Going deeper

When I lived in Minneapolis, I had a friend who collected the antique trappings of Christianity.

Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father…

He didn’t go to church, and he wasn’t a Christian, yet he was captivated by statues, censers, crucifixes, and altar bells because he believed they were magical, and that their magic would fill him if he was surrounded by them.

We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory…

I too am a dilettante and idolater. I don’t care about the poor, the crucifixion, or the Trinity, but I get off on religion just as I used to get off on women and hallucinogens.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our prayer...

It’s not the meaning but the music, antiquity, repetition, and imagery. They’re sensual just as the wine and the bread are sensual, just as a woman’s body is sensual. For decades, I thought it was women whose holy waters could protect me, and it was only the passing of many decades that enabled me to see that beauty can’t save its possessor much less me, this despite my years of work on ambulances and in funeral homes.

For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father.

I know that Jesus can’t heal me, or save me, or even find me a parking place because Jesus isn’t there; Jesus isn’t anywhere. But while other atheists feel bored or offended by the very mention of Jesus, I get high saying the ancient prayers .

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis…

I need them now just as I needed them during my childhood before I even knew they existed, going as I did to a church that believed them to be the idolatrous creation of Satan. Year in an year out, I heard preachers say that people who attend mass will burn in eternal hell, and when I got home, I would hide under my bed because I was afraid that the Lord would return to earth that very afternoon and send me to hell. I built my first altar when I was eleven, decorating it with rocks and wisteria. I didn’t even know it was an altar, just that it seemed more holy to me than the plainness of my real church.

Ritual makes me flower like water makes a plant flower, and I wither in the presence of dogma like a flower before a dry wind, but I am less than a “white-washed sepulcher.” Like my Minnesota friend, I really just want to get high on religion, and I do get high at times, only to, at other times, think that it is just all too stupid, that my feelings about it are too bizarre, and that I have no right to take part in anything related to it. 

Seeing Brent

I looked forward to a long Saturday afternoon of mass, class, and a talk with (Father) Brent, so I took 30 mgs of oxycodone and 900 mgs of Neurontin in the hope that I could quiet the pain enough to sleep. The pain persisted, but hallucinations of blossoming bouquets, flowery kimonos, and pullulating patterns of colors, provided a pleasant distraction. It is usually true that the more I want to sleep, the less I am able to sleep.

During our talk, three needy men came in separately. One asked Brent to jump-start his motorcycle battery, and the others consulted briefly, but I didn’t listen to what they said. I had taken enough food—for Brent and me—to feed several people, so I invited each of the men to eat with us, and one did. Along with caring for his 200-300 person congregation, Brent works with prisoners, Occupy Eugene, homeless campers, and maybe others (I learn new things about him all the time). Our talk went as well as expected, the following being some of the highlights in my own words and to the best of my understanding.

Brent opened by saying that my passion for religion is rare even among churchgoers, and that those who have it usually go to seminary.

I said that I didn’t know what to do with the questions that come up for me in catechism class because it seems inappropriate to ask for answers that I know don’t exist, but I feel untrue to myself if I remain silent. Besides, my feelings are sometimes too intense for me to trust myself to share them appropriately. He said he has no “conclusive answers,” about religion, and he made no suggestions about the class beyond saying that he wants me in it.

Brent regards Christianity and other religions as human attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible and express the inexpressible. His idea of a good church is a place where people share interests rather than answers.

He has never had what people refer to as a “personal experience of God,” and intercessory prayer makes no sense to him except as a morale builder, but after a few years in a Massachusetts’ monastery, he came to believe that those who devote their lives to prayer make the world a better place if only by virtue of the fact that other people are encouraged by their devotion.

I said that one my biggest problems with Christianity has always been that Jesus’ talk of loving your neighbor as yourself sets too high a standard, that I come nowhere near that standard, and that I have no plans to even attempt to come near it. Brent said that he hasn’t been terribly successful in that regard either, but he holds to the thought that nothing need be accomplished overnight.

By the time he went to seminary, Brent had been an officer in the Marine Corps and worked in big business. He wasn’t even a Christian when he experienced a desire to go to seminary, but he has gradually become what he does. What he does is to be a paid Christian, but he gives a lot more to the job than his salary covers. Whether he’s talking to one person or 200 people, Brent’s passion for the priesthood is evident.

He said that he wants to do everything he can to make me feel welcome at Resurrection, and then it was time for class. I participated circumspectly in a discussion of the creeds and the nature of the Trinity, and then we went to high mass. I’ve seen the sanctuary go from unpleasantly hot to unpleasingly cold during the months I’ve been at Resurrection, but yesterday was the first time that Brent asked me to pass inside the altar rail and read aloud from the Bible. I would have laughed if the reading had contained the verse about the fool saying in his heart that there is no God, but it didn’t. I loved being asked to read, though, and I loved everything else too.