Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Falling out of the family tree

You know you're tired when someone points out a sign with the Icelandic word for toilet, which happens to be snyrting, and you laugh until your sides hurt.

I can't remember when I'd been that tired. We'd just stepped off a plane in Reykjavik after a five-hour overnight flight during which I'd managed to get an hour or two of restless sleep. It was 6:30 am local time, and there was no chance we'd lie down in a bed until after lunch. We were so tired we laughed ourselves silly at the snyrting sign, and we laughed when we thought the Icelandic car rental guy told us we were getting a Hummer (we didn't), and we laughed our way across the city as we passed a series of incomprehensible Icelandic traffic signs, including one that appeared to show an adult dangling a baby in the air. (Question: "What do you suppose that means?" Answer: "It means that Michael Jackson's been here.")

We wouldn't have been laughing if we'd known just how frightening the roads outside Reykjavik would turn out to be, but we weren't up to that yet.

I've known my sister longer than almost anyone else--I remember the day they brought her home from the hospital--and yet in many ways I don't know her well. The first day of our six-day car trip around Iceland was all about realizing how different we are. My sister wore a pair of intensely stylish shoes to the airport; I wore waterproof country walking shoes with thick black nonslip soles. Her outfit was elegantly casual; I had on jeans because they were heavy and I didn't want to carry them in my suitcase. In the restaurant, she wanted fish, fruit, and vegetables, and I wanted anything else--which may account for why she is slim and I am not.

On the second day, our similarities became more apparent: The immediate need for coffee first thing each morning, a shared impatience with the detailed museum presentations that fascinate our husbands, and especially our reaction to driving the torture track that passes in Iceland for a national road system, which in places is unpaved, minimally marked, and narrow, and which includes many one-lane bridges, blind curves and rises, and one-lane bridges at the end of blind curves and rises. Yes, I thought when we both gasped as the car down an impossibly steep hill, we definitely are sisters from the same mother, the mother who passed along the profound insecurity that grips us when we are strapped into any vehicle that someone else is driving, especially when it is traveling a series of switchbacks that swing you out over sheer cliffs without guard rails.

Another thing we have in common is Catholicism. We're Roman Catholic because my parents are, as were their families before them. Of four siblings, all are at least nominally Catholic. My brother, who isn't particularly religious himself, says he and his daughters are Catholic because our family is and always has been, and that's enough for him. It's not enough for me.

Or is it? This is a question I'm particularly interested in exploring these days. How much is who you are determined by where you came from, in a familial as well as a personal sense? My head has pretty much decided I belong in the Episcopal church, but my heart seems unable to let go of being Roman Catholic. Why not? What holds me back? I ask myself again and again if it's courage or cowardice that keeps me on this side of the big leap. But thinking about religion doesn't produce answers to those questions, and I don't know how to read the map that shows the rest of the way. When is it right to follow your leadings because they point toward the very deepest truth about who you are, and when does clinging to comfortable old habits hold you back instead of carrying you closer to the truth of things.

All of this is quite odd to be thinking about in Iceland, where we've only across two Roman Catholic churches during hundreds of miles of driving. This has been an amazing trip, leading us to views of geysirs, glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, and landscapes that are unbelievable beautiful as well as others that are unbelievably desolate. Another thing we came across, this time by unhappy accident, was the realization that roads whose numbers are preceded by an F can be too rough to drive if you didn't get that Hummer from the car rental place. We didn't find out what the F stands for but we took a guess; if you get stuck having to drive one of these roads without an SUV, you are f'ed.) Later, when our husbands argued for a short cut on an F road, my sister and I both said no way. I have no doubt the family wisdom was leading us in the right direction on that one.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Condemnation, or conversion?

While I was busy last Sunday trying to feel Catholic, my other church was getting ready to make history. When I heard the news that the Episcopal Church in the USA had elected its first female presiding bishop, my first reaction was a sort of you-go-girl feminist hurrah, but the more I hear of the continuing reaction and analysis, the more I wonder. I remind myself that the Catholic Church isn't the only one with problems; at times the Anglican Communion seems to be hurtling toward self-destruction at an alarming rate of speed.

I admire the ordination of women and the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church. I adnire the the willingness to wrestle with the big questions. I wonder if any institution has a higher obligation to model justice than the church, and I admire the Episcopal Church for striving to do just that. At the same time, though, I can't help worrying about where things are going. I've always been impressed by the eighteenth-century Quaker John Woolman, who saw a moral obligation to end slavery but felt equally responsible for ministering to slaveholders, trying to save their souls by persuading them to see that what they were doing was wrong. In the twenty-first century, we seem much more comfortable with condemnation than conversion.

Churches change slowly for good reason, and I am wondering if it might be better to live with injustice for a little while longer out of respect for those brothers and sisters who aren't there yet, to keep working on converting them instead of fracturing unity by charging ahead. And I wonder if I might use these arguments on myself, to talk myself back into the Catholic Church ...

I've got Jesus!

I celebrated my birthday this week and was delighted to find Jesus and Freud among my gifts, thanks to my daughter, who noted how excited I was last month when I found them displayed side by side in a shop window. Now I have to decide whether to go ahead and put them on my desk at work, so I can enjoy them all day long. I see potential there for offending believers and non-believers alike.

As I was admiring Jesus again this morning, it occurred to me that if we set having a body like Jesus as a requirement for ordination and used this Jesus to define the standard, it would be pretty hard to find any candidates. How many people do you know who have no identifiable gender parts but do have wheels embedded in their feet?

And, demonstrating the human tendency toward never being satisfied with what we've got, this morning we were walking back from breakfast in town and passed a shop window where a deluxe plastic action figure Jesus was on display. That one comes with a jug for wine (to be changed into water) as well as plastic loaves and fishes (for feeding the multitude), plus his hands glow in the dark. Proving that Jesus is always cooler on the other side of the fence?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Corpus Christi 2006

The Lord fed his people with the finest wheat and honey; their hunger was satisfied.
--Psalm 81:16

When I looked online to preview the readings for today I saw that it is the second Sunday after Pentecost in the Episcopal Church; for Roman Catholics, it's the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. I had been planning to attend the nearby Episcopal Church where I've recently been appreciating and learning from the preaching of a very spiritual priest, a former Roman Catholic, as it happens, but when I realized it was Corpus Christi I felt a deep need to be in a Catholic Church. This was more than the gentle tug of the invisible string that pulls me to morning Mass from time to time, but leaves me feeling like an outsider come just to observe. This time what I felt was a deep need to be in a Catholic church as if it were my place where I really belonged, and everything fell into place to make it happen, and so it was that I found myself sitting there in my local Catholic parish looking around and wondering if this is where I am going to end up after all.

For me, what being Catholic is most significantly about is this: Incarnation, Redemption, Eucharist--and Eucharist speaks to us about the first two and is the symbol/reality of God-in-the-World (not God-in-the-Book), the centrality of which is what makes the Catholic experience of divine presence closer to how Quakers understand it than to the ways I have seen it described by some other Christian denominations. To take things a step further, Eucharist to me is first about receiving and then about sharing. I long ago recognized in myself a hunger that only this could begin to satisfy, which is how I explained things to myself so many times in the past when I might have left but didn't.

I was thinking that it would be sweet if this were the last chapter in my story. Back at home, issues resolved, everything forgiven, fade to black, with maybe a little hymn-singing by angelic voices in the background. It would happen that way in an old black-and-white movie like Bells of St. Mary's, but the last time I checked my world was happening in living color and nothing was that neat and simple. I was hardly settled in my pew this morning before some of the things that have irritated or angered or disappointed me began popping up in my mind again. I managed to push them all back down again this morning (in a spiritual version of the arcade game Whack-a-Mole?) but I doubt this will last. I have, after all, spent the last year and a half practicing a different experience of God-in-the-World, and I'm getting better and better at it.

Anyway, from where I sat in church I could see two babies, one about 10 months old and the other a little younger. The older babe was dressed just like his dad in a navy blue polo shirt and khaki shorts, and he sat in his father's lap facing forward, pretty well behaved for his age. They were cute together, but I saw in them a vision of God the Father: I have created you in my own image. The message being that this father's love is deep and strong but comes with high expectations. The other baby was in his mother's arms, and as she bounced and kissed him her utter delight in him was movingly obvious, as was his delighted response. When he got fussy she soothed him, and when he tried to push her away she pulled him back and settled him against her chest with her arms wrapped around him. A vision of God the Mother?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Holy places

When I was little my parents taught me that church was God's house. Then I went to catechism class and they told me God was everywhere, which made me wonder why he needed a home of his own, or if he ever actually went there. And then the post-conciliar reformists came along insisting that the Church wasn't a building at all, which seemed to contradict the substantial physical reality of that large pile of stones where we all gathered once a week, though of course I understood what they were trying to say.

I've been thinking a lot lately about holy spaces. Are there physical places where we come closer to God, where it's easier to make contact? If so, is this just a result of conditioning, or is God really in some way more accessible there? Are there thin places in the cosmic fabric where a little bit of heaven leaks through to us? I was interested, as I played around with these ideas, to read Revem's thoughts about the basic need for a second space in life, a place to feel safe and "just be," as she explains it.

"At one point in time this may have been the church," she writes, "but this is definitely not the case today."

Maybe that depends on your particular faith tradition, and perhaps on where you find yourself geographically. I think many Catholics, myself included, still find refuge in church--inside the big building, that is, if not always (she says ruefully) within that bigger construct that comprises all of us. I've heard of places where it isn't considered safe to leave the church building open for anyone who might wish to make a visit, but that isn't the case where I live, fortunately, and I still take advantage of divine hospitality by dropping by from time to time. It's something I've missed in my Episcopalian explorations, where as far as I know churches are kept locked when not in active use and people don't think of stopping in unannounced. (Though I should point out that my experience is limited and I don't presume to speak authoritatively.)

What do I find in an empty church? Well, most emphatically and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I don't find silence. The building itself speaks, in creaks, cracks, groans, and hisses, and I know it's been saying those exact same things all along, even when I couldn't hear them through our Sunday morning busy-ness. What else did I miss, I wonder? Alone in church, I try to listen harder for all those things I should be paying attention to but usually don't. Sometimes I feel I'm alone with God. Sometimes I just feel alone. Sometimes the creaks and bumps of the building are the ghost sounds of absent worshipers, reminding me that in some sense I share this space with everyone who has ever prayed here before me. I almost always leave feeling my batteries have been recharged.

I don't think this has to be a uniquely Catholic experience, despite the Catholic claim to a unique sacramental presence. I think my feeling that I am closer to God when I am in church is more a learned response, and it's not unrelated to the fact that when I go there I have nothing to do but sit. I had a very similar experience when I spent an hour alone in my little Episcopal church as part of our Holy Thursday/Good Friday prayer vigil this spring, which was the only time I ever had an opportunity to spend time in that church alone and without interruption.

After 9/11, many churches of various denominations near my home announced that they would stay open for anyone who wanted to be there. I wonder if people would have made a habit of this if the invitation were continued.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

I'll have a latte and a glimpse of eternity, please

On weekend mornings when I have time and my dog is willing to accommodate me by walking a little farther than usual, I like to tie her up outside of Starbucks while I pick up a venti skim latte to savor on the way home. I keep a Starbucks card near the leash so I can slip it into my pocket and be prepared for this possibility. Unfortunately, I set out this morning not remembering that I had left it in my pocket through yesterday's wash cycle, and it turns out the magnetic strip containing the details of my credit standing was obliterated by the dryer.

I think if Purgatory exists, it must be a little like waiting in a long line and finally reaching the counter at Starbucks only to find that you've come up a couple of bucks short of what you need to get the coffee you so long for.

But there was an angel behind the counter this morning who, perhaps in recognition of my regular patronage or perhaps just out of the kindness of her heart, told me I could have this morning's brew for free. I could have left thinking thoughts about the colossal profit Starbucks has already realized from my steady patronage should more than cover it, but told myself not to. Instead I pondered how this small act of kindness had taken me past frustration to appreciation of the small pleasures of walking home behind a good dog with a hot cup of coffee in hand on a glorious Sunday morning in June.

I thought about one of the women who works as a cashier at the food court on the bottom floor of our building at the university. Not much of a job, most of us would probably say, but somehow she manages to greet every single person who goes through her line like a friend. When she looks at you she really sees you, and you come away feeling you have been given a small but not insignificant gift. What would the world be like if we all did our jobs like that?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

@#$!%& crazy

All week long I've been revisiting my decision to leave the little Episcopal church where I've worshiped most often for the past year and a half, which has been "my" church more than any other during this time. I'm sad about leaving and yet every time I thought about it, I felt even more convinced that it is time to move on. Last Sunday I said goodbye in my head; yesterday I picked up the phone and made it official.

I wanted to explain why I wouldn't be voting at their meeting tomorrow, and why I didn't expect to be back after that. It was a short but good conversation. I said everything I wanted to say (which doesn't always happen with me and which is why I usually prefer writing to speaking). Then I hung up and asked myself if I had totally lost my @#$!%& mind. I mean, I go looking for a church, find a place that manages to provide most of what I could hope for, where I am truly welcomed, and then in response I give it back because it turns out to be not quite perfect enough for me?

But I had to. I'm sad about that decision, but happy, too. (I really am @#$!%& crazy!) Even it wasn't the right place for me in the long run, it was the right place to be while I was there. When I was hurting and needed a place to settle for a while, those folks took me in as if I belonged there, and they will always have a special place in my heart. I’ll also always ask myself if it was fair to take from them as much as I did, but I tried to give back as I could; I hope it was enough.

Some things I've learned: That wonderful church communities do exist. That being a community of faith is about knowing each other but even more about praying together. That God is good. That trying to know love and serve God is an amazing adventure best undertaken in the company of others, and that even in our sorry world people all over the place are seriously trying to do just that. That you don't have to stay stuck where you are if it isn't the right place to be. I’ve watched a church community struggle with its own joys and sorrows, through birth and death and betrayal and the departure of longtime members. I've come to know a gifted woman priest, been part of a faith community that welcomed gay and lesbian men and women as if they were regular people, that was focused more on bringing people to the Eucharistic table than standing at the gate and announcing who would be excluded.

I should feel good about having narrowed my church choices a bit, but I’m not sure I do. Sometimes, when I look at the churches that are left on my list, I can almost imagine myself settling down in my local Catholic parish--and then I think of those three last things among others and I can’t see how that could ever feel right.

Friday, June 09, 2006

TGTG (it's summer)!

It's quiet now on campus.

The students are largely gone; so are the alums whose pursuit of lost youth took them to the bottom of many a keg last weekend, and the proud-lost little families who trailed along behind their graduating seniors through several days of celebratory wevents. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel about three months of this--I like the bustle of people moving purposefully toward class and the library (or lunch, a late-morning nap, or whatever)--but for now the stillness is almost palpable and very peaceful. This evening one of the deans is throwing a big TGTG party--short for Thank God They're Gone, a sentiment that resonates with all of us who are still here.

In our office, though, we have two undergraduates working with us this summer, which is creating a more lively atmosphere than we were used to and will certainly keep me on my toes, since I have the primary responsibility for keeping them busy. They are supposed to be working on our online resources, which they can't always do because of continuing glitches that keep us from accessing those resources, which means I have to scramble to find other projects for them. At this rate, they may have wrapped up every project I can think of by the end of the first full week.

The best thing has been watching them delve into understanding what our office is about. It's exciting to see that they are excited by what we do. Very broadly summarized, the work of our office is about encouraging people--the students of our fine university in particular--to use their varied skills and talents to make the world a better place. It's good work, by which I mean not just pleasant (thought it is that) but good in a moral sense, too.

It might seem curious that a secular university would have such an office, but this sort of thing is very trendy in higher education circles just now and the leaders of my educational institution are intensely tuned in to what's in style in the academic world. What I find interesting is the spiritual alignment of the four of us who work in this office. We are all very alike in terms of sharing the same values and passion for justice in the world. Two of us would say our values are shaped by religious faith. Two would say not. The two of us who profess faith come from two different Christian traditions. Yet I would say that each one of us has much more in common with the other three than with many others who would appear on the surface to be more alike.

We don't usually talk much about religion but the subject of faith did come up one day and I mentioned the Presbyterian campus minister who was recently quoted in an article in the student newspaper about the growth of conservative religious groups at the university. Noting that many of those traditions emphasize salvation, he said, "My tradition falls much more in terms of the theological concept of grace; that we are saved not by anything of our own doing or by our own choice, but because of what Christ has done for us ... I'm less concerned as a pastor about the saving of an individual's soul and more about responding to this grace."

Now I know there's a lot of subtle theology going on under that statement and I probably couldn't fall in line with all of it, but I like the idea and I said so. Of course I couldn't come up with the whole quote from memory, so I summarized: "It's not about redemption as much as it's about grace."

I said I thought that meant religion isn't a point system toward heaven as much as it is about being in a relationship, and my faithful colleague (who in fact is Presbyterian) agreed.

I like that idea. The hard part is living up to it.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Back on the road again

Back on the bike today for a short (6.5-mile) spin in the hills above town, hardly worth getting all sweaty for but you take what you can get. I didn't sleep well last night and I'm dead tired today, but I promised myself a bike ride this afternoon and I wasn't giving that up, so when we got back from church I changed into bike clothes and off I went into the hills above town.

The wild roses are giving way now to honeysuckle, a slightly different sweet scent, which was mixed in here and there with the aroma of grass drying in the sun. That's a scent that straddles two worlds; in the country, it's what you get after hay mowing, while in the suburbs it's what the lawn smells like by Saturday afternoon. Either way, it speaks of human labor applied to what grows naturally, a good clean scent, and one of my favorites.

I also straddle two worlds, and I, too, am finding myself in transition. I said goodbye this morning to the church where I have mostly worshiped for the past year and half, not publicly but in my heart. I looked around at all those familiar faces and tried to love each one, seeing in each one a wonderful reflection of God in the world. This is a special place and I do believe God drew me here because he knew I'd be well taken care of, but in my heart I have known for a while now that this isn't where I belong for the long haul. Pursuing my reflection on places I have thought of as home in my life, I do believe the time has come to let this one go.

I made a similar resolution to move on in January, I know, and then I didn't keep it. I found it difficult to sort out the difference between being loved and welcomed and being convinced that you are where you truly belong. I will always be grateful for that little church and I will always appreciate what I found there. This time, though, I'm pretty sure I'm ready to move on.

It's Pentecost, which has always been one of my favorite feasts. I love the reading from 1 Corinthians that speaks of different gifts. I have a much broader sense of what this means than I used to, thinking now of the many different ways and places we followers of Christ live out that faith. Thanks, God, for this one.

Friday, June 02, 2006

You can’t go home again

Until just a few years ago, my aunt still lived in the house where the family had moved when my father was 8 years old. It was a row house on a city street, and I remember running up and down its long, open basement, spending the night in the room that had been my dad’s when he was a boy, making pancakes from scratch on Saturday morning under my aunt’s supervision.

I returned to that house again and again over the years, eventually bringing my own children with me. I told them about family gatherings with my father’s mother, sisters, aunts, and uncles, and I showed them my old pictures, but I’m not sure they could really understand what that house meant to me. Though I never lived there, for half a century it represented home, a place where I could go to revisit happy times with departed relatives and remember what it was like to be a child with so many good things yet to come.

In time, though, my aunt grew old and feeble, and eventually she had to move. I joined in the sad work of dismantling our family’s urban homestead; the ensuing diaspora of household goods meant that all of us in the next generation now have a piece of the place to call our own. The house sold quickly to a young family who were excited about making a home there, and we were glad for them. I went back a year or two later, though, to look it over again. Though I still had a picture of every room in my mind’s eye, in real time I could only stand in the street and stare at the outside because the place wasn’t mine any more.

I made a visit last week to the church where I was an active member for 26 years, until I walked away in sorrow a year and a half ago, and it felt much the same as revisiting the family home of my childhood. No matter how familiar the church looked, no matter how many memories I have, it isn’t my home any more. I found myself yearning for the comfort of belonging there, of going to 8:30 Mass and looking around to find the old gang gathered just like old times, but though I willed myself to imagine going back, I couldn’t manage to make it feel right.

We move on, build new homes, make new families, and maybe it's wrong to try to cling to the places we’ve been. I grateful for all of my homes , but I think maybe it's time to let go of this one and move on.

The view from the back corner where I was hiding. Like any good Catholic, I tended to sit in the same place every morning, which for a long time was on the left side of the center aisle about seven pews from the front, although once it occurred to me that the women all seemed to sit on the left and the men on the right, I switched to the right just to be contrary.