Tuesday, July 06, 2010


This is the sort of day when simply uttering the two syllables "polar" is like an intercessory prayer. Bipolar is twice as cold. And scold me, if you must, for appropriating a dreadful affliction for my own, literary purposes. Hell, just yesterday, I railed for long minutes about the former Charles Street Jail being made into an incarceratory theme park hotel with the ironic name "Liberty." It's hot and our fuses are short. We swill diet Coke until we realize the failure of ersatz caffeine, then drink hot coffee in the hot study beside the ineffectual fan. The upstairs thermostat is in the red zone, and the cats are flopped with their legs in the air, illustrating the concept of catatonia better than any medical text I've ever read.

But back to bipolar. I've been trying to fathom my twin metaphysical attractions: Soto Zen and pre-Vatican 2 High Church Roman Catholicism. Now that, on the face of it, does NOT make any sense whatsoever, does it. I mean zafu & zabuton & think non-thinking vs. the Magisterium. There's a celebrity death match not many would pay to see:

In this corner wearing the black kesa, Eihei Dogen. In that corner, wearing the red-and-gold brocade mitre, with matching fanon and mantum, Pope Benedict XVI, aka Kid Ratzinger. Gentlemen, come to the center of the ring and shake hands !

Forgive me. If there has ever been a day for an overheated imagination, today is the day.

I can't even begin the imagine the Via Media that might result from that match. But, clearly, despite my current roost in the Mother of All Via Medias, Episcopalia, my tastes run to extremes. And, yes, my cranky ones, you would be right to upbraid me for reducing such grave matters as faith and discipleship to something as louche and contingent as "taste."

I had a small enlightenment after outside church on Sunday. It was one of those delayed realizations, a mere seed of which was planted out there on the pleasant, shady, guitar-and-pigeon haunted lawn. It had nothing to do with the Eucharist which, despite being chalice bearer, I managed to miss and had to self-administer over the piscina in the sacristy, or the butterfly on the phlox that had distracted me. No, I think it actually had to do with the sermon -- the priest's depiction of the shared, communal, Eucharistic feast as not so much dependent on the trappings of church -- special wafers, a building, candles, stained glass, vestments -- but rather on on us, the people, communing.

And then retiring to the other table for cake and juice and more communing, from which double communing flow all the good fruits of mission in the world.

So, remind me: why do we need our big, expensive, gorgeous ark of a church ?

Now please remember: I am (insert the very obligatory "oddly enough") the directress of the altar guild, and a LEM, and a member of the choir. I do help bundle diapers for the diaper bank, and, when I can, participate in other feed-my-sheep activities, but it's the liturgical arena where I've found my ecclesiastic niche. So please understand that this question comes from one with a lot of affinity for the ceremonial stuff. And, as you may have noticed, not a little disaffinity for the communal stuff. De gustibus non disputandem, after all.

And, honestly, I have no answer to the question. Whatsoever. Because if the primary mission of the church is to feed God's sheep, then why are we spending so much money feeding the boilers in the basement ?

And what makes churches any more equipped for this mission than an organization driven by purely humanist values ? Surely religious institutions don't have a monopoly on honoring human dignity and working toward justice and human flourishing. One can argue that, in certain arenas of justice and human flourishing, churches are an impediment.

So why religion at all, then ? Why not simply an efficient NGO or a human services organization ?

I'll tell you why. The Mystery, that's why. The "sorrow" of "that I am" as the Cloud-of-Unknowing's author puts it. The "I am that I am" of the Old Testament. The pillars of fire and cloud. The voice out of the whirlwind at the end of Job. A Mystery so profound that the only appropriate response is prostration and silence.

That's the Mystery that drove me churchward -- the unhuman, impersonal Mystery-Beyond-Language onto which, forgive me, Christianity has grafted the scandalously particular event of Jesus. That's the Mystery that has always seemed to me to be present in the Latin Mass and all the music and art that has flowed from it. That's the Mystery of Being-Here-At-All that just sitting letting go of thought after thought -- asymptotically for all I know -- approaches.

So if my notion of God is a linguistic shorthand for this Mystery, and if my notion of Christ is of a grafted-on corrollary to the Mystery to account for humans, surely this puts me in the company of those who have been burned at the stake for less egregious heresies.

And this -- ice cubes, diet Coke and fan notwithstanding -- is a perfect day for burning.

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