Wednesday, February 02, 2011


These days, these harsh and snow-heaped brilliant days, I think often of the Biblical dyad: heart of stone, heart of flesh. There's a rock in my chest, the size of a heart, the size of a fist. A cold and petrified thing, like a clump of tar that the snowshovel dislodges, then cracks in two. I've been picking a fight with everything -- with sleep and with waking, with belief and with unbelief, with fasting and with feasting. I am a walking venial sin, blacklisted by the center for attitude readjustment, a major league existential buffoon. A spiritual George Babbitt. I have a chip on my shoulder the size of the King James Bible.

The thermometer hit 32 last Saturday, so I drove to the river. I'd spent the morning hacking out encroaching driveway snowbanks and had worked up an armor of sweat and body heat with which to face the arctic landscape. The grocery parking lot that abuts the riverwalk was thronged with gulls and waterfowl. They swarmed my car, like extras in a George Romero movie.

I peered back at the goose that was peering in at me a few inches from the car window. It wanted something from me.

Oh, all right, I muttered, trudging across the parking lot to the grocery.

When I returned with a bag of cracked corn and three loaves of cheap bread the mob was still there. I threw the bread into the car, tore open the bag of corn and began hurling it about. The air filled with bodies, with thudding wings; the birds -- mallards, Canada geese and gulls -- were thronging for the food, but not fighting.

I headed down the small path to the footbridge, little more than a narrow culvert of footprints, scattering corn on the packed snow behind me. The path quickly filled with birds, a whole river of them, truly a remarkable sight.

What could I ever know of their experience ?

I'd been duking it out with anthropomorphism for weeks, mainly in a religious context, and here I was about to succumb to it in the world of ornithology. Sure, a goose gets hungry, seems to know that a human can provide food, wants to mate, protects its progeny, manifests fear and aggression, feels pain and, presumably, pleasure, so there's some common ground, at least. It sees and hears and walks around, and so do I. But beyond that, I can't presume to fathom goosiness. Or cathood, for that matter, despite the shameless, doting anthropomorphizing we regularly shower upon our 5 kitties.

Take God, then, AKA the Infinite, Unfathomable Ground of Being. Religion regularly attributes human characteristics to That Which Passeth All Understanding. God is a dude, a Father in fact. God "loves" us. God "listens" to our prayers and "answers" them. God "forgives" our sins, or not. HE loves, listens, answers, and forgives (or not), and is extraordinarily, pruriently, obsessively interested in the specifics of our sex lives. God (he !) even made us in HIS image, and, finally, sent His "only begotten Son" to redeem our fallenness by his crucifixion and then to be subsumed into the Godhead to function, for eternity, as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation."

It's understandable, I suppose. If God, by definition, passes all understanding, we must make do with the imperfect tools of language, symbol and metaphor in our discourse concerning God. Tools that quickly devolve into idols, cherished for themselves and not for what they imperfectly describe.

We docs have a slogan, primum non nocere: first off, do no harm. (We, not unlike certain religious types, love to break into Latin when we mount our high horses -- or, more devoutly put, ascend to the altitudo equinus.) And what about the Church -- the vast swaths of it that hew religiously to the guy thing ?

Well, if you're a dude, you're golden. Every last sacrament is yours for the asking; the images mirror back your face, the pronouns are all familiar, and even the Big Guy Upstairs is, well, a Guy.

And the rest of us ? People denied full participation in sacraments -- marriage, ordination -- because of gender ? People vilified, ostracized, abused for the same Aristotelian accident ? Justice denied or deferred because of concerns that an institution must save face ?

Subordinate. Scandalous. Invalid. Intrinsically disordered. Absolutely null and utterly void.

There's an Old Testament story that shocked me when it appeared one Sunday in the lectionary a few years back. The Ark of the covenant (containing God) is being transported on a cart over a bumpy road. A man, Uzzah, reaches out to steady it, touches it, and is instantly slain. Troubled, I confronted the priest about it; it was summertime, and there was a supply priest filling in, a man a bit older than me. I felt that Uzzah had been treated unfairly. What was the point of the story ? He patiently explained the obvious point -- God is infinite in all attributes, including power. You don't mess with the Big Guy. It's dangerous.

But now that God has been compressed into Jesus, messing with the Big Guy is easier, easy as handling a voodoo doll. It's totally hands-on, now; we grab his robe, imploring him to heal us. We plop our babies into his lap for a photo op. We wear emblems of his death by torture in our earlobes and around our necks. We forge his name on our murderous petitions -- hang them ! anathema sit ! -- and get away with it. We croon He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am His own. We have domesticated God; we smear our Ark with filthy handprints, and the repercussions are elsewhere, far away from our songs and festivals, concealed within broken hearts and broken bodies.

Sometimes I feel that the only appropriate stance before God is silence and prostration.

When I get this way, which is often, it is good to take to the woods. The woods cut me down to size. They put me in my place in a way that has nothing to do with Biblical or dogmatic constructions of gender. They encourage me to dispense with antediluvian constructs such as a "soul" that somehow exists apart from a body, apart from a life, something that gets injected fully formed into a conceptus like creme into a Twinkie, and that somehow survives to await the Eschaton when it will happily reunite with its yellow, tubular cake. They argue persuasively against the overly parsimonious and scandalously particular Chalcedonian full-humanity-and-full-Divinity restricted to Jesus, and for indwelling divinity everywhere --

in January buds already swelling against an icy sky

in the waxy yellow midwinter flowers of witch hazel

in snowcapped evergreens

and a threadbare maple leaf waving in the wind.

Humans are not the measure of all things. We are the ones with the rulers, yes, with the eyes and the cameras and the languages. And that makes us cocky. Very, very cocky.

I was cold. The snow had filled my boots, and the path had petered out into random bootprints. I turned back.

I waded through the bird mob toward my car. It had been good to be outdoors. The chip on my shoulder was smaller, and I'd begun to sort things out. I sat in my car tearing up three loaves of cheap, soft, white bread. There was no sharp, unnerving crack like the host at the fraction, no sound at all, in fact --

just the mild, pleasant odor of supermarket bread, and the restless shuffling of hundreds of webbed feet beyond the windshield.