In The Two Popes, there is a brief scene in which the future Pope Francis tries to get the Holy Pontiff, Benedict XVI, to dance. It reminded me of the liturgical hymn, Lord of the Dance, written by Sydney Carter in the 1960’s. While some religions frown on dancing, others encourage it. The song’s author not only preferred the latter attitude, he also believed that dancing is the best image we can give to God’s movement through time and space, from creation and salvation history to eternity. He wrote: “I danced at the dawning when the world was begun…I danced in the moon, the stars, the sun. I came down from heaven to dance on earth in Bethlehem where I had my birth…” As he chronicles Christ’s joyous cadence of healing and friendship, feasting and celebration, the author also notes somber and tragic spiritual rhythms that accompanied His passion and death. But the final verse reminds us that God leapt forth beyond earthly death to heavenly glory where He continues to lead us all in the dance of life eternal.
Twenty years later, Father Andrew Greeley wrote a book with the same title, suggesting that every life fits the dance metaphor. Some lives, like some dances, are upbeat while others are very serious, even cataclysmic. There are various melodies, cadences, marches and ballads to mark stages of our development and depths of our experiences. From jigs to bops, rock to disco, waltz to salsa, ballet to tap, line-dance to belly-dance, rumba to hip-hop, polka to moonwalk, moshing to breaking, end-zone moves to drunk-tank stumbles, there seems to be times in our earthly existence for most of them. Dancing is a wonderful image, even for the movie character, Benedict XVI, who wasn’t much interested in it, but could sit at his piano and maneuver easily from classic to jazz to baroque to chant. Francis, seemingly comfortable with all genres, preferred his native tango to symbolize the movements of his life journey.
The two popes come from different continents and hemispheres; they are, in many ways, worlds apart. Though they share the same religion, their life experiences are so different that they seem to have little in common beyond the fact that they are two popes living at the same time. More contrasted than The Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix, one danced amidst the bureaucratic prestige of Vatican luxury while the other whirled within the dire poverty of Argentinian slums; one operated in classrooms and offices while the other did business in fields of service and play. Within their families, they weaved through formative circumstances from fighting Nazism to respecting Peronism, from directing hierarchical leaders to being ostracized by his community, from reacting to abuses in church to defying abuses in government. Victims of circumstance, they each arrived at Peter’s chair along very different routes, all the while trusting the guidance of God. In the movie, the two characters do a dance of languages, too (Italian, Spanish, German, English), while speaking Latin, the official language of the church, only when the pope wants to obscure his message.
In many ways, our dance with God remains obscured. When serving in the inner city where greater liturgical freedom exists, a parishioner once videotaped our Easter Vigil service. It captured darkness and light, fire and water, people assembling, genuflecting, standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing, and numerous processions: entrance, offertory, communion, procession of catechumens, of candidates, and of sponsors. There was clapping, swaying, and hugging; there were baptisms, anointing rites, and sprinkling rituals. When the video was fast-forwarded and put to music, it looked like an amazing celestial dance. There, we sometimes spoke of “gui-dance.” “G” for God, “u” for you, “i” for me, and “dance.” God, you, and I dance through life from birth to death, victories and defeats, celebrations and tragedies. Though God dances with the entire universe, He sometimes dances just with you or just with me. Like the two popes, let’s look to God, The Lord of the Dance, for guidance through the circumstances of our lives.