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 Against the Resounding Gong

My first yoga teacher had a serious savior complex.  He was gifted at teaching the basic foundations of yoga poses, and is, in large part, why I practice yoga safely and intelligently.  But he was so messy—getting overly involved with his students personal lives, making the class about his humor and his experience more than the students’.   One time I heard him say to a young—attractive—woman:  You should be prepared to start crying in pigeon pose because women carry a lot of sexual trauma in their hips.  Don’t hold back if you need to cry.  That kind of crap sets my blood boiling—it abuses the power of suggestion and potentially keeps clients from getting real help for real problems.  At best, yoga can provide the physical counterpart to other healing processes, but it cannot cure cancer or quell mental illness, nor was it ever designed for such miracles.  Of course, that girl in class did start to cry in pigeon pose.   What other option did she have, really, if she wanted to stroke her teacher’s ego as he so clearly needed her to?

The yoga studio is fertile ground for such characters, because given the historical connection of yoga to religious practice, people often arrive to class with more than their physical well-being in mind.  They want their bodies and their souls healed.  Or, they want a bastardized version of yoga that gives them six-packs and defined deltoids, but compromises their bodies.  They want the Dalai Lama or David Koresh, and not a simple person trained to offer a student the tools to develop her own strength, heal her own body.    Nothing more, nothing less. 

Spoiler Alert: I’m not really a preacher.  Or a priest.  Or a deacon.  Or ordained in anything at all except, perhaps, my own experience if we think of our births as conferring holy orders on us.   

If you’re reading this blog, you know I’m living in a precarious space between tongue-in-cheek and sincere, between my instinct to poke and prod and provoke and my genuine desire to write about my own spiritual experience.  I’m often uncomfortable with myself here in the Cyberworld: on the one hand, I write from the persona I create, a persona that protects me; on the other hand, I expose myself dangerously to strangers.  I’ve longed believed that this straddling between performance and confession lends blogging, as a form, its tender credibility, its vibrancy in the hands of a decent writer, and its disproportionate draw for women writers.   Also, the ephemeral nature of the Internet—a place where one’s writing both remains and disappears into the void created by thousands of other users mimics, for me, the slippery way divinity works in my life.

I’m glad you’re willing to follow me into this shadowy territory.  I’m also appalled, the same way I’m appalled when my students turn on their peers because they’ve adopted a position I posited in class, when they’ve taken something I said while playing devil’s advocate and digested it as God’s own truth, usually because they want my approval more than they believe what they’re arguing.   If you’re reading my blog, you’re reading in part because of the personality my blog implies that I have.  You hear a voice and imbue the person you imagine behind that voice with an authority and respect I haven’t exactly earned. 

That puts me in disquietingly close proximity to that yoga teacher and those church leaders who assume a pulpit with very little education or formation, the ones that scare me silly.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I feel suspicious of informality and a lack of credentials.  I’m a snob that way.  I don’t care.  I want my priests and pastors, my professors, and my politicians to be smarter than me, more educated than me.  I do not want George W. Bush’s nicknames, for example, and I don’t want to call my reverend Billy or Ed or Mitch.  I prefer something more titular….like….I don’t know….Mr. or Mrs. President, Sister Bernice, or even Reverend King.   These titles protect us from the person while respecting her expertise.  Rather than create false authority, when used correctly titles promote healthy personal space and appropriate boundaries.  I do not have my students call me Casey, for example.  But nor would I have them call me Dr. Fleming if I haven’t earned a doctorate. 

I disapprove of any Cult of Personality.  I distrust leadership based on charisma and reputation, leadership that promotes a kind of hero worship that impedes true learning and undermines mentorship, informalizes and mythologizes the relationship between student and teacher, and makes the humble sailing vessel into the majestic sea upon whose depths it can only rest.

The high school classroom is equally fertile ground for such misguided heroism.  Teenagers are aquiver.  They vibrate.  They’re like exposed nerves, susceptible to even the slightest breeze’s burn.  They’re also hormonal and given to high drama, ripe for hero worship and indoctrination.  It’s no coincidence most religions have their youngest members confirmed or Bat Mitzvah-ed during the teenage years.   But in my opinion, students at that age need to be directed toward the big questions and then empowered to find their own answers rather than being baptized into certainty.

On this blog, I’m twisting the form, using the idea of a sermon to structure my writing for a while.  I have some things to say, and have ordained myself to say them.  But do not anoint me with an authority I have not earned except through voice and style.  You’ll be disappointed, because you’ll be the spectator of my spiritual journey instead of the protagonist in your own. 

We do not save our followers—in the church, on the page, in the studio, or in the classroom.  They do that.  And when we start to think we can be our students’ saviors, we’re playing God.  When we rely on our reputations or personalities rather than our knowledge and experience to keep our students afloat we’re really sinking their ships.  We’re also taking more love than we’re giving, since love is always active, not passive.  We’re acting out of need more than power.  We’re keeping them from finding other, equally important teachers by tethering them to our influence.  And we’re acting in direct opposition to St. Paul’s advice in Corinthians 13:1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Last, but certainly not least, many people who end up leading cults of personality didn’t start out superficial or twisted, the popularity turned them that way.  Hero worship is detrimental for followers, certainly, but it’s also a painful spiritual death for the leader.  

Beware and Amen.


Sermon on Reciprocal Inhibition

So often our bodies are the best teachers.

For the past three weeks, I’ve endured the moans and groans of teenagers who expected to lay around chanting when they signed up for my yoga class.  They staged pouty mutinies every time I asked them to perform a leg lift or plank.  And then, because they’re lovely creatures, they stepped up to each challenge, albeit with giggles and sighs.

I wasn’t trying to torture them or play the tough coach.  On the contrary, I care about their young bodies, already so beaten and bruised by 15 pound backpacks and hours spent in front of screens and windows: iPhones, computers, televisions, windshields, and blackboards.  I also teach over-achieving, and therefore, high-anxiety kiddos.  Plus, they’re teenagers and body conscious as a rule.  The last thing they feel comfortable wearing is their own skin.  Getting them to just close their eyes and breath deeply requires me to have the patience of Job.

What poses do you want to do today? I’d ask.

The inevitable chorus of voices: Savasana!!!  (for those of you not familiar with yoga, that’s the pose where you lay on the ground and do nothing)

But in my yoga teacher training, one of the first things I learned was the concept of reciprocal inhibition.  Reciprocal inhibition describes the relaxation of muscles to accommodate the contraction of opposing muscles.  Our bodies understand this yin and yang already, but we can help them along as well.  For example, if you want to get your tight hamstrings to loosen up, you don’t stretch them as common knowledge would say.  Instead, you strengthen and contract the opposing muscles–your quadriceps–and your motor neurons will send some quick text messages to your hamstrings telling them to CFD (Calm the F-ck Down).   Flexibility requires strength.   Strength requires flexibility.

So before I sent them into savasana, I asked my students to fatigue their muscles in various ways.  And it worked: tighter muscles began to ease open their rusty gates.

In anatomy the flexed muscle is referred to as the agonist, and the “opposing muscle” is referred to as the antagonist, which pleases me to no end as a writer and teacher of English.  The antagonist.  The adversary.  The foe.  The nemesis.  My impossibly wound muscle fibers have a face–The Joker, the orc, the mean girl.

There’s a bigger wisdom here past the warrior and pigeon poses, a lesson literature teaches as well.  Our bodies instruct us: if we want to have more flexibility in our own views, we must strengthen our understanding of the opposing views.  Likewise, if we want our opponents to relax their positions, we will need to strengthen our own arguments.

The concept of reciprocal inhibition might serve us in so many important ways off the yoga mat.

If I want my students to experience more ease with vocabulary or grammar, maybe I need to strengthen my expectations and lessons.

If I want to have a calm and relaxed space in my life to write more, maybe I need to tighten my discipline at other tasks that require time from me, become firmer in saying no to requests for my time by other people.

If I want my husband to speak his feelings to me more freely, maybe I might contract my own voice a little.

If I want my friends to confide in me, maybe I should build up my listening skills.

If I want to stop thinking about my ex-boyfriend, maybe I should find a hobby and dedicate myself to it.

If I want to stop hating that pretty, popular girl in the front row in my Algebra class, maybe I should hang out with her.  Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man.  I must get to know him better.”

If I want my child to stop throwing fits, maybe I should become more grounded and dependable.

If I want Congress to pass my proposed bill, maybe–ahem, Mr. President–I should not compromise it so much as firm up its merits.

And as all of us tighten up, maybe we will lose our inhibitions, release our grip on our antagonists, all those small and big enemies we face down everyday.  Maybe we can breath easy and let them go, confident in our strength, and set ourselves free in the process.

The light in me recognizes and honors the light in all of you.