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.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Time is out of joint. We did our family Christmas on Thanksgiving, and my father headed south. Advent arrived, and I found myself lost on the Boulevard Noir. I put my Daily Office book aside, canceled an Advent Retreat at Holy Cross Monastery, and stopped resisting the cold and darkness that had taken hold. This was the desert I wanted, right ?

I went to the church Saturday night to check the set up for Advent 4. I winced at the Christmas tree that our partner congregation put out during the week of Advent 2; I raised an altar guildian eyebrow at the white frontal that this week's crew had put back on the altar contrary to our plan to keep it bare for Advent. Christmas Pageant props were everywhere. It is still Advent I muttered under my breath, heading back to the sacristy to get a lavabo towel to replace the corporal that was draped on the lavabo bowl. That's when Santa showed up. A magnificent Santa, in fact, from the church that rents the basement hall for its services.

I admired him, of course; from girth to beard he was the picture of authenticity. But this was not the arrival that I'd been -- been what ? Awaiting ? Resisting ? Dreading ? "It's still Advent," I'd been crying for weeks in my little wilderness, adding inwardly a prayer that it might remain Advent, and, absent that, segue right into Lent.

The juggernaut of Birth is unstoppable.

As is, of course, the juggernaut of death. And the two, one cannot fail to note, are related. Consider the memorable image from "Waiting for Godot," of giving birth astride a grave. Even I, in my most grimly existential moments, think that's telescoping things a bit overmuch. There is, for most of us, the in-between time called "life," that time about which the Zen evening gatha says

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken! Take heed!
Do not squander your lives.

The Gospels' "little apocalypse" seems to me more terrifying than all the gothic arcana of Revelation. What it predicts is visible all around us. War, rumors of war, false prophets, persecutions and betrayals, the desolating sacrilege that is the signal to flee to the mountains --

the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter ...

"Keep awake, therefore," Jesus warns a few parables later, "for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."

Awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life.

In Matthew, Jesus' eschatologic discourse ends with a depiction of who will inherit the kingdom prepared for (them) from the foundation of the world. Those, he says, who fed me when I was hungry, gave me water when I was thirsty, clothed me when I was naked, visited me when I was in prison.

And lest the righteous be baffled about when they encountered Him in such transactions, Jesus lays it out:

just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

So Advent is about waking up.

And to what does one awaken on the Boulevard Noir ? Jesus, like a sudden apparition of Santa Claus ?

In my several years in Episcopalia I fear have not made much progress with the Jesus koan. I think I have been approaching it wrong. I think I have been scanning the dark corners of the church looking for something akin to Santa, or, worse, expecting some swoon-inducing, overwhelming mystical encounter like Julian of Norwich's shewings. Something flashy, exotic, some glimpse of the Beyond.

A few nights ago I was prowling the outermost reaches of the Boulevard Noir. It was damp and cold, right at the freezing point. Some gelid compromise of water, neither rain nor snow, was suspended in the air. There was mud and ice underfoot. I had an earworm of REM's Losing My Religion and I was muttering under my breath.

What's the point of this churchgoing, anyway ? My spouse thinks I've become like the hyper-pious Simpsons character Ned Flanders and suspects my priest thinks so too, my son's mildly amused by his churchgoing mother, and my father thinks church is some kind of therapy I've undertaken to feel better. People I know and respect equate being Christian with belief in biblical inerrancy, espousal of Creationism and with a whole unsavory spectrum of homophobic attitudes. I can see the atheistic triumphalism in their eyes when they look at me -- as condescending, smug, pitying, contemptuous and superior as any religious triumphalism I'd ever encountered.

I slipped a little on the slick mud and thrust my hands deeper into my pockets. A few dim lights glowed behind the dirty panes of the back alley windows of the Boulevard Noir. There was a faint fume of alcohol in the air.

I thought of the things I'd undertaken in the church, of my role in the community, of -- to use a phrase that unsettles me to use -- the ministries I was participating in. I was, as the chilling last line of Weldon Kees' poem "The Smiles of the Bathers" tolls: involved. Was that the vision of Christ I was searching for all along ? So dry, so mundane ?

It troubles me that lines from grim, secular poems seem to form the foundation of my religious life. My ecclesiology starts with Philip Larkin's "Churchgoing" -- the poem's persona reflecting on a church ruin as "a serious place on a serious earth." Seriousness, involvement: all well and good, but why is my soul still moved mostly by the magic words -- Magisterium, Iconostasis, Theotokis, Mystagogy, Unction -- and all the gorgeous paraphenalia claimed exclusively by the boroughs of Godlandia whose borders are most tightly guarded against, well, the likes of me. And within whose borders triumphalist Truth-claims unashamedly resound. And whose shut doors I nonetheless periodically charge, like Gilda Radner's SNL character, the manic little girl hurling herself at her pink bedroom door.

And what about the worm at the heart of the gorgeous, tempting fruit of those boroughs ? The worm of "invalid" and "objectively disordered," the worm that looks me in the eye and says that, being female, I am so irrevocably unlike Christ in such a fundamental, defining way that I am eternally, indelibly ineligible for priesthood.

I stopped under the last streetlamp of the Boulevard Noir. An oily, freezing fog was coiling around its flickering bulb. I needed an aspirin for headache and heartache. Soon the road itself would give out, blend into the stubblefields and vacant lots of the farthest outskirts of Bouville --

-- and then what ? The uncharted, unclaimed geographies beyond ? I tripped on a small stone, stumbled into an involuntary genuflection, and continued. The brittle ice crunched under my feet like broken Christmas ornaments. No, wait. It wasn't ice, it was a Christmas ball, an errant red one, that I'd stepped on. I shook the shards off my boot and continued toward the darkness.

Whom or what would I find there ? Taoist hermits shivering in the burnt-out, rusting husks of schoolbuses ? Purgatory ? Beelzebub ? The boarded-up strip malls of the next barely-incorporated town, still festooned with garland from some long-forgotten Christmas ?

I turned back. That excursion would have to wait for Lent.

Christmas has leaked into the farthest, most devastated reaches of Advent. Does else anyone consider a two-weeks-too-early Christmas tree in the church a desolating sacrilege ? (I was happy to hear that the priest substituting during our rector's maternity leave had also raised an eyebrow at it, although she likely does not go as far afield as "desolating sacrilege.")

I would have to content myself with the undeniably grim aspects of the Christmas Story. Mary and Joseph traveling like refugees at the behest of an occupying power. Birth in a stable. Flight into Egypt from a retributive genocide.

The miracle is that God would condescend at all into a joint like this.

The miracle is being able to discern God-with-us at all.

The miracle is to be able to sustain any assent or optimism whatsoever when the the instruments of power -- even, and maybe especially, the institutions of religious authority -- seem to so privilege the Aristotelian accidents of heterosexuality and masculinity.

I remember how I felt about my Bible when I was in junior high. I still have this Bible, a flexible-leatherette-bound RSV with the obligatory color plates of the usual pale, extravagantly coiffed Jesus with a lap full of improbably blond, rosy-cheeked and well-scrubbed cherubic children. I can, even today, recall the satisfaction I felt as I walked to Sunday school carrying my Holy Book: everything I needed was between its covers. It was all there, neatly packaged and completely vetted. And even if I didn't understand the least bit about the confusing stuff I found in its pages, still, it was reassuring to know that I owned a copy of The Truth.

I am happy to report that my relationship to the text has changed.

And I have to confess that I am not unsympathetic to Pontius Pilate's question: What is truth ?

But I'm not going to get any closer to the answer than I am now

until I stop living by the motto that I have framed and hung over my bed.