The Easter and Passover stories are several thousand year old assertions that human history has been visited by the Divine. Something greater than human power – call it, say, the inherent order of the universe – has been at work and still is. The notion, “We are not alone,” precedes the post-nuclear fascination with extraterrestrials; when desert-dwellers from Ur, Mongolia, or Pueblo stared at the prehistoric night sky, they began to formulate man as a fully spiritual being, rather than as a physical being with a shard of spirit within.
But if this is the human condition it cannot be argued about, it can only be accepted or rejected. The existential insistence on personal, felt truth as the guide to authentic life is a restatement of age-old stories of spiritual transformation. And stories are not arguments but are themselves experiences adduced as metaphors for other experiences. Complicated, sure, but mankind has been doing this kind of thing for over 30,000 years – ever since, long before cave painting developed, we began scratching lines on bones to tell the story of the phases of the moon.
My parents have been dead for more than a decade but their avatars still come visit me occasionally. Just at the end of Lent my father appeared in a dream disguised as Gene McCarthy, while my mother came to an AA meeting as a woman in her 80s named Marian. I love having these visits as they enable me to honor my parents in all their gloriously imperfect complexity as part of the present, not just part of the past.
Today I am thinking that perhaps my mother taught me theology and my father how to have a spiritual practice. This is mildly reversed in that my father was the one with the theological training in his youth while my mother was the first one in our family to enter recovery via Al-Anon, but I think I am on to something.
In the last two years of her life I would address all my envelopes to my mother as “Eileen McCarty Yeager, Theology of Joy and Hope, 3123 Bluebonnet, Houston TX 77005,” as though that were the name of the institution she belonged to, the name of the house where she lived, the name of that to which she aspired – indeed she occasionally embodied it.
I think my mother needed the comfort of definitions more than my father did – or else that was all she was left with after surviving the elemental forces of her life. For on their darker sides Mama was the anxious one, Papa was the angry one; though Mama had her share of anger and Papa his of anxiety.
Mama's theology was wonderfully concrete: “Look at that sky, children; look at that grass, those leaves, those flowers, those birds; don't tell me that's all an accident.” And in that voice I can of course hear the echo of her Mama, Josie Dunn, from the prairies long ago. And I can see part of the urges that made two of my siblings healers and all of us teachers of one kind or another. “Look at this!” and “Pass it on.” These injunctions were implicit in Mama's enthusiasms.
Papa was, oddly enough, not any more analytical; his experiential-based observations grew out of immediate situations and almost never referenced the past, or those abstractions which nourish theory. Perhaps Mama believed in logic as a shield against irrationality of self and others; probably Papa saw it as a tool but with its own limits of not being able to include everything.
So he ultimately sought, and received, less consolation from his spiritual practice of prayer, meditation, conversation, reflection, writing and fellowship, than Mama got from her theology where she tried to work out by rule where the truth lay and how you could find it. But then I don't think Papa was looking for surcease from the emptiness of the spaces between the stars; he was just trying to get to dinner time without doing every self-destructive thing that might occur to him between now and then.
Mama I think wanted the structure of certainty whereas Papa was content with the motion of progress. They were both open to growing along spiritual lines, but Papa trusted his place in the cosmos better than Mama did hers. Some of that is personal temperament and some has to do with the sexual politics of the era, but it also comments on their relationships to their Higher Powers.
One of the earliest Al-Anon remarks to enter family lore was what Mama's first sponsor, Mother Mazinga of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, admonished her: “Eileen, you are not the Fourth Person of the Blessed Trinity.” Which was two-edged: you don't have to do everything you think you do, and anyway you haven't got the power to do everything you think you have to. So change your ideas, was the point. Stop trying to control things, even for the better.
But it is harder to get Al-Anon's message of freedom, in my judgment, than it is to get AA's. The AA people either get it or die, whereas Al-Anons either learn to get free or else stay miserable; but their misery doesn't kill them. At least not as immediately as alcohol does AAs.
It is liberating to me to think of my parents in counterintuitive categories: Papa, who looked so certain, as the supplicant; Mama, who seemed so tentative, as the prescriber. But Papa got it that not-knowing is the ultimate condition, rather than something to be conquered. And I think Mama did receive the consolations of philosophy, such as they are. Those cathedrals of thought impressed her with their extensive architecture and ponderous authority, and she was reassured within them.
Like all dichotomies this one only works if you hold it at the right distance; don't look too close but don't get blurry either. Of course they were both seeking God as S/He might be found and had the wit to check out some paths where other pilgrims had reported sightings. And we children, now ourselves grown old and fallen away though we may be from the formal institutions of faith, have retained a sufficiency of the real rewards those structures promised, but so often failed, to deliver.
It sure was grand to see my parents again, reborn again, reinhabiting my thoughts and reanimating my spirit, on the feast of the Resurrection, as the year turns fresh and green again...