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Essay

I DECIDED that if I was going to read the Hebrew Bible, I was going to read the whole thing. Every word of it. No skipping over or skimming the genealogies, the instructions for building the temple, or the details of animal sacrifice. I bopped through the intricate plots of Genesis and Exodus, my rule about reading every word not exacting much strain. Then, well into Exodus, I hit the directives for constructing the ark, the tabernacle, and the garb and props of the great theater. In case you haven’t noticed, let me tell you: God is into the details. From there I glanced ahead. Leviticus looked like real tedium.

But, had I not adhered to my personal statute, in Exodus I would have missed the golden bells around the skirt of Aaron’s ministerial robe that sound his coming and going in the holy place before the Lord and thus protect him from death. And had I slacked in my reading discipline, I would not have felt the spell of ritual language in Leviticus.

The instructions for sacrifice repeat a pattern with variation; many of the sentences recur with small changes. When any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of cattle from the herd or from the flock. This offering is a burnt offering from the herd. He shall offer a male without blemish. He shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. A peace offering, a burnt offering from the herd, a cereal offering, a burnt offering of birds, a sacrifice of peace offering, a sin offering, a guilt offering. The words on the page rehearse the procedures. A hand is placed on the head of the animal before killing it. The fire is put on the altar and wood is laid on the fire. The pieces of the animal are laid in a specified order on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar. Different body parts are handled and washed and offered. And the blood is thrown against and around the altar, or smeared on the horns of the altar and poured out around its base.

As in Exodus, the detailed instructions of Leviticus are, in their own right, poetic and orderly devotions. The rhythm of the words softens my consciousness, and as I read through each type of offering it all feels unexpectedly personal. This is a different world from the perfect tidiness of the Episcopalian communion I inhabit, where the sacrificial blood is a strong wine and the meat a Styrofoam-like wafer or a bit of dry bread. Contemporary church liturgy retains remnants of the old sensory drama, but they are muted. Imagining myself into this past, I’m surprised by how much there is to touch—especially, again and again, the still-warm, slippery organs. I feel the essential pleasure in my hands, the fear and the lust of death. As I imagine washing the entrails, I wonder if the water would have been cold from a well or warmed by the sun. And, when I come to the offering of turtledoves or young pigeons, I feel myself as one of the birds.

And the priest shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head, and burn it on the altar, and its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. The brutality is a bit shocking and even a little funny: “wring off its head.” Imagine that in church. It is the next few lines, though, that seem to tell my own tale. And he shall take away its crop with its feathers and cast it beside the altar on the east side, in the place for ashes. He shall tear it by its wings, but shall not divide it asunder. For the bird, quickly; for me, slowly, over years.

§

“Patient presents with a complex medical history,” say the doctors in their notes. I feel foolish answering their questions. I talk a lot, convey little. I should not be surprised that they do not understand. Even I see myself from the outside when I look back to my worst times—when I remember, for example, the folding chair set in the middle of the road seven years ago. I see our old white Corolla parked to one side of the level stretch of dirt through woods. I see my husband, Larry, leaning against the hood, a digital watch in hand. The builders of the road did not imagine this scene, I’m sure. The car maybe, but not the chair.

I plan to walk ten seconds away from my seat, ten seconds back, rest, repeat as able. Two long wooden dowels, converted to walking sticks, will steady my gait. Larry says “Go,” then “Turn,” as the tiny beeps of his watch sound in the quiet morning. I do it once and, after sitting to rest, a partial second time. I can’t, it turns out, hold the poles for twenty whole seconds without cost. Pain stiffens my hands. The burn in my arms rises. The walking, too, is more than my legs and feet will accept on the slightly uneven ground. I am better than a year before, but not better enough. I go home to bed and, over several days, carefully nurse my limbs and calm the fresh trouble I’ve stirred.

In my worst times, the pain is constant, various in its character, and encompasses nearly every part of my body. I move in only minimal, necessary ways. My muscles are flaccid, my energy barely enough to sustain me through eating, bathing, and dressing. Mere existence is a great effort. I can sit for only a few minutes before the whole-body stress of being upright impels me to lie down again. I have severe headaches. I vomit almost daily. I often feel like I’m starving: I eat, but food rarely satisfies. Thinking is difficult, any noise a strain. I sleep much, though it restores me little. How did one day following another bring me to this?

When I was about five I awoke one morning feeling ill and fainted on the way to tell my mother. This is my first clear memory of my trouble. “Probably just a virus,” said the doctor. I fainted again a few years later, then learned to sit or lie down when I felt lightheaded, my vision faded to static, or my head swam.

Meanwhile, promises of a life on the move watered my imagination from childhood through high school. Doing, traveling, achieving. I was on my way—so everyone told me, and so I believed. As I grew and moved, traveled and achieved, I interpreted my fatigue alternately as a sign that I was doing too much or not doing enough; that I was over-ambitious, or just out of shape.

At my New England college my less disciplined peers seemed to glide and flit and speed about all day and night as need or pleasure called. They raced around sports fields, up and down mountains, in and out of classes. They pushed and throve. I needed every night’s sleep, and naps, and maneuvered to take only two classes per term, and knew all the public couches on campus well because I slept on them.

I never thought to tell a doctor—and I don’t think it would have mattered if I had—that I could not keep pace with my peers. Of course, I never told the doctors about prayer and longing, either—then or later, when the trouble was obvious. I rarely speak to anyone even now of the ways hungry faith and hidden illness entangled in me, two drowning swimmers pulling me down.

I grew up atheist but softened to religion in high school while spending a year as an exchange student living with a Muslim family in Indonesia. After returning to Texas I discovered the Bahá’í faith and its direct affirmation of social principles identical with my own: gender equality, unity of humanity, abolition of prejudice and extremes of wealth and poverty. I signed up, then panicked. I had joined a religion—how embarrassing. Every day I was supposed to say, “I bear witness, O my God, that thou hast created me to know thee and to worship thee,” and I couldn’t get myself to do it. Yet I was determined that I would. Despite my revulsion, fear, pride, and desperate talks with friends whom I hoped would save me from this folly, I had awakened something in me that would not be put aside. One day, while I jetted across the country in a plane above the clouds, I carefully negotiated a peace accord with the words “witness,” “God,” “created,” and “worship.” It all meant working for those great social principles. I could do that. I could affirm that.

Thereby I persisted on my new path and my ambivalence turned to passion. By the end of my second year of college I was spending several hours a day in prayer and meditation. I wanted, needed, hungered, strove. I took to my heart passages of Bahá’í scripture that commanded complete devotion and dramatic sacrifice. I read the history of the early martyrs and fermented frustration at my mundane existence, giving my life to faith as best I could in an ordinary succession of activities and interactions. Death, in my new religious imagination, seemed preferable, easier. I adopted a saying from somewhere: “The mystery of sacrifice is there is no sacrifice.” I believed that giving everything meant getting everything. I wanted everything.

And the priest shall burn it on the altar, upon the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord.

§

Altars and priests had almost no place in my religious consciousness at the time, both being entirely absent from the Bahá’í faith. Although the Bible was honored as a holy book, I knew almost nothing of the life within it. I read sections for a world religions survey class and could not imagine how anybody could even remember these stories, particularly from the Old Testament, much less find meaning in them.

The Bahá’í writings, on the other hand, sent me spinning out into the world. “Be thou as a throbbing artery, pulsating in the body of the entire creation, that from the heat generated by this motion there may appear that which will quicken the hearts of those who hesitate.” Thus (in translation) spoke Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í faith. Thus spoke I aloud, alone, over and over. I took leave from school and flew back to Indonesia to live with and serve its Bahá’í community—to throb as best I could.

I landed in a compound of two buildings where a handful of adults herded a swarm of children and youth who were living far from their parents in order to receive education unavailable in their home villages. I taught the kids, teens, and young adults drama, meditation, prayer, study of scripture. I cultivated their self-esteem, analytical powers, and interpersonal skills. I mediated their individual and group conflicts. I had no curriculum, no plan, no guidance, just me and lots of need. I pulled out every drama game I’d ever learned or heard of and made up new ones. I arrived many evenings at our gathering without any idea what we were going to do. I made something up and felt powerful doing it, like I was flying.

The Bahá’í month of fasting fell in the middle of my time, coincident that year with the migratory Muslim fast. At the end of the day I would climb three stories to the flat roof of our building, which was ringed by a low wall. There I would sit alone, watch the sunset over the Pacific, and listen to the call to prayer sounding from mosques in all directions. It was time to eat and drink, to break the fast, but I wanted to prolong the ethereal pleasure. Finally, I would descend for dinner, then mount the steps again to meet my youth. While bats zigzagged above our heads, we would hold conference over the conflicts in their dormitory, play drama games, meditate on passages of scripture, or work on performance projects.

On the contemplative side of life, ambition mixed with better motives. I set to memorizing prayers as if this would make me great. The Long Obligatory Prayer, the Tablet of Ahmad, the Long Healing Prayer, the Fire Tablet—unfamiliar names to most Christians, but nearly any American Bahá’í would gasp at the undertaking.

Well into my stay, two prominent Bahá’ís from Malaysia visited to conduct a meditation workshop and teach us to open to the creative word of our faith. By assignment we sat one evening, each repeating inside our individual stillness, “With the hands of power I made thee and with the fingers of strength I created thee; and within thee have I placed the essence of my light. Be thou content with it and seek not else, for my work is perfect and my command is binding. Question it not, nor have a doubt thereof.” I opened my eyes and stretched my limbs, thinking my thirty minutes of silence had been useless. I had faced a wall, a blank, nothing.

But the emptiness worked in me as I described it to others and pondered it in private. Slowly a conviction took hold, not as intellectual conjecture but as felt reality: Everything I’d ever done was gone. Whatever gifts I’d developed, cultivated, used in service, were meaningless. Whatever I’d accomplished mattered not at all. I didn’t love God. I felt I couldn’t. In meditation I could speak with myself, with others, but not with Bahá’u’lláh and not with God. Turn away from myself and my kind, and there was nothing. I wrote in my journal about being at zero, about bawling with abandon, and not long after about wanting to do nothing but sit…sit…sit. I had nothing left to give. I had emptied myself out, thinking that was the spiritual thing to do, but the end result was just emptiness.

I was empty physically, too, for my body had been slowing down like a truck racing in sand. Soon after arriving in Indonesia I had consciously set aside my own limits in favor of answering the needs around me. But the limits did not consent to dismissal, and fatigue gained sway. Near the end of my stay I spent weeks mostly in bed, laid flat by intense light-headedness. We identified a prophylactic anti-malarial drug as the proximate cause and stopped it. I improved but didn’t recover.

I traveled to a remote island, to India, Malaysia, Singapore, Java, and Sulawesi, by will and determination. Everywhere I could, I slept and rested. By the time I landed again in North America I was sleeping fifteen hours a day, lethargic the other nine, suffering from abdominal pain and diarrhea and fatigue to the power of ten. I could not return to school immediately, as planned, but convalesced for some months and took meds to battle a suspected parasite. I reentered school, better but still struggling, and finished my last two years through even more careful management of my energy—lying down between classes and engagements on grass, couches, floors; arranging independent studies to minimize my obligatory class time; and, for calculus my final quarter, skipping class entirely after the second week and showing up only to turn in homework and take tests.

I graduated, married, moved to Chicago, started graduate school, never really recovering, never figuring out why I still felt limp and empty. I was determined to carry on, though, determined to do things anyway. That’s what matters, right? That’s what makes you a person, right? That’s who you are, right? What you do? That was my religion, inherited from family, social class, and popular culture and reinforced in many ways by the Bahá’í faith. And despite the revelations of my time abroad, my realization that my deeds could never fulfill my deepest desires, I could not yet forsake my belief in doing. I had followed the clue of my own seriousness to the edge of faith as I knew it. At that edge, the light shone too bright, and I saw nothing in all directions. I could only turn back—back into more doing. A life defined by action was, anyway, the only way I knew, had ever even heard of, for living with serious limits: fight, persist, overcome.

Then, one day in my second year of graduate school, something changed in my body. A few days into the annual fast, I was standing in the archway between our crammed Chicago living room and tiny dining space when I felt my brain fall inside my skull. Maybe part of it just disappeared; I don’t know. I ate and drank right away, yet I never recovered. Sickness sloshed around in my head, thick and heavy. Life left my limbs. I could sit only briefly, couldn’t stand in place, and moved with great effort. I sought help from university doctors, who had been carefully trained to see depression, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, or mononucleosis in every patient. Medical activism finally won me proper tests and a diagnosis of dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, due to which my heart would race and my blood pressure plummet when I maintained an upright position. I’d probably had the problem since childhood, but doctors were not diagnosing these disorders then. In the years since, mine had worsened dramatically.

Drugs gave only an appearance of improvement; the numbers looked better, but I was not. Even that was temporary. So, I was out of school again. I forced myself to walk outside every other day regardless of weather, regardless of how I felt. Otherwise I spent the hours of light in bed, on the couch, and on the floor, often with only energy enough to stare into space.

§

Who is this priest? Whose large strong fingers have I felt pressing into my thorax, placing this raw body, this small life on the altar? Is my God pleased?

According to Leviticus, all offerings “from the herd” must be without blemish; the same for sheep or goats, offerings “from the flock.” What is given in sacrifice must be perfect before it is killed and cut to pieces. And those who do the labor of worship must be unmarred as well. No person with a blemish may draw near the altar. Anyone who is blind, lame, or mutilated of face or limb, who has scabs or itching or—rather specifically—“crushed testicles” must not approach the sanctuary lest they profane it.

I hope I am justified in my belief that most men escaped the calamity of crushed testicles, but surely many succumbed to itching or were marred with scabs. Perhaps the priestly descendants of Aaron, to whom this rule was addressed, led a soft enough life that they could apply it strictly. Yet the broader concept of the ritual uncleanness of disease and bodily discharge applied to everyone. Don’t most of us believe it still, metaphorically and deep down: that we must be perfect to be worthy, worthy to be received?

§

For three years after diagnosis I wooed my autonomic demon, learned its ways and demands, and gained some calm in my body, some ability to move about in the world. I struggled with my faith as a Bahá’í too. I heard insistent calls to serve, sacrifice, and win victories for the cause. Redouble efforts. Spread the message. Convert the masses. Build the kingdom. Solve the world’s problems. Do do do do do. What place was there for me in that story?

In Chicago I occasionally walked with my husband around the block to a Sunday morning church service where an earnest priest with a mediocre voice conducted a sung mass. I never felt particularly moved, but always found myself, on the way home, a bit more quiet and clear. Back East in the small Maine town where we spent our summers, we tried a little church on a lark. There, in a tiny sanctuary, with a single stained-glass window, flowers from parishioners’ gardens, an ornery organist, a mother at the altar, and a man with severe developmental disabilities in the congregation who repeated the officiant’s part aloud a beat after her—there, I stepped into another story. People looked at me, all broken, like I was the story, the story in them that didn’t show outwardly, the story in the liturgy, readings, and sermons about God’s love unto death for us. The priest preached that we were all living the story, and that the story was living everywhere. And things started to change in me, just a little. Not too much, I hoped. I was a Bahá’í. I wanted to stay a Bahá’í. The Bahá’í faith had brought to life deep, disowned parts of myself. It had given me a structure within which to live when I needed it. I loved its great story of near-approaching peace in the world. I loved its confident, devoted community, and many particular people in that community. But my love for the Bahá’í faith had become complicated and strained, a slowly failing effort.

Then, our last year in Chicago, the new pain started. I had had plenty of pain in recent years. I had lived with it, done what I could to take care of it, and carried on anyway. But this was different. This pain felt malicious, almost evil. It started with my right thumb and spread. Nearly everything I did made it worse or expanded its dominion. My thumb, then my hand, then my other hand; my arms and shoulders; my feet, knees, and legs; my back, face, and neck—finally, pain everywhere, all the time. Doctors had no help before and still had no help.

In a small spiritual workshop that spring, I was asked to name a time in my life when I had felt totally loved by God. I said “Never” and I meant it. How many times by then had the confident voice of popular culture told me tales of the courage, wisdom, and even spiritual superiority of people who suffered? Enough for me to feel betrayed, as enlightenment never broke in to compensate me for all my loss. Instead, I endured my confinement with the ugliness inside exposed. I wanted desperately to be important, impressive, accomplished. I wanted everything to be different from how it was.

One day when my pain was in abeyance, a few weeks before we moved back to New England, I visited the Bahá’í house of worship in Wilmette, not far from my home, in deliberately dumpy attire. If I had read the Hebrew Bible by then I might have sought ashes and sackcloth for my grief, but paint-stained sweatpants and a misshapen T-shirt were what came to hand. The buzz of the Bahá’í faith was ever of goals and activities, of being good examples, of protecting the reputation of the faith. I could not make the show any more. All the doing was never enough anyway. Now I watched from the margins of community life, for only the pain of the persecuted Iranian believers had central meaning in our story, and even that was sometimes used to inspire more sacrificial busyness. The unconscious narratives of my family and the open values of my class, which appraised people by the social currency of their work and active leisure, also left me in the place for ashes.

I needed a story in which my life was not an unpleasant aberration, a pitiable exception, or an unfortunate detour. I visited the temple because I needed to know if my brokenness, my nobodyness, belonged there. I needed to know if this faith could illumine my actual life. I had found, in a fresh look at Bahá’í writings, some fragments of hope. I sat alone under the temple’s lacework dome, from whose apex the invocation Yá Bahá’u’l-Abhá (O Glory of the All-Glorious) shone down upon me in gold Arabic lettering. I prayed in silence, reading the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh, from a small, blue book:

O holy Lord! O Lord of loving-kindness! We stray about thy dwelling, longing to behold thy beauty, and loving all thy ways. We are hapless, lowly, and of small account. We are paupers: show us mercy, give us bounty; look not upon our failings, hide thou our endless sins. Whatever we are, still are we thine, and what we speak and hear is praise of thee, and it is thy face we seek, thy path we follow…. Grant us pity; grant us grace. By thy beauty, we come with no provision but our sins, with no good deeds to tell of, only hopes.

By summer I couldn’t turn the pages of a book. By fall I could barely walk.

§

In the Gospels, there’s an almost perfect inversion of the Levitical procedures. The Lord does not meet special representatives in an ornate interior chamber but walks the dirty streets. In Leviticus, the sick and maimed are prohibited from coming near the sanctuary, that they might not profane it; in the Gospels, the crippled and ailing crowd around Christ, pressing against him, seeking him out. I don’t mean to set up a good/bad contrast between Christian and ancient Hebrew ideas. I mean to look back to that moment when, as it is told, a woman who had bled for twelve years touched Christ’s robe unseen. For the life of every creature is the blood of it, says Leviticus. And hers had been seeping away.

She was by religious law “unclean.” Untouchable. She would make impure anyone or anything she touched, anything she laid upon or sat upon. So long as she bled, she was irredeemable. The one who would later bleed for her, who would say at the Last Supper, “This is my body which is given for you,” said to her, “Your faith has made you well.”

§

For a year and a half, I calmed the pain and increased my function through physical therapy, rest, and vigilance. As my exercise (though still very mild) intensified, my heart-rate achieved new records: 120 resting, 170 moving around the house. My head rode a perpetual high sea. But this time the doctors helped, amazingly; they gave me drugs which kept my blood pressure from plummeting or spiking and my heart-rate steadier. I kissed my pill bottles in a gush of gratitude every day and built my regular walk to a mile and a half.

A mile and a half. Slow, painstaking work accumulated to a mile and a half. Then one morning, when I woke, my legs felt like the flesh was ripping off them. I see-sawed a bit, then stayed down. Then descended farther, till all was gone. The six feet from the couch to the table was hard. As before, I couldn’t turn a doorknob, gesticulate, or hold a pen or telephone. Eating, dressing, and bathing were delicate, barely manageable operations. Beyond that, I could do almost nothing. I conversed a bit during the day, listened to my husband read aloud in the evening. I lived in my body as in a tiny locked cell. Alone, with the violence inside.

§

“On the night he was handed over to suffering and death,” the priest says, following the Book of Common Prayer, “our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take eat: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.’” Strange business, this Christianity, with breaking and mending all blended together. In some other translations, in Orthodox liturgy, and in my own mind, the words are, This is my body which is broken for you. With these words, to my ears at least, the altar becomes the place for all broken things, for all blemishes, mutilations, and injuries. “Christ died,” Larry likes to say, paraphrasing George MacDonald, “not so that we might not suffer, but so that our suffering might be like his.”

My body. Is that God’s body for me? My body for God? My body, as God’s body, for me? The divisions dissolved in my mind, sitting there in the pew, before I ever actually received communion. The gifts of God for the people of God, the priest said, as she raised the sacraments before the assembly. Interior certainty pressed heavily on my heart: I was not included. Even so, I felt myself, again and again, as the broken thing on the altar—as one of the birds.

I decided to leave the Bahá’í faith twelve years after joining, two years after praying in the temple for some way to stay. I had found a few Bahá’í texts which might give meaning to a life of need rather than action. But this was not the shared story, and to hold those few words alone, to try to shape their gifts into something larger which could sustain me, would have been more of what had already failed—more trying to save myself. I had to let go. The decision felt dangerous, like I was stepping out of the small circle of blessedness and certainty, and I could not have done it if I had not felt my very survival at stake.

For a long time I believed, not quite consciously, that I had to achieve God’s love, that I had to do great things to get it, that my job was to labor up the mountain to attain the Presence. Deeper still, I believed something inherent in me would prevent this from happening. Even if I did great things, I was going to fail. It would not be enough. I was foredoomed. I sat in church fatigued, sick, in pain. My illness, by preventing me from achieving anything, seemed to prove the deep conviction that this love was not for me. I wanted it more than anything, though, and finally, when the need was very great and I felt I couldn’t live without it, I acted—at first in my heart and then, after being baptized, in the flesh.

I imagine the bleeding woman overcame something in herself to transgress the teaching that impurity defiles holiness. Her act was small, really: just to touch the man on the street who was attracting such interest. No, not even him, only his robe. My act, too, was small. I opened my hands to receive.

The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

No earning, no achieving. Thanks be to God.

 


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