Postcards From the Margins: Disheartened

Vincent Van Gogh, Public Garden with Couple and Blue Fir Tree, 1888
Vincent Van Gogh, Public Garden with Couple and Blue Fir Tree, 1888

A recent essay by Kaya Oakes (“Waiting for Facts,” on describes a situation in her Berkeley campus Catholic community in which a well-liked pastor and priest (one of whom, apparently, is openly gay) were autocratically removed from the parish. Add in an article in the National Catholic Reporter linked by this Tweet:  Augustinian priest: “What I would like to see is a conversation where women are considered to be people,” and you’ve got a good case for disheartenment, aka, a day in the life of a Catholic on the margins.

One question is:  Why do we stay?  Or in my case, why do I (try to) return?

The answers are complicated, and make far less sense to non-Catholics than to all varieties of Catholics, especially the lapsed, and the relapsed lapsed.  I can only try to explain mine.

First, the reasons to leave: clergy-child sex abuse scandal; scathing intolerance of the GLBTQ community; second-class citizenship of women (an issue in itself re:  leadership and opportunity but also entirely related to disparaging and oppressive rules about birth control. Evidence exists, world-wide, that access to birth control improves women’s success–and so their families’–in education, work, political and economic power).

All right, so maybe it doesn’t seem like there’s any comeback to this.  What could possibly make a person return to this?  Two things would help. First of all:  identify and prosecute the pedophiles, and the people who covered up (are still covering up?) their crimes. It is disheartening, in the least, that I used to be able to argue (without necessarily agreeing) that the reason the Catholic Church is so conservative about the use of some forms of birth control and so passionately anti-abortion is that it is a bulwark for the defense and protection of the lives of children.

No one can say that any more.

The second thing that might mitigate a return?  If the Catholic Church could get over this notion that sex between consenting adults is bad, shameful, decidedly un-godly.  I would pray to Mary as the mother of Jesus, as the wife of Joseph, as a blessed woman even if she wasn’t a virgin. I don’t think nuns or priests or monks need to be celibate in order for them to be holy. (I do need them to have sex with only consenting adults, however.)  As for gay sex, or straight sex that is not for the purpose of procreation? Many consenting adults like sex that doesn’t make babies. This is the 21st century. Women, particularly, need this option in order to take good care of themselves, and of the babies they may choose to have.  To say otherwise is simply to say that women are valuable only in their ability to have children. Or as virgins.  This is not acceptable.

Acceptance of non-procreatant sex does not mean that a sex partner is the same as a tennis partner. Surely we can teach our children the difference.  Surely we can we raise our girls and boys in a way that allows for the beauty of their individual sexuality, the potential sacredness of an adult sexual relationship that does or not not include children, the pleasures of consensual sex without encouraging its random, heart-less, soul-less just-for-sport use.

We can do this.

We have to.  Because I want to return to this Catholic Church, in spite of the Catholic Church.  Because the smell of incense and old wood makes me feel…holy.  Because praying the rosary is like meditation.  Because all those saints are just more people to whom we can pray.  Because all that ritual grounds me, makes a kind of majesty the world is worse off without.

One thing I’ve decided is that atheism lack imagination.  I am a fiction writer–I have a good imagination.  I can imagine God, and Heaven, and all the angels and saints.  And I can also imagine a Catholic Church that truly honors and protects children, that accepts women and the GLBTQ community as equals, that accepts the humanity, the sacredness of sex between adults who want to enjoy its gifts, whether or not it’s to make babies.







Postcards From the Margins: God and Science

f_0474Have you heard the news about Big Bang theory?  In a great post, Big Bang Fingerprints, on my new favorite website, Killing the Buddha, Jessie Szalay explains the discovery:   

We all leave our traces. Even campers who fastidiously carry their garbage out of the woods leave footprints behind. Flora and fauna from millions of years ago are found fossilized in the sand. The universe leaves traces behind, too. On March 17, scientists announced that the Big Bang, the universe-creating explosion, left its own traces all those 13.8 billion years ago. And now, we have found them. 

It’s a confirmation of the theory of cosmic inflation (explained in an entertaining comic by Jon Kaufman, a member of the BICEP2 team that made the discovery described above).  In a related article, Five Reasons to Care About Big Bang Inflation Theory Discovery, Miriam Kramer writes, If scientists can nail down the nitty-gritty of cosmic inflation, they might be able to work backwards even further to find out what set off the Big Bang in the first place.

Ah.  Now we’re at the heart of the matter.

Towards the end of her excellent essay on KtB, Jessie Szalay writes:  I want my conception of science, of the universe, of the spiritual and the transcendent to allow space for something more than myself. Than humans, than Earth, than astrophysics, than even the Big Bang.

What if God is the greatest-ever scientist?

I love science because scientists are buddha killers.  The best thing about science is that nothing is certain and every new theory is challenged.  For centuries physicists thought the universe was infinite in both time and space.  Then along comes Einstein and then the Big Bang and now real evidence of cosmic inflation and guess what?  It looks like he universe had a start.  It looks like it has boundaries.  Scientists won’t take it for granted; every study has to be duplicated, every result confirmed in other experiments by other groups.  Even then, whatever’s new is only provisionally true, and only until the next great discovery is made.

We wonder what was before, and what else there is.  We read of “multiverses” instead of the universe.  We think (fear?) science might lead us to God, or to no god.  Of course we do.

In my church we use the word “laity,” or “lay people,” to distinguish everyday Catholics from clergy–those who have been ordained for religious duties.  Sometimes “lay person” is also used to describe someone whose knowledge is subordinate to that of any of a number of other professionals–scientists, for example.

In both cases–God and science–I’m laity.  And I’m okay–perfectly fine, in fact–with the notion that things are true until they’re not.  And it’s also fine when the people I turn to for guidance in things I don’t fully understand (priests and physicists, both) say that they’re not sure, either. That there are lots–multiverses, perhaps–of possibilities.

Some day we might be sure, of all things God and all things science.  But I’m not counting on it, and on a good day I’m guessing God’s having some fun watching us as we try–heroically, really–to figure out even a fraction of the amazing science that got us here.


Postcards From the Margins: Every Day Sacred

Vincent Van Gogh, "Still Life with Ginger Jar and Onions," September 1885
Vincent Van Gogh, “Still Life with Ginger Jar and Onions,” September 1885

I first heard Doris Stengel‘s poem “Vernon’s White Onions” in a reading at a publishing party for The Talking Stick (Vol 19, 2010).  Talking Stick is a literary journal published by the Jackpine Writers Bloc, a group of dedicated writers who live and work in central Minnesota.  The party took place in an unpretentious hall in Park Rapids.  I remember a low ceiling and rows of folding chairs, and a very long drive to get there.  Volume 19 included a piece of my flash fiction, and I would be reading, too. 

Here is what stays with me from that afternoon: how all these writers, everyday Minnesotans like me, people with work and children and a boatload of other obligations nonetheless gathered on a chilly spring day to read their writing to each other, to family, to friends.  Found or made time to sit in the company of other poets and storytellers to read, and to listen.  There was a teenaged girl whose piece was the first she’d ever read publicly.  There were many older writers, too.  Their work reflected all aspects of life, of course, but it was impossible not to hear volumes of loss underpinning much of it.

A friend who knows I am interested in these things recently sent me a link to a piece in the Guardian, “The Sacred in Art is About More Than Religion,” by Kenan Malik.  In the article Mr. Malik asks what it is that is “sacred” about sacred art.  He suggests that while for religious people the sacred may be associated with the holy and the divine, “There is, however,” he writes, another sense in which we can think about the sacred in art.  Not so much as an expression of the divine but, paradoxically perhaps, more an explanation of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense.  It is a sense that is often difficult to capture in a purely propositional form, but one that we seek to grasp through art or music or poetry.”

The sacred, then, in what it is to be human. You and me, right here in this world, seeing and seeking the sacred in the beauty and suffering of everyday life.  The sacred–unbelievably, really–how lucky are we?–in Vernon’s white onions.

Vernon’s White Onions

The rows of white onions
in my brother’s garden
grew straight as virtue
untainted by the gossip
of a single weed.

On my cutting board
they spill juicy little secrets
held inside all summer,
unaware they are the last onions
to be planted by his hands,
graced by his tender care.

I weep, not for onions,
but for my brother
now neatly planted in his own plot.

I chop this sweet harvest,
scoop its goodness into a stew
made from our mother’s recipe.
It simmers in a cast iron pot
inherited from grandmother;
she long dead, mother long dead.
My brother’s death only a rumor
until my onion bin is bare.

(“Vernon’s White Onions” previously published by Jackpine Writers Bloc and reprinted here with their permission and permission of the author, Doris Stengel.  Available in Doris’s new chapbook, SMALL TOWN LINES.)

Postcards From the Margins

Vincent Van Gogh's "Half Figure of An Angel, After Rembrandt," September 1889
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Half Figure of An Angel, After Rembrandt,” September 1889

WHAT IS “SACRED”?  Definitions are the (relatively) easy part. At the SACRED exhibit currently showing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), dictionary meanings displayed at the start of the exhibit run from the fairly narrow, “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity” and “worthy of religious veneration,” to the more encompassing “entitled to reverence and respect.”  Most broadly, we’re given simple words like “holy,” “unassailable” and “inviolable.” 

The harder part, of course:  what is sacred to you?

I live in, and write from, the margins of my Catholic faith. When I was a child, “holy” was the operative word:  Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity, Holy Eucharist.  Even now, I can’t write any of these without using capital letters.  In a recent fiction submission I was asked to change a character’s statement from “Good God!” to “Good god!”  I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  Some things are sacred, even when much around them crumbles.

But maybe one key to “sacred” is both/and, instead of either/or.  Holy Spirit and holy spirits.  Good god and Good God.  The oil painting Christ Crucified by Diego Velasquez and Yamantaka Mandala (part of the SACRED exhibit) by monks of the Guyoto Tantric University.  And what about this, in an email from another margin–my nephew studying abroad in Ulan Batur:  “One of the central tenets of traditional Mongolian shamanism, Tengrism,” he writes, “is that nobody can really understand Tengri (god, associated with the sky) and if people are still doing good things but recognize something else as god, Tengri doesn’t really care and neither should you.” 

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the MIA SACRED exhibit you’re in luck because it’s here for a few more months (until July 13, 2014).  But you might want to drop in sooner rather than later if you’re interested in any of a number of MIA/Loft Literary Center events. In the Sacred Shorts Writing Contest participants are asked to respond to one of three works of art in the SACRED exhibit and submit a prose or poetry entry of no more than 250 words.  The deadline to enter is April 16.  The winning entry will be displayed next to the chosen piece from May 8 until the end of the exhibit.

Other upcoming Loft Writing Center/MIA collaborations can be found in two places on the SACRED‘s opening page.  Scroll down past the Yamantaka Mandala, past the ad and you’ll find two columns, Sacred Salons and Related Events.

First up (in Related Events) is a six-week class starting tomorrow, Wednesday, March 19, Writing the Galleries, led by teaching artist Jessica Orange. A few spots are still available.  Another great option (listed in Sacred Salons) is Karen Hering‘s Writing to Wake the Soul, a one-time guided writing session on Saturday, April 5.  And put this one on your calendar now:  The Hero’s Sacred Journey, Thursday May 8, 5:30 to 8:30pm. Join us for a drink, answer the call, and make your own (or another’s) hero’s journey.  Look for more info, including details about a class I’ll be teaching this summer at the Loft (“What We Write About when We Write About the Sacred”) here, on my blog, in upcoming posts.

Postcards From the Margins


Vincent Van Gogh's Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt), May, 1890
Vincent Van Gogh’s Raising of Lazarus (After Rembrandt), May, 1890

Best panel of AWP 2014, hands down:

KtB @ AWP, “Doubt is My Revelation”: Panel Discussion with Jeff Sharlet, Nathan Schneider, Kaya Oakes, and Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Philip Lopate has written that the essay as a form is all about doubt. But what if you’re an essayist obsessed with religion? How does a skeptic engage with devout subjects? Or alternately, how does a writer of faith reach across the divide to unbelievers? Editors of and contributors to Killing the Buddha, an online literary magazine specializing in “first person dispatches from the margins of faith,” share their experiences and discuss the essential role of doubt in writing about faith.

I’m not primarily an essayist. I’m a writer of fiction, and sometimes poetry. And now, a blog. A blog trying to find its place in a big blogging world.

I went to the panel described above at a big writer’s conference (AWP) in Seattle, just a few weeks ago. I listened to four great writers talk about doubt and faith and their work.  I learned about their website, Killing the Buddha. An online literary magazine with the subtitle “A religious magazine for people made anxious in church.”  Specializing in “first person dispatches from the margins of faith.”

It makes me feel like I’ve found my people.

But maybe you object, as I did, to killing anything? Does this help?

From: Daily Buddhism:
I have heard the phrase “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” many times. Can you explain this?
It actually comes from an old koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, (the founder of the Rinzai sect). It’s a simple one:
“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”– Linji
…Whatever your conception is of the Buddha, it’s WRONG! Now kill that image and keep practicing. This all has to do with the idea that reality is an impermanent illusion. If you believe that you have a correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, then you need to throw out (kill) that image and keep meditating.

When I started writing fiction about ten years ago, I could not have imagined how my Catholic beliefs and disbeliefs—neither of which, I thought, had much to do with beliefs I generally hold about the universe—would nonetheless show their ugly, and sometimes beautiful, faces in my work. Often. Daily. It was surprising, to say the least. And puzzling, too.

Read anything by Kaya Oakes to get a glimpse into what it means to be a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights feminist in today’s Catholic church. And yet what absolutely slayed me at KtB’s AWP panel was when Kaya Oakes, this self-declared relapsed lapsed-Catholic woman, read the following from her essay, “Torn Bread” , about attending an Episcopal mass where a woman presided:

So I waited for a difference, watching this Episcopal priest, this young, stylish woman with her beautiful voice, in this exquisite wooden church on a hill, where the congregation was busily assembling good-looking food in the kitchen before the service started, when I stumbled in looking for a garbage can. I notice when food looks and smells good. What can I say; I’m always hungry. I’ve always been hungry.

(What’s not to like about a smart, irreverent, Catholic woman writer who is always hungry? But I digress. Back to Kaya Oakes):

But in that “cannot” I have heard in my church, in the church I freely choose when it tells me all of the things I can’t do, I’ve never felt denied to the point of resentment. Because, vocation? My vocation isn’t behind an altar. My vocation is putting my ass in a pew, week after week. My vocation is the vocation of billions of people, in nearly every religion. It is the vocation of showing up.


Last week was the first-year anniversary of my father’s death. Maybe it was that, or the start of Lent, or the errand I did that day that had me walking past St. Olaf’s Catholic Church on 2nd Avenue South and South 8th Street in Minneapolis. But I’ve walked past that church hundreds of times in the seven years we’ve lived downtown. And never went in.

So you have to think it might have been Kaya Oakes’s ass in the pew that got mine there, too.