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.

Believing, Questioning, Knowing

PEI goldI risk echoing Edie Brickell and getting choked by shallow waters before I get too deep on this post, but I was struck by what must be a rather elementary epiphany.

The only way I can get through house cleaning is with some podcast or another blasting louder than the sounds of running water in the sink; last night I was listening to James Finley talk about Meister Eckhart on Caroline Myss’s website. Finley was once a Trappist Monk who studied with Thomas Merton and is now a psychotherapist; Meister Eckhardt was a 13th century mystic and theologian.

The problem with cleaning with a spiritual soundtrack is that I can only really absorb 15% of what is being said, but the rest of the time is generally spent getting inspired by one particular idea and then running with it. This time, I was taken by the fact that I was listening to quotes from a medieval scholar while chopping vegetables, opposed to singing off key to an Alison Krauss song or catching up with the NPR news I have been ignoring lately. One of the most fascinating things about my fascination with matters of the spirit is the fascination itself (get that?). I am constantly left to wonder what draws me to meditate and study these discourses on the soul when it would be so much simpler to stick with fiction and watch a little more tv. Part of me is perfectly contented to know that faith is an integral part of me, in the same way that I have red hair and love animals. But the aspect of me that is never quiet, that must interrogate everything around her needs a response to those who cannot comprehend “because I just believe, that’s why.” And frankly, there are times when I need an explanation of sorts for my own questioning heart.

Certainly atheism seems to be a bit of a fad right now, and I have to admit I have read none of the best sellers on the topic; there is too much to read about what people actually believe to spend time on what they do not at this point (I’m sick of all this definition by negation these days anyway: “we’re the good people because we are not like them, the bad people”). So this is just the first breath of an epiphany that might stand as a response to those who seem to imply that faith in a Universal Being is mark of weakness, of a lack of self reliance or reason. This little revelation of mine is not informed by any systematic knowledge of theology, so it might be painfully obvious and been said a million times, but it is something that has suddenly become clear to me.

Countless multitudes believe in a higher power, in a universal being, in a creator. Even if, on the off chance, this faith held across so many traditions is just a ubiquitous myth, a global bedtime story that keeps us from panicking in the face of the void, couldn’t it be that this collective belief, this shared essence, is the Divine itself? “God” as we call her could just be the unity of all beings that springs from the very act of contemplating the sacred, in seeking a higher power. Shared belief (across creed and country) and the energy it creates is in itself something to believe in.

But beyond all of these examinations, “I just know” is both the final answer and the beginning of endless questions.

Recasting the Emperor, Speaking Truth With the Children

This August while visiting family on Prince Edward Island (the most beautiful place on earth) I read Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, a novel about a passel of hyper-intellectual New Yorkers in the months before September 11. I had a backpack full of Rumi and Merton, but all I could do was tangle myself in the wreckage of these lives (and they were wrecked well before a tower fell).

I was restless because I was compelled to finish an inconsequential novel when I should have been contemplating the herons fishing in the marsh and the way the barley fields rolled into the sea; I should have been thinking deep thoughts about the soul and immortalizing them for the cold winter that would surely follow those exquisite summer days. This was one of the first pieces of fiction I had read since my spiritual studies had begun in earnest. The literary elite that I might so have wished to emulate once upon a time seemed to wage a constant assault on belief and believers, dismissing them as so many simple sheep, weaker minded fools to be pitied for needing such pablum. Because I was unable to find anything other than my own spinning mind in meditation and prayer just sounded like rhetoric that week, I felt vaguely assailed by their derision. Was it because the author cast these people as brilliant and famous and witty and worthy of recognition? Am I so susceptible to doubt? Did Messud hit such a sore spot that I was unable to sense the irony in her portrayals? The climate of this book, in which there really were no victors, made the option of relying strictly on education and reason seem more viable than anything else; the only “believers” were the sad and lonely types who seemed to find a comfort in a hard, cold pew, kneeling before an oblivious silence.

Why I began to think of this book today is unclear. Perhaps it surfaced in the course of one of the many inner dialogs in which I try to sort out what sort of person I am meant to be now that I declare my interest in matters of the spirit to be the most compelling of my life. Where do I fit in the country’s current religious continuum that seems to include only faddish atheism and cafeteria Catholicism (Judiasm/Presbyterianism/Unitarian Universalism/etc.) and religious zealots in the red states? I don’t chose to be counted with “New Agers” (a vaguely recognized footnote that doesn’t quite fit into the spectrum) even if my eclectic faith fits in best under that umbrella because such an affiliation invariably leads to collecting way too many paperbacks I’d never read and seems to call my own intellectualism into question.

Though I raise these questions, I do so with a pervading sense of optimism. I realize the solitary nature of my particular path at this moment, but proceed with the confidence that we will recover from the silliness that has infected the corners of society not preoccupied with body counts and global warming over the past few years. Certainly there will always be the naysayers and those who make a career of doubt, and surely we need to foster healthy conversation about the nature of both belief and disbelief. At the same time, I also trust that we will be able to move to a discussion of faith that does not draw exclusively on bestselling discourses on Godlessness and the predilections of specific voting blocks and embrace a constructive discussion based on passion and respect rather than sound bytes and judgment.

Assuring That There Will Always Be “One Free Foot Kicking” Pt. 1

The Real Thing

The Book of Exits, miraculously copied
Here in this convent by an angel’s hand,
Stands open on a lectern, grooved
Like the breast of a martyred deacon.

The bishop has ordered the windows bricked up on this side
Facing the fields beyond the city.
Lit by the glow from the cloister yard at noon
On Palm Sunday, Sister Custos
Exposes her major relic, the longest
Known fragment of the Brazen Serpent.

True stories wind and hang like this
Shuddering loop wreathed on a lapis lazuli
Frame. She says, this is the real thing.
She veils it again and locks up.
On the shelves behind her the treasures are lined.
The episcopal seal repeats every coil,
Stamped on all closures of each reliquary
Where the labels read: Bones
Of Different Saints. Unknown.

Her history is a blank sheet,
Her vows a folded paper locked like a well.
The torn end of the serpent
Tilts the lace edge of the veil.
The real thing, the one foot kicking
Under the white sheet of history.

– Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

This poem came to me in meditation this morning, but since I am not yet willing to credit my mediative state with the power to attract wisdom from sources greater than myself, I assume it has been rattling around in my head due to a series of more earthly conversations. My post about an identity crisis in a Dublin lecture hall leads me to contrast a graduate student seeking only the subversive bits of Irish poetry that declared a native feminist spirit deeper than any imported religion with a more mature seeker who has redefined the “subversive.” Because I was constantly seeking the Goddess in verse, I paid little attention to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work. A few volumes are full of notes and comments, but most of them are tinged with irony as I marveled at such an obsession with the Church; clearly she was occupied with the spirit of the sacred feminine, why did she have to veil it in a habit? Now, as my definition of the sacred moves beyond such gender discrimination (to both rather than either/or) and I have a broader sense of history and context, I read her work with fresh eyes, wondering what that thesis of mine would have looked like if I had not limited to such a specific view of the divine.

Another reason I believe I was drawn back to this poem is a half-baked online chat session with a friend who knew me in my professionally irreverent pagan days in Ireland. To him, my new investigations of Catholicism are akin to asking politely to don the moral straight jacket and requesting a steady stream of lies at the hands of patriarchal victors. In the twisted medium that is “talking” online (I am sure enough people have pontificated quite enough on how such interactions contribute to our chronically fragmented personalities and our pervading sense of isolation even as we drown in “communication”), I tried to express something about babies and bathwater and waste. Luckily we have poets to save us from clichés!

I wonder at my former ability to write literary criticism even when a poem shook me to the core. Was I like a surgeon of words, hiding behind an impersonal mask that refused to become emotionally invested in the subject (or was it the object)? Or if I was affected, was I resigned that an English class could not always fulfill my needs? I suppose that I decided against the PhD path because, in the end, the classroom is not a cathedral.