A priest wants to do something different from one Lent to the next, and this time around the difference was going to be yoga.
I would still do the customary Bible study—this year’s devoted to the books of Jonah and Ruth—but proposed supplementing it with an evening yoga class: six once-a-week sessions, free to parish and public alike. Since the instructor was coming from outside the church and would need to be paid, donations would be welcome, though I wasn’t willing to have her pay depend entirely on donations.
The idea for the yoga class came from Suzie Welch, an energetic parishioner in early-middle age who’s devoted to her yoga practice and goes to summer retreats and subscribes to a yoga magazine, back issues of which she has donated to the lounge area of our parish hall. Suzie also suggested a teacher, Alyma Langmaid, a gamin-faced thirty-ish mother of two with long brown braids and, as I would glimpse on the evening of the first class, a lotus flower tattooed on her upper back. Ms. Langmaid was reported to be very excited by the prospect.
“She’s not a religious person, as far as I know,” Suzie told me, “but she’s very spiritual.”
That wasn’t the word I used when vetting the idea with the vestry. Instead I talked about the importance of integrating the physical body into our Christian life, of keeping “the temple of the Holy Spirit” in good health, and of the well-documented medical benefits of yoga.
I also talked about outreach and service to the community, the hope of attracting people not likely to come into a church through the front door. As I’ve done several times in the past, I quoted William Temple’s observation that the Church is the only organization in society that exists primarily for the benefit of people who are not its members. I’ve quoted Karl Marx and gotten fewer raised eyebrows than that one usually gets.
My preemptive announcement that the cost for Ms. Langmaid’s services would come from my discretionary fund anticipated what might otherwise have been the vestry’s main objection. We are not a wealthy parish. Rhonda Darling, a vestry member with pronounced evangelical leanings, did ask if the classes would be held “in the worship space,” with the clear implication that this would not be appropriate.
No, I said, the classes would be downstairs in our parish hall. I was tempted to add that we’d be saving the worship space for the Tantric dancers and painted elephants but knew better than to risk offending Rhonda’s piety and Suzie’s practice for the sake of a laugh. I’m not always that careful.
The second question, which I ought to have anticipated but hadn’t, came from Rhonda’s husband, who shares her theology and temperament. What did I know about the teacher? he asked.
“I haven’t met Ms. Langmaid,” I said, “but she comes highly recommended by Suzie,” who was sitting at my elbow. Suzie wasn’t on the vestry but was never shy about showing up as an advisor when she felt her advice could be helpful. Often it was.
Suzie took the cue. She was tactful. She said nothing about Ms. Langmaid’s presumed lack of church affiliation when she said how very spiritual she was. The comment got some nods of approval, though not from the Darlings nor from my friend Norbert LaClair, who knew me socially and had a better sense of my biases than the others did. When I felt his gaze on me, I didn’t look back.
If it weren’t the title of one of my favorite John Coltrane pieces, I might despise the word spiritual entirely. You may be surprised to hear a clergyman say that, and when I’m on duty, in my collar or my pulpit, I don’t.
But among friends and acquaintances, especially if one of them tempts me beyond sufferance by repeating that hackneyed distinction between “being spiritual”—what they are, of course, though apparently not so spiritual as to have renounced self-congratulation—and “being religious”—what the other dimwits are—then you may hear me hold forth.
I do my best not to go too far. My stock response is that when I hear the word religious, I picture a Latina housemaid kneeling in an unlocked urban church on her half-hour lunch break, rosary beads clenched in her detergent-reddened fists, imploring the Virgin Mother not to let her nephew go to prison. Whereas the word spiritual conjures the image of her employer in deep meditation, centering herself before she goes to Talbots for another pair of shoes.
If the images don’t seem to work and if I’m on to my third glass of wine, I say that in its current usage spirituality boils down to the need to vindicate an exquisitely privileged life. It’s that old Gnostic preoccupation with adeptness, status, and self. It has an upscale bathroom feel to it, all sleek, fresh, and deodorized. Religion is smellier. It involves other people, and other people not of one’s choosing. It is unavoidably social, almost as unavoidably political, and for both those reasons unavoidably painful. At its best—and the nightly news offers plenty of examples of what it can be at its worst—religion values compassion above enlightenment.
But if that were really the case, then would I, a person who obstinately places himself on the religious side of the religion-spirituality divide, be saying the uncharitable things I’ve just said? I always regret saying them when I do. They scarcely apply to Suzie, who has a highly developed social conscience and is never above pitching in with some dirty chore. If my religiosity were everything I claim it is, wouldn’t my attitude toward the well-heeled contemplative in my example be just as tender as what I feel for her housemaid?
This is where a little voice whispers in my ear, “Maybe you should try being more spiritual.”
I made two resolutions for my own observance of Lent: I would attend the yoga class whenever I was able, and I would practice yoga for an hour for every class I missed.
“Lent isn’t just about penance,” I said in my Ash Wednesday sermon. “It’s also about growth and reflection.” This by way of endorsing the yoga class. Which I would be attending mainly as an act of penance. Which meant that I was still clinging to my “religious” understanding of things. Smug as ever in my determination not to be numbered among the spiritually smug. Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?
Alyma Langmaid would, or at least she would give deliverance her best shot. She began by placing the palms of her hands on my buttocks—I kid you not, though I took some kidding afterward from two members of the altar guild who happened to be getting into position on the carpet behind me—and pushing my recalcitrant trunk into the correct position.
“Father Raymond, you are one big lump of resistance!”
“A tight ass,” someone murmured from the back. If Alyma heard the remark—she had to have heard the tittering that came after—she chose to ignore it.
“You need to think of yourself as a wave. A fluid form. You need to relax and let go.”
With her hands on my celibate keister I’m supposed to relax and let go.
“Why are you holding your breath?” She got down on all fours beside me and inched forward till our shoulders aligned. She turned her head, and one of her braids brushed the floor. An image of childhood, two kids under the kitchen table, a sullen boy and a girl beaming into his face.
“I said like a wave, I didn’t say you were going underwater. Breathe, Father . . . breathe.”
A light tap on my back, and she walked to another student. I heard and then saw the bangles on her slim ankles. She was barefoot. I breathed.
I also had a good look around the carpet. Our housekeeping left something to be desired. Cake crumbs, dead ladybugs, lint weevils, psoriasis patches of ground-in sand—I saw more of these than I would have liked. Granted, our parish hall is a well-used space, and we take pride in that, but the thought of a baby crawling here or our guests exercising here was not appealing.
Neither was the prospect of telling the hard-bitten single mother we pay to dust and vacuum once a week that she needed to be less perfunctory. I’d already had to speak to her about smoking on the job. Under one of the shelves I noticed a partially eaten donut and one of the plastic compasses I’d passed out to the kids during a children’s homily, tossed or swept out of sight after being lost or discarded. Nobody’s treasure, I guess.
I was not doing a good job of centering myself.
Suzie Welch caught my eye from across the room. She was the only one besides the instructor who came in a leotard, toting a sack with her own rolled-up mat, towel, and water bottle. Her raised eyebrows and smile seemed to mean “Isn’t this great?” I smiled and nodded before assuming the next pose and renewing my inspection of the carpet.
After class ended, I went to my office, ostensibly to winnow the latest heap of church mail, but mostly to give Alyma a chance to meet her students without my interference. I also wanted to see if one of my least favorite chores felt any less desolate after an hour of controlled breathing and mind-body recalibration.
If a spiritual type ever wanted further confirmation of the wasteland that is “organized religion,” she could hardly do better than a heap of church mail. Aside from a rare personal letter or a stray donation not addressed to the treasurer and thus routed to my pile, it’s a rank assortment of garbage that at times will literally turn my stomach: ugly brochures for even uglier church furnishings, kitschy Sunday School materials designed to make the Gospel compatible with SpongeBob and My Little Pony, incendiary newsletters from the Christian Right—“Pray away the gay”—pitches from insurance companies and public relations firms, more of the same from software mongers and mold inspectors, appeals from Nigerian scammers with harrowing stories only a little less specific than the requested amounts, “sermon aids” for burnt-out preachers, retreat opportunities guaranteed to renew the faith, the hopes, and even the marriages of their burnt-out congregants, cut-rate candles, fluorescent plastic statuary, crosses of every size and hue, empty or occupied, dead Christs, suffering Christs, mixed-race Christs, Uncle-Sam-Wants-You Christs, Bibles in denim, in calfskin, on CD, an upcoming television documentary on Noah’s Ark, recently discovered and “scientifically verified,” with study guides for every pastor who sends in an order before the deadline.
Alyma was standing in the doorway.
“So, it went pretty well, don’t you think?” she said.
“It went very well.”
“I wasn’t sure anyone would show up.”
She had a madras shawl draped over her leotard and was redoing one of her braids.
“I wasn’t either, but this was a respectable crowd. I counted fourteen. I’ve gotten fewer on Good Friday.”
“Someday I want to ask you about that. Why it’s called ‘good’? Not now, but someday.”
“Someday, then.” I handed her the schedule for Holy Week services that I’d be mailing out in another week or so. “In case you wanted to see for yourself.”
“Thank you.” She gave the sheet a quick perusal. “I didn’t know Christians did vigils. I see you’ve got a vigil. Two vigils actually. They have vigils in India too.”
“And we have yoga in the church.”
“Right! Were most of the people tonight members?”
About three-quarters were. Of the remainder, most were guests of parishioners, including the boyfriend of our teenaged acolyte, Nicole. Two had come on their own in response to the notice I’d put in the newspaper. All but three were women.
“You didn’t mind about the namaste?”
I felt a tingle in my buttocks. “Well, it was . . . oh that, yes, no, I didn’t mind. Why would I mind?”
She explained that it had been an issue when she gave an after-school class at the regional high school. The principal had spoken to her, and she’d had to drop that part from her routine.
“You’re not supposed to be doing anything religious in a public school. Which I get, totally. But I thought here it would be all right.”
She said she had better be on her way. Her kids, ages three and six, wouldn’t settle down to sleep until their mom was home. I put my hands together and bowed. “Namaste,” I said.
She giggled, as if I’d spontaneously thrown myself into a handstand and walked around my desk. Then she composed herself and returned the salute. She continued to smile. She may have blushed. I found the whole thing endearing.
I missed the next class because of a hospital visit, an emergency room visit to be exact, but I practiced when I got home. Alyma had handed out some drawings of the poses she taught us the first night and step-by-step instructions for movement and breathing. I did my best to follow. When the phone rang, I wasn’t going to answer it, wanting instead to hold my concentration and my pose. But by the third ring—one ring before the answering machine would kick in—I was up. At that hour, past ten o’clock, the call was bound to be important, possibly from the hospital. But no one was there. I said “hello” a second time. I didn’t resume my practice after hanging up.
By the third session the group had grown to nearly twenty. Alyma said that it was good to have me back. She also had us introduce ourselves so that the new pupils would feel at home.
I was surprised to see an older mountain-man type, who’d placed a mat at the front of the room, close to the instructor, and lined up his work boots beside it. I learned that he was there to reduce the costs of his “managed care” health insurance. “Reg or Reggie, it don’t matter,” he said. Nicole’s boyfriend was joined by another boy the same age with a fondness for the word shit and an irresistible need to glance at me whenever he said it.
Most surprising was the attendance of Rhonda Darling, who said she’d shown up the week before “expecting to see Father Ray on the rug.” She was already seated there when I came in, her thick legs folded loosely in front of her. From past services at the church, I knew incense bothered her breathing (I suspect the irritation has more to do with liturgical biases than respiration), so I wondered if she’d protest when Alyma lit two sticks once the introductions were done. Rhonda said nothing, though she waved her hand in front of her face when Alyma’s back was turned.
Alyma took everything in stride. With one soft “excuse me,” the shit business ceased. She parried Reggie’s flirtatious joshing with gentle redirection: “Where are your feet supposed to be, Reggie?” she asked, and when he failed to understand where his eyes were supposed to be, she rose to adjust his head and circulate around the room. When Rhonda coughed a second time, she didn’t ask if the smoke was bothering her—and there was enough of it by then to have bothered even a good Anglo-Catholic—but abruptly stuck the lit ends of both sticks in the dirt of a potted wandering Jew. When Suzie said, “But I liked the incense,” Alyma retrieved both sticks, blew them clean, and with a slight bow laid them at the head of Suzie’s mat.
As I had the first night, I went to my office after class. Alyma stopped in before she left. I was hoping she would. By the look on her face she was about to ask me a question, but she never got the chance. No sooner had she stepped into the office than Suzie appeared in the doorway with Rhonda in her Jesus-fish T-shirt. Suzie wanted Alyma to come out and critique her execution of one of the “more advanced poses” she’d learned in her other class. Rhonda wanted to have a word with me.
Probably more than any other mainstream Christian denomination the Episcopal Church is full of people who secretly long to be somewhere else. Lapsed Roman Catholics who can no longer abide their church’s teachings on sexuality, renegade Evangelicals unwilling to give up Darwin or tithe their income, disenchanted Unitarians for whom a steady diet of “progressive” platitudes lacks metaphysical fiber—they all find asylum here, but only a few ever find contentment. Like most immigrants and exiles, they bring their customs with them. Any new world has to be an improvement over the old, they believe, provided they make it look as much like the old world as they can tolerate.
On the plus side, these ecclesial expatriates give us a breadth of sensibility we would otherwise lack. They enrich our tradition, they keep us from getting smug. On the negative side, those of us who chose our tradition not because it was the next best thing to something else but because it was the very best thing we could find are forever in danger of having our fragile haven co-opted by the religious equivalent of corporate raiders, people who’d be delighted to have Knights of Columbus raffles in the basement or tent revivals out on the lawn. Or little stone Ganeshes on the windowsills. Or little Oliver Cromwells smashing off their trunks.
Ganesh was what Rhonda Darling wanted to talk about. She must have thought my first responses evasive or obtuse. She kept repeating “I don’t mind the incense,” so I couldn’t understand what she was minding if that was okay. Also, because I took off my glasses for yoga, I happened not to notice what Rhonda found so objectionable. I knew there was a picture tacked to the wall behind the incense holder, brightly colored and vaguely religious, but I’d assumed it was some yoga celebrity or a chakra chart. No, Rhonda explained, it was a god, an animal-headed Hindu god.
She wasn’t prejudiced against other people’s beliefs, she said, and didn’t subscribe to the “superstition” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who hold that a likeness of that kind is an open invitation to demonic possession. At least she didn’t think she did. But she did believe, and assumed I also believed, that “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” Our furnishings should reflect that—especially if our yoga class was intended as outreach to people who didn’t know our faith.
I listened as closely as I could, wishing the yoga had improved my powers of attention. The problem is not that I don’t listen carefully to what people are saying to me, but that I listen so carefully I begin to ponder the first non-weather-related thing they say, even as they continue talking. If people would just pause! Our talk is too much like radio. By the fourth or fifth sentence I can be very far behind.
In this case I was halfway around the world, not in India but on the slopes of Mount Athos, where the Marian devotion of the monks is so exclusive that no other female creature, not even a chicken, is allowed to come near. It sounds fanatical (it also sounds like a sly excuse for gynophobia), but it is in the nature of love to be radical in devotion. “There is no God but Allah” is the language proper to a lover, though a good liberal would prefer to say, “There is no God but Allah for me.” I tried to hear Rhonda’s protests in a lover’s light. If we wouldn’t expect a synagogue to give houseroom to a crucifix, I suppose we might not expect a church to put up a picture of Ganesh.
“Exactly,” Rhonda said. “I couldn’t have said it better. For a while I thought you were thinking about something else.”
“I was thinking, but not about something else.”
I really had no problem with the elephant-headed yogi. After all, it was in our basement, not upstairs, and it belonged to our guest. I tend to favor the widest application of St. Paul’s insistence that all things are clean for a Christian, even “food offered to idols,” provided we don’t ride roughshod over the scruples of the weaker sheep. I quoted the passage to Rhonda, but it gave her no pause.
“That’s precisely my point. We need to be looking out for the weaker sheep.”
I scanned her face for any trace of irony. I saw none.
“I think it’s fair to say that Suzie is very much a weaker sheep. I didn’t even know what the elephant-head was called. She knew right away.”
If I’d had any suspicion whatsoever—and I admit to a slight suspicion—that Alyma was trying to push the boundaries, a bit, it disappeared with her response when I meekly explained why Ganesh might pose a problem for some of our parishioners. If I’m not mistaken, she was close to tears. Not wanting me to see them may have been her reason for turning quickly and leaving my office. I followed and found her taking the picture off the wall.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you want me to stop coming?”
“That is definitely not what I want! I don’t think any of your students want it either.”
She rolled up the picture and dropped it in a wastebasket. She swallowed hard.
I retrieved the picture and rolled it the opposite way to flatten it out.
“I heard that Ganesh is the god of lost things. Is that so?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. Somebody told me he was a yoga god. That’s why I hung it up. I’m not even religious.”
“But you’re very spiritual.”
“You’ve been talking to Suzie.”
“Yes, and I’ve also been talking to you.” I lowered my gaze to Ganesh’s soft cow eyes. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hang this in my office. It will remind me of some things I don’t want to lose. Come help me.”
We went back to my office, where I tacked the picture to a bulletin board I have next to my filing cabinets. A holy card of St. Francis, given me by a Roman Catholic colleague, was displayed nearby, along with black-and-white postcards of Mother Jones and Sojourner Truth. Alyma wondered if I might be “asking for trouble.” I told her I wasn’t. In the parish hall the image was subject to anyone’s interpretation, but in my office it was subject to my interpretation. And my interpretation, as I would explain to anyone who asked, was that God is bigger than any of our creeds. And that there were limits to what I was prepared to let the weaker sheep put their hooves on—this part I kept to myself—including my right to decorate my office as I chose.
“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s with the elephant’s head? I think of animal heads on gods as more of an Egyptian thing. Is there some special symbolism for that? Can you sit for a minute?” We sat. Very softly she blew her nose.
“Probably there is. All I know is the story behind it.”
“Ganesh was the son of a god and a goddess. I’m not sure about the names—I think the father may have been Shiva. The mother was . . . a mother goddess, I guess. One day the mother asked Ganesh to stand guard while she bathed herself. But when the father found out, he got jealous, so he chopped off Ganesh’s head.”
“Who’s been in Freudian analysis ever since.”
“Nothing. Tell me the rest of the story.”
“The goddess was so upset, and she cried and cried.” Alyma let loose a small laugh, maybe thinking how close she’d come to crying herself. “The god felt bad that she was so upset, and he promised he would replace Ganesh’s missing head with the first head he saw.”
“He couldn’t just put the old head back on?”
“I guess not. Anyway, an elephant came along, and so the god took his head and stuck it on his son’s body. I’m not sure what became of the poor elephant.”
“It’s hard to beat a man when it comes to making amends, isn’t it?”
She didn’t get that joke either. No matter, it was a pretty lame joke. And I was making amends too, wasn’t I? Before the next yoga session, I placed a vase of fresh flowers where the picture of Ganesh had been.
No one responded when Alyma asked who’d put the flowers on the little lamp stand she used for class. “They’re so beautiful,” she said and then reverenced them with her palms pressed together.
“Looks like you got a secret admirer,” Reggie said from his front seat on the floor. “I’m bettin’ a gal like you’s got a few.”
“It takes one to know one,” someone said—Rhonda, I thought, but I couldn’t be sure. I had lowered my gaze.
“I’ll never tell,” Reggie said. I looked up to see him holding one of his arms aloft, taking the pledge.
“Hey, what happened to the purple elephant man?” One of the teenage boys was pointing over the heads of his classmates. “He was cool.”
“Oh, I gave him to a friend,” Alyma said.
“Maybe the friend gave you the flowers.”
“Well, whoever gave us the flowers, thank you. They’re very lovely. Blessings on this sacred space and on all of us here.”
Rhonda said an approving “Amen.”
“So, let’s get started . . .”
Alyma didn’t drop by the office after class. I hoped she wasn’t embarrassed by the flowers. After all, anyone could have put them there. It could be she dropped by and went away when she saw I was busy. Rhonda had entered behind me even before I’d made it to my desk. Her round face was flushed from the workout. A few damp tendrils stuck to her cheek.
“I wanted to thank you for hearing me out last week.”
“I’m glad you came to talk to me.”
“I noticed the picture was down.” She hadn’t yet noticed its new location. She didn’t need to—Suzie was right behind her.
“I wanted to see where you put my Ganesh. It’s just like Alyma to pass a gift to someone who needs it more than she does. That’s what I call spiritual.”
Near the end of Lent and our yoga program I became aware of two and possibly three rumors in the parish. Like many rumors, they were funny from a distance but not so funny up close.
The first was that I was paying for the yoga classes with plate offerings rather than my discretionary fund. Anyone on the vestry could have dispelled the rumor at once, though it didn’t come to me through the vestry. I considered clearing things up with an announcement in the pew bulletin, but then I thought, nuts to that.
The second rumor was that I’d paid Alyma two thousand dollars, of which, I might add, she would have earned every penny. What I’d actually paid her was a flat five hundred, less than a hundred per session. Any preach-off-the-back-of-an-envelope supply priest who comes to spell me when I’m on vacation gets a hundred plus mileage at the IRS rate; if he plays his cards right, he’ll get a free lunch too. I wasn’t going to respond to that rumor either.
The third rumor might not even have been a rumor and did not come via my ears in any case. I found hints of it in a manila envelope on my desk blotter on the Saturday before the last Sunday of Lent. Inside was a printed photo of Alyma, apparently downloaded from her yoga center’s website. She was in the sun pose, down on one knee, hands extended above her head. Next to her was a better-than-competent drawing of Ganesh in a full lotus with his trunk snaked around her shoulders and stuffing a bouquet of daisies down her ink-enhanced cleavage. His bulging eyes were skewed in her direction like a second pair of breasts.
The image was so startling, so altogether vicious, that it was a moment before I realized that Ganesh was holding a prayer book and sporting a clerical collar.
My first impulse was to crumple the thing in my fist. I started to but thought better of it. There are two big mistakes a person can make with this sort of thing. The first is to broadcast the offense like an affronted schoolmarm in the hopes of arousing outrage on one’s behalf and shaming the culprit (who will, of course, not be shamed at all but delighted). The other mistake, perhaps the worse of the two, is to bear the affront in silence. That is what the stoical type wants to do and also what the perfect idiot wants to do, because his silence will inevitably seem like guilt once he’s forced by escalating provocations to break it. “Why didn’t you tell us this before?”
I chose Suzie for my witness, a cool customer notwithstanding her gushiness on certain subjects and someone in on the yoga project from the start. Also someone I felt I could trust. Since she made a point of holding herself aloof from run-of-the-mill church gossip, I could count on her to do the same in this case. It turned out she was not completely aloof: in fact, she was my source for the other two rumors, which she shared with me just before I showed her the picture.
I could have done a better job of introducing it. “This is what I found on my desk yesterday” was all I said before handing her the envelope.
Like me she needed a few moments to take in all the details. When she looked up, I could see that she was deeply offended. Had I made a mistake?
“I don’t see the humor in this,” she said firmly. I was dumbfounded for a second.
“Neither do I!”
My initial shock—did she think I’d drawn this?—was immediately replaced by the shock of realizing how closely I’d been watching her face. Wasn’t that another reason I’d chosen her as my confidante? Hadn’t it crossed my mind, absurdly, that the picture might be hers?
She was looking at it again, shaking her head.
“This is sick.”
The words were out of my mouth before I had time to think: “This is religion.”
I meant this is what religion bears with. This is the Cross. This is where we have to go if we choose to follow Jesus, into the obscenity and insecurity and meanness of the world. It isn’t all about regular breathing and heightened consciousness. Instead, I’d simply blurted out “This is religion,” and I doubt very much that she understood it in the way I intended, which is to say in any other way than what she meant by the word sick.
The last yoga class was that Wednesday. I didn’t go.
The good thing about Holy Week is that you can fold the troubles of your life into the narrative. Betrayal, doubt, fear, failure, dreadful aloneness—all of them fit, especially by Thursday and Friday. The most meaningful Holy Week I ever had was during the year of my divorce. This year’s had to be the runner-up.
I was unable to stop brooding over what I’d found on my desk, not only the obscene picture but the letter that followed. I found it after the Palm Sunday service, in an envelope under one of the palms.
I won’t be coming to Holy Week services this year, and I didn’t want you to take my absence the wrong way. I’m not angry or ill. In fact, I think I’m healthier than I’ve ever been. Part of my healing process has involved coming to see that Christianity or probably any other type of organized religion is not the right thing for me.
I suppose it’s ironic for me to come to this conclusion after you went to all the trouble of setting up yoga classes for Lent, which I still think was a very good idea. I assume you did it mainly for me. Maybe not, but it was my idea. You showed a very genuine openness that I’ve always appreciated in you.
So why am I moving on? It truly has nothing to do with you—if anything, you’ve probably stalled my decision longer than it should have been stalled.
When I first started my yoga practice at Alyma’s studio, it was easier for me to compartmentalize what I did there on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and what I did at St. Thomas’ on Sunday. I didn’t feel any conflict between the two, though I suppose I was hoping for more of a sense of harmony that never quite came through.
But when we started having yoga in the same space where I went to church, it became harder for me to avoid the stark contrast in my experiences of the two. The yoga left me feeling at peace with myself and with all creatures. Church, on the other hand, was always such a struggle. Either I was struggling with something in the Bible that I couldn’t quite get my head around or something in the general church atmosphere that just wasn’t my thing.
The worst of it was struggling with not feeling anything at all—even though I wanted very much to feel something. I just felt blank. A terrible empty blank. I looked around me, and I found it impossible to believe that anyone else was feeling what I felt. Maybe they do. The point is, I didn’t want to feel that way anymore.
So I’m taking my leave, but with many thanks for your kindness to me and especially to Mother when she was dying and to Jeremy when he was having his trouble at school. (Much better now, I’m happy to report!) I hope you won’t feel terribly put out with me.
Most of all, I hope you won’t feel put out with Alyma. My decision is not a result of any persuasion on her part. In fact, I think that my decision, which I’ve shared with her, has made her feel a bit uncomfortable, so maybe if you should see her again, you can put her at ease. I know you will try, because that’s what you always do.
It would be unjust to call this a betrayal and inaccurate to say I took it as one. But abandonment, yes, I felt that. Jesus to the Twelve after some of his followers had left him: “Will you also go away?” Suzie was a counterweight I could often depend on. Now she was gone. A sense of futility came with her departure; she herself had sensed it in her letter, though like most people of her tribe, she preferred to think of futility as irony. But if she had to go, Holy Week was the right time.
My favorite service of the week, and really of the entire Church year, is Maundy Thursday. With the right mood the liturgy can evoke the Last Supper it commemorates. The predictably poor attendance contributes to the overall effect. The stripping of the altar at the close, the dimming of the lights, the reading of Christ’s sorrows in Gethsemane are bound to move anyone smack up against his own mortal predicament. The poor disciples nod off, just as we do. Unless we’re political prisoners or strict ascetics, we’re bound to feel like mere spectators on Good Friday, but on Maundy Thursday, we’re all members of the cast. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. That’s us.
It’s also on Maundy Thursday that the priest washes the feet of any who volunteer, never more than a few at St. Thomas’. People who’d been to the service in years past might have noticed a slight difference in my posture as I knelt in front of the basin. My spine was straighter, my shoulders less hunched. I breathed more deliberately. As always I took off my glasses before starting the rite. And as always I kept my eyes on the work. Probably some people come forward hoping for a more intimate connection, face-to-face, but just as probably some hold back because they fear that very thing. I try to allay those fears, if I can.
We were done in a few minutes. Four pairs of feet out of a congregation of ten or so, two women, one man, a child. I could have guessed whose they were, but I wouldn’t have been sure. I could only be sure of whose they were not. Rhonda had told me more than once that the service is “way too Catholic” for her.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t looking at anyone too closely that night. I didn’t want to be reminded of who was missing, I didn’t want anyone to take my distress personally. I didn’t want anyone to sense my asking, “Was it you?”
It’s customary to follow the service with a silent vigil that lasts until dawn on Good Friday. A few of the most faithful or the most troubled—often the same people—will drift in and out, usually in the early hours of the evening or in the half hour before dawn. If this year’s vigil was like others in the past, I’d be marking the wee hours of the morning by myself. And with Suzie gone, there’d be one less person to watch with me an hour.
With that thought it hit me: I hadn’t done an hour’s practice to make up for the class I’d missed last week—the class when I might have managed to tell Alyma why we call Good Friday good. So much for my good intentions. At least I could follow through on the yoga.
Shortly after the steeple clock tolled midnight, I heard the door open and close quietly and knew that my last remaining companion had gone. The candle flames flickered with the draft and then settled. I moved from my pew to the carpet in the center aisle, took off my shoes and glasses, and got into my first pose.
The sound of the door opening again cut short my routine, though not by much. I’d been at it for most of an hour. I didn’t want to be a distraction to whoever had entered. I also didn’t want to seem ashamed of what I’d been up to. So I simply pulled myself into a lotus position and sat still on the floor. I relaxed when I heard the pew creak with the visitor’s weight and a soft jangle of keys or jewelry. I breathed deeply and prayed.
I was startled awake by a pair of cool, firm hands, one pressed to my forehead and the other to the base of my spine. In my weariness I must have been slumping, and I was grateful for the readjustment.