Why I Didn’t Go to Church This Morning
Every Saturday night I go to bed early, almost wriggling at the happy thought of waking up Sunday morning, showering a little longer than usual, dressing with a little more ceremony… ready, more than ready, eager for Sunday-morning fellowship, for brief but powerful embraces and heartfelt handshakes, for the well-loved litany, both ancient and evergreen… for the palpably mystical cadence of Scott’s sermon, so delicious to hear that one risks being enchanted by the voice and missing the message… for the brazen presence of Jesus that is somehow gentler than in solitude, if that were possible, among fellow worshipers and even those who have just come for the music… and, of course, for the music. This is my Saturday-evening ritual, and I feel then that I could simply will myself to church on Sunday morning on the strength of that anticipation, arriving without traversing the space between home and sanctuary, taking a literal quantum leap….
This is why Sundays become the saddest hours of my week, why my Sunday-morning ceremony is to bury the bright expectations so recently alive, so suddenly aborted. As free and light as I feel upon falling asleep is as heavy and inert as I feel upon waking, as if I have no agency, as if I am a stone expected to leap from its ages-old tomb beneath a streambed and propel itself to the moon.
Because I am so certain on Saturday night that this Sunday will be different, will signal my reemergence into the world of churchgoers, will witness the arrival that conquers inertia for all time, I am first surprised and then grieved on Sunday morning, every Sunday morning… as if my miscarried purpose were unprecedented, as if all this had never happened before. I wonder what went wrong. I am angry at, disgusted with, exasperated by my inaction. Entropy, I think, is the devil, the real one—horns, tail, pitchfork, and all—and I ponder with genuine bewilderment my body’s failure to obey my will.
For a while, I rationalize. I recall that I am “coming down with something” or “recovering from something.” I remind myself that I can’t afford the Uber expenditure and that I have shown myself too untrustworthy to ask a friend for a ride. I resolve to live more healthfully, to get more exercise, to sleep more soundly, and to manage my money more sensibly… all so I can do the one thing that, above every other, is to me desirable, enjoyable, necessary, and—in theory, at least— attainable: to show up at my beloved church on Sunday morning.
The penalty for failure is harsh. I am contrite and the Divine is all-forgiving, but out of the corner of my eye I see God smirking. The Holy Spirit is a faint breeze outside my window. Jesus is patient, but I fancy that he taps his toes. It would be easier to bear if, having failed once again, I could redeem the time with prayer, meditation, or Good Works. I should call my brother, write letters to my inmate correspondents, Skype with my out-of-town friends and grandchildren, ride my bicycle and smile at pedestrians, go to a nearby AA meeting, cook dinner for the friend who brought me food and medicine when I was sick. But I have worn myself out with shame, and torpor has set in. Of all the days of the week, Sunday is the one most likely to be spent playing marathon games of Words with Friends on Facebook, reading a John Grisham novel, or binge-watching The West Wing. I have spent entire Sundays without speaking to another soul, brushing my teeth, or walking to a destination more distant than the bathroom.
Originally there were semi-legitimate reasons for not going to church, but the reasons no longer apply, and all that’s left is remembered distaste and knee-jerk discomfort. When I was a little girl I hated asparagus, and for decades I avoided asparagus as if it were radioactive sludge. In my late twenties, at a banquet, I accidentally got a bit of asparagus on my fork, tasted it, and instantly regretted all those years during which I had deprived myself of asparagus ecstasy. Such is my regret at allowing unpleasant associations to interrupt the joy of churchgoing.
For most of my life I have loved church and churches, but even if I didn’t particularly want to go it would be a Good Thing to do, a smart thing, a generous thing. When I’m not beating myself up, I enjoy my own company, and my pursuits are both solitary and sedentary. In my experience, independence too quickly becomes isolation and profound, toxic loneliness. At seventy years old, I occasionally wonder how much time I have to form good habits, healthful ways of being in the world, mutually beneficial relationships… to become a member of the Good Guys’ Club, that cheerful, active, productive, unofficial association of people who genuinely want to infuse the world with a little more beauty, more compassion, and—on a really good day—more fun. I want to work toward something noble or at least useful; I desire loftier goals than Not Being Depressed. The ambitions and expectations with which I began my adult life no longer call to me. A few have been achieved, but I think that I will never live on a farm, keep honeybees and chickens, or explore the Mississippi River on a houseboat. (I do, however, hold out for a year or two of travel in a mini-motorhome similar to the Chinook in which my boys and I spent many carefree hours.)
As to Not Being Depressed, one would think that I, having emerged from a place so blighted that I can conjure neither images nor words to describe it, would be in a state of uninterrupted euphoria. I know that, from that dark prison, I bargained with God, promising that if I were delivered I would be endlessly grateful and unvaryingly kind… that if I could once again stand in the sunlight and place my feet on solid ground, I would ask for nothing more. But we are made for bliss; God doesn’t want us to be satisfied with “comfortably numb.” If there’s a good thing to be said about Sunday guilt, it’s that distress motivates change.
I regard the world and its pain, I consider the relative difficulty of putting on shoes that match and traveling less than twenty blocks in an automobile once a week, and I realize that if I made going to church next Sunday morning the only item on my checklist I could do it. It’s doable, and I can do it. A few phone calls, a conversation, an arrangement… this is not a mission for the NATO Allied Command. Things requiring much greater effort are being done as I write, will be done tomorrow, and I will do some of them. One evening this week I will babysit three-year-old triplets, a task I challenge the NATO Allied Commander to achieve with the skill and energy that I bring to it. When the time comes, I certainly won’t wage an internal debate on whether to show up for the triplets. Such is the strength of simple commitment.
So I think that I will stop wondering why I didn’t go to church this morning—a mental exercise that predictably invites argument—and I will make a simple commitment. I will make that commitment to myself, I will make it to someone else, and I will meet it. I will go to church next Sunday. I will expect that, with my having stayed away, there will be a bit more strangeness in the experience than when I was a reliable churchgoer in a past life and going to church was like reuniting with a large and delightfully eccentric family. I believe I can handle it. Above the strangeness will be the open door; beside it will be the welcome mat. That’s why I choose to go. All are welcome there. And next Sunday I will go to church.
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 33
Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Irene
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Case Study #1: Living Poetically
None of my case studies is a perfect example of the poetic liver (or pancreas, or gallbladder…). We are, after all, talking about human beings, not gods or angels. But these are human beings who, in nearly every exigency, see not disaster but an infinite number of choices, and from these they select the most elegant or the kindest.
Irene is an exquisitely complex individual; accordingly, her life has always been complex. She is gifted in a hundred ways, and, with luck (and a bit more focus), she might have excelled in any of a dozen fields.
Irene the Artist
She is an artist in the Renaissance sense: she sketches, she paints, she sculpts, she sings and plays the guitar. We met in high school — we were both singing in our school’s elite A Cappella Choir.
During our junior year, she had the lead in the Madwoman of Chaillot,
(French title La Folle de Chaillot) … a play, a poetic satire, by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, written in 1943 and first performed in 1945, after his death. The play has two acts and follows the convention of the classical unities. It follows an eccentric woman who lives in Paris and her struggles against the straitlaced authority figures in her life. —Wikipedia
Without Irene, such an ambitious production could not have been attempted at our school. Her performance was so exceptional that even the most lowbrow of our peers, the guys who still thought it was hilarious to make farting noises with their armpits, were agog.
Likewise, Irene’s appearance was, and remains, dramatic. Her late mother strongly resembled the actress Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), perhaps best known for her Academy Award–winning role as Annie Sullivan in the 1962 film the Miracle Worker. Bancroft was married for more than 40 years, until her death in 2005, to Mel Brooks, now 82. (1)
As Irene ages (she is nearing 62), she looks more and more as her mother did when I knew her — more glamorous, more Anne Bancroft-ish. For the past ten years or so — after decades of supporting herself, working hard at interesting jobs (she was, for example, the executive director of a ballet company) and learning, learning, learning (she studied under Robert Bly in Chicago) — Irene has lived almost entirely on disability income. She suffers agonies from spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. In terms of material possessions, she is quite poor — though she reverently keeps the family china from two generations — but poverty has never made her hard or bitter. It has, instead, fueled her imagination and called forth her creativity.
Gifts of the spirit
Irene has always been more independent than rebellious. Her spirituality is eclectic, embracing paganism, Wicca, and other fringe religious practices… but she never judges the religiosity of others, and she often prays fervently to “Whoever Is On Duty.” She begins each day with a ritual of gratitude and a salute to the sun. Many years ago, she dramatically quitted the Presbyterian church she was attending when the pastor’s wife unceremoniously ejected a homeless man from the assembled congregation.
She knows more about Egyptology and pre-Christian Celtic religious practices than do many academics with doctoral degrees in folklore. She privately performs elaborate sacred rituals on the Celtic festival days:
- Imbolc, celebrated on the eve of February 1st,… sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such … a spring festival. It was later Christianised as the feast of St Brigid….
- Beltaine, held on the eve of May 1st., …devoted to the god Bel, and a common practise was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianised as the feast of St John the Baptist, and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it.
- Lughnasadh, … in August, [which]… revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.
- Samhain, held on October 31st, [marking]… the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and … similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans. It was Christianised as Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period. —Wikipedia, accessed January 31, 2009
In spite of the fact that she dances under the full moon and observes certain traditions associated with the new moon… and that she believes herself to be (half seriously, half with tongue in cheek) a latter-day priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis (or is it Bastet?), and carries forth the goddess’s legacy of protecting and sheltering cats… she is the farthest thing from a fanatic. She is in some ways vulnerable and in others impervious to the opinions of others, and she would be equally comfortable at Buckingham Palace, in an archaeological dig at the sites of the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, and at a roadside diner drinking coffee and munching on a cheese omelet.
Irene of the generous spirit
Irene is a vegetarian and an accomplished cook — chef might be the more accurate term — and she never comes to see me without a gift of food or the loan of a book. Her makeup is always perfect, her hair beautifully styled, and her clothing artistically accented with earrings or beads, or both. Her own home is approximately half of the second floor of a Queen Anne–style Victorian mansion, with a flank of long bay windows, doorways framed with intricately carved woodwork, and a stained-glass transom.
Her adopted cats live long, pampered lives, protected as they are by Irene and Isis (or, perhaps, Bastet). She (Irene — presumably Isis and Bastet as well) is patient; it took years, but she finally wore me down, in her gentle way, until I adopted two feral kittens, offspring of fecund mama Jezebel, whom Irene has never been able to trap in order to have her spayed. Irene speaks Cat fluently, to my shame, for I have not managed to pick up more than a few words of the language.
The yard of her mansion apartment is tiny, but Irene has found room for a small cat cemetery and for her summer fairy garden of herbs and flowers and stone pathways. She is an aficionado of meditation, visualization, and Tong Ren, and she is a healer by nature and experience.
I do not know if Irene has ever read Martin Buber’s I And Thou, but she relates to people in the way Martin Buber would have us do — as sacred, each and every one. As was often said about my late mother-in-law, she “never knew a stranger,” and she has instant rapport with everyone from the drive-through-coffee-shop personnel to the postal-service mail clerks and the other folks waiting for their prescriptions to be ready at the pharmacy.
Irene lives poetically about seven-eighths of the time. The lost eighth falls at the end of the month, when she has run out of money, in large part because of her excessive generosity. She is something of an adventurer and spent much of her life on the edge, marrying wildly unsuitable men, one of whom spent an entire night holding a gun to her head. She is far too intelligent and resourceful to have remained in these treacherous relationships, though they afforded her some interesting travel opportunities.
Among the top ten of My Most Embarrassing Experiences is the Incident of the Thwarted Escape Attempt. We were 19 or so, still living with our parents, and she had made plans to run off to meet one of the unsuitable men, who lived, I think, in Indiana. What was supposed to have happened is that I was to drive to her neighborhood and wait on a side street to the south of her house. Her parents left for work — they owned and operated a meat market — quite early, around 6:30, as I recall, and “always” turned north after reaching the end of the driveway, so I was, theoretically, in no danger of detection. As soon as they were out of sight, I was to pick Irene up and take her to the airport, where she would soar away to her assignation.
Unfortunately, her parents had detected her packed suitcase the night before and had prevented her from phoning me to warn me off. So there I was, at 6:30 a.m. on the designated side street, watching her parents back out of the driveway and turn… oops… southward. I scrunched down in the seat, hoping to become invisible, but I heard their car pull up beside mine, and I heard her mother say, “Mary?” with a question mark in her voice. Well, there was nothing to do but pop back up into view, only to be scolded, berated, and forbidden ever to have anything to do with Irene again as long as I lived.
Fortunately, I did not obey. My life would be much the poorer without Irene and her charm, her grace, and her optimism, which sometimes flags but never fails.
(1) Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky; June 28, 1926)… an American director, writer, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer, best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies. Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award. Three of his films (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein) ranked in the Top 20 on the American Film Institute‘s list of the Top 100 comedy films of all-time. —Wikipedia