Even in the most sacred of spaces, there is always a hint of the inescapable profane. Or else– as Browning once said– what’s a heaven for?
Simply by my being here, the profane is here. Without meaning to, still I pollute the well from which we all must drink.
It is a nearly empty sanctuary: one officer in black on my left, one enlisted woman with beads and bifocals on my right, and all of us in gray. (Those in brown and blonde and red too often stay away.)
If a pew is empty, in a chapel in the forest, does anybody hear?
The deacon has arrived. Puts the gifts in order, finds the proper page, turns on the light, and sits to wait.
So where is the profane, then?
In the walls, the very stones which cry out for the authentic and organic, for something alive within them. They wish they had been born bread. Stones which have heard a million prayers but given no answer.
Profanity oozes like sap from the great mahogany beams overhead, who gave their lives so that we might brag of their beauty and cost, even as they inspire us to humility and gratitude for the Architect himself. Profane too, the creaking door behind me, as more supplicants enter. Its groaning breaks the sacred silence and drives away the Spirit, leaving me unarmed to face my awful angels.
This door, this ground, welcomes saint and sinner alike. The sacred body and the profane heart, the freed spirit and the bound hands, the enlightened mind and the dark, sweaty, fertile genitals. We bring our whole unwhole selves here, to fill the hole. The just and unjust sit here each week, side by side, and speak, occasionally, to God — while mostly ignoring each other. We hide in plain sight.
Profane is my pride, for I am convinced I am better than these others gathered here, trapped in their Old World ways. They join each other and uphold each other in rote recitations to the Virgin on her sacred day. Meanwhile, I have the “good sense” to merely nod in her general direction, then proceed in my self-importance to meet her Husband at my inner altar. I sit and wait at the executives’ conference table in my swollen heart. Foolishly, I sit in the chairman’s seat, only to be embarrassed as Moses and Elijah join me to stand on either side. Now the chairman arrives and unseats me. He sends me to fetch coffee for everyone else gathered here: the blue-haired and bleary-eyed, who give reverence to His mother.
I think I’m funny, which is usually profane as well, and not funny at all. I validate myself –or try– by amusing others. I think it’s funny when a phonecall breaks into the sacred space, ringing out high above the holy whispers. But the ringing also angers me, as I hunger for the purely sacred.
Profane is the divine irony, El Shaddai’s holy humor, which mirrors my wide imperfections back upon me as I receive Communion. The chalice is a funhouse mirror, a warped, curved reflection of my ridiculous face in a golden cup. My nose is big, and it smells the sweet life and bitter death that I drink.
I spot a friend, an officer in his civvies, who does not see me. If I call to him across the aisle, is this profane as well? Why can’t we shout in here? It’s supposed to be Party Central, the site of the never-ending celebration! But all we do is whisper and mumble. I do not like being a sheep. I prefer the life of the wolf. I wanna howl!
In my coat pocket, (perhaps most sacredly profane of all) is the Ten of Diamonds, carried as a memento of the wounds I was dealt by my father the King of Clubs, and by my love, the Queen of Spades. I do not lack for mementos. Nor wounds. I am “all in”.
Finally, I have outlasted them all here. Only the worker women remain. Even the officer has gone, mysterious black briefcase in hand, like a spy sneaking out the side door, on a mission to save a world that does not want saving.
The worker woman tells me a funeral is on its way. Ah, yes. I had forgotten for a moment, that I was not the only man in the universe, not the only employee who has business with the chairman. The world spins on as I sit idly by, watching without working.
Yet I want to stay as long as I can. In fact, I want to move in. Or at least I want to be moved, here where it is easy to be moved. I am paralyzed these days, unable to move myself. To those who love and hate me, I may seem immovable. But perhaps I am just resting.
As the mourners arrive, I prepare to leave. My self-pitying grief is misplaced in this sacred space, if only because I mourn a life unlived, or for lives other than the decedent to be honored here.
I rise reluctantly.
Our instructions to “pray without ceasing” are impossible. The best I can do is to not cease living, and pray when I can, even when I don’t want to. (Especially when I don’t want to.) Even in that I will not succeed. But neither will I entirely fail, for I am not alone. The prayers of the blue-haired, and the cries of the rocks, and the creaking of empty pews, will never cease. They will always be heard.
- Composed Sat. Feb. 19, 2010, I think on the morning of some kind of Marian feast
Readings: Hebrews 11:1-7 ( “Faith= Evidence of things not seen”) + Mark 9:2-13. (St. Mark’s Transfiguration)
- Feb. 20: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time — “Lord, Your mercy is my hope, my heart rejoices in your saving power. I will sing to the Lord for His goodness to me.”