Category Archives: Catholicism

Listening

Like something dropped on me, so sudden does it hit, stopping me there in the center of the path, in the mute light, shards of ice catching sparks from the hiding sun, black branches, a horizon where the snow and the sky meet and weave together and become one another. And I am filled with it, the suddenness of it — transubstantiation.

It doesn’t matter that I am here, on the path, and not at Mass. It doesn’t matter that the dogs sniff the undergrowth and I worry about my father. It doesn’t matter, any of it. It will be fine.

They hit me, these small epiphanies, in surprising ways. They always have. I had no words for them before, and few enough words now. I simply stand and wait, absorbing it — the knowing, the calm. I could die like this. There is another side — but that is the wrong word, side. As though there really is one place, and another, or one time, and another. Opposites. Bifercation. They are constructs. Words cannot say.

My mother’s head spilled light when she was dying. I dreamed of beautiful nothingness and came back through flaming embers. Those moments, those memories that are more than memories, stop me dead. They return and return. If I had been born and raised Catholic, I would be a nun.

Old Girl’s reference to Martin Luther King’s experience on the bench when he was tired of fighting, a time when God spoke to him, followed me all day yesterday. I have carried with me the moment on the path last weekend, that sudden, knee-buckling realization that is pain and ecstasy at once. There is no difference between the two, in the end. Martin Luther King heard God speaking to him. I hear no words. There is no grand light, no operatic music. Just that moment, repeated and repeated. Mum’s head spilling light, the rich earth spilling through my fingers in Ireland, the rising up and up and then falling into emptiness of my strange moments as a 10-year-old in Ireland. Kuan Yin and Teresa of Avila spin in the clouds, touch fingers and dissolve. Nada is my beautiful emptiness. I tell Mum of my dream. “I know,” she says. “I’m not afraid.”

The light in her head flickers, and fades. I am the only one who sees it — Mum and I alone in the house that afternoon — but the heron is for all of us. I do not fear dying.

Kooky

“Kooky,” they say. “Crazy. Believing in superstitious nonsense.”

It’s alright. I’ve been called worse. I’m used to that attitude, being the daughter of an atheist physicist. And for me, it makes no difference anyway. The heron’s repeated appearance since my mother was dying could be a series of coincidences (extraordinary, I’d say. Why did it show up on her deck railing while she was dying, stay there until she died, reappear over Hedgebrook while we were burying her ashes, prompting the director to say, “Oh look, the heron. We haven’t seen it in weeks”? Why did it stand on the roof of my parents’ house the Thanksgiving after she died, turn to face me and dip its head in my direction, then turn again and fly away? Why did it fly onto the beach just feet away from Zeke and her friend, and chatter at them? Why those appearances and a dozen more to my sisters, my mother’s friend, me?) Or it could be synchronicities. The label doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s just what it is. How I interpret it is up to me.

I know the heron I saw on the deck while she was dying is not the same one that flew over Hedgebrook or that appeared in Ireland or that dipped low over Sadie a few weeks ago when she was on her first walk after her illness. It’s not as if my mother’s consciousness animates those lovely birds, not as if she is reincarnated in a single bird that flies all over the world. It is something else, something I see as a synchronicity that invokes the beauty and mystery of the world. And that a physicist would dismiss as just a coincidence doesn’t bother me, because coincidence or synchronicity, it is simply what IS.

What matters to me, to the four of us girls, is that the heron binds us. When I said I knew the heron’s appearance was a sign that the weekend would go well, the words represented my understanding that all of us, all four of us, watched the heron watch my mother dying. Because of that, and because of the heron that flew over Hedgebrook as her ashes were being buried, we all see that particular bird as a representation of my mother’s spirit. That it appeared once again the first time we were all together since she died, to look directly in at the table where we all were sitting, comforted us, allowed us for the first time to shed the anger and resentments of that difficult time.

Coincidence? Maybe. But who cares. What the heron does to us is real.

When I first started RCIA, almost three years ago, I was sure I would never finish. I went as a concession to my friend. A pamphlet handed out at one of the first meetings described faith in a series of steps. The first step is the fairytale world presented to children, with a literal personal God looking down on tiny humans in fatherly love and choreographing everybody’s lives. At the top of the journey towards understanding is the place where people like Jesus and the Dalai Lama and Gandhi reside(d). People who recognize that Buddhism and Catholicism and Islam and Shinto and whatever are essentially the same thing. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Catholicism puts faith in a personal God. They seem on the surface to be totally incompatible, but they are not. Atheism isn’t incompatible either, though most atheists don’t or can’t see it.

So when literalists laugh because I invoke the heron as the spirit of my mother, because I recognize that all four of us sisters understand the heron in different ways (Ruth May, right now, has a far more literalist understanding of it than I do), it doesn’t bother me. I’m not by any means close to the top of the scale of understanding. Not close to enlightenment, whatever that means. Not close to anything but my own understanding, which is clouded simply because I’m alive and human and filled with memories that get in the way of equanimity and fearlessness. But I do know I’m not crazy.

___

Warning: Those who abhor superstitious nonsense, read no further!

I didn’t mention, in the last few posts about the heron and my sister’s birthday, that on the night of her party, my mother’s friend pressed an envelope into my hand. “For you,” she said quietly. “Happy belated birthday.” The envelope contained a pendant from China, from where she and her husband had just returned. China is significant to me because I have a personal connection to it through my mother’s grandparents, who lived there for 40 years. Mum always wanted to go there, and she, Dad and their friends made plansĀ  for a trip the spring before she died. The tickets were purchased and the bags packed when the trip was called off because of SARS. A few months later the trip was rearranged for September and Mum began planning again. Only a couple of week before she was due to leave, she fell down in a hotel in Vancouver one night. The cancer had spread to a part of her brain that controlled movement and paralyzed her left side. Mum, Dad and their friends canceled the trip, and it was only this fall that my parents’ friends were finally able to make the trip they’d so looked forward to with Mum and Dad.

When I looked at the pendant, I saw a piece of green stone, jade I suppose, with Kuan Yin wrapped about it in metal. Between Kuan Yin warm against my chest under my dress, and the re-appearance of the heron just a few moments later at the birthday party, I knew everything was going to be just fine.

Santa Cruz prayer

On Graci*sa one night I walked through Santa Cruz from the square to the church. In the pictures I had seen, the village looked of a decent size, but as I walked, distances seemed to contract. I turned a corner and there was the church, barely a block from the square. I walked to the doors and found them locked. I had not seen inside an Azorean church yet, and I stood silently outside in the gathering dusk, hoping for the chance.

Santa Cruz church

For many nights during the trip, I found myself alone in my hotel room because I couldn’t be in the smoke-filled Azorean restaurants, or even outside on the balmy sidewalks. Smokers were a feature of the islands, although I discovered early on that a bill banning smoking in public had already passed but would not be enforced till January 1st of 2008. “I wish,” Zeke said one day, “I’d taken a picture of all the ‘no smoking’ signs with people smoking all around them.” Smoker defiance was the attitude that reigned during my time there, a challenge for one so hypersensitive to smoke. Early on I realized I’d have to forgo the extended evening meals, with all their intricate social interactions. Instead I walked, or read, or on the days Zeke stayed with me, we’d find some special activity to make our evening special.

Our second night in Graci*ca is my favorite on the island, one of my favorites on the trip. Nada came with me for a walk after dinner. The square was hopping with music from the fiesta of the day. We walked around the ponds, then up to the church. The doors were open. “Look,” I yelled, and ran to the building. Inside I saw immediately a small knot of women gathered at the altar, talking amongst themselves. Nada and I kneeled to pray, the church silent and shadowed about us. After a moment the group at the front began singing acapella in Portuguese. The words rose to the arched ceiling, filling the nave, haunting me with their yearning. We prayed for a few moments and then Nada nudged me. We left quietly. Outside, he told me that we had walked in unwittingly on a private service for someone who was to enter the hospital for surgery the next day. The women were praying for him. I wished I could know Portuguese too, could have used music to pray for the anonymous man as the women in the church had done. I still remember the clear tones of the music, the way the light intensified around the group of women as they prayed, and the way the heavy wooden doors closed behind us, silencing the women’s voices and closing off the light so that we stood in the darkness of the night with only the memory of the light and the music to accompany us.

Many faiths, one heart

Seen on a fountain in a garden at the Cathedral of the Assumption today. I’m frustrated I didn’t bring my camera. “Many faiths, one heart. Cathedral of the Assumption Foundation.”

I’m done…. Flying out of Louisville tomorrow early. It was a haul, exhausting and sometimes hilarious.

  • “I don’t know what syntax is, but that isn’t going to stop me talking about it.”
  • The characters in this story are really really complicated and so the writing is really complited and so is the syntix and the details.
  • The father is a simple man, and so he speaks in really short sentences.
  • The syntax is just a bunch of really long runon sentences that go on and on and signify how the father and son really are detached from each other and even hate each other.
  • The rod has really pretty letters on it, beautiful wingdings. (It’s meant to be windings.)
  • The rod is married. “The ‘beautiful weddings’ on the rod signify it’s singificance to the father and the son.

Gads.

But I’m done. I read over 1000 essays in seven days. I ate a lot of greasy overcooked food, so much that today I just stopped eating. My body said “enough already,” and now I’m hungry because it’s the next day and I’m finally winding down.

I met a postcolonialist from India too late to get a really good conversation going, and I’m sad because we had similar reactions to being expatriates. I’d like to know more about Calcutta.
Bed time.

Juxtaposition: World churches

Ceiling of Cathedral of the Assumption

Just one big soul:

My college has committed to assigning a college-wide text, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, next year. I’ve signed on, so I’m reading it here in Louisville, Kentucky, between reading scores of papers on Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. It’s been a good 20 years since I last read Steinbeck’s classic, but I’m enjoying the experience, as I did the first time, and I keep thinking of the chapter where Tom Joad meets the Reverend Jim Casy again and Casy tells him about the doubts that have led him to give up preaching, and the epiphany he had about God:

“I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit–the human spiret–the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of. Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a sudden–I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”

And I love what he knows, and the deep down conviction of it, and the truth in it: Buddha nature, Christ in everyone, the kingdom of heaven is in you, all that.

Cathedral of the Assumption, Louisville, Kentucky:

(Sunday evening): After today’s reading, I found myself unexpectedly hungry for Mass. One of the RCIA leaders told us once that his favorite thing to do when traveling is to attend Mass at the local church, and I understood this afternoon as I left the reading room. I wanted to find a church and enter it, to partake of the Eucharist, that moment of grace, and to feel the lightness and clarity that comes with it.

The guidebook pointed me to the Cathedral of the Assumption, only a few blocks from my hotel, so I walked there, wondering if it would be possible for me to slip in quietly and sit in the back, as Mass was well underway by that time. I entered a side door and climbed stairs to the sound of joyous singing. Before I got to the top of the stairs the door opened and a man beckoned me in, then pointed to a chair. It was just moments before the Eucharist, and so I was able to partake and then to kneel and feel the stillness flow through me, still surprised by it. A different church, unfamiliar people, and yet the same liturgy, the same quiet ritual, the same icons, and an overwhelming sense of being home.

Afterwards I looked around at the beauty of the architecture in this 1852 church, and at the light flowing through the stained glass over the altar, a light that was echoed minutes later outside, as it streamed in long silvery rays from behind gold-tinted clouds.

Assumption coronation window

Reverend Casy again:

“Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.”

All part of the wonder and the joy and the silence and the mystery. Every moment. Being Catholic and loving Buddhism, having a childhood dog named Shiva, and a Kuan Yin statue on my shelf. All part of the beauty. Inscape.

**Images taken from the website for the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, KY.

Immigration and justice: A prayer

I’m frantically trying to get ready to go to the AP reading on Saturday, the same one I did last year (had a year really passed since then?), but in Louisville, Kentucky now instead of in Florida. I’ve had little time to write, and don’t expect to have any time this upcoming week, but I did find the following prayer on a local political site. It comes from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and addresses the controversial issue of immigration reform.

The Justice Prayer

Come, O Holy Spirit!

Come, open us to the wonder, beauty, and dignity of the diversity found in each culture,

in each face, and in each experience we have of the other among us.

Come, fill us with generosity,

as we are challenged to let go and allow others to share with us

the goods and beauty of earth.

Come, heal the divisions

that keep us from seeing the face of Christ in all men, women and children.

Come, free us to stand with and for those

who must leave their own lands in order to find work, security, and welcome in a new land – one that has enough to share.

Come, bring us understanding, inspiration, wisdom, and

the courage needed to embrace change and stay on the journey.

Come, O Holy Spirit,

show us the way.

The infinite universe

“Do you know,” my father says, “that some scientists say the universe is infinite?” He stops, looking out towards the water, to the far mountains draped in their veil of dusk. “I just can’t quite believe it,” he says. “Infinite.”

Infinite. When I was a child, I used to look up and think, over and over, “Does the sky go on forever?” And then I would try to imaging “forever,” and I would thrust my imagined self up through the blue, from the transparency of my spot on earth into the deepening blue of the highest reaches of the sky, and onwards, the color darkening — sky blue, royal blue, navy blue, then a blue so dark it was almost black, but lit by the sparkles cast from stars everywhere, and onwards, onwards, till I was no longer in my body at all. The word “forever” that had started the flight upwards would disappear, replaced by a wordless wonder, a sense that I was not “me” at all but something else inconceivable and unknowable. Something would echo in my head, fizz through my body, a sensation indescribable. It was terrifying and comforting at once, the awareness of how tiny I was, how utterly insignificant, in the vastness of forever, and yet also how enduring and inseparable I was from what “was,” what Is.

Last week, at RCIA, another rite involving candles: “Why do we love candles so much?” the woman leading the rite asked. And then, “What lit your candle?” regarding the search that had brought us to our initiation into the church. “An experience when I was 10,” I said, remembering forever. Remembering the infinite universe.

“If the universe is not infinite,” I respond to Dad’s comment, “then it has to end. Then there have to be boundaries. What do those boundaries look like? And what’s on the other side?”

He looks at me, silent for a moment, shaking his head.

“I don’t know,” he says finally. “I just don’t know.”

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