Heresy of the Table

It was a few years ago, when I was still regularly going to church. I attended a Sunday forum led by a priest I’ll call Father Robert (not his name, of course, not even close).  A fire-plug of a man, who might have made a good boxer, he sat at the head of the table, talking to the dozen or so men and women assembled in that wood-paneled, book-laden room about the importance of rooting out heretics.

“The study of heresy is important.  It matters,” he said, “lest the people believe the wrong thing.  Relativism is a great danger and a great sin.”

He talked of Constantine and the Nicene Creed and how the path to heaven was narrow and hard.  He talked of how it broke his heart when non-Christians, or those not baptized in this particular Christian tradition, were offered communion.

I thought how small his God was, and how different from mine.  The God of my experience is so abundant, so wise, so canny that S/he will find you wherever you are, will make use of anything nearby – a bird, a painting, a trashcan, a street sign, a rock, a tree — any path you walk, no matter how far into the darkness you go.  All that’s required is willingness, and even then, Grace can appear quite unexpectedly and flatten even the most recalcitrant unwillingness.  It’s mysterious and wonderful.  My God is less concerned with dogma and more concerned with love.  My God wouldn’t turn anyone from Her/His table, no matter where they came from, no matter how they worshiped, no matter if they didn’t worship at all.  That was, in fact, the entire point of His/Her table.  Feed everyone.  All are welcome.

I had come to Christianity because the narrative of Jesus’s life held meaning for me, as an allegory for the journey of one’s soul.  It contained, as Elaine Pagels once said, “The glimmer and possibility of Spirit.”  I had not come to be told I had special reserve seating at God’s table.

Perhaps my thoughts showed on my face, for the priest turned to me and said “I’ve read your most recent book,” referring to An Unrehearsed Desire, a collection of short stories.  “And I must ask you, where is Jesus in this work?”

My heart did a little samba. I do not like to be challenged in public.  I do not like to have to defend my work, which is sometimes a little mysterious even to me.  Father Robert’s mouth was pursed and his eyes looked severe.  So pugilistic.  There was some uncomfortable shifting in seats around the table.

“Where wasn’t he?” I asked.

“I mean specifically. I read the book and I did not find Him.”

Stories about women who steal nipple clamps from an erotic store, young bullied girls, women who turn away strangers during storms, mothers who lie to their children, drug dealers, the mentally ill, the marginalized…  I could understand why this righteous priest might overlook the spirit of Christ.

"Christ of the Breadlines" Fritz Eichenberg (1950)

“Christ of the Breadlines” Fritz Eichenberg (1950)

“That’s too bad,” I said.  “My sense of the sacred infuses all my writing, as it does my cooking and talking and walking and sleeping and thinking and breathing. Perhaps it’s not so direct as some, perhaps it comes at one sideways.  It’s possible.  I believe The Christ is everywhere, always, even in the messy bits of life, the broken people, the pain and the mistakes we make.  Perhaps especially there.  But the reader of a literary work brings himself to the page.  I can only write what comes to me, the reader can only experience that work through his own perspective.  So I’m very sorry if you didn’t see anything of Jesus in my stories.”

I was not apologizing for my work, but he might have taken it that way.

“It’s the responsibility of the faithful to shine a light,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.  “It certainly is.”

I considered saying that what he called Christ I also call Vishnu and Buddha and The Thunderbird and a number of other names, since the God of my experience has no limits, and is everywhere, always. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps I shirked my responsibility.

As it was, shortly thereafter I slipped away from church services and back to my garden, my kitchen, my books, my streets and cafes and all the places of the world where my feet take me, places filled with messy, broken, searching people just like me.  Although, I happy to say, I’m not out of churches entirely; I keep visiting church basements with other people who want to stay sober.  I’m not sure my brother the priest would find The Christ in any of those places, but I do.

Comments

  1. rita says

    thanks for posting this. I still do the upstairs as well as the basement church, not because the preaching is great or even Christian, but because like Jesus I feel called to break bread with everyone. . . and hope my communion with them will continue to convert me.
    I know and trust your big God — the one who welcomes not only the prodigal but the elder brother. I ask for my heart to be that big.

  2. Michael Watson says

    Though I knew Lauren as Cargill, pre-Davis, dear anti-spam quiz….
    A comfortable, and not strident non-believer, I have come to identify myself as Jewish. Wife is & we raised our children that way as well. Creeds are particularly useful for the young; how else to measure one’s own self or rebel against?
    But though I came for the children, I stayed for the community and a particularly interesting rabbi, Rim Meirowitz and cantor, Beth Levin. I like being able to be still on a Friday evening, leave the busyness of the week for an hour and a half. Rabbi Rim will retire in a few months. Interesting and saddening; I will lose the only Rabbi I’ve ever known.

    • Lauren B. Davis says

      Ah, yes, the Cargill days! How lovely you’ve found a community you and your family feel at home in. That’s so wonderful. I’m sorry you’re losing a rabbi you respect so much. Hopefully the next one will enhance your faith journey. My husband is Jewish and we had a Jewish wedding. Fantastic traditions, enormous wisdom.

      I actually have no problem with creeds, only with people telling me that my way of experiencing the creed has no value.

  3. jane verity says

    Hi Lauren, as one of the faithful, I think you continue to be very effective at “shining a light”. I just love your perspective, and can’t recall reading a better description of what I’d like Religion to be;
    “My God wouldn’t turn anyone from Her/His table, no matter where they came from, no matter how they worshiped, no matter if they didn’t worship at all. ”
    Thanks, Jane V

  4. Wendy says

    Really love the thought provoking essay of yours here. Feel much the same as you do, it’s not where or when, or how I honour a Power, called God my many, but most important for myself is the devotion being sincere.

    For about 15 years , I’veI read many books about Buddhism. It’s a wonderful religion based on various wonderful ways to ‘be’ in the world and interacting with others. As an Anglican, it seemed to me there was not the opportunity for examination of other than Biblical philosophy. in my religion. Attending a church service, I have sat listening and had so many questions relating to the service. There was no opportunity then to question.

    I’m a questioning person and recently decided to read of another faith, the Jewish faith.

    The first book was called, Dancing With God, by Rabbi Wayne Dosick, who teaches at University in San Diego. The theme of his book was, “How does one get closer to God?” I loved that question. Reading the book with new concepts of faith to me and beautiful prayers, I was on several occasions moved to tears at the beauty of the essence with this theme.

    Since then, I’ve read several books with tender, heartfelt Jewish prayers, Another book was about Neo-dualism, a term which was new to me, but a concept I do accept and love. It’s propelled me now to going to the Jewish Community Centre in Vancouver to buy some of their second hand books. I now have several more books of prayers with one exclusively by women. I have been greatly moved at the behavioural sincerity of Judaism.

    It has been mentioned in my maternal family tree that my great grandmother was possibly Jewish. Perhaps with the idea of Neo-dualism, my great grandmother is influencing me today in my new curiosity about the Jewish faith.

    In October, I attended a Shabbat Shalom service in the US while visiting there and felt as though I’d heard the music and prayers previously. It was as if molecules of my cells were hearing something missed. There is no other way to explain this experience. I think of the service often and love the idea, as you mention, of the quiet time of Shabbat Shalom from Friday to Saturday. It is a behaviour I may adopt in my life with a candle and write my own prayers even though I am not Jewish.

    Like you, I feel God is truly everywhere. Perhaps even closer to us when life is not going so well, when we are in our dark places, feeling we’ve perhaps made a bad decision or feel great aloneness or fear. I like to believe this is so.

    Thank you for your words here, Lauren, they reinforce a part of my own journey which I believe will indeed make me closer to God. I am always grateful to God every day for allowing me my life after my serious diagnosis of cancer now 40 years ago.

    Bless you.

  5. says

    Hi Lauren. Just catching up on your blog, and loved this posting. I can relate to your experience, and your appreciation for the Bible as an epic story. It is a beautiful book, particularly the Psalms, but I dedicated myself to reading The New Testament from cover to cover a few years ago, and guess what, I didn’t find Jesus. I couldn’t understand why it felt so…remote and distant from my feelings about God. I agree that I find The Holy Spirit everywhere, and many times, my prayers have been answered. I am afraid of spirituality that separates, rather than embraces people. Wars have been constantly fought for religious reasons, which are so unnecessary and unjustified. I think your answers to the priest’s questions were excellent. We all must do our best to “shine a light”, through whatever gifts we have been blessed to receive. You certainly do!

    Lise

    • Lauren B. Davis says

      Lise — Thanks for your comment. Lovely to see you back here. I think the “Christ” is there in the NT, even if he’s buried a bit, but Constantine has a lot to answer for. The gospels were decided upon as a political statement, more than theology (see Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu on this subject) and the historical Jesus would have been horrified. Still, we are only separated by what we permit to separate us. Your experience of the sacred is what matters. God — The InEffable — The Great Mystery — will find you wherever you are.

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