My face before my birth and after my death. The weeds and I, particularly in the fall, sit with this koan. They seem to be making more progress than I could ever hope to make.
I walked home from the auto mechanic's shop this morning, using the Honda's several little miseries as an excuse to absent myself from work. As I passed a long-vacant lot on downtown's outskirts, I admired the late summer, early-fall weeds: fleabane, toadflax, vetch, horseweed, evening primrose, clovers. I noticed how, even without my camera, I am alert for the strange and photogenic juxtaposition or geometry, always framing and taking through the mind's lens. I thought of these creatures' homely names --bittersweet, nightshade -- so brilliant and apt that any sensible poet would, on hearing them, lapse into humbled silence.
I have a sense, lately, of increasing dismay and exasperation, a widening gyre of it, that encompasses everything from heart to planet. If only the copula "God is love" would suffice as beautifully as is pairing of purple/green oval leaves and "nightshade." But we're aiming layers beneath all those sonic transactions, we're headed for louche arrondissements where even Derrida is not welcome. Fear and trembling ? So much faith you'll slay your child if God says so ? So much faith you'll burn at the stake rather than recant ? So much faith you'll blow yourself and whoever happens to be nearby to smithereens ?
Well, I can't argue with fear and trembling. It's our universal human legacy. It's the only sane response to existential thrownness. But beyond that, it's all hallucinating in the dark.
God is not love. Why not say that ?
I reread a book, lately, John Caputo's "On Religion." I reread it because I could not precisely remember what had made me want to throw it against a wall at the first reading. I do remember that impulse, vividly: I could not actualize it as I was sitting in a waiting room about to have a bone density test. It would have been unseemly to hurl the volume, slender as it is, across the room above the head of a woman reading a book that did not appear to agitate her as much as mine was agitating me.
I reread it with more patience, and, when I can to the end, I realized what had annoyed me: he'd deconstructed everything down to a fine powder except "God is love." That sat there, bright and smug as Baal, unscathed.
Another recent moment of great exasperation was occasioned by this, a UCC pastor snarking away about the unchurched.
The unquestioned assumption is that the only legitimate and efficacious venue for working out one's existential and metaphysical plight is in community, in a community sanctioned by Tradition and legitimized by the God Housekeeping seal of approval.
Loners need not apply. Stay self-ostracized, if you please, you and your malodorous intrinsic disorder, your reeking "great western heresy."
I happened to have my camera with me one day not so long ago at work and I couldn't help sneaking a shot of this Godvan, despite the glaring disapprobation of a woman from across the hospital parking lot. Her gaze inhibited me from capturing the other message -- the main message -- emblazoned on this remarkable vehicle: that the Roman Catholic Church was the One and Only True Church, an outrageous claim that seems to trickle back to the same Bible verse that Rev Lillian uses as epigraph to her snide devotional:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
And speaking of the Gates of Hades ? You loners ? Yes, you over there. You might want to start queueing up for the inevitable. And you -- yes you, the one with the sweater ? You won't be needing that where you're going.
I told you there was dismay and exasperation.
I read another little piece lately in which a Roman Catholic friar laments the suicide of a very young gay man, nearly a child by the evidence of the accompanying picture. The idea that God loves ALL God's children was invoked. A reader responded by pointing out that doctrine of "intrinsic disorder" (and all that flows from it) contradicts the pious sorrow that was being expressed. And another reader countered that such blame might be appropriate for "Westboro Baptist types," but certainly not for the RCC that simply issues a "universal call to holiness."
I wanted to hurl my iMac through the hole in the wall left by Caputo's book, and myself after it.
How can an organization in which child sexual abuse has flourished talk about "sexual holiness" with a straight face ?
It is a moral and theological catastrophe.
If iterations of "community" makes my hair stand on end, if the notion of "God is Love" -- metaphorically, analogically and symbolically -- sends me screaming from the room, and if the antics of denominational cousins fill me with despair and rage, then why am I still trotting off to church on Sunday ?
I thought I was losing my religion ?
Could it be, from another perspective, any of the following ?
Fear and trembling ? Wrestling with an angel ? Dark night of the soul ?
I know, I know: I am complaining about not being in Antarctica after buying a plane ticket to New York. Doesn't make much sense, does it. Lest I transmogrify into the prototypical ungrateful guest, should I simply start packing ? This parka, these mukluks just don't belong on 5th avenue.
And then there's the ever -widening gyre.
I arrived home a few weeks ago to a neighborhood clogged with news trucks: across the back fence and one house down, a multiple murder, bodies with throats slashed, circles of pain and affliction spreading everywhere.
And yesterday I opened the Globe to discover an old acquaintance and colleague -- a gentle, urbane, accomplished, compassionate and innovative physician -- was doing an all-too-familiar perp walk.
You've seen the rest of the gyre -- the silly season gearing up, and rhetoric devolving into pre-neanderthal appetitive and aggressive gestures. The public media canting ever-rightward, serving its powerful and wealthy masters. Roomsful of people cheering executions, cheering the notion of letting the uninsured die, howling against the idea of gays in the military. Executions going forth despite mountains of doubt, stock market still in freefall after the house-of-greed's collapse, the chasm between rich and poor ever-widening, jobs scarce and insecure, unemployment widespread and ongoing, healthcare in chaos and shambles, health declining, food quality abysmal, the culture at large awash in the lowest of manipulative marketing images and rhetoric, increasingly violent and sexual entertainments and diversions claiming more and more attention, bullying speech and harsh speech becoming the accepted norm, endless war, environmental degradation, waste, hatred, scapegoating, xenophobia, racism, heterosexism, fundamentalism, clericalism --
I crossed the ecclesiastic threshold looking for refuge, something counter to the widening gyre, maybe even looking for community or -- incredibly -- love.
Inside, I found another gyre, a narrowing gyre, an antivortex leading to a single point -- the cross. The point where power, greed, hatred, lovelessness and political/ecclesiastic machination had nailed a man who declined to strike back, and who forgave. Whose command was: leave everything and follow me. Who said the last and least shall be first. Who said, finally, love one another. Does plugging Jesus of Nazareth into the contraption known as the Holy Trinity validate the "God is Love" thing ? Whole volumes of theology discuss the relational loving threesome that transpires inside that contraption. Can one legitimately dissect the Trinity ? Couldn't one plug Gandhi into the Jesus hole and proceed apace ? If I can't handle the metaphor "God is Love" dare I get anywhere near the notion of Resurrection ?
And what does THIS
have to do with anything ?
My face before and after. My current face. Helix and anti-helix. Blood across the back fence.
Be kind. Speak gently. Offer. Help.
I return, as I often do, to Graham Greene's "rotting" crone, telling her rosary beads in an alley. Mornings, in the shower, I sing the Salve Regina, solemn tone, in Latin. Gementes et flentes. What does it all mean ?
Hail Mary, full of grace. I want my mother. My heart is broken, hold me, save me. Alleluia.
Lord have mercy.
Lord ? LORD ?