The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest.—Annie Dillard, The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
And sometimes its earnest bubbles out of our eyes before we can stop it, because we are fragile, fungible, infectible beings.
I was in the doctor’s office, looking at x-rays of my hips. I sat in his cushioned swivel stool in the empty exam room before he arrived. I stared at the phosphorescent pictures on the screen. I could make out the shadowy outlines of my flesh hovering above the glowing spine. I looked at the empty cavern that’s actually filled with organs, but seems vast and barren. I examined the bony suture where the hip bones almost meet but don’t.
It’s very odd to be alive. And even odder to have that fact thrown back in your face. Look at the mechanisms of what it means to walk, to breath, to live.
Doctor’s office language is difficult. Because it’s hard to distill the experience of inhabiting your body into diagnosable sentences. Fumbling for words, I try to package the mystery of pains and aches and inner rumblings and daily tugs into something decipherable.
It’s worse than going to confession. The inner world of my mind is more comprehensible to me than what’s happening inside that thick and busy darkness cradled in my hip bones.
And so I find tears springing up unbidden. I don’t know why I always cry in doctor’s offices. Perhaps because I find myself grappling, as I speak, with the miracle that I am living. With the frustrations and pains of it—the embarrassing injuries of it—but mostly the wonder of the speaking of it. I can explain to this other person the fabric of my existence, and they can spin it into meaning.
I was in the middle of the lawn in front of Duke University’s chapel. They told us that the hurricane had washed the typical humidity out of the Carolina air.
The stars were silent above the brightly-lit church. Our small wine-and-cheese reception blurred with the wedding party and the undergrads spreading their social wings, and flapping them tentatively into flight. And suddenly, I have the language and the freedom to speak of God in the language that I think him.
How do you begin to speak of the divine?
The very process seems absurd. But here we are: welding glass into windows, turning harmony and dissonance into light, and asking someone to say and mean words that aren’t theirs. God is in the midst of that.
And this whole gathering dances around, like Balthasar’s famous monstrance metaphor, the tantalizingly unspoken (perhaps, as yet, unglimpsed) center: a God in the Eucharistic bread.
Being Christian is generally not very exotic. Being Christian is being part of something backward and old. Something already understood: tried, and found unamusing.
How religious are you? New Yorkers ask, like you’re a museum piece on public tour. As though religion, a thing made up of absolutes, is something you can submerge yourself in by degrees. It’s a question formed by stereotypes, impossible to answer, as I feel it’s always shrouding another, more concrete, question underneath: will you sleep with me or should I look elsewhere? or will you have a gin and tonic or a sprite? Or did you vote for Trump? Several centuries of bad Christian PR has destroyed any genuine curiosity.
The word, of course, that the religiously illiterate don’t know but is exactly what they’re looking for is piety: how pious are you?
It’s funny how eager we are to find out how seriously we take the thing that we’ve all agreed to: real Christians, saved, do you know Jesus? We can’t be half-baptized. Christianity is truly a game of: “you’re either for us or against us,” but maybe the whole point of in-groups is that once you claim to be “for” something.
Does it hurt when I do this? the doctor asks.
Well no, of course not. But if I cross my right leg over my left at my desk, and uncross it again an hour later, well then it won’t hurt, but it will make a popping sound, and there’s a dull pain throughout the day not in the location you are pointing to, but next to it, and none of this seems to be quite what you were asking, but it’s the information you seem to be seeking.
How do I make this intelligible to you? It probably means giving you an answer that doesn’t meet your question.
In the breathless dizziness of trying to articulate what it means to be a Christian, sometimes we can get lost. We war over correct pieties and lose sight at the aim of them. But Christians are the people who gather to eat, to break bread together. The warrant for showing up at church without the agape meal is fairly slim.
In church that Sunday, I feel this tension of the minister trying to make sense of this whole mystery. Why are we even here? Why is it so important to come? If you cannot say God is on this altar, why even show up? Do we really need God as a warrant to arrive?
Of course. In the rest of our lives, we show up for nothing less.
The Eucharist is at the center, silent and unspoken. Drawing us all into it, even when we can’t quite name it. I sense it on the edges of my mental systems, pulsing at the borders of comprehension, whetting my appetite to see, to understand, to hold it. And frustrating it—like joy.
My mother was on the other side of a computer screen. Looking at her, but not, because the camera made my gaze point down to the corner of the laptop, I was struck by how alike we are, how similar we look; how her blue eyes look just like mine, my grandmother’s, and my uncle’s. If you want proof that you’re made up of other people, as hard as it is to believe, there it is, staring back at you in the mirror: the puzzle pieces of your origins.
And then she held up my small nephew, who seems like an absolute impossibility, up to the screen.
I thought of his miraculous face, growing at the speed of light, as I stood by the crippled man in church. As we waited, together, to receive the Eucharist. My body, shifting its weight back and forth in their sandals, itching with energy, full of the business of movement.
The skeleton in the x-ray tells me that one day my body will be like his: one day, my legs will need an extra hand to lift me off the pew. The x-ray tells me that we are made up of the same fragilities, we are bound by the same fate. We are separated only by a small snatch of years.
The bread we break together tells me that our fragility, shared, is the fabric not of this world but of a new heaven and a new earth. New, not in the sense of time, but new because, like the dawn, it is eternally fresh, eternally rediscovered, and eternally waking us from night’s stupor.