A quiet yearning

I sit at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon, and I hear some hip hop music playing faintly in the background. Voices talking, yelling, laughing. On my screen there’s a headline that reads “North Korea warns ‘more gift packages’ are on the way as Donald Trump arms Japan, South Korea.”

I walk down the street on a Monday evening, and it is silent, save for the wind cruising through the trees in Jackie Robinson park (and my footsteps, of course). I see a child selling lemonade with the sign “For Houston.”

I slowly open my eyes as I lay in bed on a Sunday morning, and a muted sound of worship music reaches my ears. It is singing that rises high and rings. It feels far away. I look at my phone, and read an article written by the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He signed the recent Nashville Statement and called it “an expression of love for same-sex attracted people.”

Sigh.

I don’t hear the word “yearning” thrown around too much these days. Yearning is a feeling of intense longing, a hunger, an ache. Do millennials yearn? (Sorry, the last thing we need is another article about what’s wrong with millennials…) A Marina and the Diamonds lyric feels particularly apt here: “TV taught me how to feel / Now real life has no appeal.”

I’m thinking of a specific kind of yearning. A yearning for something more than the day-to-day drudgery. The dating, the drinking, the social media, the news headlines, the seemingly impending doom of violence, war, and destruction that marks the average day in 2017. Something beyond the conservative, beyond the liberal.

Something true. Does it exist?

After several Sundays I realized the singing I heard from my room was coming from a church in the courtyard directly behind my apartment building. Definitely not as far away as I thought it was. Was that there the whole time?

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Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church – Flemington, NJ

The music is not as solemn as the hymns at St. Magdalen de Pazzi, the Roman Catholic Church I attended on Easter Sunday with my brother’s family in New Jersey. The sanctuary was large and hexagonal in shape. High red oak ceilings separated us from the morning sky. Hundreds of pews emanated from the central, circular platform that held the altar in the center and the pulpit to the left. Assortments of flowers and ferns flanked either side: yellow, white, pink, blue, orange, and violet. A cross hung above the altar, bearing a crucified Jesus and the lights that shone on Him created three distinct shadows on the white bricks behind. On the back wall, behind the altar and the pulpit, was the crowning jewel–a grand copper pipe organ that beautifully framed a circular spirit window that brought in light from the outside.

In the past eight years or so, I can count on one and a half hands how many times I’ve been to church. I’ve been twice in the past seven months, first at a collegiate church in Washington Heights and second at the aforementioned St. Magdalen. I attended the latter because it was Easter and I was with my family (my brother and sister-and-law are Catholic). I attended the former for less obvious reasons.

The church in WaHi (“Washington Heights” for the uninitiated), is called Fort Washington Collegiate Church. Like St. Madalen, it had wooden pews, but these pews were in a more traditional style: two main sections facing the front of the church. The sanctuary was rectangular, and again had high ceilings, but these ceilings had a distinctive gothic feel with dark, heavy wooden beams. Stained glass windows lined the walls on either side showing various scenes from Jesus’ life: the Passover, His baptism, as well as Him sitting and teaching among children (of many different colors.) A golden cross was centered behind the chorus on maroon panels. The blue Bibles on the back of the pews were NRSV–the translation I have.

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Fort Washington Collegiate Church – New York, NY

Before the sermon, there was a “Passing of the Peace” where everybody in the congregation went around greeting one another. “The peace of Christ is with you!” “And also with you!” I was shy, but everybody was friendly. There were people of all types: gay, straight, black, white. Everybody was trying to greet everybody else in the small time they had, with some members trying to greet every single person. Towards the end of the time allotted the interactions simply became “Peace!” “Peace!”

The music was uplifting. There were hymns new and old, but they were not solemn. They were fun and alive. The choir wore bright red robes with white stoles. My favorite hymn was from South Africa called “Ewe Thina/We Walk His Way.” The first verse simply states: We walk for justice, kindness, love and peace: We walk His way. The chorus: Ewe Thina, Ewe Thina / We walk His way, We walk His way.

It’s hard to believe I stopped attending my family’s independent evangelical church eight years ago. I had been active in the junior high ministry, gone on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee to evangelize with Calvary Rescue Mission (and to sightsee). I had a “born again” experience on the first trip, in 7th grade. I re-affirmed my commitment to the Lord on the second trip in 8th grade. After coming out in high school, however, I stopped going with my parents on Sunday mornings. It’s the story of many LGBT individuals.

Despite feelings of isolation, shame, and anger in response to how my church views sexuality outside of one man and one woman, and despite the length of time I have spent away from its influence, I still have this feeling, this yearning. It’s been quietly with me every step to where I am today–in a committed relationship with a man and living in New York City.

It was a lightbulb in my head when my boyfriend told me he believes in God shortly after we first met. It was a nudge when one of my committed Christian friends in college affirmed my relationship and my sexuality. It was a bit of a slap in the face when I met an openly gay man attending seminary in the city.

It led me to take a step into St. Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church, to shed a tear during the service at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, to fully “own” where I am today–straddling a desire to love myself and others unconditionally, but also to find truth.

It is a soft sung voice that seemed far away, but has really been with me all along. I hope it can guide me forward, still.

Thinking about ontology

There’s a tree outside of my bedroom window in my new Harlem apartment. I’m not quite sure what type of tree it is. Its leaves will change colors come fall (sometime soon, fingers crossed). I counted eighteen leaves on one offshoot; there are several offshoots on one branch. The leaves are a middling green, perhaps a Kelly green. The sun shines through the leaves, a mixture of sun and shadow. I like watching it sway in the wind. I love the tree. It just–is. It is itself. Perfectly.

This tree was once a seed that I could’ve balanced on the tip of my finger, probably before I was alive. Now it’s taller than my pre-war apartment building. How many residents have stared at it just like I have? My guess would be many, since Manhattanites are moving ceaselessly, in and out, up and down.

I can’t help thinking about if this tree caught fire. It would be horrible, obviously. And it would make me question–how is it possible? That something older than I am (not saying much), that has sprouted from the tiniest of seeds, that has grown as tall as a five-story building, could disappear just like “that,” into ash?

I’ve been living in New York a little over a year now after graduating college. Many things are going well: my relationship is growing every day into a better and better foundation that I couldn’t be more thankful for, I have two stable jobs that pay the rent, and I have a solid group of friends that make me smile. I am lucky.

This past year has also brought with it anxiety and growing pains. The city is a place of constant change. The country is in political turmoil. The world seems unsafe and disconnected. And here I am, barely knowing how to do my taxes. For being a self-proclaimed “writer,” I’ve barely written anything in over six months. I don’t really know anything, just inklings of something here or there. My future has often felt like an open void, like I’m constantly stepping off a cliff into the unknown.

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My bedroom window

Death, for most of my young life a far-off dream, has become more of a reality for me. People die young. By accident. Or on purpose. You never know when all your life will simply just… stop. And when it does, just like “that,” you cease to be. There’s no trace of you left besides a corpse or a pile of dust.

I’m not trying to be heavy-handed or pessimistic. I swear!

But I’m reminded of the words of one of my beloved writing and spiritual gurus, Madeleine L’Engle. In her book A Circle of Quiet, she talks about “ontology,” a word about the essence of things, the word about “being”–our “is-ness.” It’s a hard thing to grasp. But she uses the example of the burning bush from Exodus in the Bible: the burning bush was alive with flame but was not consumed, the bush was perfect, it was, it was exactly as a bush is meant to be.

That strikes me. Something could burn, but not die?

I think that the part of us that has to be burned away is something like the deadwood on the bush; it has to go, to be burned in the terrible fire of reality, until there is nothing left but our ontological selves; what we are meant to be.

Madeleine (we’re on a first name basis) likens our “prickliness, selfishness, jealousy, in-turnedness” to parts of us that are consumed in the “fire of reality”–they are not who we are, they do not define us.

All I feel lately is prickliness, jealousy, and in-turnedness. I feel like I have to figure out myself, what I want, and who I am right now, otherwise I will die unknown and lost. I have trouble letting myself have fun, laugh, be and exist in the moment. My mind is always two steps ahead. I don’t fathom or enjoy the present moment. What does my existence mean? If I burn, will there be anything left?

I tend to ask more questions than state answers. I know we’ve been told that time and time again–that the answers do not exist. Or at least we cannot understand them. And to that: I frown, I grimace, I cry. I don’t want my life to be meaningless.

However, and perhaps paradoxically, since I spend so much time worrying about having an “important” life and losing my self in abstract longings, I forget to go outside. Talk to people. Laugh. Be. Some of my coworkers probably think I’m a bit “off,” because I become so overwhelmed by my thoughts and feelings, that I lash out or act antithetical to my values and how I view myself.

I love the tree outside of my bedroom because it just is. It is a beautiful thing simply by its very nature. It takes up space. It soaks up sunlight. It exists, joyfully. It will one day perish, either by an ax, a strike of lightning, or some other freak accident. But it will still exist in my mind. I will have seen it and appreciated it for being what it was.

Perhaps I should take a leaf out of its book.