Since the beginning of human life, we mortals have created stories in rhythms and images and words to help us to understand our place and purpose in the life on this planet. Regardless of the vast geographic distances between us, the different sounds and symbols and languages we use, the odd-seeming spectrum of perspectives and particularities we hold dear, we human beings all find our ways into the Creation that make sense to us and give our lives meaning.
The Guibord Center – Religion Inside Out in seeking to bring forth an experience of the Holy, of that place where all humans connect, invited Cantor Mark Saltzman of Congregation Kol Ami to offer a special musical presentation of creation stories told through six different faiths and cultures.
And so it was that on a very dark and rainy Saturday night in mid-November, over a hundred people braved the elements to gather in the heart of downtown Los Angeles at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, accepting the invitation to turn away from time told in checking off lists, doing tasks, finishing downloads, and running errands to journey backward into the dim and distant long ago past to the time before time… to the beginning.
This was not an evening of perching on the edge of one’s seat. It was a rare and precious opportunity to settle back into the seat and let go of everything – to give in and give up and give over to a vastness far beyond our daily cares or consciousness, an experience of limitless space and time and meaning.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth… “
The opening words from Genesis, Chapters 1 and 2 are some of the most familiar in all of the Western world and yet rarely do non-Jews experience them chanted first in Hebrew from a Torah and then read dramatically in English by a Christian minister. There in the semi-darkness just outside of the lighted stage, the ancient words spun layer-by-layer, word-by-word, slowly expanding our sense of ourselves beyond being city dwellers into our true heritage as cosmic beings. Most of those gathered there will tell you, they heard the familiar words anew that night – as if for the very first time.
When the scroll was finally rolled up again and The Bible shut, Cantor Saltzman shifted across the stage and opened the metaphoric doorway into the Islands of Japan there beside the continent of Asia and the Shinto Story of Creation – Tales of the Kojiki – told by a tall thin man whose words were ferried forth on the hauntingly beautiful string instrument played by his elegant female counter-part.
“Before the heavens and the earth existed, when the land was formless like a jellyfish, the first deities came into being…”
We gently entered into an exotic, mythic journey. Names tumbled forth lifted by the stringed notes. They tumbled and tumbled one after another, generation after generation until names seemed like pebbles dropping into water flowing into the waters of Life itself. The strangeness of the sounds and of the names resisted attempts to categorize or contain them. Some part of the listening mind gave up another piece of the need to rationalize or even try to control a story bigger than one’s self.
Repetition leads eventually to emptiness and emptiness… to openness.
Hebrew became English.
English became Hebrew.
Hebrew became became English again.
English became Japanese.
Japanese returned to English…
and then became Arabic.
The young man in his flowing white robe began to chant an Islamic Story of the Abrahamic People from The Holy Qur’an. Most non-Muslims have never heard Arabic. It is as startling as it is unforgettable. Though utterly foreign, the names, when translated were not: Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, Noah and David and Solomon, and Job and Jonah, and Moses and Aaron and Zachariah and John and Jesus and Elias… Generation after generation, prophet after prophet, God’s Holy Word moving throughout Creation, down throughout the ages It came…
As the last notes of Arabic faded,.. Cantor Saltzman turned us to the South, to the Aztecs and the Indigenous Peoples of South and Middle America who believed that the world was created and recreated over and over again, and that “in order for life to continue to be created it had to die.” The stories “From the Dead Earth” and “The First Sun” were performed by two story-tellers and an accompanying brightly plumed musician in whose hands and being clay flutes and gourds evoked the wind and sea, spirits and creatures alike, who surrounded us as we entered into the spirits’ discussion of “who are the people?” asking the question that had been yet unasked: What will humans do with the life we grant them?.. a question of much tugging between the spirits and hopefully of much tugging within the humans who have been given the precious gift and responsibility of Life.
Once more Cantor Saltzman moved our consciousness across the stage crossing oceans and continents as he went: this time to Africa where rhythm is the language of life.
Richly carved tall drums stood before the colorful and highly animated young native women who wove a welcome around those gathered with their drumming and dancing. They reached out eagerly encouraging and pulling the audience into the dance, the chant, the experience. Clapping and singing, swaying and dancing, they shared the sacred story of The Creation of The Yoruba People of Africa.
“Now long, long, long, long ago, Olorun, the Sky God lowered a great chain from the heavens to the ancient waters. Down this chain climbed Obatala, Olorun’s son. Obatala brought with him a handful of dirt, a special five-toed chicken and a palm nut. He threw to dirt upon the ancient waters and set the chicken on the dirt. The chicken busily scratched and scrapped the dirt until it formed the first dry earth. In the center of this new world…”
The Creation Story began again… once more to make sense to the peoples of a continent rich with a diversity of beings.
The final destination in the evening’s cosmic journey – the continent of India where Hinduism provides the predominant worldview – led into the swirl of chanting designed to carry one further and further into oneness. Our storyteller prefaced her performance with the words: “The great trinity is Brahma, the Creator, and Vishnu who sustains it, and Shiva, the Destroyer or, I would say, the Transformer.”…
“Because there is no end in the Indian tradition, we thought that we would send you off with a connection to your soul, because the soul is endless… We take many bodies in order to learn different lessons. We come to different traditions. We come to different body circumstances and life circumstances and then when we discard the body like an old garment, then we return back to the soul which is the Eternal Light.”
As she worked the age-old boxed instrument that functioned like a small table accordion, she began the chant that wove round and round and would finally fill the space and bring all of the other participants to the stage to join her.
There on the stage were people that span the globe, each dressed different clothing, worshipping in a different language through a different lens, and yet in that moment and ultimately, they formed a spectrum of the reflections of the light that created humanity.
In the beginning and in the end we are one.