Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Empty Tomb: Moving Toward an Easter Poem

I am not, strictly speaking, an atheist.

Nor is it entirely without reservations that I engage in a believer's practice.

I love story and ritual.  For this reason the liturgical traditions of Catholicism are beautiful to me, and valuable.  For this reason I will cherish its presence in my life and the life of my family.  We are nourished and connected by its ancient rhythms and sense of the sacred among us.

But I also consider it a wonder and a responsibility that we have developed the ability to think critically, explore different ideas, interpret and appreciate the world around us.  We humans are thinkers as well as feelers and do-ers. We have a duty to learn what we can, nurture and maintain a capacity for curiosity and wonder, and remain engaged in unswervingly rigorous analysis of what we observe and think we know.

My problem with the attitudes of august atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and McEwan is that they share with certain fundamentalist Christians the propensity toward annoying condescension.  You can almost hear this subtext:  "It's a shame those poor people aren't like us, isn't it?"  I have a problem with people who think to themselves, "He's a believer?!  But he seems so intelligent!" There's nothing more arrogant than absolute certainty, nothing more inferior than feeling superior.  On both sides there are a number of arguments that strike me as a little hollow.  No one, to my mind, has really earned the right to feel he or she is closest to the truth.

I once described myself as "A theist who's skeptical about the miraculous; an atheist who prays; a believing nonbeliever who talks to saints."  I'm sure this is a description that would drive a lot of people crazy.  Does it suggest a mind and heart too wishy-washy, or just open to real possibility? I'm not even sure it matters.  

If that description's bothersome, wait till you read what's next:  a few elements of my Christian credo.

I think Christ is gone.  The texts say so too:  "He is not here; he is risen."  Aslan has left Narnia. It's up to us now.  The world is our job; we have no one but ourselves to blame for its flaws, and it's what we have to work with.  Period.

I also think Christ is here.  Calvary is walked every day.  Faces crowned with suffering weep and bleed, hearts break, people are nailed against their will to terror beyond imagining.  Christ is here, living among us.  Christ is here, reaching toward the wounded, working to help.

That about sums up my "belief."  Christ absent and present, wounded and healing, God dead and living. The contradictions don't frighten me, and the fluid definitions keep me growing and honest, and, I hope, humble.  We need mystery; it keeps us going.


I wrote the poem below over a decade ago. It still expresses my understanding of the mystery of resurrection, not necessarily as an event or supernatural occurrence (though the poem can certainly be read that way), but as a process open to all who are open to it.  I think it explains my "faith" better than these other ramblings ever could.

The Labor

In Nazareth my father taught me how
to measure wood and sand it till it shone.
From him I learned to work with all my might;
to play with all my heart’s delight; to teach –
he was so good at that; to laugh with joy;
and best of all, to love and help my ima.
The gifts she gave were priceless pearls: a jar
of water in the shop; some honey cakes
(the special kind); a story by the hearth
at night; a vision of the evening sky.
The laying-on of hands began with her;
she taught me how to heal. When I was small
she washed my wounds and scrapes and held me till
my tears were gone. And when I was a man,
my calluses as hard as nails -
when Nazareth became Jerusalem -
an eon since I'd shed those tears - I knew
I'd have to learn again the things I thought
I'd come to know.  And in the end it was
not I who touched the ailing and the dying;
they touched me, and all the wounded world
reached toward me and filled my outstretched arms
until I was a mother holding all
that life inside – a vessel, but a child
as well, enclosed inside unfathomable
darkness, darker than the deepest earth,
no mother near nor father listening close.
My healing hands were pinned against my will,
or should I say connected at long last
unto my will, my dearest wish: a laying-
on of hands that could deliver all
my children safe and sound. And there I was
to meet them as they came, emerging from
the empty darkness leaving all their shrouds
behind. And lo, they were like little children
dancing in the morning sun and laying
on each other’s cheeks their healthy, hearty, happy hands.


Elaine Fine said...

Belief is indeed very complicated and extremely personal. It takes a great deal of courage to put your personal thoughts about Christianity in the form of a poem, a blog post, or both, especially during this time of year where people tend to want easy answers and reinforce traditional beliefs.

When it comes to people's religious truths there are no easy answers, perhaps because there are no answers that are universal, only subjective suggestions that are extremely personal.

T. said...

Thanks, Elaine. You're so right - there are no easy answers, and I suppose that's as it should be.

There's something extremely emancipating about accepting the possibility of being totally wrong or never being able to know the full "truth." Once at peace with that, there' no need to feel threatened by it, and the journey can just be enjoyed for its own sake.

Anonymous said...


Once again, you put my feelings into words. On my own blog I often quote your words (don't worry, I give you due credit and direct everyone to your blog!). You so eloquently sum of life in so many ways. Not only do you often sum up the world of anesthesia and medicine with such great words, but now religion. It's tough being in the world of medicine and religion. It's impossible not to be torn both ways. Again, I applaud you!

T. said...

Anon - thanks for your kindness.

~M~ said...

Beautiful post, as usual. In many (but not all) ways, you echo my own thoughts and feelings, and that has left me with several inappropriately personal questions. Please don't under any circumstances feel pressured to answer them, but I wonder if you would mind if I asked them anyway. If nothing else, it would help me to organize my own thoughts. Begging your indulgence...

What do you tell your children? I assume they are taught religious "truths" as literal TRUTH when you attend religious services, no? How do you handle that?

Are you and your husband in agreement on this?

How did your belief system evolve? Were you raised in the church? Were you ever a "true believer?" If so, was it the study of medicine that helped to modify your beliefs? Did you fight it? Did it make you anxious? You sound so peaceful, and I wonder if you always were...

Have your beliefs ever been an issue with your family of origin?

Do you know other people like you?

Again, please forgive my nosiness, and thank you for your willingness to share this post.


T. said...

Hi, Melissa -

I'll do my best. I didn't find your questions inappropriate at all.

"What do you tell your children? I assume they are taught religious 'truths' as literal TRUTH when you attend religious services, no? How do you handle that?"

Small children are easy. They love story and ritual too, so when my kids were young, we stuck to that. We just told the stories, attended the rituals, and let the sensory experiences soak in without a lot of editorializing.

As for school age: you're welcome to have a look at how we've handled "religious education" at home via my "shadow blog," There are a few cross-posts from here, and some posts-for-fun interspersed among the "lesson" posts (which are listed on the right sidebar).

To be frank, we haven't spent a lot of time discussing doctrines / dogmas / beliefs. We're still letting the story and ritual speak for themselves, BUT we have taught our kids that neither our church nor we accept a strictly literal interpretation of the contents of the Bible. Things like reinforcing the idea that Jesus taught folks to love each other through word and action are, of course, no-brainers. More mystical stuff, if we ever get into it or if our kids have questions, we frame as ways of understanding something. "I think of it like this" or "Here's my take on that." We do pray together as a family, so there's a lot implicit in that action. But we also try to teach them not to think of prayer as a magic way to get things they want, but rather as a way of expressing gratitude for our blessings, of thinking and speaking with reverence, and of transforming our own minds and hearts.

"Are you and your husband in agreement on this?"

Mostly. Not on every single thing, but it works somehow. He respects my doubts, and I respect his faith, which is surer and more comfortable than mine. On the important things, like moral reasoning and reverence for life / the sacred / human rights, etc., and teaching our kids to respect themselves and others, we are in deep accord. The rest we don't worry a whole lot about - we just live and let live.

"How did your belief system evolve? Were you raised in the church? Were you ever a 'true believer?' If so, was it the study of medicine that helped to modify your beliefs? Did you fight it? Did it make you anxious? You sound so peaceful, and I wonder if you always were..."

I still think I'm a "true believer!" :)
I'm a nonbeliever too...

The truth is, I just don't think I'm a conventional believer...I can't explain it very well. Like Thomas in chapter 20 of John's gospel, I want my hands on those wounds, I want the facts to correlate. There's room for those like Thomas, I think, who are really concrete but are also open to awe.

I was raised in the Catholic Church and it is still my liturgical home. I think its official stance on many issues is stuck in a short-sighted quagmire. "Deep down," though, if you dig through to the core, Christ-love is still the motivation and meaning people strive for.

In my freshman year of (Catholic) high school I had a very scholarly teacher who insisted on giving us college-level training in our study of Scripture. It was unbearable to some of my classmates to be told that the story of the serpent in the garden of Eden was not literally true, but to me it was a wonderful affirmation of something that already made sense to me: that a story can be true without having to be factual. That rigorous high school class gave me an intellectual framework on which to build my evolving "belief" system and was one of the highlights of my entire educational experience.

The study of medicine (especially psychiatry) certainly instilled in me much skepticism and prioritization of evidence-based action (as an aside, the ob/gyn rotation also made me redefine and believe in hell for the six weeks or whatever it was that it occupied during my training). But medicine wasn't able to wipe out my non-rational side completely, which I think is a plus. We shouldn't deny a very real part of our humanity; we're not MADE OF reason or completely ruled by it; we are just responsible for using it well.

My faith formation has been a struggle filled with moments of exhilarating insight and depressing, dark nights riddled with doubt. If I'm peaceful now, I may not be tomorrow as I learn new things and try to integrate them into my faith - meaning my way of reading the world, responding to it, and living in it. I've never been anxious about "getting it right;" any anxiety I've felt has come from the intense desire to know and understand something truly - which is, of course, impossible.

Now it looks like I've come full circle, back to story and ritual as the human-and-divine center of an ever-evolving faith-life.

"Have your beliefs ever been an issue with your family of origin?"


"Do you know other people like you?"

Like me in what way? Totally mixed up? :)

I don't know. (In terms of faith views I share a lot with readers justanotherlawyer and speducatorlvc, though of course little nuances of difference surely exist.)

T. said...

Michael Leddy, please don't quote my awkward mixed metaphor - I just reread this and realized that of COURSE quagmires can't be short-sighted! :)

Also, all, pay not attention to the dangling participles behind the curtain...for all my grammar pet peeves, I'm just as guilty as the next person!


Kirti said...

Wow, your poems is absolutely beautiful! I LOVE it!
Also, it is very interesting to read your post today because yesterday I had people over for my daughter's birthday party and I asked some people what they were doing for Easter and it led to the atheist/believer talk. And I said what you said (but in a less eloquent way) that I don't think anyone can be sure of the absence or the presence of God and that I choose to have faith. I am not sure which religion is right or if any religion is right, but I feel comforted, like you, by the traditions and culture I grew up in. There are things to learn from every religion and I don't think that it should be discarded. Even an atheist can learn from the beautiful stories religion offer. Thank you for your post! I enjoy reading your posts but have to admit, I'm terribly intimidated--you are great!

Kirti said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirti said...

stupid typos! I meant "poem" and "offers"...sorry for being sloppy-I am usually a stickler for proper English!

T. said...

Oh my gosh, Kirti, not at all - every time I visit your blog I am thrilled to read your wonderful writing, and humbled that I can call you my colleague, in medicine AND writing, as well as my friend!

Oh, and ~M~/Melissa - in case you're checking back - there's another poem up today at that faith education blog that sums up metaphorically the story of "how my belief system evolved," in case you're interested.

T. said...

Oh, and Kirti - I, too, am a stickler for proper English, yet have come across so many embarrassing typos, dangling participles, grammar errors, and awkward phrases in the comments I leave on my own and others' blogs! Dontcha hate that? :)

~M~ said...


I am checking back, and I am browsing through your shadow blog, as well. Thank you so much for taking the time and energy to respond to my questions. I want to leave a more elegant comment than this one in response, but it will take me more than two minutes to write. (Three preschool-aged children, full-time job, blah, blah, blah...)

I will be back, but I just wanted to drop you a quick note now to let you know that I am reading and very much appreciate your response!! Thanks again.

T. said...

Thanks, ~M~ - it's discussions like these that keep me learning! (Feel free to email, too, if you'd like/have other questions.)

Look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this type of personal journey, if you're up for sharing them.

M said...

You were able to articulate my thoughts exactly!!!

Jo said...

What a fantastic post - I love your poem - thank you so much for sharing it. I've been thinking about this for a few days since I read it on Easter Sunday...

"I once described myself as "A theist who's skeptical about the miraculous..."I think I come to the other side of the blurred grey line - I'm an atheist who can see the miraculous in everything...

I started off as C of E Christian - brought up in an Anglican Church, went to a Methodist School, and somewhere along the way, I lost my faith in a big crashing heap; I never got the blinding flash of belief, but more of an inverse Road to Damascus - an idea that what I was being taught had so many logic flaws in it, particularly when in other subjects, I was being taught to be critical and look at the evidence (My RE teacher's response when asked how we knew that Jesus had ever lived, was to say that no-one doubted that Julius Caesar had lived 50 years before, so why did we doubt that Jesus did?).

However, as I've got older, and learnt more about the world and how we have got to the here and now, the more that I am amazed. I can believe more in a force can create a system which improves itself, evolving all of the life that we can see (and not see) around us from a bunch of chemicals, than in a God which has created every living thing individually.

"Does it suggest a mind and heart too wishy-washy, or just open to real possibility?"I definitely don't think that lack of certainty is wishy-washy - it is when you say "This is so" and close your mind to the fact that something might be different from the way that it seems, whether you are on the atheist or the religious side of the spectrum, that you get the tragedies. You never know when the next "change of perspective" (the Sun goes round the Earth; the Earth is flat) is going to come, and tomorrow we may wake up to the news that everything we believed to be true is in fact false. If you don't have a mind that will accept different possibilities from those which you feel to be true, how will you cope?

Sorry, this has got a bit rambly! ;-)