Thursday, September 03, 2009

Sign and Instrument

It was difficult to remain in the Boulevard Noir while vacationing in our neighbor's Cape Cod summer house. While Boston sweltered, I had two patios -- one always shady -- on which to recline and read, and a sea breeze to keep me cool. I alternated between Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and Thomas Merton's Journals. I was bovine with pleasure.

I was beyond reach of everything -- the EMR, my litterboxes, the laundry. My pet frets receded like the sea at low tide, leaving smooth, cool sand. No sharp sea wrack here. Around me was another woman's garden (the best kind) , a lovely mix of cultivars and wildflowers, and when I tired of reading, I wandered around with the D70 taking pictures.

Was I in a dream ? Would the elegant gesture of the tiger lily, when downloaded, turn out to be Greene's homeless, "rotting" crone, saying the rosary in an alley, symbol of salvation that our hero, a long-lapsed Catholic, and a tormented, amoral and murdering punk, found horrifying.

Merton wrote, "If I am not ripe now, I will never be." He was just beginning his sojourn in the hermitage. He equated ripeness with "giving everything to God." I heard an echo of Rilke: "who has no house now/ will never have one." Did I have a house ? Well, I do have a church, a parish; I do not simply sneak into a back pew late and escape in the middle of the benediction as I once thought I would, were I ever to acquire a church. And yet, like Merton did from time to time, I was feeling restless. More than that, I was feeling spiritually detached, irritable, exasperated. Nothing that even rose to a dark night of the soul. Just a dim night.

Here I was renting another woman's house and sitting in another woman's garden. A metaphor, maybe ?

The other day, as we watched the Kennedy obsequies on TV, my husband asked me a theological question. Could I explain an apparent contradiction in Christian imagery ? How did one reconcile the going to heaven to be with one's loved ones and the saints right after dying with the bodily resurrection out of the grave that was to occur at the End of Time ? So what was it, then ? An immediate trip to heaven to be with Jesus, or a long wait in the grave to be with Jesus later ?

I suddenly remembered how this very question had always baffled me growing up Congregationalist. It was one of those points of theology, like salvation by faith or works, that had confused and exasperated and ultimately alienated me from the whole Christian enterprise. I realized I hadn't given the whole post-mortem thingy a lot of thought since I'd thrown my lot in with the Episcopalians. I was probably suffering from a gravely deficient soteriology AND Christology, so I told DK I'd ask the priest.

I cornered her in the sacristy right before Mass last week. She got part way into a sophisticated and subtle disquisition on eschatology and the theology of the body when an organ crisis supervened and urgent piano moving suddenly trumped everything. Plus I'd really wanted a more primitive answer. An answer that would have satisfied a literal minded 13 year old, and that might satisfy my skeptical husband. I needed Jerry Fallwell, not Rowan Williams.

Later that night I had a brainstorm. I knew where I could find a clear, concise answer ! I ran to my bedroom and fished under the bed -- yes, there it was -- I hauled out the big, dark green satisfying heft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

(What, you don't all keep a copy of the Catechism under your beds ?)

And I was right. There was an answer. A simple answer. A brilliant answer. When you die, your soul goes to heaven and your body remains behind in the grave to be rejoined with the soul and resurrected (you can only hope!) in a purified state at the Second Coming.

I finally understood. It was understanding without faith but satisfying nonetheless, in a foolishly-consistent-hobgobliny sort of way. It was as mechanical, and reductionist as Freud's id ego and superego, but at least it was something. And there was nothing wooly about it. A thirteen year old and a skeptical husband don't need wooly answers.

But the schema would take a LOT of translation before I could sign on to it. I'd have to remember to ask for the rest of the priest's subtle disquisition.

But, frankly, I was tired of translation. Tired of subtle disquisitions. I was glad for the Sunday lectionary's recent protracted foray into John's theology of eating, of Eucharist. Loaves, fishes, body, blood, bread, wine: it made visceral sense. Embodiment. Incarnation. Bringing material into the body. It's easier to translate the feel of host on the tongue and the fume of wine in the throat than it is to fathom and expound on soul and body's complicated, pre- and post- apocalyptic transactions. You could leave out the words, and go straight to the stomach, the heart and the soul for understanding. Blood, as it flows through the body, doesn't engage in complicated, verbal dialectics. Bread as it is digested is neither verbose nor disputatious.

I like the part of the Eucharistic Visit closing prayer that calls Communion the "sign and instrument of our common life." The Eucharistic act is a sign, a complicated word, but it is also an instrument -- something that makes things happen. It binds us together into a Body of Christly significance, and we, in turn, become instrumental in ushering forth the Kingdom here on earth.

That's where salvation is rooted -- not just in the grave or in the clouds, although it is there too, somehow, subtly, wordlessly.

There's one psalm, a very short one, where the psalmist sings that he is not capable of understanding lofty theological matters, rather simply rests quietly in God like a child on its mother's breast. I've always liked that psalm. "Individual salvation" may be a "heresy" according to the Presiding Bishop's reiterated proclamation of corporate, relational salvation, of Ubuntu, but then what of the old woman in Greene's novel --

In an alley between two shops, an old woman sat upon the ground; he could just see the rotting and discoloured face: it was like the sight of damnation. Then he heard the whisper,'Blessed art thou among women,' saw the gray fingers fumbling at the beads. This was not one of the damned: he watched with horrified fascination: this was one of the saved.

So what, then, is ripeness ? And who, what, is the harvester ?

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