Monday, February 25, 2013

Relics Under the Altar

My albatross is a crucifix.

When I was twenty-one, chancel queen with one foot out of the closet that I was, I pored over the catalogue of an ecclesiastical supply house and told my mother that what I really wanted as a coming-of-age gift was a 24-inch walnut cross, on which hung a gaunt, mournful, and (it goes without saying, but I enjoy saying it) nearly naked Jesus carved of German linden wood. It made feminist friends shudder from the outset. But I was more or less oblivious to their discomfort over its relentlessly male representation of the Holy; almost as oblivious as I was to just how blatant my erotic investment must have been to them, and to nearly everybody else, in that pale, willowy body.  Devotion and empathy could channel any amount of desire and yet remain just barely veiled, at the edge of social acceptability in a still pervasively homophobic  culture.
(There's no more powerful expression of that than Michel Marc Bouchard's amazing play, Lilies, and the superb film made of it by queer Toronto director John Greyson.)
When I bailed out of Christianity altogether for nearly fifteen years--and it was one of the healthiest decisions I've ever made--Jesus went into the closet while I came aggressively out of it. When I finally took another plunge into that rich and deeply flawed tradition, the relation between the erotic and the spiritual in my life had shifted. The objects of my desire were alive and breathing around me; I didn't need another in one-quarter scale nailed to a cross on the wall.
I tried giving the crucifix away, but this Jesus was way too dead, too white, and/or too male for the taste of anybody to whom I offered it. So back into the closet went this relic of my past yet again, until I came to see it in a new light--not as an image that spoke to me in the present, but as an object that deserved ongoing reverence for its place in my spiritual history. Finally, my spiritual director came up with the solution: to place it inside the antique Korean rice chest I use as my altar. It became (like the relics in a stricter sense contained in the altar of a Roman Catholic church) the unseen presence supporting the objects that rest upon it in full view.
When a few weeks back I prepared to move house, removing the crucifix and wrapping it for transport helped me experience the full import of pulling up stakes and letting go of fifteen years in the house I was leaving. It helped me stay connected to the personal history I carry with me and inside me, even as my life changes in ways that sometimes, these days, leave me barely recognizing myself.
And I can't begin to describe the comfort and exhilaration I felt yesterday afternoon, setting the altar in its new space, opening the doors of the chest, and consecrating it anew by laying this ungainly fragment of my past in the sanctifying darkness of its interior. One by one, the objects laid above it became again a map of my hopes, of my longings and aspirations; a pattern for my prayers for those I love, for my memories of those I've lost.


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