Friday, July 23, 2010


We're going North today, to the White Mountains. Back in the day, in marriage #1 to Outdoorsman, it was a favorite haunt. Outdoorsman and I were spectacularly ill-suited to one another, but I am grateful to him for the camping trips and the mountain hikes we took. I can recall the smell of campfire, and the splendour of the Milky Way seen without interfering lights, and, today, thinking about my first trip North in decades, I remembered a photo Outdoorsman took of me on the Kankamangus highway in 1980 1 week before I gave birth to my son. So I looked for it.

There it was, right in the middle of a splendid collection of Photos Of The Dead -- Mom, less than half my current age, spooning babyfood into me.

Mom, Grandpa, Bubbi, Auntie Sophie and Uncle Peter (as always) behind the camera, with crewcut Dad (belying his current below-the-shoulders ponytail) my baby brother and my pre-vegan child self about to demolish yet another Thanksgiving turkey.

As in the photographs, the living and the dead coexist. I found a perceptive little piece on the internet about age and church -- an answer to the quibble that greybeards like solemn, dull, "dead" liturgy and young 'uns like cool, happenin' & lively God Stuff. The writer points out that these subdued elders likely have dying on their minds -- some actually read the obituaries ! Everyday ! (Disclaimer: I have done this since my late 20's) I was grateful to find this piece, as, weekly, the average age of our congregation seems to be plummeting, and the sermons increasingly feature toddler&infant-rearing anecdotes, and even the weekly newsletter revels in the energy and missional accomplishments of the youth and young adults.

That's lovely, it's what keeps churches alive, this multi-generational-as-a-family thing, but I find myself driving around with the service leaflet from M's (85) and Mrs. B's (94) recent funerals tucked into the slot in my car door beside me, and the line from the last of Samuel Barber's hermit songs, "The Desire for Hermitage" running though my head : a lovely little corner among tombs/ far from the houses of the great."

So I'm off to the ancient, haunted mountains.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Outer Darkness My Old Friend

This is the month in which, every two years, the Daily Office presents readings from the book of Joshua, including such fodder for Lectio Divina as "Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and asses with the edge of the sword," the "they" being the Israelites, and the Commander-in-Chief for said genocide being God.

This is when baby, bathwater, bathtub, bathroom, and whole-house-that-contains-it is in serious risk of getting jettisoned en bloc.

Then, much to my relief, along came the Outer Darkness. The Gospel of Matthew refers three times to the Outer Darkness, and those who get banished to it. One exile was the dude who didn't meet the dress code at the Wedding Banquet. This week, it was the servant who, entrusted with single talent from his traveling master, buried it in the garden, unlike his already-more-lavishly-endowed cohorts who received larger sums and invested them. When the Master returned, he was pleased at the capitalist initiatives of his well heeled servants, and full of wrath at the servant who, knowing that the master liked to "reap where (he) did not sow," returned only the single coin entrusted to him.

"For to everyone who has, will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. So cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."

And women, I hasten to add. Women ? You've heard of them ? That gender, the ordination of which, in some circles, is now an ecclesiatic crime on a level with molesting children ? Yes, them.

I confess. I love the outer darkness.

I have been in one of my religious fits-of-pique this week. The week has not been without illumination, however. I was reading an article on the web after work, on the National Catholic Reporter site, when suddenly a chunk of malware sluiced into my computer, something claiming to be antivirus software in the process of detecting multiple lethal viruses. It didn't look like anything I'd ever seen on my computer, so I hastened to summon the lads from IS. I love the lads from IS. Many of them are named Jason. They are uniformly cheerful, patient and helpful. I have them on speed dial. I picture them in some vast hall in the hospital basement, a dark room lined with throbbing mainframes and huge glowing maps, resembling a hybrid of the war chamber from Strangelove and the NASA launch room.

I watched as Jason logged into my machine remotely, downloaded something called "Malwarebytes" and began the disinfection. By morning, said Jason, if things went as planned, all would be well. If not, they would "give me a new computer."

Wow. This was serious. I thought about the irony of getting something so malicious and possibly fatal from a Catholic website. Then it struck me that I could turn the occurrance to good use, as in subversive parables.

So I have this thing, see, where every day or so I get this impulse to swim the Tiber. It's predictable and comical. Hilarious, even. It's like falling in love: I gaze at my paramour, enthralled, besmitten by his pulchritude, besotted with adoration, imagining nuptials and honeymoons and wedded bliss. I sigh and swoon wade into the muddy river fully dressed --

And then My Beloved turns to me and opens his mouth.

"Scandal," he hisses. "Divorcee ! Adulteress ! Woman ! Rejector of the Blessed Gender Binary ! Former practitioner of birth control ! Protestant ! EPISCOPALIAN !! Get back to your ecclesiastic community, with its invalid sacraments and invalidly-ordained priests, some of whom, being women and ordained, are saved from graviora delicta as bad as clerical child-rape, only by the invalidity of their ordinations !"

So I decided to look upon my Tiberophilia as a piece of unfortunate malware. (Thanks a bunch, Thomas Merton.) Unfortunately, I think the requisite disinfection is beyond Jason's skill set.

As I was saying, I love the Outer Darkness. Those who haven't been here don't realize that it's not all weeping and gnashing of teeth, although there is some of that, of course, because that's what we outer darklings do. We anguish. We fall short. We try our best, but the "Jesus is my personal savior" thing is as beyond us as the "ubuntu" thing -- the community, the relationship, the congregating, the hospitality, that is the whole, exclusive heart of the Christian Churchgoing project, not to mention of the Holy Trinity itself.

We are, IOW, fucked. Like Cain whose vegetable offering pissed off Dieu Carnivore. Like the ill-dressed wedding guest. Like the worthless servant.

Hello, Darkness.

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.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Fugue State

I sit here sweating at the unsavory confluence of a patriotic holiday and a heat wave; the rattly fan, more noise than cool, is drowning out Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D-minor.

We had church on the lawn this morning, and it was lovely. Needless to say, I'd been skeptical, being of a mind that church isn't church unless it's in a ruined cathedral in which it is snowing. As a large black butterfly fluttered around a fat pink phlox and bees wove in and out of the Russian lavender, the priest gave her sermon, beginning, oddly enough, with an allusion to Buddha's flower sermon -- his wordless transmission to Mahakasyapa by holding up a single blossom.

She preached on today's Old Testament reading, the story of Naaman the leper. He was as much of a skeptic as me -- how can a simple bath in an ordinary river be curative ? Where were the prophetic bells and whistles ? The organ toccatas, the stained glass ? And where the hell was the prophet, by the way, with his secret incantations and fabulous vestments ?

It was pleasant, but I was gloomy nonetheless. The allusion to Buddha had tapped into my current existential emergency. I'd been muttering under my breath for days that the Dalai Lama was wrong: one's "own tradition" does not necessarily suffice, at least without mindbending and exhausting calisthenics of translation.

And here we were out on the lawn, sharing bread (baked, not wafers) and wine. What more did we need ? Behind us was another table, fruit, juice, cakes -- it was a moveable feast, table fellowship to the nth degree, moms and dads, babies on the grass, lawn chairs, laughter -- you can see where your gloomy, graybeard, eremetic host is going with this, right ?

I sat there on the lawn, and gazed at the garden. You would think that a weed photographer like myself would groove on outside church. I was, after all, in my element. But was I ? Pigeons flitted in and out of the space behind the stone Christ above the church door. Their wings snapped and thudded in the cool morning air.

I had a brief vision of an impending baptism-by-pigeon shit: this is my daughter, with whom I am ill-pleased. The outsider, the stranger, the black sheep at the back of the herd, not quite lost, but not really found.

Resurrection ? Soul ? Eschaton ? Atonement ? Mercy ? Revelation ? Prayer ? Fully God and fully human ? Mission ? Faith ? Works ?The holy contraption wobbles, like a stool with too many legs. Plus, wasn't the point of it -- so evident in today's double feast on the grass -- the happy, generous, easy communitas that is so absolutely foreign to me ?

There is no salvation outside of community; the answer to all Mystery is in relationship, viz. the Trinity.

An appartition in a black beret crouched behind me. He stunk of tweed and Gauloises as he whispered something into my ear.

Mauvais foi ! he hissed.

It's better than nothing, I hissed back, sotto voce.

But maybe not.