Such a tremendously lazy Sunday, but yet, it’s a good place to be in preparing for the coming week. School starts, my friend is moving to Texas, and I’ve scheduled more meetings than I can remember. There won’t be much wiggle room. But somehow I feel ready. Last week, I felt so trepidatious about the onslaught this semester will be. But the truth is that my anxiety will eat me before the actual work will, so conquering it is the key to survival. And remembering to breathe. Often.
On my trip to New York this November, I found myself wandering the first day, carrying a thirty pound backpack and more emotional baggage than I could measure. It was cold, bitterly cold, and the sky was the color of concrete. After nearly five hours of walking, I stumbled upon St. Peter’s Cathedral.
I haven’t been religious in years, if ever. I remember, very clearly, questioning the concept of God and the church as a child. I spent so many late nights, lying awake with my best friend on Saturday sleepovers, contemplating the size of the universe and the omnipotence of any being. I balked at being confirmed Episcopalian, but went through the process at my mother’s insistence. I’ve never been able to reconcile my sexuality and a religion, though my fall out with the church happened long before I came out. But I’ve always been fascinated by the church, by the power of shared belief, by hierarchy and the history of religious oppression, and by the power of sacred spaces.
I forget castles and palaces I’ve seen; they blend together in my memories. But the Cathedrals have stayed, imprinted for some reason I can’t explain. The National Cathedral in D.C. was, by far, my favorite of all the monuments and places I visited (way back in 1998! I so need to visit again). Notre Dame was the first place I visited in Paris, and I found myself returning, constantly, drawn to the strength and history and power. I saw her in misty midnight rain, in the glow of the sunset, in the harsh light of noon, inside and out, back and front, top to bottom. I love the way ancient buildings whisper. I love the stories that lodge in between stones, in the cracks of hardwood floors, in the melted window panes. I love feeling small, miniscule even, under domed ceilings and winged buttresses. I love the echo, the silence.
I remember, strongly, each of the Cathedrals we visited in Paris. Severin, with the gorgeous, brightly colored stained glass windows which resembled modern art. Sacre Coeur, the Cathedral on the hill overlooking the city, which reminded me more of a Mosque than a Catholic church. Saint Chapelle, which I called the “baby Cathedral,” with the magnificent twin, white marble spiral staircases leading to the pulpit. St. Sulpice, with the meridian line, made famous by Dan Brown.
I remember St. Stephen’s in Vienna, the tiny church in the center of Eisenstadt, the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest.
It was in Vienna, in 2004, that I began a tradition. I wasn’t raised Catholic, but I find the simple act of lighting a candle and saying a prayer to be immensely powerful. I always light at least one, often two or three offering candles. The first in memory of friends, family members, and others who have passed away and for those I know who are suffering. The second for hope – for tomorrow, for a better year, a better future. I love the physical sense of prayer, the light, the warmth. The third for anyone or anything specificI’ll never know what the other candles are for, but I like to see them, aligned, collected, aglow.
In St. Peter’s, in New York, I stumbled upon a new tradition. I felt drawn to New York, in need of strength and guidance and so many things I couldn’t articulate. I pulled the backpack off in the pew, set it down gingerly, so as not to disturb the individuals bowed in prayer around me. I knelt down, and the soreness of my shoulders and feet set in. In the silence my thoughts raced. What was I here for? What was I looking for? Could I find it in a Cathedral, in the wild mountains around Easton, in a group of women talking about erotic energy? Could I find it wandering the crowded streets of New York? Could I find it in the history of Stonewall, in the open galleries of the Met?
I prayed for two things, first. I prayed for those who had come before me, their steps and guidance, their strength, their history. I prayed for those who come after me – for whatever I could give them, for the lives I wouldn’t witness, for a world that treated them better. Those prayers have become a mantra in my life; I find them lodged in my brain, in my heart, often. I say them often when I feel strong enough to have something to give.
I tacked on a third prayer in St. Peter’s, simply because I didn’t know how not to. I’ve always felt guilty asking for anything. It feels self-indulgent, scary. But I asked for guidance. I asked for strength. I asked for love, not romantic love, but love as life force, as support, as hope.
I remember, on my knees that day, thinking that I had no idea what the weekend would bring, much less the next month and the next year. I wish, sometimes, that I could record these moments in some more finite way to glance back on as a point of reference. I feel so strong today, so very at peace. It’s a culmination of a lot of factors, and looking back, I’m amazed at how much has changed in two very sort months. I had a long conversation with a friend this weekend about religion…what it meant to us, what had changed in the last few years, what we believed, what we looked for, what we couldn’t stand. I find that my faith is not in a God or a church or a creed. My faith is in community, in possibility, in change. My faith is in karma, in finding balance, in struggle, in confusion. My faith is, like me, wandering and unpredictable, sacred and profane. It does not belong in spaces or in individuals, but in connections, in moments. I don’t think there is anything more powerful than hope, and I’m not sure if there’s anything more detrimental than blind faith – and the line between them, so very thin, simply depends on the context. I try to err on the side of caution, usually, but not always.
Tonight, I light a different candle with the same wish, the same prayer. I ask for peace, for possibility, for more days like this weekend. For the unpredictable and the sane, for change, for stability. For love, for laughter, for sarcasm. For the beginning of a new week, a new semester, a new feeling. To breathing in. To heartbeats and moments and everything in between.
(St. Peter's, November 2010)