It's a cold, bright windy day and I am on the lam. I suspect the Advent desert is full of outlaws like myself, but in the vastness and obscurity one can travel for days with only passing shadows for company.
I have said that I joined the Church to be part of something in but not of the world; to adopt a tradition that considers questions of Being of primal importance, and to use its signs and its grammar as a means of discourse with and about the Numinous. If that sounds a bit cold and abstract to you, well, it does to me as well. Religion as language and grammar expressive of matters of Ultimate Being. How many heresies does that entail ?
Frankly, this empty, dark and frigid desert is a relief. Even if ++Rowan Williams is here (and I have no doubt that he is) the vastness swallows up his recommendation that the Episcopal church exercise "gracious restraint" with respect to human dignity and equality in service of preserving an already fracturing ecclesiastic structure. Never mind that the "Anglican Communion" is just a bit of a Christendom that is such a crazy welter of cracks and schisms that the prayer "may we all be One" seems the Highest of catholic small-c comedy. The Orthodox scorn the Romans, the Romans think everyone else is deficient, disordered and invalid, triumphalism, patronizing and condescension are the attitudes du jour, the Anglicans remain a glorious and fractious bouillebaisse, and there are days when it seems that the only common ground is the agreement that the only unfallen human state is to be heterosexual and male.
(Cut to image of Bible being waved.)
Did you know that Rick Warren has issued an "Encyclical Video" to Ugandan clergy in which he comes out against state-sponsored genocide ? So it's Pope Rick now ? It seems the real Vatican has also taken a stand against the kill-the-gays legislation that Uganda has been considering. But don't these ecclesiastic entities understand that they are a major engine for propagating homophobia in the world, for cloaking it in scripture and doctrine, disseminating it, legitimizing it, excusing it, allowing it, insisting upon it, and, most significantly, funding it ?
I cannot forget that, in 2007, even Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori asked for a season of fasting in service of institutional preservation.
"What," I ask myself, "am I doing here ?"
The Presiding Bishop issued another warning shot in my general direction last summer when she said that the "Great Western Heresy" was the notion of "individual salvation." "Ubuntu," she said, as Lambeth held its indaba groups and the General Convention adopted a "public narrative" process model. Where did that leave a lone wolf like me ? Some days I feel like the church (like my workplace) is being taken over by the jargon-spewing StuderGroup,
and that the only approach to Being that does not entail bad faith is the one that starts from point zero.
And where is that ?
It is only here, in this desert, where I have an inkling. An inkling I had long before I joined up
when, in a series of poems about provisioning a hermitage, I wrote
The afternoon can barely lift its head.
Storms muster in the west, and, to the east
the restive ocean gathers at the gates
of Harborview and Pigeon Cove. The year
falls past fall again, the same old cadence.
I can’t fatten or slumber, so I sing
along, my voice as brittle and apt to break
as a cheap glass ball mis-hung on a fractured branch --
I am the wren that quivers in the mouth
of the stranger’s broken eaves. I am the snow
that slides across its blank, unmoving eye.
Stars flicker between branches. Christmas lights
blink on and off, too fast, monotonous
emergencies of red and green. Herod
mugs with schoolchildren. White bulbs detonate,
blinding -- God, I can’t do this anymore.
I’m sick of stories, yours, mine, them all.
I have desired to go where words all fail.
Will Providence attend me, even there ?
How odd and disturbing, then, to find myself looking to my pre-Churched, wordless deserts for sustenance.
To my knowledge, there is no Christian analogy to the Buddhist "if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha." One first has to get around the sore point of the crucifixion. There are, of course, the complexities of the Atonement: we have already killed and continue to kill Christ, and, as He forgave, so too are we called to forgive and to look on others, as James Alison says, with the eyes of Christ. On Rick and Rowan and the PB, on the Ugandan legislators -- so, obviously, we are going to need Jesus to help us with that transaction.
There is iconoclasm, but that's not quite what I mean. Some days Christ just seems to stick out of the Trinity like a sore thumb, upstaging the other two persons like a bad ham actor. Even Christian "Contemplative Prayer" is imperfectly apophatic: it prescribes sitting with an "intention" toward God. That seems imperfectly trusting. If God "Is," won't God find/be found by the practitioner ? Isn't it, otherwise, waiting for Godot ?
But here, in the rarified air of the desert, it all seems (by fragile moments) clear.
Scripture loses its schismatizing edge and becomes music. Music for all ears.
Music that blends with the sound of the wind through stripped winter vines. Music that includes the cries of the world.
Follow it, then, to the very edge of the lightless desert, pass through the thorny gates, and discover what, if anything, lies beyond.