February 20, 2009
In the slipstream of thoughtless thoughts:
The light of all that’s good, the light of all that’s true.
To the fringes, gladly, I walk unadorned,
With gods and their creations,
With filth and disease.
Porcelina, she waits for me there,
With seashell-hissing lullabies
And whispers fathomed deep inside my own
Hidden thoughts and alibis:
My secret thoughts come alive.
Without a care in this whole world,And in my mind I’m everyone,
Without a care in this life
It’s what you take that makes it right.
In my mind I’m everyone of you.
Before I began attending my church—Ascension and St. Agnes—I couldn’t have given you a proper definition of the word liturgy. I had a vague sense of its high-churchiness, something I was both attracted to and repelled by. I was drawn to the beauty of churchly pomp, but hostile to the perception I had of its lack of authenticity, of its focus on form over substance.
Slowly, ASA began to redeem the notion of rite for me. Even the first Mass shook me with a particular, repeated phrase: Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the words only and my soul shall be healed. These words were directly before communion itself, acknowledging the insufficiency of our efforts and intentions in approaching the eternal mystery, making that infinite gap a part of the rite.
At the first church leadership retreat I attended, the facilitator, Father Martin Smith, talked about ritual in a way I’ll never forget. There are three tiers of religious experience, he said. In the first tier, we have the source: Truth, Good, and Beauty. In the second tier, religions attempt to point to, or recreate, the experiences of these first-order things. They try to point to truth with doctrine, to good with morality, and to beauty with ritual. The shadow side of this second tier, however, is the third: doctrine, severed from its proper orientation toward the first tier, becomes dogma; morality, severed from its proper orientation, becomes moralism; ritual, wrapped up in itself, becomes ritualism.
This articulation reconciled and redeemed much of religious practice for me: it articulated much of what repelled me about religion and connected it to things that are healthy and human. Rite, in particular, became a powerful word for me: the recreation of beauty, making a vast, abstract thing into activities, into dances and stories and songs and poems that can be performed and delighted in and lived in.
The Smashing Pumpkins are, for me, fundamentally liturgical: their songs are pathways to elevation, rites of transcendence that are filled with irrepressible insistence upon paradoxical combinations of the fleshly and the spiritual. I can describe the experience of seeing them in concert last year best by pointing you to my church’s Mass. Porcelina of the Vast Oceans is my last gospel.