Sunday, March 06, 2011

Neither Nor

Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, I went to the river with my camera. These are the final days of winter, when the only hint of spring is the lengthening light, some swollen buds, and the rarest of green shoots. The world is dessicated, fractured, withered, gone skeletal. The bike path is still mostly under snow and crisscrossed by downed trees.

It's a most congenial landscape, of course, for those of us liturgical melancholiacs who are coming out of hibernation for our yearly heyday: Lent. It's the season that allows us to revel in the dark side -- sin, grief, loss, abandonment, betrayal, shame, temptation, silence, reclusiveness, doubt -- and not seem like party-poopers. It's the season that's totally off Hallmark's radar. The long expanse of liturgical green will end Wednesday, and the ecchymotic, penitential purple will come out. The crown of thorns will take its yearly place on the altar, and the alleluias will go to ground. Lent comes late this year; daffodils will be sprouting in the midst of the gloom. I will, I am sure, wince at their untimely yellow. I always want to cling to winter, to the darkness, to Lent.

But the natural and liturgical cycles do not heed my wishes. I submit to them. What else can I do ? I return to the same river walk every year. Each year I see different things, or see the same things differently. At first, I took pictures of objects, portraits of weeds. I learned their names, their similarities and differences. As the years passed I find myself taking pictures of the light itself, drawn less to the object than to the light that bathes it.

The same thing with the liturgical year: it unspools with predictable regularity, but, each year, I come to it changed, so I experience it differently. My own churchedness has been marked by periods of weird piety alternating with periods of screaming disaffection, and by stretches of contentment and gratitude alternating with stretches of exasperation and restlessness. Lent seems like an asylum, a padded cell, a place where all these things can be interrogated and investigated in service of the heart of the matter: God.

The Infinite Ground of Being. The That There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. The Holy, the Numinous, the Terrible Ground that so overflows all covenental arks and all Trintarian containers that it is a wonder that the host does not split like an atom at the fraction and annihilate us all.

I tend to project more expectations onto Lent than a greedy child does onto Christmas, and all of them are existential, metaphysical and supremely unpractical. This year is no different, only, maybe, a bit more desperate. I have spent months in a state of high distraction. Lent says: Stop. Be still. Focus. Here, now. Pay attention to light and shadow both. It's like photography, then, a question of looking at and into, of penetrating, of considering figure and ground, object and light, the many and the one.

Lord, have mercy.

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