Sacred Stories of Our Lives

Ordinarily Sacred by Lynda Sexson, Crossroads Press, New York, 1983, $9.95.

“Religion” is a touchy word for some of us, evoking images of imposed dogmas and powerful institutions, or of beliefs we have left behind.

There was a long time in my own life when I would have said that I was in no way “religious.” But even then, there were things I held “sacred,” works of writing I could only honor with whatever was deepest in me, dreams I always remembered.

In such moments, and in many more even more humble ones, says Lynda Sexson, we will find that in our flight from the temple we have only brought religion with us. For religion is whatever deepens life.

A little girl sees a box of baking powder. On the label is a picture of the box; on the box is a label… the image retreats endlessly inwards, carrying a child’s mind with it. The making of cakes, and of religion. “Peculiar moments in ordinary lives, saturated by metaphor or personal symbol-making.” (p 3).

She shows us the most commonplace–things we save in childhood treasure boxes or in family memories, in story or in dream, strung like symbolic beads along the rosary of our lives–as reminders of what gives meaning.

The book is not so much a sustained exposition as it is a weaving. “Text,” she points out, “etymologically, refers to weaving.” Some of the threads of thought in this book are spun on the language of academia; some sentences have to be read more than once to be understood; there is a thesis on the nature of religion.

But if the book is sometimes warped by addressing the academic arena, it is woofed by stories. Stories from Jewish and Taoist traditions, the dreams of her children, Native American myths, anecdotes handed down in families, glimpses into Borneo and into earliest memories, fragments from Kafka and Plato, jokes brought home from school. Stories told with an eye to the ways we mark the sacred in our lives, trace the footprints of the Trickster. I would get this book just for its stories.

“Once in the midst of a peyote ceremony, the Cheyenne singing and chanting suddenly shifted into English, and I heard, ‘There is only one way, hay-ya-hay-ya­hay-yey, Jesus is the only way!’ The song was a matter of hospitality, honoring the white guests, our friend laughed the next day.” She comments, “I was struck by the sudden intrusion of another metaphorical universe and its exclusivist rhetoric incorporated into an embracing mysticism.” (pp196-197).

This is another story, from her mother’s school days:  In mid-winter the girl transgressed. Hiding in the basement she secretly watched one of the nuns remove her habit. Out from under the voluminous black, the nun revealed her underwear. It was homemade and sturdy, constructed from available discarded fabric, and it was green. The girl’s sharp giggle escaped from between her fingers when she saw the nun standing in the basement in green underwear. The nun looked toward the shadows and asked, “What did you expect?” No one told; there was no punishment. (p 52).

Why, of all the moments of our lives, do we make of some of them, stories?

“What is the distance between beads of dogwood berries a little girl strung and hid in a box under her bed, telling her own great-grandchild about them seventy years later, and the beads of a rosary developed as aseries of prayers that have been used by generations .. ?”  The distance–between the improvised and the articulated—is indeed vast; but they are strung like beads along the same continuum of experience.” (p 5).

Ordinarily Sacred is to be read slowly. There are a few sentences that just won’t yield their meaning at a glance, and stories whose point is not always apparent.

I first read through rather hurriedly. There was much I liked; but finding the vocabulary of philosophy led me to say more than once, “Well, I don’t see how this example supports that generalization,” and things like that. (I am myself a still-recovering academic philosopher.)

But on a second reading, l see that one of the things Sexson is saying is that dualism won’t do. (Dualism like dividing the world into the “holy” and the “mun­dane”). And with it go the models of “combat” and “overcoming”… And·, I take it, of “winning the argument,” too. (Janice Moulton calls the academic tradition of argumentative philosophy “duelism.”)

There is a chapter on “iconoclasm,” “image-breaking,” called “The-Man-and-Woman-Eating-Plant,” featuring “women, children and fools.” She points out how often in myth it is through feminine “transgression” that bits of enlightening chaos enter, the “disorientation” that forces us “to create ourselves.” (p 86)

And she notes that other boundary-breaker, “the fool,” the person “too simple” for this world:

One can conveniently adjust to or rebelliously combat the world; or one can find the third category of creative, nonconventional integration. I suspect that is why the culture is fermenting so with its fools, women, and angels. These nonheroic, noncombative figures are more likely to marry, tame, play with, pretend to be, or even be a dragon than to slay one. The riddling, labyrinthine stories (which do not heroically overcome or conquer the riddle or labyrinth) yield to a more subtle, more playful consciousness. The stories of the feminine and of fools imply more revolutionary, heretical, ecological, erotic, aesthetic, and interior sense of being. Perhaps they are being invoked to… preside over the remythologizing or cultural shift we are now living. (pp 99-100)

The second time I read this book, more slowly, I came to see that the author is practicing exactly what she preaches: Her own writing yields itself best to a subtly-tuned awareness, to an expectation of playfulness.

In this radical context, the book’s academic framework proves to be just another thread. Philosophical generalizations are set down firmly beside the puns of children, bedded with dreams, and embedded in memories.

At one point she raises a possible objection to her own thesis, putting it this way: “If everything is sacred, then nothing is. Or, how can we decide that one kid’s pocket is filled with divine objects, and another’s is just trouble for the washer?” (p 16)

But sacredness does not reside in “things.”

“Religion” she says once, “is the act of reading.” It is the act of reading the world, alert for the omen, the dream, the telling event. “Reading the world,” bits of life understood as story, as metaphor, a sacred text: “a means of divining one’s inner self and one’s relationship to the world of meaning.”

One of her best stories is about the “un-Christmas play” she helped some kids of Unitarians put on. The kids, with their modern irreverence well in sight, improvised a Creation Story for our time. There’s no way to explain its charms; you’ll have to read it. But what I liked best was the vision of the author watching at rehearsals as a larger play unfolds before her eyes. That moment in her life is subtle, metaphysical comedy, as she finds herself a helpless audience of one: “Buddha” jokes with the angels, making angles with fingers and elbows “reminding the director, at least, of ancient cosmological pictures of the Creator inscribing the contours of the universe. “ ( p 59)

She laments that the audience never know how many of the best lines came from “the devil.” The kids are uninterested in the serendipity of Buddha’s advice “not to wish for anything.” Never mind. She escaped to tell the story.

Sounding at times like a teacher of religious studies, which she is, and at times like a sort of domestic Annie Dillard, Sexson turns out an assortment of chapters from the boxes of her mind: chapters on Stories, on Memory, on Play, Art, Dream, and Myth, on Iconoclasm, even on Boxes.

“The religion with which these pages are concerned is the religion of picking up the pieces, improvising, making do.” (p 90) “Religion,” she says elsewhere, “is the desire for depth.” (p 16) Making do with whatever comes to hand, from wide and thoughtful reading, from memories and conversations, the author sifts for those that have deepened her own life, shows us what “deepening” means.