About Theodora Ranelli

I'm interested in progress. Contact me at movingworms@gmail.com

Chicken of the Sea

Sometimes I feel like the Jessica Simpson of Catholicism. Here’s Jessica Simpson on Newlyweds in 2003:

Simpson: Is this chicken what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says Chicken … by the sea. Is that stupid? Simpson: What? Don’t make fun of me right now. I’m not in the mood.

Nick Lachey (her boyfriend, then) : You act like you’ve never had tuna before.

Simpson: I’ve had tuna fish, like, sandwhiches and stuff, like this.

Lachey: Baby, you and I have eaten tuna like this before.

Simpson: Why is it called “Chicken by the Sea” or “in the Sea”?

Lachey: “Chicken of the Sea” is the brand.

Simpson: Oh.

Lachey: You know, ’cause a lot of people eat tuna, it’s like a lot of people eat chicken? So it’s like the chicken of the sea.

Simpson: Oh. I understand now. I read it wrong.

When people who  ask me questions like What is the Trinity, or What is the Rosary, or What do Catholics do on Sundays, or What is the Eucharist? Or how can Jesus be God? And what’s with the Holy Spirit? – I can sympathize a bit, because I really don’t know how to explain those things. I’m not sure I understand those things. Even though I’m not sure how much I believe in the Trinity, I tend to pull it over me like a big, comfy blanket and revel in the mystery. I feel comfortable in my discrepancies regarding the Eucharist – see, it’s God in the Eucharist, and it’s Jesus’ actual body and blood, but Jesus is not God in my mind, so whaaat – it’s God through Jesus, see?

A spiritual advisor (who is a Muslim convert, by the way) was telling me that I should greet God as soon as I open my eyes. And I said, I don’t do that, but I thank God in other ways when I get out of bed. And she said, you know, it’s o.k. to be honest about your spiritual practice, because the struggles you face on your journey are things that tons of other people face, too. So it’s part of affirming that we’re not perfect people, a lot of us are stumbling toward some sort of better communion with God. O.k., in all honesty, then – the mornings are reserved for me waking up and going coffeecoffeecoffee. And she says, but you can attempt now. And it’s a long process, it’s o.k., you know, if you don’t figure it out right away. Prayer is personal and complicated.

I cannot understand God. I can understand God in the way God pulls at my jugular vein, or that everywhere I turn there is the face of God, or that God undresses my beautiful body with [God’s] eyes – but everything I know about God is a drop in the ocean. And boy, everything I know about Catholicism is a nail on my finger compared to the rest of the hand. And no matter how many degrees in Theology we have, no matter how much church experience, no matter how many books we all have read, no matter how much prayer we say we do – we are all stumbling on our way to understanding. After all, interpreting the Quran has many layers to it – each verse, I’ve heard, can be read on 28 levels (I’ve also heard some seven levels, of which each has seven levels) – this is according to another Sufi friend. I’ve also heard that each letter contains over a thousand meanings.

I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve mistaken Chicken of the Sea for actual Chicken! You’ve all done it and we will all do it again. It is those little tremors that I love, those times where I see some sort of glimmer through the confusion. But then again, isn’t the state of bewilderment a blessed state to be in?  Here’s to being utterly bewildered and continuing on our journeys, even if we’re crawling really slowly! …I know I’m crawling really slowly.

Continuous Be-ing

There isn’t much that I have learned
Through all my foolish years
Except that life keeps runnin’ in cycles
First there’s laughter, then those tears

–Frank Sinatra, “Cycles”

Jesus was born once. Then he died once. And saved the world once. And once, only once, did God have a son. God only said “Be! And it is!” to Jesus once. We are only remembering him on Christmas.

Creation really has no clock time, it is continuous. There is no distinction in types of creation between the body and the soul, just continuous times that God says Be! And it is! In fact, every time you take a breath, in and out, that is creation. Because if everything is from God, you are from God – and you are a child of God. The only Son of God creating a new people of God through His sins is using the clock model of creation. It would mean that there is only one intermediary, this only child, through whom we can get to God. This continuous creation idea is found in Islam – where I was introduced to it…but I also heard the priest talk about it tonight at the Christmas Eve Mass.

The priest talked tonight about Jesus being born constantly. Emmanuel, God is with us – God came through Jesus and God still continues to come – I would add, not through Jesus’ sacrifice and only through that act, but through continual creation and presence. Just as there are continual birthings of Jesus – not the historical Jesus, but the remembrance that God is with us, nearer than your jugular vein – there is continual atonement. The light calls us back, we dry our tears, we are healed, and then shit happens again – and just because shit happens to us doesn’t mean we have to concentrate on the atonement, the eventual light at the end of the tunnel. No, continual atonement means we have to experience light, the birth of Christ, the joy, but also God, my God, why have you forgotten me? I have to allow myself to sit with some of those feelings that are supposed to be erased by this New Covenant….and it’s all about cycles. Jesus is still being born in my midst, no matter how shitty I feel, no matter how much my faith lacks sheen. God is still creating me. I am still creating me, like God was creating Jesus – and if you believe, it’s happening to you, too. And that is one of the miracles.

Rock Operas

I believe in the power of music to tell you about God. A haunting “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (or maybe a rock version too, but please, the traditional one first!). During Christmas, a song I can’t hear enough is “I Wonder As I Wander.” Although I knew Christ was in pain before dying, it wasn’t until I heard “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar that I felt Jesus as a person. Leonard Cohen moved me in one way, toward hopeful solemnity and joy, and he’s beautiful. But too many people diss that pop. So, here, Britney Spears got me seriously moving in my faith. O.k., how can “You Drive Me Crazy” NOT be about God?

Baby, I’m so into you
You got that somethin, what can I do
Baby, you spin me around
The Earth is movin, but I can’t feel the ground

Every time you look at me
My heart is jumpin, it’s easy to see

You drive me crazy
I just cant sleep
Im so excited, I’m in too deep
Ohh…crazy, but it feels alright
Baby, thinkin of you keeps me up all night

Tell Me, you’re so into me
That i’m the only one you will see
Tell me, i’m not in the blue
That i’m not wastin, my feelings on you

You drive me crazy
I just cant sleep
Im so excited, I’m in too deep
Ohh…crazy, but it feels alright
Baby, thinkin of you keeps me up all night

Crazy, I just can’t sleep
I’m so excited, I’m in too deep
Crazy, But it feels alright
Every Day and Every Night

You drive me crazy
I just cant sleep
Im so excited, I’m in too deep
Ohh…crazy, but it feels alright
Baby, thinkin of you keeps me up all night

You Drive Me Crazy (You drive me crazy baby)
Ohh..Crazy, But It Feels Alright
Baby Thinkin of you keeps me up all night
Baby Thinkin of you keeps me up all night

Winter Baby*

I collect light bulbs. This search for human creation in divine image makes up advent, my preparation for entrance into sun again. With a lower-case a, this word means “an important arrival.” No, I am not talking about the second coming of Christ, but am plugging at words – like catholic (universal, all-encompassing), or islam (submission to God).

Many experience difficulty when the days get shorter. It’s a boulder shower predicted as we hurry to prepare. It’s the docent in the art museum telling me about Félix González-Torres – “So many people walk away saying, ‘I could do that!’ What they don’t know is that his art shows us about love and death. When a light goes out in one of his installations, we swap it for one that is working. I look at flashy art and am not called. His works are about loss, but also about rebirth.” We are in advent while we wait for an occurrence – a partner to die, a prophet to arrive, a soul mate to show up – and after this happens, we are still in advent as we try to make sense of the new picture.

So as I am waiting in the dark, I try to find light bulbs. I’ll take a substitute, a glow, some recognition. Like a Virgin Mary night light, I am slowly learning about the beauty of suffering as part of love. I do not like to suffer. But in my viewpoint, one understands that God feels pain and is in solidarity with our own suffering. This does not mean that suffering is good and people deserve to have terrible things happen to them. It is not romantic to suffer. Not all submission is chosen. But a God who asks you to submit means that for those who toil, there is hope. Even though I sound like an exercise video, I cling to believing the tired bodies we possess will one day soak in love and light. And by hoping for this, I am already soaking in love and light. The dream is something no one can take away from me. It is part of my autonomy.

I am in advent this winter, huddling under my full-spectrum lamps. Part of my love for light is the understanding that sometimes I need electric substitutes. Part of my love for God is feeling pain. I am waiting, and in the process marveling at the burning flames of Godly desire. For me, to give it up to something higher, I plug the cord into the wall and watch the light shine.

*title comes from a poem by Ellie Schoenfeld.

Dual Nature

“Would you understand what I meant if I said I was only human?” – Edward Cullen, Twilight

I’ll admit my lack of understanding, especially around these topics: the dual-nature of Christ, resurrection of the body, and the Twilight series. We’re not even touching the trinity yet – the best metaphors I have been able to use to understand it are…Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the Left and Right Hand of God…or it’s like a fork – it all goes to one base, but there are many prongs. And don’t even get me started on the only son thing. But if you’re with me, it took a vampire story to help me appreciate the mystery of the Eucharist…and of faith.

My fourteen-year-old sister introduced me to Twilight when I came home this year and despite criticisms of the books, I plunged in. I sat without moving, more frightened of him than I had ever been. I’d never seen him so completely freed of that carefully cultivated facade. He’d never been less human… or more beautiful. –Bella Swan, Twilight. I was fascinated by the forbidden love aspect of the novel and couldn’t help striking parallels to Catholicism. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Twilight is about a vampire/boy and a girl that fall in love. And it seemed so much like the Eucharist.

Now, before you started calling me either pagan or Protestant, hear me out. I haven’t dwelt on transubstantiation as much because of the whole divine nature of Christ thing….but thinking about Edward (the vampire) in Twilight – living off blood (we need more than bread alone, we need spiritual food) –  I thought again: the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. The actual body and blood – so to take this body, take this blood, was to be a Vampire. And I mean this in the sweetest possible Catholic way.

What does it mean for the Eucharist to be the actual body and blood of Christ? And how did that body change? And are the body and soul together when we die? And do the genitals come to Heaven with us? How does something disturbing and disgusting like death, transform us into that eternal peace and calm of Heaven? And how do we distill Protestant images of baby eating Catholics into our own tradition of the resurrection of the body – the complete body? I don’t know the answers to these questions.

You could put Edward’s ruminations about being in love ( I’m new at this; you’re resurrecting the human in me, and everything feels stronger because it’s fresh) with this quote from John: “”Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” I’ll give you a clue – they are both about eating, changing, and withholding. For a long time, I thought the grain of wheat verse meant that through death, there was new life! Easy way to be suicidal there. But as a wise Russian literature professor said, “The grain of wheat did not die, but was transformed.” Jesus’ death and resurrection (whatever I believe about the outcome for humanity), was one way of transformation. But when we imbibe Jesus’ blood, we are also taking on that mantle of new life. We are resurrecting into new humans with the Divine in us, or at least I am. And by Edward NOT drinking Bella’s blood, he also becomes resurrected.  He has taken the Eucharist — the harder road, the road that says we need more than food to survive.  That takes willpower.

A step deeper is that longing that Edward felt for Bella – o.k., and I’m getting dishy here, the blood, the actual blood – and the longing of Bella for Edward – the lure of the forbidden (lover, God) – is similar to the Eucharist. But you see, just because we’ve been… dealt a certain hand… it doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to rise above — to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of us wanted. To try to retain whatever essential humanity we can. – Edward Cullen, Twilight. It is the most personal relic, this kind of enactment and love.

Catholicism is bodily, and remembering Christ’s body is part of remembering God. Ignatius faced this when he not only became a rememberer, he became part of the body of Christ. Since animals and beasts chewed the body, only being “chewed” by God was triumph over death:

…Let me be the food of wild beasts through whom it is possible to attain God; I am the wheat of God, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread… (cited in Bynum, Resurrection of the Body, 28).

When Bishop Hugh wanted to take a piece of the arm of Mary Magdalene, he found it difficult to saw off with a knife. So he tried to bite it off with his teeth. When some of the monks objected, he said that he had just eaten Christ’s body and blood, so why are you stopping him from eating Mary Magdalene’s arm? So I know that Catholics don’t go around chewing people’s arms, but it’s always a good reminder that this jazz dance of God comes back to the body – to the decay, preservation, and rebirth of it.

Also, the Vampiric aspect comes in when we as Catholics feed off of each other’s desires for God.  When we interact with each other as members of the body of Christ, or as members of a larger interfaith community of religious folk.  It’s a sharing and eating off of people’s inner bread of life, given to Catholics through the Eucharist — given to others through, say, Quran recitation.

But Ignatius and Twilight remind us that no matter how many good Vampires are out there, many evil Vampires are out there, too.  And that is why Buffy the Vampire Slayer exists. No really, to fend off the wild animals from the tombs and the body-snatchers and the soul-suckers.


(reflections on the CTA conference coming soon, but had to get this post out!)

I walked into one of my local bookstores today to see if I could order a specific book about Ashura and the battle of Karbala. “That’s the Shi’i blood-letting ritual!” the man behind the counter yelled loudly enough for the entire store to hear. Oh, and he’s Jewish, so this makes this even more of a politically incorrect joke.

There are customers behind me and as I begin to tell him that Ashura is not just a blood-letting thing, and why there is a remembrance in the first place (the slaughter of Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, well as the deaths of his friends and family, not to mention the grief of his sister Zaynab – and all those left behind…and that all this grief is collective and present…and the future…but no, it’s all about blood-letting, yeah). Oh, and that there are some Shiah who don’t do that. He says, “I’m sure most Shiah think it’s an abominable practice.” Uh, I’m not an expert in Shiasm here and I didn’t really know what to say, but I spit out: “Well, there are plenty of people who think those practices are fine, too. And that’s o.k.”

Jalal Toufic says, “the preservation of the events of Ashura exist on two levels….in the world of the imagination…as well as the labyrinthine temporality of the realm of underneath, where al-Husayn would run the risk of forgetting who he is, of forgetting himself; in historical time, through the bodily and emotional tortures endured during the . … commemorative ceremory, which are the means to breed in the human being, a forgetful creature (“And verily we made a covenant of old with Adam, but he forgot, and We found no constancy in him” Qur’an 20:115) a historical memory. But the memory that the ceremony of Ashura is trying to maintain is not only that of the past, but the memory of the future, that of the . . . coming Mahdi . . . and the promise of Twelver Shi’ites to wait for him.”

In talking about Catholicism, Carolyn Walker Bynum writes: “Medieval people [and I would add folks into the present –THR] . . . manipulated their own bodies for religious goals. Both male and female saints regularly engaged in what modern people call self-torture – jumping into ovens or icy ponds, driving knives, nails or nettles into their flesh, whipping or hanging themselves in elaborate pantomimes of Christ’s crucifixion. Such acts were…frequently described as union with the body of Jesus….a way of approaching God.”

I have a dream about goldfinches. My art history friend says that goldfinches, because they ate thistle seeds, they are associated with Christ’s passion and crown of thorns. The goldfinch in art occasionally represents Jesus and Mary’s knowledge that he will be killed. This is a lot like the Prophet Muhammad, Husayn’s mother Fatima, other members of the family, and finally, Husayn, knowing that his own death was pre-ordained. The goldfinch is offered to Christ by John the Baptist as an option, much like the option God presented to the Prophet Muhammad about his grandson, much like Fatima’s own heart was pierced as a mother and a daughter many times – even though she knew it was coming. In Holy Family, painted by Barrocio, John the Baptist holds the goldfinch high enough out of reach so a cat won’t eat it. My friend told me that the goldfinch weeps in some pictures, at the sorrow of Jesus. I’m not sure. I know Husayn’s horse wept.

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Memorializing the Dead

I am reminded this time of year about loss and memory. “October has a lot of anniversaries,” I’ve said before. On All Saints and All Souls, we celebrate collective and individual loss. Grief is very individual, very selfish, but grief also opens you up to a community of people who have also experienced loss. And I can’t help thinking about bodies and what belonged to them. A body of a dead son, a dead father, sister. My grandmother. Her pillow. St. Lucy’s eyes. John the Baptist’s head. The ashes of Joan of Arc. Husayn’s body. Fatimah’s sorrow. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart. The actual heart.

Grief is not limited to loss. As my therapist says, any change is grief. And people get connected to objects in ways that tie them to specific periods in their life; to specific losses. I’ve been tutoring people in a medieval and renaissance studies class who have been writing about the difference between images and relics. One girl took the words right out of my mouth: “Images,” she said, “are two-dimensional – a portrait that is staring at you. It tells you the story. With relics, you get to hold them and put your memory into them. It’s like an urn. It’s a tactile memory of the dead.”

May the remembrances of the dead and the living this week/weekend bring us what we need. May some of us this week/weekend light candles for collective losses of memory, people, history, and space.