lomuscio's st. michaelToday’s the feast of St. Michael & All Angels. Can I claim that as a name day? I never know which biblical James to claim as my name sake so I may as well celebrate on Michaelmas, too. Doug Blanchard posted a picture today of the new sculpture of St. Michael at the Vatican, which was blessed this past Summer. It is a provocative and beautiful angel.

I am meditating on victory as I look at the pictures. I am also reminded of all the little Roman Catholic prayer cards I collected as a child. In the sculpture, Michael is in classic form, he holds the lance that will enter Satan’s throat as delicately as he might an oyster fork. His poise and balance evoke all the weightlessness one expects a winged being to possess. St. Michael’s chest is apparently essential to the more contemporary depictions of him, the chintziest of which show him with a sea-through gauze-like breast plate, so you can still glimpse all the details of his chiseled perfection. He’s not built, just toned. He is graceful, he is fair, his hair is soft and blowing in the wind, like the blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus if he had spent time at the gym. He’s a fem-boy, which I want to celebrate even though I know that here its a held-over archetype of fair-skinned purity from the golden days of colonialism. Satan is shown with more grotesque, beastly strength, his monstrous size and ugliness are emphasized. He is also almost inevitably a person of color. In the end, these racially charged archetypal Anglo images of Michael’s victory are meant to depict a weightless, perfect grace which has come to dominate deformed and brutish strength.

fey st. michaelIn addition to being triggers/remnants from colonial puritanism, I feel like these contemporary artistic renderings of Michael’s victory could also be icons for all fey and fem boys of the playground: the ones who could only dream of finally defeating their private bullies underfoot, the ones who grow up to be flawlessly dressed purveyors of high culture while their childhood tormentors languish with beer bellies and dead-end jobs. This ideal of fem-boy victory is, of course, as rosy and removed from the truth as a blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus, but it still conveys something true worth hoping in: that real power is not in what looks powerful upon the earth. Not in intimidation, not in size, not in violence, not in force, but in kindness, gentleness, humility, service, generosity, and reconciliation among other things.

Not like Michael is about to reconcile anything other than a final death-punch to his enemy. Perhaps, though, that blow is artistically undecided. Perhaps he will spare the strong man beneath him. It’s also not like our own victories are ever as clear as what these images suggest is about to happen. It’s not like the deformed insecurities within us ever fully cease to wield their brutish aggression in our lives. If anything, the mastery we seek merely domesticates the impulses we deem to be evil. In our human life we live suspended in the tension of what we learn is good and the primal obstacles we face in giving that goodness a principal role in our thoughts, choices, and actions. In ivory, bronze, and oil paint, St. Michael remains suspended in the seconds before the final blow when what is evil is eliminated. Ultimate victory remains to be seen, felt, and tasted, in his campaign and ours.

God, you are the source of our strength, you lengthen our stride beneath us and you incline our hearts to seek your way of loving-kindness among the cruelties of this world; awaken your strength within us now, grant us victory over fear, and lighten our hearts with the serenity of knowing that your way conquers all evil in the end, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

About this time last Summer I went on a Vipassana meditation retreat in which I spent 10 days in total silence with some 80-odd strangers sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor for hours at a time while paying attention to every last twitch and itch in our bodies without scratching or responding to them. You can, too, if you are at all inclined by the end of this essay. “Why Vipassana?” you might reasonably ask. Because a friend told me about it. Because I had just finished three years at a denominational seminary and wanted to clear my head with a practice that had as little to do with the Daily Office and Plainsong Chant as possible. Because I wanted to honor my 15-year old self who left church when he found out he was gay and told his parents that he was a Buddhist without actually knowing what that meant. But most of all, because I wanted to see what was inside of me at the bottom of 10 days of silence.

Explicating the discoveries related to that last rationale would take a novel rather than an essay and I would only ever make my therapist read it. I will tell you that the journey on the way down changed me temporarily. In the silence shared with 80 strangers I became more attentive. Observation is one of two major skills honed in Vipassana. The time spent observing one’s own body and its sensations inevitably translates into a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. It didn’t hurt that the retreat center was poised atop a crest overlooking a bucolic meadow with meandering dirt paths in the middle-of-nowehere, Washington. Often, we emerged from the low-lit meditation hall squinting against the daylight to see the glaciers of Mt. Rainer glistening wildly in the sun. A family of deer lived in the meadow, and it was not uncommon for a group of us to gather wordlessly at dusk and watch the newborn fawn leap across the tall grasses with his older brother and sister. Once, after rising at something crazy like 4:30 in the morning, I came face-to-face with the mother doe as I walked the gravel path from the dormitory to the meditation hall. The whole landscape was covered in a thick fog which she emerged from with grace fluid enough to be an imitation of the air around her. I could see the muscles of her hind-quarters ripple as she passed by me close enough to reach out and touch. I spent considerable time laying on the ground watching slugs crawl across my path, once I even watched long enough to find an abandoned baby naked mole rat the size of the tip of my pinky finger squirming in the grass (at which point I totally lost it and talked for the first time during the retreat to one of the teachers’ aides about what we should do to save it. He did not offer to help, incidentally.) This from a guy who is much more likely to watch HBO on Demand with some noisy friends and a glass of wine most nights. Maybe I was more myself there, maybe I was less.

I will also tell you that the hardest thing for me to do during the whole retreat was not the keeping silent part (as many of my closest friends assumed it would be) rather, it was to set my Christian practices aside. One enters the Vipassana training with the agreement that all other practices will cease while learning the technique. At stages in this training far beyond the initial 10-day retreat one agrees to practice Vipassana exclusively. The intention behind this requirement is that one not mix Vipassana with other practices, thereby gaining an undiluted experience of the technique. In the particularly apophatic mood that had seized me post-seminary I interpreted this to mean no praying, period. My seemingly liberal Christian sensibilities were tweaked, however, when terms like Buddha and Dhamma were thrown around in a slightly devotional manner. It is clearly explained from the outset that Buddha needn’t mean anything more than anyone who is fully enlightened or Dhamma than the law of nature and way to liberation. It is also explained that Vipassana is a way of living and not a religion or form of worship and needn’t contradict any religious beliefs. Still, without the name of Jesus constantly on my tongue where it had been for the past several years, I began to feel like something of a traitor. Jesus is the name I know how to talk to God with. Even when I’m not saying the actual name itself, I know its there, much in the way that the name of a roommate or other constant companion is simply implied in a statement such as, “Hey [you], could you bring me some milk on your way to the living room?” In the end, I simply could not divest the implicit “you” in a statement such as “Hey [you], please help me observe the sensations in my body with equanimity,” from my guy Jesus Christ. I will probably never be someone who can simply call upon my own individual resources of will and self without the help of a dead man from 2,000 years ago. In the retreat, this came to a head on the fifth or sixth day when I scampered away down one of those meandering dirt paths in the meadow and fell to my knees gushing aloud every scrap of the Daily Office and Plainsong Chant that I could call to mind. I felt better after that.

Equanimity is the second major skill honed in Vipassana. As you sit with yourself, moving your attention systematically from head to toe, observing every major and minor bodily sensation along the way, you are meant to treat each one of them equally. Perhaps that crick in your back is gradually spreading it’s throbbing intensity with each passing tick of a clock that you are not allowed to see while elsewhere, say, on the back of your hand, you notice a light, pleasant, tingling sensation. (As I sidenote, I’ll tell you that I seemed to never have any light or pleasant sensations anywhere in my body to observe at all.) You are supposed to treat them both the same. You are not to give any one sensation more time or attention than any other, and you are not to respond to any of them, you are simply to observe them with a hopefully ever-growing sense of equanimity. This is actually pretty incredible. The idea is that as you refine your prowess for equanimity in your physical body, you will be better equipped to treat all of the thousand various desires and aversions of the chattering ego with greater objectivity. My inner Pelagian squealed with delight at even the smallest victories in this arena. The trouble is, desire and aversion actually seem essential to my Christian life. I long for God the way that mother doe likely longs for a cool drink of the very water her own body seemed to imitate. At the same time, I actively despise all the things that keep me from that living water of God, including and above all my own selfishness. So where was I supposed to draw the line between aversions to deflect and aversions to train?

In the end, when the retreat was over and I was back home with my HBO, I could not decide; or maybe I was just too lazy to. I was also too lazy to maintain the twice-daily hour-long sittings that are supposed to continue developing the technique over time. Instead, I took to heart the idea that Vipassana shouldn’t be blended with other techniques and ditched the whole thing. I also entered a year-long Chaplain Residency on the psych ward of a VA hospital where, occasionally, my lack of equanimity got me in way over my head. That may be why, a year later, I’ve gotten to a point where I am trying to meditate again. Except that now, the practice doesn’t seem to present nearly the same kind of conflict as it did then. Observation and equanimity are two edges of a sword sharpened by Vipassana, something I’ve come to understand as a mental rather than a spiritual discipline. It is a discipline, or a tool, that can help prepare and dispose one towards the multiple sympathies of Christianity: the love of enemies, neighbors, self, and God; relationship in the Spirit of Charity cut free from the bonds of selfish desires and aversions. It is a tool one can put to use in the work of following Jesus, who taught his disciples to model themselves after the perfect equanimity of a creator God who shows love where it is not deserved and makes the sun to shine and rain to fall on the good and bad alike. Christian practice invites and even encourages the development of such tools, yet it does not ultimately require them, that’s what we have forgiveness for. Christianity began with a man who took one look at the people who were following him and ultimately expected them to fail in their pursuit. It has never been so much about practice-makes-perfect as it has been right-relationship-makes-us-whole-again. He still helped them get back up to try again anyway. Trying something new along the way could help, too. It could actually be pretty incredible.

Brought unto the glory of
an ordinary day without him,
still bent around the violent
shape of his absence yet finally
free from the thousand shocks
which had initially attended it,
we breathe in some relief.

It is Shabbat, and some
among us have insisted that we
keep it, all the same. There will
still be knocks at the door, and
one will likely rise to answer,
but the rest of us settle our
weariness around the table.

Wood creaks, and our bones
amass new swellings as we sit,
the candles flick our shadows
on the walls between our songs.
Someone tells a story while
we dip the bread into a dish;
soon, someone else is laughing.

Once, we had to look away,
having gazed long enough to find
something in the image of us
grotesque and unfamiliar.
When I could not sleep that night
his friend told me we had only to
believe that the ugliness was not
our end. I did not believe. I listened
anyway. His voice was disembodied
in the darkness of our camp, buoyed
by cicada buzz beyond our linen tent;
it was honeyed and earnest enough
to be its own reward. The next day
we were back in line, tending crowds,
answering the usual questions
while the Master moved in corners we
could not always see, pouring over
some new bowl of need. Their faces,
when they came to him, opened in big
blooms hideous with grief before
crumpling in tears; he received them
every time. I tried to look away,
but I had to see if there would be
some transfiguration in his arms.
Inevitably, the cusp of revelation
was interrupted by some widow
wanting bread from me, which
I went on giving, just as we had
been instructed. Always someone
begging bread, always someone
crying, always the tarp we had
staked so carefully in the earth
flapping madly in the wind,
threatening to rip away
the whole encampment.

Iesou says the wind,
says what whistles with
the cattails, hollowed limbs,
Christie comes the crash
in caves, shoreline bells,
what her heart would sound
were it a shell.

Yeshe in the tall grass
feathered as her fingers pass,
and an Uoa hum she lolls
behind her tongue
when she does not
have to speak
with anyone.

Grasses, limbs,
throats and caves
and shells and wind,
a voice out there
and one within
announce their
grand intentions.

We who have known the incarnation
of thy Son
often pause at water’s edge,
a toe to trace along the ocean’s reach, or
fingers curled upon some basin’s lip,
some bowl of water left not low enough
for cats to sip. He, too, was mostly water,
beginning like a buoy from the womb,
a seal-pup up to sun on stones, soon a man
to break through rooms, poured to reach
each crack and corner, mopping all with his
attention. He whirled in gravity and pooled
in circles we could gather near bearing
penchants we had brought for leaning in
to gaze at our reflections. He let us –no,
he loved us for that, for the first time
we had quietly to see what really was
beneath the business of this world, beneath
stormed or pacific surfaces, beneath death.
We often pause at water’s edge. We touch,
we remember.

We beseech thee, O Lord;
we cut the thatched roof up
to drop our best and fevered friends
to thee; we push into the press
of bodies reaching for the hem of -what?
-for what might pull your shoulder,
then, your ear, closer to the sighs we bring
to thee; we wait in chilly, tiled temples,
barren, mumbling our promises to thee;
we face the open plain where soldiers sleep
and watch for dawn or other shifting things
with thee, on the horizon; we speak
and seek to move your body on the earth like
handlers of a big balloon that’s on parade,
heeding shouts from pilots to “watch it!”
for the power-lines, anticipating turns
until the time your cords tug us to the end
where hungry men wait for blessing:
an explanation for our lack of change,
half a sandwich, cups of water,
something to get drunk on,
some small kindness,
entered in to need
becoming mercy.

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