Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Memoir Musings Part Two: Priest's Song

It’s April Fools’ Day and I should be writing about fools or at least April, but instead I continue my memoir musings with this poem.

Actually it is about some kind of foolishness —the kind I felt trying to get the church to ordain me when my life was messy, euphemistically, and I was lost in my wilderness. Growing up is be definition chaotic. You try all kinds of different behaviors, taste all kinds of different treats, experiment with all kinds of different role-free relationships and create grand messes only you can clean up. It’s painful and exhilarating.

Imagine my hoping and praying that the Episcopal church, known both for its breadth of heart and its stuffiness of mind, would find me acceptable for ordination anyway.

I didn’t write this poem in my wilderness state. I wrote it it after my lostness and my acting up days were, at least for a time, done with. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote his famous Serenity Prayer before he had to live its wisdom in the midst of a stroke. Before or after, I guess most people don’t write clear-headed wisdom in the middle of stark vulnerability. (Jesus didn’t recite all that biblical wisdom while stretched thin and gasping on a wooden cross. His followers knew what he would say if he could and wrote it much later.)

So I wrote my song of hope after I was ordained, remembering how it had been to be longing, lost and lonely—unwanted.


When I have no title
I make
one up - irreverend.

When I have no collar
I roll
my neck round.

When I have no church
I steeple
my fingers.

When I have no pulpit
I preach

When I have no altar
I celebrate
my back yard.

When I have no wine
I weep
blood tears.

When I have no bread
I am
a sacrament.

When I have no God
I pray
anyway. (this poem is published in Women’s Uncommon Prayers)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Memoir Musings Part One: Wilderness

Today the Christian Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation. In the biblical story a young girl Mary had a vision of the angel Gabriel and heard in her heart an invitation, an announcement, a deal: conceive, bear and nurture a son named Jesus. In return for her female gifts her biology and her commitment to a hard journey (Jesus wasn’t an easy son you know,) God promised blessings for Mary and for her son. Mary said yes.

Today is also the twenty-first anniversary of my ordination as an Episcopal priest in the Church of God. It’s Mary’s day and my day too, a good time to begin to tell you how my own call to say yes to God’s invitation to me.
* * * *
I’ve been writing all my life, most recently at length about my spiritual journey, trek really, from child to adult, girl to woman, and edging into old woman, with most of the focus on my middle years—thirty-five to fifty-five roughly.

What, I pondered, would be the right word to describe what it’s like to be moving, sometimes without consent, toward maturity? Mind, body and soul are all involved—not one holds back, not one dominates. Growth spurt seems too mild. Mid-life crisis lacks luster, too psychological. Transition is shopworn. And paradigm shift is for things much bigger than me. Liminality works but is close to spiritual cliché.

Into my mind popped wilderness and a quote: “The wilderness is where the child learns to love the mother more than the milk.”

Wilderness? A bit tired among the biblically literate but when something pops in like that I don’t resist much. Wilderness catches the ambience of a mapless pilgrimage, going nowhere and everywhere. Lost.

To learn to love the mother more than the milk? At a literal level, I don’t resonate with this wisdom. My mother didn’t nurse me or my sisters, thought is was “disgusting,” not part of her class or day. But of course milk and mother are metaphor for what life is like in wilderness time.

My wilderness was wild but it wasn’t hot or dry like a desert. There was plenty of water although nothing slaked my thirst. It wasn’t uninhabited, not bleak wasteland but teeming with people, places and things, forces driving me from within and whipping me from without. Tumbleweed.

I don’t know how I got into my wilderness or exactly how I got out. I careened through it tethered by one slender thread: I wanted with all my heart to be ordained a priest and celebrate the Holy Eucharist. I kept trying to persuade the Episcopal church, then (1970’s and 80’s) in its own wilderness of change—shifting words, hymn tunes, genders, and all manner of traditions.

My campaign began officially in 1977 in the diocese of Connecticut. I with five other women—the very first female aspirants—applied to enter the ordination process. We were “legal” now, voted so in 1976 by the General Convention, our legislative body. Fifteen women pioneers paved the way. In 1974 and 1975 they were been ordained priests outside of canonical authority. Roman Catholic women are doing the same now. (Such efforts remind me of the valiant and herculean way grass makes its way up through concrete taking the tiniest cracks as invitation.)

But since we Episcopal women had been accepted by vote, we thought we had an open door. We were thrilled, triumphant, and naive about the difference between the vote counts of our “congressional” delegates and the more invisible slow heartbeat of church officialdom back home. The numbers didn’t tally.

Before I applied for ordination I had entered and was lost in my personal wilderness, trying to break free from societal roles and rules for women, but this ecclesiastical wilderness was vast, harsh and sometimes toxic. I was rejected twice by “Goliath” after which I descended into the hell of my one million three hundred thousand internal demons—echoes of parental demons now mine— all proclaiming me inadequate.

I kept on–no promise, no blessings, no mother, no milk— driven by my soul’s adrenalin.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spirituality Trumps Psychology

I’m good at psychoanalyzing. I can be right, even helpful in assisting someone to understand the internal dynamics of an impasse by feeling their way through it. Sometimes I can even help myself see beyond gloom to understanding and from there to acceptance. Psychoanalysis isn’t bad, just limited.

A woman client I’ll call Rose has come a long way in eleven years—from trauma, homelessness, poverty and serious depression to having her own small apartment and developing skills to get services. She is clever and valiant, once even faking suicide to get shelter from the cold. Her successes are notable, but Rose is not secure. Her life is spent managing calamity after calamity. No peace. Some days I feel as if I’m on a roller coaster with Rose's ups and downs, the pattern inevitably four steps forward and three and three quarters back.

Rose is better than I am at accepting her state. She summons enough daily energy to fight against systems that entrap her and others like her. She keeps going as if her life depended on the struggle. It does.

Rose has picked a name for herself, a name she will take on fully when she is completely well on her own in a home of her own. I dream that too. Rose has some friends but her family has deserted her except for a few cards and a little money from time to time sent through my office. It’s Rose’s most agonizing pain.

Psychology offers a million diagnoses and few positive prognoses for someone like Rose. But I am a pastoral counselor, a priest. I have another training track besides psychology, another passion. I hold out hope that the Spirit is at work in this process, not just me and Rose.

One day a small package arrived at my office for Rose. I gave it to her. After our session I asked her to open it. I was curious. It was from her younger brother, the boy she’d tried to protect from abuse when they were children. Rose made up many stories, happiness fantasies to tell her little brother. She gave him warmth and as much love as she could muster. She hadn’t seen or heard from him in years. What was in the package, so well secured with layers of tape?

Inside was a beautiful silk scarf in the earth colors Rose loves. Astonished, Rose pulled it up out of the box and stroked it. She put it on, modeled it while I admired.

As Rose was leaving she handed me the package wrapping to throw away. I looked at it. Sure enough it was her brother’s name and address. “What’s this?” I asked.

Rose looked. “Valey.” she said. Valey was written near the address in red with a heart shape for the V. “It’s Valey. See? He hasn’t forgotten me.”

Rose looked up. Crying. It’s the first time I’ve seen Rose cry.

(The next week I found out that Valey had been the hero of one of Rose’s little tales. Valey came on Valentine’s Day. He wasn’t as fast as the Easter Bunny but he got around well enough by hopping on his little point.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cartesian Musings

René Descartes (1596-1650) is famous for his one-liner, “I think therefore I am. Cogito ergo sum.

Volumes have been written on the Cartesian formula. The distinguished theologian William Temple, one time Archbishop of Canterbury (1942), the author of Nature,Man and God, and a scholar/philosopher in his own right, disputed Descartes’s idea as putting the cart before the horse.

“I exist” according to Cartesian thought is an absolute and irrefutable truth. (No wonder Jesus didn’t answer his accuser Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’) Existence lies beyond doubt because in order to doubt you have to think you’re doubting and to think that, you must exist. Oddly, Descartes thought God beyond doubt as well as his own existence.

Now, shall I go on? No, I shall have mercy—also admit I can’t do justice to Descartes, Temple, Jesus and some days even myself.

Having just seen the movie Doubt, however, I have no doubt that one can have doubt without a single thought to it.

I think a lot. My totem, or spirit animal, is an owl. All owls think a lot. Unlike Descartes I don’t favor thought over sensation or feelings. I tried to run my life from the neck up for years and couldn’t think myself in or out of my wounded body. I needed my feelings to help me come alive. And I needed biblical theology to remind me that I am therefore I think. (But I hope too that I began as a loving thought in my parents’ minds and bodies before I became an I am.)

The biblical Moses, on his way to confront Pharaoh and persuade him to let the people of Israel go free, asked, “Whom shall I say sent me?” The answer slides like honey off the tip of the divine tongue, “Just tell ‘em I Am sent you.”

I’m in an exercise group. We are all there for cardiac or pulmonary conditions, and we all are supposed to be exercising to stay healthy. While we stroll, puff or jog on treadmills, bikes, rowing machines and more, some of us have enough breath to talk, to philosophize even.

The hero of exercised thought is a small intelligent loquacious man named Bud. He has more knowledge at the tip of his tongue than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s our resident scholar. To Decartes Bud says with a twinkle in his eye, “I think I think, therefore I think I am.” That’s just before he launches into an exposé on the latest political fracas in city hall.

I’m always tempted to see if I can get the last word with Bud. Once I did, or at least I thought I did, because I left while Bud was still thinking up a comeback. We laughed. We laugh, therefore we are.

When I pray I kneel before an invisible Lover. I am, think, feel, and keep silent all at once. I pray therefore I am.

What say you out there in blogger land? Do you think? Are you am?