Billie Holiday & Mary Magdalene

"Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion."
~James Joyce

It’s you, Billie. You are the Magdalene, pouring sweet pangs of sensuality like crystals of frankincense into the fire of Presence, effusing sighs and gazes too fine and mellow for words. You transcend, not by escaping this knotted earthen labyrinth, but by entering its center. You are She who falls so deeply into your own humanity that God becomes your servant. 

It's you, Billie, the Paraclete. Regardless of the impurities you committed in a life of addiction and sexual sorrow, your unadulterated devotion to Beauty uplifts you on spirit wings, and enfolds you in the Bridal Chamber of Christ's sacred heart.

Enough of holy icons and ecclesiastic symbols! This love is real, stretched out in troubled fallen bodies. Addicted to heroine and alcohol, in love with men who abused you, you beat up white sailors with your fists when they mocked your music in a Manhatten bar. You scalded racist hecklers with your gutter-ripened tongue. These were the disciplines that made you pure. And how could such impurities make you pure? Because you endured. You endured the suffering that redounded from each misdeed and offered that suffering to Art. 

In 1957, you and Lester Young performed for the last time together. You had been estranged, in fact, for a few years prior to that date: you could no longer stand to confront your own pain in each other's faces. On that day, you sang “Fine and Mellow” live on a CBS TV special called, "The Sound of Jazz." There is a moment in that performance which captures the entire history of Nuptial Mysticism, the tradition of the Lover and Beloved. For that brief moment in 1957, your eyes gazed back thousands of years through Christian, Jewish, Sufi and Hindu devotional poetry. The tearful radiance in your eye was the glance of Rumi toward the mystical Friend, the glance of Lalla Dev toward Krishna. It was the glance of the repentent harlot Israel, gazing at Lord Adonai, who accepted her back into his heart, according to the prophet Isaiah. It was the glance of the Magdalene toward her spiritual lover, Jesus. 

This is the glance that passes eternally from the Spirit to the Son in the secret embrace of the Holy Trinity. This glance streams from the Shekinah to Yahweh in mystical darkness before the first verse of Genesis is written in flames of black fire on the whiteness of an uncreated scroll. This glance binds creation back to Creator. Yet it is no more, and no less, than the gaze of Billie Holliday toward Lester Young. 

It's you, Billie. You bestowed this glance on Pres, your oldest friend, one-time lover, and spiritual companion in the terrors of dissolution, as he offered a solo during your song. That solo was a one-chorus blues prayer which jazz critics have called "the purest blues ever recorded": the aching heart redeemed through art, the deepest sins distilled, transfigured into unspeakable beauty. Through such secret alchemy, artist and saint have much in common, and we discover the religious quality of jazz. 

In love's glance, you redeemed your oldest friend. In Art, he redeemed you. And in that instant, the two of you were Radha-Krishna, Shekinah-Yahweh, Mary and Christ. 

Even God longs to receive such a glance from one human being brave enough to offer love in spite of pain. In spite of pain! Is that not why we are here? Would our love have substance in the unremitting happiness of heaven? In paradise our love would be a candle at noon. But a candle is only significant in the dark. 

Billie, it's you. Your gaze teaches us that our sufferings mean something, our sensual extravagance is but our first yearning for redemption, and our impurities are hidden prayers for transformation. When we are ready, when we are ripe as you, no matter what shames we carry in our breast, a single glance into the eye of the Beloved heals everything. The Church will never make you a saint, Billie. That's OK. Its none of their business. This affair is between you and God and earth's most fallen lovers.... 

Therefor, I who am most fallen pronounce you a saint. I declare your songs to be a new book in the canon of the Bible, which can never be closed until the heart is closed! And I say that if the Song of Songs is worthy of a place in scripture, then so are your songs.

Scripture says, "What ascends must first descend." You descended, Billie. You and Pres got down so low! It was the secret of your Grace. If God so loves a fallen sparrow, how much more God loves the blues! Your blue gospel-gita-koan teaches us three secrets: falling is our resurrection; empty, we are filled; surrendering unconditionally to our human limits, we transcend them.


Reader: this secret gospel has only one commandment. You must listen to the performance of “Fine and Mellow” by Billie Holliday, from the ambrosial live '57 CBS program, TV’s finest hour. Listen to Lady Day's blue bhajan. Listen to Pres’s Gregorian tenor chant. See this jazz darshan, last meeting of estranged lovers in their moment of reconciliation. (Two years, and they would both be dead.) Pay attention to Billie’s beat sacramental eyes as she listens to Pres's aching naked eulogy to their lost love. The grace in his music is reflected in the icon of her face. Then you will receive the Gnosis of divine union in a secret transmission beyond words and thoughts. Through the blues, you will know the eternal Love that pulses in the broken heart of Mary Magdalene.


Lester Young's solo is the second tenor sax solo in the following classic film.

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