Apophatic Sermon

apophatic, adj., from the ancient Greek “to deny”–of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what he is not, also referred to as negative theology

God is not negative; not the void from which rise our birth cries; not the deathbed bequest;  not a hole-puncher in the ballot box; not the vertiginous mountain top or any purple majesty; not leagues or the leviathans that flirt with tidal forces; not the missed pill all alone inside a Tuesday on the pharmaceutical calendar; not the mobile that hangs like a Kandinsky painting escaped from its canvas above my bed in the doctor’s office; not a doctor; not, unfortunately, the serratus anterior muscle; not a car seat or a seat belt or a speed limit; not the innermost layer of the earth; not Ursa Minor; not a virgin; not Whitney Houston’s power notes or Shakespeare’s poetry; not the scars in the wood grain; not the splinters, not the pulp, not the cross timber; not the cross’s timbre; not phonemes or logos; not the note I keep folded up from 10th grade nor its ball-point roses; not this liturgy; not this litany; not the dimple in my left butt cheek nor the birthmark on my left arm; not evil; not a status update; not the philosophers’ weary sigh; not a flock of pre-teens wearing new sneakers; not a logical fallacy; not logical; not a matter for reasoning maybe; not a father or a son; not masculine, or not a man anyway; not a rod; not a rocket booster or launch pad; not kale; not the dry quiet in my grandmother’s house corners; not the string coursing through a strand of pearls; not the book’s spine, not sans-serif; not yours and not mine; not made in our image; not supersize; not self-help; not the single gasp inside a stadium of gasping; not for sissies; not gone; not this blood flow; not “shining from shook foil”; not the bodies that lay in my bed, the dog shedding, the broad back bending into dreams; not a highway; not this overgrown road; not a cumulus cloud like a tumor at noon; not an end mark but not a dash or ellipsis either; not a sentence; not this sentence; not circuitry systems or a click-click-click of the fingertips; not inside our hungry guts; not of or from or above or beyond; not a murmur or sharp steeple; not a pigeon pose or a dirty winging of joints from their bones; not teeth-chatter or small pox; not old; not a language I know; not a phrase I can thread with words unspooling from all that knotted nothing; not signifier nor signified; not my ilioinguinal light or the blindness in my inner thighs; not tonight or tomorrow; not now; not ever; or–I’m so very afraid–not ever not.

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. 


Amen.