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 Against Any One True God

Here’s an expression I abhor: one true God.  Do you believe in the one true God?  One true God: a shibboleth of the evangelical converted, and, for me, my first clue to run like hell for heathen territory where at least the wine runs thick and the sins taste sweet.

It’s the certainty of the phrase that turns me off as well as its thinly veiled neurosis–it’s not enough to say “one God” or “true God?”  We need two adjectives for good measure?

Hold on.  Rewind.  Let me start over and turn down the snark level a bit.  Let me start with a story.

This morning when I opened up my laptop I found a bright yellow “Stickie Note” on the desktop screen.  I never use “Stickie Notes,” so I knew my husband had jotted down something he wanted to remember.  I’m a Gen X kid.  He’s a Millenial baby.  Apparently, somewhere in the narrow space between our two generations, the younguns moved from real Sticky Notes to their technological offspring the “Stickie Note.”  I didn’t even know my computer possessed such a program.  His typed note read: God is an opening, not a closing, to the mystery.

“What is that? Who said that?” I asked later.

“You did,” he said.  “I didn’t want you to forget.”

I forgot.  God is an opening, not a closing, to the mystery.  

Then I remembered.  Last week my husband and I sat talking about my discomfort with Protestant evangelicalism.  I kept reworking my words, trying to articulate what I feel viscerally first and intellectually second.  I just, I stumbled, I can’twhy do they need to be so SURE?  To say they know what God is, what God wants, what the Bible means.  It lacks…..humility.  It lacks….imagination.  

I was thinking of the neuroscientist, David Eagleman, telling my students to “dethrone thyselves.” Or I was thinking of Ferdinand de Saussure, “Nearly all institutions, it might be said, are based on signs, but these signs do not directly evoke things.”

I don’t feel anything when someone says one true God except suspicious.  Nothing is evoked for me at all, no image, no song.  I feel closest to believing in God when God eludes me, when God lives one step beyond my comprehension, or God cracks open a timeworn window and I must squint my eyes against even the thinnest sliver of unbounded light.

An opening.  A crack.  Quicksilver slant of light.  I buy Christian Wiman’s collection of essays, “My Bright Abyss.”  Even the juxtaposition in the title of the book seems to speak to my conundrum: how can we know God except to know God less and less?  Wiman writes

–so too is faith folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product.  Those who cling to the latter are inevitably left with nothing to hold on to, or left holding on to some nothing into which they have poured the best parts of themselves.  Omnipotent, eternal, omniscient–what in the world do these rotten words mean?

Even more rotten words: one true God.  Because if we can say “one true God” we can say “one true marriage” or “one true race” or “one true government” or “one true gender” or on, and on, and on like that forever.

Today I asked my students, “What is the purpose of a seminar discussion?”  Today was their last of the semester.  They answered quickly, and I cringed to hear my voice inside theirs: to leave the classroom with more questions than answers.

That’s how I want my discussions and dialogues to always go–more questions, more questions, more.  That’s how I want my students to live.  And I guess that’s how I want my God too.   I want the comfort of incertitude, the solace of knowing I may, at the end of my life, disappear into mystery, into a voice that softly chastens you were wrong, that I may disappear into my own failures and errors, those shadowy places where my soul tried to point me during my earthly heartaches, petty and profound alike, that these darknesses in my life were like the underbelly of the sun, that I might need a divine imagination to turn the world completely over in order to see the bright backside.

Or in Wiman’s words, Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.  It follows that any notion of God that is static is–since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge –blasphemous.  

Tell me you don’t know and I’ll follow you anywhere.

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.