talk to Jesus. He’s the one who started all this.” So I do.

Jesus asks me: “What have you learned from me?” I quote all the passages about giving even more than you’re asked, concluding with Matthew 25. Jesus offers no comforting exegesis.

“Tell me what happened,” he says. And I tell him the story from the first request to take in the woman to my last no to including her friend. It must be the effect of his listening; I find myself taking care not to justify or reproach myself. I just give him the facts.

He receives the story without comment, and then he asks: “Where did you go wrong?”

“I said yes when I wanted to say no,” I answer.

Then follows one of those brief yet timeless life reviews in which this pattern is painfully and painstakingly illuminated.

Afterwards Jesus asks me, almost casually, just as a point of information. “Do you want to take care of people?”

“No,” I admit.

Then he asks: “What is it you think I want from you?”

I don’t answer right away, pondering all those deeply embedded passages, my compulsion to be good—at least (especially) in my own eyes.

“I want you to be truthful,” he says at last. “I want you to be real. I want you to be yourself.”

At just that moment, my hand closes on a cross pendant that has been lost for several days among the bed sheets.

“Ok,” I say.

And a few moments later, I fall into a sound sleep.

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Brooke June 14, 2011 - 9:32 pm

Oh, Elizabeth. I have tears springing forth. You reinforce what I am learning so profoundly at the moment, that saying no, even if it is uncomfortable or could be judged as unpraiseworthy, is simultaneously saying yes to yourself, and that this authentic yes to the self has the power to free us and others. I am finding that being honest, even with myself, always sets things right, and old fashioned sacrifice creates merely more tatters and energy drain for everyone around. I am also finding that when I say no, I might have other options come to me to help the person I can say yes to, that I wouldn't have thought of, while taking it all upon myself. Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for sharing your process. So beautiful. I celebrate you and your new temple, where your heart can expand, and just in that, touch people–here is to no longer propping people up out of fear they can't do it themselves! They may not know it, but I believe it is this kind of help they are crying out for! XO

Anonymous June 14, 2011 - 11:34 pm

Wow, did I need to hear this right now. Thank you for doing the hard work and sharing it so profoundly.

Unknown June 15, 2011 - 12:53 pm

Wonderful! Instead of literalism/fundamentalism, you've found authenticity.

I said no to my daughter–after almost a year of temporary disability and income support–when she pleaded, tearfully, to come "home" (she'd never lived here). We live far from anywhere where she could find a suitable job, while she lives in the midst of a huge metropolis. Within a few weeks she'd found a wonderful situation herself, and within a year she found a husband, too!

Giving into her tears would have been the worst thing I could have done. Now, instead of being dependent and bereft, she's needed and recognized for her very real talents.

And she even writes me thank you letters!


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