Therese Schroeder-Sheker on Her Friend, Christopher Bamford
In this guest post Therese Schroeder-Sheker pays tribute to her dear friend, Christopher Bamford, about whose life and passing I wrote not long ago. For forty years, harpist, singer, educator and clinician Therese has maintained her triple vocation by working in classical music, higher education and end-of-life care simultaneously. She founded the palliative medical modality of music-thanatology and its flagship organization The Chalice of Repose Project. Therese made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1980, records for American and European labels such as Sony, Celestial Harmonies, and Curve Blue, and she publishes frequently on the women mystics, music-in-medicine, and contemplative musicianship.
KNEE-WOMAN IN VALEDICTION: PLANCTUS CHRISTOPHOROS
My dear friend and brother-in-spirit Michael Martin of Grass Lake has committed himself to a radical renewal of that which is Christian. This includes those uncomfortable expressions that are truly subversive in intent and spirit. To the degree that he takes the Gospels seriously, and the words and examples of Jesus seriously, and the reality of the Resurrection seriously, he just never minds going against the grain, if in doing so, subversity traces and elevates the Master’s footsteps.
Michael has made room for me in many unique ways during the last eight or nine years, and for this I thank him heartily. The role that true friendship plays in continuing metanoia is invaluable, for individual life and in community, and the same is true for artistry. His unwavering support and faith in an elder have given me many gifts, but this most recent one is the spiritual opportunity and tender gift of a knee-woman’s valediction. In an earlier time, each manor had a resident bard, and a true bard would have composed a lament for the passing of any beloved member of the court. This knee-woman planctus for Christopher is also a song of praise, thanksgiving, recollection and awe.
Christopher Bamford made his transitus on May 13, 2022 and yet he remains one of our most beloved brothers. “Let us melt, and make no noise,” says John Donne, in a work not always understood by literalists. But Christopher’s way of being made almost everyone melt and he achieved this softening quietly—more breeze than fanfare—more mist than torrent.
In that light, I offer a retrospective snapshot to honor the passage of an unusually beautiful human being. By “chance,” we shared a profound biographical turning point that could not have emerged had not unseen hands and hearts conspired and collaborated behind the scenes on our behalf, nor had some unseen intelligence not opened doors which are ordinarily sealed.
Several wholly unexpected experiences imprinted themselves into our individual lives in the fall of 1997 and changed and renewed the steps each of us would take at that time and in the years following. Hopefully, today’s recollection and other similar ones might surface in the coming years in order to serve and sensitively witness a very textured and greatly loved person. I hope this valediction makes its way into the hands, minds, hearts and souls of those who want to reflect deeply upon the mystery of Christopher’s life, work and personhood. Not only was Christopher steered by grace; he allowed himself to be steered by grace while expanding, as Donne says, “like gold to airy thinness beat.”
As a bit of background, I knew the Christopher who was unusually cultured: simultaneously Jewish and Christian, polylingual, serious and endearingly funny. He was indescribably modest and yet like almost everyone who is widely read, there were moments of intellectual vanity, the kind where an oversight or forgetfulness color the record, but at no time did these blips obliterate his innate generosity, his kindness, his ability to stand corrected, to laugh warmly, to bow sincerely, or to hope, to love, to pray. I remember a moment in a lively group discussion when he met a little resistance on something, deservedly, the kind where one has to rectify the double standards one has unwittingly upheld. He was whole and beautiful enough to promptly and gracefully go beet red, bite his lip, take a quick gasp, and say with all the finesse in the world: Ah! The ego is so resilient! A haughty or vain person would have nursed resentment or activated a social drama. Not Christopher. The way he acknowledged and metabolized his gap, everyone learned to be a better person and fruitfulness abounded. Coherence between what we were saying, advocating, writing, publishing and doing was restored. This speaks worlds about the man and his innermost being, and about the way who we are ripples out far into the world.
Christopher was easy with words, yet never casual in his use of them. He spoke lovingly of time spent roaming Scottish hills and Welsh country sides. Just as easily, he could switch gears and recall an essential subtlety about Plotinus, Ficino or Blake, Bernanos, Hesse, or Mann. He may not have been a child prodigy like Mozart, that is to say: simply born with superabundant skills fully embodied by the age of five. No: What made Christopher’s life, work and lifework startlingly prodigious was the intensity and the quality of his gaze. Nothing manic; however, he was a pulsating focus irradiated by warmth. Christopher continued reading, studying, learning, growing and writing throughout his entire life. He travelled many miles while entering the soul of each book, each idea or each school of thought he encountered. I am not alone in the impression of his having been genuinely consecrated to the livingness of the word, whether written or spoken.
I watched him follow the multiple currents of truth he encountered, regardless of their textures, difficulties or levels of convenience. At no time did his quest allow him to stand still or glide around on shiny surfaces. In his biographical origins, his Jewish heritage left him endangered as a child of the war. It required that his parents flee with their infant son in the middle of a night in order to save their lives, after which his childhood years were spent in quiet assimilation. So it seems to me that this dual signature of movement and the movement that took place behind the scenes by which his life was saved is always there as a descriptive quality characterizing his seventy-eight years. I see not just movement in physical life, however jointly his life was originally European and then later American, but one can’t help but appreciate the fluid movement in his thinking, feeling and willing. This movement allowed him to nestle himself in the Berkshires in daily life, while simultaneously returning to the soul of things miles and years away, or to link up with their guiding spirits, be they of the Western Isles, Iona or Lindisfarne, Hungary, Italy or Greece.
I first met Christopher a drop short of forty years ago as a result of the Lindisfarne Association gatherings in Crestone, Colorado. In the early eighties, the association’s founder William Irwin Thompson had asked me to provide a concert on Celtic themes for the Fellows and so it was with voice and harp that I entered a circle which included many distinguished and highly original souls. Though the Lindisfarne Association was Irwin Thompson’s dream child, the Lindisfarne Press reflected Christopher’s genius. His recovery of Celtic Christianity was personal as well as organizational/professional. Something about his own soul seemed to have permeated and anchored the potential for renewed culture long after the shimmer of the annual conference events died down. His capacity for unusually close, caring and imaginative readings of poetry, history, theology and philosophy, symbolism, alchemy and comparative religion was very fruitful. These nurtured the Association in ways that are not always clearly visible or even remembered today. I suspect that this is largely a result of his ability and capacity to serve a vision by working behind the scenes on its behalf. This coherence moves me deeply, for after all, the most beautiful human acts and intentions are not the ones widely or publicly known. They are the ones seen only by our angel.
Years sped by, full to the brim, both of us publishing many books and records, and before we hardly knew what had happened, Christopher and I had each separately suffered the losses of our most intimate companions, he in 1996, and I in 1997. In that condition, each of us found ourselves adrift on that grief that singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn calls the sea of liquid jade. At the age of 53, Chris had lost his better half as she succumbed to cancer. I, at the age of 46, lost my companion as he battled a different but no-less-lethal illness. One of us was left with hard and fast certainties; the brutal definition would not be erased. The other was left with a merciless fog continually spawning mirage.
Shoreline remained elusive for both of us for a considerable while. Regardless of the two polarities of anguish I am describing, the sea of liquid jade grief leaves one, at least for a time, a stranger to self and a stranger to others. Cataracts of sorrow can initially leave the liminal personae floundering in the unknown; he or she moves in a condition stripped of the light of day or the comfort of night. By the autumn of 1997, each of us working more than full time positions, we inhabited loss differently, sometimes in confusion, sometimes in earnest clarity. It is true that no matter how unsettling, one’s greatest strengths and greatest vulnerabilities are mysteriously interconnected if not downright unified. For some, tears come only by virtue of strength; they are not the result of weakness.
So there we were: each of us coming out of the rubble, with Chris taking the lead. He was several miles ahead of me. At the same time, Chris and I were attempting to complete a big and overdue publishing project and traveled together to Switzerland to visit and work with the mystic Joa Bolendas. Years earlier, I had accepted Joa’s assignment to find the English translations of her mystical writings a home in what she called America. It had taken real time, because Catholic houses thought her writings were too Protestant, and Protestant houses thought her content was too Catholic. That Fisher-King and prince of hermits Robert Sardello had valiantly helped me find a home for Joa’s work. How? Robert knew a number of publishers, large and small, but had a treasured personal friendship with Christopher. Robert was instrumental in bringing Joa into English. He cast his line well, essentially enlisting (if not conscripting) Chris as the publisher for Joa through the auspices of Lindisfarne Press. Robert’s help was more than boon; it was a blessing.
The two-volume Joa Bolendas project occupied exactly thirteen years of my life and required fund raising to boot. (So That You May Be One was released in 1997 and Alive in God’s World came off the press in 2001). That being said, Joa was our elder and had suffered illness. I had been with her in Switzerland on multiple occasions over the years, but illness suggested that Joa’s time was drawing near. Chris wanted to meet her while it was still possible so we each carved time away from our employment situations, he at the Press and I at the Chalice of Repose Project. In many ways the timing of this journey didn’t make personal sense, yet we kept our eyes on the angel of the book.
It is said that you never really know a person until you live with them or work with them. Yes, there are special exceptions, particularly in the encounters that constellate true recollection, but in general, I have found this adage to hold real insight. Publishing and traveling together surely fall into a unique zone. They accelerate and encapsulate much that might otherwise only unfold in the vessel of marriage or during the mantle of employment. Christopher and I had visited one another in our respective homes, and loved one another, to be sure, but we were not partners or each other’s spouse, nor were we fellow employees. We shouldered a mystical project and wanted to have it enter the world while the mystic herself was still alive. That being said, our ideals and choices around Joa ultimately precipitated several pearls, allowing us to share some of the most intimate, paradoxical, unexpected and transformative experiences of adulthood.
Our trip abroad began in a deeply feminine way. We stopped in London to visit the poet Kathleen Raine in the privacy of her home, then went to Zurich to be with Joa, after which we had planned to go to Italy, land of Ficino and resting place of Pythagoras, princes whom each of us revered.
Even though she was our elder, Joa was vigorous, energetic and clear. A female lighthouse! Although private, she spoke movingly about the ways the death of her own son had precipitated her initiation by sorrow and served her cultivation of a much deeper praxis of prayer. On our fourth morning in Zurich, the phone rang to deliver the news that a very dear Montana friend had died of a virulent metastatic cancer. Cherri Newton had been one of the first of the music-thanatology students from the Denver years and after relocating in 1992, she completed the music-thanatology program in Missoula. Of all the students whom I’ve ever had the privilege of mentoring, she was the one most fiercely and radically dedicated to Beauty as a Transcendental. Sometimes we called her our Beauty Cop, for she would say with disarming candor and earnestness that something or other about what we may have done or failed to do or something she or her peers, the student interns, had done that particular day hadn’t been truly beautiful. She inhabited high standards, but of a bold and loving goodness, not metrics or optics.
Cherri’s death was deeply anticipated, so much so that the two of us had said our goodbyes before I left for the airport, but still, the news of her transitus went straight to my heart. None of the four of us (Joa, Christopher, Cherri or I) saw death as an end, but rather as change, metamorphosis, but still, Cherri’s passing was a very strong event. Now Cherri knew and loved Joa’s visionlieder, so she understood why I was leaving for Switzerland, and asked me to bring one very personal and deep question to Joa on her behalf. Before she finished her life in the form known and loved by so many, Cherri gifted me with some of her most beloved books, pointedly, saying how I would need them. The two of us made one another a solemn promise about Chalice, about various possible life choices, and about signs to come. Even so, adjusting to the new terrain without our Beauty Cop would take time. I was able to bring her question to Joa, and Joa, Chris and I offered the reply to her spiritually, in prayer.
Christopher and I worked together with Joa in Zurich for a few more days, and after saying goodbye to her—a second poignant and powerful farewell in a short corridor of time—Chris and I flew from Switzerland to Italy and then drove to Tuscany in a little rented Citroen. We had been carrying some vague idea that time off the clock would be restorative. No doubt it usually is, but these were not “usual” days. I was still very raw from loss, and Chris was still getting new sea legs. Suddenly cut off from the press of non-negotiable deadlines and phone calls for the first time in years, you might imagine things playing out like a Hollywood movie: sweet, lyrical and golden. But that’s not what happened.
When you’ve gone a long time without a break, and then get one or make time for one, you discover various weights and barnacles in both body and in soul. It’s possible to be numb to yourself from having been so dependable for and accountable to many others. For two grieving individuals, each of whom had recently lost their beloveds, each loss a major part of a shared life, further intensified by the loss of a dear friend, “down time” was at that particular intersection foreign if not wholly alien, unknown, rocky and strange.
To land in apparent spaciousness amidst the natural beauty and powerful history of Tuscany triggered in each of us a reversal. This is what good medicine does, and it is referred to as the healing crisis. You appear to become worse before becoming better and in becoming better you become new. But it is messy. Reality disclosed exhaustion and some form of numbness in each of us, at which point, the floodgates so long held in check cracked and opened. Christopher and I stayed in different parts of the villa when the matter broke through, sometimes in the privacy of our rooms, sometimes hidden in the heavily treed growth of the immediate hillside. I am ashamed to admit that there were a few hours when that green hillside echoed with our strange cries and tears.
If allowed to run its healing course, full-body grief is noisy and elemental, even though it emerges in private and may last only a day. Years are concentrated into hours. It is either spouse or first cousin to keening, and like the Irish caointeoireacht, if it is genuine, this sounding begins in silence and solitude, and like a natural spring, emerges, gurgles up, and gradually frees a content once buried in the utmost depths of the human body and memory: blood, bone, muscle, tissue, skin, heart and more. They all sound. Keening also alters time, while bringing past, present and future together into a unified whole.
The sounding disinters unique biographical content, allows it to rise to the surface, where it is perceived and then (especially for the Irish) freely offered in thanksgiving to the Mother of Our Lord, to the communion of saints and to the earth and the sky. Sometimes but not always it is clothed in exquisite melody. When melodic, the sounding can constellate a saeta or sound arrow, sailing far into the cosmos, almost always activating purgation and catharsis in the one risking the healing process, while providing something akin to thanksgiving to the human and angelic spiritual beings populating worlds seen and unseen.
This kind of healing crisis is not to be confused with any phenomena of depression, even clinical depression, nor the performative elements of wailing, social drama, death-bed vigils, memorial services nor funerary processions. These latter are all precious expressions of community rites of transition, but the sacrificial nature of a genuine keening saeta and its relationship to the holy eucharist suggests grieving of a different order.
Unlike the celebration of the mass, seminal keening cannot be scheduled in advance, or announced in a parish bulletin. In a trinity of stages hidden from view, keening discloses the sacred which can only be transmitted, received, and then freely unbound, given away, for the good of all. Until recently, the melodies of keening remained central to the sean nos oral tradition with good reason. Passed from singer to singer, individually, mystical and spiritual-medicinal possibilities required exchange from master to pupil but avoided coin.
Weeping and pacing, or sitting still as a stone, sometimes hiding sheepishly from one another and then apologizing for the exteriorization of pain, neither one of us had seen such lumpy messiness and confusion coming in advance. But it came, to paraphrase Jung, called or uncalled. Chris had been stoic yet even when most nervous, surprised by his own fragility, he was always kind. My grief made Chris weep, too, first for his wife, then for himself, but he was also beside himself in helplessness for me. His compassionate nature allowed him to want to help or fix or do something, anything, which tended to push his own experience of loss underground. Two gimpy people realized that the assignment was, at this point, to simply get out of the way and allow tears to support entrée into the unknown. Any pre-fab ideas people might have gleaned from the movies where the man and woman cook together, share a bottle of wine or bask in the golden days of a Tuscan autumn were obliterated in snot.
The woman from whom we rented the little villa had seen us both swollen and tear stained, and she had the wisdom and love to approach us tenderly. Talk about compassionate courage! She sat down and asked us about what we were going through, so we told her. She listened intently, and then said something that took us by surprise. She asked about our ancestry and origins. Quite sensitive to World War II, she asked pointedly about where each of our fathers had been born. She didn’t ask about our mothers. From whence have you come? You’ve both lost terra firma. You have no solid ground now. Perhaps it will help to retrace your father’s steps in order to enter a rebirth, in order to re-enter the remainder of your lives in new and living ways.
When she heard about my father being from Malta, she lit up and said: That’s it! Rome has many daily fights to Malta, more like a shuttle bus than a flight, you don’t even need reservations, and the tickets are inexpensive. Since it is so close, why don’t you go to your father’s birthplace and retrace your beginnings? Chris and I were speechless and soggy and knew we were in the presence of yet another wise woman. However vulnerable we were, the next morning found us leaving her villa and driving to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. If the roads of the Tuscan hillsides are achingly beautiful, and the Mediterranean coastline dreamy, it’s not unfair to describe driving in Rome as a feverish gauntlet. Much of the rural drive was quiet, though each of us blew our noses frequently, and Chris drove as I attempted to relay the directions our friend had provided for us.
Several hours later as we approached the airport, the traffic became increasingly chaotic, noisy and aggressive. We were going south on A12, and needed to turn west on A91. As if marauding giants descended into a valley and targeted the two in mourning, we were suddenly surrounded by a roaring convoy of semi-trailer trucks. The forty-ton, two sectioned, 80 foot, 18 wheeler kind. To our immediate right, left, front and rear, we in our tiny Citroen were locked in place between four moving walls, not unlike like a defeathered bird dodging teeth-baring apocalyptic giants. Unable to do anything but continue to move east full speed ahead with them though trapped between their ramparts, I don’t remember either of us breathing. We couldn’t see anything but metal walls. This was a white-knuckle ten mile stretch if ever there was one. It didn’t even accommodate the release of a few good swear words, as the neon visions of catastrophe by failed brake were visceral. Chris must have lost ten pounds in a few moments, but he held the field.
At the first opportunity, we exited the highway only because the convoy movement allowed it. Mind you: no choice had been made. We were locked in survival response and moving with the flow of a massive current making its way around a large bend. We were not two people confidently heading toward a specific destination. No, we were two shaken and shaking creatures, thankfully no longer pinned in and blinded by the wall of trucks. We clung to our first measure of newly won safety and assumed we were somehow in Rome proper or perhaps its outskirts, the urban sprawl. Never having had an intention to go to Rome that day, we had not purchased a city map and resorted to an ad hoc guessing game with the signage. We hadn’t even resumed speaking with one another.
The streets were busy, overflowing with people, many of whom seemed to be wearing colorful costumes. There wasn’t a parking spot to be seen as we passed stores, bistros, restaurants and hotels. Exhausted and spent, there was little to do but keep moving forward. But wait a minute.
Uh, Chris……….I think we’re in the Vatican.
Stop! Pull over, I said, pointing to the first parking space we’d seen. Chris did just that, turned off the engine and covered his face with his two hands. Now he was a big, strong man, but he was spent. He’d gotten us through the truck squall, now it was my turn to be useful.
You stay here and rest Chris. I’ll find us something. I ventured into the crowds and walked down the Borgo Pio into the lobby of the first hotel I saw. May we have two rooms, I asked. The man was incredulous, as if I had asked him to walk on water. “Are you here for Therese?” he asked. I was confused, since that is my name. He shrugged his shoulders with an emphatic bit of disbelief. “Everything everywhere was booked weeks ago. You know. For Therese.” But he must have sensed how stricken and tired I was, and said wait a moment, let me call someone for you. His voice became animated and he turned to me as if he was truly impressed. Go to this address, they have just received word of a cancellation. He scribbled the particulars and made me a little map. They will wait for you. But go now. The place is only about 5 blocks away, you can’t get lost. Dashing out to the car, I told Chris and urged that we simply take the man’s advice. At the time, I didn’t have the energy or the heart to mention the other business, the question “about Therese.”
Within moments, and with only the numeric Borgo Pio 164 in my hand, we pulled up to the destination. I felt a real quiver as the working of the Holy Spirit began to become palpable. The name of the place with the cancellation was the Hotel of Consolations (hotel della conciliazione). Goosebumps! The sense of having been guided by mercy (pio) and into a little cobblestone district of mercy was coming to the surface. The two of us walked into the lobby and identified ourselves, and still not knowing what was afoot, clueless about the consolations that were about to unfold, I had the temerity to ask the new clerk if we might please have two rooms, not one. We are not a couple. Two rooms? You’re here for Therese? he asked. Both Chris and I were disheveled, with that exhausted and swollen look one has after weeping. In retrospect, I can recall a Chris-ism that is endearing and makes me smile. Well, yes, Chris said, adjusting his glasses and thinking about my Maltese father. He pointed to me and said we are here for Therese, but we missed the airport. Making no sense at all, our kindly host might have thought we were daft. He got a newspaper and some brochure materials and handed them to us with just a drop of frustration. Therese of Lisieux Newest Doctor of the Church!
Yes, we have two rooms, a very small space, a mere corner we don’t usually rent out, but this is an exceptional event, and you have need so we will, and we have a cancellation for one regular single room. I leaped to be able to take the corner nook, and as we were doing the paperwork, where our clerk had to have seen my given name, he took the liberty that only a family member can adopt. Looking straight into our eyes, saying pointedly, with the authority of a close uncle: You have just enough time to go to your rooms, wash up and then walk to St. Peter’s. The Holy Father is greeting pilgrims from all over the world in the square this afternoon. She’s already entering the city. The reliquary is here, pilgrims from every country on earth are already gathering for the procession. The Little Flower is here!
Needless to say, Chris and I each disappeared into our rooms and met each other in the lobby a short time later. But this is the right moment to contextualize a powerful essential about the gradual lifetime accretion of bias, opinion, error, and the partial truths that color sight. Or maybe better said: prevent true seeing.
Christopher and I had each been reading the saints, mystics, philosophers and theologians for decades, so it would be fair of any reader to note our blindness, our disconnect, but the gaps weren’t due to the abstraction that often accompanies theoretical scholarship. Neither one of us had landed in Rome as awake, aware or sensitive to the power and nature of synchronicity as you’d imagine, but not only because of personal grief or emotional exhaustion. There were a few additional layers dimming the light and the love. Through reading and current events, each of us knew and carried cultural baggage. And politics. Thankfully, there was a healthy dose of humility that helped.
I was a cradle Catholic, grew up in the heyday of American Catholicism, where really good men and women served vitally. But parish liturgies were different from the liturgies celebrated in monastic environments, and my heart had always been more monastic than cathedral. Here’s how impressions begin to color and skew perception. Since childhood, I had heard the stories of people from our parish visiting Rome. heir homecoming tales were largely those of tourists, bejeweled with trinkets, cheap medals, gaudy ashtrays and rosary beads, and news of the Holy Father was told with the same exuberant breathlessness as their descriptions of the gelato in the streets or the food served by the stewardesses on the plane. I didn’t hear stories of awe and miracle, nor those of pilgrims immersed in transformative or soul-searching acts of metanoia or conversion. This tourist ability to skate safely on the surfaces of an institution was of course very different from the work of scholars, or those who go on a spiritual journey, but the main message to provide for you is that of tourism. My first formative impression of Rome came to me as a child, in elementary school, and it was one of tourism, cultural identity as a Catholic, not depth or spirituality.
And in my adulthood, we’d had John the 23rd and Vatican II, and others, until finally we had Pope John Paul II…..He was our first super-star pope. In 1997, he was still handsome, radiant, embodied, virile, charismatic. Hiking, swimming, skiing, kayaking. In his prime, he was the most athletic and photogenic creature the church had ever known, so the burden of celebrity was only one of his many sufferings. He was one of the most widely travelled leaders in the world, religious or political, sometimes his appearances and open-air masses drew millions of the faithful. He was the conservative voice who put the kibosh on discussion of women’s ordination, while in another and opposite direction, he was the first to make a papal visit to a synagogue, the first to embrace the Jewish community as our beloved elders, loved and prayed for the people of Tibet, visited with the Dali Lama many times, and helped liberate Poland and the Eastern block from the totalitarian specter of communism.
Karol Wojtyla was a genuine artist, a poet, a playwright, a thespian. In my dullness and failure, I had forgotten that Pope John Paul II might possibly be more than a superstar, more than a celebrity, more than an autocratic conservative or an inspired liberator. More than a role embedded in theological politics! His life in and of prayer might have also accumulated charge and have drawn him intimately and genuinely into the mystical body of Christ. I had forgotten or entirely overlooked the fact that he might have become a loadstone, a holy man, something like a lighthouse. The layers of impressions that so thoroughly enable forgetfulness—this is what I am referring to as cultural baggage. In baggage, from newspaper articles, to movies, books, journals, homilies, discussion groups and classes, we are often unaware that we can turn a human being into a thing. We turn a pope, a priest, a doctor, a lawyer, into a noun, a role, and in the accretion of historical baggage, it was impossible to have been living as a faithful Catholic without having “picked up” some of these worldly impressions for good and for ill, unconsciously. This was true for Chris too, he also had formed impressions as any intellectual does, in touch with current events and twentieth century theologians, though at the time, he was not yet formally a Catholic.
In addition to the papal baggage obscuring true seeing, there was all this Therese business. There were intellectuals for whom Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, was not much more than an advantageous sentimentality recruited by an opportunistic church, a permanently infantilized creature whose precocious vocation was embarrassing to academics. Although beloved by many, she had been reduced in some circles, particularly academic circles, to something more of a caricature than a model of holiness. But clearly, this dismissal wasn’t practiced by the whole world. Many had received innumerable graces from her “little way.”
I had a deep personal devotion to St. Therese, and this was a spiritual gift from my mother’s intervention further supported by the Carmelites in Des Plaines with whom I had come of age. Therese’s story and her roses were embedded into my consciousness. Chris wasn’t so knowledgeable about her at the time, in October of 1997, though this was soon to change completely, but we decided to go to the square, vaguely for history’s sake. Therese of Lisieux was being declared a doctor of the church. Chris and I decided to witness the processional
event in which the Pope and the Saint were intertwined as her reliquary was being carried among the throngs. I think I am talking about something we initially imagined as cultural, a cultural event, something truly newsworthy, history, but we had overlooked the spirituality, as well as the miraculous. Or so it seemed. How deceiving surfaces are or can be. Neither one of us had yet been capable of even imagining that while history was being made, and while Therese of Lisieux was being elevated, the Holy Spirit was intervening with the likes of ordinary souls like the messy two of us. Trucker convoys forcing redirection at precise moments in time were mere anomaly. Rooms suddenly becoming available when there had been no room in the inn – what a coincidence. The broken hearted being given rooms in the hotel of consolations……..hmmmm….. It’s very humbling to come to terms with the numbers and kinds of layers that block clear-seeing. But we were starting to wake up. Soon, the scales would fall from our eyes entirely.
In the full light of day, we walked up the street to the basilica square, to St. Peter’s, not really knowing what to expect, and not only did we begin to see the crowds pouring in but we could sense the field of expectancy that was unlike anything either one of us had ever witnessed. We were each well-travelled, but neither of us had ever attended an event anywhere in the world with literally hundreds of thousands of people present at the same time. We’d seen film clips and historical newsreels of such events, but celluloid can’t begin to convey the energy at hand that was taking form. There is nothing with which to compare the voluntary outpouring of human love, devotion, intention and spiritual attunement that comes with an historical spiritual event. It honestly made both of us quiver. Chris was quite a bit taller than I, and could see more easily, so I scrambled up on some sort of ledge, as did many other pilgrims, though Chris and I stood right next to one another. For readers who have never been in an arena that can hold 300 thousand people, it’s difficult to describe but something happens that resembles the way waves break on the water.
There were large swaths or clusters of people each wearing what must have been a traditional colorful garb of their homeland. There were also sections of Benedictines, Cistercians, Carmelites, Dominicans, each easily identifiable in their habits. All of their novices and postulants were in tow as well, wearing different colors. Waves of energy come lapping over the pilgrims, and the waves come dashing in rhythm and meter. There was excitement but tranquility – there was no pushing or jostling or impatience, the kind that happens at a parade or a Super Bowl football game or a music festival. The degree and intensity of good will and refinement that filled the air continued to mount.
We heard a couple next to us about our age speaking English and introduced ourselves. They were golden skinned Scandinavians, smiling warmly, and said that they were merely in Rome visiting, had no religious affiliation, yet found themselves drawn in by a quality of feeling that was profound. Chris said yes, well, he wasn’t Catholic either, but he felt it too. The golden man said, If this is history, I want to be part of it. Every few minutes, the crowd increased in size. Finally, the waves of jubilation became more frequent and louder, each roaring across the plaza and dashing toward us.
Oh my goodness, it’s the Pope, standing, arms aloft, hands open, vaguely reminiscent of a Caesar, only he was radiating love, not power, the gesture was transformed, and here he is, in the popemobile, the twentieth century version of a chariot. When we had chosen that particular place to stand, we did so seemingly randomly, in ignorance. We had no idea of a good position or a bad position. It was sheer “chance” to discover ourselves to be only a few feet away from his path.
John Paul turned and gazed directly our way, making the special gesture, the movement of his arms, the hands open, smiling softly, radiant, and I watched it all unfold. He locked eyes with Christopher, who, as if struck by lightning, promptly broke out in projectile tears.
Until that moment, I hadn’t even known projectile tears were a human possibility. Christopher was undone, in his heart, in his countenance, in his body and mind. He was tongue-tied, shaking and weeping silently. But this was no sorrow. This was awe and more. Nothing had prepared us or him for the impact. People everywhere were beaming, light shining off their faces, strangers were holding one another because they witnessed something about a renewal of goodness sweeping into life. Many held a single rose in the region of the heart and gave it away without hesitation to nearby strangers the way that pilgrims of old on foot once faithfully shared bread and water. The rose was the new bread. The light in the faces of grown men and women was not a hysteria, but the spiritual result of blessing, the influx of the Holy Spirit, and it regenerated roots and wings.
The Pope had activated a procession that was making way for an often misunderstood and scorned young woman and her very feminine way of being. These in turn were now both elevated and incorporated into a large complicated reverberant history replete with failure and glory. All this and more poured into the energetic field. It was a genuine shakedown turning point. It is not possible or advisable to put material explanations on spiritual reality. It is wisdom to realize that something essential has occurred and to honor it, cherish it. Anyone capable of humanity would cherish the memory of the transmission that irrupts into life. It moves the rocky barnacled mountains of debris that have blocked life and sight for so long, yet now pierces and kindles the tabernacle of the heart.
We walked back to the Hotel of the Consolations, knowing that there was much to integrate, and quiet was the best route for that. We decided to return to the square the following morning to attend the solemnities, because the Mass would be celebrated then to officially declare Therese a doctor of the church. It was going to be an unusually powerful liturgy, with many nationalities represented. (The news later relayed that some 300 thousand attended). Let’s go very early. The next morning, we walked up the street in the darkness and waited quietly for the gates to open. The crowds were already assembling, but people were only whispering. They were clutching small papers, different colors. Some red, some blue, some yellow. I noticed three young women nearby, in blue habits unfamiliar to me, and as I had heard a uniquely American voice amongst them, I smiled. When it came time for the guards to open the square to the public, each person held this paper in hand, and that is when Christopher and I realized that something was amiss. Oh dear, when it was our turn to approach, the guard asked for our tickets but we had none. Sorry, he said kindly. One must have tickets to enter. We were crestfallen. But we’re thousands of miles from home…..Sorry.
We turned to walk away and the three women in blue stopped us and introduced themselves to us. They were novices of the XXXX Order with the motherhouse there in Rome. (I am protecting them by keeping the details unknown). We told them about the convoy of semis keeping us from going to Malta, and the amazing sudden opening of rooms at a place referred to as Consolation. I noticed that they were each shuffling on their feet, right to left, eyeing one another. One of them finally spoke up and said quietly, um, please don’t go. No need to go. We swiped a few extra tickets from Mother Superior’s desk though we didn’t know why. We just knew to do it. Here. We see now that these tickets were meant for you.
We were dumbfounded. Thank you, thank you! I am pretty sure it was my first experience of being overjoyed about a mercurial bit of discernment that sounded an awful lot like thievery but bore the signature of the Holy Spirit. OK, minor thievery, a very little one, but maybe not. Maybe Mother Superior knowingly left her drawer unlocked because she knew that it was too late for pilgrims to receive tickets in the mail. All static legalistic notions of black and white, right and wrong were replaced by something thoroughly flexible and permeable. We got back in line and peacefully assumed we’d be miles back in the rear of the crowd, but no, the guard took our tickets and escorted us up to the very front, four rows into the dignitaries. I couldn’t believe it, nor could Chris. I looked over my shoulder and saw that our novices in blue were way far in the back, and we the strangers were allowed to be up front where we would be able to see and hear and witness so much. These same tickets allowed us entrée to other liturgies and events for several more days, during which time we were essentially strengthened and blessed, as if the invisible wounds of loss were being dressed and stitched, its scars softened, its bruises fading. It is really something to receive Holy Eucharist from the hands of the Pope, once one has stopped thinking of him as a noun, as a role, and once one has been able to approach the altar after having laid down the burdens of cultural baggage.
During the next several days, a number of other poignant signs and events occurred, with strangers in the streets, with strange gifts people put into our hands, and more. We were open to them; cherished them, carefully packed them up and brought them home with us as we flew through the skies back to the USA.
In the months and first few years after that week in Rome, Christopher and I were in very frequent contact, via calls, letters, emails, visits, post cards, meetings and manuscript galleys. He took up the rosary seriously when he came home, and more, and would send roses whenever he thought I might be slipping backwards and need a recharge. After a long day at the hospital, I would often drive home to my cabin in the Bitterroot Valley to find a package waiting for me on the porch, delivered by UPS or Fed Ex. It was always a special book or manuscript from Chris, particularly obscure ones I actually needed to continue growing. Translations of poetry, mystical texts, texts about the horrors of fascism and communism, texts that related to symbolism, flowers, Edith Stein, Therese of Lisieux, a number of voices from antiquity and the late Middle Ages, and much more. He sent a rosary, a hand painted icon of Therese the Little Flower, part of an Ethiopian altarpiece carved in stone, and many CD recordings of music.
With the passage of time, and when the time was right, Christopher re-entered the stream of life fully and happily remarried. He shouldered many more book publishing initiatives, including translations, wrote profound introductions to numerous books, and delivered talks and seminars on exquisite themes, all the while loving to cook and welcome people into the home he and Betsy shared.
When I first heard about the cancer, I called Chris, but it was very hard to reach him during the procedures at Sloan Kettering. We all hoped for the best, and it seemed for a couple years that he was doing reasonably, all things considered, but then things changed again. The unbinding began.
On May 11th of this year, Robert Sardello kindly called me at home to let me know that Christopher’s transitus was drawing near. Chris’s dear spouse Betsy Spears had called Robert to let him know. Everyone who loved Christopher knew that this had been coming, but still, when you receive the call, you really feel it in your heart. I couldn’t help but walk through my own home and library, thousands of miles away, stunned and moved, as every single room here contains gifts from Christopher, the kind of gifts that are perennial, essential, not transitory. It is easy to imagine many others coming to the same realization in the privacy of their homes too.
I had been holding his book An Endless Trace in my hands, and turning the pages. This is a book Christopher published in 2003, it is a personal work, and I couldn’t help but remember his sensitivity to Novalis. I could still hear Chris’s voice speaking lovingly about the blue flower. The twelfth chapter of his Endless Trace is titled “Becoming Novalis.” Now it is not well known, and certainly not in Chris’s book, but Novalis had his enlightenment at Sophie’s grave two-hundred and twenty-five years earlier, on May13th of the year 1797.
When Robert called to say that Christopher had made his transitus on May 13th, of course, this resonance with Novalis was ringing powerfully, right down to the almost prescient title of his twelfth chapter: Becoming Novalis. That day and the next, I listened, by “chance” to Bruce Cockburn’s remarkable song “All The Diamonds in the World.” These lines became utterly vivid for me and at the same time allowed me to see Christopher. I hope you might go online and listen to this work.
Like a pearl in a sea of liquid jade
His ship comes shining
Like a crystal swan in a sky of suns
His ship comes shining.
The name Christopher is the Anglicization of the Greek Christophoros, meaning Christ Bearer. The early saint’s story is found in the Golden Legend, and relays the imagination of a very strong man outdoors in a wild bit of Nature. He hears a cry in the storm’s darkness and doesn’t hesitate to place the Christ Child on his own shoulders, carrying him safely across tumultuous waters. Christopher Bamford did become Novalis in any number of ways, championing much, suffering and sorrow transformed into pearl, yet more than most people we know, in publishing so very much about spirituality, and in praying so authentically, in working behind the scenes, in finding the courage to love again and again, and in risking pilgrimage inner and outer, our friend Christopher was valiantly, beautifully, modestly, lovingly true to the meaning of his name: Christ-Bearer. In the hours when I found myself bidding him A Dieu, I swear that I saw him as a pearl in a sea of liquid jade and that his ship was really and truly shining as he moved into the Sun.
This is one of the mysterious ways in which I will remember him in awe, in joy, and in gratitude. ~Therese Schroeder-Sheker, St. John’s Tide.