Sunday, February 24, 2019

2019.02.24 Epiphany Everlasting?

Once a long-lost Epiphany Collect, #8, saved my life.

Epiphany is the season of light and life. It leads us into Lent, a season that calls for self-reflection, which can be gloomy. Reflect honestly and you’re sure to discover something icky. The brightest light is Easter of course, but the more light you can attract on the way the better. Hence, the longer Epiphany lasts the better—not only for Lent-avoidance, but because more light in my winter heart reminds me that spiritual light does not start—or end— with Easter.

Few would care, but it’s amusing to eavesdrop on clergy crowing knowingly among themselves: “Hey, we have a long  Epiphany this year! We get to pray EIGHT Collects.” Who but parish clergy would think to think such a thing?

Q: But what happened to Collect #8—my lucky one?
A: Well, my child, my upstairs professor informed me, when Easter falls after April 22, which happens rarely, we get a full Epiphany season, and we pray #8. The last time we got to pray it was 2011. (Oh, how inauspicious! Poor little #8)
Q:When will #8 recur?
A: 2038. Check it out—a splendid prayer (BCP p. 216). Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it should be neglected. Besides, you’ll be 99 and maybe in heaven by 2038.

Here begins the story of me and #8:  I was hired as a consultant for conflict resolution in a parish in which the leadership was sorely challenged by some malcontents. Chaos was spreading like a red tide into the wider community. Attempts at reconciliation had been ineffective.

Situations like this are not uncommon, but they are painful. Some people had left; some stayed to fight; others sank into anxiety and discontent. The leaders felt helpless and under attack. I was no miracle-worker but at least I had no big personal axe to grind. I listened to the principals, met separately with each, made no judgments, and soon felt as if I were sinking in quicksand, secretly losing my cool while looking cool. Only then did it occur to me to ask God for help. I had of course dutifully prayed at every meeting, but there is soul-deep prayer and token prayer. I had a great big Gethsemane-like ask: Get me outta this!

Out of nowhere, or maybe from the upstairs professor in my head, the esoteric, infrequently used #8 popped up. I thought it was no kind of answer, but then God didn’t really do exactly what Jesus asked in Gethsemane either. I wanted a brilliant self-generated solution that would please all parties and get me much kudos; I got a Collect of little note.

I copied #8, said it over and over, prayed it with my little group, by now stuck in a concrete impasse, then sent them off with the assignment to recite this prayer every single day until we met again in two weeks. Good God, how impotent I felt, but I prayed this Collect daily as if it were my last meal.

“Most loving Father [sic], whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our cares on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.”

In two weeks we met again. I went in, fearing a mini Armageddon and my own self cast into outer darkness. The air in the room I noticed was not as stifling. I don’t know why. The complainers were as adamant as ever, but one cracked a tiny bit, as did the rector. Men close to tears? A deep honesty penetrated the icy standoff. I had no idea what would happen but sat silently with them for a bit, then announced that these meetings were over, and to go in peace. I wanted to add: “and sin no more” but tactfully refrained from doing a Jesus imitation. Everyone left. My consulting work hadn’t worked.

The “brats” continued to attend church. They contended that they were being “forced to leave”  by the rector. They sent me hostile emails to announce their eternal victimhood. The rector presided at the Eucharist as he always did. The complainants left two weeks later, never to return. I have no idea why. Rumor had it they went down the street to another church to try again. I kept on praying the Collect—a dash of necessary humility, laced with gratitude.

#8 just might have preserved us all from “faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal”—and kept us humble.   





 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

2019.02.17 Valentinus and Me

Who's ever heard of Valentinus?  Well, he’s not the saint who invented Valentine’s Day, alas. He’s not very in-the-box famous at all. Which makes him all the more mysteriously intriguing, if not infamous to me— mostly because his gnostic point of view did not win the day, nor the election as Bishop of Rome.  Check it out, he’s not iconically compelling either.
Valentinus was a poet and visionary, born in Egypt about 100 CE. His writings were sequestered in a cave with other ancient Christian and gnostic scrolls in an Egyptian town called Nag Hammadi. By 1945, scholars were flipping and buzzing about the Nag Hammadi discovery and all the sacred texts found there, Valentinus’s among them—a gospel called The Gospel of Truth.

Gnostic texts were considered heretical, mostly because they claimed to have exclusive knowledge (gnosis) about access to divine salvation. They also maintained that God favored only the spiritual world and was hostile to the material world, thus creating a dualism between matter and spirit. This did not do much for the guy Jesus I’d met in the church window who loved children, even at their worst, I was told. 

In 1945, I was only seven and in love with myself, my pony, and God, in that order. I’d discovered God in my own little “nag hammadi” cave under a dining room table. As a child I was being a little gnostic, coveting my secret knowledge—also learning that I mattered a lot to a super-parent named God. In time it became clear that secrets, although excitingly powerful, weren’t so good for me. I also learned that all matter mattered to God-Creator—not just me. It was a comedown. Thus ended my gnostic phase.

As to Valentinus, his brand of gnosticism eventually proved worthy of scholarly attention, particularly that of Elaine Pagels, noted for her academic work on the value of gnostic gospels. Pagels challenged patriarchal assumptions about sacred texts. As an adult and a priest, I was challenging patriarchal assumptions about just about everything, particularly the authority of women in the church, the authority of the immanent nature of God, and the idea that the closed canon of scripture meant that there were no other gospels of worth. Bunk!—and more bunk! I have spent most of my adult life rebooting the God I’d met as a child, the God of my gnostic days, the God who gave me my spirituality.

One of the Nag Hammadi texts gives the life-giving energy at Creation a feminine voice: 
I am the thought that lives in the light. I live in everyone, and I delve into them all . . . I am she who gradually brought forth everything . . . I am the image of the invisible spirit. . . The mother, the light . . the virgin . . . the womb, and the voice . . . I put breath within all beings.” (Pagels, p 199, Why Religion?)  

Meeting Valentinus through Pagels’s work has been thrilling. St. Paul had merely hinted at other gospels, also at hidden wisdom revealed through the Spirit, “ . . .  for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. . .” (I Cor. 2:10) Even the depths of God? If this Spirit searched even God’s own depths then what was there to fear?  I have taken this as my mandate, permission, and invitation to dive into the “secret” mysteries of God, accompanied by this Spirit. Oh yes, I know we can never know God, but that never stopped me from trying. Paul’s words described what I’d experienced under that table: God and I exploring our depths together in lively conversation. Well, I talked and God listened and loved. Thirty-four years later God spoke to me and I listened.  

The Gospel of Truth, attributed to Valentinus, is all about relationships and connection. I had grown up thinking, and still wonder, about the Cross of Jesus as being the great separator, something that our liturgies still proclaim: the cross is an instrument of torture, suffered by Jesus, for our sake, our sins, coming perilously close to saying it’s our fault, and we should feel like hell about it—still. The Gospel of Truth, reframes the vision of the cross directly in new language: The cross is a “new tree of knowledge, which unlike the tree in paradise does not bring death but life to those who eat of it.” (Pagels p. 201) 

I get so tired of the words of death that continue to enshroud our Eucharist, even though Jesus is supposedly risen and we are to feel joyful and beloved. The words do not suggest that. The Gospel of Truth however suggests that when those who participate in the Eucharist eat the symbolic flesh and blood of Jesus they “discover him in themselves while he discovers themselves in him”. That's powerful truth. This mutuality feeds my body and soul weekly. It brings me back under my table and into my own flesh when I knew God, and God knew me, and we knew each other. 

Heed the intimate scriptures of your own heart and intuition. It’s not meant to be private, esoteric, or used to assert superiority over any living matter. It is, however, not provable, replicable, or measurable—inaccessible by scientific methodology.

Paul hints again at this knowing in his speech in Athens, giving a gentle nod to local poets from whom his broad interpretation is derived. Paul refers to God Creator in whom we all are connected: “For in him [sic] we live and move and have our being; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his [sic] offspring.”  (Acts 17:28) I knew this when I was three, and still know it today.



(Those sics are mine, because of course God is never to be corseted into one gender, especially when we’re speaking of the vast expanses of all Creation. Please!) 




Sunday, February 10, 2019

2019.02.10 Three LIttle Words—Silently or Aloud

According to song and poetry, love is a many-splendored thing. Love is all you need. Love makes the world go round. Love, according to the Bible, is a divine commandment: Love God and then love your neighbor as yourself. (I would say love your neighbor AND yourself.) Love is stronger than death sings the biblical poet in the Song of Songs. It is love between us that heals and saves.

When I was a kid the first love-talk I got was from God. I was a toddler curious and curiouser. I set out on my own. My mother’s brand of hovering loving threatened to drown me, and my father’s loving silence to erase me. My mother had told me I was a gift from God who loved me. What kind of love was God’s? In a sanctuary of my own making under a large dining room table I chattered silently and aloud until I knew I mattered. This experience I named God: silent, invisible, wordless, powerful—the hum underlying my very existence. God listened without critique or demand. 

I love you is God.

On the day of my ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1988, my husband of two years, also a priest, preached the sermon. I was afraid at first to ask him, because this day was so subjective. Did he have the objectivity to do a sermon? Did I have enough emotional control to listen without a faint or a gush of tears? 

The theme of the day wasn’t me or my ordination. It was the angelic Annunciation to Mary that she’d get pregnant with a kid who’d take the world by storm, a son! I was not going to take anything by storm, nor was I going to have more children at my age. But, like Mary, I was terrified that someone or something might mess up this day. I wanted to flee.

I tried to persuade Dick to tell me what he was going to say, but no go. When he got up to preach I hoped he wouldn’t look at me, so I put my head down. Dick does not usually look directly at people when he preaches but away so he can manage his thoughts without a manuscript. I thought I’d be safe from emotions. But when I heard his voice I had to look up. He looked right into me and almost through me as he spoke. I do not remember a thing he said, which sounds insulting, but it is not too dramatic to say this felt like an annunciation moment.  I was locked into his gaze and he into mine, as if we were alone and ready to make love—or already making love.

I love you is a sermon.

Writer V. S. Naipaul writes: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it." All singing is operatic when you give it your full and best voice while you are caught up in the most dramatic of plots. Writing a memoir is the same. Such powerful singing and writing allows the singer/writer and the listener/reader to fall in love with the tragedy and sing or write it into life everlasting.

I love you is an opera and a memoir.

People gather in church communities to pray. We praise God, listen to biblical wisdom in readings, hymns, prayers, and homilies, leading to a sacramental communion meal called Eucharist. The priest who presides issues an invitation on behalf of Christ:“Lift up your hearts!” We respond: “We lift them to the Lord.” These words connect us with God and each other. They set the tone and put structure around the uncontainable Love that is God.

I love you is community prayer.

As a writer I seek the right words for what I mean. Often they elude me, or too many come at once and I get a pile-up. True confession: I adore adverbs, often condemned, because verbs do the job on their own. Love is a verb—and more.

I love you is adverbial— truly, madly, deeply.

The first time I said I love you I felt instantly terrified and elatedly free. I’d said it before as a teen, but with the manipulative idea that I might get the high school boy I had a crush on to say it back. He didn’t. And with my first love, my first husband, I said it for real, and he said it, and then suddenly it meant sex. I say the three love words often to my children and grandchildren. The short-form “Love you” has its place, but it doesn’t replace all three words together, a carefully complete sentence with profound meaning.  When I say I love you now to my present husband, it usually rises from a sudden internal power surge, like the electrical impulse along a wire. It doesn’t matter whether I hear them back, I still feel elevated. And as I get older and closer to death these lovely three words arrive more frequently, gain depth, and communicate spiritual truth.

I love you is heaven-on-earth, assumed, consuming, forever immersive. 

Susan, a woman colleague and friend about whom I recently wrote, died tragically from multiple internal injuries caused by a tree branch propelled by heavy winds shooting through the windshield and into her body. During her hospital stay she longed to speak but couldn’t. After 4 torturous weeks of trying to speak her needs and her love, she mouthed silently to her beloved spouse of 45 years: I love you. Then she died.

I love you is the last word.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

2019.02.03 Images To Love By, And Live By

As everyone by now knows, I love words. They’re my thing. I also love pictures. Images can spark uplifting feelings, laughter, and often memories. They nourish my soul. Here are a few.

1) In Blackers, a Kosher bakery in Newton, MA., I spotted this amazing sight: a huge (4.2" diameter) cupcake modeled after the small ones we used to love to eat daily for lunch in school: Hostess Cupcakes with the cute squiggles on top. They came two in a package. Inside the cake there is white creamy filling—a temptation too great to avoid, diet or weight paranoia or not. This bakery must have a memory too. They have packaged this giant treat—twice its the original size—by twos in a box.  We bought them. We loved them together. (We split them in half—wisely, then ate both halves.)


2) Just outside our front door there is an upside-down icicle. The heating pipe outlet that shoots out from the side of the house emits steam, and water drips down from it. In the freeze of winter the drips don't melt; they create quite an erection. 😂😂



3) On FaceBook I saw this wondrous image. (Thanks to trindlesandread.com) It tells a universal truth, and it tells my truth. I have always been a reader, voraciously so. As soon as I could get rid of the Dick and Jane series that taught me to read but did not stimulate my creative imagination, I plunged into the world of books. Books made me wonder, laugh, quiver, and love. Books made me want to be a writer of books myself. How many favorite characters can you recognize? I imagine God on top, not Santa. Nuts, huh?


4) Here is one of my favorite pictures from an old scrapbook. It pictures (l.to r.) Amanda, John, and Rob. They are cousins about 7, 3 and 6. They are playing dress-ups, donning old hats, scarves, ties, purses, and pretending, for a moment, to be grown up. Dress-ups is a game kids don’t play any more, but I used to love it and so did my kids.  Now kids play video games. I miss dress-ups. John, in the middle, is looking a bit smug; he has kept ahold of his Pooh Bear. Smart kid. Don’t these kids look delighted with life and themselves?  It fills my heart with joy.


5) Lest I forget, my favorite image of Jesus in good humor. He must have laughed if he was human, which he was in every way.
People don’t like such images I know, but I think they add to the Spirit of religion, keep it honest. After all, no one knows what Jesus looked like, and most images are deadly serious and stern, or too pious for their own good. My current favorite image for Jesus is Danny DeVito—short, swarthy, stocky, a bullet of energy, walking fast with a slight side-to-side gait, gesticulating wildly and flinging forth words as he goes—gospel words. Many follow him, trying to grab and grasp something—just something. Just something to feed their ravenous appetite for Hope.We're still doing this.



 6) Last but not least, old and faded photos of my four children when they were young. They sit today on my home altar. No, I do not worship them, but yes, I did and do adore them. I am profoundly grateful for their presence in my life. (Jill, 5, Bev, 7. Below: Rob, 6 and John, 3, on right.)
 


 

7) OK, two more I love. They also have a place at my home altar—not for worship but for love.
 

On top is Richard John Simeone, my beloved husband Dick at age four, delivering his first ever "sermon" to a watering can. Gramps is in the background. Some things start early and keep on going.  Below, Dick again as a boy chorister at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Harrisburg, PA.—now more serious and with an official vestment and glasses. Too cool!

Whatever your images are, follow them with passion and laughter and good soul. For heaven’s sake do not indulge in too much piety—unless it's authentic enough to connect heaven and earth.