Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wanna Talk About Me, Wanna Talk About I

Faith Stages are not to be understood as an achievement scale by which to evaluate the worth of persons. Nurturance is required for growth in faith, but there is no substitute for life experience and the passage of time.

--John M. Rector

I'm sitting in a group of women, in suburbia. We're all the same faith. It's Monday morning, and we've gathered together to discuss, it turns out, exactly that, this faith. I think we are, ostensibly, gathered together to learn how to love life. The group has just started meeting and new attendees trickle into this front room, with its temple print, family photos in engraved frames, and flower swag framing the front picture window. As we introduce ourselves, some in the group are delighted to discover that there are other body talkers present. As I am sitting across the room from my sister L, I cannot whisper to her for clarification. (I'm thinking it has nothing to do with Wind Talking and Nicholas Cage.) L, who teaches yoga and attends meditation retreats and has just completed her brilliant service in the young woman's auxiliary (no connection between end of service and meditation retreat), has invited me. She is the link between me and the others. The woman who leads us is an alternative healer. I tend to take 4 Ibuprofen as a guard against everything, and will happily down expired Amoxicillin with a glass of cranberry juice to head off the UTI. The approach, while not exactly mainstream, is probably more neglectful than alternative. I am not well-versed in the language of this universe. Even after I ask L what a body talker is, I'm still fuzzy. The answer, "They use different modalities" does nothing to heal my ignorance. But, I have time on my hands (subject of another post about lay-offs and self-worth) and I am interested in learning about other ways of learning and experiencing the world.

One woman in particular has an anxious energy this morning. She says, "I am a gay marriage supporting, democrat, feminist Mormon." She throws the words out there like they're a challenge to a duel, not knowing her kind makes me feel all cozy. (I confess to being more fascinated and bewildered by hunting, homeschooling, John Birching, survivalist, natural childbirthing Mormons. Feminist democrat Mormons are a walk in the park.) She's taking a transformative leadership course, surrounded by lesbians who constantly challenge her very core, wanting to know how she can be part of an organization that supports something that will deprive hundreds of thousands of others of their heart's desire. Consequently, she is examining herself and her belonging, perhaps trying to find the terms upon which she and the church can agree to live amicably. She asks, "How can I be part of something that, at some level, is contrary to my personal truth?" I smile inside and I hope my eyes are soft as I look out. You see, I recognize her. I have asked those questions; have thought those thoughts; have resented the feeling that big brother is watching over my shoulder to see what I would do wrong next. I have lived with the tightness in the middle of my chest and the weight on the shoulders that seems to get darker as the three hours progress. I have also come to know it is largely self-imposed.

When I return from the gathering, Kevin asks me what we talked about. I reply, with a smile and with sincerity, "Oh, the usual . . . how difficult it can be to be a thoughtful, intelligent woman and to be a member of this Church in a predominantly Mormon culture."

I will admit I am struggling to write this post, but it is nagging at me. I can't find the images to give substance to the words. They are after all, very plain and simple words. But, I don't want to come off as a "wiser than thou." Taking strength though from John Rector's words that, in the development of faith, "there is no substitute for life experience and the passage of time," I'm writing this as my stone on the cairn marking this particular way.

In any organization, which an organized religion is definitely one, there will be policies and procedures. Some descend like the dews from heaven, some are drafted by committee; others are reactionary and arise out of situations for which there was no official response until the crisis arose. Some might be heavy handed; others might be shortsighted; others are the best we could come up with in the time allowed, while it is entirely possible that certain practices and procedures are inspired, the very best of man's mental effort lightened by grace designed to bless our lives. How does one proceed in the face of this bouillabaisse of practices? With patience and an open heart and mind, realizing that just because I have not yet had need of or experience with a particular program or procedure or policy doesn't create irrelevance. It also means realizing that my not knowing doesn't preclude others from knowing.

Just because I don't quite know yet doesn't mean others can't or that the principle or doctrine is unknowable or false. I was standing at the kitchen counter this past October, watching a session of General Conference. I believe I was eating an apple. As he proceeded to bear quite vigourous, and, in my mind, violent witness, the apple stopped halfway to my mouth. I could feel myself reeling from his language. I heard myself say, "Wow . . . wow . . . whoa!" His whole approach to testimony made me shiver and want to step sideways to escape the onslaught. Then I thought, or somebody thought for me, "Just because I don't know like that doesn't mean he can't and doesn't."

A woman tells of sitting in a Buddhist seminar. She is not Buddhist but she has come to Colorado to immerse herself in Eastern methods of learning. She expects something different than what she finds. There are gongs, bells, and circles she has to walk at prescribed times. The teacher is autocratic. She will brook no discussion as to when the bell rings, and how the circle is walked. Even the crossing of the legs is not open for interpretation. The woman bristles at the imposition of this structure on what she expected to be a freeflowing, gentle wind of learning. She fights against it in her mind and her soul. Ironically, in this retreat devoted to gentle Buddhism, she finds herself awash in antagonism. As she struggles against the restraints, she gains an insight: "There will always be a prescribed way. And, I will, at times, rub against it."

We all have buttons that push easier than others, and like the heel of my foot in a new shoe, there are places that will rub. My particular button happens to be women and their place in society. My sister doesn't happen to have that button but I do. Because that button is both my vocation and my burden, I bristle at times as I practice my faith. Typical of my issues is a conversation I had this summer with a friend whom we were visiting in Bermuda. He is the lay leader of a very small congregation, perhaps 25 people who attend on a Sunday. He was asking me about the things I wrestle with in the Church. I replied, "the role of women and the lack of power." He laughed, and said, "Really . . . the women run the church. They do everything." I replied, "I'm not talking about doing, Clar. I'm talking about power. About decisions, about who is sitting around a table when the decisions are made, about the different kinds of questions women would ask as opposed to men, about the different lines drawn and the different concerns raised if there were women involved in decisions and decision-making. It's about looking up at the stand and seeing dark suits, with a token woman. It's about women giving opening prayers and men giving closing . . . and everything that represents." His wife, the leader of the children in their small congregation, chimed in, "Clar, you know, when I propose a name, you don't just agree; you have the final say. I can't do anything without male approval." To his credit, he tipped his head thoughtfully. I feel the scar on the back of my metaphorical heel begin to throb.

My childhood faith was nurtured in a wood paneled chapel whose twenty-foot long windows were outfitted with gossamer curtains that used to float in the Sunday evening breeze out over the congregation and back again as the light left Mowbray, a southern suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. We were joined at some point in my childhood by Brother Wiseman, a black man who shuffled up the stairs, his three-piece suit folding dovegrey around his ankles, his grey felt hat with jaunty feather in band held between his hands. He shuffled his slow way from Sea Point, a wealthy Jewish enclave on the sea front, from a small dark room, probably in the basement, from whence he worked as a night watchman. I didn't know his story well; only heard snatches of it while I hung upside down from the handrailings, but it involved a Book of Mormon and a complicated combination of public transport to get him here on a Sunday morning. So, there he sat, a perfectly round, black head melting slightly at the jowls, atop a short, black body, sitting three seats from the door, two years before the Priesthood was restored to all worthy male members and twelve years before apartheid ended. What would possess him to spend his precious mornings off travelling on busses to meet with a bunch of white people in a white suburb who spoke a different language and who would not allow him to officiate in the priesthood ordinances like every other male there?

Surely, upon feeling the pull to join, he would have had the same kinds of questions, "How can I be part of something that continues to marginalize me? How can I be part of something that feels, in one part, so wrong?" (Part of me wonders whether this is the kind of question asked by the fish that has never lived without water, and now, being so familiar with the substance, wishes to swim in filtered Brita with a hint of lime? Perhaps when you're a fish that has finally found water deep enough to swim in, you are not so perturbed by the murkiness of certain corners and the silt which tends to gather in the bottom swells. You're just grateful for the air flowing over your lungs and for the increased ability to breathe deeply.) So, as to Brother Wiseman's answer to this question . . . I don't know the particulars but I could imagine that it would sound something like, "Here, in this place, you can find truth. You will not find all truth just yet, but you can find truth, and, you will continue to find more and more truth." Keeping in mind the image of Brother Wiseman sitting three seats from the door, greeting us as his calling required but with the two-handed clasp as his culture dictated, helps me when these questions arise. Why am I any better than Brother Wiseman who, along with Mary, kept these things and pondered them in his heart? Why am I anymore special than the black man who joined this faith in the mid-70s in South Africa? To what high and holy calling have I appointed myself when I believe that the entire organization of 13 million must change to reflect my personal inclinations? What is so special about me that I am precluded from also waiting, as countless others before me have waited—pondering and keeping?

One last ripple in the stream: In the waiting, there is always light. For me, my rubbing against the policies, procedures and practices of my religious faith has tutored me. My "woman" cross, as it could be called, has lifted me up to see that, in fact, the Father and the Son are the gentlest of men. What is more important for me, with my particular scar tissue, to know than that?

Title: from Toby Keith, "Wanna Talk About Me."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Springing Fresh from the Word

Go and find him when your patience and strength run out and you feel alone and helpless. Jesus is waiting for you in the chapel. Say to him, ‘Jesus, you know exactly what is going on. You are all I have, and you know all things. Come to my help.’ And then go, and don’t worry about how you are going to manage. That you have told God about it is enough. He has a good memory.

Jeanne Jugan, 1792-1879

Sometimes, late at night, after a hectic day when it seems like all six of us prefer to live in the same 400 square feet of the thousands of square feet that make up our house—newspapers, shoes, wrappers, preteen male wrestling and bodily emissions, iCarly, Farmtown on Facebook, iTunes updates watching the Flight of the Conchords, dance offs, sardines on the long couch with all 5 of us crunched hipbone to hipbone because Julia is sprawled in her princesshood on the short couch and nobody wants to sit by themselves on the yellow chair—I like to watch the Eternal World Television Network, particularly if there’s a mass on. The patterns and rhythms and words I don’t quite understand quiet me. They help me think in different ways, to approach what are familiar ideas in different clothing. Hearing ideas differently, I see them new.

Late Sunday night, after just spending what seemed like ten hours in close quarters and watching the Angels lose to the Yankees, I watched the Mass of Thanksgiving on from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I think this is in Washington D.C. The Mass, which was conducted by a very handsome cardinal with the longest fingers in silvery, almost light green robes, was to celebrate the canonization of Jeanne Jugan, the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Even the phrase, the Little Sisters of the Poor soothed me. Lying there at almost midnight after a long Sunday evening, I was tiredly moved to make the acquaintance of Jeanne Jugan, and to watch the luminous faces of her Little Sisters of the Poor as they recited the portions of the Thanksgiving Mass.

I am to read later that each of these faces has professed vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and a special fourth vow, that of hospitality. Their mission is to provide care to the elderly. In 32 countries and 202 homes, over 2,700 women have devoted their life to taking care of the elderly. I found out all these facts later, but still, I sensed light as I watched their eyes, their skin, their lips and hands. The faces of the nuns shone like pearls. I’m trying to think of another way to describe it, but I can’t. They were luminous, almost transparent. Devoid of make-up, of artifice, faces framed in grey and white wimples. I thought as I watched, “There is the beauty that comes from devoting one’s life to others, and to having a daily walk with God.” It’s a beauty of light.

Almost familiar phrases ran over my tired body and mind like water: “send these the angels and dark angels”; “Let us profess our faith,” whereupon the entire congregation stood to claim their belief in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Sister Constance Carolyn, of the Public Relations Office of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Bethesda, Maryland, says they’ll have the text next week. So, I’m waiting. I’ve tried to remember the phrases verbatim, but I can only faintly sense their presence. They spilled through the cracks in my soul, settling in the hollows.

Sometimes when I’m on the treadmill at the gym, I also turn to EWTN. I particularly like it when they’re saying the rosary. The combination of feet slapping the mat and the rhythmic voice of Mother Angelica and the Nuns of Olam jars something loose in my head. Almost as if the physical work of running and speaking sets my mind free quicker than if I were just thinking alone.

Today, I have been saying my rosary of sorts. The same prayer, over and over again. I sense today, as I work through my day, why the rosary beads. The anxiety that fuels the repeated petition would be released by rolling beads through my fingers. Or perhaps tugging on the edges of my prayer shawl. Or rolling my forelock between petitioning fingers. But I have none of those aids at my disposal. So I fold laundry. Each fold and crease a word. Each t-shirt added to the pile a sentence. After an hour, I have prayed my work to completion; the couches are filled with fabric petitions piled high and neat like an obsessive compulsive tidied up the Wailing Wall.

My behavior that morning reminds me of Catholic Lebanese Materia, a worried mother in Fall on Your Knees, who’s “always murmuring these days, her lips constantly moving, whether mending a sock or changing a nappy. Worst, while making her glacial way through town.” Her Protestant Scottish husband says to her, “Don’t be traipsing up Plummer Avenue nattering to yourself woman.” “I not talking to myself.” “Then who you talking to.” “Mary.”
In the cool dark of Mount Carmel Church, Materia . . . looks up into the serene alabaster face of Our Lady. Mary recites the Memorae: “Remember , O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful; O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer me.”

Our Lady will think of something. Merciful are her ways.
I don’t pray to the Virgin Mary. But I know why Materia natters her way through her day. And I love this Memorae. I normally dress this idea in language that he will be on my right side and on my left, and he will buoy me up. Coming across the new words for the same idea, my ears and mind trip. I stumble to a stop to contemplate the imagery of fleeing to a divine source for protection and of seeking intercession. I stand still, moved, before the notion that “never was it known” that those who flee and those who seek have been “left unaided.” As I read this prayer in the novel, I felt to read it again, to pick it up, for my own daily walk.

This stone of “never was it known” along with worried Materia’s socks and Saint Jeanne Jugan’s God with the long memory and the faces of the Little Sisters of the Poor, I gather. They sit in the in pockets of my mind, waiting for when I will need them, to roll them again between the minutes of my day.

Title: Cat Stevens, from "Morning Has Broken."