Monday, December 31, 2007

Back In Gear

"I've been living at 12:54 for 2 months," I said, handing my watch to the repairman. "It's time to move on."

"Ten dollars," he replied.

This was not the first year my watch battery had died right at the end of Ordinary Time. My watch repairman is at the Mall, and I simply do not DO malls in the run up to Christmas. They're bad enough during times of less feverish consumption. But at Christmastime -- beginning the day after Halloween -- they are intolerable. So it seems I've developed a de facto Advent tradition of wearing a stopped watch. Today I decided as part of year end housekeeping -- filing six months of receipts, vacuuming six months of dust from under the bed, thinning out the towering bedside book pile before it topples over and crushes me -- that I'd get a new battery.

The Mall was jammed. "How can there be so much shopping," I thought, as I pointed my car toward one of the few remaining spaces at the outer limits of the lot.

I entered the mall and looked around. It's your standard Mall, huge, a bit downscale as Malls go, a mixture of big chain stores and a host of ephemeral little businesses, and for some odd reason I did not fall immediately into my usual state of Mall Spleen. Here were my fellow humans, shopping. I was also shopping. Human enough. We need clothes and food, goods and services. We need to work and earn money, so we start businesses. How could I be deeply moved by the sight of people queuing up for the Eucharist and be filled with scorn among people at the Mall ? Today I felt no scorn; in fact what I felt was kinship and compassion. We were all in the same boat. An ark full of gaudy crap and miserable cruelty, and of unspeakable beauty and mystery.

"Fuck, I'm going to start crying in the Mall," I thought, passing a remarkably beautiful array of gumball machines. Where was my D70 when I needed it ? Even the pair of Victoria's Secret window mannequins -- decked out in snowflake undies and Santa hats, legs stretched out to full, seductive length -- seemed less tawdry than usual.

I crossed the crowded food court, redolent of pizza and fried meat, stopping to marvel at a display of athletic shoes, each more massively architectural and flamboyant than the next. They looked like miniature Sports Utility Vehicles. I looked down at the stained white canvas of my own sneakers. Men's sneakers, actually, and a little too porous for today's slush.

But, no, I wasn't going to start the old wallowing in my own squalor routine. I pushed down the familiar litany: stringy gray hair, way overdue for a cut, ratty shirt hand-me-down from my son, and two buck discount jeans scored for me by kindly Nurse Maria who knows my retail aversions -- yadda yadda yadda. I am who I am: aging, reclusive, androgynous, unworldly, strange. And yet there I was at the Mall, cheerful, relaxed, taking it all in, window shopping even.

Was this a small example of what the prayer calls thy tender mercy ?

I looked down at my wrist. It was 3:30. My watch was humming along with the world's time again.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


The Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us that there is a physics of Good and Evil. In nature, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. The moral calculus may not be exactly the same, but the vectors are identical.

The Gospel reading for the last Sunday in Ordinary Time was about the crucifixion. It came like a gut punch, deflating the eager anticipation of the time of anticipation: implicit in the birth of the most innocent and perfect, God-incarnating human was His grisly death.

Even if Herod's slaughter of the innocents is not historical, the truth of it remains untouchable. Power stops at nothing to preserve itself. It is a law of nature to which the world continually testifies. One tiny infant -- displaced, poor, born in a wretched stall -- so profoundly threatened the established order that all infants had to be slain.

Collateral damage, they say, slaughtering language itself.

We went to the movies yesterday and saw Sweeney Todd. It is a story of a man who has been cruelly victimized. His attempt to take revenge against the person who'd wronged him fails, so he generalizes his vengeance against all of mankind, killing indiscriminately and (literally) feeding human flesh to humans. Humans gleefully, ignorantly, devouring human flesh: what a terrible perversion of Eucharistic imagery.

Victimization, revenge, the generalization of revenge: another law in the physics of good and evil.

It just gets bloodier and bloodier all the time.

Is there sanctuary anywhere ?

The lust for power will have its way, even within the Church. It may be that in Christ there is neither male nor female, but in some people's conception of Church only heterosexual men need apply. Women priests ? Gay priests? A partnered gay Bishop ? As threatening to the patriarchy as a baby in a wretched pile of straw.

I went to Broadmoor Sanctuary to take pictures the other day. The snow was thawing, but there was still lots of it, and walking was difficult. Each step was a slip and slide on uneven snowpack, and, before long, I was tired and fretful with the effort it took to remain upright. The sketchy little muscle below my right scapula began to hurt, and I felt impatient and distracted.

And yet it was better here than almost anywhere. Amidst the thickets of my peevishness there was deep contentment. Turtles were sleeping under the ice of the swamp. A woodpecker flitted among the bare branches. I saw bright red berries among the beautiful, subtle colors of decay. It was the same peace I felt in the sacristy on Saturday mornings, assembling the vessels and linens.

What right did I have to such peace and contentment ? Bilious me, vessel of little forgiveness and large resentments, perpetual font of anger and sarcasm, hardhearted recluse and misanthrope ?

It was mine by grace, not merit. A proof of mercy.

I took the Green Line into Boston a few weeks ago. The train stopped and I watched as a tall man got out. He was about my age, unsteady on his feet, unshaven, wretchedly dressed. Homeless and drunk, probably. I thought, Crazy, maybe. I watched him through the window as he stood on the platform and looked around.

A few feet from him stood a young woman, tall, shapely, stylish, even elegant -- long hair, short skirt, expensive-looking leather boots. He staggered closer to her. She backed away. He came closer still and, speaking, put out a hand. Touched her shoulder, just a tap, not a grab. She pulled away, but he persisted.

I felt her discomfort and fear, then suddenly the vector of my empathy shifted: I was inside the man, inside a drunken, wounded, desperate, lonely man, reaching out from a hopeless, reeling fog of abandonment and need. The subway door slammed shut and the train pulled away.

Innocence. Sin. Repentance. Forgiveness. Mercy. Grace. I was slipping all over these surface of these things.

Could I empathize with Herod ? Or forgive him ? What does empathy have to do with forgiveness ? And what about justice ? Not just criminal justice, but distributive justice ?

On this day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, de profundus clamavi ad te, Domine --

We have denied your goodness in each other
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us
the evil we have done
and the evil done on our behalf

Lord, hear our prayer.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


I was not like that child, the sullen one,
who stumbled in a trackless wilderness
until the cold, swift, sweet and tickling fall
of darkness that immersed one flailing hand
(as fingers spelled upon her other palm)
was born again as water.

I navigated treacheries of text --
icebergs of consonants, and vortex vowels --
and wrecked upon the high, white margin, lost,
with little salvaged -- Christ, redemption, love,
forgiveness, grace
-- a pile of polished stones
that rattled when I shook them in my hand
and hurt my famished teeth. What good are these,
too few for S.O.S., or for a hut,
inedible and unredeemable
for cash or credit ? I should throw them back !

But cold, swift, sweet, indelible water
had washed me once, once and for All, for Good.
And now it flooded back, unspelled from stone,
to work its miracle of silent dark,
of fragrance, movement, savor and caress,
and drown me in the trackless sea of God.

12.22.07 Winter Solstice

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Yesterday's fierce wind might as well have been Advent itself arriving, sweeping away the dregs of ordinary time and ushering in today's icy, dark calm.

I stood in the yard, taking a break from raking up the last of the leaves before tonight's promised snow. Even at 3 pm I could feel the pressure of impending evening. It was cold, a damp penetrating cold. Across the street, a string of white lights gleamed from a small pine. I stopped and looked up. The trees were absolutely bare, skeletally bare, against the dark gray sky. Any delusion that the warm, wet fall had conferred some extra life on them vanished. And the kinks in my back and neck were reminding me of the skeleton off which my own all-too-decidual flesh will someday fall. What is that by-the-graveyard tune we sometimes find ourselves whistling ?

Winter will not come this year,
and I will never die !

Today's recessional hymn was as dark as the lowering afternoon. Its minor, vaguely martial cadences came floating back intermittantly as I raked.

Signs of endings all around us,
darkness, death, and winter days,
shroud our lives in fear and sadness,
numbing mouths that long to praise.

This is the mode of Advent, the mode of life on earth. We are small, and the world is dark and cold. Whatever lights may flicker in the distance seem always on the verge of being swamped.

I am thankful for the cyclic church year, for the chance to relive the spiritual trajectory from darkness to light, from emptiness to fullness, from longing to arrival. In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Yes, maybe I had cleared 40 bags of leaves out of our yard, but inside, lately, I was alternating between a tangled wilderness and a trackless desert. Frets and anxieties, anger and resentment, preoccupations and distractions, profanity, impatience, dissatisfaction, exhaustion, apathy -- the howling, infantile self alternating between cries of "I want I want I want !" and "No ! No ! No !" I was a microcosm of all the world's bleakness and violence.

I stood in the darkening afternoon, my work done, still breathing heavily from my exertions. The air was cold, winter was on the way with all its attendant discomforts and hassles. I felt a strange peace. A small clearing in my inner thicket had opened up. For the briefest moment I faced the oncoming cold and darkness -- winter, death, everything -- with equanimity.

It was a brief, shocking taste of mercy.

Come, O Christ, and dwell among us!
Hear our cries, come set us free.
Give us hope and faith and gladness.
Show us what there yet can be.