Friday, January 12, 2018

journey to the thin places

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
—Deuteronomy 30:11-14

As I walk up the familiar hill of East 90th Street, I pass a stream of mourners slowly processing into a funeral at Our Lady of Good Counsel. Men in black coats unpack wreaths of flowers from the hearse, a man in Notre Dame apparel stands at attention, his arm around a shorter woman. A bagpiper plays a dirge that causes me to wonder what life would be like three hundred years ago in the Scottish Highlands, like I used to read about in Little House in the Highlands, Melissa Wiley’s book series about Laura Ingnalls Wilder's great-grandmother. I bet it was simpler, I thought, forgetting that human beings have a habit of complicating any era they inhabit.

I figured the three-hundred-years-ago-Scottish-highland version of myself would already be married to a melatonin-deficient Scottish man and probably have a sizeable gaggle of blue-eyed, skin-cancer-prone children. And I wonder if that would be stifling or stabilizing? The bagpiper doesn't answer such specious questions, but continues to offer a properly melancholy salute to the sacred event of death irrupting the blissful veneer of immortality laminating my callow twenty-something life.

[I figured that, given we would never venture below 54 degrees North, my hypothetical children would have never be exposed to the UVA rays that would give them cancer. Indeed, whatever complications our Scottish ancestors were encountering or creating for themselves, it appears that skin cancer was not a primary one.]

The construction men fixing something in the sewer, the curb, or the pavement look up at the procession, and watch the coffin pass into the church. A woman in yoga pants and her husband/boyfriend/partner, dutifully holding the umbrella above them, stops in front of me. I brush past both them and the man walking towards me, wearing a bucket hat and tattered olive green jacket, with the cart full of plastic bags comes to a standstill, frozen by the bagpipe music. All are united by a liturgical sidewalk moment, encountering the thinness of life that death demonstrates.

For one moment, a split second that sounds like a chord from Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack to Henry V, that sounds like the crunch of dissonance in Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, that sounds like the Resurrection music at the end of Jesus of Montreal, each of them was Christ. For one moment, this small side street in Manhattan became Jerusalem, and the feet of God incarnate walked the cement dirtied from the winter rain. This insignificant street on the Upper East Side is as holy as Galilee. Each face a sacrament of Christ as much, if not more than, the grand darkness in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the warm glow of the Grotto of the Nativity.

Travel to the Holy Land, I imagine, is only worthwhile if one brings the Holy Land back with you. One recognizes the fish in the Sea of Galilee are ordinary fish, and if they are holy, so are the least of these. The command enjoined on us really is not beyond the sea, or in some distant place. Rather, the God we cannot see is right here, in the face of our neighbor. The command to love that God is right here in front of us, in the command to love the brother and sister we can see, right here on the sidewalk. What a curious collection of Christs are here on the pavement. The swelling-string sensation of the moment passes, but the face of Christ does not. Christ remains, unfading. Continuing to challenge me to the command I daily fall short of: to love the God I cannot see in each unexpected face of Christ I can.

We're a fumbling, clumsy, bumbling crew of worshipers at mass in the glamorous Cathedral. A man bumps into a small girl behind him in communion line, I collide with a woman merging lanes, the priest fumbles through a whispered, misunderstood request from a confused communicant. I wonder if this is more nearly what heaven is like: a bit more homespun and honest an affair than gilded angels with trumpets and spotless clouds of white. If Jesus keeps his scars, perhaps we keep our clumsiness, even in our endless alleluias of Dantean praise. Or are our klutzy attempts at worship smoothed into something more graceful and elegant? Do we keep our sincere and silly humanness, even in eternity? I wonder this, as I repeat again, echoing the congregation's chant: I am not worthy. Will there ever be a time I cease to invoke that prayer? When the Word does heal us of unworthiness, once-and-for-all, finally—eternally? Or is eternity a joyful offering of acknowledging my own unworthiness? Is heaven the process of being made worthy, eternally, by the blood of the lamb I drink? Perhaps "heaven" is a word that indicates something more mysterious, beyond the painful becoming of made worthy, a glorious, ultimate sharing in the final being of worthiness.

As I gaze around at the procession of people in  communion line, I wonder what power it is which makes us strange and sinful people "church." The answer appears in the food we eat, bread which has transfigured each of us into the carrier of God become man become bread. By the transitive property, theosis.

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