The longest night is upon us, my beloved flock (Episcopagans and wannabes)! As I ponder how to spend this short day and long, long night, I recall that last year on this day I was doing exactly what I am doing now: regretfully skipping the Advent observance at real church, chilling in a gorgeous location, procrastinating grading exams, and gathering my wits to face a new year. How fitting to wander the streets of the most ancient city in the US, and St. Augustine, Florida is dressed up like a fancy lady for a ball. The months leading up to this day have been stressful, sad, and confusing in so many ways. The state of the world has never seemed so upsetting, so downright terrifying, if you’re paying attention. My response–count blessings (yes! find them!), jettison distracting fears and frustrations, meditate deeply on the spiral of time, look to the eternal, and BREATHE.
Here’s how I handled it last year:
The winter solstice! That magical day that most people in Christendom ignore as they scurry around in traffic getting ready for Christmas. But not me. The shortest day brings me closest to my own spiritual shoreline, and if I can be next to the actual seashore, all the better. Advent and Christmas have always been intertwined with the greatest hits of ancient earth religions’ festivals. Even the visual trappings—those rituals and symbols that have grown like kudzu vine all over this holiday since the Victorians began to embellish it—are irrefutably pagan. If you have a Christmas tree in your house, boom! Pagan. Images of holly or the word “yule” on a card or scrap of wrapping paper? You must be a Wiccan! So let’s embrace all of it. The baby Jesus, the star, Fear Not, the holly king, the wassail bowl, and the tannenbaum. The Episcopagan Church welcomes you. No conflict, in our way of thinking. Well, MY way. So far I am the only communicant and therefore the Presiding Bishop in the USA.
And I also belong to a real church. A real good one.
When I opined recently on Facebook that I was missing Advent at church due to cooling my tired teacher heels at the beach (while grading long but mostly wonderful papers on Tolstoy), someone msg’d me expressing their shock that I went to CHURCH. Frankly, I was affronted. What about my behavior suggests that I am not church-worthy? My devil’s advocate cynicism about unexamined conventional “Christian values”? My absolute loathing for the Christian Right? My need to bellow “motherF***ER!” when pushed to the edge by even a small technology glitch?
Here is a very brief history of my church life: Baptized as an infant, “cradle Episcopalian.” Went dutifully to church with Mom and brothers while Dad went to play tennis. (His gleeful excuses: “The better the day, the better the deed!” and “Your daddy’s a heathen!!”) I heard wonderful stories and a huge message that must have sunk in about God making this world for us to enjoy and take care of, and by God we better take care of each other. I don’t remember a lot of guilt. Or any. We always got Krispy-Kreme doughnuts on the way home and my brothers fought over the last jelly. So much for the love they call phileo, never mind agape.
Anyway, I rebelled in my teens and 20s, read philosophy, called everything I had been fed total bullshit. (Calling bullshit is a convenient youthful developmental phase, signaling you just don’t know what to think about it.) I recall sitting in church lost in sexual fantasies or planning an outfit or meditating on a poem by Yeats or wondering where I could buy some of that incense. But I was still there sometimes. Becoming a mother brought me back trying to see though a glass darkly, and I yearned for my children to have access to the richness given to me by my time in the Episcopal Church. Then I realized, hey,—I CAN make this happen! Some parents keep their kids unchurched by telling themselves they don’t want to interfere with what their kids might “choose” spiritually. Well, I was going to give my kids something to chew on. Then they can do what they want about it. But everyone’s spiritual life is private, including theirs, and they reached their adolescent rejection period too.
There is an old Hebrew proverb that says something about laying the lessons on the heart and laying them on again and again, and when that heart breaks, the lessons come in. When I got my heart busted by a college boyfriend and I was languishing for days in swollen-eyed self-pity, the first person to come visit me and make me go out to lunch and laugh again was my priest. He knew full well that I was a very iffy Episcopalian at that point. Still, his care for me was nothing short of Christ-like. As for my kids, I am not sure what has stuck with them, but when they attend church with me as young adults for special occasions or just for “fun,” I can tell the familiar liturgy is still with them. There is something magical about saying the beautiful words I said as a child with my own mother next to me, said in many churches with all kinds of people over the years, words and chants that link us to the root of what it means to be here for our brief stay on earth. For a little while, our differences don’t matter as we turn toward the mystery together.
And today? A thousand hella high hosannas, my current church is pretty wonderful. I was invited by a dear friend, and since then have invited some friends too. This church meets both my selfish and altruistic expectations for a good spiritual community. They are 100% inclusive. It is wonderful to see the gay and the straight, the black and the white, the doubtful and the devout, all willing to share some sacred time together. They do stuff Jesus said to do, as in taking care of others. One member recently went on a mission to bring reliable lighting to women’s clinics in Africa, a small change that will save hundreds of lives. The church houses and feeds homeless families on a regular basis through a project called Family Promise. And more. Plus, they are welcoming and easy to be with. My dog got blessed at the Feast of St. Francis. They have great food at church events. They have a real organ and play my favorite hymns that make me weep with nostalgic joy. The rector is a woman of authentic wisdom, love, and bountiful good humor. Jesus H. Christ, what more do you want?
How it pains me to miss church tomorrow, last Sunday in Advent. Alas, I will still be here at the beach, wrapping up official solstice business as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopagan Church of America. But I’ll be back next week, praying for some of that peace which passeth all understanding. In the meantime, WASSAIL!