Saturday, March 15, 2008
A few weeks ago, in the sacristy after Tuesday Eucharist, the priest commissioned me. It was an Altar Guild commission, she said.
I snapped to attention. Being in the altar guild has brought out a military streak in me that I never knew I had. I stifled the fleeting urge to salute and listened.
It was a more concrete commission than the one she'd given me at my confirmation 10 months ago, Saint Francis' famous words about sowing love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy. I've been spending Lent realizing how far I fall from that commission. On a daily -- hourly -- basis. My Lenten desert has not been a holy, apophatic encounter with God. Rather, it has been a bushwhacking through the inner wasteland wilderness of all that separates me from God: distraction, irritability, selfishness, anger, resentment, pride, anxiety, grandiosity, laziness. So I was pleased to have been given a new task. One I had a ghost of a chance at fulfilling.
She pointed at a tall shelf where the hand-made, rough cross we'd reverenced at last year's Good Friday service lay beneath some bags of Advent bows: two sticks lashed together with green twine. Would I, during one of my photographic treks through the woods, obtain some larger branches for a more substantial cross ?
I knew right away where I would go: the town conservation land that had once been the grounds of a mental asylum. It's a place haunted by affliction. At its heart is a little cemetary with rows of small, numbered headstones: the nameless dead.
It was a bright, windy afternoon, not too cold, when I set out to perform my commission. The snow on the wide carriage path was melting. I walked, scanning the pathside slopes and banks for suitable branches. I marshalled a different type of attentiveness than my usual photographic one, goal oriented, not free floating. I was looking for something. For wood suitable for a crucifixion. It was, I reflected, a horrible task, redolent of a louche complicity. Like the owner of a gun factory. Or the manufacturer of Zyklon B.
It was perfect, given my Lenten mindset. I remembered my first Good Friday service, last year's, and the collective reading of the Passion from John's gospel. "Crucify him !" we cried in chorus from the pews. My commission was the wood and nails of that cry. As I walked, I extracted long twigs from the snowy underbrush, some so rotten they crumbled in my hands, others frozen to the mud. I propped the possible candidates against trees and rocks to retrieve on my return. I felt it keenly: each moment of my uncompassion and anger, each sarcastic rejoinder, each kindness with-held was a participation in the crucifixion of Christ.
Soon I was deep in the woods. The sun was low, and I decided to head back. After walking for a while, I realized I was lost. There had been a few forks in the road, and it was clear I'd taken a wrong turn. Nothing was familiar. I'd have to retrace my steps. I stopped and looked around. I was annoyed. I adjusted the two branches I was carrying and my camera. The dicey little muscle beneath my left scapula was beginning to burn. The afternoon was waning, Monday was looming over the horizon -- even over the horizon of Sunday ! -- and I had a list of things I had to do. It was a familiar mindset: distracted, resentful, selfish, anxious. I was everywhere but at the task at hand.
I turned and looked around. Fifty paces ahead of me was a small stream and a wooden footbridge. Intrigued, I headed toward it. But before I could reach the bridge something else caught my eye: there, propped against a tree, was the perfect branch: sturdy, straight, about six feet tall, still wearing a full coat of bark, it looked as if it had been pruned from a tree and left there expressly for me. I looked around again. Were other altar guild footsoldiers prowling the woods for liturgical branches ? I didn't want to be some kind of ecclesiatic poacher. A woman with ski-poles and an irish setter glided past, peering suspiciously at the branch wielding lunatic by the bridge. I hefted the big branch and set out after her.
It wasn't hard to find my way back and to spot some landmarks that assured me I was on the right path, including the half dozen or so branches I'd left propped against trees to gather up on my return trip. As I walked, the branches grew increasingly heavy and awkward. I was tempted to leave some of them behind, but I wanted to make sure I had some options for the crosspiece. Plus, I thought -- inevitably, to be sure -- that this could be another part of my little one-woman Passion Play. First I was part of the crucifying crowd, now I was Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, a far juicier role. I had better not flub it.
There were stage directions straight from the Playwright:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
To deny oneself. I was weighted down, not with a bundle of fallen branches, but with a heavy conviction of the inevitability of sin. As often as I tell myself to stop being angry or judgmental or selfish, still there I was: being angry and judgmental and selfish. I thought of Saint Paul's words:
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
At out Lenten adult education class we had been discussing prayer. I was lamenting all the inner detritus that separated me from God, lamenting how impossible it felt to clear all that out to let God's light in. Not impossible, Rev. S. had replied. Through Jesus Christ.
By then she had moved on to something else. I felt as if a Zen Roshi had given me a koan. What kind of Christian was I if her answer wasn't intuitively clear ? I was the kind of Christian, I guess, that was always forgetting about Jesus, always pushing Jesus back into some miasmic, undifferentiated Trinitarian Godhead.
And then there was the matter of repentance and forgiveness. I understood repentence. I was sorry about my sorry self. I rued my sins. My omissions, commissions. I was happy that I could say the confession twice daily in the daily office. But what is forgiveness ? Divine forgiveness, no less.
Could repentance have something to do with the "deny oneself" prescription ? And was "denying oneself" simply the act -- the patient, repetitive act -- of letting go of each dark impulse as it arises, a mental act familiar enough from meditation practice. And repentence, then, becomes the awareness of sin, the awareness of not having let go of the dark stuff, of having embraced, and acted on the dark stuff, and a return to letting it go.
Is awareness the repentance ? Is it the gracious, divine forgiveness ? Or is it both, mysteriously coupled ? Does repentence arise in tandem with forgiveness, a single movement ?
As I slogged toward the parking lot, I realized I'd left the path. I could see the flat clearing through the trees, but I was in a snowy thicket crisscrossed by tangled thorny bushes. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. My armful of branches was snagging left and right on a welter of aggressive rosa multiflora twigs. The thorns were catching on my jacket and hat and cheek. I ducked and dodged and bushwhacked through to the woods' edge and realized with a sinking feeling that I'd veered off the path long before the parking lot. I put armful of wood down and stared out at a snowy meadow. A meadow, a bog and a field lay between me and my car. It was that, or back to the flesh eating rosa multiflora.
I turned back toward the woods. I hadn't noticed the small, sparkling tongue of water just beyond the trees. Brilliant green floating plants lined its edge surrounding a whole colony of royal purple skunk cabbages.
There was Lenten purple and the promise of resurrection in the same botanical breath. Delighted, I rushed forward with my camera and squatted in the shallow water. The sight of these fleshy things emerging in mid to late winter never failed to thrill me. It's easy to experience God in a bog, I reflected as I finished photographing and headed toward the meadow. A lot easier than in society. I thought back on my long approach to the Church. How I once scorned Christ because, unlike God, he could not be discovered in or intuited from an experience of nature. Well, Duh, I thought, picking up my pile of wood and heading out across the field. A God that does not address the particular vicissitudes of broken, suffering, sinful humanity is incomplete.
Lent was almost over. Every year I get used to winter, the spareness and cold, the pared down abstractness of it all, its invitation to introspection and reclusiveness. I develop an absurd dread of spring, of burgeoning, gregarious spring. Same with Lent, it seems. I have grown used to the flowerless altar, the dour, alleluia-less hymns, the sorrow. John Berryman wrote, of Autumn, "I could live in a world of Fall." Well, I could live in a world of Lent. But Holy week is upon us. The palm fronds lie in their basket in the sacristy and, in green fans as big as sails, adorn both altars. The vestments are red, blood red. The awful drama is about to unfold: passion, suffering, resurrection. Events beside which questions about repentance and forgiveness pale.
I slogged up a small slope. I was tired. The meadow and bog were behind me and a broad lawn separated me from my car.
Deny myself, take up the cross -- the cross of my inbred shyness, cynicism and misanthropy -- and follow Christ.
It had not been such a simple commission after all.