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  • Speaking with Mary in November outside St. Petronille Catholic Church
    January 20, 2015

    They reach from some place neither cold nor dark, these hands, into the space around her, ready to receive the whole world. Into her womb, maybe. I am the world tonight, seated on the stone bench in front of her, but not the whole world. The air here is so cold that my hands are buried within my pockets, my back curving forward to fold my warm torso over them.

    Her expression is smooth like olive oil, but the softness of her features is firm in the gray stone that names her here in an inward corner of the church. It will name her in every moment of every day until time, war, iconoclasts, or wicked children come and break the naming. I am here to meet with her, but the hardness of the stone is a hindrance. The strange errand I am contemplating is already happening on its own, though. This is because you can only think of a name as long as you are thinking about its namishness. If you think any deeper than that, the name disappears, and you find yourself thinking of the thing itself. And so it is that the cold gray stone name has disappeared, and I am speaking now with the oldest woman in my Church.

    “Hail, Mary,” I say like the angel, “full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” I pause to recall the words and then continue, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

    Now and at the hour of our death. Dust, I remember. I am dust. I am here because there is poverty in my life and also great riches. Time will show if enough gratitude grows in my soul to give thanks for both.

    “I don’t know what you’re able to do,” is my robust Anglican Mariology. “But could you pray for me?” It’s a request I’ve made of many saints whose saint day still lies before them, who still breathe this world’s air into their warm bodies. It’s a request I made recently of an old man saint sitting across from me, drinking tea. So, naturally, it’s the request I make tonight of this old woman saint who is still alive in the only sense that really matters. So I ask, “could you pray for me,” and I go on to tell her how.

    Why am I doing this? I feel the answer to this question better than I know it. And though there are several reasons, and none of them quite fit into words, the main reason is that she is a woman. Here is a poverty and a richness: I am here because I seek the prayers of a woman who is able to love me, and there is such a woman here.

    Another reason: I am here for new eyes and new ears. Nothing exposes my own foolishness to me like speaking it before the wise. So I have brought here the things I think I want, to prove them in the flame of her humility.

    After some time, I have finished speaking, and my eyes drift down to her small feet. Before I’m aware of the change, I am seeing the gray stone again. I stand, hands still in pockets, and walk back toward my home. I pass by a young woman seated in the shadows of a parking lot, and I hope she is not afraid of me, a man walking these dark, empty streets on a cold night.



    Trochilida Folds Her Wings
    October 6, 2014

    I was a twelve-year-old boy, moving in and out of adult conversations in the backyard of a pen-and-ink artist of Flagstaff, the evening’s colors fixed upon the milky sky like the smile of a young mother. Two decades gone, now, and I am still bemused. What life did my parents lead before children that brought them into the camaraderie of this patchoulied, silver-haired man who, as best I can tell, came tumbling out of a landslide in the San Francisco peaks, rolling at first like a boulder, but eventually, planting a foot and swinging another leg down in pace with the earth spilling all around him, walked out of the mountains just north of the city, and filled a studio with paperboard panels covered in inky aspen trees.

    “Just like this,” he says to me, and he holds his hand up to the hummingbird feeder, his index finger extended just beneath one of the spouts. “You have to stand completely still for a long time—five or ten minutes,” and that is all the instruction I need. He leaves and sits down again with my parents to continue their conversation.

    Nothing about the next moments that pass is empty. Every rise in my chest is measured and counterbalanced to keep my finger still. Every other impulse suppressed with the childish focus of intentionality which all humans learn first in play and only later come to associate with work. In this labor, while I am striving to be still, a tiny body, a hummingbird, zooms to a spout on the opposite side of the feeder, drinks, and leaves as quickly. Sometimes two at a time now, more tiny bodies come and go and still I work with all of mine to do nothing.

    I wonder if it will ever happen. I wonder this in whatever small mental space I have left open for tasks like wondering, while all the rest of my mind has descended into my chest, shoulders, legs. My mind flows down my arm, and the seat of my being is the first knuckle of my right index finger. Still, somewhere behind my eyes, I wonder. I realize that I will wait as long as it takes. I will outlast the milky mother-sky, and I will put the sun to bed, faithful in my vocation.

    And in that moment, a tiny bird puts its feet on my finger, and wings that beat the air are still like I am still. It drinks. I am filled. Two decades gone, now, and I am filled.



    And There Shall Be No More Curse
    September 14, 2014

    One morning recently, I awoke aware of two battles raging inside my body. Most likely they were inside my body. Or at least, in my opinion, that’s where things like these battles happen: in bodies. The first battle was a dramatization of the most immersive sort, played on stage at the Biochemical Electric Opera, which is located between my ears, in my opinion. I don’t remember all the particulars—forgetfulness is a technique the Biochemical Electric Opera uses to keep me coming back—but I do recall that it was a Star Wars themed battle, and I was a Jedi Knight wielding an orange light saber. Yes, even my subconscious was uncool in junior high. And amid the fray, I woke to an entirely different battle raging, this one also happening inside my body, most likely.

    Some of the greatest atrocities ever committed on earth were carried out with absolute conviction in their ultimate goodness. When Mao freed the peasants from the bonds of their material possessions and sent them into bondage on collective farms, it was because he believed in the power of common men to accomplish extraordinary things. When tens of millions of them began dying from starvation, he was still so confident in the power of common men that he refused to believe the stories. Common men, he thought, if they act with virtue, cannot but thrive, regardless of the obstacles. Faith in the Image of God, if you like, brandished and brought down with a crushing blow upon the Image of God.

    All the time and everywhere, Good Things Fight Each Other To Exist. Mao’s naivete is an epic instance of this theme. The second battle that I awoke to, raging—most likely—inside my body, was by comparison barely an anecdotal instance. I seem to have acquired a virus. Now, viruses are teeny tiny demons made of phosphates, sugars, proteins, and the invisible stuff that demons are normally made of, like deception. My body is equipped to fight tiny demons with the Wisdom of God. That can look like a lot of things (e.g., having the good sense to take medicine). In this case, the hagia sophia was revealed in a myriad myriad white blood cells that swarmed the last known whereabouts of tiny demon and unleashed a shock and awe campaign called inflammation. Casualties included the epithelial cells of my laryngopharynx. To summarize: white blood cells, designed by Wisdom, raining down fire upon the inside of my throat and shooting chemicals into my brain stem to give me a fever.

    And here, if I may lean in toward you and really tell you what’s what, is what I’m driving at with all this teeny tiny demon business. W. H. Auden wrote, “The slogan of Hell: Eat or be eaten. The slogan of Heaven: Eat and be eaten.” Somewhere, someheaven, there is a land that I cannot now hold in my mind. A land where life no longer comes from competition for life, but from the sacrifice of life in every living thing on behalf of every living thing, for Christ will fill all in all. A land where good things are free, for there is nothing left to pay with when we have spent even ourselves. How will we live? How will we receive good things if all that we have, we sacrifice? Everything filled by Christ, and everything to Christ. Good things not given first and then received, but at once given-and-received. Good things no longer fighting good things to exist as they do now in a zero-sum economy of being alive. Population without the population crisis. Cosmos. Shalom. Beauty. The perfect fitting of all good things alongside all other good things, with no cracks, no buckles. This is the land I dimly see into and cannot yet grasp. And in this land, nothing that sets good thing against good thing makes any sense. Eat or be eaten has the ring, there, of nonsense.

    Having seen that land, I am angry at the Powers that set good things against other good things, and I am armed with an imprecatory Psalm or two. I do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but with powers that set the lives of people in the United States against the lives of people in Pakistan. With the authorities that set the safety of Jewish families in Israel against the human rights of Palestinian families there. With the principalities that set men against women. And, much less dramatically, I wrestle with the elements that set my own immune system against my own now very sore throat. I can’t explain how invisible things can be made of phosphates, sugars, and proteins, or for that matter, how they can be made of other invisible things like deception, legislature, or cultural inheritances. I also can’t explain how my own mind, full of my own personality, can be made up of neurons, chemicals, squishy grey material that sits behind my eyeballs, or for that matter, dreams, ideas, and memories. But it is at least made of those things, if not other things, too, most likely. In my opinion.

    But, oh, that other Land. In it, there shall be no more curse. And they shall see His face.



    Heavenly Speech, Heavenly Sorrow
    August 19, 2014

    Sometimes my mind wanders to subjects that offer immediate comfort. I am learning to turn from them. They’re usually not even real. God, you are real.

    God is more difficult and easier to listen to than other friends. What he says of me is more alike and more dislike what I think myself to be than what others say. When what I want are words, he may give none. For years. He has spoken the fewest words to me of all my friends, of all my loves. And yet he has said the most. He is the only one who can speak directly to me by any leaf or grain of sand. He is able to imbue a sunset with a meaning and message that is solely mine. None else could do this.

    A friend of mine asked recently if I found it difficult to believe that in heaven we will look into the eyes of those who now cause us sorrow and know peace. God was in that question. And the answer is no, I don’t find it difficult to believe any more. I can remember going to heaven. Many of us have been there, briefly, only we seldom remember it–remember what it feels like. I barely can. 

    I remember that what I feel when I am there is not the absence of sorrow, but the perfection of it. The same is true of joy, if that is what I bring with me. I no longer feel true things fighting each other for existence there, things like true sorrow and true joy. That is a place where true things, real things, do not cancel each other out. 

    God, you are real. Make me real.



    The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
    March 17, 2014

    I was assigned, recently, to perform a blood draw on a patient. I walked into the room with my instructor, and the person lying in bed was difficult to look at, like an angel. She was nearly in middle age, but her physical development had kept her little more than the size of a child, and she stared out with the mind of an infant, wordless like Bethlehem’s Son of God. Even the bones in her face seemed barely formed, and her lips drawn back on her dark, protruding gums showed a clenched mouth of small teeth. She lay on one side, her knees drawn up to her chest, her arms intertwined in front of her. Her muscles so constricted that I could barely extend her arm enough to even search for a vein, and when I did, her skin was the soft, veinless skin of childhood. I searched over and over with my fingertips, hoping to find a blue bounce under the skin, but when I finally felt what I was looking for, I was unable, even after two tries to find the vein with my needle. My angel let out only a whimper. My heart said, “I’m sorry.” My instructor assured me that this was one of the most difficult blood draws I would encounter in most of my career, and after a few more attempts, she found the vein herself and our little vial filled with blood. I put my fingers in the tiny palm of our patient and gripped her hand, and when I did, she relaxed her arm more than she ever had before. And I held her hand for a moment. When I see her again in the Kingdom of God, and she is teaching Saints in the way of Christ, I will tell her that I am sorry that I hurt her. And she will hold my hand again.