It was a balmy twilight in Chicago, and we were having Indian food at a sidewalk table on the so-called Magnificent Mile. Our first vacation undertaking had been an architectural tour of the city from a boat on the dusty green Chicago River. It had set the tone; it had primed us to look up at the glass and steel buildings as they reflected the sky and one another.
But dinner on the sidewalk brought us face to face with a more intimate enterprise, humans on display amidst the bright enticements of commerce.
Haute couture, haute cuisine, haute haute heels -- it all swirled around me against a backdrop of incitements to desire and valet parking. Costumes had been purchased and were on display; sparks of anxiety flickered across flawless faces: is the dress all right, is the hair all right, is the body all right, am I all right ?
I breathed in booze and perfume, cigarette smoke and motor oil, curry and cologne. I thought (you will not be surprised to hear) -- get me to a monastery -- an atavistic, post-lapsarian thought, but a sincere one.
I had Googled Chicago Episcopal Cathedral before our trip (the Piskie Back-Monkey refuses to let go) and found a slick parade of images of jazz concerts, speakeasy-themed fundraisers, happy, helpful parishioners engaged in all sorts of artistic endeavors and beneficent projects -- exasperated, I quickly gave up the half-formed project of a visit. The polished images stank of marketing, the same shrill manipulation in whose midst I sat on the Magnificent Mile -- snappy slogans, enticing images that feed the ever-hungry secular ego and stoke the insatiable furnace of mimetic desire --
To Chicago I came, burning, burning, burning -- my own initial attraction to the Church was pure mimetic desire -- I wanted (and probably still want) to have what Thomas Merton had, or, better still, to be Merton himself. So who was I to criticize the canny evangelizing images that likely have little to do with the day to day sheep feeding and worship of a parish. If the website had featured Christus Pantokrator and a haute church swinging thurible, I'd have added the joint to my itinerary in a sacred heartbeat. (Darling, whispers Talullah, at the crossroad of high church and high fashion, I love your dress, but your purse is on fire.)
Meanwhile, on each and every one of the bridges crossing the dusty green river, sit panhandlers, several to a span, each with his or her ill-lettered cardboard sign bearing a short verse of woe: homeless, jobless, pregnant, help me. It takes a radical reversal of the direction of gaze to notice them -- a forcible wrenching of the eyes downward from the golden rick rack
and the blindingly mirrored towers thrusting upward into God's former celestial digs, heaven,
to the dusty streets under our feet, the true homeland of misery, neglect, abandonment, alienation and, above all, violence. How much holy water would it take to douse the massive, eternally-spewing Satanic volcano of the world ? Or, at least, to redirect my free-floating, metaphysical desire, such as it is, to the heart of the matter ?
Little wonder I sat there before my cooling curry mentally hailing a cab -- no, dialing 911 for an ecclesiastic ambulance -- to transport me, stat with siren blaring, to the nearest monastery, preferably one with an ICU specializing in cure of souls --
where I will thrash, tethered to the tubes and drains of the dark, septic night, until day breaks (when, oh when) over the frangible glass city.