What do Benedictines have to do with Burning Man?. Well, not much. It is a Ven diagram with very little overlap ( I think I’ll wear my leopard skin habit with the blinky hood? #notsomuch). But there is a reason I live happily wedged between these two very self-conscious groups of trouble makers. And as we tip-toe across these last few hours of ordinary time and into a new season (meaning different things to each community) I have been compelled to really reflect on what is happening in my life because I how I live with these people and all of their, well, religious practices.
On the one hand, Burning Man is the high holy days of the outlandish. As one has put it, it is yelling, “Theater in a crowded fire.” It is so eccentric it burns its own center. But it is also the fruit of human cooperation disciplined by techniques of
innovation, art, and engineering. These things, cooperation and effort, give shape to things otherwise only in our dreams: cupcakes you can drive, fire breathing goat-buses, and victorian houses on wheels with a steampunk brass ensemble that features a flaming tuba. If you think I am making this up you probably have not been to Burning Man. If you close your eyes and think of something bizarre that simply cannot exist, it was probably there on wheels and serving pancakes last year.
Especially in Austin, early spring becomes a time of wild art forging in backyards, basements, and at the warehouse
collectively rented by the ‘burner’ community. At the end of May, we will have conjured up a kingdom made of imagination, steel, fire, sugar, and EL-wire. There will be performances, not just rehearsals, but enactments of a world we are still making. There is a strict code of principles which is pretty thoroughly enforced by the whole community. We will spend the spring rousing our desires, thinking of others, and working to offer something new to friends we haven’t even met yet. When we get there we will all be together watching some of the great work of our hands disappear into fire and time.
Then there is this other community of costumery and performance to which I belong. For them, wearing black habits and sharing a rhythm of life, work, and prayer is not buying into a genre, it is living in community. It is the building of a present and future kingdom that very much names who we are even today. This Wednesday we will also burn things and even rub those ashes on our faces and say,” …we aren’t there yet and one day I am going to die. better keep going.” And we will work with each other, and for friends we haven’t met yet, to build that kingdom. It is a language, a code of virtues and ideals, practices, and a list of things we want to get done before the day arrives. We pray together, do the chores and mutually prod each other on letting the love of God and others be our only center, the only focus of our lives.
In terms of hope, work, and a shared imagination, these communities are very much alike.
We need people to be eccentric, off-center, because right now “the center cannot hold.” In the past couple hundred years we have made it our mission to all be ‘an individual.’ Unfortunately, we have defaulted to doing this as consumers, purchasing the trinkets of our identities online and in boutiques, so that now everyone is so unique that we all start to look just like each other.
We share a wardrobe and a lingo but without the actual practices of the community that can shape us and that nurture our truest selves.
I’m not saying more Christians should be burners. Actually, I have grave reservations about that as a project. I feel quite certain St Benedict would have no real interest. And not everyone should be a monk. I am sure my burner friends agree. But we all have to make our way to history’s version of Grandma’s Attic, or to life’s great toy chest, to dig through its heirlooms and oddities to find out more about who we are, and more importantly who we could be with a little help from our friends.
What they have in common are that the elements of practice and cooperation, work and imagination, hospitality and resilience, carve out new possibilities for the world in a time when culture is about to flatline from all its consuming. These communities are allergic to commodification. Culture and community have to be cultivated, not just preferred. These are religious practices in that they are not merely internal beliefs I hold in hope that it gives me an identity. These are places I go to get named literally: names like, ‘Super Duper,’ St. Benedict, Party-pants, Shiny, Place_Holder, Fr. Francis, HeartBurn, Br. Doug, or Doug Notfunnyatall
We are not just individuals. But with our unique gifts, we are building each other’s lives, and others are helping us build our own. This is a good season for us to reflect on what we want our lives, and others’, to look like. Just who do we think we are?
Calling all artists: hop in your potato sack race to the edge of the known universe to see if there is more. Cheer each other on and name yourselves as camps, fools, and prophets. Wear your shoes on your head and paint targets on your hearts and others. Beloved, let us also dig the mines of our faith. Let’s befriend the saints of our inheritance. We will scavenge what is old-to-fashion wisdom for today. Rub ashes on your forehead. Read in dead languages and if you dare, pray. Above all, do that thing you do that bind you together in community for there the delicate nuances of why God gave you to the world will begin to shine through. In doing so we might together discover the depths and breadth of what we can become.
And for posts about Burning Flipside Burners from Austin, TX.
Its Burning Flipside season in the ATX, so stay tuned for some relfections on our burn, It’s a time machine theme this year so I might actually meet St Benedict in person. …yeah, pretty good chance I’m gonna blog about that….