Visit of the Muppet Monks

Last Sunday evening, instead of walking in to the dark, silent sanctuary of my church, I pulled open the door and saw seven guys dressed like Big Bird, moaning. 

Oh: we were hosting some Buddhist monks.  I tiptoed to my favorite pew, next to the St. John window, and sat down.  I guess they reminded me of Big Bird because when I was little I had a winter hat with Big Bird’s head sticking out of the top.  It added six inches to my height, just as the orange and yellow fringed headdresses of the monks made them more imposing. 

They also wore the orange and red robes, and were doing something with their hands I couldn’t figure out.  Maybe they were keeping count of how far along they were in the chant.  No, that guy was just coughing.  Were they saying something in Sanskrit, or just making noise? 

Our priests and cantor sat up in the front, like usual, and the sanctuary was packed.  The monks went on and on.  I guessed everyone was wondering how long they would go on, and how they knew when to stop.  I sat on my hands and listened and spaced out and listened again.

Every once in a while, a guy in the middle would hold up his hand to his mouth, and then he would sing unnaturally low, way lower than a double bass, and holding the notes with an alien sort of wavering.  I didn’t know what the hell was going on. 

Being clueless about the monks reminded me of being in Paris.  My knowledge of French is about equal to my knowledge of Buddhism.  I had an idea of what people said and wrote in French, but I was always left with a certain degree of ambiguity.  At the Pompidou Center, I kept translating painting captions as “dead nature,” which confused my English-only friends.  When I got home, I suddenly remembered: “la nature morte” means “still life.” 

When I was in high school, I dated a Jewish boy, and visited their temple.  The boy’s father, whom I absolutely loved, reminded me of Moses and Tevye and King David all wrapped together.  He was bold, cheerful, and solid.  I sat in his living room one afternoon, and he asked me why I wanted to go to Rosh Hashanah.  Why was I interested in Judaism? 

After a lifetime of the puppydog evangelism in Christianity, I loved how my Jewish friends didn’t try to sell their religion– in fact, they viewed my interest with skepticism.

“It’s so mysterious,” I said.  “There’s so much you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to know it.  There’s so much mystery.”

“Huh,” he said.   There I was lost in ambiguity again.  But I went to temple and ate dinner with them, and it all seemed fine.

Abruptly, the visiting monks stopped.  They took off their giant hats.  They bowed to the congregation.  None of the Episcopalians knew what to do.  (We bow to the altar, but not each other.)  As the Buddhists walked down the side aisle, the dean said, “Let’s express our appreciation to our guests,” which prompted us to stand up and clap. 

It seemed weird to be clapping for that, but what else were we going to do?  I was relieved to be reminded that I don’t know everything.  I was grateful that they had shown up to make me pay attention and accept what I didn’t understand.

Why I Stopped Drinking

One summer, several years ago, I wrapped up an evening of art openings in my boyfriend’s neighbor’s loft, listening to beautiful Spanish poems recited.  Everyone at this gathering was an artist of some sort, and conversation flowed around South American travel adventures, and paintings, and poets.  I listened to their conversation begin to pool and cycle.  I got irritated and thought: I want to go home.  This is getting boring.  They were drinking a lot of cheap Cabernet, and I was not. 

This was early in the history of my alcohol absention.  For years, I gave up chocolate for Lent, but alcohol eventually became the greater pleasure, and thus I added it to my list of forbidden indulgences.

I think the first year I gave up alcohol was also the year I went on a first date and seriously disappointed the man by ordering a Sprite at Gillhouly’s.  It’s Lent, I explained.  I don’t drink during Lent.  First dates are much harder without a drink.

Sobriety isn’t the greatest virtue.  I’ve known plenty of cold, nasty sober people.  I even find some virtue in drunkenness.  Sharing the experience of losing sobriety, and the progressive scrambling and blurring of the world, can be sacramental.  There are safer ways to get out of your head (meditation, exercise), but drinking is awfully fun. 

I think there is a time and a place for drinking and even for drunkenness.  I love wine and whiskey, and I love the casual, romantically self-destructive community of bars.  I’ve been lucky enough to maintain a relationship with alcohol that I enjoy.  I think it’s as safe and healthy as most of my relationships.

Giving up alcohol for a short time (Lent is 40 days plus Sundays) ensured that I spent some of each year resting my liver and reassuring my addict DNA that I can live without it.  It forces me to remember that I go to parties and bars to be with people, not to drink.  That when I say, “I need a drink,”  I actually need to breathe and relax.  Sometimes I need a nap, a meal, a hot bath, a massage.

Not drinking makes Lent about sobriety.  It is about honest confrontation: you are going to die.  You are not perfect.  And the response, the reason that you can face this is that your tradition and experience tells you it is okay to die and it is okay to not be perfect.  To die and to be imperfect, in fact, is a critical part of the human experience. 

Most religions encourage confronting this reality– Jews particularly on Yom Kippur, and Buddhists during every meditation.  Christians have Lent, which is way longer than the Days of Awe, and usuall y milder than a stringent meditation schedule.

So, I might give up alcohol again.  It’s only 10 AM, Ash Wednesday.  No one’s offered me a drink yet.

Pascal’s Wager

The last two summers of my elementary school years, I went to camp. The first time was pretty scary—I rarely had slept away from my parents. Although I was generally an independent sort, when there were sleepovers, friends slept at our house. We were the party house. I was worried about becoming homesick the way some people, in November, begin to worry about catching a cold. I might lose it. I might freak out.

This camp was in a tiny town in Mississippi. How tiny? A trip into “town” was a trip to Koscuisko, where Oprah Winfrey was raised. That place is no metropolis. They have a Wal-Mart, is all. The town where the camp was had a video rental place and a gas station. For a time, they had a tiny grocery store. And they had a church, of course. It was a town founded on religion.

The only activity in town revolved around bringing people to Jesus and keeping them firmly tethered there. Camp was one such program. The others were a Christian radio station and a boarding school.

I had been raised Lutheran: terribly average Protestant. We believed in Jesus, as a nice, clean, good man. Our sanctuary had a gold cross at the front. We had communion from small shot glasses, kneeling before that cross, two candles, and a 1960s textile backdrop that blended up from yellows and whites to deep blues near the ceiling. Other people might be going to hell if they didn’t believe what we believed. This was mentioned as an embarrassing aside. We were encouraged to bring friends to church, but, frankly, I didn’t buy the whole hell thing. It was so extreme. It didn’t make sense. I had grown up in this calm, orderly, pleasant suburb, and the idea of eternal damnation was way outside my reasonable middle-class mindset. I never saw my parents throw out Jesus like a life preserver to strangers. We did things like going door to door near Halloween asking for canned goods with my Sunday school class, and caroling at nursing homes. We followed rules and gave to the community in a neat, pleasant way.

In our cabin at camp, we read the same Bible stories that I had heard at church. I was a Sunday school whiz. I was down with these stories. When we raced to find books of the Bible, rather than memorize the order, I flipped through the upper-right corner, and usually won the glow-in-the-dark cross or the little wooden picture of Jesus the shepherd. I was a fast flipper and a fast reader. Beyond merely reading stories or running page-turning contests, though, the counselors at camp wanted us to memorize Bible verses. That was weird. I had never been asked to memorize anything but the multiplication tables. And, I mean, I got the gist of the book. Why cram it in my brain word for word?

A week of camp culminated in a theatrical reenactment of Jesus’ life, produced very simply, in the woods. We walked across to the other side of the lake on this important night, and sat on wooden benches. (One question I always have is: how are they going to fake the nails in the hands? At the camp production, someone just slipped his hands through ropes around each end of the cross’ crossbar.) At the end of the show, when all the bedsheet-clad counselors had left the stage, it was announced that if you had not yet “asked Jesus into your heart,” you could stay back and have someone assist you in praying this prayer.

I wasn’t sure if I was in the clear at this point, or not. Hadn’t I been raised properly Christian? Hadn’t I spent every Sunday of my life behaving properly in church? Wasn’t God cool with me like my parents were? If they didn’t reprimand, that meant things were cool. I wasn’t often reprimanded. I was a reasonably compliant kid.

I also couldn’t make a spectacle of myself by staying back. Wouldn’t my parents be shamed if their daughter, the daughter of the president of the congregation and the Sunday school teachers, needed remedial tutoring in God? I did not need special attention. I could certainly handle this myself.

Although I was not convinced it was necessary, I did innoculate myself against hell back in my bunk, mentally pressing out: Jesus, come into my heart. I want to be saved. Would that do it? Did Jesus know that I doubted the process, and would this make it all invalid? Wasn’t God smarter than I was? Maybe it a letter-of-the-law type of thing, like going to church every Sunday? God just needed a “t” crossed with the proper prayer? Did Jesus know that I understood why a lot of people could think his whole saving-the-world story made no sense? Did God know that I would hate Him if I thought he sent people to hell for something so dumb as not praying a one-time-only, kindergarten type of prayer? There’s no way I could work with that kind of God.

I’d like to say that the whole thing seems completely silly to me now. I secretly think, well, if the world is crazier than I thought… if I am wrong… then at least I have my Pascal wager inoculation from sixth grade. I often believe that there is divinity in the world, that it is mysterious and powerful, and, at its core, productive. I generally expect that death is the end. I plan for nothing afterward. If the mystery of me continues to exist somehow, I hope that will be as pleasant as the moments I’ve felt close to God in my mortal life. But I guess I’ll be covered either way.

Render Unto Caesar

Last week’s gospel was: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God what is God’s.  I was definitely having rendering problems.  Render, in case you weren’t sure, means “to give what is due or owed.”  I possessed, each week, seven days and do the math, you know, a lot of hours, and I somehow felt like I spent most of my week doing things I didn’t want to do.  Why was I giving my time to areas where it was not “due or owed”?

It’s a practical problem—I want to be a writer but lack the domestic freedom of the writers of yore.  I have dishes to do, and then a demanding full-time job.  It’s frequently a difficult decision to balance the need for an organized space and a the need for a chunk of time for Art. 

Sundays are my usual cleaning days, and when my cleaning is done, I get to have a cup of coffee and writing time.  Every week, I fight a little civil war over the hours between three and four. 

I’d like to get to coffee and have a solid hour and a half to settle in and write before church.  I’d also like to start my dizzying work week with a clean kitchen and bathroom and the trash taken out, my clothes hung up or thrown in the laundry, the catbox ready for a new week of shit—that’s an absolute minimum.  I don’t like to begin Monday feeling already deficient.

This last Sunday, I had left for coffee unshowered.  Showering was what would wait.  I know.  It’s ridiculous.  I either shortchange my cleaning and come home later deflated by lingering squalor, or I shortchange my writing time and have to zoom off to church annoyed, my head still in my notebook. For the record, I did bathe when I got home.  If any of you compulsively clean Americans are keeping score.

I also couldn’t render things yes or no according to any reasonable system.  When my dad said, I want you to come over and look at furniture on Sunday, I just should have said, no, hell to the no.  I’m not talking to anyone on Sunday.  I have spent the last two Sundays trying to act like a good girlfriend (which is a stretch for me, I assure you), and this Sunday, with boyfriend out of town, all I’m going to do is read and putter and stare and read and fall back asleep until I have to clean up.  I can’t be a good daughter or a good girlfriend or any other kind of good this Sunday.

So the message is you’re supposed to look at the thing in your hand, and say, Hey, it’s Caesar’s, and Hey, this is clearly God’s.  Except that deep down, everything is God’s, and also, if you took a minute to focus and clearly look for a face in any situation, you would probably know what to do.  Even worse, although I’m not sure I even want to go into this, the meaning of “render” that the translator may have had in mind—the one that jumped out at me– suggests that there are requirements, not merely hippie feel-good options, for how one should spend one’s time.  That it is owed to someone(s) and something(s).  And what happens if you don’t pay up what is owed?

I was not focusing and looking clearly at my situation.  I was fretting, and whining, but I was not looking.  I was spending my energy and money without even looking at what I was giving out.  Was it a fifty?  Was it a five?  And the uglier, more practical, and more scandalous truth was that I had been doing exactly the same thing with my literal money.  Since I moved last month, I have blindly thrown purchases on my debit card (verboten!), not filled out my monthly budget, left unpaid at least one bill, and cleverly avoided calling my bank.  I was also greedily avoiding making my usual donations because I worked so hard for poor kids, which only serves to make me feel like a dried-up monster.  I spent some time a few years ago getting sober with money, and here I was acting drunk again.  It was good that I was reading Eric Clapton’s autobiography.  I wish there was a Hazeldon Center for money.  Well, I guess there is… federal prison.

But this wasn’t my point.  My point was that I guess I hadn’t even learned much of a spiritual lesson, it was just that Jesus and his notetakers had pointed out to me that if you aren’t carefully considering what you are doing, you are likely to do a lot of things you don’t want to do.  That a little time up front making a reasonable plan could really pay off.  A reasonable plan could ensure that you won’t end up with a lot of Caesar receipts mixed in with your God receipts, and that you won’t end up in federal prison.