Searching for the Sacred

The 29th leg av the Camino.


I have always been fascinated by the sacred.

I must have been about 8 when my friend and I climbed the brick fence behind our babysitter’s apartment complex and visited the Catholic church. It was unlocked on a weekday morning.

It was also empty. And since all either of us knew about Catholic church was what we had seen on television, we thought it would be fine to “play” church. When the priest showed up I really couldn’t understand his fury. We were in no way intending to be sacrilegious – or even naughty.

Up until that point – up until the shaming – I’d wanted to be Catholic. I’d wanted the ritual that seemed to be a kind of manifestation of belonging. In the Baptist church the pastor sometimes called us a “flock”, but people certainly didn’t treat one another as though they belonged.

There was nothing very special about us. No incense, no wine. We had grape juice and crackers once a month. And Grandpa fell asleep just like he did in his chair at home in front of the television. No one responded with hallelujah, no one shook like the Shakers, and no one talked in tongues.

That’s not true. Once a woman did, and my grandfather and the other deacons escorted her out, and the pastor apologized on her behalf. He said she’d been under stress. Then he went back to his sermon.

Church was white – in so many ways – White. Straight pews and straight hemlines. And it smelled of Lysol and White Shoulders perfume. The pastor wore a suit and looked the the insurance salesmen who’d shown up at Grandma’s mobile home. Crumpled. Sweaty.

In college I was in a production of The Lark. We carried candles and incense and chanted, and I fainted. The following year, another production with Gregorian chanting and candles. I fainted again. No wonder I connected the theater with the sacred long before I had read about Artaud or Grotowski and other people looking for the sacred in the storytelling space.

When I was very young – too young to remember – my mother belonged to a Quaker congregation. Or at least that was a story I knew. I tried to find a home in a Quaker community just a few years ago, but staring in silence for 45 minutes is not a great choice for someone with bipolar tendencies: a small doll set on a little Shaker chair across the room began moving for me, and it took me months to get my feet back on the ground. My doctor suggested neither Quaker silence nor a Buddhist retreat would be a good idea anytime in the near future.

I suppose, in a way, this is a sacred story:

I run on the trails. I stop and listen. This is my church now. My cathedrals and chapels. I notice – without learning the names of things by rote. I squat to pee in the scrub pines and take note of the unfurling fern of some sort – nothing delicate about it. It’s thick and dark and wet. Simultaneously I see the Alien creature folded in on itself, and a fetus unfolding. Life is a mystery, and always frightening. It’s smells can make you dizzy. Can make you wretch. Can make you acutely aware of want.

This might be the fear that the sweaty pastor G. was always talking about. The awe that made the people in the Bible tremble.

Maybe this is my only hope for a Sangha. Congregation. Prayer. Meditation. Writing.

My bared butt in the breeze, knowing there are snakes in the rocks nearby. Maybe this is my only true sacred story?

 

 

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