Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Not open legs. This is not about sex. It’s about humanness. When the chalice is cupped human hands

When we hold each other’s fiery hearts in our hands, we risk blistering what makes us human: opposable thumbs, readable palms. The liturgies of intense third-degree intimacy can be among the most painful. I’m impressed that when I read romantic genres, the moments of high passion are usually mixed with ordeals: knives slashing across bodies, struggles to climb a cliff, dropping from heights into water, gunshot wounds, and so on. There seems to be a struggle to find something intense enough to express extremes.

CONFESSION: Though we mean all tenderness and put our two hands on the sides of the beloved’s face to hold still their familiar visage, their uniqueness, and their returning gaze, yet we fall into anger, resentment and selfishness. The same two hands that caress can slap and rend. Or they are not strong enough: the bones break, the knuckles swell and jam, there are calluses and scars and warts. We drop things, we are clumsy, our scribbles are unintelligible, we can’t hold on. Our hands char with pain.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON: With luck, we arrive in the world to the hands of a skillful and loving human being. Two hands, cupped together, just about the right size to hold a newborn.

Two hands, cupped together, just about the right size to receive a meal’s worth of food.

Two hands, a little apart, hold a book.

Two hands, flexed and percussive, on the keyboard of a computer or a concert grand.

A hand on a shoulder. A hand on a foot.

Again that hand laid against the side of a well-loved face.

We hold out our hands to each other, no matter the risk, the damage, the mutilation, the stains and tattoos.

“Here, shake hands on it.”

“Hands up -- I surrender.”

One hand up: salute. Flat open: I am unarmed.

In the Gladiator series: fist strikes heart, then -- open -- extends to horizon.

Sign language: hand on heart -- "I love you".

“I swear,” holding up the hand.

But there’s no limit to the extremity of intimacy trials. They go beyond sanity. Men kill their best friends in a frenzy of drinking or drugging. Women in the grip of postpartum psychosis can’t be trusted to bathe their own babies without holding them under the water. Heartbroken youngsters hang themselves, sometimes in a pact. Weren’t all of them loved? Was it just a matter of not accepting the intimacy, not recognizing it, not thinking they deserved it, not tolerating the possible meaning? Loving hands could not save them. I’ve seen old movies of toddlers with rabies who writhed and lunged with fear-biting when the nurses offered them milk they craved. The nurses wore heavy rubber gloves to their elbows, their hands deep inside.

When the reconciling neural platform of rationality in the brain is burned through by the conflagration of insanity, the result is devastation, mass murder, suicide bombs. What’s a liturgy in the face of that? The chalice itself is destroyed. The holding community is flattened, prostrate with grief, like trees around a meteorite hit, immobilized. Yet the image of Communion was able to save the sanity of a group of Uruguayan boys in the Andes who had to resort to eating their best friends and closest relatives in order to survive.

I included that and another surprising liturgy of intimacy in “The Molten Chalice.” In fact, one of the things that got me thinking about it in the first place was reading an account -- I think in the Journal of Pastoral Care published about 1980 when I was doing my chaplaincy -- written by a pastor responding to a young woman who wanted to go through with a wedding though the groom had been killed in a car accident on the way to the ceremony. No one in her family wanted her to do this. They thought it was a crazy thing to do.

The article was not a justification for marrying a young woman to a corpse, but rather -- after he had already concluded that it would be sanity-saving rather than destructive, that such a ceremony would be a chalice for living love, so he told how he went about organizing the liturgy. It was and was not a marriage. That is, there were vows, prayers, and a ring, but no walk up any aisle and no congregational witnesses or attendants.

Mormons will “marry” in unconventional ways, including “marrying” long-dead ancestors to each other. In other cultures, for instance the Chinese, there are customs of marrying a dead man for various reasons, most of them having to do with the status of the family, the economic and political ramifications. In fact, I own a DVD of a Chinese film, “The Wooden Man’s Bride” in which the dead man’s stand-in is a block of wood, toted around even to the bed. It’s not at all about intimacy. In fact, it means the bride will have no intimacy. Nor children. Liturgy can be twisted and emptied, two skeletal hands, one clapped over the other to confine, create a prison. But a covered container will suffocate the contents.

I used to have a little quote about a young person asking an old person how to maintain a relationship. They happened to be at the beach. The older person took up a handful of sand. “Watch.” The hand was open, cupped, and the sand rested in it. “Now.” The hand clenched over the sand and squeezed: it escaped everywhere between the fingers.

There was another quote that used to be on Seattle area bumper stickers in Eighties, very New Age. “I release you, let you go free, and if you return to me, then I will know you are mine.” And the demonic variation: “I release you, let you go free, and if you don’t return to me, I will track you down and kill you.” Very strange culture we live in. Better to marry a block of wood.

In another story, a child holds a bird in his cupped hands, as though in a nest. He goes to his wise grandparent and asks, “Will this bird live or die?” The old person says: “It depends on what you do, doesn’t it? You could either crush it or set it free. It’s in your hands.”

* * * * * ADDENDUM:

This post has too many ideas in it, but here I am, about to add more. I just rewatched "The Wooden Man's Bride" and discovered the film is packed with ceremonies, liturgies, protocols, trials, ordeals from one end to the other. It's a gorgeous movie in a landscape very much like the American SW and a frank "Western" except for being Western China. A fort-household, a gang of outlaws, and a mother-in-law ruled by custom and reputation pitted against a girl so young she is "hairless" but old enough to be a rebel, even with both ankles broken. Love wins out -- partly sweeping aside the old traditions and partly adapting them new ways.

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