Friday, 13 April 2012

Taking refuge in unholiness

It’s no secret that I relish announcing my privileged position as the driver of the Bus to Hell every chance I get.  I gleefully  – and regularly – pronounce myself irredeemable, heretical, unholy, unorthodox, a fiend, a bad influence… 

It might seem an unusual pastime for someone who identifies as religious/believing in God – after all, shouldn’t one be PURSUING holiness and eschewing unholiness? Well, that depends. You see, I don’t think that holiness is something that can be pursued, and I think that’s the reason that those who do chase it do so grimly, joylessly, unable to ever catch it. Even more fundamentally, I wonder if they even KNOW what it is they’re chasing. How does one define ‘holiness’? What does it look like? When will you know you’re there? From the answers – ‘Always calm, no anxiety, perpetual peace, always good and charitable’ and variations thereof – I’ve become more convinced that this chasing ‘holiness’ lark is less about a relationship with God and more about an opiate, via instructions given by others, rather than thinking for oneself, to numb pain they don’t want to face and reach a place where they no longer have to be in process and deal with darkness – they can just sit and enjoy the destination, effortlessly perfect in every action and reaction, emotion and thought, word and deed. 

But to quote a Gestalt therapist colleague, “There is ONLY process.” 

And to quote me: “BOR-ING.”

This stasis of perceived ‘holiness’ is petrification, not freedom. And therefore, I argue, it cannot be of God. 

Why? The evidence is all around us. The universe is in equilibrium, but not static. It is ever dynamic, ever in motion, often elegantly simple. Our blood is kept in the narrowest range of pH (7.38-7.42) through the back and forth of the simplest of chemical equations. Even at the end of lives - star, planet, human - what we are made of is taken back into the universe to return in another form. 

We are stardust.

And we are dynamic equilibrium, not static. We are the swinging of the pendulum, not the momentary stillness at the bottom of the swing, or the pause between figures of a dance. We are the rhythm; we are the dance. 

Living the creation, one finds it nearly impossible to imagine a static, monolithic creator. Such diversity, constant motion, the embedded drive towards growth and evolution - surely these things are reflections of the Creator. 

Thus, holiness, even if defined as a set of criteria, shifts with context, situation and person. Even more so if it is defined as being in right relationship with the Creator. All relationships are fluid, dancing, shifting - unless they are dead. So if an attribute of this universe, holiness would seem to most likely be fluid, dynamic, tending towards equilibrium.

Homeostasis - not static balance or holding a pose.

Holiness, when seen as a dance with the Creator, is beautiful - there can be nothing more so. Why, then, would I not seek it? Why would I take refuge in its apparent opposite, unholiness, and insist to everyone that I am irredeemable the moment the slightest intimation - even a joke - is made about my being holy?

Because as with anything that is tender, vulnerable and intimate - particularly relationship - it is often best hidden from a hostile world. 

One thing you learn very quickly in religion, no matter what the flavour, is that there is very little space for discussion of one's experience of - and relationship with - God. There is plenty of space for discussing rubrics, or academic points, or miniscule details of how duties should be performed, clothes worn, why one's label is better than another's, what other people should be doing. But try to discuss relationship with God, even with pastors, even in denominations that claim that they have dispensed with formality to be all about 'a relationship with God', and one most often hears the sound of tumbleweed.

Why, when this is ostensibly what religion is meant to be all about? Everyone should be talking about their relationship with/experience of God, the sacraments, relationship with others. Anyone should be able to bring their dry spells and their epiphanies to any of their fellow pilgrims: clergy or laity. Unfortunately, one finds that it is often more imperative to hide these from their fellow religious pilgrims than from their non-religious friends, who are often curious, open and thoughtful. 

What is going on? I would postulate that most people 'inherit' religion, though many choose it later - a conceptual framework, a structure, a security that makes sense of their world. One hears over and over again that letting God into your life will turn it upside down - v'nahafoch hu, which we should welcome and celebrate - but God is held at a comfortable distance, even by those who preach it. He is put in a box, in a comfortable place that allows our lives to continue as they are. If we come to or are brought into an unhealthy dynamic with religion, one that tells us we are evil or will never be good enough, we replicate the chase for our emotionally unavailable parents' love by creating the chase for an impossible holiness and an emotionally demanding and unavailable God alongside our chase for emotionally unavailable others. 

Instead of coming into religion to be in right relationship and intimacy with ourselves, with the Creator and with others, far too many of us come into religion to avoid real relationship and genuine intimacy - with ourselves, with our God and with others.

This creates what I call the hungry ghost effect. We compare ourselves to others; judge both ourselves and them in the harshest of terms; insist only we have the truth and that everyone must meet God in OUR way and if we feel we can't attain something that someone else has, we use them as 'friends', when they are really commodities to soothe an insatiable hunger or we grasp at everyone and everything for what we feel we need, but cannot get on our own. Our mouths are open in a Munch-like scream, desperate to be fed, but our narrow necks mean that nothing can fill us.

Sometimes, our desperation drives us even further. I remember reading a wonderful definition of evil in Mercedes Lackey's Arrow's Fall. Dirk, full-fledged Herald, and Elspeth, Queen's Heir, are musing on all things philosophical on their way to find Kris and Talia, when Elspeth asks him what evil is, and he responds: 

All right, I'll give it a try. This isn't the best answer by a long road, but I think it might be somewhere in the right direction. It seems to me that evil is a kind of ultimate greed, a greed that is so all-encompassing that it can't ever see anything lovely, rare, or precious without wanting to possess it. A greed so total that if it can't possess these things, it will destroy them rather than chance that someone else might have them. And a greed so intense that even having these things never causes it to lessen one iota—the lovely, the rare and the precious never affect it except to make it want them. 

The hunger, the desperate need, that drives so many to religion drives them to this ultimate, insatiable greed: scrabbling for approval, attempting to destroy those they feel have the approval, or worse, genuine friendship of those whose approval/'love' they desire; money; status; perfection in performance - of duties, rubrics, following the rules; all things they feel will bring them love. And when it doesn't, their rage at those they perceive to have the love they lack will lead them to acts of destruction that would not be part of their healthier nature. 

Almost everyone I know who has been part of a religious group/community - church, synagogue, mosque, temple - has at least brushed up against it - I did last autumn, when a good friend asked me a favour that was going to be in the public domain. This led to considerable sniping behind my back: Why HER? Why did she get to [do that]? How did she manage that/make that happen? Why was SHE chosen? Grab, grab, grab. I have little doubt that there are continued attempts in that same circle to chip away at the friendship via sniping, sneering and gossip - if one can't have it, then destroy it, to paraphrase Dirk. That's par for the religious course. But as for me, I will have faith - in my friend and in the strength of our friendship. 

This is why I take refuge in unholiness - irreverence, spikiness, shocking comments -  creating a thick wall of thorns around myself that most -who judge by accent, dress, wealth, status and obvious orthodoxy - will take for the real me and never attempt to penetrate. This is why, in religious groups, I cloak what I truly believe, how I truly feel, the close relationships, my faith, my compassion and my love. 

My dance with God - and those nearest to me - is private, protected.

But eventually, the wall of thorns, the private dance, make the holy relationship static. As St-Exupery once said, Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction. Relationships need to build a joint history, but they also need to bring their love to the world, to act on it. And that cannot be done behind a wall of thorns.

So as I look past it, I know I have trapped myself in the same world as those whose chasing after holiness make them my apparent opposite.

Each other's shadows, forever bound.

Until someone chooses to break the pause and step into the next figure of the dance. In the world, not hidden from it.

Hey, Lord, is that a gap I see amongst the thorns?

But don't worry, I won't be handing over the keys to the bus.

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