Friday, 26 October 2018

#fridayflash: Breathe

Day and night, night and day, let incense arise.


He lingered, caught between life and death, suffering and bliss, finality and eternity. There was nothing more she could do but watch. Watch and pray, pray and watch, seeking assurances where there were none.


The courtyard was hazy with incense. Ahead stood two iron stoves grey with ash, red joss sticks, perfume rising to the sky.

Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t cough.

The prayers of many lifted to the heavens. Inside, she raised her eyes to elaborate wood carvings, stained a dark brown, peeking out behind the thick miasma of sandalwood and agarwood. And looming in her vision, Kuan Yin Ma, Goddess of Mercy, in gold and red.

Save him. He deserves to live.

She lifted her arms over her head, joss sticks in hand. The temple medium muttered. What mysteries did he speak? Or what banalities? His utterings were translated by another priest, a foretelling of the future. Did she believe? How could she tell if the medium was in a trance or if he was high on fumes, drugged by the chemicals in the incense? She’d been told that there was only one God, only one Truth, but what if He did not speak to one like her—

The gospel is coercive at best, violent at worse, bathed in blood; not just the blood of the saints and martyrs, but the blood of those who refused to believe.

You who believe in the Prince of Peace while immersed in a history of physical, mental, emotional violence; you who speak words you do not believe, believe words you do not act on, act on words you’ve made up for your convenience, but subscribe to the god you say you obey; no other gods, you say, but what if other gods of wood and iron and spirit spoke when yours did not?

—She burnt her paper prayers in the iron stoves, wondering if the smoke would reach someone, anyone, up there. Then she left the temple with a string around her wrist and a blessing, thrown back out into the world with a wish and a hope, pigeons scattering as she walked away.


Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The room was hazy with incense. Ahead, the censers gleamed, perfume rising to the ceiling.

Breathe in, breathe out. Don’t cough.

The prayers of many lifted to the heavens. She raised her eyes to tall columns, images of the saints, behind the thick scent of frankincense. And looming in her vision, the cross, symbol of the Christ, in wood and gold.

Save him. He deserves to live.

She closed her eyes. The priest intoned. What mysteries did he speak? Or what banalities? But they were the words she couldn’t speak, in faith or in unbelief. She would not doubt. To doubt was to sin, to sin was death, and to die was to negate all that had been done—

There were things you were not allowed to think, even in the privacy of your own mind. Things like how faith was a dead thing, a hope in something invisible, delusional, yet the crutch many held on to.

You couldn’t hold faith, like you couldn’t hold the incense that rose to the heavens representing the prayers you couldn’t speak. It had no shape, no physical being, but you could feel it, like you could smell the perfume that lingered in old cathedrals, in the lighting of candles, in the censers raised, physical monuments of Man to the immaterial presence of God

—She rose as the congregation rose, sat as they sat, listening to the rise and the fall of the priest’s voice, following the rhythms of the service, tried to feel the things she was supposed to feel. She wrote her prayer, lit a candle, wondering if the smoke collected in the rafters ever reached heaven.


When her husband died, she watched the black cloud of his cremated body and wondered if he would find god, any god, there. Prayers were prayed, words were said, but they were empty fumes that dispersed without impressing anything on what was left of her soul.

She sifted through the ashes, picking out bones. What he had been had dispersed with the fire of the furnace. What was left was residue, ephemeral, kept in a jar in a columbarium she would avoid, not because she could not remember, but because she remembered too much, felt too much, grieved too much.

Her faith or his? Sandalwood or frankincense? Statue or cross? Did any of it make any difference when death came all the same despite prayers raised, hope promised, despite words of comfort that only hid the emptiness of disbelief—

The gospel is violence to those who believe. Saint Stephen could tell you that, martyred for it. Or Apostle Paul in chains. All the saints smoked out of hiding by sword and fire.

Or you.

You who profess faith while ripped from your roots, from your heritage, culture, tongue; you who do not recognise the violence done to your souls while you worship the white man and his foreign god—who died for you, yes, died and rose, death and life, bread and wine, body and blood, flesh and soul, fire and incense—the brown god of the white man who insists, demands, you conform.

The brown god who said all peoples, all tribes, all tongues, all nations.

But the white man who says, you must become. Become us

—She was unmaking herself. All the things she once strove to be, once strove to become, she lay aside, weary. She was what she was, a foul stench of unbelief, a censer bereft, cold with old ash.


Faith and fire.

Faith by fire.

Let incense arise.


She said make it experimental. So I did. (Related reading.)

The theme this past week was motifs/themes.

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