Christmas eve night, about nine o’clock. With a basket slung over one arm and bumping into my hip with every step, I trudge through the snow. The ribbon wound around the basket’s slim handle glistens in a hint of moonlight, gold thread woven in elaborate patterns through the deep red cloth. In the basket, a red pillar candle and two tapers — scented “seasonal berry” — jostle in a nest of intertwined greens, bits of douglas fir and blue spruce smelling sweetly of bent needles and dried sap; wedged among them, the frankincense sticks, the crystal bowl full of dark sunflower seeds and dried cranberries, the small jar of spring water decorated with silvery snowflake designs and curled bits of blue string. The snow crunches as I feel my way along the unshoveled path through the park, some of it falling onto the tops of my ballet-style shoes and slipping down inside to melt against bare skin.
These are ‘church shoes’, I scold myself. Anyway, the path should have been shoveled. But nobody walks in this park in winter out here in suburbia, not with the new fenced-in dog run just across the street and the indoor gym at the community center open for joggers. Still, I should have been more practical. I have to make it back to the house in time to leave for Midnight Mass with the rest of the family, but I’d at least have had time to change my shoes. Ahead of me, my boyfriend Jeff walks hunched in his superbly warm winter coat and practical, well-treaded shoes. At least there is almost no wind, and all but my toes feel snug and well-padded against the cold night. I switch the basket to my other arm, shoving the opposite hand into my coat pocket. Inside, the tiny box of matches rattles as I turn it around between my fingers.
Think of the world’s religions as a kind of landscape, with cities and forests, villages and deserts.
I was born in a city a billion believers strong, a city my family had lived in for several generations. And like most cities, it had its archways and spires and dazzling glass in intricate panes reflecting all shades of the sky, its bustling palatial centers brimming over with the powerful and the connected, and its slums and ghettos and alleyways where the forgotten survived on marrow-deep faith and trembling prayers and broken rules. It had its politicians and its police, its scholars, architects and artists, its beggars, poets, mystics, wanderers, hippies and hipsters, its tourists and its outlying suburbanites who dropped in for some culture on weekends or sat in traffic for the hour-long commute home at the end of a hard day’s work.
You don’t outgrow this kind of religion. You just… grow out of it.
And that’s what happened to me. I was born into this city, a city that newcomers are finding their way to all the time, looking for a home in Mystery and Power, looking for the Kingdom and the Glory, striving for belonging, seeking forgiveness and its freedom, hoping for love and maybe, if they’re lucky, a little bit of grace. Looking for a home in God. And I grew up here. Exploring the stones and persistent dandelions and old yew trees in the gardens and the cemeteries. Idling in cluttered used book shops that might have been run by kind, contemplative types well suited for the quiet of a monastery or a library. Listening to the songs that rang through the air on the clanging lips of bells as the sun went down. I grew up on the edge of town, where the Irish of the diaspora still remembered the famine and the wars and what good they ever did, and still held a secret enchanted pride in all that was green and mist and hinted of slender deer and shimmering good folk in the woods. I was born into a city hardly knowing how huge and sprawling it really was, more familiar with Saint Francis’s weathered stone hands offering perch for the pigeons in the backyard and Mary ribbing Jesus about the wedding wine.
And when I grew up, I went deeper, farther into that city, to understand, to learn about this religion, this place where I was born. And when I was a bit older, I went home again, to learn better who I was. I headed for that old familiar family house on the edge of town… but the edges had changed and the land had shifted. Someone had placed bricks in rows to block off streets, and hung signs saying who was in and who was out — or maybe, no, were these the old walls I had clambered over as a child? — the same graffiti, then only so much slithering, bubbling brilliant color, now worming painful accusations and words of isolation, words like heretic and hell. And I clambered over that wall one last time. Following roads to where I knew they must go, roads from which I had watched lone travelers emerging from the fog, roads that were wet with fallen leaves and studded with moss-covered rocks, following roads like the call of my own soul’s longing.
This isn’t a city you outgrow. I was born here, born knowing all along with the innocent acceptance of a child that I was safe, that I was saved. And I grew up, and I walked with Spirit in my mind and on my lips and in my heart, and when I got to those walls that marked the city limits, I slowed my pace, I read the signs carefully for the first time. And I lingered. And then I walked on.
I walked until I found myself in the wilderness.
Inside the church, folks were gathering, rustling into pews in an effort to be noiseless and respectful. The choir director, a thin woman with cropped black hair and a throat that could throw a pitch toward the rafters as though it were a tow-line to heaven, stood at a lectern off to the left and trilled “Silent Night” to the accompaniment of off-key trumpets. I couldn’t repress a wild grin. Nothing much changed here. I recognized some of the ushers from back when we were all in school together, and the woman who was standing up to the lectern now and droning out the selected reading had been my brother’s middle school English teacher, though her long, wild hair was almost all white now, and thinner. “Christian, remember your dignity…” came the somber voice echoing over the hushing and shifting sound of coats being peeled off and folded neatly over the backs of pews. “…life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness….” It could be a grammar lesson for all the passion and careful precision it had. That was her all over!
Jeff sat beside me on the bench, his eyes flicking across the front of the church, taking in the altar, the huge crucifix hung above it, the candles, the tastefully-lit evergreen trees brought in for the season. Joy beat through me, warm and lapping all the way to my recovering toes. Or maybe it was the frostbite.
“Don’t clap,” I whispered to him teasingly, “when the musicians and the choir stop between songs, you don’t clap. There’s no clapping in Catholicism, this isn’t one of your crazy southern churches.” I nudged him in the side through layers of sweater that hid, somewhere beneath them, a very appropriate-looking tie. “And you don’t have to do any of the gestures for the prayers if you don’t want to. Just stand up and sit down when you see everyone else doing it. But you don’t have to kneel. I used to kneel, but I don’t anymore. But when everyone is kneeling, sit forward in your seat — and you can lean your hands on the back of the pew in front of you if you want — so that the people behind you have room to kneel. It’s polite. And of course you can’t go up for communion, you aren’t allowed. But when they do the peace-be-with-you part, you shake hands with everyone, but say ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘peace’, and you can hug or kiss the people you know, if you want. And watch — after the ‘Our Father,’ everyone sways a little bit because they’re getting tired of standing up and down and kneeling, so they sway just a little bit like they’re just slightly off balance and their shoulders all lift at the same time when they breathe between lines, and they don’t even notice it…”
He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Is there going to be any Latin?”
“This is post-Vatican II,” I said. “But there might be some if we sing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’…”
On the other side of him, my brother leaned over to ask me, “Did you tell him about the people swaying after the ‘Our Father’?” I nodded, and we giggled together as if we were excited little kids again, while our mother shot us a look that told us not to be so jolly, this was Christmas after all.
“What’s in that big gold box in front of the little cross-on-a-stick?” Jeff asked me.
“I think the… extra eucharist and wine, for everybody? I don’t know. For most of the time I went to church, I was too short to see the altar over the backs of people’s heads. And even after that, mostly I kept my head bowed. It was easier to listen that way.”
The brass ensemble in the front began a version of “Carol of the Bells” that made me cringe, and I wished very much that it was all right to applaud — they seemed to need the encouragement. I tried to beam a smile wide and warm enough to make it past the slumping shoulders and serious faces, a smile that radiated with a wallop. Sitting there in my mottled green sweater with sleeves short enough to show off my cascading blue Celtic-knot tattoo on my upper arm, my hair hanging in a single thick braid down my back and still smelling a little of incense and “seasonal berry” candles, I turned to look at the faces in the pews around me and caught the eye of the presiding priest, ancient and small in his billowy white and gold robes, sitting on the end of the very last row, looking thoughtful and tired, waiting for the prelude music to end and the midnight mass to begin.
The wilderness tasted of freedom, and freedom tasted of angst and acid rain and silence. And every once in awhile, of sunlight, and melting snow, and honeysuckle on the breeze. This was not the triumphant beauty of nature, this was not the garden — this was dark and wild, full of places where you weren’t supposed to be out at night, full of the knowledge that you were doing something… wrong. Once in the road, I came upon the corpse of a small soft-gray mouse, crushed and bloody, twitching with the mindless gripping and stinging of two spindly wasps still possessed by the hive directive to kill. I was horrified, and I was afraid.
Still, the new moon tipped over the western horizon in a perfect silver sickle, the white slip like a boat sinking with the tide of deepening blue before the slow churning black of night. And in the night, were stars. Stars spilled through space above the canopy of trees, above the broad turning river cutting through the land, above the highest mountain that rose beside the ocean. More stars than I had ever seen, more stars than I could have dreamed, stars that seemed to leap, birthing themselves from the corners of my eyes, flung out in all directions — each place of darkness I looked, stars were surfacing out of night to fill my vision. And I lay on my back, spine pressed unevenly into the rock and felt the gravity of heaven lift me, lift me and my clumsy trembling body, just a fraction, away from fear.
And people, people who don’t know, sometimes ask me what does the wilderness give, what does the forest offer? What is out there in the wild that you can’t find perfectly well in the teeming, bursting city, this city where you were born? And I know, for I have been there, the city is splendid, full of shouting and music, museums and libraries harboring all the languages of the world, maps of distant galaxies and diagrams of the heart. What can compare to this rich heritage of wisdom and insight blazing brilliant from every street corner?
But in the wilderness, there are forests. In the wild, you can see the stars.
“You might have a convert on your hands,” I joked with my father as we all walked back through the church parking lot towards the car. “He’s been raving about things that I grew up hearing like the sound of blood in my ears.”
“It’s all the ritual, the robes and the gold and all the tall candles,” Jeff insisted, “Zen Buddhists are so anti-ritual, I didn’t have a lot of ritual growing up, I don’t ‘get’ ritual — it was all very impressive. It left an impression, I mean.”
“And I liked the sermon,” I agreed. “Did you hear the priest almost say we were all God? ‘God became man so that man could… ahem, be like God,'” I exaggerated in a mock-serious voice. “Still, he said we were all Christ to one another, the face of Christ alive in the world. God is forever being born, every day, we are all Mothers of God, Mothers of Spirit. Echoes in that of Eckhart, I think.”
“I was impressed that he so much as admitted the Church chose the date for Christmas because of the winter solstice and the renewing light. You’d never hear anyone admit that in the churches around where I grew up.”
“Yes,” my father said, sounding conciliatory, “it was an all right homily, I guess.”
“I think the Monseigneur is getting a bit old,” my mother added. “He seemed to ramble on.”
“Well, anyway, I thought it was good.” We all scrunched into the car, me crammed between Jeff and my brother in the backseat. “It makes me a bit sad to think for most people ‘being Christ to each other’ tomorrow just means biting your tongue and being nice to family members even if they annoy you. Wait—!” My brother and I both leaned forward enthusiastically as my father started up the car and my mother switched on the radio. At one in the morning you got all the really bad Christmas songs they wouldn’t play during the day. “Shoot, for a second I thought it was going to be ‘Dominick, the Italian Christmas Donkey’!”
“This one’s better,” said my mom, as an androgynous child-voice sang out from the speakers, Mom says a hippo would eat me up, but then — Teacher says a hippo is a vegetarian…
For a long time wandering the roads and wild places, I identified as a native of that city that my family still called home. People I met would ask me of my faith, and I would tell them the spiritual place where I was born. Wanderer in the wilderness, a traveler from the city. There was no better name for what I was. Since then, things have changed. Perhaps there was some distant reflection of starlight in the corners of my eyes that others thought they recognized; perhaps my hair was a bit disheveled, my shoes muddy, my laugh a hint too wild with the sound of wind and shifting trees. Others began to call me “Pagan” before I ever called myself by that name. Eventually, I stumbled on the open-air stone circles and campfire eisteddfods of Druidry, and found that I could stay awhile without feeling restless and dishonest. Now, when I come home, it is to the sound of Celtic harps and ribbons tied in the branches to catch a blessing from Brighid as her green-and-gold-hemmed mantle rustles by. I settle down to sleep on the edge of that thriving, stubborn little village of Paganism murmuring among the rolling hills. But in the distance, the city glows with memory and a kind of longing sadness on the horizon.
Most of my family still lives in that sprawling city of Catholicism, though the landscape is always shifting under them. Abuse scandals in America and Ireland, one Pope giving way to another, and then another, a theologically-strict Church weeding out feminism and turning its back on interfaith dialogue, advocating environmental awareness and climate science while still preaching against condoms to the mothers and children dying of AIDS in Africa, a Church closing its fingers tightly around fistfuls of sand, bracing against the threatening waves of secularism and individualism and atheism — my parents hunker down on the edge of town, aware of the storm clouds gathering over the opulent skyscrapers of the rich and powerful. They try to imagine the community is holding together, that the world isn’t changing around them. But I couldn’t have returned to this place as home after I had gone; it was no longer somewhere I wanted to live. Better to risk the dark, wild places of hornets and starlight than to work humbly at a foundation that not only helped to house justice and compassion but held hypocrisy and corruption in their place as well. I followed Spirit into the woods, because Spirit is bigger than the walls that people build.
But the theology of the city is different from the theology of the wild. In the city, laws are descriptions that people have made of the world and the shape of the soul, and Spirit moves through them telling the story of man and how he makes himself, how he saves himself by becoming God with love and mercy and infinite light capable of dissipating the densest dark of ignorance and stubbornness of humanity trying not to see. The city is not a tame place, but its wilderness is man.
In the wild, law is the cold, impersonal Song of What Is beating through both predator and prey, throbbing their hearts in time. It is the truth that love cannot save us from the utter shivering wretched bliss of birth and life and, yes, even love as well. The theology of the wild is fear and fearlessness, blood and root and spiderweb glistening with dew. And Spirit moves and participates in all being, in the terrible power of gods and the weakness and hope of clover. And in the wild, we walk barefoot feeling the tension in our calves, and we accept, and we sing praise and gratitude for the sublime indifferent beauty that leans in close to kiss us in our sleep.
The twigs of green fir and spruce are scattered in a circle and, wedged in the snow, the thick red pillar of the central candle burns steady and clean in the still air. Incense wafts around us. Golden firelight flickers off the ice crystals in the darkness among the towering pines, and for a moment I see glittering on the surface the opalescent blues and greens in a million million tiny flecks shimmering like stars. I take a handful of sunflower seeds and scatter them to the wind, then sprinkle drops of water in libation onto the hard ground. I pass the offerings to my boyfriend, who does the same, and I wonder what birds will come in the morning to search for what we’ve left. We all participate this way, in this ancient world.
I reach my senses down into the earth beneath my feet, rocking cold under the layers of snow and ice. I seek the warmth of that burning molten heart, the sun inside, and feel my own blood flowing cool beneath my crisp skin like the first waters of spring melting in the mountains, trickling down and down. I lean to lift my red taper candle from its makeshift holder of mounded snow, holding its flimsy wick over the central candle long enough to catch the flame. Jeff lights his and together we stand, illuminated only by the flickering of this tiny triple fire. I close my eyes. The first syllables of the prayer form on my lips, and by the third line I am not speaking but singing, as deep calls to deep, the words lifting up in my throat, rising and turning — beneath them, I hear Jeff’s low tones echoing, supporting, rooting the melody in a whispered chant.
A few blocks away, my parents and brother sit in a warm house, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on television and getting ready for church. After Midnight Mass, we will come home again, we’ll exchange presents and drink mint tea until four in the morning, then stumble off to bed to sleep until Christmas, waking to my father frying eggs and flipping french toast in the kitchen. This is the neighborhood where I grew up. And for now, we are alone in the park I knew as a child, a park that technically closes at sundown, a park where none of the sidewalks have been shoveled. We are visitors here, and we are doing something wrong, something strange amidst the grid of suburban houses wrapped in Christmas lights and gaudy lawn decorations, something odd and ridiculous out in the freezing cold in impractical shoes.
Yet for the moment, I am empty of fear, and I sing out with a sure voice that rides the tight joy of grateful tears. The Song of What Is thrills through me, stupid and strange and heartbreakingly beautiful. And above us, one by one, the stars creep out to shine.