Saturday, September 04, 2004

Transcendental Etude XIII

Who has no house now will never build one
Who is alone now will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly up and down
the tree lined streets, when the leaves are drifting.

-- from Rilke, "Autumn Day"

It was Sunday morning, that time of the week when the unchurched feel their unchurchedness most acutely. Overnight a chilly wind and clouds had moved in, making explicit what the palpably shorter days had already implied. Autumn was fast approaching. She thought of Rilke's poem, "Autumn Day," and the lines that had always moved and unsettled her. Who has no house now...

House of worship, house of God. She was, and would always be, she'd come to realize, spiritually homeless. Churchless. Pushing her shopping cart overflowing with religious miscellania along the river path. Zafu, rosary, Book of Common Prayer, breviary, Shobogenzo, Catechism, plus an Anglican to Zen list of the local shelters where she was welcome, she knew, to come in from the cold.

There was a word for it. Corporate worship. It was pretty central to the whole Christian project. The Eucharist, after all, represented an assimilation into the Body of Christ. The creeds pledged one explicitly to church, a holy apostolic one no less. And in Buddhism sangha, or community, was, along with Buddha and dharma, one of three official spaces of refuge. She suspected she could not just choose two out of three, thank you, any more than she would be allowed to whittle the Trinity down to Father and Holy Spirit.

She knew she was setting herself up for accusations of spiritual pride, or for a scornful dismissal as just another fickle spiritual consumer, flitting from tradition to tradition in search of the coolest new age accessory, or the latest short cut to the Kingdom of Heaven or anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

But she wasn't even aware of being particularly interested in salvation or enlightenment. She certainly felt, though, as if she were on a pilgrimage. What was she wandering toward, then ? Can there be a pilgrimage without a set destination or goal ? Maybe search was a better word, although it made her cringe a little, as did much religious vocabulary. She didn't think she could utter the phrase I am a seeker with a straight face. And, again, what was she seeking ? There was no specific answer to that, nor was there any one specific question she was asking.

It was more like, how does one comprehend and live within the basic Mystery of being here at all ?

Plus, she was a loner. A serious, confirmed, card-carrying loner. The landscape between the twin hermitages of womb and grave was fraught with danger. Loud, hungry crowds. The rabble, babbling. Shoving each other aside to get at the goods. Competing. Competing for everything -- stuff, space, prestige, entertainment. She knew her Darwin. Survival of the fittest. She was unfit for the fray. It went against her grain. And, as much as possible, she had fled the arena.

But certainly church would be a refuge from that roiling appetitive world. Was her alienation so profound that even church, even a hall filled with silent rows of meditators repelled her ? Church had this moment now, she'd learned, when everyone is instructed to turn and greet their neighbor. Oh great, she thought. Now I have to shake the hand of and look into the shining eyes of a confirmed believer, someone who has no problems with saying I have accepted Christ as my personal savior and who will immediately recognize me as the confused and insincere poseur that I am. With a look of scorn and horror, or, worse, pity.

Why can't they just leave us loners alone ?

Or, absent that, make a few paltry accommodations for us ? It's the way we are, after all. It's written in our brains and neurohumors. There are laws that address access for the differently abled. There are sidewalk ramps, braille on ATMs -- why can't there be a church for the unchurchable ?

She sighed. It had come down to this. A destinationless pilgrimage. Aimless wandering. It was where she had started and it was where she was. By definition, in fact. Which could also be, she realized, the definition of being lost . Was she so lost she was unaware of being lost ? She had to admit that it could be so. Or maybe there was no such thing as lost, she was simply where she was. And where was that ?

Unchurched, alone, reading, writing, wandering through the cold streets' leaf drift -- the poem pretty much described where she was. She imagined an unspoken, unofficial sangha of churchless hermits. There was a certain comfort in that thought. A slight moderation in what she had to admit was deep, spiritual lonliness.

Looking out the window of our hermitages, we see the faint light of each others' lamps through the trees.

Meeting on the path, we recognize one other instantly, nod slightly, and move on.

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