Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Soul of a Dancer

A Homily by Michael J. Bayly

Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community

May 22, 2011

(Note: I shared the following homily this morning at Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community in Minneapolis. Regular Wild Reed readers will recognize that it contains thoughts and ideas from previous posts in my ongoing series, The Dancer and the Dance. I'm happy to report that members of the community were quite moved by my words – literally. Yes, dancing accompanied the closing hymn!)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 6:1-7
1 Peter 2:4-9
John 14:1-12

Good morning! My name is Michael Bayly and I’m happy to say that I’ve been a part of this community since 1997. I’m honored to have been invited to offer some reflections upon today’s readings. I’d like to start by sharing something about myself that, at first, may seem unrelated to our readings and perhaps even to faith and spirituality.

And that observation is this: I sometimes like to imagine, fantasize, if you like, that in some parallel universe I’m a dancer – and a famous dancer, at that!

Of course, what this says about me is that: 1) I’m drawn to the art of dance, contemporary dance in particular, and some ballet, but that 2) in this universe, the opportunities have never really presented themselves for me to explore or pursue this particular form of artistic expression. Truth be told, I doubt I possess the necessary grit and determination to develop the physical strength, flexibility, and stamina of a dancer. I mean, I have a hard enough time maintaining the most basic type of exercise routine!

I share all of this because I actually think that dance – any style of dance – can serve as an appropriate and powerful metaphor for the spiritual life and thus for much of what is at the heart of today’s readings. Now, some might say that it’s a bit of a stretch – pardon the pun – to make such an analogy. Yet I think most artists – dancers included – understand and describe their art in ways that recognize and reflect deeply human and thus spiritual realities.

Ruth St. Denis, for instance, one of the great pioneers of modern dance saw dance as a means of communication between souls, a communication that expresses what is “too deep and too fine for words.” Dance, for St. Denis, revealed the soul and was always a spiritual experience.

“The infant begins to dance at its mother’s knee,’ she wrote, “and old age should have no less its gestures to express love and serenity. Each period of life has its own activity, its own beauty.” Dance she insisted, enlarges the horizons, gives meaning to many things now hidden, new power to the self, and a new value to existence.

Decades later, Martha Graham noted that dance demands dedication and is an act, not of escape, but of affirmation. These words and ideas, like those of Ruth St. Denis, can just as readily describe a healthy spiritual life or practice.

And then there’s contemporary writer Jamake Highwater’s observation that the premise of all forms of dance is to “awaken imagery within us, to compound mystery with more mystery, and to illuminate the unknown without reducing it to the commonplace.” These are words and concepts that speak of things spiritual. As do our readings of today.

Our first reading (Acts 6:1-7) speaks of the need to take pro-active steps, to expand our thinking as individuals and as community, in order to grow and flourish. Such concrete plans and actions, when in the service of justice and compassion, are spiritual acts.

Our second reading (1 Peter 2:4-9) offers us the evocative image of a “living stone.” This could, it seems to me, serve as a beautiful description of the sculptured body of a dancer, toned and rock-hard yet supple and capable of graceful and amazing movements and actions. It’s clearly also a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life, one grounded as solid as a rock in God and thus capable of empowering us to do remarkable actions of justice and compassion. They are actions of a fully conscious life or, in the words of Peter, of a life lived in the “wonderful light” of God.

And our gospel reading today (John 14:1-12) instructs us to know and experience the sacred in our lives, and tells us that, in doing so, we will do the works of Jesus, and even “greater ones than these.” That’s radical good news.

Yet, perhaps like me, you found all the patriarchal “Father”-talk in our gospel reading a bit off-putting. I’ve come to deal with this by developing my own formula for the Trinity – one that I use in my prayer life. It goes like this: “All praise and honor to the Love that Creates, the Love that Liberates, and the Love that Makes Whole.”

And as Jesus says, if we know one of these “Loves,” one of these dimensions of the Sacred, then we know the others. The way of liberation and truth, the way of Jesus, connects us to that creative and transforming presence that Jesus images as a loving parent. Living in this sacred presence – individually and communally – makes manifest a Spirit, a Love, which leads us to wholeness and flourishment. I believe this creative and transforming presence is at our very core, and that we’re called to live our lives from this sacred core.

Interestingly enough, the strength of a dancer is centered not in his/her arms, legs or shoulders but in his/her core – those muscles that we all have in the middle of our bodies.

Novelist and playwright Margaret Stephens discovered this when, at age 50, she decided to take up ballet. She wrote about the experience in an article for The National Catholic Reporter entitled “Living from the Core.

“Dancers appear ethereal,” she writes “because they hold themselves from their core.”

In those moments when she was able to dance from this same space, Stephens sensed what grace might feel like. Physical grace. Yet she’s certain that it’s the same with God’s grace: “Always within us, but not always felt, unless we learn to live from our spiritual core, the true powerhouse of our being.”

Reflecting further, Stephens writes that in our hectic day-to-day lives we often “forget what it feels like to let God hold us up,” to let yourselves live, in other words, from that spiritual core that we all possess. The result of this forgetting, she says, and I find myself in total agreement, is that life becomes “ever more frenzied, stressful, outwardly graceless, as [we] metaphorically strain and clutch and claw to stay upright.”

“If I can train myself to seek the strength of my true core,” she writes, ‘[if I can] discipline myself to quit gripping with the wrong muscles, my life might feel, if only for a few precious moments, as effortless as that ballerina wafting across the stage. I might feel the grace I already have.”

Speaking of bodies “wafting” across stages, I must admit that a friend once suggested that one reason I like dance was because I like the sight of physically-fit and often scantily-clad men leaping and cavorting on stage. I must admit that this bothered me. But after careful thought and reflection, my response was, “Well, yeah!” I mean, of course I appreciate and admire the physical beauty of a male dancer. And I do so, in large part, because like all forms and expressions of beauty it inspires me.

This is because in and through dance I experience that energy of transformation that calls us all to enter more fully into the dance of life. It’s an energy that is, at its core, sacred, and one that inspires me to grow and be more flexible, graceful and creative in my thinking, my loving, my being in the world. This sacred energy inspires me to be the best I can be in all areas of my life: my physical life, my prayer life, my relational life.

In other words, I may not have, and may never have, the body and the moves of a dancer. But I can have, I do have, the soul of one.

And I think I know all of you well enough to say that this community has the soul of a dancer too. We are graceful dancers of compassion, justice, insight, and reconciliation; dancers that seek to communicate, connect, and transform ourselves and our world. We are dancers that do all of these things “and greater ones than these” because we know and we live from our core wherein dwells and from which radiates that transforming spirit that our brother dancer Jesus so courageously and beautifully embodied.

I am honored to share the stage, so to speak, with you all; to be partners with you in the dance; to share with you the soul of a dancer.

– Michael J. Bayly
May 22, 2011

Previous Homilies:
Liberated to Be Together
– Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community, October 4, 2009.
"More Lovely Than the Dawn": God as Divine Lover
– Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, August 30, 2009.
Dispatches from the Periphery
– Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community, October 5, 2008.
Somewhere In Between
– St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, January 15, 2006).
The Harvest Within the Heart
– Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, July 17, 2005.
Disarming the Weapons Within
– Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, November 29, 2004.
Soul Deep
– Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, June 20, 2004.
Something We Dare Call Hope
– Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, November 9, 2003.
On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers
– Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, October 19, 2003.
What We Learn from the Story of the Magi
– St. Stephen's Catholic Church, January 2, 2000.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
The Church and Dance
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 2)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 3)
Reclaiming the Queer Artistic Heritage
The Dancer and the Dance

Image 1: Federico Bonelli photographed by Jason Bell in San Giorgio, Venice, Italy for the Royal Ballet (2008).
Image 2: George Zoritch.
Image 3: Ruth St. Denis.
Image 4: Martha Graham.
Image 5: Roberto Bolle.
Image 6: Alvin Ailey, Jr.
Image 7: Vaslav Nijinsky.
Image 8: Subject and photographer unknown.
Image 9: "Behold the Joy of Jesus" by Lindena Robb (from the Jesus Laughing Exhibition).
Image 10: Eddie Oroyan.
Image 1i (below): Dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.


Terry Nelson said...

After reading your post, Cardinal Burke's reflections on the liturgy make so much sense.

"Cardinal Burke says liturgy must shift focus away from self and back to God."

Read more:



Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Terry. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your perspective.

Just to be clear: I just gave the homily, I didn't plan or preside over the liturgy.

Also, I wonder if one can ever really experience and know God in any way outside the self. I'm all for overcoming the ego and its demands, but that's different to what's known as the Self -- that deep part of us that is one with God and yearns for transformation, as opposed to the ego that wants to be always in control, fears growth and change, and thus wants things forever to stay the same. With this in mind, it seems to me that many of those who comprise the church's clerical leadership are ego-based.

Also, I appreciate what Catholic commentator Colleen Kochivar-Baker says about the self in her March 6, 2011 reflection on the need and value of self love.

Colleen writes:

". . . The influence of self love is a truth which is taking on more and more scientific validity. Since humans really do manifest a world around themselves that is a direct consequence of how they think about themselves, Jesus was right all along [when he said, "Love one another as you love yourself"], self love is foundational in creating a Christian world.

"If a person thinks they are inherently flawed, nonredeemable, or predisposed to misery, it doesn't matter how successful a person may appear to be otherwise, they will live in an internal world of misery, unfulfilled dreams, and guilt. Eventually their external world will mirror their internal world. Teach millions of people the religious 'truths' which put all of them in the same high stress, low self esteem internal state and it's no wonder we don't have the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. What we have instead is both legal and illegal drug pushers assisting us to chemically overcome the physiological effects of our religious 'truths.' . . ."