The Liability of Mobility

Happy New Year, Reader!  I hope your holiday went well, or at least was tolerable.  I didn’t get into any fistfights with family this year, so I’m counting that as a win.

The bar is low in my life.

But while I’m sitting at my desk waiting until a concert tonight (the centerpiece of which is Holst’s Planets suite, which is one of my favorites), I keep looking over my shoulder at the parking lot behind my building and worrying.  The thing is that I live in a city and, in cities, parking is an incredibly tricky concept:  there are lots of cars, but not lots of spaces.  And they’re currently resurfacing my parking lot, which means I had to find somewhere else to put my car.

First world problems, I know; you may even be wondering why I have a car, living in the city.  I don’t use it much here—I walk to anywhere within about a mile and a half radius, which is the vast majority of the pieces of my life.  But I have it so that I can leave here.  My friends are several states away and I can’t afford to buy a plane ticket when I want to go home to see them; I sometimes have people or places I need to visit that are definitely not within walking distance and aren’t on any of the bus lines, either.  (Sadly, my city doesn’t have a subway or el system.)  I also have it so that I, as an up-and-coming pastor, don’t have to rely on the vagaries of public transit (rather less reliable and far-reaching here than in, say, NYC) to be able to get to my church or the hospital or one of my parishioners’ houses.

I also, to be perfectly honest, still have my car because of the freedom in it.  When my grandfather finally had to give up his driver’s license because he simply couldn’t see anymore to drive safely, he didn’t give it up voluntarily.  His sons had to wrest it from him because it was his last link to not having to depend on the rest of the family to get him around; it was his way of telling himself he wasn’t being a burden.  I get that, at a visceral level.  As a hella independent woman, I love that my car affords me the opportunity to leave if I must and go wherever I want (provided, of course, she holds together; she is almost 15 now, but I can’t even handle the idea of her demise and so refuse to acknowledge it).

In America, a car is a ticket to anywhere you have enough gas to go.  A car is a home—literally, for some, and I admit to having spent some nights in my car when I was travelling and couldn’t afford another option.  And my car is currently sitting in a lot where it might be towed.

Before you lecture me on taking risks with the possibility of towing, dear concerned Reader, let me say a) I know; there’s a story about a van in Chicago and a middle school youth group that has made me painfully aware of city towing consequences, and b) I did play by the rules for part of this.  One of the frustrating things about this parking lot makeover is that we weren’t given any avenues about what to do with our cars by the folks who own the building, simply the command last night to move them (I’m bitter about this mostly because they were supposed to do this repair over the holiday break when most of us weren’t here anyway, but nooo, now we’re all in the way…damn right I’m being petty about it).  So this morning I actually put my car in a lot, which wasn’t cheap.  But I could only leave it there so long, and besides, I had to get to work.  For the remaining hours, it’s not so much that I couldn’t afford the cost of meters or garages or whatever (I could definitely jostle other things in the budget to make it work, because even in being poor I’m pretty fortunate about the financial burdens I have; trust me, I’m aware that I could be a lot worse off and this is a tiny expense); it’s that it’s frustrating to me that I should have to simply because a company couldn’t be bothered to honor its commitments and my building super couldn’t be bothered to help a bunch of graduate students re-house their cars for a day.

sesser-pd-012Why am I complaining about so small a thing, you may well ask?  And what on earth does this have to do with God, especially as the first post of a new year?  Part of it is the simple amount of mental energy I’m putting into this.  My car has been tucked into the back of a lot that is usually half-empty for about three and a half hours now hoping against hope that the school that owns the lot won’t do a random sweep, and I tell you I have been nervous the entire time.  It’s exhausting, quite frankly, and of a far higher cost than the stupid garage would have been.  The principle of the thing is super ridiculous beside my concern that I might have to go rescue my car from the impound.

But what if I were even half as aware of God as I am currently of my car?  I don’t mean that someone could take God away from me, but how often have I considered the freedom God gives with the dedication I have to the freedom of this vehicle?  In this new year, how do I understand God’s place in my life—in relation to the car or not?  How can I live with the passion of appreciating God even more than that with which I appreciate my car?

UPDATE:  The lot is finished, my car was not towed, and she’s safely back in her spot.  I’m almost ashamed of how much my body unwound, Reader, when I saw her sitting right where I left her.  When have I ever had that intense of a reaction to realizing God is still, and always, with me, right where I walked away from Him?

 

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Matthew 6:21, LEB)

Advent, Week Two: Peace

Comfort, comfort my people!
    says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
    that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice was saying:
    “Call out!”
And another said,
    “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass;
    all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up
    and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up;
    the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes.  (Isaiah 40:1-11, CEB) 

No justice, no peace!” we have heard many times this year.  “Peace” has come to mean “silence,” “acceptance,” “docility.”  “Peace” has come to mean not the absence of strife but the ignorance of it, the half-closed eyes that cannot or will not see it. The women of the Church do not want that kind of peace.

“Peace” is that which is often “passed” in church services, a synonym for greeting the others seeking peace in that hour.  Yet how often do we bring peace into a service, no matter our gender, in the heartache of a broken world?  How often do we have it to give?  If we are not at peace, if we are not still within our souls, how shall we pass anything but turmoil to our neighbors?  Shall we simply sit silent while greetings flow around us?  For women, the silence is both no option and the only option.  “Peace” is what many say as a way of saying, “stop talking.”  The chafing bonds of Paul’s injunctions spoken in a different time of specific context close women’s mouths in many denominations and they are told to be at peace, to have faith in this God-blessed structure.  “Peace” has become shorthand for a false tranquility that many women are told to feel so as not to be overly emotional, so as not to be disruptive, so as not to overturn the idea that women are somehow inherently gentler, more peaceful.

The Church must stop conflating peace with submission.  The Church, here in the expectant waiting of Advent with breaths caught in hope of all that the coming birth might do, must comfort its people, must “speak compassionately to Jerusalem” and to every city, to every nation, to every woman that “her compulsory service is ended.”  The Church must recognize that all are invited to see the glory of God, that there is neither male nor female in Christ, that the vision of the heavens is to see the valleys and the downtrodden raised up.

Peace is not silence.  Peace is not acquiescence.  Peace is not the status quo remaining unexamined or unchanged.  Peace is the active inclusion of the full body of Christ, peace is the ability to live without fear, peace is the solid truth that equity is part of God’s vision for God’s creation.  Eden was at peace when woman was included and valued; the false hierarchy of the Fall has no place in God’s heaven.  Peace comes when voices are raised to challenge the culture in which the Church exists, taking on the songs of the season like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” because people of faith will not be complicit in the denigration of women’s choices.  Peace comes when male leaders, both lay and ordained, empower women within their congregations to speak God’s word as pastors, liturgists, teachers, and board members. Peace comes when we challenge the sacred texts speaking of sin and “she” in one sentence; peace comes when we teach and learn that women are not inherently more sinful than men no matter how many times female pronouns are attached to wicked cities or abstract ideas.  Peace is something that we make happen; it does not come on its own but requires our midwifery as the people of God actively birthing peace.

Peace cannot be a command from another who does not acknowledge the anger, the sorrow, the pain, the distance held within; peace must be a choice to be calm in our very souls because we actively decide to rest.  Peace comes as shalom, a wholeness of our very selves.  To the women of the Church, to the women of the world who wait in strife this second week of Advent says “peace” not as a directive but as a gift as yet undelivered.  “Peace,” it offers, knowing that peace has not come just yet, that action is still required though weary hearts are worn by the howling winds of all that is not peaceful.

May you find peace because you have chosen, in the full power of your own agency and value, to receive it as the gift of a God fully aware of all that is not at peace yet.  May peace, like hope, be your armor and strength.

Spiritually Tongue-Tied

My dear Reader, thank you for hanging in with me while I figure out my new schedule.  I’ve now had every class at least once and have started both of my jobs; it will take another week or so for things to truly settle into a rhythm, but we’re getting there.  For now, look for an update every other week (sorry, I can’t yet guarantee which day.  Consider it a surprise…coming from a person who hates surprises.  Can’t have everything, I guess).

I can tell that I’m finding at least some footing because I’ve reverted to my practice of calling wherever I sleep “home”—I no longer say “I’m going back to the house” but “I’m headed home after work.”  This is a lot weirder to me considering I very strongly understand “home” to be back in the Land of Pilgrims—but one identity crisis at a time.

My schedule is a huge part of the reason I’ve been posting erratically and it’s a very easy thing to blame, but a smaller and very important part is that I haven’t really had anything to say.  I bounce from thing to thing here, barely registering what part of the week I’m in.  This is one of the reasons I’m so fiercely adamant about maintaining this blog when it might be easier to let it slide into internet oblivion:  especially when I’m crazy busy, I need to stop and make space for the Spirit—or recognize the many places the Spirit isn’t waiting for my invitation.  You’d think that being in divinity school I’d just be awash in Spirit interactions, but it isn’t like that.

I take that back; there are definitely parts that are like that.  I’m still wrapping my head around one class that opened in prayer (my academic mind just freaked out at the mixing of education and religion there, even though I know perfectly well that’s the whole damn point of the endeavor; oh, the ways we are trained).  It’s super weird to me that I shift from class to chapel on Wednesdays and that’s a thing we do and everyone understands it (no, chapel isn’t mandatory, but a lot of first years come because it’s part of building the community here).  I got into a conversation with a housemate of mine the other day about the ways the Church creates sacred space but then makes that space so sacred it eclipses God and must be preserved even at the cost of ministry.  It may seem odd to you that all this seems odd to me, Reader, considering I’ve been keeping a blog on where various aspects of the spiritual pop up in my life for years, but this kind of concentration is brand new.  Coming to this from a secular job is a little bit of cultural whiplash.

So I do have a million things to say about spiritual implications in my life, and perhaps that’s the problem.  There’s too much about God and not a whole lot of God going on in my world at the moment.  I had an unforeseen spare hour on Thursday and I took it to go exploring—I’ve made a point of taking any free time I have to just wander around the campus and the city and try to understand where I am and where other things are.  (There are some amazing restaurants here, y’all.)  I ended up in a chapel that belongs to the Episcopalians.  It’s a beautiful A-frame church made of ceder, so when you walk in you feel like you’re breathing inside a hope chest.  (Okay, maybe that only works for me; my mother had a ceder hope chest when I was kid in which she kept blankets and that smell is very specific in my memory.)  There were strings of origami cranes criss-crossing the back window and thick, knitted, deep purple cushions on the oak-plank pews.  It was surprisingly rustic for this urban space—and I curled up on a back pew and just breathed for a while.

So much of my relationship with God is so volatile (as you have seen, Reader).  It has been some time since I just sat in God’s presence and was, not having to carry on a conversation with Him or yell about what He had done most lately that had made my life harder or offer endless apologies for having fucked up yet again.  God didn’t want to hear from me and He didn’t want to talk to me; He just wanted to breathe in that ceder space with me.

And we did.

And that was enough.

I eventually pulled out one of my textbooks to continue my assigned reading about the Roman perception of early Christians because, to my chagrin, I’ve gotten myself to a space where I can’t spend a full hour simply being without freaking out about what I’m not doing.  (This despite having totally wasted most of an evening this week doing things that are decidedly neither helpful nor productive; this is a conversation I think we’ve all had and are perhaps still having with ourselves, about what productivity looks like and when you feel you must have it.)  But sitting in that sanctuary (especially given my predilection for sanctuaries) with this book and the air conditioning unit thunking on and off was such an unexpectedly centering moment.  It was with God rather than thinking circles around Him.

How about you, Reader?  Where are the places where you need to be a little tongue-tied so you can clear all the words that are crowding your space?  What spaces do you have—real or metaphorical—that allow you to just breathe in the ceder-scented Spirit for a while?  Can you get there?

Your continued prayers are most welcome and desired, Reader, if you think to offer them.  It’s loud in all manner of ways here, and I need to remember the peace of not needing to constantly add to it.

 

 

But Jesus was in the back of the boat, asleep on a cushion. So they woke him up and asked him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to die?”  Then he got up, rebuked the wind, and told the sea, “Calm down! Be still!”  Then the wind stopped blowing, and there was a great calm.  (Mark 4:38-39, ISV)

Greetings from the Wicket Gate

In case you’re wondering where that is, here’s a short explanation.  As Magister so rightly pointed out, everywhere I go is the Land of Pilgrims, but I’m definitely in a different geographical spot than I was a week ago.  And you still don’t need to know exactly where that is; as ever with this blog, I want what I’m doing to be more important than who I am or where I’m living.  I also want you, Reader, to be able to map your own pilgrimage onto parts of mine, not because we’re doing the same thing but because any similarities our paths have may help us understand each other and this God Who sees the whole of it that much better.

So I’m here, and I realize that the metaphorical name for it doesn’t quite fit; as with any borrowing of metaphors, it’s not perfect.  I’m at seminary (at long last, you might be saying) and to say that it is the only narrow way to the King’s Highway would be a terrible miscarriage of what seminary is and what the King is expecting of His people.  But for me, Reader, this is a start to the journey even as it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing and what God has been doing through me.

For now, I wanted to check in and let you know I’d safely arrived; thank you for your prayers and hopes for me in the transition, as it was quite a whirlwind.  I’m now mostly unpacked (no one needs this many towels, where did they all come from?) and convinced that I’m never allowed to have a full-sized house since I accrue stuff at an alarming rate if I have space for it.

And if I don’t.

It’s funny how one of my primary desires is to find home here—and, equally, to accept that I won’t.  My heart was left behind in the Land of Pilgrims and I don’t see that changing any time soon; I lost it in church this morning as I drowned under the first wave of homesickness for my family, my congregation, my rhythms and rites.  Yet even in that moment of missing people and place so much it hurt to breathe, the service reminded me that God goes where I go—rather, I go where God goes because He was there way ahead of me, waiting.  Communion here still involves bread and grape juice and the challenge of community just as it has in so many churches not only in this country but in others.  Music here—some of it the same that we sang at camp, which I think was God being rather heavy-handed in underlining the continuity—still has so much variety and breadth and is still calling me to pay attention to God’s presence in this sacred space.  The Bible here is still God’s word, and Jesus goes by the same name here.  Yes, it’s a whole different world and my home church doesn’t have a jazz trumpet in the praise band, but God is God is God is God no matter where I am, geographically or spiritually.

What an incredible gift.

And in the midst of all this change, I’m still connected to that family, that home; technology, that hated love of mine, has ensured that Interpreter, Prudence, and several others have been at my very fingertips while I navigate orientation and moving in and unpacking and job interviews and all manner of things that are oh-so-daunting.  The relationships will change, for sure, and I can’t say that I’m thrilled about that, but change does not have to equal challenge.  In fact, having them come along for this adventure can make the relationships that much more multi-dimensional.

And you, Reader, come with me.  No matter where you are, we remain in this corner of the internet together—and I can’t tell you what a gift it is to know that you are still here exploring with me, cheering me on, sharing parts of yourself and accepting these offered parts of myself.  Thank you for being my travelling companion, Reader.

And hang on.  This gate is going to be pretty intense.

 

 

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad and easy to travel is the path that leads the way to destruction and eternal loss, and there are many who enter through it.”  (Matthew 7:13, AMP)

Jesus Made Me a Gryffindor

Sorry, Reader; end of fiscal year + end of summer term + sermon writing for Sunday = late post.

So if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, I apologize right off for how many references this post is going to have that you won’t understand.  I am definitely part of the generation that grew up with Harry, so my geekery is pretty strong for that.  This past week, new information came out about the North American school (since Hogwarts, where Harry goes, is in Britain and we can’t all go to Britain) Ilvermorny.

Now if you don’t know, Hogwarts has four houses (since it’s a boarding school) and each new student is sorted into one based on his/her personal characteristics.  Ravenclaws are generally The Smart Kids; Slytherins are generally The Cunning Kids; Hufflepuffs are The Loyal Kids; and Gryffindors are The Brave Kids.  Of course each house has its downsides as well as its lauded attributes, but we fans have for years aligned ourselves via various online quizzes with our own houses.  I consistently get Sorted (that’s the choosing process; it’s done by a hat and you seriously need to read this series if you haven’t, Reader) into Gryffindor, which always surprises me.  I think I’ve said it before, but I’d consider myself brainy way before I’d consider myself brave.

So I took a quiz on these new houses for this new school because hey, why not?  And I got Thunderbird, the soul of the school and the house claiming the adventurers.

Wait, what?  I’m not adventurous any more than I am brave.

Yet for all my introspection, I’m apparently not paying attention to myself at all.  I had lunch Friday with my friend Prudence and had an incredible conversation with him about who we are and who we’re going to be as our lives are no longer intertwined with my moving and whatnot.  He’s a beautiful soul, but he’s also a guy who told me I was brave probably five times over the course of the conversation.  And people regularly tell me I’m adventurous, what with wandering off to Scotland without a whole lot of preparation or driving all over the country for weddings or wading into Church politics.

But the thing of it is that none of that is my natural inclination.  All of that comes out of leaping into the places God pushes me.

People have been joking with me about my going off to seminary and how the location and requirements are going to be outside of my comfort zone and I want to say to them that every time I leave my apartment I have left my comfort zone.  My comfort zone is my church and my house and that’s about it, and even those are negotiable to a certain extent.  But God continually calls me to more than those to places—and to crazy things within those two places.  Interpreter talks sometimes about God’s desire to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” so it makes perfect sense in its own way that God challenges me over and over to go into the world that doesn’t make sense, that is filled with heartbreaking things, that both frightens and depresses the crickets out of me.  We as Christians are not called to be afraid of the dark but to bring the light to a shadowed world—and that takes a shit ton of bravery and no small amount of adventurousness.

This isn’t to say that the other houses, either American or British, are less than Gryffindor or Thunderbird.  It is, however, to say that I am not in either because I am inherently brave or adventurous.  I am in these (make-believe though they are) because I am being changed, I have been changed by a God Who needs me to be brave and adventurous in order to do whatever She has in mind for me.  I don’t know what that is—oh, how I wish I did!—but I do know that wherever I am sent, I will be equipped.  Whatever courage I need will be given; whatever shape my spirit needs to be in will be remolded.  And slowly, slowly I will take on these attributes so they are who I am, so that they do become my response because I have been cheering for my House long enough that I mean it and can see those aspects of me in Christ’s service.

The next thing, of course, is to campaign for actual house competitions.  What house are you, Reader?  (Of either country.)  What attributes does that give you?  How does it—or doesn’t it—surprise you?  How do you translate that strength into God’s service?  I would love to know.  After all, lions are just big cats, and cats are curious creatures.

 

 

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance.  The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”  (Deuteronomy 31:7-8, NIV)

Step Back, Breathe, Reengage

Oh, Reader, what a day.

It will be a feat of heroic proportions if I can make it to the end of this work day in one piece because I’ve been ready to go home and curl up in a blanket fort since I got here.  (This is unfortunate.)  Part of that is that I simply don’t like my job and so want to go home every day (not necessarily to a blanket fort), a dislike made so much harder to bear with every new sortie into pieces of the Church because I see what gives me life but I can’t have it (yet).  That was thrown into sharp relief this week because of Annual Conference (which I posted on last week and about which I will post further next week) and the moments of being mad as hell at the Church and loving it still.  To come back to a job where I do not fit, where I watch myself becoming someone I don’t like out of frustration and disenfranchisement, is a quiet form of torture.

But it is also that this week follows Orlando, this week holds the ninth-longest Senate filibuster, this week has been my heart breaking over my country once again saying that we are more afraid of our government than our weaponry, more determined to protect our right to have guns than our right to continue breathing with lungs not torn asunder by hot lead blasting through our bodies.  I have been unable (not that I’ve tried very hard) to keep myself from continually getting into this conversation—not out of a desire to antagonize but out of sheer befuddlement that this is still happening.  Again and again I have been asking how this works, why even the smallest steps of gun control are shunned outright, and to their credit my more conservative friends have responded.  We still don’t understand each other, but it has mostly been civilized.

Even when my newfound “liberalism” makes them question my faith.

Reader, I came to Christ in college and fell into a beautifully loving country Christian church with all the insularity you might expect.  God, guns, and the American way are very important in that church; gay folk are sinners to be loved, divorce isn’t spoken of, women don’t become pastors, and abortion is an abomination against God.  Even then I disagreed on some things but I was loved there, and I will spend the rest of my life pushing against the stereotype that people who think these things are horrible human beings without hearts.  They were my family, they were my support network, they quite literally fed me and gave me a home after I finished college and realized I had no idea what I was doing next.  I worked part time there, I built the foundation of my faith there, and they wept with me when I left.

Since I’ve moved away we have all changed, and though that love is still there we are far more prone to seeing the places where we disagree than the places we are family.  So for some to question my advocacy of gun control and my stance against violence and my blatant feminism in the frame of lovingly correcting me in faith and steering me back to Jesus…God, Reader, it breaks my heart in half.  I see still their compassion and understand that they believe wholly in this gentle remonstrance, but I cannot stand by and accept these tenets anymore.  I will not wash my hands of this gunpowder and blood, especially not when a life of professional, pulpit-based ministry beckons me forward.  But this…this is my family who look at me in concern and sorrow.  These are the people who taught me what love looked like in the first place, and every rift between us hurts that much more precisely because I cannot mend it and (to the extent that it would mean walking back my beliefs) will not try.

Add to this, then, betrayal by my very body.  Perhaps one of the cruelest things the Church has done in terms of doctrine is to tie women’s menstruation to Eve’s sin, ’cause damn, this shit sucks.  (If you’re uncomfortable with talking about this because you think it’s gross, skip to the next paragraph.  Then go apologize to all the women in your life whose bodies and voices you’re denying by refusing to acknowledge this as a biological reality.)  Beyond that fact that it can feel like someone is attempting to pull out your spine through your abdomen while twisting the surrounding muscles in an unpadded vise, going on your period really can and does screw with your mental state.  I realize it’s a social stereotype to show the wigged-out woman eating a pint of ice cream and crying at nothing in particular, but seriously, your chemical balance is getting thrown off and you can’t stop it.  So it’s been a legit intense week and today my brain is magnifying everything a thousandfold because its busy trying to overhaul its entire hormonal state.  Once I figured out that was a factor it made the day slightly easier because I can tell myself to step back, breathe, and reevaluate the way I was reacting to people, but before I got there I thought I was losing my damn mind today.
The spiritual implication of all that?  We are not only spiritual.  I would love to be, trust me, but we are living in mortal, political, social, emotional, and physical plains as well as the spiritual one, and that is a hot mess sometimes.  And somedays—many days—we carry the grief of the world on top of our own and we shudderstep underneath that weight.

Good think God keeps telling us to give it to Him.  In so many ways, Lord, we pray for healing.

 

 

“Teach me and I, for my part, will be silent;
explain to me how I have been mistaken.
 How painful are honest words!
But what does your reproof prove?
 Do you intend to criticize mere words,
and treat the words of a despairing man as wind?”  (Job 6:24-26, NET)

People of the Books: Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Hullo, Reader!  Thanks for your patience with me in my not warning you I’d be dropping off the radar last week; I had a conference last weekend (and also confirmation at church), so I wasn’t able to get to this.  But I’m back now (albeit a day late)—happy Saturday!  Have a book review!

Quo Vadis (which has apparently been made into a movie that I’m going to have to see now) is another of those books that somehow magically made it into my library when I wasn’t paying attention.  I have no memory of buying this or being given it, but I know I’ve moved it from at least one place to another with me.  In my great I Have to Read All These Books Before I Move Them Again project (yeah, it’s not going well; Reader, I own a lot of books) I finally decided to sit down with this one.

I must say, it was slow going at first.  Sienkiewicz doesn’t pull punches in how he sets up the story; he expects you to keep up as he throws you into 60s A.D. Rome under the craziness of Nero’s rule.  But stick with it; once you get situated in the overwhelming city (fortunately, my version had a map at the back so I could follow Sienkiewicz’s characters talking about where things were), you realize this is a pretty epic story.

The basic premise is that Marcus Vinicius, a nobleman of one of the ancient families and a decorated soldier now hanging about in Rome, falls in love with a gal named Ligia.  Add in the complication—Ligia is a Christian.  This is a time when Christianity was kept on the downlow because it wasn’t outright illegal but it definitely wasn’t liked, so Ligia’s faith is already questionable but also it’s a totally foreign idea to Vinicius.  He has all the power and wealth he could want; why on earth would someone want to follow a faith that tells you to give up stuff like that?  Foolishness.

So with this very simple plot, off we go.  Of course it gets more complicated; it’s set against the backdrop of Nero, who was batshit crazy and a half.  Petronius, Vinicius’s uncle, is one of Nero’s advisors (of a sort) and through his eyes we get to see the court falling apart as Nero loses touch with reality more and more.  The main punch of the book is when Rome gets set on fire, which Sienkiewicz described brilliantly, hauntingly, and horrifyingly.  For a city that large and that flammable to catch fire would indeed have been a sight for the ages, but the amount of people it displaced for the whims of a mad emperor is just staggering.

And then Nero blames it on the Christians—cue lions, torture, gore, and all of the awful debauchery that Rome could offer.  We of the 21st century are scary good at causing pain, but we have nothing on Rome.  They were terrifying in the amounts of ways they concocted to kill people; it’s even reflected in the language.  There are over thirty different verbs for “to kill” in ancient Latin.

I do try to correct folks when they think everything from Jesus to Constantine was lions eating Christians because that isn’t true.  Wide-scale persecution was relatively rare; most of the time Christians were mistrusted and ignored or simply thrown in jail for a while.  But sometimes they became scapegoats of epic proportions, and Sienkiewicz does a fantastic job of capturing how frightening and overwhelming that would be.  And one of the best parts about this book is that it makes you look at Christianity itself all over again.

Christianity is so completely embedded in modern Western culture we simply can’t look around without seeing it.  But when it was new and weird and secretive and still being ironed out—I don’t want to romanticize that at all, but I do love reading stories that make me remember it.  This is a time where there aren’t written stories but instead you would hear the Gospel from Peter himself (yeah, Peter and Paul have bit parts in this; it’s pretty awesome because I’m always ready to have them be ornery humans with their own doubts and fears, not knowing how much they would become pillars of the Church).  This is a time when there are the earliest of hymns, when people were still using the fish (ichthus) to identify each other, when books like Revelation make sense because people really did think Jesus was coming back any day because surely the world was tearing itself apart at the seams.

Sienkiewicz definitely has an angle—Nero bad, Christians good—but this isn’t at all a religion pitch.  He returns over and over again to how hard it is to be part of this faith and how different the early version of it was compared to what we know.  And the remarkable thing is that he was writing at the turn of the 20th century yet you can tell his heart is in the history of this rather than any attempts to convert the reader (of course, he would likely have assumed all of his readers would have been Christian already anyway).  Some of the characters don’t get Christianity and end the book still not getting it and yet being fully themselves, and five million points to an author who respects his/her characters enough not to try and force them into conversion moments.  My only real problem with characterization is in how Sienkiewicz talks about Ursus, Ligia’s bodyguard; a lot of the language there is very much about how this barbarian (they’re political hostages from a northern kingdom) is so very slow and more brawn than brains.  That caught me up several times because it’s so bald, but Ursus was still a real and marvelous character who actually stands in for the reader sometimes when we’re trying to understand what’s going on.  He also becomes a paradigm of loyalty and an example to be followed.

There is violence and sex and this is not for the faint of heart, Reader, but it is well worth the time, especially in this more modern translation (mad props to W. S. Kuniczak).  It’s a great story as well as a really well-written imagining of the early days of Christianity. I’ll definitely be keeping this on hand.

 

Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills