Sunday, August 19, 2018

Unqualified Thoughts on Divine Love

          I have been in quite a lot of churches over the past three weeks, so when a fever prevented my church attendance a week ago today, I had many recent memories of gorgeous sanctuaries to soothe my mind while my body continued its clumsy attempt to fight back against an infection while immunosuppressed. I considered the Rock Church in Finland, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Estonia, and the Church on the Spilled Blood in Russia, among at least a dozen others. There will always be more churches to see, therefore I always want to go in just one more. I love every church I meet.

Helsinki Cathedral

          Because of the enormous cellular battle taking place within my body as the infection took its course, I remained in my bed for the most part, shivering under multiple blankets. Countless flares and infections over the course of years have taught me that if I position my white heated blanket correctly against the backdrop of the light blue walls of my bedroom at home, it sort of looks like I am in a cloud from my viewpoint tucked away under electric heat. Well, to say that it looks like I am in the sky might be a stretch. But it is good enough for me. Perhaps pain makes me a bit more willing to sink into imagination sometimes. I would like to think that I am elsewhere.

          Sometimes when I feel particularly sick and weak I imagine gentle hands lifting up my bed, in its cloudlike state, with me wrapped up in it. My hurting body makes me feel simultaneously like vapor and stones, but this never seems to bother the cloud. I then feel the whole bed lightly placed into one of these gorgeous sanctuaries that I have been offered the privilege of entering into. The powerful pipes of an organ that has weathered everything from wars to weddings fill my body with melodies so loud that they rattle out all that is hurting in me and fill the empty space with hymns. The saints depicted in the paintings, stained glass, and mosaics slowly reach out a hand, stretching through centuries-old stillness to offer comfort and peace and everything that illness steals. 

Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul
St. Petersburg, Russia

          In visiting all of these churches, I have found being in sanctuaries in the absence of scheduled services to be unexpectedly refreshing. I flared horribly during the month of July, and was accompanied by the pervasive yet unspecific sense that I was disappointing God. It gnawed at me even before I could name it and lingered past my understanding that it was unhelpful. Luckily, being in buildings in which so many people have worshipped over centuries reminded me how egotistical and ridiculous this notion was.

          It became clear to me from the moment I became ill at the age of eleven that whatever was ripping my body apart was going to drastically alter my experience of church. I sobbed while everyone greeted me after the service in which I came forward to be baptized, and while some people assumed that I was just really feeling the Spirit, I was actually in excruciating pain thanks to an inflamed elbow and the beginning of my autoimmune disease. "You have rivers, and we want valleys," the pediatric rheumatologist who diagnosed me explained, describing the fluid he felt in my elbows. The rivers in my elbow made me cry as I wrapped my aching arms around people I barely knew, and convinced my congregation that I was an ultra-religious eleven-year-old. It was not ideal, but perhaps this misconception became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because now I try to go into every church I pass by, perhaps hoping that I will find God somewhere along the way, perhaps appreciating the architecture, or perhaps admiring all the people I find there, who worship earnestly and humbly. I want to be like them when I grow up.

At the top of St. Olaf's Church
Tallinn, Estonia

          I find my religion to have quite high expectations for sick people. Pain is supposed to bring me nearer to God and others, but usually it just makes me want to rip my hair out and melt into the tiles of my bathroom floor. My repeated failure at fitting into the narrative of the sick person who uses her pain to glorify God (what does that even mean?) has led me to believe that a theology that insists that God uses our pain and suffering to improve us as people, or even to enable us to reach out to others, cheapens the love of God, making it a means to an end rather than an end itself. I believe that God loves me even when pain worsens me. I don't really believe that. I try to. I am trying to spend fewer hours accompanied by the assumption that God considers me a failed human. It does not seem like a good use of time.

          No wonder I am still in pain, I sometimes think when I catch myself being unsympathetic toward the pain of another, Clearly I have learned nothing. Intellectually, I do not believe that God is waiting for me to smarten up. But in the moment, there is some comfort in thinking that perhaps I am doing something wrong, perhaps the equation is simple, perhaps I can figure out how to break out of my cycle of flares if I just become spiritual enough. Sometimes it is harder to remember that God is just present, and there is no equation, and no amount of praying or going to church functions as a cure, but I am attempting to operate on the premise that what is harder will be better in the long run.

          I do not have solutions for the expectations placed on sick people by Christian communities, but I do wish that we explained divine love to one another in a way that emphasizes depth rather than solely relying on repetition to drill in such a delicate and gentle concept. I wish we recognized that "God loves you" can also be worded as, "God is not disappointed in you when you disappoint yourself," or "God is not torturing you into wisdom." Defining the love we often speak casually and vaguely about is as important as calling it "love." When we leave love murky, nothing else matches up. 
          The uncomfortable part of defining this love is that it forces us to reconsider, and in many instances, outright reject, our social systems and norms. We cannot claim that God loves the sick just as much as the healthy when we only build our churches for the latter. We turn our eyes from the cruelties of physical suffering when the only health-related narratives we offer are those of healed lepers, leaving everyone to wonder what the unhealed have done so terribly wrong to be excluded from this mercy. We celebrate and commend those who overexert themselves and roll our eyes at those who keep the Sabbath. We insist that God loves us because we exist rather than as a result of our productivity, yet we accept the status quo of capitalism and praise the work people do rather than who they are.

          On Thursday morning, before I moved into my apartment to start my junior year of college, a dear friend of mine from church, Whit, sent me the sweetest text, which read (in part), "You are loved and lovable without doing a thing." Her kindness provided a perfect moment to pause and remember that productivity and love are separate entities. My heart fills with gratitude when I think about Whit and so many others who are patiently teaching me, at the most fundamental yet profound level, that divine love is not a capitalistic exchange.

Living my best life at "ABBA the Museum"
in Stockholm! Post-flare, post-surgery, pre-infection.
Thankful for Whit and all of my other friends who
understand what an important moment this was for me.
A truly religious experience, I'd say.

          We always hear that people turn to religion for comfort, and I think there is some truth to that. After all, I transform into an adamant advocate for escapist theology each time my pain exceeds past its typical daily fluctuation, and I cringe when I hear theologies of survival criticized in the name of proper doctrine. Still, I find our tendency to assume that hurting people view religion as a source of comfort risky, because it prevents us from considering that perhaps we are not quite as good at responding to that pain as we might think. During my lowest points with illness, my friends have taught me that so much of loving people is living in tension with them. Disappointingly, so much of church seems to be breaking tension. When we permit admissions of suffering only when they can be followed by a prayer, to discard our discomfort and relieve ourselves of the responsibility to live in tension, we attempt to confine hurt to an area we can control, leaving those who are suffering to fend for themselves until the next designated opportunity to voice their reality. 

          I have always been terrible at praying. My prayer last Sunday night was, "I am so over this," because it seems that my body only teases me with breaks from the intolerability of my illness before shoving my head underwater again. It was not that there was nothing to be grateful for on Sunday night; in fact, there was too much to be grateful for. I was simply exhausted. I am all for prayer, but I am never for silencing suffering people. I am all for being honest with God, even when it makes me feel unsophisticated. Especially when it makes me feel unsophisticated. I pray the Hail Mary, too, but not to relieve the tension. I think God can handle the tension of my frustration and the fluctuating permanence of my pain.

          Perhaps love is living in the tension. That is what I see in Jesus weeping over Lazarus and dying on a cross. That is what I see in my friends who show up when nothing is going right with zero advice or attempts at comfort but loads of empathy and hugs. That is what I see in the artists who depicted suffering on the walls of sanctuaries they painted so many centuries ago, pain that is permanently unrelieved, a chord that is never resolved, asking churchgoers to literally exist in the center of depictions of discomfort every time they worship.

          I love the Church with my whole heart, way more than I would like to. I love the intricacy of Russian Orthodox iconostases and the simplicity of Mennonite sanctuaries. I love chaplains and ministers and nuns. I love all of the ways the Church includes and invites hurting people into sacred spaces. I worry that because we view ourselves as comforting, we may miss ways in which we exclude the hurting. I hope that by drawing ourselves closer to the pain of others, we may draw one another nearer to God. 

          Perhaps religion can sometimes function not as an escape, but as the opposite. Perhaps religion is permission to live in the tension. Perhaps, at least from the perspective I have adopted, which is full of flaws, religion is permission to find love there. To find God there.

          A small note: This post reflects and addresses only my limited personal experience with my own belief system and religious communities, and is not a commentary on the broad, widespread harm that is and has been done by the Church.