On a hill far away
Stood an old rugged cross
The emblem of suffering and shame
The words of that old song are burned against my brain. A hill far away (somewhere I can never be) an old rugged cross (the epoch of dead and unreachable safety) the emblem of suffering and shame (oh yeah… and now we start to get relevant).
It's been years, and I still can't get the cross out of my system. That ever distant epoch of unreachable safety. That emblem of suffering, shame that's been burned into my brain (my shame though - not gods). Millenia away from the cross and it still haunts me, taunts me, makes me feel like somewhere there's a place where I can be holy and true. But the cross I bear instead is the one I've found myself: the cross of bearing my own sin. Let me tell you, owning your evil is far harder than throwing it at the foot of a cross. It can make a sepulchre out of you. Or it can make you strive to be the only kind of holy a person can be: true.
Until now, I haven't written about the cross, or the spirit, or my own abandonment of hope that has given way to a different kind of peace. One that doesn't sway so rapidly between lost and forgiven. God, I remember days as a teenager where I could go from lost to forgiven between breakfast and lunch, and back again before dinner. Now my hasty thoughts and human fallibility are my own. And the greatest thing is that I am no more or less redeemed than anybody else.
Not that the sense of relief I feel as been constant, or in any way sustainable. There have been whole days where I’ve cried out to the silent God of my youth. And getting a divorce at 22 certainly didn’t help my sense of shame and downright self-ridicule. I felt that I had left a man who was in many ways identifiable with my picture of God: wholesome, emotionally simple and at times unintentionally manipulative, unendingly good. A man who I worked incredibly hard to impress, and found that suddenly, I was so incredibly unimpressed with myself. An awful thing to admit: that my need to be myself trumped commitment.
And I raged and burned and wondered where the God from the cross was, the one who died and yet didn’t dirty his linen, who was wrapped in white and didn’t filthy it with excrement or blood, and at the end of death’s siege folded it gently and laid it at the foot of his pyre.
I couldn’t reconcile myself to the fact that this god had it easy. A painful death, burning with the sins of the world, with the promise of eternity to follow. Wouldn’t we all die once if we had full assurance of life? Yet somehow his sacrifice never stuck, never seemed real enough. Surely if I could have an immoral thought that would stick him up there again on the cross, burning in shame, he couldn’t be real. Who could sustain that kind of moral fortitude? Not I.
It could also be the survivor complex of the eldest child, or the misinterpretation of this sacrificial deity by one of the strictest religions in Western Christendom, or the fact that I was sexualised by Western culture too young and witnessed too much abuse, pain and grief around me for spirituality to be simple. It could be any of these things. Despite this, the cross is deeply rooted in my psyche. I have tried to exorcise her. I have begun calling gods by feminine pronouns. I have tried to find the deity within myself. I have tried to find the deity within the natural world: the closest thing I have ever found to true contentment and ‘redeeming’ love is an uncrowded stream.
Why is this so hard to write? And yet right now, I feel that to write anything else would be falsity. This has to come to the light.
Sometimes I feel like I need to be re-baptised out of the old strains of Christendom. My abandonment of church communities (much by my own doing) feels not dissimilar to the feeling of being divorced. You marry in public. You are baptised in public. At both events you are pure, washed, wearing either physically or metaphorically, white. You sign the documents. There are cheers and tears.
At your divorce, much like over the months of separation from the church, there is nobody. You don’t even need to go to court - just sign the documentation, send it away. As long as it is uncontested, all you receive is an email. It doesn’t quite feel real. Somewhere, deep down, you still feel like a married person cheating on your spouse.
It took many tear-ridden months and visits to the psychologist for me to even admit that a relationship not working doesn’t simply mean that it had to be all my fault. But it’s taking longer to believe that about my abandoned relationship with the cross.
However, I can tell you one thing. Perfect love does cast out all fear. Not the unknowable, strange love of the formidable Lord. The intimate, deep, accepting love of friends and family. That of a wet cheek against yours, of strong - REAL - arms around you that refuse to let go. As cliche as it is, that love saves.
There are people out there that have survived far more than I have. There are living victims of chemical warfare, there are refugees still fighting against seas (and worse: governments). But this is my story. And as I finish, I’m reminded of the Led Zeppelin song ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’.
Many times I’ve loved, and many times been bitten.
A fitting eulogy for the cross that splinters, breaks, falls apart inside of my chest again, and again, and again. Exorcism is not the potent force it used to be, where men held vials of water over the heads of epileptic children.
My cross, now, is shapeless. It’s taken the form of laughter and wind, of hot Summer air. It is the formless spiritual beast I suffer with and against and for in all that I do. It is everything, and the most vaporous tragedy. It is light and dark.