Sermon for Self-Purification

Since election night, I’ve been waiting for my leadership–any leadership: in my workplace, in my church, in my political party–to say something.  They haven’t.  Not the something I’ve been waiting for.  I’ve heard many calls for unity, for “moving toward one another,” even for action.  Many leaders have implored us to enact love and respect, to begin the process of reconciliation we’ll need to recover from the divisiveness of the election.

The problem with that message, for me, and for many others, I think, is simple psychology: trauma.  This election is different from other ones, and many of my friends feel trauma more than disappointment or anger.  We can see this difference playing out in the number of people seeking therapists, calling in sick, and in our schools where our children imitate us in a sick micro-performance as detailed in yesterday’s Sunday Times.  My husband and I work in schools, and without risking my job or my husband’s job, I can say parts of the Sunday article ring true–our ugliness has passed on to our children who do not necessarily have the tools to regroup. People are traumatized, especially the losers. Some children of the winners are behaving really badly, mostly because–I suspect–they’re skeptical now of their own beauty and worth. To ask these traumatized people to spend time with the other side is to ask them to jeopardize their health and well-being, at least in the immediate aftermath.  There are ways to “spend time” with the other side that are safer for them right now.  They can dedicate their prayers to someone they don’t understand, practice contemplative prayer, journal, etc.  But many of us cannot stay in the room with the other side yet. And many of us feel the burden of “unity” falls on us.  After all, one political party’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together” and the other’s was “Make America [Enter Any Derogatory Adjective Here] Again.”

Too many of our schools and churches are asking us to enact radical love by skipping the vital step of self-care and self-preparation and without providing us spaces for that care. The best sermon or speech–one I haven’t heard yet–would be one on the process of grief and on the great instances in the Bible and other mythology of heroes (I’m using Joseph Campbell’s understanding of “hero” here) of people retreating into silence and isolation first before they enter the atonement phase: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Odysseus on Calypso’s island, Luke Skywalker on Skellig Michael.  Christianity’s Luke tells us in Ch. 5 that Jesus often “withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Or in The Gospel of Matthew, after John the Baptist is beheaded, he withdraws “privately to a desolate place.”  Again and again he does that–before and after performing miracles, in times of grief, in preparation for his ultimate act of love.

I can’t help but think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s four requirements for nonviolent resistance: collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Last year, I participated in a  study group where we reread  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and then met in the back offices of the Menil Collection–how beautiful, in the belly of the art house!– to discuss it.  We focused for part of the discussion on a section I had overlooked before, although I’ve read the letter and taught it many times.   Dr. King speaks directly in the letter to the need for self-purification: an internal process of introspection, experiential learning, community building; in short, the mental and emotional work of metabolizing trauma in order to prepare to practice radical love. He did not allow anyone to join the boycotts or sit-ins or talk to government leaders until they’d gone through the self-purification process, alone and in communion with other African-Americans.  “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and rest,” Jesus says to his disciples in Mark. By yourselves.

Those of us who saw clearly what the President-elect and his supporters are–people willing to bargain for their interests with racism, xenophobia, and sexism even if they don’t believe themselves to be racist and sexist–need time for self-purification, and many of the protests are exactly that, a crying out in community so that we can go back into our families and communities lovingly.  Or, as my philosopher friend, Eric, put it: “Protest is the aesthetic performance of solidarity, a cathartic sharing.  Protest is one way in which we activate empathy and transform tragedy into beauty.”  It’s a necessary first step toward love.  We’ve experienced a beheading of sorts, and rites of passage first separate the participant from the rest of society and remove them from ordinary time.

Our various leaders are right that if we spend time with one another in the daily human rituals of our lives we would learn and heal. And, ultimately, we must love our enemies. But this week, because of Thanksgiving break, I’m just so, so relieved to not have to be near certain people. I need time to retreat into a holy solitude.  For one thing, I’m reading a string of mystery novels with female protagonists who nab the bad guy.  On a more serious note, yesterday, Trip and I were confirmed and received, respectively, into the Episcopalian church, and I’m spending the week with people I love and trust and avoiding anyone who voted for the President-elect.  I’m purifying myself so I can–hopefully–reach toward the love I believe in so much and to which I’m called. It’s hard, thankless work.  Harder for some of us than others, and that difference in the degree of sacrifice and vulnerability needs to be acknowledged.

I cannot transform my house, my classroom, my neighborhood, or my nation into a beloved community–and I must–until I have a quiet place to rest.

I hope this week we all take time to rest and restore, without apology and with whomever we choose.




Homily for the Thin of Skin

A poet friend of mine once told me, “Poets are born without skin.”  He was quoting a famous poet–I thought Li-Young Lee–but for the life of me I can’t remember now.  I’m not a poet, but my friend recognized something of the creature without skin in me.  He was–is–a kind man with his own thin outer layers.

I always remembered that small moment of gentleness: him, turned around to face me from inside the small bay of his grade school desk, us, waiting for our graduate school professor to show for an insufferably early morning section of Creative Writing.

His voice comes to me now across time zones and years–tender, unassuming–as I have been thinking deeply about sensitivity and gentleness of late.

For many years I have suspected myself to belong to a beleaguered tribe of people for whom the world often feels too overwhelming–too noisy, too mean, too garish, too pointy-edged.  I was a sensitive child; I am a sensitive adult.  I can be exhausting for people.  At my most melancholy I can only describe myself as walking around like an exposed nerve.  Even clothing hurts, even small talk, even shadows.

Luckily for me, I had parents to toughen me up and a relatively healthy if slightly abnormal family life and childhood.  No major, major trauma.  Lots of activities to keep me busy.  A brother for a best friend who then and now faced my sensitivity to the world with an equal dose of humor and empathy.  Now, when I’m overwhelmed, he goes into a mocking British accent: do you want to get a coffee and a scone and go talk about our feelings?  You giant nipple.

I laugh, because his response is a ridiculous thing for someone to offer as comfort.  Cruel or bullying, even.  But his voice has a subtext, a tonality, layers of deep compassion.  I feel understood, fully seen, and jostled back into equanimity all at once.   I have a difficult time explaining his tonality to my husband, for example, who asks, “How does he get away with that?”  Somehow he can make fun of me and comfort me simultaneously, because the undercurrent of our relationship rings like a team of far off bells or like a whale song that travels leagues of deep sea to reach another whale’s ear in sonar, saying “I’m here.  I’m right here.”

We live in a culture that despises sensitivity, misnames it weakness or disability.  Highly Sensitive People (HSPs to psychologists–we have an actual label in that world) spend much time faking it until they make it, pretending to function well in a world that feels, some days, like a barrage of mortar shells.  This “faking it” can lead to serious depression or isolation, but those maladies result from misunderstanding, not from the sensitivity itself.  According to Dr. Elaine Aron, HSPs, while struggling with dissonant or loud sounds, people who hover over them as they work or perform, stressful social situations, and bright lights or discordant colors, have some important strengths that other people may not have: high empathy, keen imaginations, vivid dreams, focused concentration, creativity, and an ability to read complex emotional situations clearly.   We do not have a disorder, but often Western culture treats our sensitivity as a modern day leprosy, a disease that demands a speedy antidote or an abomination that requires quarantine or expulsion.  Or the culture overlooks us entirely.

For example, during our pre-marital counseling, my husband and I filled out a survey in our workbook that asked us to determine who took responsibility for a long list of “marriage tasks.”  I felt horrible filling it out and reading out the results: the exercise determined that my husband does 90% of the work.  But the list was slanted, biased–folds laundry, buys groceries, pays bills, cleans floors.  In a small voice, I said, “But I buy all our gifts for people.  I remember birthdays.  I call our friends.  I pick the morning music.  I navigate us through hard conversations.  I do the bulk of our emotional work.”

We skinless souls are not wimps.  We’re doing some hardcore work for the rest of you.

How great a world would it be that might carve out a space for our kind and think of us as vital counterbalances to industry and media buzz, like the soothsayers, witch doctors, and minstrels of ages past?  Or our priests and professors?  I’d settle for starting with artists, paying them for their gifts and offering them space, time, or just a quietness in which to grow calm and concoct their magic elixirs.

And mightn’t we all benefit from a bit more gentleness, which is not to say we must exclude ferocity, truth, and resilience?

I could use a little of my kind of gentleness: the living silence inside the Rothko chapel’s purple paintings or at the far end of a swimming lane, light dimmers, almost any shade of ultramarine, grey, or persimmon, birch trees, banjoes, worn cotton, sunlight on hardwood floors, conspiratorial laughter, coffee froth, long highways, good stories, the five minutes before mass begins, a blank page and a super-sharp pencil, well-aged Merlots, Doritos, active verbs, a dog’s sigh, Irish Spring on my husband’s skin, free-time at midday, teenage humor, mornings without words, a breeching whale in North Atlantic blue, lip balm, my brother’s voice and the voice of some friends, the long light that reaches toward nightfall’s embrace, its illusion of a forever and ever and ever peace even when I know better.


Sermon in which I Ordain Myself

Because some things require a pulpit.  

Because some things scream, say me.  Teach me.   I have something to say.  I have something to teach you.  Yes, little ol’ me.  Yes, you.  There in the front row.  Upright and early.  And you in the back row too.  Reluctant and late.  Especially you folks sheltered snugly in the middle rows—noncommittal, passive doubters, the whole lot of you.  Thinking you’ll slip by on the sly.  For a long time I hid too.

Because I want my words to sniff you out.

Because I want my words to redirect their paths like tiny Doppler radars toward your heartstorms.

Because I want a pulpit.  (I say that as though it is an easy thing for a woman to say.)

Because I want a flock: with wings not wool.  

Because every good woman has a story.  She understands her story as part of a community story.  Her story is intimate, private, and also shared.  Her story is a small circle inside rings of concentric circles: family, neighborhood, city, state, nation, world, out and out like that into the universal.  A story needs a beginning, but not necessarily an end.  The beginning of my story will always be: I loved my grandmother.

Because I loved my grandmother.  When my younger brother and I stayed with her in the house in Richardson, Texas, we looked forward most to the off-white bedspreads on our matching twin sleepers in the small room that faced the front yard.  During the day we built mansions out of playing cards and watched them crumble onto the lush carpet in the den.  Or we counted the beads inside a smoky red blown-glass bowl on the side table and touched every pretty thing twice.  Because she let us. She never stooped so low as to speak a don’t touch that or be careful.  Somehow we intuited that in her eyes we reigned as Most Precious Objects in the house. 

At night, we knelt at one twin bed, the three of us—me, Ben, Grandma—in a semi-pious line, our elbows atop the mattress. 

“Which do you want to say?” Grandma asked me.  “The Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary?”

The Hail Mary was shorter, but more obscure, and I wanted to please her. 

We’d get part way through, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, and then–

A stifled laugh, a squirm fest, her unruffled voice. 

“Ben, say the words with us.”

Ben never knew the words.  To this day, I’m not sure why.  He could handle The Lord’s Prayer, although for a long time he misheard hallowed for Harold, as in “Harold be thy name.”  I still like to imagine God as such an everyman: Harold.  

When I ask him about the Hail Mary now, in our thirties, he says, “I don’t know.  It’s weird stuff, really, to make children say.  Fruit of thy womb?   All that tortured syntax.”

I liked the Hail Mary.  I liked the line he always forgot, blessed art thou amongst women.  Perhaps at that age I needed to believe the world might single me out from my kind: more beautiful, more talented, more sacred

My grandmother died of ovarian cancer the year before I began confirmation classes at St. Thomas More Catholic Church.  My reverence for that process betrayed less about my faith in God than my nostalgia for her voice in my little ear, “Which prayer do you want to say?”  Mr. Nelson, my confirmation teacher, wrote me a note that I kept for many years afterward.  It read:

I have this idea that some people have the Holy Spirit in them only after confirmation, and some have the Holy Spirit in them always.  You, Casey, are of the latter type.

Because if I have anything resembling the Holy Spirit in me, it will reveal itself as the breath of women past moving through my lungs, down the long hallway of my throat toward the light, their exhalations a mist that loosens the corners of my rust-red lips.

Because I hear voices.

Because I have a voice.

Because vocation means a “summons” or “spiritual calling,” from the Latin vocationem (nom. vocatio), “a calling,” from vocatus “called,” pp. of vocare “to call.”

Sing to me of the girl, Grandma, the girl of twists and turns.

Because a man I loved once complained that he felt I was lecturing him when really I wanted to talk out some big ideas.

Because if I’m going to be perceived as lecturing, I might as well have a pulpit, a little authority.

Because my grandmother’s memory authorizes me.

Because the word author lives inside the word author-ity the way I live inside my memory of her.  The way I wear her cool blue beads on my hot chest or push my nail beds into the soft bristles of her silver brush.

Because I respect form.  Because I need a new form, something novel that is not a novel.

Because things change.

Because some things never change.

Because she raised me Catholic, and even now I tend to respect authority when it implies a learned-ness, when that authority has been rightly earned and rightly employed.  I don’t want Joe-Schmoe down the street interpreting anything for me, especially any bible.

Because many Joe Schmoes preach.  Because many people abuse the church-pulpit, the chalkboard-pulpit, the page-pulpit too.

Because I have no idea what I’m doing (which is still such an easy thing for a woman to say).

Because I row out and out to drift on the fickle waters of the blank page and I wait and wait for the words to spawn and swim up so I may offer something of myself to the people I love. 

Because I am like a fisherman or sea-shepherd.  I am trawling for words; I am corralling them, I am searching for her.

Because my story is our story.   

Because we do not know when we are young that the body is an archive. That after years of amnesia, the body, without warning, will kneel down.  The body will remember and repeat its earliest prayers, and that those fledgling prayers do not change much over time, but only reach higher and higher toward heaven from their stubborn roots.

Blessed art thou amongst women.