Me, Myself and Christ: Immersion

I had not set foot in church in almost twenty years when I began looking for a community to provide a moral foundation for my sons. I was pointed at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, and found myself caught up almost immediately in their vision to establish commonality among all the world’s religions.

I was among them for only a few short weeks when disaster befell us on 9/11/2001. The minister was visibly shaken during her sermon that week, and one critic bemoaned the poor judgment she had shown in reaching out to an Islamic Center in the San Fernando Valley.

These two factors – the hope of uniting people of good will and the terrible cost of failing to do so – prompted me to start visiting the religious communities of the Conejo Valley.

The Catholic Church was not the first Christian congregation that I visited during this exploration. In fact, the evolving pedophilia scandal dampened my expectations that I would obtain any value in cultivating the priesthood. However, recognizing the strength of the Catholic community, I eventually concluded that I needed to experience the faith of the people in the pews.

The site was St. Maximilian Kolbe’s in Oak Park. The church has an unusual layout. The side entries funnel into an alcove before a pool of holy water. The crowd around the pool distracted me. I was feeling some anxiety, recalling my childhood impressions of the angry God. I turned toward the altar, and was astonished by the cross, set off to one side and dominating the space with a larger-than-life figure of Jesus suspended in front of crossed branches. Rather than anger, a deep enduring grief and sorrow beset me. Confronted with this image and personality of human suffering, my right hand went immediately to my heart, and without thinking, I held it out to him and thought “Use this for healing.”

Thus began a relationship that is so palpable and near to me that I never partake of the elements. That was meant for remembrance, and I am absolutely convicted that the time for remembrance is past.

There are several contexts in which that nearness manifests most powerfully. Early on, the passing of the elements itself would cause me to be overcome by sorrow. Tears would roll uncontrollably down my cheeks, and eventually I realized that the sobbing I heard around me was not unrelated to my emotion – a realization confirmed in part by the irritation expressed by celebrants. When Revelation Song was popular in non-denominational congregations, with the opening words I would almost collapse in grief, my entire frame shaking, and the people around me would huddle together in small groups.

I also experienced a particularly deep relationship with the crucifix at the Los Angeles Cathedral. Flanked by roughly shaped limbs and supported by the bruised torso, the peace-filled face embodies perfectly the savior’s surrender and victory. After my first Christmas midnight celebration, I waited patiently to address the cross, looked up into that visage, and – gesturing to the broken body – admonished “It’s time to clean all this up.” Later, I would stretch up onto tip-toes, pressing my hands against the sternum, trying to push strength back through the centuries to sustain him in his suffering.

And then there are the children’s choirs. They sing with perfect and innocent faith, free of the regrets felt by adults. At St. Paschal Baylon’s in Thousand Oaks, when they led the congregation in the Agnes Dei I felt the weight of heaven pressing down on me from above, an experience that persisted in other settings until I decided to push back.

Along with these emotional experiences came visions that I find very difficult to avoid reconciling against the verses of Revelation. I will summarize some of those in the final post in this series. I will conclude today with the culmination of my immersion in Christ.

When my father was working in the nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he and my mother liked to spend time in the mountains that in the last half of the twentieth century came to be known as “Sangre de Christo.” I was conceived there, and born in Los Alamos. For my forty-ninth birthday, I decided to take a trip out to Taos to connect with those roots. It was a remarkable experience in many ways, but the most important insight came as I drove down into the LA basin from the high desert. A palpable feeling of hostility mounted against me. I wasn’t wanted.

The next day, Monday, I was driving out to work from Agoura Hills to Camarillo, and could not shake his presence. The urgency and strain of his struggle on the cross came closer and closer. I was in tears as I descended the steep and winding Camarillo grade in freely flowing traffic, wracked by grief and trying to project that I was endangered. But he refused to let me go. He knew that he was dying, and refused to die until the work was done. We wrestled, back and forth, and finally the image of that first encounter in St. Max’s came to me, and our equanimity was restored as he pronounced:

Our heart is beating still.

The Book on Mormon

The Conejo Valley Interfaith Celebration of Thanks has attracted Mormon participation in the last few years. As a recent schism, the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) appears to feel obligated to broadcast its political alignments. That was expressed in rather lengthy and unexpected mini-sermons that celebrated freedom of religion and events during the formation of the United States that brought their presider, George Washington, to the conclusion that divine agency was at work.

I’ve offered my thoughts on separation of church and state before. But these specific observations resonated far more deeply in me.

On the birthday that marked the end of my seven of sevens year, I was out at Taos, New Mexica, where my parents shared that I was conceived in the mountains that in the last half of the twentieth century become known as “Sangre de Christo.” Without foresight, my visit coincided with the Taos pow-wow. I arrived early and settled under the awnings that had been raised around the circular field. I tried to quiet my thoughts and sink into the ground, not wanting to disturb the proceedings.

As I sat there meditating, one of the elders came up to the nearest drum circle and asked “Would you like to start us off?” I remarked upon my good fortune, and let the wild thrum and staccato percussion wind its way through me. It drove me deeper and out, again the familiar stranger riding on a celebration of life. It wasn’t all simple – a just grief fills the people. I accepted their judgment, and drifted through it towards a red veil.

Piercing it, I found myself with Tecumseh, the Shawnee warrior-shaman who had rallied the Indians against the perfidy of William Harrison, then governor of the Indiana territory. When he turned his attention to me, his great hunger found its way to our first African-American president. In self-consolation, he observed “So there is some justice.”

Tecumseh’s summation of the Native American experience of the European invasion is compelling:

Brothers, we all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire! Brothers, we are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens. The blood of many of our fathers and brothers has run like water on the ground, to satisfy the avarice of the white men. We, ourselves, are threatened with a great evil; nothing will pacify them but the destruction of all the red men. Brothers, when the white men first set foot on our grounds, they were hungry; they had no place on which to spread their blankets, or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given his red children. They gave them food when hungry, medicine when sick, spread skins for them to sleep on, and gave them grounds, that they might hunt and raise corn. Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death. The white people came among us feeble; and now that we have made them strong, they wish to kill us, or drive us back, as they would wolves and panthers.

Only thirteen years after Tecumseh’s death, Joseph Smith reported his encounter with the angel Moroni, guardian of the teachings of the Book of Mormon. As many, I did not conjoin the two events. But when I read the book, having been given a copy by my supervisor at work, I clearly heard this heart-broken plea from the angels entrusted to guide the Native American peoples:

We will submit to the authority of your Christ. We will chain our people to the glory of your nation. But please, be merciful: Do not destroy our children!

I doubt that the speakers at Wednesday’s event will read these words, but I wonder how they would react, given their celebration of American exceptionalism including freedom of religion, to an understanding that their faith originated in a desperate attempt to survive cultural aggression of the worst kind – one of the two great Holocausts of America’s founding.

While I only spent a few months with the man who shared the Book of Mormon with me, we had several conversations after hours on religious and cultural topics, in which he struggled in particular with my support for same-sex marriage. What made those conversations memorable, however, was the phenomenon that accompanied them: the room would fill with light as we spoke. It was clear to me that my friend was seeking for Christ with all his heart.

A year or two later, the day after the pow-wow in Taos, I encountered an Indian elder in the pueblo craft shop. We fell to talking about his experience as an artist, which started with silver jewelry in the aftermath of his service in World War II. I asked how he learned the skill, and he said “I taught myself.” I bought a two-throated vase, noticing the defects of hand crafting. As we spoke, I walked to the door and looked out into the afternoon sky, feeling his awareness spread with mine. After wrapping the purchase, he concluded the encounter with these words:

I feel that we have touched the world today.

We need these people so much – their humility, their love of nature, their patience. I hope that if Christ should choose to return to them the power that he received in trust from the Great Spirit, the people that have assumed the name of Mormon will not fight against that restoration.