A late afternoon phone call. A few bits of admin to tidy up. Another round of thanks for a fantastic job done. Then, just before signing off, I told him: “I myrrhed the wall again.”
“Of all the things that came out of last week,” he said, “a new verb was the last thing I expected.”
Ted Lyddon Hatten became an instant friend, and collaborator in the ritual arts, when we met at the Venice Colloquium in 2015. Shortly afterwards I invited him to come to Yale to spend a week as our artist-in-residence at Marquand Chapel.
He shipped over various boxes of art materials, including a packet of liquefaction — the beautiful-but-sinister, extra-fine sand that smothers the landscape after an earthquake. Then he asked us to save and air-dry the coffee grounds from our morning coffee-hour, every day for two weeks before he arrived. And, like Nicodemus to the deposition of Jesus, he brought with him a hundred pounds of myrrh.
All of these materials were used in “dry painting”; myrrh layered over coffee, layered over liquefaction, and highlighted with fine white sugar. As the days elapsed, a huge vine crept further and further across the chapel floor, and then, overnight, an immense one-eyed feather appeared in the corner, as if dropped from a seraphom’s wing.
The symbolism of the materials emerged as Ted engaged the community in conversation. ‘What does coffee-hour mean to you?’ he asked, ‘what is the essence of the conversations that we have saved in these grounds?’ At first the predictable, heart-warming answers flowed: I talk to people who are like life support, I wouldn’t make it through without them; coffee hour is a chance to engage informally with professors as well as peers; it’s when we exchange news and pick up notices; coffee quite simply gets my eyes open for the next chunk of the day. A short pause, and then the unsayable was said by one lone voice. ‘The coffee we drink is actually pretty bitter. And sometimes our conversations are bitter too.’ Silence fell around the room. Eyes were cast down; heads nodded, no-one spoke. This community where so much good happens has its griefs and divisions too; so much passion for truth and activism comes with its own bittersweet price.
The story of the week was drawn from the sixth chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet caught sight of God — “high and lifted up, and the hem of his garment filled the temple”. The hem, mind you: not the entire divine being, just a couple of inches at the bottom of God’s coat entirely filled one of the largest structures in the ancient world. No wonder the “foundations of the temple shook”, and suddenly the sight of a terrifying, destabilizing material such as liquefaction began to make sense as a symbol in worship. No wonder Isaiah stood awestruck at the sight of those fantasy-land winged creatures fluttered around the skirts of the divine presence.
Myrrh is well known as a religious symbol for death and burial. Less well-known, perhaps, is its earthly context as a self-healing resin produced by the dindin tree to seal wounds to its trunk or branches. Harvested, dried, and cut fine, it becomes the heady and expensive incense that smells like church. A symbol of death was transformed, in this particular ritual art, into a symbol of healing, life, resurrection. And the whole picture was grounded by… well, by the coffee grounds. Strong smelling, dried and with the life squeezed out, the remnants of sweet and bitter conversations, the coffee spread across the floor, un-moored by the liquefaction, and pressed down by the healing power of myrrh, the heady smell of the sacred remixed with the dregs of everyday life.
No-one could quite believe all this art was deliberately ephemeral, and when Ted invited the congregation to gather up the myrrh in tiny jars and take it out across the campus, spreading it wherever healing seemed to be most needed, no-one moved for several minutes. And then the whole act of worship was unmade, harvested, made ready to take out into the world.
We packed the artworks, the myrrh, and the liquefaction to ship to Ted’s next destination. We swept the floor and tidied up the space, and then, suddenly registering our tired minds and aching muscles, planned to debrief over supper and a bottle of wine before heading our separate ways. But as we stood up to leave, there was one last bag of myrhh left unpacked. Outside the window it was snowing gently, and the afternoon light just beginning to fade. ‘Let’s walk the walls,’ I said.
Outside we walked through the snow, round the perimeter of this beautiful building, where so much good happens, but in all our striving after excellence, our foundations are sometimes unmoored. Faith is found, and lost, and found again, friends are made and unmade, ideals clash and hearts are broken as often as they are mended. We sprinkled the grains of myrrh along the walls and the borders as silent prayers, myrrh for healing the shaken foundations and the bittersweet tensions.
A week later the snow was melted, and the early sun had baked the myrrh into caramel streaks along the pink granite as I walked the walls once again, silently sprinkling a little myrrh for healing, self-preservation, new life. Myrrh. A new verb. A new way to pray.
February 27, 2016