This was unexpected. I had arrived in Zurich the day before, with plans to spend two days roaming this city. En route to a company leadership training in Germany, it was the first time in months that I had left my sandy home town. I was greedy for some new scenery.
A dragon guarded the entrance to my first destination. The castle-style Swiss National Museum was attended by a German-speaking curator, whose eyes surveyed visitors as if he knew that most would snap iPhone selfies and spend hours ogling his treasures, but have no idea of their real value. After he had accepted the tribute of a ticket and allowed me to proceed, the heavy double doors opened slowly, automatically, to an enormous room, full of brightly lit display cases and dark red walls.
Prominently displayed in the center were four donkeys.
An unexpressive Jesus sat stiffly on each one. The figures seemed to be composed of simple wood and paint; their angles were unrealistic, ugly.
They were hauled through the streets in regular processions for celebrations, hundreds of years ago, a plaque informed me. But why bother to save four that looked so similar? And why give something that did not seem too valuable such an exhibition? I did not understand.
An alarm sounded from somewhere in the room. Another tourist and I eyed each other with the question, “Is this something we should take seriously?”
The Paris attacks had occurred less than twelve hours before.
The sound— perhaps a falsely triggered security or fire alarm— faded, and I thought again of the King on a donkey. Of His peaceful entrance, subversively surprising a city in turbulence that was seeking a political savior. Perhaps we did need all four to help us remember.
Later I visited an art museum, whose features included several moods of Van Gogh; a giant, disheveled Campbell’s Soup can from Warhol; a handful of powerful sculptures from Rodin, stylized Renaissance paintings of love and spirituality; and immense panels from Monet.
My sister and I always look for Monet when we explore— from our first art experience together at a little museum in Rhode Island, to the Met in New York, to the places we were privileged to see in Paris. One in particular, the Musée de l’Orangerie, features waterlily paintings that cover entire walls; the viewer is encircled by them, immersed in their colors. The story is that Monet donated this exhibit to the people of Paris, to help heal their souls after the terrible experience of World War I.
I remembered them as I sat alone before the massive irises and lilies in Zurich’s museum. A few days later, an artist would host some of our meetings in South Germany’s Art Factory, an abandoned roof tile factory turned into a haven for travelers and artists. “I have heard it said that ‘Art is God’s secret weapon…,’” she told me. “It makes sense. No one would suspect; when things are very dark, art brings hope, it heals, it shows beauty.”
Between museums, I visited Fraumunster Cathedral, with stained glass windows stunning in size and color. They fell short, to me, of capturing the greatest moments in the story of Jesus. But the riotous color reflected the infinitude and intimacy of the moments when Christ took on flesh, and awakened my heart to long for more than the representation… for the real. Each piece of art I saw that day expressed longing, love, or lust from the artists; their disillusionment, depression, and desires to gain peace; their defiance or acceptance of their societies; their fears, pains, hopes, joys. Maybe the reflection of what is real, and the stirring of longing for more, were the point.
After I had admired the windows, I crossed the street to Grossmunster Cathedral. I was expecting less there; I had been captured by the story of Katharina von Zimmern, Fraumunster’s last abbess, who knew both how to lead and how to let go of power in an era where few women were allowed to do the former, and few human beings knew how to do the latter. Tourists milled around the Grossmunster sanctuary; sound technicians were setting up for a sacred music concert the next day. I walked up the side and found a postcard, printed in five languages. The words:
unto whom all hearts be open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hid:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love thee,
and worthily magnify thy holy Name,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer
The front stage was marked, “Please no conversation here. Listen to the silence.”
I sat and listened. A Renaissance painting seen earlier had portrayed Jesus’ baptism with everyday life happening around Him, and against the backdrop of European mountains. I chuckled at the inaccuracy at first, remembering the “real” wilderness of the baptism site. Perhaps the artist did not know any better.
But it is more likely that he did, and still had in mind something deeper, more vivid and more real. The holiest moments can take place right in the middle of life as it usually goes.
All the cathedrals, all the great works of art, they are not the keepers of silence, or beauty, or hope.
They are simply places that we can remember.
Thanksgiving week. The Young Leaders girls learn how to bob for apples. Their laughter echoes in our community center; their head scarves are soaked. I take a break from mixing biscuits and mashing potatoes the next afternoon, as the sun is setting in stunning color, to go to visit the Young Leaders boys; the moon, stunning in size, is rising when I go home.
The teachers bring their families later that night, an Arab/American Thanksgiving. Our table is filled with all the traditional fixings, give or take (a two-day turkey search had ended with chicken; and someone brought hummus to go with our glazed carrots and green beans). Strong Arabic coffee and sweet tea
accompany homemade aple crisp, blackberry pie, and kanafeh, a local cheese and honey desert. Someone starts to sing, first in Arabic, later in English; others share stories over dishes in the kitchen.
And my heart is full thanksgiving, from this cathedral, amidst the art.