Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Holy Hubcap of Antioch

Among the sacred objects I treasure most deeply, I count the rosary I bought at the shrine of St. Francis Xavier in Goa. Also the small, naturally sculpted phallus of smooth white stone I found while walking a beach with the men in my ritual and art-making circle. But the one that really stands out is a Cadillac hubcap.

Last summer one of my mentors found it lying inexplicably in the woods on a morning hike. It sat at the foot of the altar for three days at a workshop before he presented it to me as a parting gift during the closing circle. I knew instantly it would become the tray on which I'd keep a small burner for arati--the cool, steady flame of camphor tablets--along with powders for tilak--the facial markings that declare the wearer's devotion to one or another of the Hindu gods. It needed a good blast of the garden hose and a stiff scrubbing with a wire brush to get what rust I could off the underside.

For the rest of the summer, I waited to see if visitors would recognize its previous incarnation. I enjoyed sharing the joke, whether they caught it on their own or I pointed it out to them. But the moment of recognition also always felt a little risky. Could my arati tray be funny and serious at the same time, a loose adaptation of a practice with millennia of tradition behind it and still a castoff car part that had turned up in the middle of the forest, and that now intermittently flaked rust onto the sari laid over the floor of my tent?

We often want the sacred securely and absolutely separated from the profane. We get uneasy when they turn out to sit cheek by jowl with each other. People may write off a ritual practice as frivolous; they may indeed get angry when they think the line is drawn wrong. Think of the furor that has surrounded public performances and displays of art in which one representation of the holy strikes others as sacrilege.

At the Christian Easter Vigil, an officiant sprinkles the congregation with water to remind them of their baptism into the community of the Church, usually flinging it over their heads from a leafy branch dipped into a basin. A friend of mine one year instead pulled a squirt gun out of his vestments to spritz the kids in his confirmation class. Everyone saw the joke, but not everyone got the point: that we meet the sacred when it breaks into the circumstances of our ordinary existence, and that we ought to rejoice and celebrate that it's so, because otherwise, we'd be far less likely to meet the sacred at all. The kids loved it and were way ahead of some of the stuffier adults in the congregation.

My hubcap didn't work well for all the men who saw it, or saw me using it, either. At a retreat center where eclectic, radical faerie spirituality has a robust presence, the disconnect wasn't always about the danger of being flippant. Instead, at least sometimes, men were puzzled and a little put off by the clear and serious, if unconventional, connection to an established but unfamiliar tradition. It was the arati and the tilak they had more trouble with than the hubcap.

What I'm trying to say about my hubcap is this: sacred symbols aren't doing their work well if we get them perfectly, right away, and they flawlessly confirm our prior expectation of where we'll meet the Divine. Maybe they should make us pull back, just a little, at least once in a while, so that we notice their absurdity. Better they should be a little rough around the edges, with a little rust flaking off, and maybe a dent in the rim.

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