Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Other Side Of Advent

The liturgical year unscrolls in two dimensions of time, in the familiar, orderly, circum-horizontal procession of chronos, clocktime, both lunar and solar, but also in kairos, that vertical/temporal space/time where The Baptist is never not crying in the wilderness, and where birth/death/resurrection/return is happening always and everywhere.

I met the Baptist, once, where the Boulevard Noir runs out. I'd slipped on an ice patch and was sitting in the mud rubbing a sore knee. In the west, impossibly distant, the dirty lights of Bouville flickered. In the east loomed a wall of darkness. Or maybe a cliff. It was hard to tell. He towered over me, shaggy, draped in malodorous skins, and greeted me in a voice hoarse with an eternity of proclamation. I accepted a proferred hand and rose to my feet. For a prophet, he seemed a little tongue-tied, even shy. Maybe he was simply tired, more suited to prophetic utterance than small talk. I declined the locust he wordlessly offered me from his bag. Still wordless, he faced the absolutely lightless East, held out his right arm and pointed. Pointed straight at the darkness. I wondered whether he'd taken in a Bergman festival somewhere along the Way, whether there were chess pieces as well as dried locusts in his bag. And, as suddenly as he'd appeared, he was gone.

All day the windows have been rattling in a shrieking gale; dirty glass and old lace curtains filter bright sun. After hours of the sound, I grow restless, almost anxious. Cold is knifing through all the fissures of this old house. The wind is sweeping aside everything in its path, preparing the way -- for what ?

Last night I dreamed of a luminous, white airborne skeleton -- a bird/human, or an insect with ribs, or maybe a skeletal angel. Out of its belly, as if it were being born, flew a ravishingly blue, a Marian blue, bird. In my dream I saw it twice, and, the second time, thought:

I need my camera !

The rest of the dream devolved into an irritable reaching after camera.

The Marian blue likely came from the Catholic service I attended yesterday evening, the blessing of the long marriage of a divorced Catholic woman and a Congregationalist man. The woman's first husband had recently died, releasing her from that marriage, and she was anxious to return to full participation in her Church, including having a sacramental second marriage. To our (and her husband's) surprise, the ceremony would also include a confirmation and a First Holy Communion.

I had warned them the night before that their "disparity of cult" might require a dispensation. But this !

I sat there stunned, reeling. No catechesis ? No RCIA classes ? This, this thing, this ever-receding thing I had myself been irritably reaching after for as long as I could remember, reaching in a state of highly flustered ambivalence, this Amazing Grace had simply fallen, unbidden, undesired, into his lap, like a wedding present. He -- a calm, good, generous man, not prone to overt piety -- seemed pleased. Willing.

I stood there watching, infinitely boggled. Disparity of cult ? No problem !

I looked around. It was a newish building, blond and cruciform. The parish had not skimped on the poinsettias this year. There was a creche the size of a gardening shed draped in real greens. I thumbed through the missal, wincing at the contemporary hymnody. The woman's cousin, a monk, was presiding. The parish priest stood off to the side, cheerful, a little portly, handsome and well scrubbed. E., the woman's mother, leaned over toward me and reminsced about changing his diapers. 56 years ago. My boggle ratcheted upward.

Fifty six ? I whispered I imagined him to be 35 !

He's very charismatic,she whispered. And conservative !hissed C. from the next pew.

I sighed. Would I never be rid of this Catholic-envy ? It was like the proverbial Pauline thorn in my flesh. For all my irritable, deliberate, reaching after churchiness, I knew that the man who was being showered with grace today deserved every last ounce of it, all complicated dialectics of faith & works notwithstanding. I thought of Dogen's image for Guan-Yin, the embodiment of compassion: a sleeper reaching above her head in the night. Compassionate action so ingrained, reflexive and natural that it just flows outward without deliberation. He and his wife lead lives of that degree of spontaneous generosity. They deserve every last grace that the Church has to offer.

Slowly, my envy, if not my bogglement, receded. Just being in the presence of grace was something, a grace in itself. It reminded me of watching Catholics receive the Eucharist at Glastonbury Abbey years back: Although excluded from the table, I cadged more than a bit of passive grace from that experience.

Grace finds us in our most ice-bound lairs of solitude. The ice cracks and a vista of skeletal trees swaying in Marian blue opens overhead.

I stood at the treacherous eastern bourne of the Boulevard Noir, waiting. Waiting for what ? A bit of light ? A hint of horizon ? A winter birdcall -- always, everywhere -- always, everywhere ?

Or maybe simply a hymn of perpetual compline --

Salve Regina, mater misericordiae;
vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Evae...

I closed my eyes tight and rubbed them; flowers of light bloomed, photopsia, and the wind chafed my bare hands.

I could always turn back. Bouville was not much, but it was something. I could have black coffee and rolls at the Cafe Mably. Maybe the proprietor would put on a record; maybe the morose curate from St. Julian-the-Wanderer's would show up and, as he sometimes does, keep vigil with me.

I could ask him how far he's followed the Boul' Noir --

I could tell him who was there at the end of the road, and why I turned back. He would probably understand, and maybe even offer a bit of sub rosa, illicit absolution.

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