Sermon for Brokenness

Oscar Wilde famously said, “I drink to separate my body from my soul.”  He would not be the only one to try such a futile endeavor, to think she might unshackle her soul from the body’s cage with magical key-shaped elixirs, to think, erroneously, that the cage and the prisoner are two different things.

It’s one thing to believe in mind-body-spirit connectedness when you possess a healthy, young body.

But imagine you have a body that really feels like a cage–a body with a horrible or chronic disease like ALS or Cystic Fibrosis, or a body that doesn’t suit the norms of beauty, or an infertile body.  Then, you’d like nothing more than to cleave your soul from its fickle sinew.  Your body feels like a betrayal, a jailhouse instead of a home.  It can make you angry.

For example, if you can’t translate the following sentence into standard English without help, then I don’t want to talk to you about my body and I don’t want your illiterate platitudes:

The AVG DPO for a BFP is 12.6 and symptoms leading up to a BFP may include increased CM and moodiness, although these symptoms also mimic those of AF, so your DH may have to remain sensitive during the TTW, and you may get a false BFN because your HCG levels haven’t reached a high enough level for even a FRER. 

But if you’re trying to have a baby, like me, you’re fluent in the language of neurosis and can play translator without batting an eyelid:

The average day past ovulation for a Big Fat Positive is 12.6 and symptoms leading up to a Big Fat Positive may include increased cervical mucus and moodiness, although these symptoms also mimic those of Aunt Flow, so your Dear Hubby may have to remain sensitive during the Two Week Wait, and you may get a false Big Fat Negative because your human chorionic gonadotropin levels haven’t reached a high enough level for even a First Response Early Response pregnancy test. 

And still, you may have the words and not the meaning.  You may not know there exists an entire culture of women who speak this language to each other, that use acronyms both as a form of intimacy and a form of shame and silence.  You may not know that the preoccupation with a body that’s not working the way you want it to work, and its relentless chatter in the form of aches and pains and ghost symptoms, can be one of the most soul-killing experiences a human might endure.

Sometimes I want to unzip my spirit from its skin, like a dirty dress that I’ve worn to too many events in the same week.  More often, though, I have the opposite and counter-intuitive reaction: I want to keep wearing that dress until the stench and lint and sweat stains mirror what they clothe.

What’s this got to do with God?  Well, don’t worry–I’m not going to talk about those Old Testament matriarchs who suffered so mightily from infertility they offered their aged husbands Egyptian concubines only to have God grant them a baby in their 90s or something absurd like that.  Those myths have their magic, but they irritate you when you want a baby yourself because science shows I don’t have until my 90s, God or IVF nonwithstanding. The only thing I like about any of the stories is the moment Sarah laughs at the prophets who foresee Isaac.  I like to imagine she scoffs more than giggles.  Like, “Yeah, right, Yahweh.”

No, I’m going to talk about poets, specifically Christian Wiman and Mark Doty.  The former suffered from bone cancer, the latter the death of his partner from AIDS.  The body is familiar if painful territory for both men.

And then I’ll talk about the incarnate word, spirit made flesh in the form of Jesus.

The title poem to Wiman’s most recent book of poetry speaks to the broken body, or, rather, the brokenness of all things earthly.  I admire most its form, how well it responds to the poem’s content–the repeated line, broken in various ways until its last utterance when it is no longer riven but whole, without the fractures and sprains of commas or dashes:

Every Riven Thing

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made

sing his being simply by being

the thing it is:

stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

 

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,

means a storm of peace.

Think of the atoms inside the stone.

Think of the man who sits alone

trying to will himself into the stillness where

 

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made

there is given one shade

shaped exactly to the thing itself:

under the tree a darker tree;

under the man the only man to see

 

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made

the things that bring him near,

made the mind that makes him go.

A part of what man knows,

apart from what man knows,

 

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

 

Christian Wiman, from Every Riven Thing (2010).

And I’m thinking of the prologue to Mark Doty’s memoir, Heaven’s Coast, where he re-positions a childhood memory into the most breathtaking metaphor:

In the museums we used to visit on family vacations when I was a kid, I used to love those rooms which displayed collections of minerals in a kind of closet or chamber which would, at the push of a button, darken. Then ultraviolet lights would begin to glow and the minerals would seem to come alive, new colors, new possibilities and architectures revealed. Plain stones became fantastic, “futuristic”–a strange word which suggests, accurately, that these colors had something of the world to come about them. Of course there wasn’t any black light in the center of the earth, in the caves where they were quarried; how strange that these stones should have to be brought here, bathed with this unnatural light in order for their transcendent characters to emerge. Irradiation revealed a secret aspect of the world.

Imagine illness as that light: demanding, torturous, punitive, it nonetheless reveals more of what things are. A certain glow of being appears. I think this is what is meant when we speculate that death is what makes love possible. Not that things need to be able to die in order for us to love them, but that things need to die in order for us to know what they are. Could we really know anything that wasn’t transient, not becoming more itself in the strange, unearthly light of dying? The button pushed, the stones shine, all mystery and beauty, implacable, fierce, austere.

Imagine illness as that light.

Imagine our bodies, healthy or sick or momentarily struggling, as the light of God.

Imagine we might need affliction to illuminate our souls.  (know, in this imagining, the unfairness of such a reality on some, truly sick people)

Imagine we could not have a soul without a body.

Imagine the necessity of Jesus’ human body.

Then the body cannot be a shade of shame or a thing to denounce.  Then the body cannot be a cage, and drinking, dear Oscar Wilde, might be more for marrying our bodies to our souls than separating them.  Then the body has no use for a language of signs and signals and acronyms.

The flesh is the word, the word is the flesh.

Even, and especially, when the flesh is broken.

 

Amen.

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Sermon for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

On Friday as I worked my freshman students through poetry revisions and my sophomore students through heavy symbolism in literature, I felt a steady thrum in the back of my head.  At each break, I scanned the headlines.  Boston was on lockdown and a 19 year old boy on the loose.

Call me crazy, but while everyone else fretted about the city being terrorized, I felt most worried about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  A picture was forming from the snippets of information reporters puzzled together about the two brothers, and to me it started to become clear that Tamerlan Tsarnaev–the older brother–would emerge as the mastermind and spearhead of the bombing plot.  I felt scared for Dzhokhar, 19 and alone after watching police drill his brother with bullets, probably wounded, the gravity and horror of what he’d done finally settling in and nobody to help and nowhere to run.  

Call me crazy, but I wanted to hug him.

Each year when I teach my students Homer’s Odyssey, we talk about types and anti-types.  In a lesson I stole from my father, we read about the D.C. Sniper–John Muhammed–and his “sidekick”, the much younger Lee Boyd Malvo who together in the fall of 2002 embarked on a weeks-long killing spree targeting random citizens standing at gas stations or in parking lots.  They killed 13 people.  I lived in Washington, D.C. that fall.  I remember walking across a parking lot in suburban Virginia where I had traveled to buy furniture for my new efficiency apartment on Thomas Circle.  I remember feeling exposed and vulnerable–every white van in the parking lot glared at me, every engine sparking to life or car door slamming shut a signal of my impending death.  

Lee Boyd Malvo was only 17 years old during the murder spree.  He was fatherless, in a kind of identity crisis and exile after moving illegally from Antigua to Miami to be with his mother.  Both Malvo and Una, his mom, were caught by Border Control in Bellingham, Washington.  Separated from his mother, Malvo turned to Muhammed who he knew from when the older man had courted his mother back in Antigua.   Here was a father-figure, here a man to guide him into adulthood, here perhaps some solace after too much disorientation and uprootedness.  How easily John Muhammed must have indoctrinated his young protegee. 

Just last year, Lee Boyd Malvo–now 28–admitted publicly that John Muhammed had sexually abused him for years. 

In class I ask my students, “What if Telemachus had turned to a suitor for mentorship instead of Mentes?”  The lesson: young men need good mentors in the absence of fathers, mentors who are, like the character in Homer’s epic, divine at their core.  

If Mentor is the type, John Muhammed and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are the anti-types. 

There are two ways to read the Odyssey: as a hero quest full of pomp and circumstance or as a cautionary tale about the ugly and long impact of war and exile.  It takes Odysseus ten years to get home to Ithaca after ten years at war in Troy.  He does not return a particularly kind or patient man.  He is a wounded soldier, a compromised and questionable leader skilled in the art of deception, and a man full of hubris and a desire for revenge, high-risk behavior his modus operandi.   But despite its title, the epic begins and ends with Telemachus–19 or so at the start of the poem and by the end, reunited with his father, Telemachus has gone from a pouty teenager, unsure of his name and lineage, to a man with a father to follow.  Called by his sense of kleos–patrilineal glory or renown–he follows Odysseus into brutality.   He slaughters hundreds of enemies, hangs handmaids by their braids and mutilates the body of a disrespectful goatherd.  The slaying of the suitors at the end of the epic is barbarous, unmerciful, and uncivil (my boy students love it, which frightens me), so horrific that Athena has to step in at the end of the story to ensure that civil war doesn’t ensue.  

We can’t draw too many parallels yet, but in Boston we have a 19 year old boy whose father is in Russia.  We have two sons born in Chechnya, into a place and time of war, uprooted from a country where war has been the norm for decades, where war dislocates and scatters family members who, unlike Odysseus, often never find their way to any real or even metaphorical homeland.  We know Tamerlan spent six months in Russia last year and returned to the U.S., perhaps, with the vengeful lust of Odysseus on the sea.  We know Dzhokhar idolized his older brother; we know that his brother was his only nearby relative, his only link to family and cultural identity.  

I’m not saying I don’t feel just sick about the the numerous people who lost limbs and loved ones last Monday.  I am saying that the trauma of war is residual and pandemic.  The effects last even decades after the war and persist especially in an age of rising jihadist sentiment and real exile from both healthy avenues toward manhood and identity and from our native countries.   

Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist known for his work with war veterans writes, “The fundamental theme of the Iliad and the Odyssey is the human side of war.  These are not classics because the professors say they’re classics, but because they are so good at revealing us to ourselves.”

And Simone Weil once called the Iliad the “purest and loveliest of mirrors.”

Literature has something to tell us if we’d only listen.  We cannot, any of us, believe that wars end when the white flag goes up.  They never end. 

I’m not saying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an innocent victim anymore than Telemachus is innocent or Agamemnon is innocent or any combatant is innocent.   

I’m saying I wish Dzhokhar had someone other than his wounded, indoctrinated older brother.    I wish Lee Boyd Malvo had somebody other than John Muhammed.  I’m saying I wish these boys had a true Mentor.  I wish that for them, and for the world. 


Amen. 

 

 

 

Sermon as Triptych

Some weeks, the world provides you clues.  This week, I experienced a triptych of elbow nudges from the world, telling me to think seriously about a few things.  This trifecta took the form of a guest speaker at my school, an essay I accidentally read in American Scholar at my teacher’s desk, and an essay from a collection given to me on my birthday by a dear friend.  

I. Left Panel

 

“Drape”, Joseph Havel

Every year the students at my school receive the rare gift of a visiting fellow, someone who has made a name for herself, say, in the arts, sciences, or other academic field.  This year, we invited Joseph Havel, sculptor and director of the Glassel School of Art here in Houston.

Often the fellows speak over the students’ heads–not on purpose, but most 15 years olds cannot see why certain things should matter to them.  Teenagers are like solar flares, burning, on fire, propelled, whose light others can see from miles away, but they have not yet learned the dimming that comes with age or distance; they have not learned to turn around; they haven’t yet realized that they, themselves, are not in fact the sun but only small pieces of it.  

I also think they resisted some of Havel’s lecture: given the task of answering how art relates to ethics, he told us that the artist’s job is not to create meaning for the audience, no clear message for us to consume.  Sending clear messages, he said, is the job of advertisers, not artists.  The artists’ job is not to commodify people’s desires and hopes and fears, but rather to translate a moment of the physical, emotional, and mental life into form and then set it free for an audience to encounter and give meaning.  That process, he said, is essentially an ethical position.  Some students didn’t care to imagine such an ethical position since it requires something from us as readers of art–we cannot simply consume or pay for an explanation or walk away undisturbed.  

I was rapt with attention, thinking Havel’s explanation of art and ethics as a way to also understand the best impulses of religion.

Havel then offered the students instruction on how to view art in a museum.  Don’t read the information card tacked next to the painting, he said, like so many visitors (Alain de Botton has a great argument for why museums should toss out informational placards altogether).  Instead, let yourself experience the work of art.  Then you can go back, he said, and read the information about the piece and approach it again with a critical awareness.  But if you skip that first step, you miss the ethical imperative of art.  You are trying to go for clear meaning and missing the encounter.  

But when I returned to my classroom, my teenagers remained unconvinced.  I don’t want to be confused, they said.  When I read or see something I want to understand what it means.  Don’t make me work.  

My students complaints and Havel’s instructions reminded me of theologian Marcus Borg‘s advise about how one should approach the Bible, a model I use to teach my students how to read other literature as well.  According to Borg, religious men and women should go through three major stages:

1) naivete 

2) critical thinking

3) post-critical naivete

Or, as I conceptualize it:

1) blind faith

2) critical doubt

3) doubtful faith

II. Middle Panel

 

“Untitled”, Lee Bontecou

I must clean my desk.  I must clean my desk.  I must clean my desk, I repeated to myself Tuesday after school.  I began to rashly throw old vocabulary quizzes into the recycling bin, shove pencils and pens into the far nooks of my desk drawer and straighten stacks of unexcused tardy sheets and extra handouts about dangling participles or how to visualize Shakespeare plots as Venn diagrams.  Among those stacks I discovered a recent issue of American Scholar, a journal I love.  I was loathe to throw it out before skimming the contents and I landed on an essay by Christian Wiman, poet and long-time editor of Poetry magazine who is, as we speak, dying of bone cancer.  

I thought I’d read a few sections, but I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting, weeping over my laptop, forgetting briefly that I needed to get home and let my dog out to pee.  As if to explain Borg and Havel’s theories about post-critical naivete, he wrote this:

It is as if joy were the default setting of human emotion, not the furtive, fugitive glimpses it becomes in lives compromised by necessity, familiarity, “maturity,” suffering. You must become as little children, Jesus said, a statement that is often used to justify anti-intellectualism and the renunciation of reason, but which I take actually to mean that we must recover this sense of wonder, this excess of spirit brimming out of the body.

And then, as if to illustrate Havel’s point to the kiddos that art, which certainly the story of Jesus qualifies as, must be encountered rather than consumed, Wiman wrote this beautiful statement of faith:

I’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. 

Wiman returned to the faith of his childhood toward the end of his young life, passing through the often adolescent or post-adolescent critical stage that so many intellectuals get stuck in, especially, I’ve found, young writers, more especially young male writers.


III. Right Panel

Immanuel Kant

 

My friend gifted me Robert Hass‘ new collection of essays “What Light Can Do” for my birthday last month.  How well he knows me.  It was the best present I got.   I have only read one so far, “Study of War: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant.  

Hass attempts to break down and revive a lesser known Kant essay called “Perpetual Peace.”   In “Perpetual Peace”, as Hass understands it, Kant acknowledged in his Kantian way that violence is the natural condition of man, and that the state of peace “is unnatural and must be struggled toward.  Its nobility is its rebellion toward innocence and against the brutality of things-as-they-are.”  Hass then tries to explain how literature and art can serve the purpose of struggling toward peace.  He imagines in his own way Joseph Havel’s argument for the ethical position of art.   

Haas remembers the term “perpetual peace” from his childhood as a Catholic, particularly from the Mass for the Dead “may the perpetual light shine upon them.”  He remembers that as a boy he thought the idea of perpetual peace a naive idea, an ideal only reachable with death and an undesirable ideal at that.  He was in his critical thinking stage.  

But then, he says, so many writers remind us otherwise.  He calls particular attention to Czeslaw Milosz, who returned to a sometimes-tortured Catholic faith in his old age, and Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau stood firmly in the last stage of faith and art: post-critical naivete.  An idea expressed in his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” according to Hass, is that the concept of perpetual peace or heaven, “is deficient as a description of a realizable place on earth, but is not deficient as a description of a place held close the heart.”  

Art scoots us right up against that place held close to our hearts, that place we believe in the way children believe, even if we can’t get in from here.  All three artists, Joseph Havel, Christian Wiman, and Robert Hass implore us to use wonder and thought to navigate art, to use the heart and mind to allow the world “to stream through you rather than reaching out to always take a hold of it.”  Have doubt, they say, and have faith.  All three men urge against the question, “But what does it mean?”   

That our priests and pastors may be artists and may be so wise and so bold as to ask their audiences to approach with wonder the Story and leave the easy, definitive answers to such a childish question to the advertisers.  

 

Amen.

Sermon for the Letter “O”

Before I knew poetry, I loved its power.

I can’t remember now when I first memorized the Nicene Creed–perhaps for First Communion, perhaps for Confirmation.  I do not recall anyone teaching it to me by lesson the way my grandmother made my learning of the Our Father and Hail Mary her active duty.

My mind did not learn the creed.  My body learned it: ear, rhythm, voice.  I had, and still have, two favorite parts of the creed:

God from God.

Light from light.

True God from True God.

Begotten and not made.

Notice I’ve instinctively added line breaks where I’m not sure they exist.

I also really loved this:

We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

As a child, I was not making a profession of faith–how could I have done so?  As an adult, I know that one can only profess a faith once she has the capacity for abstract thought.  Abstract thought, and doubt: the front porch that welcomes us before we step into the old home of devotion.

No, I didn’t know what I was saying.  But I loved it.  I loved the sound of it.  All that assonance:

God from God.

Light from light.

True God from True God.

Begotten and not made.

I liked those “o” sounds packed so tightly into the same breath.  The hardness of the “g, an aspiration, and then the “o” forcing the mouth open even wider, the exhale extended.

But that “o” is not the “o” that really got me.  No, I like the long “o” in words like home, lonesome, atone, soul, poem.  That kind of “o” holds oceans and oceans of the unsayable inside its orbit; a black hole of sound, sob or sigh, prodigious little letter.

holy, catholic, apostolic

It would never have mattered to me then what the words meant.  They bewitched me.  I’m not sure it matters to me even now.

People seeking the divine are often sent in search of vastness.  Go to the mountains, we say.  Go to the desert or caves or sea or sky.  Go to that which is bigger and more beautiful than you.

But language, born of the body, is a landscape too.

I say go to the vowels and consonants.  Let them hold you.  Go to the phonemes if you want to go home.

 

Amen. 

Sermon as a Faith Story

I grew up Catholic.

I was baptized, confirmed and educated in the Church, but I learned what it meant to be Christian mostly by example.  When I was a child, my father resettled refugees for the YMCA, and then worked for many years as Vice President of Catholic Charities in the Houston-Galveston diocese, and my mother taught science at a troubled, inner-city high school.   We often had 3 or 4 people living with us while they were transitioning from one country to another, and my parents also welcomed several foster children and exchange students into our modest home. 

We were not a typical “parish” family—I was only required to attend CCE classes until I was confirmed, and even then, my parents did not require regular attendance at mass.  However, somehow my brother and I still intuited that we were to act within the walls of our home and in the larger world as loving followers of Christ’s example.  We were not told this in any explicit way; rather, we witnessed it.  Both of us can recite the Corporeal Works of Mercy faster than we can the Nicene Creed. 

In this way, Catholicism for me became a familial, cultural, and private aspect of my identity, a thing I was born into, a thing I could no more choose than I could my hair color or height or Southern accent.  I never felt the need to proclaim it or restore it in public—it was as deeply hidden and powerful in me as my chromosomes. 

 I did not recognize my Catholic upbringing as an influence on my behavior or my writing until recently.  In 2007, a man I loved asked me to marry him, and I said yes.  He was raised in the Baptist and then Presbyterian traditions and after our engagement began to push me about my spiritual life.  At the same time, I was experiencing a crisis in my writing life.  I spent three years in an MFA program swinging back and forth between writing fiction and nonfiction, having much difficulty discerning between the two and convinced one—fiction—was the higher form.  This crisis grew out of an earlier one.  When I decided to dedicate my energy and time toward writing by leaving my job at a human rights non-profit organization, I suffered a crisis of conscience.  After all, I had been heavily schooled in the idea of vocation and service—how could my writing serve the world in any real way?

 What saved me was my teaching obligation.  Teaching was certainly a form of service, as I knew from watching my mother.  I still believe that teaching is sacramental in that it is a kind of “anointment”—teachers anoint their students with knowledge and thought.  And teaching, of course, is a kind of communion, the classroom a sacred space.  

But at that time, as my fiancée began to push harder—our disagreements as political as they were religious—I found solace in reading and writing the personal essay.  As a friend of mine once described it to me, the personal essay is a space for provisional truth.  That is, the essayist never reaches her destination but is ever-arriving.    The personal essay, then, becomes a space for deep contemplation, a tool for the vital attempt we all make to transform the private and personal into meaning.  The essay form offered me a way to voice what I like to refer to as my “intellectual faith”, or what Marilynne Robinson refers to as “faithful doubt.” In my romantic relationship an expression of doubt was a touchstone of failure and in my academic community of writers an expression of sincere Christian struggle was laughable.   This paradox often left me feeling bound and voiceless.  The personal essay unshackled me.

I began to study and be moved by writers like St. Augustine, Robert ColesSimoneWeilThomas Merton, Marilynne Robinson, and Andre Dubus.  Formative books for me during this time were Dubus’ “Mediations from a Movable Chair” and Coles’ “The Harvard Diaries” as well as his biographies of Weil and Dorothy Day and his writings on the relationship between story-telling and moral imagination in children.   One particular passage of Coles’ rang true to me.   He writes:

…in the lecture halls and seminar rooms of our colleges and universities, where relativism and deconstructionist criticism make a mockery of any person’s struggle to find a faith that persuades, convinces, and even a mockery of the attempts that particular novelists, or poets or short story writers have made to find meaning in life, and render it through words, through images, through narration that bespeaks of, well, the utter essence of their humanity: we are the creature of language, and through it a moral awareness that gives us a sense of the ought, and naught.

For one thing, I felt protective of my fiancée.  His increasingly traditional and conservative religious practice and beliefs left him susceptible to ridicule by my university colleagues and contemporaries.  In my soul, I agreed with them.  But I also knew from my experience as an undergraduate student in the Northeast that liberals and academics, many of my closest friends, could be some of the most intolerant people on the planet.  I did not want to be intolerant—what kind of liberal would that make me?  How could that kind of intolerance inspire people to change?

Still, a fierce loyalty to my family’s variety of Catholicism made it impossible to abide my fiancée’s shifting beliefs about homosexuality and abortion.  My own relationship to God, while cultivated and real was less literal than his, and occasionally his language and the language of his church alarmed me.  We both worried about raising children together.  Most of all, both of us wanted to be loved for who we were and not in spite of it.  Our friends and family members, at best, were good skeptics.   Every day we endeavored to avoid name-calling and blaming, to praise each other’s sincere efforts, and to hold each other accountable for our actions and beliefs so that we could live together peacefully.  At that time the country was in the thick of the 2008 election season; the political and religious climate heightened our awareness of discrepancies in our worldviews.  I was all in for Obama.  To my dismay, my fiancée was not.  In many ways we became a microscopic reflection of the painful reconciliation required at much higher levels in the nation.

In the end, while the nation found the common ground to say, “We can,” my fiancée and I failed to say, “We do.”  I left him.  In one of the saddest and more pathetic moments of our demise, I cried and screamed at him, “I don’t want to marry a Republican,” and he whispered back, “I know you don’t.”  At that point neither of us could tell the difference between “Republican” and “Christian” and “conservative” much like the rest of the country.  I threw myself into writing essays in the wake of our dissolved engagement.  While my pain was personal and private and real, in my writing I did not want so much to vent or confess as to relate and work through what I recognized as an essentially American story—a Red State story, a Christian story.  I also began to see my nonfiction writing as a form of service and vocation that harkened back to my spiritual upbringing.  I recognized what I thought of as a failure of liberal Christians in the face of rising Christian fundamentalism.  We had lost our voice, or at least our willingness to use it. The ascension of fundamentalism and its hold on vulnerable young people like my ex-fiancée was, as Marilynne Robinson writes, “the fault of the liberals in large part, because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism.”

I think what I have been trying to achieve in all my essays is a return to the beautiful “story” of Jesus, because as I writer I know the metaphor moves people, the symbol.  This is because when an artist uses a metaphor she is reaching toward something God-like that is unreachable.  The metaphor is the artist’s confession: the best I can do is approximate.  There is no symbol, no representation that will suffice, there will never be a symbol that will suffice, and so those symbols must be graceful, thoughtful, and sacred. I think the writers of the Gospels instruct us to read their words metaphorically, and encourage us to use our own metaphors.  Each book of the New Testament is replete with similes, sentences that begin, “God’s Kingdom is like…” or “God’s love is like…” We cannot know God, we see, as Peter reminds us, “through a glass darkly”.  Our imagination brings us closer to God—to be a Christian (or religious in any way at all) is to have a wealth of imagination.  St. Paul says in is a hard life, Kierkegaard says it is a foolish life precisely because it requires a faith in the improvable thing. (I cribbed that line from my father.)

It is not important that I write my life from a doubtless and fixed place, and therefore reduce God to a concept that fits neatly into my narrow vision, and then live a rigid life according to that vision.  No, what is important is that I seek in the direction to which those symbols point—that I look unflinchingly toward redemption, forgiveness, and hope even when I suspect these things might elude me in my work and in my life.  The artist’s job is to open new avenues of hope, widen the space for definition and representation, and welcome others into grace.

 Or, as Thomas Merton advises in his New Seeds of Contemplation, “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish, or from doubt.”

 I will always be “catholic.”  But when I go to church now, I attend the Episcopal church—close enough to Catholic that I feel comfortable (I don’t want my grandmother rolling over in her grave), but the Episcopalians have demonstrated great foresight by moving with the tide of history in terms of gender and sexuality issues.  I am most recently inspired by the writings of Henri NouwenAlain de BottonRebecca Solnit, and Bishop John Shelby Spong.  My (new) fiancée finds the ritual and serenity of the Episcopal Church inspiring, having grown up, like my first fiancée, in more spartan churches.  We live inside our doubts; they form the walls of our home and church.  Inside these walls we observe our own unique brand of shared faith.  We will both vote for Obama in large part because his story more closely resembles our own faith story.

 Architects build skyscrapers to withstand wind load by making them bendable at the top, much like nature’s trees.  A tall building’s ability to lean in strong wind protects it from falling.  I think the long tradition of intellectual debate, contemplation, and personal writing in more progressive Christian sects—as in Judaism and other faiths—acts in a similar manner.  Moreover, this tradition matters a great deal in a culture where ego-driven confession is sold on television and in bestselling books as entertainment and our politicians and religious leaders engage in nuanced debate less and less frequently. Our doubts and fears, thoughtfully considered and expressed, are the wind-bearing architecture of a kind God, given to us so that we may bolster ourselves and construct meaningful lives.  

Amen.

Sermon for the First Sunday in Ordinary Time

A friend said to me recently, “I’m just dealing with the fact that I’m not a rock star.  I’m a high school teacher.”

I laughed.  I also felt a tsunami of compassion swell in my veins.  I knew exactly what my friend meant.

Let me begin by saying I have the highest respect for teachers, especially high school teachers.  My grandmother taught high school history, my mother taught high school science, and my partner teaches high school English.  These beloved people, and all other great teachers, do difficult, honorable, often thankless work.  God’s work.  It is no easy feat to steer a soul out of darkness and into light.

Still, I understood my friend perfectly.   The older I get, the more my youthful aspirations elude me.  Even five years ago, I was wide-eyed with artistic expectation.  Ten years before that I wouldn’t have believed that I wouldn’t always be one of the prettiest, one of the brightest, one of the most talented or most successful.  I didn’t think I deserved those things, necessarily, but I thought I could earn them.  Vanity may be the bane of my generation and tribe, and the crippling misdirection from purpose that society uses to seduce all pretty girls.  Vanity is certainly my Achilles’ heel.  For some people like me to say “I’m a teacher,” to a stranger at a dinner party requires a humility and strength that “I’m a novelist” does not.  In her own way my friend is facing the same realization I’m facing: I may or may not become a writer with a capital W.  I may not become famous or semi-famous or even singled out.  I might not save the world.  My metabolism will slow down.  My muscles will atrophy.  My hair will turn gray.  Many of my students will graduate and forget my name.  I might be ordinary.

As with any trial, I turn to literature.  Or rather, literature finds me like a fairy godmother or talisman. The word talisman comes from the Greek, teleo–to consecrate.  In my case, this August I received a talisman charged with sacred power from Lucille Clifton in the form of this poem:

the thirty-eighth year 

of my life,

plain as bread

round as a cake

an ordinary woman


an ordinary woman


i had expected to be

smaller than this,

more beautiful,

wiser in Afrikan ways,

more confident,

i had expected

more than this


i will be forty soon.

my mother was once forty.


my mother died at forty-four,

a woman of sad countenance

leaving behind a girl

awkward as a stork.


my mother was thick,

her hair was a jungle and

she was very wise

and beautiful

and sad.


i have dreamed dreams

for you mama

more than once.

i have wrapped me in your skin

and made you live again

more than once.

i have taken the bones you hardened

and built daughters

and they blossom and promise fruit

like afrikan trees.


i am a woman now

an ordinary woman.


in the thirty-eighth

year of my life,

surrounded by life,

a perfect picture of

blackness blessed,

i had not expected this

loneliness.


if it is western

if it is the final europe

in my mind,

if in the middle of my life

i am turning the final turn

into the shining dark

let me come to it whole

and holy

not afraid

not lonely

out of my mother’s life

into my own.

into my own.


i had expected more than this.

i had not expected to be

an ordinary woman.

When I first read the poem, I was in the bathtub at a hotel in Farmington, Connecticut.  I ran naked out into the room and said to my fiancee, “Here.  Read this.  This is what’s wrong with me and what I haven’t been able to articulate to you.”  That same warm night at an outdoor poetry reading, I sat next to him, a rich glass of full red wine balanced delicately on the grass between us.  The emcee chose from an entire anthology of poems to read Clifton’s “An Ordinary Woman” to the crowd.  For a split second, I believed in signs.

I also recalled a song I love by Tracy Chapman, First Try, a song she croons in an older, more wistful voice than any song about fast cars.  She sings, “Can’t run fast enough, can’t hide, I can’t fly.  Struggling with the limits of this ordinary life.”

That word again.  Ordinary.

In the Catholic Church, we have what’s called “ordinary” time.  As a child I didn’t understand what the priest meant when he welcomed us into mass on the “Third Sunday in Ordinary Time,” for example.  What was the difference, I wondered, between ordinary time and other time?  In the Roman Catholic Church there are two periods of ordinary time on the liturgical calendar.  The exact timing becomes complicated, but suffice to say that Ordinary Time exists between Christmas and the Lenten (Easter) season, and then between Easter and the next Advent Season.  The time between birth and death.

More people attend mass on Christmas and Easter; these are holy days of obligation and Catholics love them some obligation.  As I get older, I do the opposite: some years I attend Christmas mass, and rarely attend Easter mass.  I show up tempus per annum, the latin phrase for “times of the year”, translated in English as “ordinary time.”   I need lifting when I feel most lowly and alone, most human.

Perhaps that makes sense.  The Catholic writer Henri Nouwen said, “I realized that healing begins with our taking our pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes all of creation.”  We can display vanity in our suffering too. We must learn ordinariness.  We have to be common to find communion.

In ordinary time we will arrive at the most holy of our life’s work.  In ordinary time we will be asked to recognize the everyday-miraculous: sunrise, schoolroom, sentence, spoon, soap, sleep.  It is not the high drama of midnight mass with its trumpets and Halleluia’s, nor is it the dusky hours of an Easter vigil.  But it may be the time between birth and death–ordinary time–when life demands from us the most humbling and extraordinary task of coming out of our mother’s lives and into our own.

Amen.

 

Newfoundland Sermon 1: Midrash with Whales

My family spends summers in Newfoundland, Canada.  If you’ve ever traveled to Newfoundland, you know its natural beauty and the oddness and kindness of its people, but you also know there isn’t much to do there.  When I say my family spends summers there, I really mean that my family communes with whales.   Everyday we travel the 5.2 km from our house to Cape Bonavista—by foot or car—and wait for a puff of breath from some majestic creature feeding on the North Atlantic’s bounty.  We gasp each time one graces us with her presence, every single time.  My partner describes it this way, “You think you know what whale watching is—some tourist activity people do once in their life and think, ‘Cool.’—and then you see the Fleming family whale watch.  Whole different beast.”  It’s true.  We’re like whale connoisseurs; sometimes we visit the cape two, three, four times a day to avoid ever going what my dad calls, “0 for whales.”  Ben has even perfected a whale call-song, which sounds suspiciously like Ellen Degeneres’ Dory from Finding Nemo.

The last whale I saw this year gave my father and I quite a show, slapping his fluke on the water’s surface, spinning his speckled body around so that the fluorescent green algae swirled, and flashing the underside of his white tailfin.  We watched him for a long time, during which I felt my heart race and then calm, race and then calm.

As we watched, I was thinking: I am so often afraid. 

I was thinking: remember in May, Casey, how you had an anxiety attack in Whole Foods.  Swear to Christ.  It started in front of the Honeycrisp apples, reached its apex in the prepared food section, and subsided in the parking lot where I only started to cry once inside the warm cocoon of my car.  I never had an anxiety attack before that, not a real, physical one, and I suspect it had to do with turning 35, which for whatever reason has really thrown me for a few loops.  It scared me. My body went numb, my ears clogged, like being under water except louder.  I almost lay down and curled into a fetal position next to the organic steel-cut oats. 

 Fear and anxiety seem to be a lodestone for modern people.  But they aren’t new.  And certainly I had no real reason to feel afraid in Whole Foods: I mean, talk about a bougie crisis.  Still, the anxiety wasn’t fun.

 What do we do when we’re afraid?  We go to the cliffs and oceans.  We roam the deserts or trek up mountains.  We watch for whales.

 For example, my grandmother requested her deathbed in the sunlight.  Or, after my first, failed engagement, I sought out the ocean day after day, driving to Galveston even when I should have been teaching or writing.  Or, not long before my grandmother’s death, my family gathered in Provincetown, MA where we also watched whales (well, they watched, I puked over the side of the boat).  And after my grandmother’s death, my father, mother, brother and I traveled to the mother country.  In Ireland, we visited the Cliffs of Moher. Ben and I crawled to the edge and peeked our heads over to see the sea 390 feet below us. Even the photograph of this event—our bodies tiny specks against nature’s majesty—induces in me a severe vertigo.  My mother can’t look at the photo. What in the world, she says now, what was I thinking letting my children do something so dangerous?

But something in us seeks out the sublimity of nature in the face of grief, uncertainty, and fear. Alain deBotton writes in his superb essay, “On the Sublime”, that he traveled to the desert of Sinai, “to be made to feel small.”  He brings as his guides the writings of Edmund Burke and the Book of Job.  But I’ll get back to Job.

 Let me start here.  The Gospel of Mark has two different endings—a shorter ending and a longer ending.  The King James Bible includes both endings.  Ancient Greek authorities bring the book to a close at 16:8.  Others include verses 9-20, but mark them as doubtful—the second ending mixes motifs from other gospels, and most likely a later theologian or scholar with some kind of agenda added those last lines in after the fact, a benign or malignant agenda, I cannot say.  The shorter version ends this way:

So they went out and

fled from the tomb, for terror and amaze-

ment had seized them; and they said

nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

I like this version.  I like that the story of Jesus’ resurrection ends with the word, afraid.  I like that the “they” in the story refers to three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome, who arrived at the empty tomb first.  To women first, God revealed his foremost miracle.

They were afraid.

But I don’t think the author of Mark uses the word afraid in the way we typically define the word, and to prove my theory I’m going to refer to the Hebrew Bible and engage in a modified form of Jewish study called midrash, a method by which one may take seemingly unrelated sentences in the Bible and compare them to find deeper meaning.

I’m going to go back to Israel’s wisdom literature, specifically Proverbs and the Book of Job.  (Who is afraid if not Job?)

Proverbs begins with this sentence, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  One could misinterpret this line as a warning against education or secularism, but that would be careless.  The theologian, Marcus J. Borg offers us a better reading of that line.  He says:

 The phrase “fear of the LORD” does not mean “fright”, as one might be frightened of a tyrannical ruler or parent.  Rather, it refers to awe, wonder, and reverence…

If we apply Borg’s definition of “fright” to the last line of the Gospel of Mark, we might read the women’s reaction to Jesus’ empty tomb not as fear so much as a feeling of smallness; like all of us they shuddered a bit to feel their own frailty in the face of the unexplainable.  But Mark states that the women felt both terror and amazement. Inside that final word, afraid, might actually live the cure to fear and anxiety.   The “bigness” of a resurrection, or any witnessed miracle, might relieve us from the error of thinking we have total control over our lives. This strikes me as an important realization for the religious and non-religious alike, a realization that de Botton affirms in “On the Sublime” by explaining that fear make us feel insignificant in a way that shuts us down, while awe makes us feel insignificant in a way that opens us up.

And when Job finally asks God that painful and universal question, “Where were you while I suffered?” God replies by pointing to the sublime, those mysterious creations that beguile us: the stars, the clouds, the desert, the plumage of the ostrich, the wild mane of the horse, the mountains and rivers, and yes, the Leviathan, which some scholars interpret as the “great whale.”

 Anyone in my immediate family will tell you that the first emotion you experience upon spotting a humpback whale 50 yards from the cliffs’ edge or 50 yards from your one-man kayak resembles fear—the enormity of the animal and the shock of its presence stuns you; you want to step or paddle quickly backwards—but if you sit with that feeling, moving outside yourself as you observe the other, bigger creature simply live its life, that first feeling swells in your chest, spreads and diffuses until your blood slows and endorphins rush.  You won’t feel fear at all, but awe and amazement.  You will think you witnessed a miracle.  You will feel small, and you will receive that smallness as a consolation, a momentary remedy to the rows and rows of canned goods and beauty products and baby food and the rainbow array of Tom’s shoes hanging accusingly from their hooks with all their implied restrictions and responsibilities.

 Amen.