Saturday, October 23, 2010

Invalid, Intrinsically Disordered, Absolutely Null and Utterly Void

My office window, high and narrow and stuck shut, looks out upon a rock ledge. Last year, as part of an major drainage project, the hospital did extensive work on the ledge, including removing some of the dwarf trees that had taken root in it. I can still recall the shock and grief I felt when I came in one morning to find the graceful, slender birch that had bisected my rocky view cut down to a stump. The loss was visceral, violent, and it took my breath away. I thought back to the snowy day when three pairs of mourning doves had sheltered under the ledge's outcrops at the foot of the tree. Their, my tree was gone.

I returned from last month's retreat with a similar sense of loss, of having been clearcut down to raw ledge. When people asked me about the retreat I have answered, "It was great. I lost my religion !" "Yeah, sure," they laugh, nervously, only half used to my hyperbole.

But the clearcutting had begun long before Spencer, and by the time I left and made my way back through the dispiriting commercial outskirts of Worcester, it was apparant that my metaphysical landscape had been clearcut down to desert, then paved over into parking lot, a perfect emblem of postmodern acedia.

Now, I have a pretty simplistic notion of religious pluralism: religions are, more or less, languages and grammars that have evolved as means of expressing and participating in matters of ultimate mystery, the big "that there is something rather than nothing" koan. Which one -- if any -- you adopt is a matter of accident of birth, or aesthetic/philosophical taste. The Dalai Lama has suggested that all can function as adequate conduits toward that Ultimate, so why not stick with one's own tradition ?

That's charming, of course; a bracing antidote to the infamous Catholic battle-cry extra ecclesiam nulla salus, softened, to be sure, by Vatican II, but currently wolfishly enjoying its new set of sheeps' clothing invested by the current Pontiff and his notion of non-Catholic denominations not even meriting the designation "church." We all know wherein that precious fullness subsists, baby, and it's not at the local Baptist prayer meeting, or amidst the gay-and-woman-priesting, open-tabling Piskies.

(Did I say I'd made my peace with Leo XIII ? I was lying.)

The politics of religion, from the sorry panoply of church history to today's ugly doctrinal confrontations, are disheartening. Religion insists that I must tolerate those who insist on excluding people from full sacramental inclusion (marriage, holy orders, episcopacy) on the grounds of gender. After all, it is their sincere religious belief, backed by centuries of doctrine and tradition ! Posit the "so was slavery" argument ? Beware, even in progressive environments. You might be called a racist neo-colonialist for suggesting that the struggle for gender equality is analogous to the civil rights movement, followed by a lecture on the exclusive sanctity of very particular tabs belonging in very particular slots and only under very particular and church-sanctioned circumstances, usually resulting in the issue of swarms of offspring.

Now who would even dare to suggest there is an "idolatry of the family" ? (Cue the angry mob with its pitchforks and torches.)

(Excuse me while I shut and lock my office door. You can't be too careful in these polarized times.)

Christianity's unique claim is that we have no access to God (to the divine, to the Incomprehensible Ground of Being) except through Christ, in all his scandalous particularity. He's God's mouthpiece, go-to-guy, celestial doorman, or, as some would have it, bouncer. He is, in fact, God ! Fully God and fully Man, with the accident of gender determining whole swaths of misogynistic metaphorically-based ecclesiology, insisting on the triphallicity of the Trinity even as it posits it as a model for human (heterosexual) marriage.

So is Christ the Way to God or a roadblock on the Way ? God, or an Idol that replaces God ?

Is organized religion a vehicle of liberation, or a barrier to liberation ?

Both and ? Neither nor ? The absolute and relative, fitting like a box and lid ? Two arrows meeting midair ?

And what of solitude and silence ? And standing, as Merton said, on one's own two feet ?

And why do I keep dreaming of the Trinity as a tri-socketed electric lamp from which one might unscrew Jesus and replace him with -- with what ? -- Elvis ? Guan Yin ? Now there's a scandalous particularity for you, and probably an official trinitarian heresy to boot.

Why do core notions such as resurrection, the second coming, intercessory prayer, a personal God, and a God who is Love all elude and exasperate me ?

And why do I -- a quintessential loner -- find myself in a religion that insists that relationship and fellowship are key to Absolutely Everything ? Am I a masochist ? Do I enjoy the experience of falling short, of sinning ? Do I enjoy beating my head against the wall of that-of-which-I-am-constitutionally-incapable ? Is my reclusiveness an official intrinsic disorder ?

This summer the birch stump on the rock ledge outside my window sprouted dozens of long, leafy, upraised arms -- still green even as fall deepens, a round cloud of shivering green proclaiming the only resurrection of the body that I can fathom.

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