Of Elephants and Cathedrals

Category: Personal

This past weekend, we got in the car and drove four hours to Asheville, North Carolina to stay in a hostel and go hiking in the mountains and find waterfalls and drink margaritas and observe with reverence the end of my best friend’s marriage. Last week I stood with her at the county courthouse downtown, watching as the clerk stamped each paper she was filing and wondering if the ring he wore bearing the shape of a cross and the words “FAITH, HOPE, LOVE” meant that he was judging her, or pitying her, or both. But when divorce is the open door out of a home filled with rejection and deceit and manipulation—when it is the right thing and the just thing and the holy thing—it is to be celebrated, not pitied or judged.


So to Asheville we went. When we got to a waterfall that felt right, we sat in reverence and sang a few hymns. Then, we googled “liturgy for divorce” and heretically performed it by the rushing waters. I have a degree in philosophical theology, my best friend grew up a missionary kid, and the other friend with us studied preaching and biblical exposition, so between the three of us, we probably constituted one whole priest, we reasoned. It felt appropriate to throw a ring into the water at that point, but her wedding ring was too nice and she didn’t have his, so I took a dollar store ring off my finger and let her sacrifice it to the waves. These are the things you do when a marriage comes to an end and it is both blessed and bitter. Thanks be to God.


Back in town, we wandered into an old Catholic church on a whim—the Basilica of St. Lawrence. There are only a handful of proper basilicas in the United States, and St. Lawrence is the only one in North Carolina. We stepped inside and were immediately awed at the soaring heights of the ornately carved ceilings, the beauty of the iconography displayed on every wall, the hushed sense of the divine that hung like a wedding veil over the whole place.



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Resenting the way my boots clipped and clopped and reverberated loudly on the stone floor, I made my way to the prayer room to the right of the main altar. I lit a small votive candle. Knelt at the kneeler, next to a woman in her 60s devoutly praying a well-worn rosary. Crossed myself and looked up at the statue of Jesus, blank eyes, posed hands, gilded gold radiating from his chest.


I thought about the first time I had ever been to a Catholic church, for my baby cousin’s baptism when I was in middle school, and how my uncle got us all in trouble by making jokes about holy water throughout the entire liturgy, and how all of the adults seemed so threatened by the whole ordeal—as if it would mess with their theology just a little too much if a baby baptism “counted,” if pouring water over the head of an infant got them out of hell. I thought of my husband, who is Catholic, and the number of times I was asked while we were dating if he had a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I thought about why we were there at the Basilica of St. Lawrence in the first place, my best friend’s impending divorce, and all those good Christian people from her hometown who were at that exact moment undoubtedly speaking of her as one speaks of the dead—Did you hear? What happened? I thought of cars we had seen on the way to Asheville sporting bumper stickers promoting both Christianity and the Confederacy or Christianity and gun rights or Christianity and Donald Trump, and whatever church had taken it upon themselves to rent billboard space to display the 10 Commandments in an imposing, all-caps font. I thought of my own small and dear and all-welcoming Episcopalian church, currently embroiled in a battle against old southern money and old southern prejudice, and the parishioners who spend hours each week plotting the downfall of homophobia in our diocese one step at a time. I thought of the meeting with the bishop I went to last summer, where I sat in the back of the room and sobbed, entirely too loudly to hide it, over his defense of discrimination against LGBTQ couples. I thought about every injustice perpetuated in the various names of divinity, about the horrible and bigoted and backwards things I myself had done and said in the name of my religious convictions, and I couldn’t breathe.


I looked right at the statue and at the altar and I said, in a prayerful whisper that felt more like a confession: Sometimes I wonder if we just made all of this stuff up because we’re scared of death.


And then I thought of that Rumi poem, where he describes God like an elephant:

Some Hindus have an elephant to show.
No one here has ever seen an elephant.
They bring it at night to a dark room.
One by one, we go in the dark and come out
saying how we experience the animal.
One of us happens to touch the trunk.
A water-pipe kind of creature.
Another, the ear. A very strong, always moving
back and forth, fan-animal. Another, the leg.
I find it still, like a column on a temple.
Another touches the curved back.
A leathery throne. Another the cleverest,
feels the tusk. A rounded sword made of porcelain.
He is proud of his description.
Each of us touches one place
and understands the whole that way.
The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark
are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.
If each of us held a candle there,
and if we went in together, we could see it.


And then, distinctly and clearly, I heard the altar say back to me: Yeah, but the elephant isn’t made up.


The woman with the rosary next to me looked as if she were having a much more spiritual experience than me, probably praying about very high and lofty and important things and not about elephants and Donald Trump bumper stickers and ancient Persian poets. But I took it as a win. I said to the alter: Okay. I stood up.


My reverie didn’t last as long as I would have wished. To the left of the main altar was an oversized pulpit with an excess of tracts and literature advocating the repealing of Roe v. Wade, natural family planning over proper contraception and sex education, and the importance of keeping legal marriage between one man and one woman. I shook my head. Picked up a picture of St. Lawrence with a “prayer for the conversion of abortionists” written on the back. Wondered if God could really speak to you in a place so up in arms about the sexual revolution they had devoted a whole pulpit to it. I became vividly aware of the fact that I was wearing a crop top. Maybe that’s why I’d gotten a few weird looks from other visitors. It hadn’t occurred to me to be self-conscious about it until I was standing in front of a bunch of pamphlets raging against non-procreative sex.


When we got back outside in the wind and the sun, I told my friends about the altar, and the elephant, and the pamphlets. My best friend insisted that the pamphlets weren’t even part of the elephant, that those ideals must have gotten attached along the way in some sort of twisted Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey scenario. I was momentarily appeased. I am always momentarily appeased. But I agree. They are not part of the elephant. But for the grace of God, she reminded us, there go we.


I sighed. Warmed my arms and my exposed belly in the sunlight. Felt the breeze in my hair. Looked past the fountain with the Blessed Virgin Mary in the center over the rolling North Carolina mountains. God is here as much as God is anywhere, I realized, and God is everywhere. God does not begrudge us our doubts or our anger or our divorces or our crop tops in the sanctuary or our non-procreative sex or our fears of having made everything up to explain death. God understands, in the way that divinity does.


Each of us touches one place

and understands the whole that way.



One thought on “Of Elephants and Cathedrals

  1. As an Asheville resident you hit the nail on the head of the juxtaposition of our conflicted little town. And as a twice divorced woman your friend is fortunate to have you!

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