Thursday, June 28, 2018

mutually sanctifying

As I nursed two small planters of vegetables and flowers into bloom under the shadow of the Metro North, I realized that growing things reminds you what it means to be human. But, in growing, you discover it is not just humans who sanctify the earth, the earth also sanctifies us, gives us our identity of gardener. The art of being human and the task of digging in the humus—this action of bringing forth fruit—are deeply intertwine.

My father's brother (his brothers are usually all jokes and teasing and loud hearty Irish-German guffaws) tills the California land (my Steinbeck-stamped soul is stark-struck) and his eyes tear up with mine as we talk of land. Of loving land, living intimately with it, and letting it live in us.

At the zoo, the lion lay down in the shade of a Minnesota oak. In the zoo, the Lord's holy mountain is already here, for the lion and the snow leopard lie down together, or at least within several yards of one another. They both looked preternaturally tame and meek, which of course they must be. Because if you are being treated like a tame housecat, even if you are lion, you must sort of eventually become more housecat-like than lion-like. How much of a lion's identity, I wondered, comes from the savannah, and how can he possibly maintain it, living in a cage in Minnesota? Humans, who are culturally conditioned, and whose cultures are locationally bound, must also suffer similar cognitive dissonance when being transplanted. The difference, I imagine, is that the human being can hold onto whatever cultural traits connect her to her home. The human can fight against the nature which surrounds her, maintain a bit of individuality, a trait of her identity that links her to the people who root and shape her thousands of miles distant. As I watched the sleeping housecat-lion, I wondered if the lion was dreaming of the savannah. Or if it lies within his animal soul, deeper even than his dreams, but calls to him every so often in a hot breeze of wind, or zebra bleat from the next cage over.

At the end of going through a tour of these out-of-context beasts, it was refreshing to stop with my Uncle Steinbeck and my ornithologically-minded father at the duck pond by the entrance of the zoo. At the duck pond, nature is not in a cage. Even in a manufacture pond, the environment is more natural, and nature as she is supposed to be hums along with her usual whimsical pace. The sunshine sparkles on the water, interrupted by the unfettered splashing of wings, and ripples of paddling feet. The highly unexotic mallards enchant by their effortless existence, splashing, diving, creating a ruckus. The drakes chased each other out of their invisibly-but-indelibly marked territories, a couple frisky young fellows shamelessly chased down and humped the outraged female ducks in front of us, and some few stray geese barged through the duck community, without gaining a whit of notice. Relieved of the burden of performing what they are for curious humans, these animals can be their fullest selves, and the simple comedy of their daily activity is the holiness nature was meant to give the world.

Perhaps they can only be those selves, however, when allowed to be fostered by the earth and not a human hand. Perhaps animals, as we are, are meant to receive from the earth something more than bodily sustenance. Perhaps our souls and better selves are also nourished by the earth we give our hearts and homes and bodies to.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

ode to being other

When you see a picture of yourself, you are judging yourself from the stance of a person who has to deal with being that self, and has a particular standard for who that self is and ought to be. When you see a picture of a friend, you rarely judge it with that harsh of glance, as you have no interior calibration of what the photo ought to look like.

Just so, how odd that we do not get the delight of loving ourselves the way we love others and the way others love us. In fact, perhaps their love for us is more honest, because it is free, it is natural. They enjoy ourselves without being strapped down by the anxieties of being a self. They, in fact, get to enjoy us just in our pure essence, without the blurry barrier of subjective self-reflection upon oneself.

This is not an ode to shallow love, or an ode to surface knowledge, but the beginning of an acknowledgement of the deep location that others' knowledge of us plays in founding, building our hearts.

In fact, Thomas Merton, we are not ourselves by ourself. We cannot truly glimpse our own face without the help of another, and we are unable to see our own beauty clearly. Our identities are handed to us by those who surround us, who seek to see us with eyes free from the anxieties of a self. To be seen by another person is to be seen as a person. And perhaps we are only uncovered fully as people when we are seen, known, and loved by another.

And perhaps we have a leg up on our friends in knowing them. For we get to see them as they are—as they truly are—brilliant, beautiful, and full of life. Ebullient and exuberant, shining with a glory that cannot be stifled by a thousand miles or computer screen. Full of that Steinbeckian soil, which projects good honest truth, deeply felt kindness, and keen perception across written pages or oceans.

Monday, June 25, 2018

this is my body

As I watch the priest lift the host, a strange breath runs through the church, and its wind reaches the corners of my abdominal cavity as well, reaching down the nerves in my spine to my toes. I feel my own body ache under me, as muscles pull my knee in contesting directions and strain at my groin. Against my own volition, even, she is being offered, a fragile offering of twenty-something fat and skin, rapidly losing the carefully curated muscle of the school year, up to a God of unknown cause.

Where is she being taken, and for whom?

Across an ocean, another hip muscle throbs a pain in time with hers. This is not the sort of communion which we signed up for, but isn't this the communion at the heart of the liturgy which is celebrated here? One man's pain, so long ago, becomes the heart of our existence. What does it mean to eat his flesh other than to write out his pain on our own bodies? To begin to feel the cuts and bruises of his wounds as deeply as though they are our own, mapped out on our own bodies, seeping through our blood.

Absence is a sickening reality. Perhaps our bodies tell us what our brains would otherwise ignore: that the essence of well-being is being-with, and we are fools to think that we can entrust ourselves to someone else, hand over to them what it means to be fully ourselves, alive, and flourishing, and still possess a hermetically-sealed physical hale and heartiness.

What is resurrection other than being-with? Being together in an eternal memory which encompasses all of history. The only way to resurrection is through the cross, and as the host is lifted onto my tongue, as I cradle it with dirty hands, I eat both what will bring me pain, and—this is the dare of faith—new life.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Raphael's Sword is Stolen

Then Elisha, filled with the twofold portion of his spirit,
wrought many marvels by his mere word.
During his lifetime he feared no one,
nor was any man able to intimidate his will.
Nothing was beyond his power;
beneath him flesh was brought back into life.
In life he performed wonders,
and after death, marvelous deeds.

Lights Rise, on Elijah and Elisha, but there is no one in the empty space but them. The rising curtains reveal a stage that's bare, except for prophets, filling the void the sacred left when she withdrew. Instinctively, they reach for what their words promise: the guarantee of a God-with-them. But there is no one visible to the eye or audible to human ear. They are, perhaps, not what the audience came to see. There is a general damp chill of disappointment emanating through the atmosphere. Perhaps we hear one or two louder murmurs of discontent and the jostling of dissatisfaction in the crowd. Elijah confides with the audience—we never asked for this, too, you know. 

We thought it would look different, when we were younger, and the prophets of Baal outnumbered us. Oh there was something glamorous then
Elisha nods, remembering his calling from the svelte and seemingly invincible Elijah—
something really ballsy about this whole shebang. You felt the thrill of righteousness and none of its angsts. To be a prophet was to be, well, nearly, a god. You possessed a hero's certainty, and that was something to hang your cloak on, you know? Your mind didn't dither in decisions or wither under pressure, like the common man's. You could really sink your teeth into the earth and take a bite out of it, spit it out, and people caught your clods of clay like gold.

What's changed? asks the audience, sincere in their disappointment, their hands itching to catch enchanted spittle, gilded by their anticipation.

Elijah's own perplexion at his fate seems to vanish for a moment—a calm asserts itself in the midst of a sullen fog that's lifted. He can see things clearly now, he can speak, but not through the mist of indecision. He even breaks into a smile. The sort of smile in which God's laughter seems to sing.

What's changed? Why nothing, he laughs at the awestruck faces in the auditorium. Nothing's changed, it's all much clearer now. There never was, nor ever could, be another certainty than one I never had: the surety of speaking truth, although you're bound to be proved wrong, of vowing love, although the narrative will shift beneath your feet like sand, of saying: I will be there, of showing up, being disappointed, abandoned at the lunch counter, of persevering, even though there doesn't seem to be a way. Once you decide to extend love into the world, there is no insurance to guarantee its answer. There is no formula you can exact to inviolably predict your outcomes. The fruits of your work remain to be seen—the only guarantee of love is faith. 

But what better risk? To dare to speak what very well may be the Word of God, burnt upon your lips by seraphim, and to find that word of faith each time, delighted, by the love which meets it and seals it with itself? 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Loretto Church, Liberty Missouri

At a very unassuming eucharistic assembly in Liberty, Missouri, on the northern outskirts of Kansas City, I sing, along with the rest of the congregation, "we, the many, throughout the earth," and I think of my friend flying off to Baku, I think of each face I love scattered across the globe—Rome, Manila, South Carolina—and across the country.

This is us—we, the many—and here we are, all gathered dispersed to the four winds, and yet gathered here together.

I am reminded of a small modern church on the campus of St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN. Its name is an off-brand constituent of this haven of Irish Catholicism on the Indiana planes. Why Loretto? Why is this church named after a strange religious myth of Italian folk Catholicism, where angels carry Mary’s home from Ephesus to a small town in Tuscany. The story smacks of the simple sort of superstition and enchanted worldview of fairytales, where it is in the realm of possibility for angels to carry houses. This is an embarrassing sort of faith at which science scoffs. Flying houses are the purview of tornados in Kansas, not the Seraphim.

Why Loretto? The church’s title becomes an irking mystery which nags at me. I am struck by the simplicity and familiarity of the liturgy here—we are gathered, on this radiant Good Friday afternoon—as the first Christians once did, in a house. This seems to me like the first house churches. The focus here is not on the architecture, but simply on the beauty of community, the great gift of being together. As we celebrate this cross, with all these unexpected familiar faces, I feel that this is the Church, with the most capital C possible. Like the basilica in Nazareth, like the small orthodox chapel built around the living water of her well, this Church is built so solidly on Mary. Mary, the first church, the model of church, the foundation for believers’ being together and their model of communion with God. The spring which bubbles up under the orthodox church in Nazareth is Mary, the source of Church.

In this church we gather through the grace of her openness, and the force of her fiat. In this church, named after the small shrine in Italy which holds her house, we gather as all churches today gather across the globe, to celebrate the death and resurrection which are the source of Mary’s life and our own. This church is named for her, as lady of the house which is not held in place by spatio-temporal boundaries. This Church which spans the earth is simply the house of Mary spreading over terra firma, as though the many universal parish churches which cover the Kansas plains and shine under Indiana clouds are simply one house, delivered across the globe by angels.

Monday, June 11, 2018

interior design

My photographs were supposed to be developed at the drug store by today, and yet the drug store has not called me.

I am impatient for these photographs. Having digital pictures has made me forget the fragility of film. What if some disaster befalls to these images? What if an incompetent employee ruins the negatives or misplaces the results? I want to see the results—I have some inkling of what they will look like, but I am not yet sure. I wonder how the remembered moment will translate to film. I have faith that they will arrive, and yet it is hard to wait.

I go for a run. It has been a very long time since I ran, and I am scared, as my feet begin to move across the pavement in a way which is foreign because it was formerly so familiar, and to be reminded of its familiarity is to be reminded of its loss, that my knees will grind to a halt underneath me.

But they do not.

I run into the forest where I wrote my first poem, and found my first God. As I run, I sort through, in my head, the threads of feelings, responsibilities, loves, desires, dreams and plans. It is data that is mostly tangled into knot and I feel incapably of following the line to its end.

Suddenly, in the midst of rain, in the midst of what seems immobile, inert, stagnant, it seems to me that a path at my feet opens, and all that is left is freedom.

To be in a state of uncertainty, a liminal state between jobs, between homes, between places—to be, simply, in the in-between season—is not comfortable. It is uncomfortable, and yet it has been strangely freeing.

There is no identity to hang myself on other than simply my own name, and the relationships that give it shape. As I seek to remain myself in the midst of a transition which could assail my sense of self, where I find my solace becomes revealing. Where do I run, I ask, to continue maintaining my identity? No longer living into a job description, which comes with a set series of tasks, I am left to form my own routine (ubiquitous in my former lives, yet woven into a lot of extraneous tasks, which muddle, perhaps, its own clarity), and discover what is vital to remaining—or developing—who I am.

Who are the wells I draw from when my charity runs low? I continue, Who are the fortresses from which I launch my advance of love? Who and where are my dining room tables? No longer surrounded with accidental mentors or happenstance sharers-of-life, my heart teaches me who I can lean on, lacking a serendipitous supply of supports in the day-to-day.

To discover oneself, to discover what relationships demand of you, given the patience and time to live into them, is a rare gift.

And I wonder, as I wait upon and live into the daily developments of both my photographs and my story, what will appear.

At the end of the run, this realization of freedom strikes me with the sudden shock of instinct. As I seek to argue my way forward, pick open these knots with intellection, it suddenly appears as though all exegetical restrictions will be removed—relativized—until the only exigent necessity that remains is the will of God. The only compass point is what begins to be, and the only story revealed will be cross and resurrection.

Monday, June 4, 2018

gospel according to Denver

the heart’s one great exegete—
the disciple we love most—
leans against the breast of God,
and taps out the dots and dashes
of a divine telegram to human

without this Morse code,
the center cannot hold,
but we listen, with John,
to the vital rhythm of the Word.
We write a new Gospel,
to the tune of this heartbeat—
his—now ours.

eucharistic restrictions

I received Holy Communion at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in downtown Denver, on a street where the skyscrapers block out the ubiquitous mountains. Muscles in my thumb throb, tendons complaining overmuch about the usual tasks. My mind is mostly occupied with that. Odd where our imaginations wander when our bodies are stilled in prayer.
As the sweet host—sturdier bread than usual—melts on my tongue, into my heartbeat, I think of the dream I had, its details softened into the atmospheric haze of nights melting together, that I was almost on the road to Nablus. My hands full, as they usually are before entering a vehicle, about to step into the white Toyota Corolla, I stopped myself, as I remembered I was wearing shorts. I realized I absolutely could not walk into this conservative town with those on.

My lips have been chapped, and my mouth dry. But it started to water, thinking of the sweet knafeh that was only a car-ride away, if only I could find the proper attire.

I thought of all the hills of Samaria I forgot to take pictures of, covered in the richness of growing olives and tough grasses. I thought of the sunlight hitting Mount  Gerizim.

These were so close, but so impossibly far.

Is this, I wondered one of those exterior molding forces I’ve been told about? To be stopped in your tracks by restrictions outside of your control?

We undeniably leave people that we love, and desert places which have brought us home to ourselves. We are certainly separated from them, the pain of that separation fuels most of my activity—airplane travel, to find my way to their physical sides; conversation, to build a thousand bridges between their thoughts and mind; writing, to try to hold onto all the moments which inevitably slip quietly into the deep sea of what is permanent and inaccessible inside of us.

But they are never quite left behind. The people and places you love rise up to greet you, like the tops of stone buildings above undulating highways. Small patches of brush in the Rockies’ foothills remind you of Mount Tabor, the new verbal tics you have developed trace your journey through various dialects and others’ hearts. They continually manifest themselves in the world around you, cheeky sacraments of what is beloved, whose absence ascends into some new kind of presence. Felt in the quiet breath of wind at sunset, in a new construction of our mental topographies and verbal maps, in strange liturgies of memory which bring into the present what has past into a future already-but-not-yet.