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.