Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Memoir Musings Part Six: Why?

Theologian and prolific author of religiospiritual (my new word, like it?) books Reinhold Niebuhr once said that clergy should have morning coffee with the New York Times in one hand and the Bible in the other. Today I actually did that by mistake. I was reading about the swine flu pandemic panic in the NYTimes and looking up a biblical reference almost simultaneously. Skimming through the gospel of Mark looking for something else my eye fell on the story of the demoniac who had so many “demons” he called himself Legion and challenged Jesus to heal him. Jesus tapped into his healing powers, cast out the guy’s “demons” (all of them) and sent them scurrying into a herd of swine grazing on the hillside. The swine, now bedeviled, ran crazed over the cliff and into the sea. So you see . . . it was Jesus’ fault that we have swine flu. If he hadn’t cast the toxins into the swine we’d be fine!!!

One of the things that confronted me regularly while I wandered around in the middle of my life went something like this: Are you crazy? Why do you want to be ordained? You won’t make much money and you are anatomically incorrect! Wisdom can clang.

The question made sense though. The law had changed to admit women to the ranks of Holy Orders. (This is a term reserved for those who are ordained clergy. I find it offensive. Are we to presume that the lay order of ministry is not holy?) But attitudes had not changed to keep up with legal requirements. I got caught in the gap, really chasm, between law and attitude. So did many other women.

The clergy club had been exclusively male for so long that women’s ways and wiles sent shock waves of Richter proportions rippling. Continuing this journey could be more difficult than getting through losses (deaths of sister and father, recalcitrant asthma and puffed cheeks from steroids, divorce, rejection by Church, cat dies too!) So why did I want this thing so fervently? Ridiculous my mother would say. And indeed it was so.

I only had one answer and it wasn’t enough to cause the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down for me as the song says and the biblical story relates.

Here’s why I wanted to be ordained a priest, not necessarily a rector (parish CEO type) but a priest of Word and Sacrament as the Anglican tradition defines the ministry of priesthood, the particular way priests are called to love God and people. Here it is in a nutshell: my first "ordination."

When I was three I was afraid of a glass, not just any glass. This glass was triangle-shaped, had a long stem, was filled with clear liquid and two enormous green cross eyed olives that stared out at me with menace as my father twirled the stem between his thumb and forefinger. He looked at his glass with all the affection I wanted for myself. The glass commanded all his attention and my mother’s too. The cocktail hour happened every night. I knew from a book that it was supposed to be the children’s hour, so, driven by longing and anger I snitched Ritz crackers from the cocktail tray and sought refuge under the big dining room table with the cross beams joining its legs and the cloth to the floor. There I placed the crackers on the cross beams and began to chatter-preach to my four imaginary friends and a fourth friend I called God. My friends talked back and didn’t listen, but God listened to all my woes and tales of my adventures and mysteriously communicated to me that I mattered—a lot. I was a child gathering a community and distributing Ritz crackers under a table to invisible communicants, one of them God. My nightly ritual seemed Ritz-cracker holy to me, the kind of meal I could cook and serve and love doing it.

The rest is commentary.

(If you are enjoying and following this series I hope you will comment and thanks to you who have. I plan to post most every Wednesday. I know it's Tuesday but I'm off to visit my home town, NYC , for a few days.)

I remain a Facebook resister but am tempted by tweet/twitter—such cute avian words.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Memoir Musings Part Five: Owlish Love

I have a little owl—gift from a good friend who knows the owl is my spirit animal or totem. My owl is one in my large collection and my favorite. In fact she has wormed her way into my marriage partner’s heart too so she sleeps between us. 
 She is square, not intellectually just anatomically. She is four by four by four, soft and furry, charcoal gray with a heart-shaped white face and white ruff; she has a small dark brown plastic beak, two large yellow eyes and two brown plastic owl feet, hardly fierce talons. I named my wee owl Little Miss Wise-A--. She gives me wisdom in the night, and if not she gives me love just by burrowing into the side of my neck as I fall asleep.

My owl represents Divine Wisdom, Sophia in Greek, wisdom that is both objective and subjective at the same time. That’s a difficult tension for me to hold together sometimes. I want to be warm and fuzzy like my furry ball of an owl. I want to immerse myself in Love —merge, fuse, forget boundaries. I also want to hit the nail on the head of insight as Miss Wise can with her sharp beak and the glare of her eyes.

I haven’t written about owls in my memoir, but I have no doubt that the blend of owlish love inspires my writing. I may write some dramatic scene, drown in my own pathos, lose myself in myself, and invite readers to feel along with me. It’s good for empathy. If I get out of balance, abandoning objectivity altogether, the beak brings me back.

After my sister had died, my father had died, I has been turned down once more by the church, and I was divorced and suddenly single, I laid my head down on my desk and figuratively buried myself in the owl’s furry breast of subjectivity. Suddenly I felt a tough peck somewhere in my gut, like a little beak. It put me back in balance saying, “No one can take this away from you."

It sounds harsh, but it was accurate, true. I didn’t feel scorned, simply set free, made whole, saved from feeling too sorry for myself.

This is how God aka Owl, Wisdom, Sophia, Spirit works within me, pulling me back in balance.

Some days I dare to think that we are writing together, so intimate have I dared to let myself feel with this inner divinity. But I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it?— the point of Love.

My writing style can be blunt like a beak. Sometimes my language can be crude, unbecoming according to expectations for a religious professional. It’s just pointed like a beak. I’m warm not cozy. No one would accuse me of being sweet and sunny-side-up, which is why I appreciate Miss Wise-A-- with her beak but also her night time softness, why I’m drawn to moonlight more than sunlight, and wilderness more than civilization.

In the wilderness of my middle years I found out that God is mother and milk, beak and fur, achievement and failure. Simply so. In the wilderness I began to love the inner grace of ordination as much as its outer sign in priesthood. In the wilderness I was ordained.

I was also ordained priest in the Episcopal church in 1988.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Memoir Musings Part Four: Lady Wisdom

It's TAX day! Some of us enjoy the privilege of paying taxes that others who can't pay may enjoy needed services provided the government manages tax and service with equity and generosity in balance. If you can swallow that sentence whole and digest it without much argument you're in balance yourself!

One of my favorite biblical characters turned out to be Lady Wisdom, spirit of creativity and formation. Wisdom is portrayed as the feminine face of God, God’s sidekick in all things. Without Wisdom you don’t get very far in life. I’d valued wisdom, the integration of knowledge with experience, but had often confused it with bookishness, reading more than I digested and way more than I could possibly use—or integrate.

Biblical Wisdom calls us to “lay aside immaturity” (Prov 7:6a) She invites us to the table to eat of the meal she has prepared and drink of the wine she has mixed. She confirmed for me my principal reason for wanting to be a priest.

Wisdom was female now. I couldn’t afford to be without her, apocryphal or not. I prayed for ordination and for Wisdom, my vocational arc increasingly bending like a birch toward a truth I trusted: that all life is sacred, sacramental, everything a visible sign of an invisible grace, everyone holy.

As I read about Wisdom, I learned she had many fine attributes, more than her Boss in fact. One of her qualities listed in the Book of Wisdom is shrewdness. I loved that. Shrewd is related to the now obsolete shrew, something I once heard my father call my mother. Shrewdness enables someone to make astute judgments sometimes without cold hard facts. It’s like cunning and maybe wily, which brings me straight to the holiness of many biblical women who used their wiles to seduce dangerous men and eliminate (murder) them as enemies of the plans of God. May not be the best ethics or theology but in a power-happy world what can you expect even if you don’t approve? Today the same.

Wisdom, shrewd and wily, also seemed like a divine kind of mother to me, one who trains her children in survival skills, who teaches all her children wisdom, and fills them with joy. I also read: “At first she will walk with them on tortuous paths; she will bring fear and dread upon them and will torment them by her discipline until she trusts them.” (Sirach 4: 17)

What kind of mother was that? Well, maybe Mother Church. She could fill me with dread and fear and torture me with her closed doors. When would I be trusted? I wondered as I wandered.

All I could do was keep on, keep on, keep on. I got lots of support, lots of “milk” along the way. But the wilderness could be lonely. Friends and family got sick of my laments and my desires, to say nothing of my radicalized politics.

Determination to achieve my goal made me gritty.

As the years went by I reared four children, went to seminary, did everything in the parish church that I could except join Altar Guild—enough washing and ironing at home. I developed spiritual muscle. I grew tall inside. Adversity, not comfort, shapes souls.

A tender sorrow accompanied me, but it wasn’t bitter and no longer overwhelmed me. My own true voice began to sound more and more like the voice of divine Wisdom I’d heard from time to time inside myself.

That inner voice had awakened me and set me on the wilderness path in the first place. It spoke one day when I was baking chocolate chip cookies, batch # 1 million. They were good and brought pleasure and I was a good mother, but God-in-me gave me Wisdom who said, “Why are you doing this?”

Now I was in the wilderness trying to answer that simple shrewd question, trying to make it to the promised land which I thought was ordination.

Once along my “prayerful” obsessive way Wisdom interrupted me saying, “Lyn, I don’t care if you’re ordained.” Insulted as I felt, She made me laugh. Wisdom can be fresh—funny with a bite. But I suppose she takes her assignments seriously.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Memoir Musings Part Three: Staying the Course

It’s Holy Week, an important one for Christians. We remember the events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection and we honor all our own grief and pain and place our trust once again in the hope that we have a God who reaches into our worst darkness, even death, and raises us up body and soul together, wounds and all. In these days we all have our own memories of death and resurrection.

I had experienced myself and life in a sacramental way by instinct from childhood. My movement towards priesthood seemed obvious. All I had to do was turn myself inside out. I thought the Church would be, well, nice.

It took a record-setting eleven years for me to get ordained, the usual time being four or five years. I stayed alive in the wilderness by thinking that if only I got ordained . . . what? My father would love me as I am? My mother would acknowledge my authority as an adult? I’d be happily married? All my life my way of establishing myself in the world had been by achieving, one glittering triumph after another. Now I was stopped cold.

All one can achieve in a wilderness is survival.

God as well as my self, my direction, my values, my vocational track, came under scrutiny and into question in my wilderness.

Going to seminary whether the Church liked it or not felt deliciously defiant—also dangerous. Sometimes in a wilderness you just have to find a building, a temporary shelter, a tent even— and of course a library! Falling in love with the bible and its motley cast of characters raised my spirits. In the bible, a best seller I’d never understood, I found vocabulary for some of my own spiritual experience.

For example, when, at three under the dining room table, I’d sit and chat to my imaginary friends who never listened and to God who did listen, I felt that I mattered. I received the gift of the authority of my selfhood without any judgment or abandonment. The psalmist calls it feeling yourself to be “the apple of God’s eye.”

Personal authority and belonging came together for me under that table. This “marriage” is rare if at all in a world full of fear, but perhaps it’s a gift only God can give, a gift of love not conferred as reward or power except the power of one’s being. I feel it in my body of flesh when my spiritual body takes residence in every bone, muscle, sinew. I feel alive even when I’m tired of trying. It’s what helped me stay the course.

Recently a woman in my yoga class asked me what I did. I told her I was an Episcopal priest to which she replied “Oh, I’m done with all that religion. I was raised in the Catholic church. My mother believes every word.” I told her I had many doubts myself. She said something like “We’re all just light, Just light. None of this matters.” She patted her body. I resisted for once a little sermonette on incarnational theology, simply saying. “You are a beautiful, graceful athlete. Your body is Light, sacred all by itself.” She looked stunned.

Our conversation ended and I don’t know what she thought. But that’s the way we connect isn’t it, by sharing what matters most to us with each other? I know I’m thinking of what I call the “light of Christ” in a more expansive way because of her Light.