Thursday, May 3, 2007

Seeker II

I have to confess that I was one of those who, at an early age, suffered post-Easter hangovers after having attended my local Methodist church virtually every Sunday from the first few weeks of my life until the day I left for college. During my youth in the ever-so-polite 1950’s and 1960’s, Easter mysteriously followed the hosannas of Palm Sunday with few if any glimpses of the events in between, mostly implied from the empty tomb. In fact, it was that empty tomb that was central to my feelings about Easter – bolstered by the memories of the many rainy, sleeting Easter Sundays with a brisk wind from Lake Michigan piercing through my thin, new springtime dress, latticed hat, and lace gloves. It was all cold and empty with loud music, inexplicable reiterations of joy, and the dull ache from sugar on an empty stomach (from the poor beheaded chocolate bunnies I left in my Easter basket before rushing off to church).

Although I dropped in and out of church services in the years that followed, mostly for the music, my queasiness about Easter turned into a large stone planted squarely in front of the tomb. The stone had begun to edge across the entrance back in elementary school when the wife of the new director of Christian Education informed my brother and me that our best friends, brother and sister from a Jewish family, were destined for hell; it edged further during the pastoral prayers of sermon length that prayed for victory in war; and it finally rolled all the way shut from years of academic study of history, anthropology, and law. God, in my mind, was always present, but that Jesus dude was… well, totally beyond my comprehension. He was a man and, like my brother, the only Son, and, while he may have been a very nice guy, helpful to many (though not so nice to his mother, sometimes), he just wasn’t someone I could embrace as my Friend.

How I eventually came to find Him through the Eucharist is a story I may tell someday. For now, let me share something that is very dear to me, a passage from Kathleen Norris’s book Dakota. It vividly describes what I experienced when I first worked up the courage to return to churchgoing after years of absence:

“When some ten years later I began going to church again because I felt I needed to, I wasn’t prepared for the pain. The services felt like word bombardment – agony for a poet – and often exhausted me so much I’d have to sleep for three or more hours afterward. Doctrinal language slammed many a door in my face, and I became frustrated when I couldn’t glimpse the Word behind the words. Ironically, it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out. Sometimes I’d give up, deciding that I just wasn’t religious. This elicited an interesting comment from a pastor friend who said, ‘I don’t know too many people who are so serious about religion that they can’t even go to church.’”

“Even as I exemplified the pain and anger of a feminist looking warily at a religion that has so often used a male savior to keep women in their place, I was drawn to the strong old women in the congregation. Their well-worn Bibles said to me, ‘there is more here than you know,’ and made me take more seriously the religion that caused by grandmother Totten’s Bible to be so well used that its spine broke. I also began, slowly, to make sense of our gathering together on Sunday morning, recognizing, however dimly, that church is to be participated in, not consumed. The point is not what one gets out of it, but the worship of God; the service takes place both because of and despite the needs, strengths, and frailties of the people present. How else could it be? Now, on the occasions when I am able to actually worship in church, I am deeply grateful.”

-- Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993) (pp. 94-95)

Like Norris, I struggled mightily with all the church words, which in my youth used to go over the top of my head, but as an adult filled my eyes and ears and seemed to threaten the safety of my over-educated reason. For me it was an old Lutheran pastor who told me with some amusement that I was first person he had ever received into the church who had asked to read both Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms. Of course I never read them all, and finally just let go of my all too reluctant will to understand. Over time, I, too, learned by doing and spending time with those women and their well-worn Bibles. Thank God for their patience with me and the mysteries of Word and sacrament that later came to me as an Episcopalian.


Missy said...

I loved that book--Kathleen Norris' writing is so gorgeous.

klady said...

I'm glad to hear you feel the same way. Thanks for stopping by again. I just started reading some of your writing. It really is terrific -- I can see it will take me quite awhile to read as much as I'd like.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I love Kathleen Norris' writing, too. She reaches out to me in a way that few contemporary writers on religion can.

Dennis said...

With MadPriest on vacation for a couple of weeks, I thought I'd forward you this:

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Of course I never read them all, and finally just let go of my all too reluctant will to understand.

Klady--it took me soooooo long to get to that point. I worried myself about half to death trying to make logical sense of God and Christianity.

I don't mean to promote a mindless emotionalism (I'm a firm believer in scripture, tradition, and REASON/experience!), but I feel so much closer to God now that I've grown more comfortable with the notion of "holy mystery."

klady said...

Lost in the fog of my brain are some further thoughts on this, not yet worked out. Or maybe there's no inspiration or insight to be found in my experience. It just kind of hit me over the head like a two-by-four one day, after years of intellectual gymnastics and deep suspicion and fear of religion. I was deep into Tillich, spurred on by a young Lutheran pastor working on a Phd and a passion for debunking "mythology," and suddenly it hit me, oh yea, I can continue to play with the words and ideas so I can get to Being or Essence or whatever, but the Story really works so much better for me (and apparently a lot of folks past and present) with all the trappings, so why on earth should I worry about whether I or anyone else can thoroughly deconstruct and reconstruct the whole? Of course I knew that "what works for me" was no measure of eternal truth, but between me and God it was o.k. to start out there and just see what happened next.

And so much did, starting with Bible study with the Lutheran ladies and culminating with my first "real" Eucharist (the couple of times I took the plastic shot glass of grape juice as a Methodist in my youth did not count as far as I was concerned). I actually was received as a Lutheran, had my first child baptized, and attended church every Sunday for many months (maybe even a year?) before I went to the altar for the first time. Hard thing to think about doing -- especially the body and blood stuff -- but going, kneeling and offering my hands and my self to God and receiving a taste of him in return, was beyond thoughts or words.

Someday maybe I'll write about it, except I think you beat me to it, Paige. Drinking the Divine

Cecilia said...

klady, thank you for introducing yourself to me and stopping by. I can't tell you how much I resonate with your and Norris' words. Though I never dropped out of church entirely, my perspectives on the little old ladies-- in my case, saying their rosaries!-- changed radically over the years. When I was young and arrogant (and longed to be the one up on the altar) I thought they were missing the boat of the "real stuff" that was happening in church. Later, much later, I "got it." I felt the divine feminine was resonating in them, in a way I had never understood.

Pax, C.