Friday, April 2, 2010

Reflections During the High Holy Days, Part Two: Belief and Ritual

[Photo: Dazu Wheel of Reincarnation by Calton.]

Last night the obstetric doctor on-call and I stayed up late in the call room waiting for the dreaded beepers to go off and playing with the Belief-O-matic quiz on, according to which I am only 65% Roman Catholic. Deep down, it diagnoses, I am 100% mainline-to-liberal Christian Protestant, and my colleague is either a Unitarian Universalist or a neopagan.

As I've written before, my beliefs are a jumble and at times inconsistent. Sometimes I suspect there may be a personal God at work in the world and other times I suspect there may not be one at all. Yet I pray/talk to the dead, and sometimes even think I perceive some very concrete help from them in the "happy coincidences" that arise in my life every so often.

Inspired by the Belief-O-matic game, my friend and I started to talk about belief and realized most religions give their members a framework in which to fit in some answers to the following:
  • Do you believe in God? What kind of God?
  • Do you believe in the existence of the soul / consciousness without form / an energy that lives on after death?
  • What is the basis of your moral convictions (i.e. what makes something right or wrong)?
  • Where do we come from?
  • Where are we going?
  • Why are we here?
  • Does free will exist?
  • Does evil exist?
  • Does fate or destiny exist?
  • Why do we suffer?
  • What are your views on gender identity, gender roles, sexual relationships, abortion, euthanasia?
My answers to many questions like this are along the lines of "possibly" / "yes and no" / "I have no idea." The only thing I know for sure is that the basis for my faith - whether it includes belief in God or not - is the idea that every human being is precious (a conviction with, admittedly, deep roots in my study of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament). I may be unable to articulate a concept of God, but I keep searching - and if theological musings don't make you fall asleep right in your chair, you're welcome to a glimpse (below) of what goes on faith-wise in my head - and why, despite my doubts and struggles, I still try to participate in the rituals and practices of my home religion.


[Photo source here.]

There are two moments in Catholic liturgical life that I await and savor each year.

The first is the singing of the Exultet at the beginning of Easter Vigil, when the darkened church gradually fills with the light of hundreds of candles and the story of the Church as a people from its ancient (even prehistoric) origins to the Resurrection unfolds ritually through the songs, readings, and prayers of the most special Mass of the year.

The second is also during the Triduum, at the very beginning of the Good Friday liturgy. The priest and deacon enter the church in silence, then lie prostrate before the bare altar for several minutes. It's shocking and arresting, and somehow deeply moving too. Incarnate in their bodies is grief, profound humility, and the striking image of the person who has been struck down, by death or suffering or personal failing or all the above. The presiders of the liturgy express for the assembled people what no words can express. They look like they're weeping silently, motionlessly.

All my life I have struggled with the death of Jesus. I struggle with its cruelty, which shows so starkly our darkest side, what we human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, as much today as back then. I struggle with the meanings others have read into it. For so many people it was more than just a political inevitability; it holds mystical meaning.

I cannot say that I can easily accept concepts of atonement so readily when I believe that Jesus life was about our worthiness, not our unworthiness. I believe his gospel, his "good news," was that far from being a fallen, intrinsically unworthy people, we are instead so love-able and so gifted with love that we are precious beyond estimation, and if we could embrace that truth about ourselves, we'd have no need for the paltry comforts that come from arrogance, prestige, material success, praise, etc. Our true nature makes our betrayals of each other all the more tragic.

By reading his ministry and life this way, I find it impossible to read Scripture apart from this over-arching theme of intrinsic worth. Because I read his ministry and life this way, I see many more consistencies than inconsistencies in his teachings - love one another, don't ostracize the lepers and outcasts, respect women and children, take care of the sick and the poor, see the divine presence in each person.

I've been reading lately the letters and journals of women who chose to live out this very gospel every day (and, by the way, also ended up getting killed for those choices). From them I've learned that we are called to ever-deeper commitments to compassion that we may not be able to reach. Concern for others is manageable for most people; empathy that impels action is also relatively within-reach; but solidarity, true solidarity with those who need help - that, I think, is tough and rare. In the end if there's any mystical meaning in the death of Jesus that I can grasp, it's that ultimate commitment - that solidarity that he entered into with the suffering, broken, sinful world. I actually think the existence of a just God would almost make such solidarity a moral imperative for a God who calls all people to it. But what do I know...

Which brings me back to that shocking moment when the priest prostrates himself before the cross. If I'm right about Jesus' "take" on his own life, he threw himself right into our experience to the bitter end because he was willing to make the leap of ultimate compassion, and that's what that prostration expresses. I find the real saving grace lies not some magic blood ransom to right wrongs we can never undo or make up for, but rather in the possibility or truth of a God whose compassion is so infinite that it carries him into a life of solidarity with us.


Alina said...

First, love your blog.

Second, what about all the other people who have died selflessly while helping/saving others and who suffered even more than Jesus and had none of the following to show for it?

I don't understand why Jesus' death is so important in the face of the deaths of incredible people that happen every day.

T. said...

Hi, Alina - thanks so much for stopping by! I appreciate your support of this recently-much-neglected blog.

You ask some thought-provoking questions. All I can say is Jesus' death is only interpreted as "so important" by a certain subset of people in the world who understand it to have deep mystical significance. To others, it is just another political execution, if they even believe it occurred at all.

You're right, though - most suffering and death by incredible people goes unnoticed - something that's been in the forefront of my mind lately because I'm producing a concert to honor named and nameless individuals who perished in El Salvador during the brutal civil war there. I would say that the anonymous victims of unimaginable suffering are anonymous to most but by no means unimportant. To that same subset that sees Jesus' death as meaningful, these deaths are connected to him and therefore also meaningful.

For those who struggle with or reject this view of Jesus' death, the deaths of martyrs or victims may appear to be needless, useless, and ultimately meaningless instances of human suffering. I think the agony of anonymous sufferers isn't rendered unimportant, though, by their anonymity or "lack of following." It teaches us about who we are and what our lives are worth - a complicated story.