Thursday, June 24, 2010

Three's A Crowd

When, in confirmation class a few years ago, the priest described the Trinity as a "perichoresis" or a dance, the image was supplanted in my imagination by that of a subatomic particle -- an unseen thing comprised of relationships, attractions and repulsions, within a quarky cloud of strangeness. And now that I've offended both the theology community and the atomic physics community, let me hasten to add that I make no claims whatsoever on behalf of my subatomic Trinity model. If there's one bloodsport I desperately wish to avoid it's online theological disputations with their attendant arrogance, smugness, self-righteousness, condescension, triumphalism and abuse. (Viz. the internet comment box as a 21st century image of Hell.)

Seduced by a fancy Greek word, Rublev's famous icon and my own sub-atomic imaginations, I came to embrace the Trinity. If we're going to talk about Something that is by definition inexpressible we need a grammar and a vocabulary of some complexity and tangentiality. It can be argued that perhaps it's best simply to stop talking, but I find myself in Episcopalia, not Zenlandia, so, for the moment, I'll keep yammering.

I realized, the other day, that I have been deeply confused about Who we talk about when we talk about God. Our church had convened a meeting to review a newly devised Mission Statement. I have lived in a world of non-religious "mission statements" and "vision statements" and, I must confess, they tend -- like all organizational and managerial language -- to make me flee as fast as I can. Screaming. As if my hair were on fire. But, since "mission" is certainly an ecclesiastic concept, I decided to cut the process some slack and attend the meeting. It was a good statement. Brief, comprehensive, solid. But, I noticed, it referenced "worshiping God" and "serving Christ in all persons."

Where, then, was the Holy Spirit, I asked, putting in a good word for the Trinity.

The answer was that the "God" referenced was the (Triune) God, and, that to mention the Spirit separately might imply that the aforementioned "God" was simply the person of Father/Creator.

Boy, was I ever confused. So I did what all good residents of Episcopalia do in moments of confusion, I whipped out my Book of Common Prayer. I turned to the Evening Prayer collects, and to my very favorite one:

O God, the life of all who live, the light of the faithful, the
strength of those who labor, and the repose of the dead: We
thank you for the blessings of the day that is past, and
humbly ask for your protection through the coming night.
Bring us in safety to the morning hours; through him who
died and rose again for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.

So there it is: addressed to "God," with final allusion to "your Son." Clearly two persons.

It was a classic case of lex orandi lex credendi -- as I had prayed, so had I believed, or at least understood. We are praying to "God the Father," aka God, through the mediator Son.

The Son who, as so many of the collects conclude, "lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever."

By now I had come full circle deep within the swirling quantum mechanics of the Trinity, the fabulous algebra of 1+1+1=1. Dark nights such as these have been known to drive people to the Unitarian Church down the road.

I was clearly in way over my head, but, then again, aren't we all ? So, as all supra-addled, Catholicophilic residents of Episcopalia do in such times, I turned to the Latin text of the Exsultet.

O vere beata nox, in qua terrenis caelestia, humanis divina junguntur !

There it was: O blessed night, wherein earth and heaven, human and divine are joined !

I had a vision of the Trinity the other day, a brief glimpse into its terrain. I was drying my hair, so maybe it was simply the product of an overheated brain not yet bathed in adequate levels of caffeine. I can't recall what train of though brought me into the Trinitarian landscape, but once I was there I knew where I was.

From all appearances it was a battlefield. The battle was over and what remained was carnage. Strewn limbs, blood, decomposition; a wasteland of trenches, craters, mud, smoke and stench under a black sky. Vultures, barbed wire. A landscape of pure wound, pure affliction, pure suffering. Of catastrophe.

That was it.

It was like being in a fragment of a lost icon of Rublev, the upper right corner, with the rest scoured to invisibility by time. I will leave its reconstruction to scholars.

And, from now on, I will leave explicating the Glorious Blessed and Undivided Holy Trinity to the theologians.

I promise.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Spy In The House Of Love

So here comes summer, the green festival of decline. It's about time. It's all about time. I turn the wheel of my iPod to "Hello darkness my old friend," and then "Losing my religion," scanning the time horizon with my spyglass for the shorter cooler days and longer nights whose anticipation must get me through the upcoming long, hot, green Dionysian Advent.

I come away from the Church History book I'm reading with the stench of smoke and rotting flesh in my nostrils. I am particularly appalled by the Reformation in England. Episcopalian, I can't help taking it personally. At least Luther and Calvin had principles. Henry VIII had a marriage problem. A power problem. A cash flow problem. And, voila -- bare ruined choirs. And Cranmer ? Father of the exquisite cadences of our beloved Common Prayer ? The doomed dude who infused Catholic Henry's political changes with iconoclastic, marauding Protestant doctrine.

Don't even get me started on the topic of Archbishops of Canterbury. I mean it.

Sweating, reeking of Off, trying to dodge the long, unctuous fingers of Rhus, I set out today down a shady, brookside path where bramble berries, touch-me-nots, milkweed, grapevine and buttercup are all coming into their glory. I stopped to listen to the sound of birdsong and falling water and distant traffic. I slipped easily out of fretfulness and into the attentiveness of photographing, of looking. I felt a deeper contentment than I had in weeks. I was home.

Mes amis, I am most weary of the hilarious sitcom of my metaphysical life. As my inner Merton whispers stability into one ear, there's another voice at the other ear urging me to plunge into the Tiber and swim for my life. But that's not all ! Listen -- there's the chorus of exasperation at all matters ecclesiastic, the Good-Old-Boys' club that elevates misogyny and homophobia to Cosmic Truth, dressing it up in fanciful vestments of foundational doctrine, and enlisting it in service of that which trumps everything: preserving the institution. And more ? Church as a stone of shame shackled around the ankle of human liberation ? Check. Theologic disputation as a testosterone-fueled blood sport ? Check. Dueling triumphalisms, each smugger than the next ? Check.

Weary, as I said. You might well point out that I am probably having my small-c catholic cake and eating it too here in Episcopalia with a woman priest, a woman Presiding Bishop, and long-overdue institutional acceptance of the fact that there is a God-given spectrum of genders and affections. But staring down the long road of church history, through contingencies and conspiracies of power, war, oppression, empire and greed, I can't help seeing a Boschian charnel ground of genocide perpetrated in God's name. And want to chuck it all -- bathwater, baby, bathtub, plumbing, everything.

For what ? A metaphysical reality not twisted into the straitjacket of Trinitarian language and grammar, or regarded through the lens of the scandalously particular historical contingency of Jesus ? But, alas, there is no Christian equivalent of "If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him." In fact, that's what got the whole Christian contraption off the ground -- we did kill Jesus -- and he dogs us now, unkillable, across the stinking, charnel landscapes we have created in his name, into eternity.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Dark, damp, thundery. The basement cul de sac of litter boxes and laundering machines is cooler than the upstairs house, and darker by dint of the U-shaped light bulbs, temperamental as prima donnas, that, more often than not, decline to ignite. The smell of detergent -- a specific type, bought in unaccustomed bulk just for its blue, sharp, soapy non-floral fragrance -- recalls my Bubbi's basement of deep stone sinks and bottles of bluing. The cul de sac is a refuge for Manny, our gentle, placid, phlegmatic Maine Coonische cat, during thunderstorms. As my Bubbi's basement was for her gentle, placid and phlegmatic husband, who would retreat to his rocker, back to the high window, and wait out the storm with a beer.

That deep little corner of the house, redolent of soap and cat piss, and shadowy as a dream, draws me in. The redolent spaces of memory are a refuge. They cast a sweet caul of darkness forward and gather me in. Or perhaps it's no so much a caul as a pall, a garment of some fear and trembling, but nonetheless a suitable and comforting shelter.

In the same manner, a childhood day returns in a mouthful of ice: deep, damp cold at the back of the nose, and suddenly I am standing, age 7 or 8, in the twilight of a winter day in a slushy street in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I have been sledding; I am cold, despite my child-immobilizing snowsuit, and yet I am reluctant to go inside. I am alone, some distance from my house, standing there in the street. I am staring into the gathering shadows as if trying to call myself home from half a century's distance. I furiously chew more ice, trying to preserve the contact; like Andersen's Little Match Girl, I am desperate to prolong my vision of hearth and safety. It was twilight, winter and cold, but half a block away was the snug little house to which I would return -- and through which, even to this day, I can imagine myself walking, room to room, conjuring the least detail: the cold of the basement floor, the rough texture of the couch, the spots on the bathroom tile, the corners of unstuck wallpaper.

Eventually, the Little Match Girl runs out of matches, and I ran out of ice. I woke to my own harsh reality: a crowded CME conference in an overly air-conditioned hotel ballroom, a speaker droning on about thrombophilias, heavily algorithmed powerpoint slides zipping past, a knot in my right thigh, an overly-cologned colleague to my left, and an over-full bladder from all the ice water I'd been guzzling to quell the nasty cough that had been precluding sleep for the past few nights. Life, as Buddha said, is suffering, a whole spectrum of suffering from little miseries to devastating afflictions, and the source of suffering is desire and attachment.

I had been trying to clutch a phantom, a dream, in a mouthful of ice; the ice melted, the ghost child faded away, the uncomfortable, coughing woman returned -- no less, despite the arguments of gravity and phlegm, a phantom than the child. I looked around the room and saw a fabulous array of doctors of every sort, from young hotshots cramming for the boards, to retired greybeards there out of an unconditional love of learning medicine.

And me ? I was starting to cram for what I'd come to realize would be my last standardized test, the internal medicine board exam that, if I pass it, will extend my board certification from 2014 to 2024.

My last standardized test. Now there's a good news/bad news proposition. I am undeniably in the time of life where everything reminds me of the inevitability of death. Those who know me will insist that I've been in that mindset since the age of 13, but this is different. I am fading, attenuating, becoming translucent. My skin is drying out and wrinkling up, my hair is like crinkly gray straw. People -- young people -- are starting to look right through me as if I were not there. Or, even worse, to look at me with that edge of infantilizing condescension and mild pity reserved for the old. Maybe I am more attuned to that nuance by having been in medicine all these years, constant witness to things like the 90 year old professor emeritus being called "cute," or the presumption of first-name-basis with or without treacly terms of endearment being taken at the first glimpse of gray hair and wrinkles.

Driving home a few weeks ago, I spotted a clutch of boys playing ball in a parking lot. I smiled at their exuberance and joyfulness. And suddenly I realized how much newer the world is for them, how unjaded they are, how unformed. How their world is different from my world. How my world is not the world of the eight year old in the snowy street in 1960, as much as it might contain that world. And my world is not the world of the 20 year old student, the 30 year old parent, the forty year old executive, and I should not be surprised when, in their gaze, I am given back to myself as alien, negligible, pathetic. It's hard to concede, "Yes, it's your turn, now," and not simultaneously feel as if I'm being crowded off the edge of the dock.

The Episcopal burial service contains the magnificent words, All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. This is the climactic cadence that begins at Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, rises through humbly I adore thee, verity unseen, and returns to the one, the tonic, the dying fall of clods on coffin.

And, as wondrous and brave as that song is, and as inseparable as it is from the message of love and community at the heart of Christianity, it is a song that cries out for a cadenza -- the queer, contradictory song of the solitary self being dismantled and given back to that from which it has never left.