Sunday, May 16, 2004

Transcendental Etude IV

The acolyte, a sturdy, blond crewcut boy of about 14, stood in front of the sparsely filled pews and said Look around. There is room for more here. What is the solution ? We must evangelize.

She cringed at the "E" word, associating it with well-fed, over-confident Republicans, and empty eyed doorstep proselytizers asking, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior ?" The last time she'd attended church with any intentional regularity was when she was the boy's age. Her parents had long lapsed, so she'd walked the quarter mile to West Parish each Sunday, Bible in hand, avid for something she could not even articulate to herself. Salvation, resurrection, the Kingdom, the second coming -- it had all seemed impossibly complex and implausible. So she gave up.

It had taken nearly forty years -- a Biblically resonant number -- to get her back inside a church. And then only to perch skittishly on the edge of a side pew, burning with self-consciousness. And things weren't looking good. First, the bishops of this particular denomination had declared they could not permit its priests to solemnize gay marriage, putting the unity of the Church before all else. And now the "E" word. What was she doing there ?

Stay with your own tradition, the wise and kindly Teacher had advised.

But how ? she'd fired back in her imagination, It's so theistic and mediated ! After all, she'd spent her desert time investigating texts and practices that promised experience of the One, the Absolute, and that meticulously deconstructed the illusory and unsatisfactory nature of the phenomenal world. How could she possibly cope with a Trinity ? The old image of the fish on a bicycle kept occurring to her.

The wise and kindly Teacher probably smiled.

On the other hand, even the sparest of the systems she'd admired was rife with ritual and structure: robes, chants, ceremonies, refuges, lineages.

Maybe, she thought , all religions are simply languages, different ways of articulating -- expressing, participating in -- the mystery of being. Christ is, after all, the Word. The Logos. Spoken out of the divine fullness.

She'd tried to explain Christ to her skeptical and dismissive spouse, lapsed from a very different tradition.

Look at Christ as the incarnation -- God taking on suffering flesh -- what a symbol of love and compassion ! -- Christ is the living emblem of how we all participate in the Godhead --

Well, yes, but how many Christians actually see it that way ? Don't they simply want a way not to die ?

He'd be appalled if he knew where she'd snuck off to these past few Sunday mornings. She could hear him now. Church ? You're kidding, right ? Why ?

A very good question, dearest. Why, indeed.

In the resonating wake of the "E" word, she squirmed on the hard pew. She'd awakened that morning hung over with anxiety from the preceeding day. Mundane stuff, nothing mystical or ontological. Worries about her son and husband. About work. Old and new guilts. Her shortcomings: her hardheart. Her irrational resentments. Her selfishness. Her isolation. Her peevishness and childishness. Things she'd dismissed as mental constructs, devoid of intrinsic being. She'd brought it all with her to the dark, chilly sanctuary, and, once again, the morning had darkened, and the rain fell.

Then it struck her. She'd been playing a role. Telling herself a story. She was playing the spiritually sophisticated intellectual condescending to her own tradition. Who could teach those evangelizing, I (heart) Jesusing Christians a thing or two. What arrogance ! She felt ashamed. She sat there humbled in her brokenness, her lostness. She was the pilgrim, the petitioner, the wandering child.

Later, at the church door, the Priest remembered her. She identified herself a little: a visitor, from another denomination. Welcome, he said. Take your time. When you're ready, feel free to call with questions. Come as often as you need to. Find quiet here.

She thanked him, and slipped out into the rain.

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