Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New Age Cafe

A friend and I had a few hours in the car together this last Sunday, driving back from a group retreat, to talk about our respective discontents–distinct, but overlapping–with eclectic raids into the spiritual traditions of others. Our experiences over the previous days gave us plenty of complicity to chew on: an ample smattering of Native American practices shared by a gathering of a hundred men, few of us of identified indigenous heritage; a soup of radical faerie and Wiccan rites, these not so directly subject to the charges of hijacking precisely because of their own elements of self-conscious modern synthesis; my own leading of a kiddush for Erev Shabbat despite my very tenuous second-hand Jewish credentials; African-inspired drumming around a fire lit by a bunch of mostly white guys; the symbols of various traditions displayed on the windows of the great room where we assembled: Islamic crescent moon, ankh, Star of David, pentagram, Buddhist lotus, the monogram of the Sanskrit mantra Aum.

In most of this, a studiously minimized direct appeal to the Christian tradition, overwhelming in its cultural familiarity, in which most of us were reared, in which some of us still abide, by which so many of us have been scarred, from whose toxic effect many others have fled in order to claim and defend their wholeness.

Neither of us embraces the melange without twinges of misgiving. My friend, a long-lapsed Episcopalian, has little patience with hollow formula from any source, having experienced a lot more outward sign than invisible grace in the liturgies of his childhood. Ritual queen though I am, my cerebral side sometimes balks at practices lifted out of the cultural contexts that first engendered them and gave them meaning, then set side by side like a bowl of badly made Thai red curry jostling bad sushi and bad enchiladas at a cheap buffet.

And yet for both of us, such gatherings as this weekend’s–filled as they are with the courage, thoughtfulness, and integrity of the men who’ve stepped out of the mainstream to attend them–remain a path forward to an authentic queer spiritual community as we find our way through the desert, knowing from long experience that no tradition any of us has inherited has served us well.

And so we borrow other traditions’ language, symbols, and gestures precisely because they’re imperfectly familiar. Their newness allows us to connect with what more domesticated words and actions can’t: because the rituals of our own heritage have become irretrievably shot through with the taint of oppression; because a tradition on whose threshold we stand as newly arrived guests becomes a site of our hope that we might find somewhere a place of greater freedom and fuller integrity ready to welcome us; because the strangeness of the Holy calls for an unfamiliar tongue.

Five years ago for the first time, I heard Krishna Das chanting kirtan. All I knew of Hinduism was what I remembered from a short unit in an undergraduate course thirty years earlier; nor had its theology held any intuitive appeal. And yet, at the call and response in praise of Lord Ram, my heart strangely alight, my arms raised, I could only say, “Oh–it’s You again.”

We don’t always get it right. We can place faith in misunderstood rites as though our comprehension didn’t really matter. We can develop a wishful, naive trust that over the rainbow lies some tradition free of all flaws, but especially the flaws of our own–such a naivete thrives best in the shallow soil of brief acquaintance and incomplete comprehension. We can kid ourselves that our self-congratulating enlightenment makes our own eclectic, inclusive path more authentic, less full of blindness, than someone else’s more traditional approach to God.

Or else we can come to recognize that every human approach to the Mystery is flawed, and we can fashion from the scraps we’ve borrowed a fabulous ritual drag for the ersatz banquet where the Divine and the ludicrously mismatched share a temporary address–knowing that a temporary address is all we ever have.

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