“Compassionate and Wise” (interfaith song in response to 9/11)

The song “Compassionate and Wise,” which appears on an album of the same name recorded by Father Cyprian Consiglio in 2006, represents a cross-pollination of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

An earlier version, simply called “Dedication of Merit,” was first sung at a Buddhist-Christian conference at a Benedictine convent in Indiana the week after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The Rev. Dr. Heng Sure, an American Chan Buddhist monk, was asked to offer a dedication of merit (similar to what Christians would call an intercessory prayer, though it’s phrased more like a benediction). For this he and a colleague translated a passage from the Mettā Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on developing and sustaining loving-kindness. Their translation reads:

May every living being,
Our minds as one and radiant with light,
Share the fruits of peace
With hearts of goodness, luminous and bright.

If people hear and see
How hands and hearts can find in giving, unity,
May their minds awake,
To Great Compassion, wisdom, and to joy.

May kindness find reward;
May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain;
May this boundless light
Break the darkness of their endless night.

Because our hearts are one,
This world of pain turns into paradise.
May all become compassionate and wise,
May all become compassionate and wise.

In reciting the dedication, Sure spontaneously matched it with a melody by Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt, which she had written in 1994 for the song “Dark Night of the Soul,” a setting of verse by the sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. Conference attendees, their hearts full of grief over the falling of the Twin Towers, joined in singing, lifting up their collective longing for light to break through the darkness.

A few years later at a different Buddhist-Christian gathering, Sure met Father Cyprian Consiglio, a Camaldolese Benedictine monk, author, and musician from California. He shared the song with him, struck by its similarity to some of the prayers Consiglio had offered that week.

With the blessing of Sure and McKennitt, Consiglio and his regular collaborator John Pennington, a percussionist, recorded a new arrangement of the song in 2006 under the title “Compassionate and Wise.” Here they are performing it with friends on June 28, 2018, at the “Arise, My Love” concert in Santa Cruz to raise money for New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, where Consiglio has been the prior since 2013:

(The song starts at 2:43, following Consiglio’s spoken introduction.)

Their version has slight lyrical alterations and opens with two Sanskrit chants that Consiglio learned from the monks and nuns at Saccidananda Ashram (nicknamed Shantivanam, “Forest of Peace”), a Camaldolese Benedictine monastery in Tannirpalli, South India. The first chant, which is from the Rig Veda but also appears in the Yajur Veda, is known as the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra (Great Mantra for Conquering Death). The second is a svasti pāṭhaḥ, an invocation for the welfare of all.

The following Sanskrit and its English translation were provided to me by Consiglio:

OM tryambakam yajâmahe
Sugandhim pushtivardhanam
Urvâr ukamiva bandhanât
Mrityor mukshiyam amritat

OM sarvesâm svastir bhavatu
Sarvesâm shantir bhavatu
Sarvesâm pûrnam bhavatu
Sarvesâm mangalam bhavatu
Sarve bhavtu sukhinâh
Sarve shântu nirâmayâh
Sarve bhadrâni pashyantu
Mâ kashchid dukha bhagbhavet
OM shânti shânti shânti

We worship the true God who is the Supreme Being
Who is fragrant and nourishes all beings
May he liberate us from death for the sake of immortality
Like a cucumber is severed from its bondage to the creeper

May all be happy
May all be free from disease
May all realize what is good
May none be in misery
May the nonvirtuous be virtuous
May the virtuous attain tranquility
May the tranquil be freed from the bonds of death
May the freed make others free
Peace, peace, peace

And here is the sung English that follows:

May every living being,
Our minds as one and radiant with light,
Share the fruits of peace,
Our hearts of goodness luminous and bright.

If people hear and see,
Our hands and hearts can find, in giving, unity.
May their minds awake
To Great Compassion, wisdom, and to joy.

May goodness find reward;
May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain;
May this boundless light
Dispel the darkness of their endless night.

Because our hearts are one,
This world of pain turns into paradise.
May all become compassionate and wise,
May all become compassionate and wise.

This song is full of interfaith exchanges. A melody written to set the text of a Carmelite Christian friar was adapted to fit a Buddhist dedication of merit and is introduced by a Benedictine Christian monk with a passage from the Hindu scriptures! For more information on the song’s history, see urbandharma.org.

Explaining the significance of a dedication of merit (and metta practice) to his Christian readers, Consiglio writes on the hermitage blog, “We can dedicate whatever closeness to God we have to the good of someone else.” I myself wouldn’t use the phrase “dedication of merit” or its derivatives to describe what I’m doing when I intercede to God for others, but I see what Consiglio means, and I think it’s this: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Through Christ, God hears our prayers, and it is our duty in prayer to think more widely than just our own needs or the needs of those in our immediate circles—though that can be a good starting point. As the apostle Paul says, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1, emphasis mine).

What if our prayers extended to enfold all living beings? I was always taught to avoid genericisms in prayer, and while there is value in direct naming, there is also a beauty to those kinds of broad prayers often heard on the lips of children—for “the whole world,” for “peace everywhere.”

Perhaps you are uncomfortable by the lack of doctrinal specificity in “Compassionate and Wise,” or by what you might call “syncretism” (the mixing of belief systems). But as Consiglio says, there is nothing in the song that contradicts Christianity. The song arose out of an interreligious context, so it’s meant to invite the participation of people of various faith backgrounds.

“Because our hearts are one” refers to a unity of intention or desire. The singers may not be united in theological particulars, nor even around the deity they’re addressing, but they are one in their wish for universal well-being, for liberation from the bonds of death and a walking together in friendship across boundaries of difference.

Lent, Day 6

LOOK: Breathe by Billie Bond

Bond, Billie_Kintsugi Heads
Billie Bond (British, 1965–), Breathe (diptych), 2018. Black stoneware, resin, gold, 15.8 × 13 × 7.9 in. each. [available for sale]

This pair of ceramic busts by British sculptor Billie Bond is inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, or “golden seams,” by which a broken pottery vessel is repaired using gold lacquer. With this technique the cracks are purposefully accentuated rather than hidden, and the mended object is even more beautiful than the original.

Japanese American author, speaker, and artist Makoto Fujimura has spoken extensively about kintsugi as a metaphor for human brokenness and mending in Christ. We come to Christ in fragments; he lovingly puts us back together. The scars remain, but like his, they shine.

For Bond, the kintsugi heads represent human fragility and resilience—particularly healing after grief or psychological trauma, and enlightenment gained through experience. View more of Bond’s kintsugi sculptures here.

Bond, Billie_Smashed ceramic head
Smashed ceramic head by Billie Bond, before being reassembled and repaired with gold

LISTEN: “Come Healing” by Leonard Cohen and Patrick Leonard, 2012 | Performed by Elayna Boynton at Crosswalk Church, Redlands, California, 2012; and on The Farewell (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), 2019

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow
The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace
O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O troubledness concealing
An undivided love
The Heart* beneath is teaching
To the broken Heart above
O let the heavens falter
Let the earth proclaim:
Come healing of the Altar
Come healing of the Name

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood
And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

O let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

* The official website of Leonard Cohen, maintained by Sony Music Entertainment, capitalizes “Heart” in this stanza; same with “Altar” and “Name.”

Known as “the poet of brokenness,” Leonard Cohen (1934–2016) is widely considered one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Spiritual yearning characterizes quite a few of his songs, the most famous of which is “Hallelujah.” He was Jewish, with a respect for other spiritual traditions and a fondness for Jesus Christ as a universal figure.

“Come Healing” is from Cohen’s 2012 album Old Ideas. Elayna Boynton, perhaps discovered through this YouTube video from a worship service at her Southern California church, was asked to record the song for the 2019 film The Farewell (an excellent watch!). Cohen’s deep growl of a voice, though it has its admirers, is not attractive to me, so Boynton’s cover really helped me hear the tremendous beauty of this song.

Elliot R. Wolfson describes “Come Healing” as “a poem that is prayer in its purest distillation, a prayer clothed in quintessential nakedness, an anthem that celebrates and laments the wholehearted fragmentariness of the human condition.”

The speaker prays for healing of body and spirit, head and heart. We bring our failures and our lack, our guilt and regrets and all manner of pain to the altar, to the “gates of mercy.” We long to bloom, to be purified. In the mystical unity of love that ties our hearts to God, our hurt hurts him. His heart breaks over seeing us suffer, whether as a result of our own sin (which is what Cohen’s “penitential hymn” seems to focus on) or due to things outside our control.

When we bring our cracked or shattered selves to God, acknowledging our inability to fix the damage, he will restore us to wholeness.

While spiritual salvation is granted instantly (at least in the understanding of my tradition) to the one who turns to God, through Christ, in faith and repentance, what about other types of brokenness that we come to him with? Why won’t he heal us of that chronic physical condition? Or that debilitating mental illness? Or the effects of trauma? Why won’t he heal that broken relationship between us and our parent, despite our efforts at reconciliation?

I don’t have an answer for that—why, though none of us is free of pain and hardship in this life, some suffer much more than others; or why some receive healing and others do not. But eventual wholeness, shalom, is promised to those who are in Christ. In the new heavens and the new earth, salvation will be holistic, infusing spirits as well as bodies, minds, relationships, systems, and the whole created world.

And sometimes we do receive glimpses of that wholeness here and now! Sometimes the cancer goes away. Sometimes the depression is effectively treated, and fulfillment made possible again. Sometimes the sobriety sticks.

Often God is piecing us back together slowly, such that the progress may be imperceptible until years later, we look back and can see it.

The song suggests that although we don’t always deserve the slings and arrows that come our way, neither do we deserve the lavish graces God bestows. Sometimes we’re so focused on the one that we fail to see the other.

Even though complete wholeness is not possible in this life, God still invites us to reach out to him with the shards of our life, to seek his healing in specific areas—with faith that he can heal whatever it is that’s broken! He will tend to the shards with loving tenderness. And maybe put them back together in a way we didn’t expect.