Monday, October 26, 2009

About Trusting Delight

c. 2008, Sukie Curtis, Backyard in Summer, oil on gessoed paper, 6.5"x6.5"
I never did get around to explaining how I came by the title of my other, longer-running blog, Trusting Delight. And I think it's time to do so.

You'd think that this topic really belongs over on that blog, which it does, and yet it's also a significant part of my road to freedom, so it belongs on this blog too. Perhaps it's one of the strongest, clearest links between the two.

(Which of course causes me to wonder if they are, or should be, one and the same blog. But when I recently read that it's a great idea for artists to blog about their work, and I thought: "Aha!! Trusting Delight could become the blog about my painting and other visual art, while Freedom Diaries remains the story about my journey, present as well as past.)

Anyway, back to trusting delight.

It happened this way: I'd been given a small piece of gessoed paper to use for a homework assignment for the plein air (that's fancy French art talk for painting outside) landscape painting class that I took last summer. I don't remember the precise assignment, but I believe we were simply encouraged to play around freely (my favorite kind of assignment!) with our paint and the paper, since gessoed paper was a new surface for most of us.

I took my paints, the paper, and my trusty folding French easel out to the backyard, which is where I did a lot of painting last summer (hence the large number of paintings featuring trees and a wooden fence). I was about to discover that gessoed paper is a rather slippery, skiddy surface compared to gessoed canvas, for instance. A paint-laden brush really slides around a lot, which some find disconcerting, and it can feel pretty out of control and messy for a while.

It was a gorgeous early summer day with plenty of sunshine and a pleasant breeze. There was stuff growing in the garden, the trees were in full leaf by then, casting intriguing shadows across the lawn, onto the fence, and through my neighbor's grove of trees.

The wind stirred the branches and caused the light to flicker and dance, and I was ecstatic. I worked pretty fast, mixing colors and swiping my brush across the paper, moving so quickly in fact that I couldn't really say how I decided to paint what I did. I was simply painting by the seat of my pants (ha ha! I actually typed "by the seat of my paints"!!).

I was trusting my novice painter's intuitive sense, though if I'd had any such thoughts of doing any such thing, I can assure you I would have gotten tied in knots. "I don't know how to trust my intuition," I can almost hear myself whine. But thankfully, I didn't go down that road that day!

Because the paper was small, around 6 by 6 inches, I finished in a matter of minutes (really can't say how many, since I was blissfully oblivious of time). And I looked at what I had done, and I loved it!

And almost immediately the thought came to me that I was simply "chasing the light" around the backyard with my paints and brushes.

Now it just so happens that in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that.... oops. Wrong story. Let me try that again.

It just so happens that in those days I was actively wracking my brain to come up with a name for my soon to be launched blog. And when that phrase "chasing the light" arose in my mind, I said, "That's it! I'll call my blog 'Chasing Delight'!"

But when I thought more about it, "Chasing Delight" felt a bit too manic for what I had in mind, and possibly even too suggestive that I could be chasing delight yet never actually finding it or catching up to it. And that was definitely not what I wanted to convey.

I tweaked some more, emailed my friend Sarah some more, and settled on "Trusting Delight" instead of "Chasing Delight".

Just when in this process I remembered St. Augustine I can't now recall. Believe me, I wasn't expecting to find inspiration for my blog title from any of the so called "church fathers", and particularly not that one, whom I credit, rightly or wrongly, with developing the lovely concept of original sin. He wasn't big on sex, either.

But long ago I read and took to heart a beautiful line that Augustine (354 - 430) once wrote about music. I like to imagine that he wrote it before he spent his energy cooking up original sin. For that matter, maybe he even wrote this before he converted to Christianity!

In any case, here's Augustine's line that lies behind my blog's title: "Delight is as it were the weight of the soul; for delight orders the soul."

Delight orders the soul. And I am, dare I say it?, delight's willing practitioner, doing my best to order my life and my soul by trusting delight.

(To be continued, for sure. Because that word "orders" has an interestingly familiar ring to it, especially when traveling with its ecclesiastical companion, "holy".)

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Universe and Commitment Thing

Lots of people these days "preach" the idea that the universe is supportive of our dreams and desires. Marci Shimoff, the "Happy for Nor Reason" guru, makes this one of the foundations of beginning to take responsibility for your own happiness. She calls it "Guiding Principle #2": "The Universe is out to support you."

Of course others have said it long before this current age. The American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson being one of them; his version is this: "Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen."

(OK, I'm aware that Jesus probably said something sort of like this somewhere along the way, too, but since Jesus isn't on my current reading list, I'm not going down that road right now!)

And there's that quote that often gets attributed to Goethe but that was really written by author and mountaineer William Hutchinson Murray in his  1951 book, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. He speaks of Providence where others might say the Universe, or a host of other variations. These are Murray's words:

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way."

Why am I writing this here and now? I'm not entirely sure! Mostly it's because I think this supportive universe idea may be one of the themes or sub-texts of the story I'm unwinding (and discovering as I go) in writing this blog.

There have been moments, especially over the past four years, when I've been given glimmers of this reality, although I hasten to add that my native tendency toward skepticism over what can only be called an elemental form of "faith" has often dismissed such glimmers as insignificant or merely coincidental. (So much depends upon how you choose to see things--as well as upon "a red wheel/barrow/ glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens"!)

One of the great gifts of writing a story is being given, and taking, the chance to see things differently. To see connections that might have been missed the first time through, or that might have been briefly acknowledged, then brushed aside or dismissed.

I have to say that somewhere between writing yesterday's post (based on writings from 2006) and this morning, it has occurred to me that the hummingbird's visit to me as I stood dripping wet in cool morning air was a pretty damn good "unforeseen incident and meeting" for someone who had only hours before stated her intention to let herself "be taken" by the natural world! And who only weeks before had written about wanting to start over,

"to know what I know
and feel what I feel,
from earth to skin,
blood and bone,
blossom and leaf bloom."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but who cares whether one embraces God or godlessness, providence or universe, all or none? As long as you are alive and sensing and responding to this amazing world? And on top of that, or on the basis of that, or in response to that, gathering and patching together glimmer after glimmer, and then daring to imagine a Universe that is out to support you (and to go on trusting that Universe even when the evidence isn't forthcoming). Hmmm . . . .

Of course the possibility of this being all illusion or delusion or wishful thinking is never far away, but if it makes for a happier life, then . . . .

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What Happened Next: Hummingbird Visits

Here's what happened next, and what I wrote the next day, the day after abandoning my story of going godless in favor of my "love affair with the earth".

June 11, 2006.

Last night something happened. I left the "Twenty Questions" exercise discouraged, dispirited, story-less. Walking up to dinner alone on the boardwalk through the alder marsh, I moved slowly, savoring those lush greens, the thick moss on the rotting log lying in the mud, and those plants with leaves shaped like the blades of canoe paddles. And the whole grove soaked in birdsong.

That's when I decided that I would write about my "love affair with the earth," a pulsing artery of life and energy that has been part of me my whole life though so often submerged, undervalued, and overlooked. It has so often been the most lively and life-giving part of my life, and yet it so rarely seems to fit with liturgy or lectionary (the prescribed biblical texts that Episcopal preachers, and many other denominations' clergy, are expected to preach from in their sermons).

Something made me think of the baby's ear, the small oval seashell a little smaller than my thumbnail, one of the few objects I brought with me to "hold my place" in the centerpiece we built together at the hub of our circle where we meet several times a day. I brought it here because I've always loved those shells, and I couldn't think of anything more appropriate to bring, not because it has deep symbolic meaning for me, nor does it carry vivid memories of people, time or place. Standing in that marsh, I figured that if I hoped to have anything to write, I would have to listen with a baby's ear.

After dinner my small group partners and I met briefly to read to each other and lend support before the full group was to mark our entry into silence and solitude. After all three of us had read something, we each drew one of D's angel cards.

I have to confess: I don't really do angel cards. I don't "get" them, don't really know the point of them or how they're supposed to work! Is this an East Coast-West Coast kind of divide? Or another example of how my whole proper New England intellectual, rational identity, overly limited by the Episcopal clergyperson-box, is cramping my style? I'm probably making a simple thing way, way too complicated.

In any case, I took a card. It said "Simplicity". D's card said "Surrender"; J's said "Joy". I of course thought their words were more appealing than mine, although I didn't say so. Actually, I wouldn't have wanted surrender any more than simplicity. What I wanted was joy.

Together they made a pretty good trio--simplicity, surrender, joy. We agreed that all three words could be gifts of wisdom and inspiration for the three of us. (Is that all angel cards are? Or are they thought to be imbued with prophetic powers?)

Later in the evening, I sat for a while on the ground with my back to the wide, outermost skirts of the towering Douglas fir that keeps watch over the meadow. My face was toward the sun sinking behind distant trees and across the nearer fields. A familiar rich buzz caught my attention--a hummingbird! I know that sound well.

Even though I couldn't see her, I knew it was a hummingbird. I got up and peered into the branches of the fir but never saw her. Still, it was a visitation, perhaps even an annunciation, if only I could catch the message. Had this bird somehow come because she knew I needed her? It hardly matters.

What matters is that she visited, and I heard her and was greatly cheered. Afterwards, some coyotes partied briefly in a neighboring meadow, whooping and hollering at the rising full moon. I went to sleep with my baby's ear soaked in wild, delightful sounds. Simplicity.

Still, in the night I dreamed I was among a group of writers who were busily cranking out pages and pages, and I alone hadn't even gotten started. I woke briefly at 4 a.m., fearful that I'd have nothing to write today, then slept again until 5. Despite overcast skies, songbirds were in full chorus. The cries of a larger bird roused me; I got out of bed.

If I'm going to write about my love affair with the Earth, I thought, I guess I'm going to have to let myself be taken, unabashedly taken, holding nothing back.

I decided to take my morning shower outdoors at the shower behind Marsh House, even though the weather was not what I might have chosen for such an occasion. It addition to the cloud cover, fog hung in the valley and heavy dew dampened every surface. When I arrived at the edge of the meadow with my towel, shampoo, and soap, a cool wind stirred.

I threw my towel over the horizontal rod, next to a potted pink verbena plant, then started the water running to let it heat up. When the water was almost too hot to touch, I stripped as fast as I could--shoes first, then socks; my pants and underpants in one quick movement. Finally my nightgown and fleece together.

I ducked under the stream of water quickly, but not before the cool air had stirred and wakened my nipples. Even my middle-aged breasts, saggy from nursing my two daughters years ago, now felt full and alive under my hands as I soaped them. My nipples stayed firm; blood and energy pulsed. Air wind water taking me. Surrender.

I don't know how long I enjoyed the water and my own flesh, probably not very long. I knew I had to leave the warmth of the shower and hand myself back to the cold air. I quietly coaxed myself through it.

"OK, you can do this . . . ready? Water off . . . one . . . two . . . three . . . NOW!"

For a few seconds, perhaps even ten, I stood, wet skin to cool air, alive, nerve ends alert. Then I pulled the towel down and began to dry off.

Suddenly she's there. From over my right shoulder I hear her distinctive humming wing blur.

"You're back!" I whisper, but once again I can't see her. I stop my drying, stand still, and wait.

Now she's in the tree branches just in front of me, moving forward, doing small aerial dance steps. Left a little, pause; right a little, another pause. She comes closer.

I am holding my breath, my heart pounding. She hovers about a foot from my face, hangs there, expending all those calories to visit me, hovering just there. She moves left, pauses again, then darts away.

"Thank you," I whisper as she departs. Joy.

Why have I waited this long to use the outdoor shower, I ask myself? How many showers could I manage to take in one day?

Not long after I remember that this was Trinity Sunday, a day when most clergy I know are glad to have a guest preacher. I totally understand. I mean, who in her (or his) right mind wants to perform the theological acrobatics necessary to make the idea of God "in unity of substance and trinity of persons relevant for today?

Not me. I'm off to the garden to cavort with roses and poppies.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Earth-Body Story

So I left that writing workshop exercise feeling kind of stupid and small and story-less. If I wasn't ready to write about starting to live my life without God, then what the hell was I going to write about? We participants in the workshop were about to enter into 24 hours of silence so that we could go deep into our writing. It seemed to me of course that everyone else had a story firmly and clearly in mind. Everyone but me.

My story, the one I had tentatively tested in that exercise, didn't seem ready, or ripe. Or I guess it's more truthful to say that I didn't feel ready or ripe or brave enough to start writing it.

In fairness, what I had declared to myself and my workshop companions, though I wasn't exactly clear about this at the time, was more about how I intended to live than about what I intended to write. As I said before, it only stands to reason that in order to write about starting over to live my life without God, I was going to have to start to live my life without God. To cut the cord, saw off the ball and chain that were shackled to my ankle, slash the lashings of the sack on my back, to use my own rhetoric.

But I had no reasoned or reasonable plan in mind. I loved imagining that somehow I could go back to the way I was before I got ordained, and even farther back than that, to the way I was before I decided to embrace Christianity around age twenty (I wasn't born that way!).

And as much as I loved thinking that I could somehow return to my own personal era "Before Christ," to a time in my life without theology, without doctrine, without too much thinking--was that it? Without religion . . . was it that?-- I wasn't really even sure that such an enterprise was possible. And I certainly didn't have a clue how to go about doing this, living this, or being this.

You begin to see how tangled a matter this was for me--when the "entity" I wished to live without was really a massive knotted mess whose individual strands included the human concept of "God"; the religious enterprise in general; Christianity in particular; ordination; and most particular of all, my being an Episcopal priest. I even thought I'd love to go back to a time before words or behind, beneath, and beyond words, to reclaim and to dwell simply in experience, in the realm of my senses in this very sensory and sensual world.

Wasn't that what I meant, what I had written just weeks before?

It's time to start over--
to know what I know
and feel what I feel,
from earth to skin,
blood and bone,
blossom and leaf bloom.

As I walked out of our workshop meeting space and back toward the main house for dinner, I dawdled on the boardwalk that led through a graceful grove of alder trees. It was moist and marshy (the name of the retreat house is "Aldermarsh/Marsh House" in reference to and in reverence to this particular stand of alders with their roots in the wet). I got captivated by the lush moss and the greens of the ferns and other undergrowth and by the wild shapes of foliage, many of them leaves I don't see anywhere in Maine. To me they were exotic! There was birdsong too, thought I don't remember now which birds or what songs.)

The wind stirred in the branches above me; the light shifted. And something shifted in me. I stopped worrying about what to write. I had a new story, at least one to get me through the next day! I would write about my love for the earth, my rapturous connection with the natural world. It might not have been the story that I thought I wanted to tell, but it was a place to start.

In my tendency to fall into either/or, this or that thinking, I have often imagined since that day that my story was either about "going godless" or about my love for the earth. I now suspect--no, better than suspect, I know-- that they are simply two fundamental aspects of the same story. They are not in opposition to one another, nor in competition with each other, but in on-going conversation with each other.

When I search far back in my memory for traces of my earliest "inklings" of God, of the transcendent dimension of life (though I would never have thought in such terms), the clearest moments of my harvest have to do with my place, my experiences, my responses to the natural world, often in moments remembered as happening by myself. Seeing the moonlight on the ocean, knowing the tides and their rhythms, smelling balsam firs and fresh lake water and hearing the melancholy cries of loons while visiting a beloved island in Squam Lake, seeing a skunk cross our lawn in the middle of a hot summer night.

Whether I name such experiences as being "of God" or "of godlessness" hardly matters. (Oh, taste that delicious and delightful freedom once again!) They are what I know and have always known about my "place/ in the family of things" (from Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese").

These deep earth-body connections have often and over decades seemed extraneous to, incongruent with, and unwelcome in, the church's liturgical celebrations and most of my hundreds of sermons. While this may have caused me to overlook them and to undervalue them, they remain solid, faithful, and undimmed at the core of my being.

Image: photo by David (I think!), from Kidney Pond

Monday, October 12, 2009

Really Starting Over

"The story I am writing is about starting over to live my life without God." I declared this to my partner in an exercise at a writing workshop on an island off the coast of Washington.

It was June of 2006, only a month or two after writing my two poems about feeling shackled to God and burdened by God. I was trying to be faithful to what I thought those poems were telling me.

And I was far enough from home, from people who knew me as an Episcopal priest, many as their former priest, to feel a bit more free to be honest. Since I was in the Pacific Northwest, north of Seattle, I had imagined (in other words, I had assumed) that most of my workshop mates would applaud and embrace a kind of loosey-goosey, unconventional approach to religion and spirituality and that my talk of living my life without God wouldn't raise eyebrows or upset anyone and might even find a ready and sympathetic embrace. I guess you could say I was kind of hoping for that, maybe even counting on that.

And I guess you could say I had been a tad unrealistic. Actually, I'd been really seriously off base.

My story idea went over like a bad joke, and I, already feeling very tentative about it, was hyper-vigilant for any signs telling me I should reconsider and turn back from the brink. I already wondered if perhaps I wasn't yet ready to write this story, that perhaps I didn't have the requisite perspective and "distance" that time could provide. After all, I hadn't actually embarked very far along this journey of living my life "without God," whatever that might mean. But I was seriously thinking about it, imagining it, planning it. (But in order to write about it, I was really going to have to live it. Damn! I hadn't fully considered that.)

My partners in this exercise, three different people in sequence, were invited to listen to my proposed story line, then respond with questions for me, and I was to do the same for them. My three compadres, more or less randomly selected in the course of milling about the room, all seemed to react to my story in similar ways. Each one in turn posed questions that felt strained to me, unenthusiastic, even slanted in such a way as to suggest that this idea of living my life without God was misguided, dangerous, a temporary delusional detour from which they hoped I would eventually recover.

They seemed to want to talk me back into God, to reassure me that this dark time would pass. Almost as if they were worried about me, as if this talk of going godless signaled depression and despair, maybe a sign of mental illness (that would be my mental illness), some kind of breakdown, as if next would come talk of suicide and wanting to end it all.

But nothing could have been farther from the truth! What my companions didn't seem able to comprehend or to guess was that my wanting to live my life without God was a jailbreak, a life-or-death bid for freedom! It was my best hunch of what I needed to do to shed an immense burden and to become--perhaps for the first time since childhood, perhaps for the first time ever!--simply and joyfully myself, a human being alive and awake on this amazing planet. I wanted liberation, and the best I could figure it, that meant letting go of God.

I suppose I can understand and even appreciate their response. It's not as if sane people usually speak of going godless every day, with strangers! It's not generally considered a casual endeavor, like, say, going topless or braless (and even speaking of going topless might raise eyebrows).

I could have told them, if I had wanted to pursue this line of thought, that of course I know that if there really is a God of whatever shape or form who or which is everywhere in the universe, then my intention to live my life without this God was preposterous, ludicrous, impossible even! That I could, in my limited, misguided ego kind of way, imagine myself cast adrift and free of such a being/force/entity, but that in fact my very life and my every breath would still be dependent on it/her/him. In which case the joke would be on me!

But I really wasn't interested in that kind of thinking, so so familiar to me from my twenty-something years of theologizing, preaching, and fitting life into a particular religious worldview to be packaged up and delivered for the hoped-for good of others.

Maybe that's just it: I no longer wanted to have to think and write and speak about God at all. God had become (or at least thinking, writing, and speaking about God had become)--how shall I say it?--boring to me!

I wasn't depressed; I was energized, hopeful, yet also fearful, and I was trying to be brave. I wasn't trying to be offensive; I was trying to tell the truth. And the truth was, I was sick to death of God--fed up with god, with talking about God, thinking about God, shoring up other people's faith in God or ideas about God , trying to make God (the Judeo-Christian God? any and every God?) make sense, tired of being a spokesperson for God in any way, shape, or form.

After being ordained for twenty-two years, I wanted out. I was barely able to acknowledge that truth, even to myself, but this workshop on the other side of the continent had seemed like a good place to start.

By the conclusion of this exercise I wasn't so sure. I got scared; I retreated. I decided I wasn't ready to write that story and that, at least for the purposes of this writing workshop, I'd have to find another one.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Long Road to Clarity

OK, so those two poems I published in two previous posts about stuff I was dragging around might feel kinda heavy to you. But I trust you can sense that they were very real to me and important to write.

Note I said: "were very real." I wrote them more than three years ago. I'm not lugging those burdensome feelings around with me any more. I've traveled quite a distance since then.

But they are important markers for me. Milestones along the road I was on, plodding along as best I could, rarely straight-forwardly, not always pleasantly, but moving one way or another (or, rather, one way and another).

I'm sure that those two poems were trying to tell me something I needed to learn about myself, something I needed to see and hear and know more clearly, something that some part of me way down deep already knew (and I hate to admit that it took me a long while to really let that knowledge sink in, or rise up to full consciousness, to the point of acting on it).

Shortly after writing them I read those poems to my friend Patty, a fellow poet, by way of also complaining about the inner turmoil I was experiencing (and no doubt blaming on my job). When she heard them, she said to me: "Well, at least this job is getting you to write poetry!"

I remember thinking that was scant consolation. I wanted relief from the turmoil, not poetry! I wanted to get out of the exhausting inner conflict I felt about what to do with my life, a conflict that the job seemed to perpetuate and even exacerbate.

I can see now that that job was on some level just where I needed to be, because it was doing me the favor of stirring the pot of inner conflict, provoking me toward inner clarity, eventually making my life unbearable enough to get me unstuck. But at the time I didn't want any more unbearable pot-stirring or inflamed conflict. I wanted out; I wanted to escape; I wanted a break.

Reading those poems from my present vantage point, it's so easy to imagine that they were telling me in the clearest possible terms that I was through with being an Episcopal priest, that renouncing my ordination was the obvious thing to do.

But at the time I wasn't that clear, at least my conscious mind wasn't that clear. I was trying to listen to my soul, that is on the days when I wasn't convinced that I had actually lost my soul forever somewhere in the business of being a priest.

But more often than not, I was probably only listening to my mind yammering on, flip-flopping endlessly, unsure of what to do.

Unsure because not really even ready or willing to entertain in any serious kind of way letting go of the the one adult identity I had had for longer than any other--being ordained, an Episcopal priest, a "professional God person".

Unsure also because I was so easily distracted by the more immediate quandary of whether to stay in my current job or not. This was not the first time in my life that I had imagined that my inner conflict was about "being in the wrong job" rather than about being in the wrong profession, even in the wrong calling.

And here it seems time to introduce the confusing, loaded, torturous, and (to me, for the longest time) debilitating idea of "vocation".

(To be continued . . . obviously.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What You Drag Around, part 2

Back in September I wrote a post called, "What you drag around". In it I included one of two poems that I wrote back in the spring of 2006 that shared the theme of carrying an unwanted burden.  It was called "Ball and Chain" and began with the lines, "I am dragging around/ a ball and chain called God."

It seems only right that I publish the second poem too. They really were written in close succession, and they really do belong together like a set of salt and pepper shakers. (I was going to say like a sugar bowl and creamer, but no, salt and pepper feel much more apt!)

Here it is; it's called "The Sack".

The Sack

There's a sack on my back
I thought I had
stuffed full and
heavier by the minute.
People keep loading
their God-stuff
into the sack:
hopes, fears,
needs, doubts—so heavy!

Do they imagine
somehow I can
make God makes sense
and shore up their
faith? What about
my own?

If I have any god at all,
if my god is any
who or any
what or any
where, my god
makes a promise:
I will not
ask you
to betray

Thus my god my god
you have not
forsaken me.
You hand me
a blade and I slash
the lashings that bind
the sack
to my back.
I do not even turn
to see
where it falls
or what

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tasting Freedom

I've written elsewhere about how I imagined (and hoped against all realistic hope) that I would experience an immediate sense of being boldly and radiantly set free in the wake of renouncing my ordination. But it just wasn't that easy. Nor that quick, which is really probably both appropriate and all for the best. Important, deep things usually take time, and that way they have a chance to grow from reliable roots.

(In addition to the above linked post are two others written in early April of this year looking back on that experience of renouncing my ordination: "Renouncing my Ordination Vows: One Year Out" and "Renouncing Vows: The Day After".)

But within a month or so of renouncing my ordination vows I began to taste one particular flavor of freedom on a regular basis. I would be walking Digory, our Corgi, around the block for our first morning walk after David and Anna had left home for the day, and after my bowl of cereal.

We tend to take the same route on these morning walks, Digory and I, heading left out of our driveway, then left again at the corner of our neighbors' yard, and continuing to travel counterclockwise around the short, not precisely rectangular block.

 Rounding the second left-hand corner I usually glance to my right toward the east-southeast and the salt water inlet of Casco Bay known as Broad Cove. In the winter with no leaves to obscure the view I might glimpse the water itself, but at all seasons there's always at least a vista of sky and the known and sometimes sniffed, even if unseen, presence of the water, mud, sand, sea algae, and various creatures. I guess I like to check in with the bay that way as we make our way around the block, and as Digory likes to pee on the neighbor's shrub at that corner, too, it works well for both of us to pause there.

After turning the corner we find ourselves on a street where the trees are more plentiful and actually arch and meet overhead so that we proceed through a spacious tunnel of limbs and branches and, for half the year, leaves of various seasonally appropriate colors. An old stone wall runs along the right-hand side of the road, a favorite place for chipmunks to scramble and dip into and out of crevices, and so on. I love being in the company of so many substantial tall trees, and I suppose they help me to notice things like the wind, the sky conditions through gaps in branches, and the songs of birds.

In roughly the same twenty foot stretch of road it would dawn on me, this particular taste of one particular form of freedom: "It doesn't matter any more what I think!"

Maybe it came to me there not only because of the stone wall, the trees, and the birds, but also because beyond the stone wall and trees stands a house belonging to neighbors who were members of the church where David and I had been co-rectors for nearly fifteen years. (They still worship there, they and three other families who live in our neighborhood; we're the ones who left.)

If I were to try to recapture the recurring sequence of semi-conscious actions and thoughts that led me to this realization, not on every walk but many, many times over, I'd come up with something like this:

I'm walking along, simply enjoying the scene, the morning, the trees, maybe some birdsong, the clouds and sun, breathing in the scents of the day, my heart and indeed my whole body swelling with delight and gratitude, pulsing with energy. And I think to myself or perhaps even whisper audibly or speak aloud, "Thank you!" Sometimes my thanks accompanied by a small bow to what's around me, sometimes with a spontaneous (but very small and contained) gesture of hands clapped together a few times.

I take a few more deep breaths, relishing the moment. And then I think: "Who or what am I thanking? The universe? The unceasingly fascinating and dazzling natural world of this planet? Do I believe in some kind of creator of all of this? And if so, would I call that creator or creative force 'God'? What do I believe?"

At that point a slight cloud would cover my sun, the cloud of thinking theologically and not having an answer and feeling a knee-jerk sense of obligation to know what I think and believe about God and to be able to articulate those thoughts and beliefs for others and to mold them in such a way as to fit, more or less, "the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church." A sense of obligation, struggle, and constraint (and a good measure of failure) I know way too well.

And then it would dawn on me: "It doesn't matter any more what I think!"

I am free of that obligation. I have slipped out of that noose, cut the tether to those vows, that "Declaration" to which I had once signed my name "in the sight of all present" and that sometimes haunted and taunted me both day and night.

"I solemnly swear that I do believe the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church."

It doesn't matter any more what I think or don't think about God. It doesn't matter any more what I think. It  . . . doesn't  . . . matter . . . what . . . I . . . think.

While I welcomed this clear taste of freedom, I will say that it was also just a wee bit unsettling. I had, for good or ill, largely defined myself for more  two decades by that feeling that it did matter what I thought about God. At the beginning of those decades I carried this charge mostly with harmony and eloquence, and in the latter half of those decades with struggle, resistance, and conflict alternating with reconciliation or at least with the quiet of exhaustion and a temporary truce.

If it no longer mattered what I did or didn't think about God, then who was I? and what was the goal of my life or the nature of my particular contribution to the world?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Of Church-going and Music

Sunday, October 4, 2009
Talk about having a foot in two camps, or straddling a fence. I am at this moment attempting to blog while also listening online to the Sunday morning Eucharist at Washington Cathedral, where, Bekah tells me via text, she is sitting in the fourth row. "And the altar is especially colorful."

"It's St. Francis' Day!" I text her back, half wishing I were there with her.

I'm not sure it will work, this listening and blogging at the same time. I'm not even sure it should work, since doing one thing at a time, fully present and single-minded, is usually the better way (despite the assertions of my children).


Monday, October 5
That was yesterday. It didn't work. The audio stream kept breaking up, so I gave up blogging and went downstairs to listen on a different computer and ended up helping Anna with something else. That was fine.

Not for the first time I admit to myself that I envy Bekah her occasional visits to the Cathedral, her still fairly new and fresh explorations of church-going on her own terms, as an individual, away from her parents. I especially envy her openness, her (somewhat) unjaded stance, apparently unencumbered by roles, responsibilities, or the expectations of others. Whatever encumbrance she carries i s made of stuff she has accumulated and not yet let go of from her growing up as a "P.K."--preacher's kid, which in her case was until recently preachers' kid. Double trouble. (Or as one honest teenaged member of my congregation said at the time that David and I got married, "Boy, do I feel sorry for their kids!")

My envy  of Bekah suggests an assumption on my part, largely unquestioned, that such freedom from expectations or personal agenda is lost to me, no longer an option. Maybe it's time to question that assumption. Maybe that's how freedom is found; it's claimed, not stumbled upon.

Last May when I went to D.C. to pick Bekah up from her first year of college, we squeezed in an afternoon Evensong at the Cathedral. Just walking into that glorious building and hearing the girls' choir warming up, their voices soaring into the vaulted ceiling high above, tears welled up in my eyes. I felt my heart both healed and torn apart at the same time.

"Ahhh, yes. I remember why I love this tradition." That and other such thoughts ran through my mind. Mostly I tried simply to allow myself to enjoy the sensory delights to ear and eye and soul as we wandered the building waiting for the choir seating to open for Evensong. I got to show Bekah some chapels she hadn't seen before, including the children's chapel, bordering on the too-precious with its miniature, child-sized everything: cathedral chairs, kneelers, altar, even a small pipe organ!

What really grabbed my heart this time was noticing how the hands of the bronze statue of Jesus-as-young-boy, who stands as a welcoming presence with arms outstretched in greeting, are shiny from the touch of many who just can't resist and reach out to make contact. I did the same. What was I hoping for? Some sort of magic gift of miracle, like the woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus' garment in the gospel story? Or just the tactile pleasure of smooth cold bronze and the knowledge that others before me have found this hand irresistible?

The Evensong itself was fine, lovely, not exceptionally so but certainly a peaceful close to the afternoon and the hours I had spent driving to get there. Afterwards we wandered the Cathedral grounds, briefly meandered the rose garden with its statue of the Prodigal Son engulfed in the embrace of his father and the pungent smell of boxwood everywhere. And I showed Bekah the house within the cathedral close where I had lived by myself for nine months when I was a seminary intern at the near-by Episcopal parish. (I wrote about that house and how I experienced the sound of bells coming down the chimney here.)

On the bus back to her campus, I remarked: "If I could go to church just to enjoy the music, that would be perfect."

"That's why I go," she said. So simple.

Of course it's probably more than the music. There's some occasional delight in the cadences of the language of the liturgy (until my mind kicks in with theological arguments and counter-arguments and I have to find a way to hush it up or give it some happier occupation--drawing helps). And there's the joy of not just listening to music but participating in making it--singing! There's nothing quite like singing with a group of people, that co-mingling of breath, body, and voice.

(You won't catch me saying that singing hymns partakes of another dimension than singing "secular" songs, like old Beatles' tunes, or folk songs, or newer tunes, like Taylor Swift or the Jonas Brothers. Really, I'm not sure that the content of the song matters all that much, as long as it's within one's own subjective field of beauty, meaning, and enjoyment and the common ground of the singing community.)

"Maybe all you ever really wanted was simply to go to church and sing," a friend who has known me from before my church-going days says, implying but not saying, "...and getting ordained got in the way and made things really complicated."

"I've been thinking exactly that myself," I replied. Truly.

Maybe all I ever really wanted was to go to church and sing, to go to church and absorb the liturgy, to go and be a part of something bigger than myself, to feel accepted and connected. It was simply part of who I was at the time, a piece of my journey, more a temporary phase of my personal (spiritual) development than a genuine vocation to ordained ministry.

(And then, even farther from my conscious thoughts,  there lived and grew the desire, even the need, to feel important, visible, special--and ordination seemed to offer just that.)