Friday, May 04, 2007

On incense, progress, and inclusion

I am, among other contradictions, an asthmatic seminarian. CDSP is nothing like Nashotah House; we use incense, but only on high feast days.

Last night turned out to be one of them. My advisor, also Dean of the Chapel, was installed as the Kaehr Chair for Liturgical Studies (I think that’s close to her title). I couldn’t go to the liturgy, because I knew there would be incense. But when I went to congratulate her at dinner, she told me why they’d made that choice. The Kaehrs really love incense, and were very clear in their hopes that it would be used at her installation. Up to that point, they hadn’t been planning to.

I would have loved to have been at the liturgy, and Lizette knows that. She also knows that I’m impressed that she thought of me. She’s pastoral, hilarious, and I love her to pieces—but I was not aware that my breathing issues influenced chapel decisions. I’m really glad that they do, both for myself and for other people. I have one more academic year here. I’ve been told I wasn’t alone—my mentor last year was fantastically supportive—but I’ve often felt on my own in this. I haven’t heard of any others who share my experience, or who are vocal about it. I know that there will be.

I’ve spoken up often, but I’ve tried to be clear and calm about it. Mostly I just say when I can’t participate. If the sacristans are looking for last-minute volunteers, I write back asking if there’s incense (if I’m not sure), and offering to help if there isn’t. It was harder for me emotionally last year than now. I am still excluded by the presence of incense, but I don’t take that personally, anymore. Today, I’m thrilled to have been thought of last night. People are basically good, and well-intentioned. I’m glad that my presence changes their approach to issues of inclusion/exclusion, even if that doesn’t lead to instant change of action. Awareness is a very good thing.

One of the people I love the most here is entering a new phase of “fraudulent retirement,” and we honored him and another retiring faculty member last week in chapel. I had thought there would be incense, because the rota read “Thurifer TBA,” and so told John I couldn’t go. He would be preaching. I went home after class, and he went to rehearsal. He called me to tell me they weren’t using it, and I could attend. I went, happily, and thanked him.

Both last week and this, when my inability to participate because of incense came up, John has suggested I stand outside so I can listen. I won’t do that—it feels even more exclusionary to watch from afar, and not to be able to come in and receive Communion. It’s really not a compromise at all. I haven’t told him that, though, because the presence of incense wasn’t something he could change at the last minute, and I know he means well. He wants me to feel free to participate in any way I can, and sees that as a way I could at least listen to the liturgy. His heart’s completely in the right place. To me, however, standing outside is analogous to being in the Court of the Asthmatic Gentiles.

I’ve been breathing comfortably at my parish since I landed there; other people blazed that trail long before me. One couple in particular are good friends of mine, and we talk about this often. Their concern is not only for themselves and their friends; they worry about the rise in childhood asthma caused by air pollution. They sent me a stack of articles related to incense and the church, which I haven’t had time to read closely. There are some interesting angles, though, and again I’m glad it isn’t just me. Other people have asked me, incredulously, how I could consider entering the clergy if I can’t tolerate incense. The answer to that is easy: I would be up front with my limitations, and I would seek positions in safe churches. Before I came to California, incense was rarely an issue. My parish is safe, as is the one where I’m considering interning a year from now. I know there are others.

To me, it’s all about inclusion—not only of myself, but of everyone. We build ramps so that everyone can enter the building; we experiment with the words used in worship so that those who have been excluded can fully participate. I’m doing my best to raise awareness that people with asthma still love the church, still want to participate in the worshipping community, and still are called to serve God here.

People are hearing me, and I'm glad.

1 comment:

Kate Murphy said...

Yeah, if you stood outside just listening, it could be trouble. Remember Theckla (sp?), like a spider in a window.