Ash Wednesday and a roughness inside me typed in words; what I believe, how I pray, why the divine is part of my package.

February 6, 2013 – 12:04 pm

It is another morning, and I am once again writing myself back into rhythm, solidness, presence, connection with the world. It’s what I do when I get out of sorts and out of steps, one of the best ways I have for bringing myself back to myself. So here we are.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the one day of the year when Catholics walk around with a sign on their forehead proclaiming their Catholicism. Edit: distractomel mixes up dates! Ash Wednesday is next Wednesday. My bad. At least I can finish my leftover beef stew on Friday!

I haven’t gotten the ashes on my forehead for a long time, and only realized Ash Wednesday was coming up last weekend when I saw Fat Tuesday party flyers. Then I realized that the first time in years that I’ll be wearing the “Hello I Am Catholic” sign on my forehead, I’ll be in a city where nobody knows me.

Which is comforting, in a strange way. Catholicism is a part of my identity that I’ve been hesitant to claim in public; I usually say things like “my family is Catholic,” or “I was raised Catholic,”  phrases that keep my upbringing carefully separate from me. After all, I’m not entirely sold on some aspects of canonical doctrine — mostly items involving gender and sexuality and practices of exclusion. My list of “Catholic things I’m not that sold on” is shared by many people. Gender roles for both laypeople and clergy, prescriptions on sex and contraception and heterosexuality and even abortion — some of these things I question generally; others I take as my personal choices, but question whether everyone should be compelled to make the same decision, and so forth. Nothing particularly new in the world.

But I am also Chinese, and deaf, and female, and a hacker, and a number of other things whose terms and meanings I choose to reclaim — my naming of myself as “one of them” is, in a way, a redrawing of the boundaries of what it means to be “one of those people.” There is a difference between identifying with a group and following that group’s existing policies and habits blindly. You can be part of something and work to change it from the inside. In fact, I think you have to.

So I am Catholic. That’s part of the package. Or at least it is now; I’ll see where my faith journey ends up taking me. But I am done weasel-wording and vacillating and hiding behind my own uncertainty as an excuse. It’s good to own up to uncertainty. You shouldn’t push yourself to claim something before you’re ready for it. I think I stepped away for good reasons 12 years ago; my 14-year-old self needed that time and space to grow in her not-knowing. But I had long ago begun to use that “I don’t know, I can’t be sure” as a delaying tactic, an excuse to not seek more, move forward. So I’ll stop.

Faith is part of the package of my life. A relationship with God, a pledge to do my best to listen to what I’m being called to do, and then to do it — that’s part and parcel of my life. I hesitate to write the word “God” because of the baggage tied to it; white-bearded patriarchal lawmaker, used as an excuse to justify many of the world’s worst atrocities. Exclusionary: your God is better than my God, believe in mine or I will kill you. Duty-binding. Empty rituals. None of this is what I believe in or honor.

This writing will be awkward, because these thoughts are still fairly new, and I am writing of things that are uncapturable in any format, ineffable to any mind. But I say “God” because I need a word for the divine, the wide amazement and astonishment beyond me, beyond all I know, beyond not just all I can dream, but all I can ever imagine dreaming. I need a word for the speed of light, the symmetry of electricity and magnetism, the fact that in this universe, Godel’s incompleteness theorem holds – the miracles of stigmergic complexity that shape human cities, ant colonies, coral reefs; the slow upheaval of tectonic plates, the violent explosions of the stars taking thousands of years to speed through vacuum, strike our retinas, send neural impulses through our brains in such a way that we can not just see the stars, but wonder at them, calculate about them… in a strange way, when I was a teenager and walked away from the Church, it was the awe I held for science that kept me from being atheist. The God of science wasn’t something that they talked about in church, but there was a wonder in me to behold it, and I needed a word for that.

I need a word for how the earth seems to be breathing when the grasses bend in unison and squirrels leap from branch to branch. For what poets and painters capture when they speak and photograph in rapture of the spirit of a stone, a forest, the Grand Canyon, waterfalls, how deer are poised as perfectly as ballerinas, how the skins of elephants wrinkle deep around their eyes. That eggs are laid and babies born and mammals give forth milk. That children grow and bodies age and die and crumble. That humans hold and honor and build and create great works of art and life; that we have made cathedrals, mosques, temples, scrolls, books, paintings, fires, songs, and more. I need a word for that.

I need a word for forces that I feel; the rightness and the thundering and shaking sometimes when I teach or write – something is coming through me. I need a word for that. Something to call the strength and grace and passion past all understanding that enables people to do extraordinary things. Something to call the fire between people who care deeply for each other; something to call love in such a way that when it’s called such, it shoots out to encompass all of these things, becomes the bending of the grasses and the racing logic of pure mathematics and the making and the shaping and strengthening of the dancing wonder of the world.

The only word I know for it is God. I believe in a God that is male and female and neither and everything, a God that is one and many and explodes all categories of all sorts; I believe in a God that is a proliferation of multiplicities and simultaneously a unifier, a God of infinite power, speed, patience, magnitude, detail, simplicity, complexity, and quiet. I believe that everybody understands and sees God in a different way, and that faith — like all educations — cannot be the filling of a bucket — that it must, more than any other form of learning, be a lighting of a fire — but the fire doesn’t come from another human being. The fire strikes you from the outside and the inside. We can prepare the kindling, we can bring the tinder near, but in the end, we didn’t start the fire. (Yeah, I’m singing the last couple words to the Billy Joel song, just because.)

I think it comes down to this: I believe that there’s an infinite something beyond anything the aggregate of all the creatures in the universe can, will, or could ever perceive and understand. I believe that infinite something created all, lives within all, and gives both freedom and a calling to all. That something is what I call God.

I have faith and hope that the universe is intrinsically made of goodness and love and paradox — that what I call God has made the universe in its own image, and so that is what it is, and what we are. And I believe that there’s a part of me — and everyone — that is beyond the aggregate of what I — or all the creatures in the universe — can, will, or could ever perceive and understand; that there is that of what I call God within each being — something uniquely us, not like a hivemind implant that makes us unthinking segments of a benevolent version of a Star Trek Borg, but something that makes each of us the us with a life and the freedom to live it and to love within it and beyond it. And that of God within me is what I call a soul.

So there’s my God, or what I can write down of God this morning. I sometimes rephrase prayers now; I’m playing. Sometimes it sounds weird (“Our God, who art in heaven” instead of “Our Father,” or “blessed art thou among people” instead of “among women” for the Hail Mary). Sometimes words and songs from non-Christian or even non-theist traditions help me see and feel beyond my early training — which was limited, and partially-rejected, but still a foundation I’m thankful to have to build on, and I wonder what the heck I’ll do with my kids someday (fortunately, I’ve got younger cousins and a godson to learn with first).

I have a prayer for letting-go, sort of. It’s short, it’s rough, it’s more a chord list than a strict piece of sheet music, but it’s mine, and it helps me with living right now.

I am the handmaiden of the Divine;
let it be done to me according to Thy will.
Help me to honor the freedom of others
(as I would have my own freedom be honored)
secure in the knowledge You are with them
as I walk the Way that You are calling me to go.

Yep, awkward pronouns and capitalizations here. It loses something in the writing-down, but the thought-pattern is a helpful one to me to have and hold.

An evolving faith is part of the evolving package of my life, and that will affect the people in my life in ways I… really have no freakin’ idea. But I won’t pretend otherwise any more.

I think that’s what I needed to write out today — and it is time for me to pack my schoolbag and hike out to campus (just in time to stop in at the Ash Wednesday service on the way in and get that marking of ashes on my forehead). This was a longer post than I expected, and on something I did not expect to write about, and it is less concise and coherent than I’d like — maybe someday I’ll be able to come back to this, write more clearly… right now I feel the spirit of what I am trying to convey has gotten tangled in too many words (and yet I keep on writing more; it’s time for me to stop).

I’ll close with this. Albert Camus, “Living Dangerously” — yes, I know that Camus was an atheist, a nihilist… but like I said, the things that ring your soul may come from anywhere.

One may long, as I do, for a gentler flame, a respite, a pause for musing. But perhaps there is no other peace for the artist than what he finds in the heat of combat. “Every wall is a door,” Emerson correctly said. Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against which we are living. Instead, let us seek the respite where it is—in the very thick of the battle…

Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation; others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever-threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all.

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  1. 2 Responses to “Ash Wednesday and a roughness inside me typed in words; what I believe, how I pray, why the divine is part of my package.”

  2. Awesome. I’ll be off for my own ashes on Wednesday, probably from an Episcopalian church; but details, details.

    There are always people who want to take away big words – words like Catholic, like Christian, like God – make them into small and very specific words with very specific meanings, meanings they can stick in their pockets and own, that the rest of us aren’t allowed to touch. Some people say: oh well, just let them have those words; I’ll find some new words they haven’t gotten their hands on yet. But I don’t think it’s possible to surrender a word without giving up some of what it meant to you, and pretty soon you’re the one boxed in, retreating into the corner they haven’t gotten around to taking from you yet. That’s no good. Take those words back, I say.

    So here’s some words: God bless you.

    By Catherine Devlin on Feb 8, 2013

  3. Just wanted to say I appreciate the courage it takes to write like this and about these subjects and am really glad you do it.

    By Seb on Feb 11, 2013

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