Healing Through Questioning

Listening to the podcast of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith the other day, I was introduced to Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor who has pioneered the “integrative medicine” movement that pulls the modern medical establishment’s attention to the mind/body connection. I was reminded yet again that holistic healthcare is actually considered quite radical in most circles and that many well meaning doctors have been (and continue to be) surprised by the fact that a person’s experience of her illness is as important as the clinical symptoms she may demonstrate.

The airing of this radio show is yet another instance in which the Universe seems to be conspiring to make me think about wellness and infirmity, and the place of health and illness in my own life and the lives of those I touch every day. When I was trapped on the couch with another sprained ankle last week, I plunged into a bout of self pity while speaking to a friend, listing all of the ways that my body has betrayed me over the last handful of years, including six months when I was reduced to debilitating exhaustion most of the time due to a nexus of calamities. She suggested that I might be taking good enough care of myself that none of these health issues became insurmountable, long-term issues. That is a nice thought, but I really think that I am being taught what it is to be temporarily unable to meet the days’ challenges so that I can allow that knowledge to become empathy that will eventually be transformed into the power to help others heal. These days, I am working on developing my sense of perspective on the moments when my body does not perform exactly as expected, hoping to realize that I should just be overcome with gratitude for all that she accomplishes each day.

All of this is merely meant to be an introduction (that I will surely explore later) to a passage included on the program from Remen’s book’s Kitchen Table Wisdom:

The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.

At this moment, this quotation gives some shape to my thoughts about what I talked about yesterday, my struggles with conforming to the fullness of any particular church. I think one of the elements of the Catholic Church that I grew up with that leaves me so conflicted is that claim to the Truth with an absolutely knowable capital “T.” I am still in a place of delicious, torrential questions. Perhaps the reason we have religion in its modern sense is to find solace in a monolithic entity that seeks to comfort its flock with creeds and commandments and promises of the ultimate wisdom. The only answer I have received to all of my questions so far is that this is not my path.

From my reading of the Christian mystics I know that the tradition that has its most obvious manifestation in the one-way communication of Sunday mass (all priestly answers, it seems), also has guided centuries of questing souls who have interrogated issues more deeply than I can possibly imagine. I am just left to wonder how to reconcile these two expressions of communion with the divine.

Reconciling, ever reconciling…

Sneaking into Jesus’s House

St. Patrick'sMy husband and I were honored to be asked to be the godparents of two of our friends’ children. We felt comfortable with the broad spectrum of such a role from giving the best birthday presents to offering counsel, spiritual or otherwise, especially in matters they didn’t know how to talk to their folks about. The family sent us a lovely bottle of wine the other day, which only upon closer inspection proved to be less of an early thank you, and more of a way to soften the blow. Enclosed in the box were two innocuous looking sheets of paper – contracts from the Episcopalian church that asked us to affirm our allegiance to Christ and his Church and assure that the children regularly take part in public worship and personal prayer. Personal prayer I have covered, but the rest… Well, the concerns about the above mentioned elements pale next to “I share regularly in the worship and the ministry of my own Church. I live a life in harmony with the Christian faith an the responsibilities of my own Baptismal covenant. My priest/pastor has seen this statement and affirms its accuracy.”

What does it mean that my mind was instantly whirling with ways to beat the system? I was applying the same sort of creativity one must take to traffic court when she is trying to talk her way out of a speeding ticket she almost certainly deserves. Can my mother see the priest at our church from home, where they still attend, and mention that we have been doing a lot of traveling (untrue) and have not had a chance to settle into a parish but that I fulfilled all of the requirements once upon a time? Can we make an appearance a few times at a local church and grin and bear it until we get these pieces of paper signed and then never be seen again?

It is not even the last vestiges of Catholic guilt that make me feel horrifically devious as I try to think of a clever way to prove we are card carrying members at a local house of (a Christian) God. One can laugh about such things if she did not respect so much of what those places stand for, and if she did not feel a deeper sadness at the inability to join one of them.

I don’t think I have ever been to a non-Catholic mass, so I cannot speak for the Anglican service, but I when I attend church a few times a year due to family obligation, I am always so troubled by my my incapacity to recite the Creed. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” “One holy, catholic and apostolic church…” Perhaps I am missing something, but I cannot make these statements work with my conviction that all true faiths that seek unity with the divine are essentially working toward the same place, simply using different symbols and vocabulary. One cannot claim primacy and still respect other traditions as equally valid – can they? I spend much of my time in beseeching prayer asking whether this is supposed to feel right, if I can love Thomas Merton and Teresa of Avila and feel so conflicted within those walls.

This happens at the same time that I am just beginning to understand what it might mean to worship Jesus, though at this point I am still trying to get comfortable with saying His name. Actually, Gartenfische‘s post simply entitled “Christ” helped me to begin to understand that Jesus is in fact a figure with whom I can feel a deep resonance. It figures, she is talking about a Hindu’s love for Christ. I find I can get a better perspective on His greatness through the writings of other faiths – they do no assume the ingrained belief that is meant to be second nature to a confirmed Catholic.

We have until June to sort all of this out; with the speed that spiritual developments seem to be spinning through my life, I cannot say for certain that I will not have befriended a priest or found peace with a local parish, but at the moment, that doesn’t seem all that likely.

Is there anyone out there who cares to vouch for the fact, if nothing else, I think about God an awful lot? Think I can just email the address of my blog to all of the local pastors and see if anyone can give me points (and a signature) for effort?

Journeying Under the Cloak of Epiphany

As one might expect, my blog has been coming up on a lot of people’s Google searches and the like since today is the Feast of the Epiphany. I hope that a few people were not disappointed to find that my sorts of epiphanies include Rumi and Irish poetry and talk of global warming and will venture back here even after January 6. Truth be told, my knowledge of this date on the Christian calendar is limited to my Nanna’s tradition of giving us a little gift and taking down the tree on this day.

I wished that this day upon which Christians celebrate the revelation of the one they considered to be infant savior to the Magi, Christ’s baptism, as well Jesus’s first miracle when he turned water to wine at the wedding in Cana seemed to offer more epiphanies to me. On this day at home we were taken with dogsitting for my folks’ wonderful fool of a black lab, Saoirse, and with discussing the shape of our lives in the year(s) to come. Undoubtedly we were planting seeds for eventual bursts of wisdom, but it seemed to simply be a day of snow melt and the sense of standing at the beginning – or perhaps the middle – of a great transitional state.

* * *

In the last moments of daylight I took the dog for a walk, the sense of feeling largely bereft of epiphanies heavy my mind. Instantly I was grateful for the excuse to walk the soft snow in the gloaming, the path glowing white through the gathering gloom. It was yet another moment of deep recollection, the glory there is to be found when disconnected from flickering screens and long lines of words, the uncharted space in my head beyond recorded language that longs to be explored. A body kept bound by obligation and injury and forbidding weather remembered what it was to move, to feel an expansion across her shoulders, an opening of her heart from an unexpected place in the middle of her back.

The sky was neither iron nor pewter – none of those usual winter words to describe these dense clouds that seemed to glow from a place deep within as the snow reflected back the last of the dying light. It was infinitely softer, a sweeter canopy over this temporary thaw. The first image that occurred to me was that the world was lying beneath a great wizard’s cloak – a magical garment made of sun and snow and atmosphere in silver and gray that hinted at blues and pinks and a place beyond color. Then I recalled that there are in fact three wizards abroad this day: the three magicians, the Wise Men of the east who were said to have followed a star that must have glinted like an even more mysterious prism than this northern evening ever could.

After toying with whispers of despair as I felt this day to be devoid of concrete promise, lacking the sort of thoughts and realizations worth committing to a page, it seemed that hope refused to be denied. A day about which I assumed I knew so little, whose name I have used so liberally revealed itself to me in a symbol that enveloped my entire world. I am left to understand the constant, universal journey toward Epiphany.

An Adventageous Snow

http://www.imageafter.com/image.php?image=b3_landscapes016.jpg&size=full&download=noAfter a long drive home in the snow this afternoon I spent a while glancing through other blogs and websites as I waited for the plows to come by (only then would it make sense to shovel the driveway so my husband could park when he got home from work well after dark). Out of the tangle of ideas that flickered over the screen, one word kept rising to the surface: Advent. Even as my interest in Catholicism has resurged over the past year, I don’t think I even remembered that the Christmas season used to mean something other than the mall was open later and the cats would invariably get into the wrapping paper.

Glancing at my post from yesterday, I realize that I included a photo of a single candle flame and spoke of “inner light.” I am amazed both by the dancing, overlapping layers of meaning that flow through all aspects of this life and by my own obliviousness to a tradition that would have been interlaced throughout my childhood. The anticipation of opening another window on the advent calendar… Vague recollections of purchasing an advent wreath engraved with Celtic knots for a high school boyfriend’s parents… The circle of candles at the right side of the altar every December… I suppose because it is about celebration rather than deprivation, Advent was easier to forget. “I’ll give that up for Lent” has been a catch phrase for years (I generally stick to my grandmother’s abstention from watermelons), but Advent? That’s kids’ stuff.

I will not demean this time of religious observance by drawing too many parallels to my own life, lest I seem to co-opt the anticipation of the birth of Christ only in order to explicate my own sense that I am waiting for something (something that is much less universal than the arrival of the savior, I must admit). Instead, I will simply celebrate the fact that the light that so eluded me yesterday and left me to see only the limitations of my situation has filtered down today despite the snow choked sky.

Two guys who jumped out of their pick up to push my less than intrepid vehicle up a hill. Enjoying a few hours outside of time when the world has to stop because the Mother declares it time to cover all of creation in a blanket of white peace. Returning to my sources of inspiration and finding them more valid and enlivening that ever.

Yes, it is indeed possible to believe that a light that is the presence of the Divine dwells within us all and can shine as brightly as one might wish – in fact, I think it just might be the only way.

Assuring That There Will Always Be “One Free Foot Kicking” Pt. 2

In my last post I presented Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s “The Real Thing” as a response to why I seek to learn more about the Catholic tradition of my birth even when I see so many problems with its execution over the last two millennia. Throughout the cultural upheaval/revolution of the last few decades that called into question centuries of Catholic Church rule of Irish social norms Ní Chuilleanáin examined and assessed her religion but continued to affirm her connection to it.

In an essay by Catriona Clutterbuck in this Spring-Summer’s Irish University Review outlining the ways Ní Chuilleanáin has uncovered the “liberating potential of religion,” this poet is declared to “trace the power of the imagination to excavate space for the agency of belief.” As I examine the authenticity of my faith, I often wonder at the place of imagination in such an endeavor; is there a demarcation point between divine guidance and an overly active brain, or can we credit our imagination with being, at least at times, divinely inspired? To hear that Ní Chuilleanáin’s imagination serves to produce fertile territory for belief is reassuring, even if it does come from an academic who is probably less interested in the quality of the poet’s connection to God than we might be here.

The Brazen Serpent of the Old Testament is a kind of homeopathic cure: God tells Moses to mount a brass serpent on a pole so that the Israelites who had been stricken by the bites of fiery snakes sent to punish their sins could be healed. In the same fashion, Ní Chuilleanáin’s reimagined Church is an antidote to the hegemonic legacy of Irish Catholicism; something so traditional as the figure of a nun in a reliquary can be presented in a new way so as to soothe the injuries done by formalized religion. The rejuvenation comes in the reclaiming of seemingly irretrievably sullied entities.

Sister Custos herself seems to operate under the assumption that all that has been decreed by her Church is true: without question she takes pride in the relics in her care; she does not seem to protest that the windows that would allow her to look to a world beyond have been barricaded; she moves placidly through this Palm Sunday. At the same time, though she appears so oblivious to her own individuality and her place as a woman in this Church, the poet places her in a bricked up room. She is locking away an object that once produced miracles while her own vows are subterranean and inaccessible. The scene has been set for dissent. It is the nun’s own foot kicking under the white sheet of history, an indomitable spirit that enlivens her faith even in the presence of so many imprisoned, lifeless things because it is the person who is the authentic center, “the real thing. ” Just as the Brazen Serpent relieved those who suffered God’s wrath at the hands of snakes, it might be able to sooth those who suffered at the hands of an organization that did not see individuals deserving love but a flock of sinners to be subdued.

It is the modern reader who would read this piece as the modern poet lays it out. My interpretation assumes that the Church can in fact be questioned and yet still places a sense of worth on the monastic existence (though she lives a cloistered life without a view of the countryside once can assume that her lay sisters have a much more difficult time of it, here she is permitted education and time for a contemplation of God). It is not necessary that the Church cease to exist, but instead that it grows to recognize a woman such as this one who lives within it.

I introduced Grandpa to yoga. He gave me a bible. Pt. 1

My sister laughed hysterically when I told her that, but that’s what happened last Sunday.

My grandfather is a brilliant man who spent his life in the business world, living on four continents and realizing countless facets of the American dream. Though I know that his Catholic faith has always been an essential part of his being (the family jokes that we’re lucky he didn’t become a Jesuit since none of us would exist), since his retirement, and, also, sadly, I believe, my grandmother’s passing, he has truly been able to dedicate himself to religious study. The divergence between his devotion to the Church and my refusal to devote myself to anything in particular (remember, I was spiritual so I could stay safely outside of any traditions that made any demands on me at all) seemed destined to remain a strictly off-limits topic. I quietly stuck What Makes Us Catholic onto the dustiest of my bookshelves and chose to ignore how difficult it must have been for him to see me married by a female interfaith minister.

At Omega’s Being Fearless conference in New York this past April, several speakers, including Al Gore, talked about the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I nudged my mother as we realized this conference, which seemed so removed from the classical Roman perspective that we associated Grandpa, was constantly reminding us of his great hero. The Catholicism that was meant to remain a forgotten aspect of my history like having braces and the belief that I would marry my high school boyfriend continued to resurface throughout the weekend. I attended a day-long session about Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle with Caroline Myss and began to realize that these great voices of Christianity were speaking the same language as the Buddha and the Sufi poets I was learning about in other seminars. When I got home a few days later I awoke well before dawn to write Grandpa a ten page letter about my first in what would be a long string of epiphanies.

Since then we have embarked upon an amazing spiritual friendship that is at once beautifully anachronistic and of a time not yet realized. Suddenly I use the U.S. Postal System to send my grandfather articles and handwritten correspondence in a way that makes me feel like a Jane Austen heroine. I feel as if we are on the edges of living the vision of all beings perceiving that unification of consciousness that is Teilhard’s “Omega Point.” I still have not started The Phenomenon of Man, which Grandpa gave me for my birthday in June (and so sweetly renamed The Phenomenon of (Wo)Man, acknowledging that my feminism is alive and well even as I begin to embrace aspects of the patriarchal Church that I once dismissed entirely). My knowledge of Teilhard’s work is largely limited to a brief mention in Rosemary Radford Reuther’s Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, which I just completed this afternoon, so I beg forgiveness if comparing our conversations with his theory is terribly ignorant or irreverent. There is so much to learn!