Bloody bits of God. Raking fingers through them, flesh touching shredded flesh. But first an emptying to the unself: starve walls thin, butterfly bones, weep waters to hollow. Carve out aching insides, then curl fingers around soft mounds of mortification and begin the refilling. Call it cannibalism, call it kenosis, call it swallowing. Call it paradox. The obliterated divine, a means to sanctification.
Cross your legs on a floor of mirrors, sit in the center of a dark room. Look down into thousands of selves and the millions of jagged squares scattered, piled around you. Curl fingers faster now, move mounds inward and watch the mirror become smeared with red, fogged with mists of leftover warmth.
* * *
My English professors think about Jesus. We are reading The Dream of the Rood when one of them mentions he is obsessed with Christ’s body. In my seminar, a Jewish professor says her childhood fascination was Christianity. Three years after my Writing 5 course, I see my professor administering sacraments at church. Last winter, another one tells me “Christ is an attempt to obviate the strangeness of the divine.”
This is true, I think—that Jesus serves to make the transcendent immanent, to place an ineffable divine into an understandable, identifiable form. But he is also, as Marcel Gauchet writes, “an inexhaustible sign of [God’s] unrepresentable remoteness.” Gauchet argues that “for God’s truth to reach us, he had to adopt a shape analogous to ours, a spectacular way of announcing his unimaginably foreign nature” (Gauchet 119). Even the analogous shape of Christ’s body is, after its resurrection and ascension, absent. The empty tomb sees his materiality removed in a way that heightens its strangeness. Christ’s physicality is most necessary as memory, as a reminder that though he knew mortal suffering, he was not subject to it.
* * *
Eucharist is a reenactment of the Last Supper: Jesus lifted bread and wine, designated them his body and blood respectively. Eat, he said, in remembrance of me. The church centers on this sacrament. Its faithful imbibe these elements that—literally or symbolically, depending on one’s denomination—become Christ.
Before I knew Communion was only for those who believed, before I knew anything about sacrament or ritual, before I knew that it meant something besides reenactment, I abstained. By the time the cups of wine made their way down my pew, I sat hot in my seat, face flushed, with some hidden awareness that I was not to swallow. I was paralyzed, sweaty, palpitating—an embodied aversion to the sacred.
This fall, I go to church again. I sit, again, in my pew, let the women next to me step around my crossed legs, exit the row, and make their way towards the Eucharist. But one week something shifts, so slight I notice it only as absence. My repulsion dissolves. I walk towards the Rector. He reaches to give me the wafer and I reach to take it and we both hesitate and it is awkward and I pull my hand back, try cupping it instead, and he reaches out again and places the cracker on my palm. Mortified, I stare down at crimson carpet, shuffle forward, dip it into the cup, swallow.
Anne Carson says that “the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t.” She goes to church because it “is a space in which nothing else is happening so that thinking about God or about the question of God can happen” (“Anne Carson”). This is my Eucharist, the swallowing of this space, this lack. It is the way I promise to leave myself open for God to fill. It is the way that, unlike Carson, I try to believe the space can be filled.
Gauchet, again: “the Eucharistic sacrament is equally a commemoration of an absence, a ritualistic repetition of an unrepeatable event” (Gauchet 81)
* * *
In my mysticism class, we are studying people who emptied themselves entirely to be filled with God. The catalyst for their transformations is an experience of the divine. A direct encounter with the Other leaves them simultaneously aware of both Divine love and the horror of themselves. The recognition of this horror, of its barrier to union with Love, leads mystics to the process of purification: stripping away attachment to anything but God.
Evelyn Underhill writes that in seeking a state of union, mystics must enter a state of spiritual poverty. My class reads about Antoinette Bourigan, an eighteen-year-old girl who left her entire life behind and wandered into the desert to follow God.
In addition to poverty, a mystic’s purification process often includes mortification, the process of “kill[ing] that old self” (Underhill 217). This means extreme fasting, self-flagellation, cilices, discalcement—anything to retrain senses which have “usurped a place beyond their station” (220). I wonder what someone must believe about themselves to undergo such rituals. What self-love and self-loathing must it require to trust that you can experience union with God?
* * *
“Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power”
T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”
Eliot’s words are not entirely what affects me, but they are necessary to conjure the place where I meet the Other, where I resonate with the poem. Perhaps religious dogma is like this too, important mostly because it generates space for the divine. God seems to dwell in this periphery, to hover just behind the veil of language. “Ash Wednesday” allows its reader to edge up to the veil, to encounter some fleeting shadow of the Other. The poem does not strive to be this Other or to embody it. Too often, I think, attempting to write the ineffable fails because words try to become space, to say their own magic rather than generate it.
* * *
Mircea Eliade defines hierophany as “the manifestation of the sacred,” the endowing of material form with the holy (Eliade 11). The paradox of this embodiment, of course, is the form’s new duality: “by manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself” (12).
My Mysticism professor says that we are this manifestation, that we all contain a spark of the divine. I don’t know how I feel about the image: one dot of pure light surrounded by chalky shadows. It makes me wonder if her God misses these pieces of himself, if he is a God full of holes, waiting to be filled. Maybe he is, in part, the space that I swallow during Communion. Maybe one day I’ll swallow the right amount of absence. My piece of the divine will fit exactly into God’s lack.
But right now I sit in the room with black walls and a mirrored floor. I drag my hands through mounds of pieces and search for a way towards satiation. I hold fragments of God and call them absence.
"Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88." Interview by Will Aitken. The Paris Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2015. <http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5420/the-art-of-poetry-no-88-anne-carson>
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. 1957. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1959.
Gauchet, Marcel. The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. Trans. Oscar Burge. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: The Preeminent Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. New York: Image Books, 1990. Print.