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It seems as if we’re always waiting for God — to answer our prayers, to point us in a new direction, to give us a sign. But why would God lag behind us? It is ludicrous to contemplate. God, if anything, is way ahead of us. What if the truth is this: God is actually waiting for us — to do something, to hear something, to be something. How would we respond? More importantly, how will we respond when we realize it’s happening right this very minute?

You’d tap your watch if you wore one
to indicate my tardiness, and still
I cannot plumb your intentions.
Whatever sign you sent, I missed:
the alarm too silent for my aging ears,
the town crier lost on the wrong street.
I am left imagining your expression —
mildly amused? Vaguely disgruntled?
Or endlessly patient — that would wound
most, I think, the inference of my neglect.
You’ve given me boards, washers, screws,
but the instructions, I believe, are in Swedish.
Are we building a table? Or a catapult?
Should I pack a suitcase or board up the door?
I know the answer of course, it is there,
hiding behind the author of Hedda Gabler
and the words to every Beatles song.
Just out of reach. Fuzzy, near forgotten.
Only fear keeps me from finding it.
So I will pray for courage.
The courage to be on time.

“You know why Jesus had such a tough life?” my husband quips. “He was the only white guy in Israel.” No, my beloved is not being irreverent. He’s referring to the fact that in most depictions — including the statues in our own church — Jesus does not look Jewish. In fact, the entire Holy Family seems to have been Westernized, stripped of ethnicity — whitewashed.

Depicting the Holy Family in realistic ways throws people into tizzies. Take for instance this week’s disturbance at the Vatican. Two vandals threw statues depicting “Our Lady of the Amazon” (given to the Pope in honor of the Amazonian Summit) into a river. They were disgruntled that Mary was depicted as an indigenous Amazonian woman.

And yet: Our Lady of Guadalupe — a Mexican Mary — is the patron saint of the Americas. Our Lady of La Veng is Vietnamese. And so what? People are hung up on appearances. What they fail to remember is that none of us knows what Jesus, Mary or Joseph looked like. But I’ll bet you one thing: They didn’t look like WASPs.

What are we to make of them?
Of their glorious otherness?
It is too much for heart or hand
to hold. And so we shrink them,
squint to fade their margins,
blur the tricky bits. We do not
know a Mary with curves and kinky hair.
A dark-skinned man with a penchant for defiance
would make the neighbors edgy. His radical
proclamation of love, likewise, frightens.
(Ask Dr. King: Such things bring killing,
even today.) We make bland in our mouths
what is too rich to taste. And so they stand,
in churches, in cathedrals, looking like something
out of Central Casting. And we do not know them.

How long does it take to know someone? A month? A year? A lifetime…or maybe even longer? When it comes to seeking God, I’m not sure there’s a limit. To look for God is to look forever. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that anyone who thinks he can get his arms around God, contain God, package God, speak for God — that person is a liar. God is too big for any of us. Even the statement “God is love” begs the follow-up: What, then, is love? The person who can sum that up in one word— or ten — is a better linguist than I.

I love the idea of getting to know someone over ages and ages of time. It’s like reading a great book that never ends. I suspect I am not alone in this.

I could anagram your name
if I knew it, but you keep coy,
flirt with vagaries like “I am
who am.” Riddles, tricks of the light,
something seized than instantly lost.
We try to limit you to the page,
but you keep writing, in each leaf that furls
from the tree, another sentence,
in an eon perhaps a paragraph.
We cannot turn the pages fast enough.
No matter, you say, and pass a pot
of tea, a blanket. Settle in. Take all the time
you need
. I will take you at your word,
read slowly, mouth each syllable
like a diamond on my tongue.

This morning I woke up and was so tired, I slid right back into that pocket between sleep and wakefulness. That seems to be the place where I hear sage advice from someone.  (God? My own psyche? Relatives who have passed on?) 

And this time, I heard these words:

Expect the best like a dinner guest and set it a place at the table.

Then someone (my mother? A teacher?) said to me:

What are you punishing yourself for?

And I realized it was both a mildly exasperated, head-shaking statement, as well as existential question.  

So I had to mull it over. What am I punishing myself for? What do any of us give ourselves angst over?

  • Choices you made when you had no choice.
  • Stopgap measures that turned into persistent problems.
  • Mistakes that led to doing penance in perpetuity.

Many of us feel we’re in that pocket in between what we’d envisioned life would be and life as it is actually lived. We may end up making peace with where we are and making do with what we have. But maybe “expecting the best” is the mindset that precedes its arrival. Or perhaps it’s the clarion call your blessings need to hear. 

What if they’re flying overhead right now, waiting for you to tell them where to land? If changing your mind meant changing your life, we’d all set that extra place at the table. That way, when “the best” comes knocking, it will already feel right at home.

What if the universe — God included — is like a book: a really weighty one, like War and Peace? I’d like to think each of us is born with a scrap of this book in our soul, just a word or two, really, though the best of us (saints, for instance) probably get a whole paragraph. Our job in this lifetime, as I see it, is to seek out each other’s words and gather them together as best we can into some semblance of the Truth.

Nobody has all the answers. Not even the Bible, which is full of concepts and words that don’t translate neatly (or at all) into English. Ask two people to translate The Lord’s Prayer from its original Aramaic, and you will get two different prayers. It begins with the word “Abwoon,” which can be translated to mean “father” (though the root word is actually genderless) or “parent” or “divine breath” or “birther of all things.” Or any one of a dozen other things.

Nothing about God is simple. I am content to remain a seeker, a wanderer, picking up words wherever I can and trying to fit them into the puzzle that is God.

Nothing about You can be known.
You slip through our hands like sand,
just when we think that we can hold you.
Even your touchable Son, fully flesh,
escapes our grasp. We humans
like our shapes defined: This, then,
is a square; this is a sphere.
But what is the shape of God?
Avian? Flame? The man on the ceiling
of the Sistine Chapel, the one we
reach for but never touch?
Perhaps we ask too much.
We worry your lock with our
senses, with our brains.
If only we approached
with our hearts wide open,
the pins would tumble,
the lock would breach.
You appear, wide open,
when we least try to touch.

The Episcopal diocese of Washington DC moved this week to refer to God using inclusive language. Good for them. Yes, I know: God is referred to as male thousands of times in the bible. But Jesus himself says God is spirit (John 4:24), and spirit has no gender. Male pronouns have been standard usage for centuries, even when referring to groups with women in them. It’s a default, not a revelation.

Other pet peeves: Why was I never taught that Mary Magdalene is a composite of three different women and was amalgamated by one man — Pope Gregory the Great? And that there’s no biblical evidence that she ever earned a living as a prostitute? Why are Catholic children taught how important — how telling — it is that Jesus picked only male apostles, but the fact that he chose to reveal the Good News —and gave official sanction to spread that news — to women first, not men, is brushed past as though it doesn’t matter?

Why are we not told that all that “he-man, woman-hater” language in Paul’s epistles was likely inserted by monks inscribing them in the Middle Ages?

Why all the lies, both active and of omission? Why has my church kept my God from me?

God is not a rope to be tugged, a prize that falls to those who pull the hardest. God pours down on those in the margins. God comes to the poor, the disenfranchised, the weak. God stands with the powerless.

If you claim to represent God, but stand where God does not stand, what are you, really?

God our mother our father our life-giving hope,
Come to us, blind us with light that does not fail
to catch the corners, the alleys, the hidden places
your most needy children dwell. Burst boundaries.
Be bigger, loom larger, than words will warrant.
As you have before us, as you will long after.

Amen

A good friend revealed to me that she no longer believes. “In what?” a mutual friend asked. “Any of it,” our friend replied. “Prayer. The Holy Spirit. The afterlife.” I hope we were supportive of her; what she is going through is hard. But the road she’s on is one that even saints have trod. Why believe? I can only say that I believe because I need to, because I want to, and because I can. How? It is, as Aziraphale of “Good Omens” would say, “ineffable.”

Faith is fragile.
Prone to breakage,
chimeric and illusory.
Yet just when I think
I can turn my back,
There it is:
A breath on my shoulder,
an arrow, indicating,
a suggestion, a whisper,
a hint of something coming
swiftly. Surely.
I cannot name it,
identify the make and model,
even as it runs me down.
To name it is to contain it,
and that I cannot do.
It springs back, cautious, and
my doubter’s mouth is stopped
by something.
Something?
Something.

 

A recent poll revealed that nearly 80% of Catholics could not explain transubstantiation of the Eucharist. This, the pollsters noted, was a terrible failure. I disagree.

Sue BE was right when she advocated embracing one’s own ignorance and seeking solutions. But not everything is cut and dried. Transubstantiation — the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ — is a mystery. Not every mystery can be diligently divined. Some things remain a mystery.

And that’s okay.

Sure, humans are programmed to want answers, to lean toward black-and-white clarity. But (as Sue also noted) we’re only human. We can’t understand everything. We can’t solve everything. If you can’t live with ambiguity, with shades of gray, with mystery, you’ve got a bumpy journey ahead of you.

The road never did go straight.
Sands shift. Time expands and contracts.
And there you are, in fog, flailing, falling.
Still. Love is sure, and never fails; faith
supplants compasses. Head into the strange
knowing: what cannot be known now
will come, swimming into view, duck
where once was bunny. You will
recognize all things by their contours.
You will stumble into light. But for now,
be at peace. Mystery is a gift. You will
open it at leisure, realizing
it has been in your pocket
all the time.

 

 

My friend Krissy over at Visionarie Kindness Chronicles posted a poem today about her discovery of poetry and how it seeped into her being, helping her make sense of her life. It’s terrific. My origin story is more predictable: My mother read me poetry from the time I was a baby. I remember her reading “The Highwayman” — “the moon was a ghostly galleon/tossed upon cloudy seas/and the highwayman came riding” — and stopping to say, “Do you hear the horse’s hoofbeats?” She tapped out the rhythm of the poem and I HEARD IT. Nothing was the same after that.

I was in bed when poetry first found me,
pierced my heart ear-first, an elf, a thief,
a waif who having found warm welcome
would never leave me. I started hearing it
everywhere, whispering words I kept
hidden in the trunk of a tree, in a shoebox
with my paper dolls, behind the geraniums,
velvet-leafed, that flanked the house I
fledged in. They grew, took root,
cross-pollinated with prayer until
there wasn’t anyone else I could ever be,
so bound was poetry with my blood.
I wept alliteration, sighed in spondees.
I was a Phantom of Delight; I was
alone and palely loitering. I was
The Lady of Shalott in “My heart
belongs to Daddy” pajamas.
Heroes get powers. I got a pen.
But I learned how to fly with it anyway.
Now only God can see me coming.

Today marks the Feast of the Assumption, the day when Jesus’ mother Mary was lifted body and soul into heaven. The “body” part is a big deal, apparently; once dead, the rest of us won’t see our bodies again until the Second Coming. But why would we need a body in heaven? Are we really that attached to these lumbering “bags of mostly water” (to quote an alien on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”)?

We are, I suppose, tactile creatures. Our bodies give us something to hang on to. Something to physically claim as our own. But we are not just our bodies. Whatever it is that gives a bunch of cells and chemicals sentience, it is certainly more than skin deep.

You may put all manner
of disparate matter into a bowl,
it will not stand or speak or dance.
How then, does the stuff of stars
transmute into mortal form?
And why do we hold so hard
to them, to familiar flesh—
an old coat gone out of style,
a pair of boots too snug?
Sentiment? Memory?
We walk a lifetime in skin,
our soul’s home, for a moment.
Will we shed them like a shell?
Or carry them into the kingdom,
into doughy glorification?
Only the maker knows
how lowly flesh becomes
capable of the infinite.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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