Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Tuesday Night Yoga Club

I've only met my birth mother twice so far, since finding her last year. She had asked, I have known all my life, via the adoption agency that I be placed with a Catholic family, and I was. Obviously I was raised Catholic. So, when she questioned me as I was driving along the 134 Freeway-- in her typically frank manner-- "when was it that you abandoned your faith," I replied calmly and respectfully, even if unable to pinpoint a date for that dramatic departure that had happened gradually, years ago, after a youth of fervor, hope, and trust had led towards by my late twenties considerable erosion, silt, and stagnation.

Today on the Blue Line my gaze met a woman who I have seen before. She got on at the Green Line junction with her backpack worn oddly like a baby carrier on her breast. I had pegged her for who I thought she was a few seconds after she sat across from me only to rise up when the train left the station. She and another Latina woman I had seen before, around my age both, sell glass necklaces as they display them to the passengers down the aisles. The jewelry's not very pretty. I noticed this afternoon, however, that she also had rosaries.

This led me to think about my own First Communion rosary, a gift from my great-aunt-- the kind of devout Irish Catholic who after getting a scandalous divorce from one Dempsey in the Depression never married again, or even dated. Such was the pattern for the very few (at least among my parent's small circle of friends; another such woman in this state of supposed spinstership was my godmother) who dared to get a civil divorce. It's quite a time warp compared to today. I can recall even in grade school in a considerably less-than-hip downscale neighborhood-- north of collegiate hippie Claremont-- on the cusp of the Age of Aquarius noting how in my class of two dozen there were-- gasp-- a couple of kids with divorced parents, and another one or two down the corner. This stood out subtly in my childhood terrain, and not only for me the cradle Catholic. We did live in a more inhibited mindset among many other religious families, and the geographical distance of a mile from the sylvan Colleges and their preppy scions proved less than the class distinctions that had endured even into the Aquarian Age. "Out of wedlock" and "broken family" were the hushed terms then, not proud claims of "single mother" or "blended" household. Let alone the advent later in the decade of the phenomenon of "living together" or the evolution, perhaps as a result of such relaxed mores, into the waning century's iconic "baby mom." Now millions this Oscar season for their pre-pubescent androgynously named Logans and Taylors praise the lessons of "Juno."

Back to Aunt Olive (again that dated name-- along with the Mabels and Henriettas, later morphed into the likes of Doris and Ethel, then Janet and Nancy, later Amber and Crystal, then Jessica and Jasmine, that mark the past. Caitlyn and Meghan mature. Soon will Genesis, Skyler, and Destiny follow. Four score years hence: wretched monikers for name tags in future old folks' homes) and her rosary. I realize that I do not know where it is. That toy-box I wrote about bilingually ten days ago I thought contained it, but it's not there. I feel guilty about this.

While I keep my past creed nearly as close to my guarded self as my present syncretism, and that'll be a point beyond the scope of today's post, I do find myself feeling disloyal. Not for not professing fidelity to the One Holy and Apostolic Church, but for letting that cocoa-bead and silver, worn and chained, rosary slip away. It is a symbol of my childhood, one of the few I had from so long ago. Perhaps, like Niall's iPod Shuffle which I wish I could find to keep me happy on that Blue Line, it's been a victim of our downsized detritus, our frenzied remodeling. Also, I was off in Oregon or Donegal the past year or two when my spouse coincidentally determined to flush out my packrat burrow and dismantle my magpie heaps. I figure collatoral if not intentional damage resulted. Inside and out, a remake-remodel that finds me stripping down slightly more to essentials as I age.

I do wonder how I'd classify myself in any census of believers. Jewish, agnostic, Celtic Reconstructionist, and residual culturally but no longer professingly Catholic all contend and share a place in my restless soul. Speaking of such an enumeration, scholars suspect far more unbelievers, post-denominational seekers, or those who have outgrown religious categories exist, but, as with surveys on sexual prowess as noted by the respondents themselves, or political preferences, we love to lie to pollsters. John David Paulos (who recently reduced Occam's Razor in his book on unbelief to ask why not place Nature as the Unmoved Mover rather than God and leave it at that for rationalizing creation "ex nihilo")opined in yesterday's L.A. Times how few men would admit to 'erectile disfunction' in any canvassing, but how millions suddenly bought Viagra once it came on the market. I thought of a substantial gay market, legions of pill-poppers, and gag gift givers as alternative clientele to the Bob Dole-Hugh Hefner demographic, but Paulos, the expert on innumeracy and how we're all mislead by numbers and rankings, may sniff at my disrespect for his august mathematical dexterity.

Paulos' main point was not ED but how underestimated he estimates the presence of un-and non-believers in our nation. Christians have declined to 79%. A poll last month tracked only half of my fellow Americans as Protestant, and among Catholics it's only immense immigration that keeps their ranks a quarter of all residents. A third of the U.S. has been or is Catholic, but in that gap falls the lapsed Catholic. I number among a tenth of all Americans. Thirty million raised in the Church but no longer darkening its doors. A fourth of the nation is Catholic, but a third of the nation could have been. Got it? This translates into a tremendous loss of Catholics into that slumpish state. I'd guess many of those I know who grew up with rosaries currently share this same limbo, bardo, or slough.

Last night, Layne felt ill and withdrew from yoga; Niall had been feverish and preferred the Laker game in his despondency. Given we've been at yoga for nearly a year now, and only the past few weeks have I been able for the first time in my life to touch my toes without bending my knees, I'm not exactly an adept. I was left in the room with Rick, the teacher, for the first time in session with nobody else. Reminded me of the Raymond Carver story "Cathedral" which my students like (or pretend to) as much as I do, and my wife's favorite writer too! A grumpy, dissatisfied, opinionated to the point of prejudice middle-aged guy, in the doldrums not for days but decades (sounds familiar), finds in a blind man's unwanted visit-- a friend of his wife-- a revelation. He too comes to terms with this epiphany, which I won't reveal, only after his wife's asleep and the stubborn man must dutifully and uncomfortably begin to entertain his blind guest.

Rick got me, with his help, to lean up against the closed bedroom door on my head, at least for a millisecond or two. Never having been put in this position reminded me of a novel physical sensation, sort of like, to put it delicately, inebriation or intercourse for the first time. It does upend your body in that same consciousness-altering, awkwardly quiet, intensely intimate, and mentally alert manner. But, it did not last as long as what's optimistically labelled "the act of love" at least for most people I hope, nor was it as extended as a swaying night in what the Brits call "out on the tiles." Still, it did make me aware of my blood, my neck, and my arms in novel fashion.

Later, in lieu of my favorite yoga position, "corpse" (although a prim if plump teacher on a video briefly on our cheap on demand cable channel euphemized this to be "full body relaxation" or some New Age nostrum), Rick asked if I was up for a breathing exercise. Feeling like Carver's unnamed narrator dealing with the gnomic guest, I met the challenge of the novel choice. He explained cogently what when repeated verbally (as with many insights) appears banal. But, he told me to breathe in and then let it out gradually, feeling the sensations, letting the pleasure of my exhalation comfort me as I sat upright, legs not quite in lotus position (can't do this due to my bad knee), and quiet. The other day I'd mentioned to Leo that "inner peace" was what I had always longed for and wished the same for him; I recognize in my son my own inability to-- as Pascal lamented was the bane of human existence-- sit alone content in one's own room. At least spiritually-- or metaphorically in our post-Christian Left Coast post-modern milieu-- speaking.

A few minutes later, nearing the end of weekly yoga night's endurance test, I reversed, and then enjoyed the inhalation. Then, logically, I joined the two and followed the course of my calmed breathing, in and out together. This calmed me, and I liked it. He suggested I try it for ten minutes daily and tell him next week how it went. I responded by describing my daily dose of mass transit as an opportunity. He told me that when he lived in NYC, he wasn''t into meditation, but now when he goes back, he can spend his whole journey on the subway in a trance, despite the bums, the vendors, and the congestion-- no mean feat.

He goes on a Zen retreat where this meditation may take up most of the waking day. Monks, he said, in Japan may do this nine days without moving. I asked him if this was the meaning of "Zazen," but he answered that this word is a Japanese rendering of a Chinese "chen" type of sound that in turn comes from Sanskrit "jhana" more or less (I have no dictionary with me) and I then wondered if this was related, in the idea of "concentration" at its core, to our "tenere" in Latin, the "holding on"...

So, I tried trying it today, and lasted a while, I think. This followed the rosary thoughts a half-hour or so later, on a different line, closer to home, as I readied the last few minutes of my itinerary to align with the chance to simply-- breathe. And I close this remembering that Rick-- also a former Catholic, East Coast Italian varietal, also married to a Jewish woman-- the past few classes has brought his Buddhist 108-bead "rosary" ("mala") along, that he fingers while we his students play dead at the close of the weekly workout. So, it all circles back.

I leave the last word to our Pontiff, on where doubt and faith meet. In his book, "Introduction to Christianity, " then Cardinal Ratzinger provides interesting insights:"...both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their
being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other," [faith is present] "through doubt and in the form of doubt" (47).

"Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident" (45).

And, from "God and Man" the future Benedict XIV advised: (36-7): "Faith is always a path. As long as we live we are on the way, and on that account faith is always under pressure and under threat. And it is healthy that it can never turn into a convenient ideology. That it does not make me hardened and unable to follow the thoughts of my doubting brother and to sympathize with him. Faith can only mature by suffering anew, at every stage of life, the oppression and powers of unbelief, by admitting its reality and then finally going right through it, so that it again finds the path opening ahead for a while."

(Ratzinger quotes edited from IFSB posts March 4 & 5 under "Christian Doubt" thread.)
Paulos article: How Many Nonbelievers?

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