I am approaching an altar in a Catholic Church from behind, as if I am a celebrant. I have a sense that I am lacking something, perhaps a text, a script or even some rough notes. Across the altar, I see a woman. She does not move.
I approach the center of the altar and wonder where are the usual statues of the saints and the towering crucifix, a symbol central to the Christian mystery. I see nothing but a huge cascading whiteness that seems to flow outward from me to the whiteness that is the altar. I sense I am in the presence of an “awful” God.
I start to sing an off-key version of the “Kyrie Eleison,” a Greek acclamation meaning “Lord Have Mercy,” that has been incorporated into the Latin Mass. My singing seems primal, awful in a way, and delivered off-key in a mournful and cracking voice. I struggle to find the right tone as I linger on the word “eleison,” extending the four syllables as long as my breath would hold, thinking that offering this prayer with the right degree of solemnity, humility and grace was my primary task. I am not completely sure whether this acclamation ever leaves my throat.
The woman who might have been a witness joins me in the middle of the altar. She said: “This is why I don’t want to be on the altar at the same time with you.” I am confused. It was as if she was talking about a competition, a performance or my falling short. I thought my cry for mercy was raw, heartfelt and delivered in a kind of primitive pre-language. My sense is that I never got beyond those punishing vowels.
The above remarks come verbatim from my dream journal, an exercise I’ve engaged in for more than twenty years. I’ve learned to be respectful of dreams, even if they might sometimes seem, in TS Eliot’s words, like “the burnt out ends of smoky days.” I take my cue from Carl Jung, that dreams are largely compensation for what we ignore during the daylight hours. The dream material is “autonomous, coming from either the Personal or Collective Unconscious or both. Even though the dream often seems like an imaginative act, I am not the author of that dream.
However, some biographical details are necessary. I grew up in the Catholic Church, served as an altar boy, celebrated the Latin Mass and briefly thought about becoming a priest. The last time I celebrated mass was thirty years ago at my mother’s funeral. But the church has remained a point of interest and fascination, and has found a place in my poetry, novels, and essays. I wrote my PhD dissertation on imaginative patterns in Catholic fiction with a focus on the intersection of Mary and the Cross (Maria Cross).
Recently I completed a novel, “Chanting the Feminine Down,” about a young women’s attempt to find shards of the feminine in the Catholic tradition. Her journey is through time and epochs and involves conversations with women in history, art and mythology. She is able to fashion or imagine an inner, dream-fed, psychological life that can stand up to a patriarchal theology. More details at www.chantingthefemininedown.com.
Writing “Chanting” overwhelmed me. One reason for this is that dreams that served as a counterpoint for the book seemed to come by the hundredweight. I must admit that I felt more than a tinge of hubris, taking on the 2,000-year church history and “re-visioning” it through the eyes of a young woman from the Bronx.
So what might the earlier dream mean in light of this biographic detail? Jung was emphatic; the dream image in and of itself held the meaning. Outside factors might serve as amplification, but the image is central to the dream’s meaning and always comes first.
The dreamer seems utterly overwhelmed when facing the altar and, while desperately trying to ask for mercy, becomes lost in the words themselves. His cry is primitive and heartfelt. He seems almost pre-verbal. It feels very like his being or soul is trying to communicate. It is as if he is naked before his God.
Am I carrying an unconscious wish for such a union? Am I involved in some kind of wish fulfillment, a desire to return to my altar boy days? Does the Irish Catholic in me want a divine sign to signal forgiveness for the mischief of novel writing? Is the woman who joins me on the altar suggesting I have been engaged in performance art? Do I continue to live my fiction? Have I failed the feminine?
The only sermons I receive these days are the occasional remarks that Pope Francis posts on Twitter. There is a Wise Old Man in “Chanting the Feminine Down” who has walked through centuries of theology and finds hope in the feminine and the “way of the heart.” He sounds a little like Pope Francis.
I have written on many occasions that I think that the only way the Catholic Church can recover from its history, sexual crimes and anti-feminist stance is to make women full partners and participants in the church, including as priests. “Chanting” fictionalizes this yearning and my fantasy. The movement is already afoot. This web site is worth looking at: www.romancatholicwomanpriests.org.
I do know my cry for midnight mercy seemed as real and heartfelt as anything I have uttered during my waking life. That the woman in the dream field remains at a distance during my plea might suggest I still have work to do, in the mind and in the heart.