Asperges Me

Sometimes as I walk home through Queen Anne streets after a day of school and the air is particularly damp and the sky is dark it smells like the time my father and I climbed Mt. Humbug in Oregon, a mountain I bet no one climbs except people like us, passersby who stop on a whim (because sometimes it sounds nice to climb a mountain) and work their zig-zag way upwards to find the elevation where spring dampness becomes frost and snow that clings to the trees and everything shimmers. I pause and think of that day and of the other blessed few days I’ve spent hiking the Pacific Northwest and imagine what Queen Anne was like a few hundred years ago, before urbanization, just another tree-canopied hill cut from the continent’s cloth. I look up and want to go higher, to reach the moment of transposition where time and water freeze.

As I continue my short walk home, a song flits into my mouth.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Miserere mei, Deus,
Secundum magnum misericordiam tuam.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
Sicut erat en principio, et nunc, et semper, et en saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

— — —

Lady Macbeth is washing her hands. Sleepwalking, she attempts to rid herself of the “damned spot” that has haunted her since her husband Macbeth murdered King Duncan at her urging. But hand washing cannot cleanse this spot because it is not her hand but her conscience that has been stained, and the conscience is of course a place far more difficult to clean.

Hamlet is rebuking Queen Gertrude, his mother. He is angered that Gertrude married his uncle after his uncle killed the King, Hamlet’s father. Hamlet tells her that she “makes marriage vows / As false as dicers’ oaths—O, such a deed / As from the body of contraction plucks / The very soul…” He continues until his mother cries out, “speak no more! / Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grainèd spots / As will not leave their tinct…”

In an article in Oxford’s Notes and Queries from December 2009, Richard M. Waugaman argues that the Sternhold and Hopkins Whole Book of Psalms, a rhymed translation of the Psalms popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, is a source for quite a bit of Shakespeare, including the spot found in many of his plays and poems. The 1565 Sternhold Hopkins translation of Psalm 51:7 reads, “If thou with hissope purge this blot, I shal be cleaner thē the glasse / And if ÿ wash away my spot, the snow in whitenes shal I passe.” The translation was ridiculed by later generations for its silly-sounding singsonginess; Waugaman cites C. S. Lewis, who said, “Its poetical level has been a butt for critics almost ever since it appeared.”

I became interested in all of this while researching a paper as a visiting student at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where the verse began to haunt me. It first found me at church.

Thou wilt purge me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be clean. Sunday morning at St. Mary Magdalene’s. Thou wilt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. The priest sings and we join as he steps down into the aisle dipping the aspergillum into holy water. Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy goodness. We cross ourselves when the water touches us, flung from silver to skin, and bow in reverence and sing Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and stand upright as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. The priest, turning on his way back to the front of the sanctuary, sprinkles me again, world without end, an accident of angles. Amen. Thou wilt purge me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be clean. Repetition breeds familiarity. Thou wilt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Water erodes more than earth.

— — —

As I’ve dug into books on Christianity and homosexuality, as my views have evolved and devolved, and as my depression has disappeared and relapsed, my body has been something of a self-creating canvas. There was a winter in high school, before I knew myself as gay, when I lost fifteen pounds in two months and could count five canker sores in my mouth, nestled between gum, teeth, and lip. Like many people I have been known to turn to ice cream for comfort; in my earlier college years I could down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in five minutes using only a plastic fork—if you break off the tines you get a stronger tool to dig with. While I was in Oxford, a couple of weeks transpired during which I didn’t want to eat. There is an odd satisfaction that sets in after you deprive the body of a meal it expects. But remembering the friends I have who’ve dealt seriously with anorexia or bulimia, I always made it to the kitchen before bed to fry up a pan of potatoes and vegetables so that I wouldn’t sleep on an empty stomach.

I’ve been healthy recently, but during the times when I am less convinced that it is right for me to love someone, this changes. In these times the shower becomes a place of confrontation between the reality that my body was designed to impregnate—to create life—and the reality that I cannot allow myself to do that in good conscience, not with a woman. I enter the shower and look down and see my useless body with parts I see as vestigial, accidents of existence; I become self-alienated and cry; I feel stupid for all of this. And a song flits into my mouth.

— — —

My parish in Seattle does not sing the Asperges Me every week like Mary Mags does. They reserve it for baptisms. During the baptismal rite, the babe or adult is not the only one washed and professing. The congregation is sprinkled. The congregation also repeats the Apostles’ Creed and answers “I will, with God’s help” to five questions, reaffirming our own baptism.

A couple of weeks ago, in a pre-confirmation class, Father Samuel talked about Jesus, saying, paraphrased, “The human body is good enough that God became incarnate—God became human. What does this mean for how we see the world?” It means that the world, though fraught, is beautiful, that flesh matters, and that we have work to do taking care of both the earth and its people. Baptism reminds us of these things, for in baptism all are recognized as equal in Christ.

— — —

One Sunday early on in winter quarter, I took a walk to Ballard. For whatever reason a feeling of intense loneliness had begun to wrap itself around my head and stare me in the eyes. As I walked over the bridge I called my mom for some comfort. I sat in a cafe for a couple of hours after that to try to get some reading done, but I couldn’t focus and eventually decided to go home. It was drizzling when I walked out of the cafe and by the time I reached the bridge the drizzle had become a pretty heavy rain—unusual for Seattle. The TOMS shoes I was wearing were already soaked through—they’re useless in rain—so I took them off. The water was cold on my feet. But it felt good, so I removed the hood that was making a meager effort to keep my head dry. The water was cold on my face, but it felt good there, too. Cars driving by me on the bridge sped up to splash me as they passed, calling to mind a day in Oxford when, after attending my art history lecture and going to the market, it poured and poured as I biked frantically back to my hall’s kitchen, which I burst into grinning like a doofus. So I laughed on the bridge, a funny place to be soaked if you think about it. Walking and laughing, a song flitted into my mouth.

Once stripped of my wet garments I took a brief shower. Looking down at my body I was reminded that I am covered in spots—small brown dots, freckles, moles, careless constellations. Typically, when I pause to examine my moles it is to make sure that none of them appear to be cancerous. This time, I notice that eight of them form a line that starts over my right shoulder, close to the neck, and curves around front above my collarbone. Like prayer beads the chain ends on my chest with a larger dot, darker and less defined than the rest. Some might see these spots as less-than-ideal reminders that their body is imperfect—as small grave markers erected to mourn the loss of an ideal self. But I’m beginning to see some things differently. Not every spot is better washed away.

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3 thoughts on “Asperges Me

  1. Every time I read one of your writings, I am changed. However slightly or greatly, there is always some degree of change. Keep writing. And publish a fantastic book one day.

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