par·ish /ˈpariSH/ n. 1 part of diocese under a priest, etc. 2 church congregation.
When I was small, my Sundays were ordered by ritual. By ironed dresses and clean shoes, by getting out the front door by a particular time, by entering a room with tile floors and crossing myself with water, by singing certain songs, by speaking certain words, by listening when I was made to listen and speaking when I was supposed to speak. By holding hands with my parents and shaking hands with strangers around me. By walking in a line, by receiving a white disc in my hands, by placing it on my tongue and letting it dissolve. When I was small, I loved all of this. I loved saying “Peace be with you” to those around me. I loved the smell of incense and the burn of the candles. I loved a place where I knew how things would be, and a space where others assured me God dwelled.
As I grew, I continued to take comfort in this space and these rituals, but I also came to understand that these particular ones were specific to the faith of my parents and this place.
I was raised in a place segmented and ordered by the Catholic religion. In Louisiana, the state is not divided into counties, but rather into parishes. Ascension Parish, St. Charles Parish, Vermillion Parish. An Our Father, a couple of Hail Marys and a place that rested its hopes in the sacred heart of Jesus, in the truth of the Trinity. I knew about faith long before I knew about politics and to me faith was defined in only one way, the way I knew: A parish was a place you lived. A parish was a place you worshipped. A parish was a place where you lived and worshipped. Wasn’t it that way everywhere?
In July, I went to Patti Smith’s Camera Solo exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Art Museum. From reading her memoir and viewing her art, I recognize some similarities in those of us who were born and raised Catholic. Many of us seem to carry through our lives a sense of connection to ritual, to objects as talisman, to the holiness of everyday things.
Most of Patti Smith’s photos are not of people or landscapes. They are portraits of objects, and they capture materials suspended in a moment: a tea cup, the crease on a bed, a pair of embroidered slippers. She has photographed the beds of Virginia Woolf and John Keats. She has photographed the slippers of her friend and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe and of Pope Benedict XV. She has photographed her father’s cup and her own guitar.
In an interview for the exhibition, Patti Smith says that she has always been talismanic and that she “fell in love with art and it eclipsed everything, even religion.” She uses a Land 250 Polaroid camera to take her black and white photographs, which seem to capture both the material solidity of objects and the artist’s fleeting exposure to them at once. What I like most about her photographs are their intimacy and their immediacy. I am positioned as viewer in relation to the object, and I feel the same closeness to the subjects as Smith. There is artistry in not only in the composition but in the way Smith invites the reader into this intimate relationship with the objects, to view them as she herself experiences them. We feel the intimacy there even if we are not directly part of it. She discusses how by photographing the objects of loved ones, mentors, and artists, she is capturing a part of them. Of photographing many artists’ beds, she says: “We have extraordinary things happen in beds. We sleep, we conceive. We make love. We are ill in our beds. We recuperate. So beds are very important in our lives.” Our beds, these physical objects, hold so much of our lives, those moments both awake and dreaming, and the times in which we are most vulnerable.
When I left Catholicism abruptly after a longer period of edging away, I hadn’t yet realized that these impulses and instincts to ritual, to the sacredness of things are not particular to the Catholic Church or to religion for that matter. Afterall, the rituals of religion are inventions of the human mind; we make ritual to make sense of our life: of birth and death, of grief and struggle, of growing up and growing older, of love and sacrifice. I had a break with the church and with God as I’d known him, but the aliveness in me, the sense of something larger than myself, the knowing that we humans were not it did not go away. Neither did my appreciation for the sense of ritual and way of recognizing sacred that before I’d only recognized in my Catholic faith.
This recognizing the sacred is a way of looking, of being, of seeing. I don’t need to believe Jesus is savior to love Gospel music. I don’t need to know Hebrew to hear the solemnity in prayer at Pesach. The feeling of mala beads brushing up against my fingers is not so different from the feeling I used to have when my hands held a rosary. We import the meaning onto that which we celebrate, onto the things that allow us physical reminders of our more abstract beliefs. These things are both empty and full at the same time.
It took me a long time to realize that I get to decide what is sacred for me. That no one else can impose that on me. I began to realize that I can create the sacred in my own life. That I can make ritual and disassemble ritual. That I can shift and collage and shape my spiritual life, which is to say: my life, in whatever way I choose.
And so I find the sacred now whenever I think to look, which is often: in the birds that roost on branches and wires and cacti around my house, in the quick text message from my mom or dad, in the way light hits the floor in my kitchen, in the way my dog snuggles up against my chest in the morning. And in recognizing the sacred in the present moment, I don’t have to wait for the thunderbolt of divine blessing. The divine blessing is already here with me. I only have to be still, to witness it as it unfolds.