A Mass of Humanity

The church was as lovely as I have ever seen it.  A wall of poinsettias was set before the altar.  Evergreens glowing with white lights were draped in red ribbons were tucked in every alcove.  The music was perfect – a soloist accompanied by the harp and the piano – and the priest, a retired bishop, was all that you want a Catholic clergyman to be – thoughtful, appropriately self-deprecating, smiling, kind.  It was Christmas morning.

The homily made me ache for Moira, who was at home with my mother (the family splits into the Midnight Mass crowd and the morning church folk – this was the first time in a long while that I had to be in bed by 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve).  The bishop spoke of how all families change for the better with the addition of a little baby.  He assured the half-full church that he knew we’d all be wondering what a celibate knew of such things, but he had an understanding of human nature and heavenly nature that made up for the fact that he was only and observer of earthly family dynamics.

And then came time for the Creed.  My husband and I launched in, both muttering the words by rote.  I wondered how they echoed in his agnostic heart as I wondered at how easy it was to say I accepted in one version of One God and One Lord when, in reality, I lived a very different theology, finding gods and goddesses all over.

I watched as the bishop as he dug inside his robes for a handkerchief.  Without breaking from the prayer, this unselfconscious octogenarian wiped at his nose before the entire congregation.  As I began to smile broadly at this perfect display of humanity in this midst of all that godly talk, I realized we were on the bit about Pilate and Christ’s suffering.  The words were so automatic, the idea of crucifixion did not even register.  I was half in the moment; my focus on the fleshy plane, not the pious one.

When I finally wiped the grin off my face, I looked around at the other pews.  Earlier, I had been pitying the kids who had been torn from their toys and stuffed into new clothes to stand around listening to an old man, who no matter how endearing to the grownups, could never be more fascinating than Santa’s loot.  One girl, about seven or eight, wearing a headband that kept slipping onto her forehead and a crinkly dress that left her nowhere to put her hands was fidgeting as the long prayer droned on.  Her father, whose perfectly gelled hair and flawlessly pressed jacket could not make up for a severe, pock-marked face, looked down to her with a warning glance, his mouth still moving with the story of the religion.  The look worked and she resumed staring at the carpet.

One prayer, two human stories out of hundreds that were acted out while those familiar words flowed forth.  For all that it is easy to talk about the tyrannical dictates of the hierarchy and those endless rules and regulations that stifle the spirit, there are always the stories that you come in with, the humanity that you can hold dear even when you are acting according to the script of the mass.

I still stood on the outside looking in, but it was important somehow to take in not just the religious theater, but the movement of all the extras as well.

Precious Cargo

Those pink fuzzies? The best booties ever. May Moira never grow out of her "Muppet Feet"!

A sure sign that it’s coming on Christmas that I never noticed before?  The cars you pass, even just on the way to town, are filled with more people.

Beat up sedans full of girls who must be together for the first time since getting back from college.  SUVs that gleam despite the salty roads driven by manicured women who are accompanied by a tiny woman who must be grandma, out on a rare adventure for the holidays.  For a few days at least, our little isolation booths, our tons of steel and glass that hurtle down the roads delivering us from one mission to the next, are not just vehicles for one.  We have the chance to break the routines and take routes we’d never get to travel in the middle of any other week in the year and share the journey with those who gather because it is nearly December 25th.

Who are these other people, untethered by the 9-5 work day? What are their stories on this Christmas Eve Eve and what will they be on any other day in January when the lights have all been removed and we are resigned to the typical gray of winter?

These last two months at home, especially the last few weeks when I actually venture out with Moira secure in her carseat behind me, have really made me appreciate uncharted days, a bundle of hours that are not structured by anyone else’s schedule.  It still feels oddly reckless to make a chiropractor appointment for noontime.  For all that I have been begging the gods to get me out of my day job, I still feel like somebody must be wondering why that thirty year old woman is not at work.

As much as I always though they were ridiculous, I suddenly am starting to understand why people hang those silly little “Baby On Board” signs in their car windows.  When you walk down the street or through the supermarket with a stroller, everyone knows to hold the door for you.  You come to expect a little more patience from people and you may be slightly offended when they don’t look at the angel who happens to be sleeping in your grocery cart.  A baby is a good luck charm and a guarantee of others’ good behavior.  As permeable as one feels as a new mother out in the world with an infant, you need what little protection and consideration can offer.

My story as I drive around town in these last moments before the world takes a collective Christmas breath is that my heart, my mind, the entire focus of my being is tucked into the back seat.  I am not traveling solo anymore, and though she will grow more and more independent and allow me some breathing room when the time is right so I can get my wits about me and remember what it is just to be Marisa, right now, I cannot imagine us existing without each other.

I don’t want to hang one of those yellow signs in the window so that I can have an excuse to drive like a madwoman, I just want the world to know that my PT Cruiser carries a new life and a new mama and that is something pretty special.

Because I want to find the river that takes me to an unending number of days when Moira and I can craft our own schedule and gad about town any old time, I give you Joni Mitchell…

The Christians and the Pagans Sit Together Round the Cradle

Moira’s christening is set for next June.

Just three years ago, one of the many reasons we refused to marry in the Church was the requirement that we at least promise to raise our children in “the one true faith,” but those concerns faded last month when I took pleasure in asking my grandfather if we could have the baptism at his church.

Boughs of our Christmas tree are bending under the weight of a choir and a half of angels.  Our living room is decorated with not one, but two nativity scenes.

The trappings of the season, just to be expected in the homes of even casual believers to be sure.  But for me, the angels are there to represent the little girl who has been deemed our “Angel Baby.”  The figurines of the Holy Family are representative as much of the Christmas story as they are our new little family.  Images that are incontrovertibly Christian have essentially been co-opted to fit the shape of our family and our lives.

Do we all do this to a degree?  Finding our home in a religion, in a set of beliefs, in a path of any sort because they add depth or help to make sense of our experiences?

A year ago when I wrote in this space nearly every day, I often sounded like a lapsed Catholic working her way back to the fold.  After attending a nightmarish Easter mass celebrated by a priest who used the pulpit to wag a sanctimoniously admonishing finger at the unusually full pews, that crest of interest in my childhood religion receded once again.  I resumed my safe distance from the religion I have ignored or actively renounced for nearly half my life.

During my pregnancy, I had a few isolated pockets of spiritual lucidity (the rest was a bit of a fog in which I felt completely unable to organize my closet enough to get dressed, never mind my thoughts enough to write coherently) and in that time I felt much more drawn to the powers of a universal Mother than the specifics of Christianity.

Moira will be counted amongst the Catholic branch of flock to please our families and to mark her arrival with a ritual, even if it is not exactly the ritual I believe best marks initiation into this life.  Because I intend to raise her with a respect for all faiths and the curiosity to find whatever path to Spirit calls her by name, I have a couple of options.  I could leave her to be a religious tabula rasa with no ties to a specific faith and let her make all of the decisions when she is ready.  Or, I could  give her the same start that her father and I had and allow that to be one step along a journey that could bring her closer to the teachings of Rome or just be one ceremony among many in a seeker’s life.

Like superimposing the trinity of my own little family onto the family in that manger 2000 years ago, I am sculpting the Catholic traditions to suit my own needs.  I am Catholic enough to feel a little bit guilty about bringing Moira to an altar to have promises of single minded devotion to one version of God made upon her behalf.  I am still a little sad that a tradition as rich as this one is still not “enough” to satisfy my spiritual inclinations, but I think teaching her to find the Divine in all beings and help cultivate in her a true sense of compassion for all the world with counterbalance these little transgressions against a creed that is not my own.

My first departure from Catholicism was through paganism, which was the most rebellious, individualistic path I could imagine.  Now, I know that the two are far from antithetical and that both paths inform who I am now though neither shall ever define me.  Still, adherents to both views think they are forever living at opposite ends of the spectrum so much of the time, unless you are having a Christmas-Solstice dinner with Dar Williams…

Christmas, the Rare, Acoustic Version

cardinalDriving from one roast beef dinner to another on the day after Christmas we heard an early acoustic version of one of my favorite songs, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by the Police.

The stripped down version was a little creepy and certainly felt like it was lacking something as Sting meandered through those “thousand rainy days since we first met.” Suddenly there was real sorrow in being turned on and you wonder what quality of love it is that will “go on and on and on.”

It was the other side of unrequited passion, the sort with a raspy throat after too many lonely tears. There is such bitter joy in watching the beloved from afar, because as magic as she may be, it is so wasted at a distance from the man who pines for her.

What a meditation on sorrow in the afterglow of a Christmas surrounded by family and feasting and a midnight mass with comforting carols and radiant poinsettias and glowing evergreens!

Perhaps it makes sense that this Christmas would seem a little subdued to me and I would find messages in an introspective, alternate take of a rock song. This year I approached December 25th with a new reverence as I began to understand what Mary giving birth to Jesus really means for me. I set much of the maddened consumer rush aside, and found my holiday in meditation and prayer, not in a roll of gift wrap.

This sense of slowing things down and tasting the real essence of Christmas rather than being distracted by the icing on the gingerbread men offers so much, but it also forces you to gaze into some of the shadows of self and family life that are usually disguised by trimmings and bows and those extra few glasses of wine. I’m not going to get into my own dramas here, but I am sure that we all have years when the unexpected confronts us and what we expect to be most magical evening of the year becomes an opportunity to practice all that we have learned the rest of the year.

Recognizing that everyone is entitled to their own complexity and respecting the universe within them.

Acting with compassion as your guide rather than operating under the illusions of expectation and entitlement.

Finding peace in stillness rather than the laughter of the crowd.

Not being afraid of the spaces between notes or the pauses between conversations.

Trusting that everything is going to be alright.

And, most of all, remembering that everything She does really is magic and believing in a little divine intervention to keep the familial ship afloat.

Oh, and finding the happy, well-known version of your favorite song featuring short shorts and funny hats just might just might help too!

Visions of Mary? What Are You Talking About, Woman?

In yesterday’s post about the way I have come to understand the connections between Christmas and the Winter Solstice, I mentioned that I have been having visions of Mary lately.

There was no simpler way to talk about how, while I am in meditation, I see images of an every changing woman who is named Mary and who gave birth to the child we have come to call Christ.dsc00983

Who do I think I am and when did I start having visions?

If I were better schooled in mysticism, I might have a better vocabulary for these exchanges that take place within my heart and head. Anything I have read has always applied to spiritual masters like Teresa Avila who levitated and could say without hesitation that they had been touched by the Divine. I am certainly not to be counted amongst such company.

In my healing artists’ classes we have talked about the images one receives when working on a client or just walking down the street. They seem unbidden these colors and pictures and emotions. They are bits of consciousness so foreign to our own way of knowing the world and so seem like they must come from an external source. Our intuitive centers must be so open that we are receiving messages from new sources all the time.

Or, these visions seem like such intimate extensions of our own souls that we are ecstatic to realize we are stepping deeper into our true selves. Such breakthroughs seem Heaven sent, such understanding a gift from God.

Either way, my classmates and I wondered about where these ideas came from. We worried that while in guided meditation we were just inventing our experiences, walking through the heady terrain our imagination rather than through the secret vaults of the soul. We were concerned that any guidance we received during a healing session was just judgment twisted into a therapeutic shape.

“I don’t have any intuitive power. I just make this stuff up!” we all feared.

And then our teacher offered a revolutionary idea: it doesn’t matter where any thing that dances through our minds actually comes from. If it was put into our heads, we must have been meant to notice it and experience it.

I see lots of holes in this theory. There are entire sections of the Vatican dedicated to determining whether people have had authentic experiences of the Virgin or whether they are charlatans with a crafty streak. The entire realm of faith is a dangerous dance between true relationship with God and the clouds of overactive cerebral cortices. Seers and liars – I think the two have become inextricably tangled in all too many ways.

dsc00637And yet, this explanation is most comforting to me as I try to describe my new understanding of the intimate relationship between the rhythm of nature and the traditions of Christianity. I am not begging for attention by talking about this new way that I see Mary. I am not hoping to be canonized and make New Paltz the next Lourdes.

I have been envisioning Mary and gaining new wisdom from these phenomenal moments. Am I placing a sacred face on recycled bits of knowledge I have gathered along my way? Perhaps. But, if in this dialog between Self and Soul one of the players is going to wear a beautiful mask, I couldn’t ask for more than to have her wear the sweet, complicated face of the Great Mother gliding across my inner landscape in shining blue robes.

What would it be like if we took our intuition and the images that appear to us a little more seriously? What if we stopped denigrating these experiences as mere trifles of the overindulged imagination?

How much could we learn – from ourselves, from the world around us, and, yes, even from God – if we close our eyes and allow ourselves to have a dialog with whichever wisdom bearers come to call?

Winter Solstice: Mary, Mother Earth, and the Stories that We Tell

In the end, all we have is nature.

My teacher offered this wisdom during my healing class a few weeks ago, and only by going in the opposite direction, by dipping into myth and stories and ideas have I begun to understand the profundity of this statement.

I was blessed with the most incredible, nourishing Winter Solstice I could have possibly prayed for. The snow continued to fall while the Christmas lights glowed all day in the cozy house. I had the luxury of spending hours in my sacred little room: lighting my Advent candles, meditating, drawing, writing, discovering new territory in the realm of spirit.

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This December has offered me previously unimagined insight into the power of both the Solstice and Christmas.

For some time now, I have been experiencing visions of Mary. In them, she tells me that she is not just that silent, blue veiled vessel with the alabaster brow. She is the Mother who carried the weight of the world between her hips and who gave birth to a God. She is not some distant creature to be locked up in churches. She is a vital ally, a friend to all life. Mary is the supreme realization of the Divine Feminine.

Never before would I allow myself to get close to Jesus’s mom. A girl who got tangled up in all that Biblical stuff just because she was passively filled with angel dust? Not my style. Instead, I sought the Goddess in myth and legend, rock formations and prehistoric art. The statues of the blessed virgin that graced the churches I passed were just dull marble decorations that helped other kinds of people through their day.

But Mary has been insistent, and I realize how foolish I have been to refuse her. I now allow myself to drink deep her story.

Two phenomenal posts that I came across today, both based on today’s Gospel reading about the Annunciation, opened new doors of understanding for me: Christine at Abbey of the Arts and a blog that’s new to me, Magdalene’s Musings.

The more deeply I fall into the stories of the Annunciation and Jesus’s birth, the more overcome I am by their power. Suddenly it makes sense that these events would form the basis of a faith that endures 2,000 years later.

At the same time, my understanding of these miraculous moments is colored by the new “relationship” that I have with Mary herself. As she becomes something other than an iconic character for me, and instead emerges as a face of the feminine aspect of God, I realize how the stories that bind her to history are just that: stories.dsc01518

The time I spent soaking in Paganism and Celtic magic left me with a strong understanding of the way the Church strategically scheduled Christmas to coincide with a holiday as old as the earth itself: the celebration of sun’s return around December 21. The overlapping events and the connections between them are becoming increasingly clear to me:

The earth is tilting back on its axis so that the sun shines longer in the sky each day.

Mother Earth is offering up her Child, the Sun.

The Feminine Divine is making way in order to give us the Divine in human form.

Mary gives birth to the infant Jesus in a manger.

When I fully realize that the nativity story is not about shepherds and stars, but is instead a beautiful allegory for the cycles of the seasons, I arrive on a new plane of respect for Christianity and for all of nature. The interconnectedness of humanity’s stories with the basic laws of this earth make me stop and allow tears to fill my eyes for the incredible beauty we are all permitted to be a part of.

Did those events in Bethlehem really happen? I would not deny it. And if they did, I believe it was because God knew humanity needed to watch the power of his love enacted in human form. The passing of the seasons and the miracle of the earth’s rebirth of the seasons is too abstract a miracle for us to understand. What genius and power, to give us these holy beings, Mary and Jesus, to guide our story-loving souls.

solstice sun setI stood outside as the sun set on this shortest day, and I understood completely that the only sure thing is the natural world. The ideas, the living beings, the manufactured things, they will all fade away. Only the mountains and the seas, the sun and the moon will remain.

But still, I know I feel more connected to God and to the rest of this beautiful world better by holding in my heart these stories that we tell.

Frugality Is Not a Crime

German chapel ornament

When you have to do it, belt-tightening’s no joke. But, gladly, most Americans don’t have to — not even in this economy. […]

If you’re blessed with good fortune in these hard times, you’re not helping anyone if you let frugality chic stop you and yours from having a very Merry Christmas indeed.

I nearly choked on my soy milk when I heard this commentary on Marketplace this morning. It’s yet another story about how resisting the urge to spend as much as possible this Christmas makes you worse than Scrooge – it makes you the scourge of capitalism and the American way of life.

I make no claims about having much knowledge of the economy. Nearly all of my news comes from NPR, and I know that’s not like being a daily reader of the Wall Street Journal. Maybe the commentator, Will Wilkinson, is exactly right and austerity is one of the factors that makes an already shaky economy begin to look even worse.

My issue is not with this interpretation of the the law of supply and demand, it is that we are stuck in a system that can only be salvaged if we acquire more stuff.

Wasn’t it greed that got us into this problem in the first place? How can buying more Gap sweaters in bizarre colors just because they are on sale and your sweetie should have a few more boxes to open make the world any more livable?

Change is a scary thing. Realizing that the global economic structures are being turned upside down and may never look the same again is frightening. Trying to imagine what might come after U.S. domination seems unfathomable for most of us in these fifty states.

Clinging to the very structures that have been proven to betray us is not helping matters. Continuing to shop like everything is normal isn’t the soothing balm the ad campaigns and the radio experts are trying to convince us it is.

detail of our treeWhat if we are choosing to buy less and handcraft more? What if it just makes sense to give to charity instead of purchase a book that your uncle will never give himself time to read? What if this down economy, even if you are yet unscathed, is just the reason you were looking for to ditch materialism and show your family you love them by giving them less clutter, not more?

I cannot believe that this financial crisis is just a fluke of the markets. With all of the internal shifts that are forcing people to look at their lives in entirely new ways, we need our relationship with money and consumerism to be transformed as well.

Our souls need room to breathe. Wouldn’t there be a lot more time to figure out how to do that if we spent less time in the mall and less time dusting our new trinkets?

Our earth needs room to breathe. Won’t easing the yearly December burden of delivery trucks and crowded landfills and depleted resources be the greatest gift you could give to your Mother this holiday?

When Holiday Tradition Compromises the Earth

We recycle.

We compost.

We eat organic food.

I weep at the plight of the polar bears and I pray fervently every time I spot an animal that has lost its battle with an oncoming car.

And tonight, we smiled and laughed and forked over what was probably entirely too much money so that I could have the pleasure – and the guilt – of throwing this into the garbage can:

garbage

Even as the lovely man at the fire station carried our tree over to the sawhorses, I cringed. There was that oh-so-clever contraption that made enormous evergreens fit into humble family station wagons. We barely got any needles in the car and the trunk door actually closed. A gorgeous, full seven foot tree stands in our living room and the netting that will languish forever in a distant landfill sits in our trash after its brief, but ostensibly vital, use.

Life is full of constant compromise. A good relationship is all about meeting your lover halfway. A treaty between differing factions can only be reached through mutual give and take. There is the ideal, and then there is the reality.

Most of us cannot get to work without contributing to global warming in some way, even if we hate that our carbon footprint is growing in leaps and bounds. Those of us who do not grow our own food are so often stuck feeling contrite that the avocado and everything else in our salad has racked up more frequent flier miles than we have. But still we get in our cars, and still we eat lunch that was born in South America, and still we make a million little choices every day that mean the earth is forced to bear more and more abuse all the time.

Obviously we have to reconcile ourselves with our impact on the environment if we continue to live mainstream Western lives, but when are we compromising too much? I cut up that wretched Christmas tree netting as much as I could so that birds and other animals could never become entangled in it, but I am really doubting it will biodegrade even after Santa has made another million year’s worth of trips around the globe.

We work on our expanding our consciousness and enlivening our spiritual selves through meditation and prayer. We try to compromise as little as possible when it comes to the welfare of our souls and the love that we share with others. How do we find the strength to apply this sort of rigor to our love of our Mother, the Earth?

Taking the easy way out when it comes to personal awakening never works. Why do we continue to believe that thinking about the our beautiful, singular planet some of the time could ever sustain the most constant friends that we have, the ground beneath our feet and the air that fills our lungs?

I ask these question because I really have one of the answers, but I have all of the symptoms of being yet another guilt ridden drain on the planet.  In so many cases, awareness is 75% of the battle.  I am pretty sure that being aware of what is in the garbage isn’t helping anyone.

How do we begin to let this awareness really shape our behavior and make the external changes that, in this instance, are every bit as important as the changes we are going through within?

naked tree!

Gospels and Advent and Oneness, Oh My

The Universe was pushing me along today, and I tried my best to let her take the wheel.

Maybe it was the hush of a Sunday morning, but I happened upon two blogs, Barefoot Toward the Light and Abbey of the Arts. Both offered wisdom about the Gospel reading of the day and reminded me that it is the first day of Advent.

At most, I can be described as a reluctant Catholic who takes small sips from the cup of her childhood religion. Googling the Mass readings is not something I ever thought I would do, but here I was today trying to track down this bit from Mark in which Jesus declares “Be watchful! Be alert!”

Both of the bloggers I mention above do more justice to these words that I can, especially Christine at Abbey of the Arts who gives us meaning of this short piece of scripture beyond its immediate warning to keep an eye out for the approach of God. She says:

In the invitation of Advent to prepare for the birth of God into the world, we are invited to awaken to the sacred possibilities deep within us, to shake off our slumber, open our eyes wide and discover the sacredness of everything we encounter.

I know that I have expressed similar sentiments many times, though not necessarily in the context of the birth of Christ.  Only by staying open to many masters, but never tying myself to any particular religious path have I felt the freedom to talk about how I have encountered the sacred.

In this same post, Christine at Abbey of the Arts also talks about the way that the perspective of Eastern religions inform the West, and vice versa and the power of inter-religious dialog to enrich all faiths. It is the same nurturing message I found in reading Joan Chittister’s words yesterday and that I have come to know as my own truth.

Again, I am stumbling across whispers of Oneness. The religion that was the foundation of my spirituality mixes with the explorations that have marked my adulthood and I learn once more that all roads to a great divine harmony – if only we keep our eyes open to see it.

* * *

I created a makeshift Advent wreath and placed it before my altar tonight. All of my hopes for light in this darkening time before the sun returns at the solstice suddenly had a focus in a single flickering flame.

Always we seek relief from the darkness, and ever we find the light. Where will you find the light to guide your way?