This I Believe

Chris - Cary, Illinois
Entered on January 31, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65

When I was little, the nuns who taught me would diagram Catholic theology for second graders on the chalk board. The Holy Trinity was always an equilateral triangle, drawn up high in the center of the board.

The three corners of the triangle were labelled the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, three Persons in One God. Around God a large semi-circle, with the top edge of the chalkboard, formed the boundaries of Heaven. There were nine small semi-circles decorating the inside border of Heaven like scallops. These located the nine choirs of angels: Angels, Archangels, Guardian Angles, Powers, Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Cherubim and Seraphim. Below all this, a flat horizontal line with many small X’s on it represented Earth and the people on it, hoping to earn Heaven. At the bottom of the chalkboard were tall, jagged diagonals dwarfed more small X’s.

The question I wish I had asked in second grade was whether the Trinity was best represented by the corners of the triangle or the sides. If it was the corners, that would imply that the Triune God is three points, disjunct, three Persons sitting around a table like a textbook adoption committee or a parole board. But if it was the three sides, well, that would imply an entirely different story. I think of lines as the relationship between two endpoints, so the implication here is that God could be understood as Relationship Itself, not as Ego Itself. So maybe when I think of myself as me alone, with my own likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, I’m just missing the boat. To understand myself, I must remember instead that I’m somebody’s husband, somebody’s dad, somebody’s child, somebody’s neighbor, somebody’s colleague, somebody’s little brother, and a few thousand kids’ English teacher. These relationships and the ways I inhabit them are much more intrinsically me than any “cogito, ergo sum” ever could be.

I had a great childhood, a functional family. Family is, I guess, my entire paridigm for understanding the universe, not some patriarch family, nor an existential-rebellion-against-family family, just a kind of mutual respect, enjoying-each-other, get along pretty well family. That’s why, for me, the Divine couldn’t ever be just One Person. So I imagine that maybe God the Father is really Fatherhood Incarnate, or in gender-neutral English, Parental-Nurturing-Incarnate. Maybe God the Son is some Ultimate-Source-of-Filial-Love-for-a-Parent, and the Holy Spirit is the Holy-Incarnate-Attitude-of-Connectedness-and-Nurturing that the other Two have for Each Other.

And maybe people would be Extensions-of-the-Divine into this world if we would just cool it on the Self-Actualizing and Being-All-I-Can-Be and focus more on relating. Buckminster Fuller said that he was made of subatomic particles and subatomic particles were packets of energy, and energy was just the the ability to do stuff, so he titled a book “I Seem to be a Verb”. If that’s right and if we all have free will, then don’t we then get to choose the verbs we want to be, what we want to be manifestations of?

In third grade, I learned the seven Sacraments of my church: Baptism, Confession, Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction. Later I learned that each was linked symbolically to specific, important events in life. The two that made the most sense to me as a child were Matrimony and Communion because the acts of loving a spouse and sharing a meal with a best friend as an expression of intimacy seemed obvious ways of getting closer to being who I wanted to be.

Baptism seemed to me to have little to do with the soul of the baby and a lot to do with grandparents and Kodak moments. It would make more sense to me as a Sacrament of Accepting Parenthood, in which the new parents ritually acknowledge and assume their responsibilities.

I have always understood Communion as just that, Coming-into-Union by sharing a meal and I thought that making some legalistic distinction between Communion with God and Communion with Community missed the point entirely. I figured that since God had invented the whole capacity of humans to have long-lasting relationships, filial, romantic, parental, fraternal, and simply caring about other people’s welfare as a way to extend Himself, Selfless Benevolence, the Ultimate Reality, into this world it was just dopey when some bishop tried to play God’s traffic cop by ordering priests to deny Communion to some Catholic congressman or judge for listening to their own intuition on a difficult issue. Communion and community are the agents of healing, aren’t they? Isn’t a bishop’s denying Communion to someone like one person ordering another not to pray because he doesn’t have any right to or not to take medicine for sickness unless he’s worthy of it. What arrogance that must take, what isolation from others!

I attended church every week for years in a uniquely designed church in Cary. It is best described a s a perfectly circular wall of chocolate brown brick, three bricks thick, up to a height of about 24 feet with a low dome above. The circle is over 100 feet across and there are no internal columns or supports. In the wall every fourth or fifth brick is missing, replaced by a tiny colored glass window mortared into the wall. There are over a hundred thousand of these tiny windows suffusing the entire wall, floor to dome, 360 degrees around. On a really sunny day the entire wall glows. It’s like a screen of brick holding the colored glass, or like looking at the sun through a kitchen colander..

Now here’s the part that’s significant for me. Each window is deeply recessed, several inches, into its empty space in the brick wall so that, standing or sitting anywhere in church, you can only see the stained glass and sunlight if you look directly across the church, at the wall opposite you, or at the wall closest to you. (Imagine a diagram of a circle and you, a dot anywhere inside. Now draw a diameter that goes through you and the exact center. In the two spots where that one diameter meets the circular wall, it looks to you like the wall just explodes in light, but everywhere else it’s dull brown brick with a hundred thousand shadowy recesses in the wall.)

If you stand in the exact geometric center of church, all the tiny windows are in line with you, and on a sunny day the entire wall evaporates into light.

I learned in college that stained glass became popular in churches in the twelfth century after the Abbot Suger, of St. Denis near Paris, decided that light itself must be a manifestation of God’s grace and, as such, needed to be brought into sacred spaces.

I now think of the seven sacraments, those rituals accompanying birth, puberty, marriage, community, repentance, sickness, and ministry, as simply signs over doorways opening up between us and what we may become if we try. I know that marriage and fatherhood have been that for me.

Here’s my main metaphor, if it isn’t obvious already. I suspect that God presents us with different kinds of opportunities to experience the Grace and Spirit of Connectedness, at different times in our lives, depending on who we are and what we’re doing. It’s like being able to see through the wall to the Light outside through different windows depending on where we are inside the circle of yourself. Everywhere else the wall looks solid but only because we’re not perceiving it right. I believe that being alive is being inside the circle of Self and that we can’t always glimpse the reality outside unless we’re looking carefully. There is one special spot and if you find it all the illusion of solid wall and Self disappears, the brick wall is revealed as only the thinnest of lattices, the light of the real comes streaming in to illuminate you and, like Buddha, you dissolve back into Connectedness.