It rained hard and long, so hard and long that even the waterfall was swamped. I swung by before work to see the river at full flood. Around me, the geese honked and strutted; I wondered whether it was the disconsolate honking of parents whose nests had been washed away. A gloomy thought, perhaps, but my lenten desert this year has been one of distraction and distraction breeds gloom, or, at the very least least, creates the conditions in which gloom can flourish.
Distraction. It's an interesting word, from the Latin dis trahere, or "draw apart." In human distraction, what gets drawn apart is attention. All week at work I'd felt my attention drawn and quartered -- patients in rooms, new patients queueing up, patients back from their xrays needing discharge, lab results, refills, phone calls, rising anxiety, anticipation, annoyance and exasperation, more patients queuing up, patients popping out of rooms to ask "have you forgotten me ?" -- a virtual desert sandstorm of distraction. A whirlwind whose calm center was eluding me.
I dragged out my career-long mantra, the mantra of a hypersensitive introvert who finds herself, daily, despite herself, in the crowded, bustling midst of things:
I should have been a librarian.
Or a Carthusian. Or a shepherd. The list of should-have-beens is long.
I was long overdue for a walk by the river. So Saturday afternoon, the first warm and bright afternoon of the year, I set out with my camera. The water had receded a little, the geese were quieter. Dozens of people were out, and strangers were smiling and greeting one another. The flora and fauna of spring were just beginning to emerge,
but, already, there was a snail resting in the crook of a wild indigo branch, under a cluster of beaded, brown half-moon seeds. I smiled at the snail, and greeted it, photographing the yellow and brown coil from several angles. No stranger -- more a mon semblable, ma soeur -- it was fresh from its long winter's nap, buried in a composting pile of twig and leafmulch, secure within the walls of its pretty shell. And now here it was, out in the sun and wind, unperturbed.
I shrugged against the weight and constriction of my own shell and walked on. I was in my element: light, form, color. I was experiencing attraction, not distraction. I was as open as an eye, then as focused as a lens. This is where I belong I thought, out here with the snails of spring and the decomposing branches of winter, branches white as fingerbones and stippled with elegant black mold.
Two characters have emerged out of my Lenten fever fog, Dr Bouville and the Morose Curate of St Julian the Wanderer's, both avatars of myself, both taking their shape in 140 character utterances on Twitter. They seem to inhabit a world compounded of the mise-en-scene of Sartre's Nausea and Bernano's Diary of a Country Priest.
As the already-gloomy Curate catechizes the existentialist Dr Bouville, his gloom deepens; he becomes increasingly bitter, disaffected, nihilistic. DrBouville's trajectory is opposite -- not even baptized yet, he is on the threshold of joining a Charterhouse, but only if the Curate joins up too. The two misfits are, of course, a little bit in love with one another, and God only knows how it will all turn out.
The Curate and his Catechumen have been my companions in the Lenten desert. I love them both and I want them to be happy. I want them to be working side by side in the kitchen garden of, if not a Carthusian, at least a Cistercian monastery. But who is St Julian the Wanderer ? How can a bona fide gyrovague have been beatified ? Wandering implies deviation, lapses from received truth, certainly anathema to the Magisterium that bestows the beatifications. But in Bouville, that squalid little town through which the Boulevard Noir cuts like a knife, the usual criteria do not apply.
The Curate is a figment of my long, illicit, schoolgirl crush on the Catholic Church. True love, as MacQuarrie says of God's love, is a "letting be," not simply in the sense of leaving alone, but creating the ongoing ground of flourishing and growth. And there is also an element of "hands off" in that sort of love: we are free to chose, and even to mis-chose, but, like the prodigal son's father's love, God's love is unfailing. My schoolgirl crush is of another substance. It's the kind of fussy, manipulative love that wants to put the beloved through a makeover.
Be less triumphalistic, less patriarchal, less hierarchical, less exclusivist, less legaistic, less authoritarian, less absolutist ! Conform your anthropology to contemporary understanding of gender and gender roles ! Be more ecumenical, less misogynist, less homophobic ! Stop making claims about the "validity" of Anglican/Episcopal sacraments and holy orders !
Of course, when reality testing replaces besotted unreason, it is clear: I have, indeed, found the corner of the one holy catholic and apostolic church where all those conditions already exist. So why the ongoing Rome crush ?
It's a mystery. Like something primitive that erupts in a dream. Like a character, a morose curate, that appears in one's Lenten desert, offering catechesis, even as he prepares to go down for the third time.
And then there's Dr Bouville. The stranger, alienated from everything, the loner, prodigy of acedia, abulia, anorexia, ataraxia and absurdity. Artisan of contingency and thrownness. Irresistably drawn to the image of a black cassock against white snow, to a vision of metaphysical solidarity and community, of high literary nostalgia for something that never truly existed.
So, on the threshold of Holy Week, I ask: were these my temptations in the lenten desert ? Dogmatism and nihilism ? The Catechism and Being and Nothingness ? Have I resisted them as well as I have resisted soymilk ice cream, peppermint Life-Savers and pretzels ?
There's a line from a Wallace Stevens poem about "finding what will suffice. It refers to the construction of poetry, but could just as well refer to the construction of or the reading of religion. This is why my Roman paramour, if I had the courage to approach and ply my petition, would reject me: that I think religions, all of them, are complex poems whose symbols and stories and rituals all attempt to "find what will suffice" to describe and understand and guide our mysterious and contingent being-in-the-world.
A rather thin gruel, I would assume, in the eyes of the Magisterium; a thin and pitiably heretical gruel.
But Dr Bouville and his morose Curate are men of an ascetical bent. For them, thin gruel -- black coffee and alphabet soup -- is sufficient. Eventually, they will meet each other half way just outside the narthex of St Julian the Wanderer's,
and strike out together, hand in hand, for the charterhouse beyond the farthest reaches of the Boule' Noir.
And who is the third that walks always beside them ?