March 27, 2013

Somebody that I Used to Know

I have the worst habits. Occasionally I like to smoke a tobacco pipe; I drink too much; I don't get enough sleep; I eat too many sweets; I like to press on bruises to feel the pain.

That's a strange one, maybe. Thinking about it, I suppose it's the attraction to a sensation, a little part of me that is a masochist, nothing extreme, I don't go out of my way to bruise myself, it's just that when I do, I have this habit of pressing the bruise until the pain goes away. I like to know I'm alive I suppose, and pressing the hurt, feeling the pain reminds me I'm alive. Maybe it's because I don't want to forget the mistake that lead to the bruise in the first place. The great line from Batman Begins, "Why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."

I don't think that this suffering, the lingering finger pressing on a bruise is just physical in my life. I am overly contemplative about my spiritual/mental, emotional, inner life as well. I dwell on things, I press those little moments of loss and suffering in my brain over and over again, maybe because I don't want to forget the pain, maybe because I want to learn to be stronger, to pick myself up.

And so I find myself dwelling in the last days of the liturgical season of Lent, turning over and over in my mind the spiritual life that I once lead. I'm pressing those hurts, which for a long time were forgotten. I'm examining in my mind the deeply profound change my life took in Lent almost 25 years ago. I can see those moments like they were yesterday, and I am pressing the bruise.

I think my husband probably believes I've lost my mind, or that I'm going through some sort of existential crisis - the Bible is out, literally having to be dusted off. My little red book, the Liturgy of the Hours, Lenten & Easter Season, lies open in the living room, its worn pages faded, its binding broken from usage, the ribbon page markers frayed and a little stained from the oils of my fingers. I've not lost my mind, but I am looking back, feeling the old scars, the bruises, the sensation of remembering to be alive. I am picking myself up, for the first time in my life as a priest so I can learn to better live my life as a Humanist Atheist.

In the last week of Lent I had the most amazing and delightful opportunity to celebrate Tenebrae in the monastic fashion. A monk's life is build around a few simple elements, a life of work and prayer. The prayer is the drum beat rhythm of their day, marking points during the day when they pray, it's called the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office. This celebration of prayer takes a marvelous form in the Tenebrae, celebrated in the last three days of Holy Week, beginning really with the setting of the sun on Wednesday of Holy Week, marking the traditional Jewish method of acknowledging the end of a day and the beginning of the next with sunset. In the church, illuminated only by 15 candles, recitation of psalms and the Gregorian tradition of chanting from the book of Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet. The focus of the Tenebrae is the nighttime and very early morning celebration of the Hours. The darkness covers the prayers like a velvet blanket, soothing the light away, creating that mysterious place between the reality we know is around us and uniting it to the imagination of our minds.

My first monastic experience of this was at the Trappist Monastery St. Benedict's in Snowmass, Colorado. We were on a spiritual retreat when I was a senior in High School during Lent. The first prayer, held at 3:00 a.m. was one covered in the cobwebs of sleep, but listening to the deep rhythmic chanting of the monks in their prayers was intoxicating. It was a on some level that first morning a spiritual awakening in me, and made me realize I truly wanted to know and experience the faith that these men chanted of so marvelously in the dark.

At my seminary college, a much more secular experience was held as the monastic life had to share liturgical space with the seminarian life. We weren't monks, but we could see and interact with them everyday, and during Lent, most especially the last few days of Holy Week after the sunset on Wednesday evening, we were mentally and spiritually preparing ourselves to enter into the divine, to journey with the Christ that marked the climax of the Judea-Christian prophecy that the Son of God would suffer, die and be resurrected to save mankind from its own slavery to sin. A type of Passover that is more grand than the Exodus event of the Jews, for this time it would be God alone in the person of his son Jesus, who would make the Exodus so that his followers, God's children could enter the gates of heaven, now free from the burden of sin.

Now today I'm thinking, as I sit in my little kitchen enjoying a cup of herbal tea before work, who was I? This life, so emerged in the prayerful life of seminarian, following the theological and monastic traditions of St. Benedict and his monks, is gone. Vestiges of my prayerful self are but fading bruises on my psyche - and during this last week of Lent I'm pressing those bruises. I fell in love with the song that Goyte recently released, Somebody, which has been overplayed to the point of nausea, but all the same the words stuck to me. I am drawn to his poetry because I hear the words and I'm not remembering a lost love, a lost boyfriend or girlfriend, I'm remembering my own passion for the Christ, for his faithful. Taken in the Christian context, the words are illuminated in a fresh manner that create a new and bitter-sweet revelation. Thinking about being in love with God, with Christ, the words, "Told myself that you were right for me, but felt so lonely in your company, but that was love and it's an ache I still remember", nearly knock me back into my seat.

My life was spent being told and trained that loving god, loving the Christ, was right, it was the only path, the only journey one really needed to make in life. I believed this message, I know my family believed this message, know that every single person I ever encountered in my small town believed this message. In believing, I threw myself at the love of God. I wanted to be a spiritual master. I wanted to be the Bruce Lee of faith. Yet there, in prayer, sitting in the dark, listening to the deep resonating tones of monks singing Lamentation of Jeremiah I was lonely. The more alone I felt in God, the more I pursued. Even when in a moment of clarity, alone, when I realized I didn't believe in God I held on, "that was love" and couldn't let go, not yet.

My pain in no longer being a priest, of losing my faith is something that saddens me. When I left the priesthood, all those monks, priests, seminarians, friends, melted away like winter snows. Much like Goyte's bellowing in his song, "But you didn't have to cut me off, make out like it never happened and that we were nothing." In leaving the ministry in October of 1998, I lost those lovers, those friends, that final vestige of belief in the hope for divinity. Yet my heart hurt, hurts, because those lovers, those friends, have never walked by my side again. That makes me lonely, that make me sad. It hurts my heart.

So yes, these last days of lent I can relate to the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Tenebrae. The wailing of the prophet Jeremiah that he makes for his God, after Jerusalem is lost, speaks to me. The horrific realization that the prophet writes of, the loss of Jerusalem the suffering of the people of Israel, is some thing to which I am able to relate on some level. Though for me, standing outside of the city walls of faith, my tears are not for the loss of God's love. My tears are not for the suffering inflicted upon his people because of their own folly and sin. My tears are made because I no longer have a place with God's people.

Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears upon her cheeks,
With not one to console her
all of her dear ones;
Her friends have all betrayed her
and become her enemies. Lam 1:2

So yes, I like to press on those bruises. I am very much aware of the man that I used to be. I am aware of the person that I used to know, that bright, faithful, hopeful servant of The Lord, eagerly devouring the Divine Office, seeking to enter a mystery. It was my pursuit of the faith that was my falling down though. It has taken me a long time to get back up. I, in a sense, curled into a fetal position for almost 15 years and only just now have brushed myself off. But I have the worst habits; occasionally I like to smoke a tobacco pipe; I drink too much; I don't get enough sleep; I eat too many sweets; I like to press on bruises to feel the pain. I'm pressing my faith bruise right now.
I look back and know that faith, the faithful, God was just somebody that I used to know. "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."

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