Sunday, June 21, 2009


There's an alcove in my basement where the washer and dryer live in peaceful co-existence with the litterboxes. I spend a predictable amount of time there, and when the overhead fluorescent began to die after 11 years -- to die in an inaccessible little recess in the cheaply and poorly suspended ceiling -- it precipitated a crisis of luminescence. If scooping catshit in an unsavory little cul de sac is unpleasant, scooping catshit in darkness punctuated by epileptogenic flickerings and lightning-like flashes is downright Dante-esque.

Before we moved in, the alcove was the kitchen of an illegal basement apartment; there's a hood over the dryer that once sat over an electric range and, conveniently enough, it contains a light bulb. A nice, reliable Edisonian incandescent, that, when it dies, will have the decency to simply go out, and not linger in an agonized liminal state for weeks. So I have taken to using it.

Eleven years of hitting a light switch, I discovered, dies hard. I am, it seems, usually on auto-pilot when I hit the litter-and-laundry alcove. On goes the fluorescent, out pops the mild oath, off goes the flickering fluorescent, on goes the bulb. Day after day, week after week it's the same thing. You'd think I'd learn.

What's the lesson ?

It has something to do with attention. With being awake. Simone Weil equated attention with prayer, and most contemplative methods and traditions highlight paying attention as fundamental. The first word of Benedict's Rule is, after all, the admonition "Listen," and Dogen's more nuanced prescriptive "Think not thinking" is all about a wakeful quality of mind. Me hitting the dying fluorescent's switch time and time again is the act of a sleepwalker.


Which is what I have been lately. Sunk in a fog of automaticities. The other day I came to in the bathroom at work, in one of those involuntary, nauseating Sartrean moments of hyper self-consciousness -- here I am ! -- that was so vivid I was paralyzed for a few seconds, spinning in a metaphysical what-the-fuck of epic proportions. It was as if the universe had reached down, seized the lapels of my lab coat, and began shaking me. Wake up ! Wake up !

The other night DK came up to bed and found me dozing face down in a puddle of drool beside my favorite book, MacQuarrie's "Principles of Christian Theology." I opened one eye. He was staring at Macquarrie & wife with a look of amusement, heavily tinged with irony.

"Theology !" he said, shaking his head. "Why are you reading theology ? It doesn't seem to have much to do with going to church or being a good Christian." My agnostic husband has a lot of opinions about my church-going and Christian-being. Many of which are oddly cogent, albeit reeking of "gotcha." If I'd been more awake I would have explained myself. As it was, I muttered something like "Go brush your teeth."

John MacQuarrie was an Anglican existentialist who died a few years ago. I read his "Principles" in one huge, greedy, excited gulp two years ago during our trip to the Grand Canyon. It reassured me that my joining the church had not been an act of overwheming intellectual contortion and mauvais foi. I had returned to it this week because of a little crisis precipitated by some lectures in Church History that I've been listening to. The topic was grace.

Whenever Rev. S. talks about "grace" it seems to me to refer to unmerited good, loving gift, undeserved mercy; it is grace that saves us from the plight that St Paul articulates so clearly -- "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" -- the grace of it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

So I'm listening to the lecture, and the professor is discussing St. Augustine and the Pelagians, and suddenly he is coupling grace with -- of all things -- election. And predestination. And something called double predestination. And he's using the word "predestinated" and I'm getting a little creeped out and start yelling at the iPod plugged into my dashboard -- are you telling me that St Augustine was a Calvinist ?

So I'd turned to MacQuarrie to make sure there was not some dark and crazy little footnote to grace that Rev. S. had forgotten to mention and that I'd signed onto when I was confirmed. Some fine print I had overlooked. And I was not disappointed:

Unfortunately, this doctrine more than any other has been perverted in such a way as to deprive man of any responsibility or, for that matter, any genuine humanity. This happens when the experience of being called or chosen, the experience of being seized by the reconciling work of Christ through the Spirit, gets objectified into a theory of predestination, such as we find in Calvin. There the fact that many men hear the Christian message of reconciliation but only some of them respond, or that of those who do respond only some remain constant, or that in some sense "many are called but few are chosen" is interpreted in terms of a double activity of God: he choses some and rejects others, and already in advance he has predestined each individual to one or other of the two groups -- to the elect who have been marked out for salvation, or to the reprobate whose destiny is damnation.

This fantastic exaggeration of the divine initiative into a fatalism is repugnant not merely because it dehumanizes man, but also because it presents us with a God who is not worthy to be worshipped, and certainly a very different God from the one about whom we have been thinking. This is not the God whose essence is to let-be, to confer being; and not the God who reveals himself in the person and work of Christ.

Saturday I talked theology with Dave. Before the Altar Guild undertook to do its own flower arranging, Dave was our florist. I turned to Dave this week in an hour of need: I was tasked to obtain 3 dozen red carnations for Father's Day Sunday, and Russo's, the farmstand down the street where I've been getting my botanicals, said I'd called too late. Couldn't guarantee 36 red carnations. I flew into a panic. Church flowers panic me. A lot. I sat there at my desk at work, sweating, heart pounding, until I had the salvific thought: Dave.

I'd always liked Dave -- a cheerful, down-to-earth guy -- and it was good to see him again; oddly enough, he kept referring to me as "church lady," a term of endearment that DK has recently adopted. Dave, like DK a non-observant Jew, came down solidly in the atheist camp; said he hates how church privileges right belief over good behavior, an echo of DKs dichotomy of reading theology vs. churchgoing. There was a long discussion we could have had, but I had my 3 dozen crimson carnations to ferry churchward, and it would have to wait until some other time.

Church lady. I've been had a little orgy of reading, lately, about the Oxford movement -- a biography of and a novel about GMHopkins, and John Henry Newman's Apologia -- and then read a very funny Anglo-Catholic memoir by an English priest who died in the 1970s, "Merrily on High." I came away from these books marveling at what a man's world they all depicted, where women are relegated to pew sitters, charwomen, ancillary altar-guild types. Dowagers in hats. Servants in aprons. Even my beloved MacQuarrie could never bring himself to endorse women's ordination, although he entertained the idea with more of an open mind than his peers.

On the internets, there is a lot of guy-theologizing, often blood-sport-like and disputatious in tone, mimicking, come to think of it, the various Church History doctrine-inspired violences that Prof. Calvinist had been describing. DK and Dave were correct: the important thing is not right belief, but right relation: what Christ did and does through his life, death and resurrection.

So when I am awake, I enter my basement alcove and switch on the little bare bulb above the dryer. It casts a small pool of light in the darkness, comforting, almost sublime -- holding the darkness at bay like a lantern in a window on a snowy night, or a nightlight outside a child's bedroom. It is a mean little light in a mean little alcove; a wisp of electrified tungsten burning itself out, deadended on the big grid. I appreciate it, and the thought of it, especially when I feel as if I'm sleepwalking in the outer darkness

flickering and about to blink out.

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