Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

23 April 2007

Icons, Commemorative Clothing, and Other Visual Prayer Aids

A habit shared by many victims of violent crime is to obsessively collect information on violent crime and violent criminals, especially when there is a crime in the news. It is my theory that we do this because we think that if we can just figure out what makes a person commit an act of violence, then we can figure out something important about how we came to be victims and thereby gain some sense of control over the traumatic event in our own lives. I call this obsessive data collection “researching.” In my case, as a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, researching inevitably leads to my developing the symptoms of the disorder—clautrophobia, avoidance of touch, abiding anger—that are the legacy of a sexual assault that occurred a quarter of a century ago, when I was in graduate school. All this to say, I have been trying not to do research on the Virginia Tech murders, currently in the news.

The other day, though, I ran into a friend who, I discovered, was also very upset about the murders and had been engaging in the very research I had been avoiding. Or, trying to avoid. Later, in a brief email exchange on the subject, I learned that the friend was comforted by the fact that others were honoring the dead students by wearing the Virginia Tech school colors, and I realized that this comforts me, too—not only to see others wear the commemorative colors but to wear them myself.

I often undertake to wear certain clothes or pieces of jewelry in remembrance of an important worry in my life. I wore a speckled white, burqa-like dress during the grim days when the reporter Jill Carroll was held hostage in Iraq. The dress became my Jill Carroll dress: a way of reminding myself of her by wearing something like what I imagined, from the horrifying videos posted on Al-Jazeera's websites, she was wearing. In one of the videos, she was crying. Wearing that dress, for me, was a way of entering what I imagined to be her pain. A way of grieving and showing solidarity. A way of praying.

I have been thinking about these and other visual aids to prayer: commemorative clothes, flags at half mast, a hat worn when a friend is losing hair due to chemotherapy, my silver baby pendant that reminds me of Jesus’ incarnation and of the fact that I am God’s daughter, the pierced hands and feet I privately envision when I think of Jesus’ suffering and my own. Biblical people tore holes in their clothes to mourn, and people of later generations, in many cultures, wore special mourning clothes, often for years, after the death of someone close.

What is it about the visual that so connects us to the spiritual? And why am I so embarrassed, as I have written in an earlier post, by such habits of prayer—and that's what they are, I think—when I encounter institutionalized versions of them in, for example, the Eastern Orthodox church? Why do icons seems so valueless to me? Or, worse than valueless—actively wrong-headed? Feeling connected to Jill Carroll as I did by wearing similar clothes to those she was wearing in her terror, why does it seem absurd to me for another person to kiss the ankle bone of a martyr?

I have no answers tonight. Only these questions, this recognition of connectedness—in my current grief on behalf of the thirty-two students and faculty dead at the hands of a man whose impulses I will never understand—to practices which I have so recently, in this very blog, disdained. I offer them up to you. My penance. Knuckles against the heart. A cross, traced by a thumbnail, on the lips.

08 April 2007

Easter Blues

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. But this morning, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get to the joy of it.

It began before we even made it to church. It was 25° when we got up, and I guessed that the few eggplants and peppers out in my garden that had survived the previous night’s low temperatures could not have survived a second such night, despite the sheets I had draped over them.

Before I was awake enough to go out to my garden and check on them, Charlotte came downstairs in her strapless, white Easter dress, down the front of which she had spilled some of her “body shimmer”—I don’t know what that is but just report her words when she came to me to have it put right—leaving a blood-colored stain on her left breast that she had already rendered indelible by trying to wash it out on her own. My efforts with bleach on a cloth only made it worse. The dress itself turned yellow where I dabbed at it and the red did not disappear. I didn’t tell Charlotte, but I knew the dress—one of her favorites—was ruined.

To my amazement, she didn’t seem to notice the stain. She kept the dress on and, when we got to church, even took her jacket off, leaning across Lulu to whisper, in response to my raised eyebrows, that there was no reason to wear a pretty dress unless you were going to show it off. So, I spent the first part of the service—while the pianist played and an elder explained what to do if you were visiting for the first time and then another elder led prayer for those of the congregation who were suffering illness or grief or fighting in the armed forces—praying that the Father would remove from my mind all consciousness of Charlotte: the stain, the ruined dress, her embarrassment if anyone noticed, her apparent lack of embarrassment thus far.

“Make me just forget about it so that I can think of your Son, risen,” I prayed.

It wouldn’t have taken much effort on God’s part to answer my prayer: I forget more than I remember these days. And, I reasoned, there would be other ways to address my prayer. God could refocus my attention on some glittering, transforming new discovery of himself. Or he could burn into my consciousness the pettiness of worrying about a stain when we were there to celebrate the resurrection of his Son, our Savior, risen up live out of his dead body and out of our grief. Or he could just make the stain miraculously disappear.

He did none of this. Soon we were directed to greet our neighbors, and every time another person turned around and extended a hand in our direction, all I could think about was, Oh no, now they’re going to notice the red stain and the yellowed place and think, “Why does she let her child wear something like that to church, on Easter Sunday of all days, a dress stained and ruined? And strapless to boot?”

While the choir sang and the pianist played more background music, I studied the bulletin to distract myself from my own pathetic worries. The sermon, I read, would be about the “Rise of the Metachoi”—a word I had never seen before but that sounded interesting—and would focus upon Hebrews 2:5-18. When I looked the passage up, it turned out to be one of those obtuse places in scripture about angels: humans—and Jesus, the Son of Man, along with them—the writer of Hebrews argued, are ranked a little below the angels but nevertheless they are crowned in glory and have everything under their feet. I read through Hebrews 2 twice while the collection was taken and more music played, but I couldn’t figure out what the point was, especially in view of the fact that it was Easter and it seemed to me that the pastor must be meaning to make a resurrection message out of it. The answer, I decided, would be about whatever metachoi meant.

It means partaker—or companion or partner, in a slew of other passages the pastor led us to—and what was partaken of was suffering. The message of the sermon was this: There are believers, and then there are partakers, and even though believers go to heaven, only partakers in suffering are going to get their reward, which is to govern in God’s kingdom someday. Some reward for one’s suffering, I thought—to get to suffer some more as an administrator. I’d rather just get there and do my thing.

What really undid me, though, was the man’s opening comment, one of these throwaway analogies from the news I find pastors are fond of beginning with, probably gleaned from the same CNN website where I had read it last night. The 15 British sailors—whose dinghy had been captured by Iran and who had been terrorized into making false public confessions of error—had caved. Unlike our American soldiers in Hanoi, the pastor said, the British sailors had been unwilling to suffer for their country. Unlike the metachoi, I suppose he meant.

Or unlike Peter—I think he might have said—who denied Jesus on the night of his capture even though there was no one there stripping and blindfolding him or lining him and his companions against the wall and cocking their guns. I guess poor old Peter isn’t going to get his reward either. Maybe we can hang out together when I get to heaven.

I left church glum and not a little angry. And then IGA had no lamb, as I suspected they wouldn’t. (Why is it that bad things you know are going to happen are always so much more distressing than the ones that come as surprises?) And then, on the drive home, I noticed lots of trees whose leaves were hanging down all black and limp from the freeze. My little eggplants and peppers, I knew, would look the same when I got home. I felt out of sorts all day.

Anyway, all this to say I feel in need of resurrection this Easter. From the cold. From the scratched, cloudy lenses through which we observe the world. And from my own petty preoccupation with everything but what matters. He is risen. He is risen indeed. Up, away, to the heavens. And I’m still here.

01 April 2007

Church, Again

This past week my university hosted a writer's festival. We invited three writers in from out of state, and I got to know them a little bit. The keynote speaker—a sweet-spirited husband and father and professor of English about my age—was a poet. He taught my poetry workshop, mainly reading poems with us, and he put me utterly to shame as a teacher. His most recent publication is a spiritual memoir, which I read most of in preparation for introducing him to students at a luncheon.

The memoir is about his search for a closer relationship with God following a spiritual crisis of sorts in his early forties. Toward this end, he sets out for the monsasteries of Mount Athos, in Greece, where he hopes to find a spiritual father who can, among other things, teach him how to go about the business of ceaseless prayer, which he is convinced will cause him to have a more constant sense of God's presence. He seems heartbreakingly young and innocent in this book—as young as I often feel among my age contemporaries who are lifelong Christians. As young, in fact, as I felt as I ate and chatted with him and the other two visting writers. I liked that about him and about his book. Curiously, I had recently been reading Julian of Norwich, who longed similarly for the ability to pray ceaselessly and thereby to sense God's presence more consistently. So, I paid more attention to him than the other two writers.

He is, as he kept referring to himself, "Orthodox," by which he means Eastern Orthodox, and there was much evidence of this tradition in his practices and writing. I was fascinated by his brand of faith, which I have always—rather stupidly, I admit—pretty much equated with the Roman Catholicism of my father's era, with which I am somewhat more familiar. Formal liturgy. Robed priests referred to as fathers. Monasteries. Incense. Fancy church buildings. A high value on church tradition. I have never quite understood why Eastern Orthodoxy is more or less embraced by evangelicals, whereas Roman Catholicism is not. From what little I know of them, both seem to be equally Christian in their essence and equally preoccupied with images and saints, intercessors and formal ritual as pathways to God.

In any case, during the poet's visit, he fasted from meat for Lent and wore a knotted prayer bracelet and a tiny lapel pin geaturing a cross with two additional crossbeams—the standard Orthodox cross, he told me when I asked, and he explained that the extra crossbeams represented the place where Jesus put his feet and the placard above his head. He seemed bemused, even slightly irritated, that I didn't already know these things and had to have them explained. I suppose I should know more about Eastern Orthodoxy. (Certainly I should know more about Roman Catholicism, the faith tradition in which I took my first steps in God's direction.) In any event, I didn't question him further about the Orthodox highlighting of these details of the crucifixion—the foot rest, the placard—although I wanted to. I was sure they had meaning.

All this to say that I was paying a good deal of attention to the man's particular brand of Christian faith, trying to sort it in my head and understand it and maybe understand my own faith a little better. His memoir was mystifying at points. Frequently, I found passages funny that I guessed were not intended so. A story of kissing the relic of a saint—her left foot—and immediately thereafter sensing her sweet presence. Another about feeling for the first time a fluttering about his heart that he knows is the presence of God he has so longed to experience, and then thinking he is having a heart attack. And, more than anything else, his repeatedly believing he has found the spiritual guide he is looking for only to be turned down when he asks. His story reminded me, for all the world, of all those wistful years of looking for love before I married Kris, wanting deeper relationships than I ever found. The same repeated mismatch of desire and commitment.

In the course of his visit, he spoke disparagingly of those—like me, I kept thinking—who don't value tradition or who pick and choose, as he described one community of believers, what they like from this church tradition or that. Although respectful of others' traditions, he had little use for the traditionless. At one point, picking up on my ignorance of church history and probably suspecting a deeper disinclination toward tradition as an element of faith—probably believing me to be someone who rejects old church practices outright as empty ritual, as many of my more conservative fellow Christians do—he pointed out to me that T. S. Eliot revered church history. As if that would convince me.

But what would convince me? I keep coming back to this place in my journey toward God—this landing on the stairway: What is the church? What value its traditions and habits of thinking? How essential is the church—not the global body of other believers, but the particular church one belongs to and its practices—to faith? Why does tradition attract me? Why does it repel me?

Once I read that Martin Luther kept on wearing his priestly robes even after he was excommunicated, and I find that intriguing. Was there something that drew him, too, back into the old habits, despite the impulse to cast them aside?

With all of this in my mind, I returned, this weekend, to two spiritual practices that I have neglected for some time. One was the garden, my thin place, where I turned the last remaining beds and pulled up weeds and planted a few plants I had bought and let the sun and wind and water and dirt do their godly work on me.

And, this morning, my daughters and I went to church. We have been inconstant in our attendance—same old problems of Kris's tax season and indecision about what church is right for us. But when I got them up—Charlotte and Lulu and their friend Kaitlyn, who had spent the night—they didn't protest, as they often do, and so we got dressed and went.

It was Palm Sunday. When the little children ran up to the front of the sanctuary waving their palm fronds, I remembered the Palm Sundays of my childhood—the smell and feel and specialness of those palm fronds, the excitement, the bigness of it—and I embarrassed the girls by crying. One boy—I think he was mentally retarded—was so thrilled by the palms and the noise and the movement that he jumped up and down, flinging out his arms, and his sister had to hold onto his waist to keep him from leaping from the stage. Another little boy stood in the front, his face blank with concentration, and held his frond straight up, like a flag, or like a candle he was afraid might drip or catch something on fire. Others without fronds did the hand movements of the song we were singing: "He came from heaven to earth, to show the way, from the earth to the cross, our debt to pay . . . !" Afterwards the girls commented that they had no idea that there were so many little kids in that church, and they were right. There were a lot of children. They filled the front of the sanctuary.

While I was crying, I had this vision of how it might have been when Jesus entered Jerusalem that last time. By then, the poor and the hungry and the sick, the widows, the rejected, the forgotten, were as excited as children, and it was they who tore branches from the trees and waved them in the air in jubilation. They took off their outer garments and threw them down before the Teacher on his colt. Those in power were, of course, not so excited, and things were just about to turn grim. But, for a moment, there was this joy that expressed itself in this precise way, this grabbing of palm fronds in recognition and worship, this throwing down of clothes, this jubilant singing, and it does seem fit to reenact and commemorate it, to feel its motions.

This is, I think, as far as I can get, today, on tradition: that it is the taking into ourselves of the responses of earlier believers. The followers of Jesus, who heard him and touched him and knew him. And those who gathered after his death around the eye witnesses and, with them, celebrated and suffered on his behalf. Tradition itself does not move me, I think. It has no real value, no notched place in my faith. And yet it seizes me at times, seizes everything in me, and wins—often when nothing else will—my notice.