Sunday, November 20, 2005

Thoughts while unpacking

Several days of spending several hours unpacking box after box of my life has given me a lot of time to contemplate the changes I have made, both recently and over the course of my life accumulating all this crap. I've found it to be a bittersweet time. A time of lingering grief mixed with relief and even a little excitement.

I'm adjusting to the shift from an academic-centered life to the illness-centered life as symbolized by my replacing the thesis material that I usually keep in the portable file on my desk with folders of Social Security and HUD paperwork. Accepting that since I don't have as much storage space in this apartment, boxes of my old Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew flashcards and textbooks, as well as notes from undergraduate courses can probably find a new home in my mother's storage shed as they will not be readily needed anytime soon. Unpacking novels first and placing them on the most convenient shelves where my Middle East section would have been before. Indeed, those books are still in their boxes waiting until I have the time, energy and money to get another eight-foot plank of particleboard.

But I have unpacked gardening and craft books that remained unpacked in my last apartment. As a student I never had time for them, especially as I was so sick I hardly had time to even be a student. But now, well, when I'm feeling good, I can make a new lampshade or plant a winter container garden if I want to.

And that's when I realized I was so relieved to finally not be a student anymore. Despite all the snide comments I'd hear from people that I was becoming a "professional student," it was not a profession I chose. I wanted to be done. To move beyond the ambivilance that comes with being a student to the permanence of being a professor. No, I didn't end up becoming a professor, but I am done with being a student (at least for the forseeable future). I have the stability one lacks while in school. Which is funny in a way because school was always what provided stability throughout my chaotic childhood (or lack of one) and in having to give it up, I was terrified I would lose that precious structure it brought to my life. But, you know, structure can be so overrated.

There are still a few more boxes to go through, more remnants of my old life to remind me of what it was like to be on the academic fast track. But now there's enough room in this new apartment to live the life of novel-reading and domestic contemplation my illness has brought.


I feel my body letting go of light
drawn to the wisdom of a harvest moon.
I feel it welcome the lengthening night
like a lover in early afternoon.

My dreams are windfall in a field gone wild.
I gather them through the lengthening of night
and when they have all been carefully piled
my body begins letting go of light.

Indian summer to leaf-fall to first frost
the memories that were carefully piled
become the dreams most likely to be lost.
My dreams are windfall in a field gone wild

now that memory has abandoned them
now that Indian summer, leaf-fall, first frost
have become the same amazing autumn
skein of those dreams most likely to be lost.

I feel my body letting go of light.
I feel it welcome the lengthening of night,
the windfall of dreams that have long been lost
to Indian summer, leaf-fall, and the first frost.

-- Floyd Skloot

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

In each others' hearts and lungs

Ha'aretz: Family of boy shot dead by IDF donates organs `for peace between peoples'

When Israeli soldiers shot and killed his son, Ahmad Al-Khatib remembered his older brother who had died of kidney failure from lack of a suitable transplant and decided to donate his son's organs.

"I don't mind seeing the organs in an Israeli or a Palestinian. In our religion, God allows us to give organs to another person and it doesn't matter who the person is," said Jamal al-Khatib, the boy's father, who added that he hoped the donations would send a message of peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

And indeed, they went to three Israeli girls, two Jewish and one Druze.

It's not the first time those who have lost their lives to terrorism of either the state or individual sort have gone on to provide life for those on the other "side." On September 22, 2002, the Catholic news agency Zenit reported that the parents of a Jewish student killed in a suicide attack in Tel Aviv donated his organs, including a kidney that was transplanted into a seven-year old Palestinian girl. The year before that, the organs of a Palestinian man killed by a Jewish settler provided life for one Arab and three Jewish Israelis.

For those who think that Palestinian Islam is all about hate and revenge, consider the reasoning the family of the Palestinian man gave for their gift.

"I consulted the Muslim authorities, who assured me that the gesture not only could be carried out according to the Koran, but that, in addition, it is a meritorious and just act, regardless of the religion of the recipient of the organs,"

A sentiment shared by our own Holy Father while he was still Cardinal.

Yep. Palestinians and Israelis share more than just borders. They carry each others' hearts and lungs.

This was the point that my friend Nur Masalha (one of the nicest guys ever!) made in the current issue of the Nation regarding Iran's unfortunate comments about Israel.

Ahmadinejad's rhetoric...raises a key issue at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict: the need for Palestinian Muslims and Christians to make a clear distinction between our political struggle against institutionalized racism and ethnic cleansing in Palestine-Israel and the fact that we and the Israelis will, ultimately, have to live together as equal citizens under some form of secular democracy--rather than wipe each other out. Muslim fundamentalists (Ahmadinejad included) have miserably failed to understand the reality in historic Palestine. In the process of brutal colonization of the country, a Hebrew-speaking "nation" has emerged, with its own distinct language, culture and flourishing literature. There are 5 million to 6 million Hebrew-speaking Israelis, and no one has the right to talk about wiping them out. Acknowledging the current binational reality is completely different from legitimizing the colonial process by which this reality has come about.

You can build exclusive by-pass highways and walls higher than the old Berlin Wall. You can refuse to acknowledge the Zionist entity and establish diplomatic relations. But the plain fact of the matter is that the future includes Israelis and Palestinians together and there's no getting around it without genocide either way.

Just ask Ahmad al-Khatib, who sees his son in the little Jewish girl who has his heart.

[Cross-posted at Sollicitudo Rei Socialis]

Monday, October 24, 2005


All the talk about books in the comments section of the post below has me thinking a bit more about my library. Tubbs quite rightly chided me about even thinking about getting rid of books. So, thought I'd write this post as penance.

Poeisia commented that books are like friends and I have to say that's very true. When I first left home to go to college and was feeling homesick, an afternoon in the library made me feel a lot better. And now that I spend a lot of time in bed, looking up at the long shelves snaking their way around the ceiling and down the walls makes me feel less lonely because those familiar novels, plays, historical monographs, and theological treatises are here along with me.

A lot of the books I have I don't remember exactly where I got them. Others, of course, I do. An old bookstore in West Salem. Gifts from friends. Thrift stores. Open houses at the Middle East Studies Center.

Many, many of them are from Powells Books, either at their store or during their annual Square Deal Sale when they fill up Pioneer Courthouse Square with overstocks and books they otherwise can't seem to get rid of. It takes hours to go through the tables winding their way along the etched red bricks. The store, of course, takes even longer. Indeed, though I've lived between 5 and 20 minutes away depending on whether you take the streetcar or walk for most of my adult life, I don't think I've actually ever been through every aisle of the store, though I believe I have been in every room. It's really that vast. But I've certainly spent hundreds of hours there. Sitting on the floor or standing with my head crooked to one side as I skim the names. My godfather, a cynical guy from the East Coast now stuck on the wrong coast in Seattle for grad school, thought I was totally overhyping Powells. Until he stepped inside. After a few hours he admitted he was overwhelmed. Our favorite thing to do when he comes to town is to head to the Middle East section at Powells and sneer or salivate at what they've got.

And now with the Internet, I've reached new heights in book collecting. Books that I've had to constantly request through Inter-library loan and finally spend money and hours at a copy machine because they've been out of print so long I'm now finding through the far reaches of the Web. It's made me smugger than ever of my library. Especially I when wrote a book review of John Joseph's, Muslim-Christian Relations and Inter-Christian Rivalries in the Middle East: The Case of the Jacobites in an Age of Transition (Albany: SUNY, 1983) for a professor, who upon reading it said, "we should get this book for our library" to which I responded cheekily, "I own it."

To those who say that the public library is a lot cheaper, I say that they've never seen my overdue fines. I've probably built a wing of our university library with my tardiness and as the Internet makes book buying so easy and cheap, I've decided that it's far more economical to just buy the books I need or will want to read eventually rather than pay for my forgetfulness. I mean, then I get to actually keep them.

As fate would have it, the movie that I popped in the DVD player tonight from Netflix was a book about bibliophiles, 84 Charing Cross Road. The main character is a New York screenwriter, Helene Hanff, who also has a particular taste for hardbound English literature. But, being a writer, she's not particularly wealthy and has a hard time finding affordable editions. Upon finding an ad for a British bookstore, Marks & Co., she writes hoping that they might have what she's looking for at reasonable prices. The manager of the store, Frank Doel, responds with a polite letter, a few of the books she requested, and an invoice. Thus begins a 20 year correspondence among Hanff, Doel and the staff at Marks & Co. in which Hanff is the witty, outspoken New Yorker and Doel the reserved, but polite Englishman. It's a great movie regardless of whether you like books or not. Subtle and sweet but not at all sappy. However, if you're a book lover, this movie has you thinking about that wonderful smell of books. That soft touch of leather bound. The slight sparkle of gilded edges. It totally made me think of you, Sylvia.

It also made me miss England. Reminded me of that little bookshop near the British Museum that specialized (or should I write specialised?) in books on the Middle East (or the Orient as their sign said). A. practically had to drag me out of there by my ear if we were ever going to leave. And speaking of my British boyfriend, my favorite line in the movie is where Hanff is chatting with her friend and her friend's British boyfriend. He says something about raspberries, but being a good Brit pronounces it rahspberry. "Raaahhhhspberry," Hanff says. "Can you believe a whole country of people pronounce it like that?" LOL Lord knows A. and I giggle at the way each other pronounces things. Like herbs vs. herbs-with-an-h. Or fillet vs. FILit. Or drawing vs. drawring. Then there are their weird-ass names for things. Instead of Graham crackers, they have "digestive biscuits." Does that not just sound like a cookie made of Maalox?

So, at any rate, I gave my dad another twenty bucks tonight to get some more packing tape, as well as some Fix-all to fix the walls as the brackets for the shelves stuck to the walls when they were screwed in and after being extracted, took hunks of plaster with them. And this time next week we'll be figuring out how to fit shelving for some 1100 books or so into an even smaller studio. Cause, ya know, while I've seen lots of friends come and go over the years, these ones are still hanging around.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Meaningless titles

I finally broke last night.

Actually, I started breaking in the elevator as I went to meet with a professor yesterday afternoon. Nauseous and exhausted and nearly twenty minutes late, it’s like it finally hit me: I can’t handle school. Even just a little bit of it. Just my piss ass 5 credit hours. And if I can’t handle it, I’m going to have to drop out again. And if I drop out this time, I don’t see how I’m going to go back anytime soon. Not only is a Ph.D. apparently out of my grasp, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that so is an M.A.

I HATE this fucking illness.

I HATE how much it’s taken from me.

I HATE how much it just keeps taking.

In my moment of profound self-pity last night I exclaimed to my walls lined with books that it’s not right. I’m too smart not to have a PhD. Didn’t my advisor say when I was an undergrad and rattling off all sorts of unique research ideas that I was going to create my own new field and be publishing like crazy? I’m too smart not to have an M.A. I mean, I’ve even published a little. Not even a damn Master’s degree from my piss ass state university?

Of course, there are plenty of people who are at least as smart as I am who don’t have Masters or doctoral degrees. I’ll survive without them as well.

They are just silly, meaningless titles in the long term scheme of things.

But they’ve been important to me.

Important if I ever want to teach.

And I so miss teaching.

Hell, at this point I even miss grading those pathetic undergrad papers where they don’t even understand the difference between a run-on and a fragment, not to mention a clearly articulated thesis.

Well, okay. Maybe not quite that much.

Not that I’ll be able to manage teaching in a classroom anytime soon. I can’t even make it to class as a student regularly enough as it is.

And Monday I have a social worker coming to assess my situation for assistance with housekeeping and grocery shopping.

I can’t even take care of myself by myself.

I remember two years ago when I had my Social Security hearing in front of an administrative law judge regarding my claim that had been denied. The judge asked the vocational expert if, based on my past education and symptom history, there was any type of work I could do. The vocational expert said that because of my poor health there was no job for me in the national economy. My Legal Aid lawyer was ecstatic. I’d won my case. When the ruling came a month later fully in my favor, it was bittersweet. On the one hand I was so relieved that after two years I was finally going to have an income. But I was approved because I was essentially useless.

I know at this point it’s time to let go of those last remnants of my old life. Of that energetic student who could study three languages and pull off “A” research papers at the rate of a page an hour. I know God is leading me elsewhere and that where ever that is, it’s not a bad thing. Indeed, it’s probably quite wonderful in its own way.

But this week it’s been hard to let it go. I miss it.


In time the fork my life took
as illness changed its course
will wander to the main stream
and there below the long waterfalls
and cataracts I will begin to rush
to the place I was going from the start.
I imagine looking back to see
the silted mass where a huge bend
holds sunlight in a net of evergreen
and the sky unable to bear its own
violet brilliance a moment longer.
Out of shadows where the channel
crumbles comes the raucous sound
a great blue heron makes when startled.
Scent of peppermint rides breezes
from the valley and I catch hints
of a current beneath the surface
just as darkness unfurls.
There I imagine what was lost
coming together with what was gained
to pour itself at last into the sea.

By Floyd Skloot (a fellow CFIDS victim) from his book The Evening Light. (He's got some great poems, so do buy it if you can, or any of his other books.)

Thursday, March 31, 2005

My Little Michelle

My little Michelle broke her foot the other night. She fell off the bed when I turned over in my sleep and crashed onto the hardwood floor. The next night as I curled up in bed with her, I noticed a clinking sound in her right sock. Probing softly in the darkness, I could feel pieces of porcelain where her foot should be.

A broken right foot.

Just like me.

I bought the doll a few years ago at my therapist’s suggestion. She thought it would be good for me to have a tangible representation of my inner child. I balked at first. It just sounded so very cheesy, pop-psyche like. Something forty-five year old yuppies from San Marin wearing crystals do. But, I figured I would humor her. Show good faith on my part in getting better.

So, I headed for the Goodwill thrift store. After looking through the piles of plastic, cloth and rubber dolls on the shelves, I found a brown-haired doll with hands, feet and head made of porcelain but a body made of cloth. She was dressed in a velvet green pinafore over a black and white blouse with a lace ruffle collar. Little ivory cotton bloomers and socks. No shoes but she did have a display stand. And though her eyes were brown and mine are green, and her hair was far thicker than mine will ever be, she felt like what I’d imagine myself as a little girl would look like.

Once I got her home, I ditched the stand. Decided maybe her hair could use a comb. Before I knew it, I was sitting on the floor brushing and braiding her hair. Planning little clothes to make for her. Trying to figure out the best way to shod her feet.

And when those times have come when the sadness of the past has overwhelmed me, I have found it very comforting to hold her and rock her and stroke her hair. Of giving some part of me the affection and care I did not get.

It’s not that my parents where horrible people. They were flawed, but not evil. Young and unsure about what to do with a child they weren’t expecting.

Actually, I say parents with a plural, but it was really just my mom. At least, until she finally told my father about me when I was eighteen. They met at a party when they were nineteen and broke up before my mom realized she was pregnant with me. But she was in love with somebody else by the time she did realize and decided what my father didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

Or me.

Or who would have been my grandparents and aunt.

And so she married this new guy she was in love with, thinking that he’d be my dad and everything would work out happily ever after.

Sorta like how teenagers think.

And when I started talking as a toddler and people thought I was a midget because I used big words, she figured I’d probably do just as good a job being left to “keep an eye” on her adulterous husband as any other adult would.

And I’d be just as patient and understanding at four years old when she divorced him as any other adult would.

And when she married again when I was eight, I’d be just as good a candle-lighter at her wedding as any other adult would.

And when she had another baby girl when I was ten, I’d be just as good at caring for her as any other adult would.

I mean, how many other ten-year-olds get to spend their summer vacations and holidays and days when the babysitter was sick with their own real baby doll to bath and change and feed and dress and push around in a stroller?

When I was a teenager I began writing a novel about my inner little girl. I named her Allie and set her in a small Oregon town in 1897. She had everything I lacked: a caring father, a healthy body, a willful spirit, a childhood.

I lost my healthy body a month before my baby sister was born when I broke my right ankle. At first I just thought it was another broken bone. I’d broken my arm the summer before and it healed up perfectly. During the three months I was in various casts, I understood that I couldn’t walk the mile to school and be on safety patrol. But nobody told me I couldn’t play kickball, so I did.

And when I played right after the cast came off, I ended up back in the emergency room where another one was put back on. After months of playing and more casts, I finally understood what no adult had bothered to tell me.

But not playing kickball anymore meant that I got even fatter. And it’s not like I wasn’t fat enough already as the doctors constantly harangued. And as my stepfather made certain to point out to me.

He also pointed out, in verbally and physically painful ways, that I was not allowed to have a willful spirit. After one particularly traumatic incident in which he broke it like porcelain on a hardwood floor, I created Allie. Gave her my willful spirit for safekeeping.

And my dream of a healthy body.

And someone to care for me.

And a childhood.

But now I want my spirit and dreams back.

I began trying to figure out how to get them back when I was getting to know my biological father, who six years earlier abruptly found out he had an eighteen-year old daughter when my mom called him up one day. And even more after he decided he couldn’t do the father-daughter thing. And particularly after I got to know my grandfather and he instructed me to be my own person a few months before he died.

I hunted for them madly after I had surgery on that right ankle and in the knee above it six years ago and ended up with blood clots in my lungs and then hemorrhaging on the blood thinners and clotting some more and developing some ephemeral but palpably debilitating condition called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

But, several months ago when my nieces were spending the night, one of them saw my little Michelle doll sitting on my chair. “She kind of looks like you ‘Chell,” she said as she picked it up.

My doll.

Who is not fat.

Who has brown eyes.

Who has thick hair.

I wanted to grab my niece and kiss her and tell her that was one of the sweetest, happiest things she could have ever said. Instead, I smiled at her softly as she turned to argue with her sister about whose turn it was to use the computer.

Yep. My doll.

Who somehow absorbed the willful spirit I gave away for safekeeping all those years ago.

The willful spirit that refuses to be ashamed of my curvy body and has finally come to accept the leisurely life my illness has brought.

That insists on caring for myself rather than only caring for others.

That clings to my doll with all I have these days as I work at sifting through all the pieces of me.

The doll whose porcelain right foot I glued back together. Yet, whose feet still remain unshod.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Hail Mary

It feels odd not to be fasting on Great and Holy Friday. But, it's one of those once in a lifetime occurrences when the Feast of the Annunciation falls on this somber day. And in the Eastern Church, we don't move dates. So, tonight we commemorated both the beginning of God's finite form and its end with the only Divine Liturgy served on Holy Friday since 1931 as well as the traditional vespers service complete with procession and burial of Christ's icon shroud. The combined liturgies lasted for three hours. Ample time to contrast the joy of God becoming Immanuel -- God with us -- and the suffering such empathy entailed.

The Feast of the Annunciation is an important feast day that always breaks the fasting of Lent, and even though Holy Friday is usually one of few days of strict fasting in the Church calendar, we broke it to celebrate the wonderful news that Mary would carry the Son of God. For our particular parish, it's an even more special feast for it was on this feast day five years ago we first celebrated Divine Liturgy in our new church.

Growing up Evangelical Protestant, the idea that a feast day honoring Mary would be considered important enough to celebrate while commemorating the death of Christ was unimaginable. Mary was simply a footnote at Christmas. Someone forgotten about after the manger scene has been packed away along with the Santa ornaments.

Looking back, I can't help but feel it reflects a bit of misogyny. I do appreciate the argument that no one should take away the focus from Christ. Yet, no one seemed to be disturbed about using men from St. Paul to born again NFL players to demonstrate the glory of Christ.

And not that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches don't have histories of misogyny either where Mary becomes the proto-type for women being "saved through motherhood" as St. Paul suggests (or at least interpreted/translated as suggesting). But, it was radically different for me to have a woman held in such high esteem. A woman about whom whole liturgies are written and chanted, like the Akathist hymn chanted during Lent with its remarkable metaphors. Mary becomes the palace of God. The ark of the new covenant. The mercy seat. The heavenly bridge. The one carrying the earth's foundation. The living paradise in which is planted the Tree of Life. The Bride of God who carried the healer of the human race. The birthgiver of the world's salvation.

Indeed, men are left out of the process in which God becomes flesh. There is Mary, who does not become pregnant through a man, but is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, traditionally the feminine form of God. The only male involved is the fetal Christ.

Mary is the first Christian. The first to believe in Jesus, as we see in the wedding at Qana where she asks him to change water to wine. And from that miracle we learn, as my godfather often quotes his old Maronite priest, if you want to get Jesus to do something, get his mom to ask.

My Evangelical friends and relatives still adjusting to my Catholicism often ask me why we pray to Mary. I explain by first asking them a question: why do you ask someone to pray for you? At some point, St. James' admonition that the prayers of a righteous man availeth much comes up and I then ask why not ask someone close to Christ? And who closer than his mother?

And she's not just his mother. On this day, as he hung on the cross, Jesus looked down and saw his mother and said to John, "behold your mother." And to Mary he said, "woman, behold your son." He gave us Mary and gave Mary us. As I thought about this tonight while we sang "the spotless Virgin wept with maternal tenderness," I started to tear up. The same thing that happens whenever I sing the last line of the Paraklesis hymn -- "oh unexplainable wonder, how do you nurse the Master?" Mary becomes the nurturing mother who comforts us at her breast. Who bothers her Son on our behalf, just as she did for the wedding host in Qana all those years ago.

Yes, such boldness suggests that she was not a meek, passive woman. While she was willing to be used by God -- "behold the handmaid of the Lord; may it be to me as you have said" -- she must have had nerves of steel to allow herself to be impregnated without a husband. To withstand all the gossip. Maybe even trouble with the religious authorities. Or to raise the Son of God. I mean, what do you say when your son disappears for a couple of days and when you find him, he simply seems to shrug and say "well, don't you know I'd be in my father's house?" And certainly she doesn't mince words in the Magnificat about the relationship between the powerful and the poor that the one in her womb would seek to overturn. "He has shown might with is arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty."

Rich Mullins, my favorite singer and an Evangelical Protestant who was in the process of becoming Catholic when he died, once talked about how evangelicals always have this problem with Catholics revering Mary, but that perhaps the problem is that we don't revere each other enough. If Holy Friday shows us anything, whether we believe Jesus to be divine or not, it is that we most certainly do not revere each other enough.

So, maybe then a few Hail Marys would not a bad thing.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Holistic faith

I read a great article in The Sun (the magazine, not the British tabloid) earlier this week interviewing Yossi Klein Halevi, an author who I'm not familiar with, but after reading this, I want to be. Actually, it wasn't the full interview as The Sun does not have any advertising so buying customers are essential to its survival. But even just the excerpt they printed on the website (via a pdf) has a lot of valuable stuff.

The first aspect of the discussion that intrigued me was Halevi's belief that religion is an essential part in bringing peace to the Holy Land. This is something that I have been thinking about as well and it was encouraging to hear someone else say it also.

"In engaging my Christian and Muslim neighbors in a dialogue of prayer, my goal was to test the possibility that religion, specifically in the Holy Land, could be an instrument for healing rather than hatred...The Oslo peace process, which ended the first Palestinian uprising in 1993, was planned by secular elites who bypassed the vast religious populations on both sides. Now we face a second intifada. There is an urgent need to develop a religious language, and my search for a common language of prayer among the monotheistic faiths was an experiment in that direction."

In my own life, I have recently felt myself increasingly drawn away from my academic roots in the traditional discipline of history and to a lesser extent, politics, towards what at this moment feels to be a bit more ephemeral, yet more powerful spiritual pressure building up throughout the world, including in the two places which are the focus of my studies: the United States and Palestine/Israel.

I remember years back (eek! fourteen years already!) during my freshman year of college when I was attending Biola University, a prominent Evangelical school with a weekly chapel requirement, a man spoke during one of those weekly chapels who worked in South Africa during apartheid and through its dissolution. He explained that it wasn't until there was repentance and reconciliation among clergy behind the scenes that the end of apartheid was possible. It was a powerful idea for me then and has grown increasingly more powerful in my imagination. Lately I can't help but wonder if my illness is a way of turning me away from the secular pursuit of knowledge to a more dynamic, if quieter, spiritual path.

So, today I went to the World Peach Lunch held each month by the Wholistic Peace Institute, an organization which seeks to incorporate spirituality in the quest for world peace. Alicia Thom, one of the authors of the book I've talked about in past posts, Being Human, spoke about her participation in the 2nd Edinburgh International Festival of Middle Eastern Spirituality and Peace conference a few weeks ago. From the brochure and Alicia's report, it sounded hopeful and exciting. One of the speakers was Abouna Elias Chacour, who's writings and speaking have never ceased to awaken my spirit -- often to point of tears. While Alicia missed his presentation, she did come away with an even greater appreciation of the importance for every culture to tell their stories, as well as shared the sentiment of "better the heaven of unity than the hell of separation."

This need for unity was the other aspect of the Halevi interview that resonated with me. "People of different faiths have always judged each other by what we believe about God rather than by how we experience God's presence." He talked about how reading about mysticism made him realize "an astonishing unity of experience" when it came to encountering the Divine. "It was a seminal moment for me. It made me realize that the claims of religion might actually be true. It helped bring me back to Judaism, but it didn't confine me to Judaism."

Yes! Exactly!

As my gratuitous use of exclaimation marks there suggests, I had a similar seminal moment last week. For awhile now I've been pondering the fact that the world's great religions are so very much alike in many ways. Why do we always look to find what's different? Growing up Evangelical Protestant, we had retreat workshops and Bible Studies devoted to looking at Us versus Them. In my Orthodox supply catalogues are whole pages devoted to books explaining why other religious traditions are wrong and only the Orthodox Church has the correct way to God. We hold the Truth. They are lost.

Yet, when I look at the history of mystical prayer in my Byzantine church, we have traditions that are almost identical to those found in Tibetan Buddhism. At the first Divine Liturgy I ever attended, I was struck by how similar it was to Jewish worship, with a holy of holies behind the iconostasis, the incense that frequently clouded the church, and the chanting that sounded a lot like the chanting of the Torah. During Lent we do prostrations that are almost identical to those I did when I prayed with my Muslim friends while attending the Saturday Islamic school. But, if I embrace the idea that all religions are one, how can I call myself a Christian?

Just as I climbed into bed a week ago, I had my epiphany. In calling myself a Christian, I am stating that Christianity, specifically Byzantine Catholicism and to a lesser extent the Evangelical Protestantism in which I grew up, are the primary constructs through which I understand the Divine. Its rituals and mythos are the primary tools I use to relate to the Divine.

However, I acknowledge that Christianity is an imperfect construct. St. Paul said, "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially, then I shall know fully as I am fully known." While I believe that the Holy Spirit did inspire the Scriptures as well as the (mostly) men who wrote and interpreted them for the Church, they were still finite men who used a finite tool -- language -- to create a finite construct.

I also feel free to to borrow from other religions -- their understanding of the Divine, their traditions, mythos and rituals, to create a fuller, more dynamic relationship with God.

As I wrote that credo of sorts in the journal I keep by my bed, it was as if it broke the spell of needing the approval of people at church under which I've been since I was a little kid from a broken home desperate for the acceptance of the God-fearing people who held my divorced mother in contempt. I no longer care if the Bush-loving, Natural-Family-Planning-only Catholics with whom I share Communion think my syncreticism is sending me to Hell. I can now be a Christian again. I can have a rich, active, potent relationship with God again. I can be whole.

"Sometimes I feel like I belong to two peoples," said Halevi, "the Jewish people and a pluralistic people drawn from all faiths. I'm a religious Jew, and the Jewish story is the context in which I try to experience the miraculous. But I'm also a pluralist who believes that all the great religions are 'denominations' of one great religion, which teaches that the unseen is more important than the visible, and that this is a universe of unity and intentionality, despite the surface appearance of chaos."

Monday, March 14, 2005

Wholeness of being

“...In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them...You got to love it, you! And no, they ain't in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they do not love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you..." (Toni Morrison, Beloved, New York: Penguin, 1988, p.89)

I've been doing a lot of emotional house cleaning of sorts lately. I mean, that seems like a good thing to do during Lent. And one of the things I've been thinking a lot about lately is my body.

In the Byzantine Church we believe that worship should be a sensual experience and not just an intellectual one. We kiss icons and light candles. We chew the squishy wine-soaked bread the priest drops into our mouths during Communion (or cruchy bread if it's during the Pre-Santified Liturgy). We chant (sing) the entire Liturgy or listen to others chant. We stand and bow and during Lent do full-bodied prostrations. We breath in the heavy scent of frankencense that the priest incenses throughout the church several times during the Liturgy. We gaze upon icons of the Holy Mother, the Pantocrator, and various events in the lives of the two of them. Frankly, as someone who has a difficult time processing sensory input because of CFIDS/ME, I'm often exhausted by the end. But in a happy sort of way.

It was this sensual element that drew me to the Byzantine Church from my evangelical Protestant upbringing. And it has helped me in my journey to integrate my body into my identity. Shown me that God loves my body so much that He becomes bread and wine that I injest so that He can become part of the very mitochondria of my cells.

Of course, that is not the message I had growing up. In the last few weeks, I've begun to appreciate the unrelenting attack upon who I am as a physical being. The more I think about it, the more I understand how my body and my mind/soul became separate. My body was clearly bad. It was fat and therefore clearly not reflecting the "victorious life in Jesus" my evangelical Protestant upbringing said I should have nor the healthy body my doctors bullied me about not having. It developed sexually too early when I finally had to start wearing a bra when I was nine years old because my breasts were large enough to fill a C cup. It was ill and hurt in ways laboratory tests could not explain.

But in my heart I was desperate to be a good girl. To follow the rules. Since my body was bad, I had to separate it from me. There was my deviant, disobedient body and my ever so obedient mind/soul craving what I understood to be "normal." There was my heavy, broken, hurting flesh, and my active, dynamic, bubbly mind/soul longing to be free from what has become, in many ways, my own Abu Ghraib.

As I’ve begun to appreciate the cultural, familial, medical and sexual violence done to my body, I’ve been able to integrate it into who I am as Michelle.

Who is fat.

And short.

And has a beautiful smile.

And soft, luscious skin.

And voluptuous curves.

And large, droopy breasts.

And a jiggly ass.

And a heart that breaks.

And hands and feet that hurt.

And a brain that thinks too much.

A body I want to protect. And nourish. And feel. Not be drafted into, or even actively enlist myself into hating.

A body that, like Baby Suggs, holy, in the above quote from Beloved, says, I got to love.

Each day during Lent we say a special prayer by St. Ephraim of Syria that includes the line, "Grant to me, your servant, a spirit of wholeness of being..."

And indeed, during this Lent, God is answering that prayer in profound ways.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Needing Lent

O Lord and Master of my life.
Keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement,
lust of power and idle chatter.

Instead, grant to me, your servant,
the spirit of wholeness of being,
humble-mindedness, patience and love.

O Lord and King,
grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
and not to judge my brother,
for You are blessed, now and ever, and forever. Amen.

(The Prayer of St. Ephraim of Syria, prayed daily throughout Lent.)

It's hard to believe that Lent is already here. As Byzantine Catholics, we follow the Gregorian calendar along with our Roman brethren, but follow the Byzantine liturgical calendar as do our Orthodox brethren who are on the Julian calendar. Christmas just ended last Wednesday for us with the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple, though technically we've been in the Pascha (Easter) cycle for a few weeks now.

At least the weather here in Portland is cooperating. It's felt like Spring for a couple of weeks now and there's no sign of a big winter freeze on the horizon.

In my own life it's felt time for Lent as well. This last year I've been struggling a great deal with my faith. Indeed, my very first journal entry of 2004 was about my wrestling with science, other religious traditions, and my own Christian faith. My way of reconciling it all has been to read. A lot. To think. A lot. As an academic, my first reaction is always to research and ponder. To use my brain to get me out of my conundrum. I cannot return to a literal, black-and-white approach to my faith as it would be dishonest. But I cannot give up my faith either. While I'm stuck in the gray, I've simply had to have faith that God can hold me here. And go to church and say my prayers, even if I feel a sort of loneliness while I do so.

As I wrote in my last post, my massage therapist has been telling me that my body keeps saying that my "vegetal" state -- the part that deals with my feelings and emotions -- is not working properly and is keeping me from getting better. That my brain has taken over and is stealing away my emotional life, including my relationship with God. From a Taoist perspective, humans exist between heaven and earth and my brain is blocking out the heavens. That idea seems to fit with Orthodox theology. Bishop Kallistos Ware states that we are created to participate in both the noetic and material realms, and it is our God-given task "to reconcile and harmonize the noetic and the material realm, to bring them to unity, to spiritualize the material, and to render manifest all the latent capacities of the created order (The Orthodox Way, 50)." My faith has become too intellectual and is unable to participate in the noetic. It is suffocating my faith.

Frankly, though, I've always thought of my intellectual proclivity as a good thing. Growing up Evangelical, I've come to disdain the penchant to simply sing a bunch of songs that create some sort of emotional ecstasy. They always felt manipulative. Lacking in substance. Dangerous because it meant people can be so easily manipulated since they have very little substance.

So, my massage therapist recommended something that would appeal to my brain: a book. Specifically, a book called Being Human. And the other day I sat in the Park Blocks and began reading it.
The primary life force (God) contains both penetrating and enveloping aspects. The penetrating force represents the power of the Creator and has a more masculine and active quality. The enveloping force is Grace, which has a more feminine quality as it is a force that encloses and envelopes life.

After explaining this, one of the authors talked about his experience in a Hindu village of Afghanistan where, in watching the mundane of daily life, he experienced that enveloping Grace. It made me think of the line from “"Hold Me, Jesus”" by Rich Mullins.

And this Salvation Army band is playing this hymn. And your grace rings out so deep, makes my resistance seem so pale…...

As I sat there in the Park Blocks reading that, I started to cry and say to myself, “"I miss you God. I miss you Jesus. Come into my life. I miss you.”" I thought of how when I was a teenager and I would listen to songs and be touched. Back when I was open to Grace.

I think there is something healthy and valid about skepticism. And I continue to value the training I have in deconstructing texts and looking at the power structures and marginalized voices that lie beneath them.

But I need Grace.

And right now, I need Lent. I need these forty days of fasting and abstinence. "For the Christian," says Father Philaret Littlefield, "the hunger that results is a real call to be mindful of our thirst for God." I need the prostrations done after each of the petitions of the Prayer of St. Ephraim to humble my intellectual arrogance. I need the emphasis on meditation and surrender to hear God's voice and to let go of my obsessive and pathetic need to have control. I need, as Saint Ephraim says, a spirit of wholeness of being.