Saturday, March 26, 2011

Unholy Ghost

I looked up from my work late Friday after the dust of an excruciatingly busy and exasperating day had settled and I thought: I have become a ghost. It was a startling thought, clear, discrete, hallucinatorily delivered, like the first thing glimpsed when surfacing from a near-drowning.

I stared at the bright yellow cable connecting my laptop to the mainframe computer. It hadn't prevented my computer's daily afternoon meltdown, and it hadn't prevented mine. It was not something in the wireless aether that was amiss, it was in the hardware, its and mine.

It's hard to shake off a mood like this. It pervades everything. The world shrinks to a glimpsed-from-the-bottom-of-the-well scrap of sky, and, even worse, a sky that (the hallucinatory voice is swift to point out) is not for you. For weeks I've been carrying around my variant of the to do list: the to-dread list, replete with items that most people would find innocuous, humdrum or even exciting and pleasant. What did I want ? Dark, quiet, empty room, and plenty of it, thank you.

When I'm like this, everything rankles. The smell of lunches being microwaved in the staff lounge becomes the stench of burning flesh. A whiff of perfume or cologne from a patient or coworker sends me fumbling for a gas mask. The pop-tune spewing radio down the corridor transmogrifies into a monstrously subwoofered Big Radio blaring music expressly designed to break me, to extract a sobbing confession of the depths of my misanthropy and alienation.

Sometimes, like with the wonky laptop, you just have to shut down and reboot. No length of yellow cable, no amount of coffee will suffice. Just sleep. And not just sleep, enough sleep. Sleep on my own terms.

Which was not to be this morning, as I'd signed up for a CME lecture at 7 am. It was ostensibly in my home town, but in one of those exurban corporate outskirts nestled between the arms of the interstate, replete with office parks with mendaciously bucolic names, a geography more commercial than municipal. I was headed toward something variously termed a "corporate center" and a "conference center" somehow affiliated with the State Medical Society. When the alarm went off, I'd been dreaming: a woman I know, surrounded and supported by by other women, was standing in a snowy street wailing with grief, leaning back, her mouth open to the sky. I did not know how to approach to offer my support, so I went into a house. A dark, empty house, come to think of it.

The conference center lobby was crowded. As I waited to obtain my name tag and syllabus, I looked around. Both walls of the long entry way displayed a double row of photographic portraits of past presidents of the Medical Society dating back nearly 200 years. I wandered past them, noting the obvious: of the more than 100 faces, only 4 were women and only one -- the woman who is the current president -- was African American. The crowd of doctors milling around the coffee urns and fruit bowls outside the auditorium was far more heterogeneous.

I thought back to one of my past week's small epiphanies. It was a passage from Deuteronomy that had stopped me in my tracks. Moses, addressing the Israelites, says:

Circumcise, therefore, the foreskin of your heart.

Say, WHAT ?

And suddenly I realized that the very first covenant, the covenant between God and Abram, that covenant that lies at the very root and origin of all three great monotheistic religions, involves a body part that women don't even have.

And I thought of the beautiful ecclesial images at the website New Liturgical Movement -- images I'd found breath-taking and sublime until I noticed one thing: none of the participants at the altar in any of the pictures are women. All of the magnificently vested priests and deacons and subdeacons and bishops and acolytes and altar servers, bar none, are male. The whole thing then took on the appearance of a gorgeous, rotten fruit, appealing and revolting at once.

What have I been doing, then, anywhere near this religion thing, great swaths of which still make an idol out of the (heterosexual) penis, and which situates its greatest and highest good in fellowship, something of which I find myself increasingly incapable ? Is it any wonder that I feel like a ghost ?

I made my way, still half asleep, to my seat.

The Lenten desert was certainly living up to its promise.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Neither Nor

Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, I went to the river with my camera. These are the final days of winter, when the only hint of spring is the lengthening light, some swollen buds, and the rarest of green shoots. The world is dessicated, fractured, withered, gone skeletal. The bike path is still mostly under snow and crisscrossed by downed trees.

It's a most congenial landscape, of course, for those of us liturgical melancholiacs who are coming out of hibernation for our yearly heyday: Lent. It's the season that allows us to revel in the dark side -- sin, grief, loss, abandonment, betrayal, shame, temptation, silence, reclusiveness, doubt -- and not seem like party-poopers. It's the season that's totally off Hallmark's radar. The long expanse of liturgical green will end Wednesday, and the ecchymotic, penitential purple will come out. The crown of thorns will take its yearly place on the altar, and the alleluias will go to ground. Lent comes late this year; daffodils will be sprouting in the midst of the gloom. I will, I am sure, wince at their untimely yellow. I always want to cling to winter, to the darkness, to Lent.

But the natural and liturgical cycles do not heed my wishes. I submit to them. What else can I do ? I return to the same river walk every year. Each year I see different things, or see the same things differently. At first, I took pictures of objects, portraits of weeds. I learned their names, their similarities and differences. As the years passed I find myself taking pictures of the light itself, drawn less to the object than to the light that bathes it.

The same thing with the liturgical year: it unspools with predictable regularity, but, each year, I come to it changed, so I experience it differently. My own churchedness has been marked by periods of weird piety alternating with periods of screaming disaffection, and by stretches of contentment and gratitude alternating with stretches of exasperation and restlessness. Lent seems like an asylum, a padded cell, a place where all these things can be interrogated and investigated in service of the heart of the matter: God.

The Infinite Ground of Being. The That There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. The Holy, the Numinous, the Terrible Ground that so overflows all covenental arks and all Trintarian containers that it is a wonder that the host does not split like an atom at the fraction and annihilate us all.

I tend to project more expectations onto Lent than a greedy child does onto Christmas, and all of them are existential, metaphysical and supremely unpractical. This year is no different, only, maybe, a bit more desperate. I have spent months in a state of high distraction. Lent says: Stop. Be still. Focus. Here, now. Pay attention to light and shadow both. It's like photography, then, a question of looking at and into, of penetrating, of considering figure and ground, object and light, the many and the one.

Lord, have mercy.