Thursday, January 08, 2004

Tonio remarked on the word "unchurched":

"unchurched" sounds like such a derogatory term. Where did it come from, such a strange word? The implication of making this particular noun into an intransitive verb, back into a noun, as though "church" were something that happened to a person. Like having a large and ornate cathedral drop on you in the middle of the street one day. Mind you, perhaps it is. Would explain ALL of my religious doubts. I just haven't been "churched" yet.

Dave (welcome, by the way!) explained:

I read Christian Century magazine regularly and they use the term a lot. It's meant to be neutral, not derogatory - that's why liberals like it.

But I don't believe I've ever used it before, and it struck me as odd as I used it. If I knew that liberals used it, I didn't know it consciously. Really I did intend it -- as I recognize belatedly -- in a sort of pejorative way. "Unsexed" is probably the model here. It does imply -- and was meant to imply -- that belonging to a church is normal, and that to not belong to a church is to be lacking something. To be bereft.

I guess I allow myself the latitude to be pejorative because I was born and raised unchurched. I have only been churched for... what? Seven years, maybe? It was much like having a cathedral dropped on me -- utterly unexpected and unwelcome and disorienting at first. I have always hated being associated with people -- the few organizations I belong to I usually regard with distaste. When I was first going to KCC I was belligerantly unconformist. Damned if I was going to bow to the altar. I stalked past the people making their three prostrations and sat down in the shrine room defiantly, waiting (oh, just waiting!) for someone to tell me I should do them. (No one ever did. No one, I eventually realized, gave a hoot whether I did the prostrations or not: that was my business). I argued with Lama Michael: if there's really no self, then what the hell transmigrates, and why does it matter? How does your karma know your address? What reason to we have to believe anyone ever achieves enlightenment?

It is, precisely, something that happened to me. Now I do my three prostrations happily -- I love the motions, I love the moment of my forehead touching the cool floor: it savors not of abasement but of a touchstone, of making contact with my foundations. And now I belong to committees. I "omze," lighting the candles, filling the offering-bowls, ringing the bell to begin and end the meditations. I am thoroughly churched.

It means that I am associated with some people that I don't like at all. There are stupid people, pompous people, hypocritical people there. There are people whose mindless devotion to Michael drives me up a wall. But there are also people there I've come to love dearly, and admire deeply, whom I would never have even noticed in my unchurched days, when all my associations were by preference. The farmer with a game leg, an ex-alcoholic, who has the most open face and beatific smile I have ever seen, the most utterly unpretending person I have ever met. The inarticulate, completely unintellectual young woman who gave me a bundle of incense on the day I took refuge -- we've hugged more often than we've ever spoken. The middle-aged dental technician whose bulldog determination to understand dharma texts and get the practices right puts me repeatedly to shame.

We're not a sociable sangha. I almost never see these people, apart from Sunday nights. But I wonder now how I lived without them. Without a community of people who share the aspiration to "quickly realize Mahamudra, and establish all beings without exception in this state."

I did not know I was so empty, that I could be so full.

So let me back up. I don't think I really was using "unchurched" as a pejorative. But certainly as a negative. To be unchurched seems to me, now, to be a calamity. One that can be completely undeserved. Michael could die tonight, to be replaced by some bigot, and I'd be unchurched in a twinkling. But historically it's weird to be unchurched, for good or ill. (For good and ill, I should say.) Most people, most of the time, have held their spiritual aspirations in a community.

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