I spend a lot of time in my car.
My intrepid Nissan Altima has seen many, many miles of the American countryside during its time in my care, the lion’s share of which it has suffered during my daily commute. I haven’t vacuumed the floorboards in a while so there’s a fine layer of road grit and leaf litter spangling the black upholstery abyss.
A few articles linger on my back seat–a CD wallet, a small cardboard box containing the “Insanity” workout DVDs (unused, naturally), stray mass bulletins that never found the recycling bin, and a binder from a conference I attended last summer.
The back seat of my car runs the risk of becoming that one forgotten room in the church building where the husks of summer vacation church school programs go to die. In some ways it’s like my car itself has become a church building–or at least it’s become the thing I wish a church building can be.
I’m at my most human and unguarded while driving, after all.
In the course of my commute I can run a traffic-induced gamut of emotions spanning all degrees from rage to elation depending on how the turn onto Old Bridge Road from 123 is going to go. Everyone knows about road mania in Northern Virginia–we live on the roads, we work on the roads, we rely on the roads to organize our family lives. Pedestrian-accessible? Nonsense. And not even with public transport is the stretch of highway between DC and Richmond really navigable for those poor souls without vehicular means.
So we spend hours on end in our cars, living a significant portion of our life behind the wheel–I clock at least ten to fifteen hours a week driving. It’s only natural that bits of my spirituality seep in through the cabin air filter.
I wish that I could be as ecstatically open with my feelings toward God as I am with my feelings toward the beloved child of God who–bless their heart–just cut me off in their Land Rover in the middle of a left turn. Glory! But perhaps that’s some of what the Psalmist felt when they wrote “blessed is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”
But the truth is, even with an hour-long commute in one of the worst traffic areas in the country, I love to drive.
My adventures have taken me to cities and seas, to monasteries, mountains, and myriad wild, wonderful places; to truck stops and dive bars and dance clubs; to weird little antique shops in the middle of nowhere on a stretch of I-44 in Missouri that consisted of nothing but porn shops and Churches of Christ.
I’d stop on the side of the road to instagram sunsets and valleys and the accidental waterfalls that leach out where the water table hits the giant scar gouged into the earth to construct I-64 west of Lexington. Sometimes the beauty would pull a tear or several out of my eye.
When I came out I put a lot of miles on my car.
Quite unsure of what I was to do and, in hindsight, oozing shame and terror, I took off in my gold 2002 Chevy Prizm with a peeling clear coat and peeled out of the driveway.
I spent many balmy autumn Kentucky evenings driving a circuit that took me out southwest of my college town, over the Kentucky River palisades, by a Shaker community-turned-museum, around to another much more liberal college town where my first job was–I’d stop and buy liquor just to bask in irony, because I worked for a tea-totaler baptist church–back up US 27 and into Wilmore.
In my car–not church–I felt for fleeting moments as though I could get away from the things that were holding me in thrall, and that if I widened my spiral around my town enough I’d eventually run into a monastery where I could dramatically crash my car into a tree, throw a robe on, and make it into the chapel just in time for mass.
If I spent the rest of my life running, I reasoned, I’d never actually have to become a whole person. And so I ran for a solid three months.
When I finally stopped running long enough to sit still and heed the perplexed voice of God wondering aloud what the hell I thought I was doing, I kept driving. I traded the Prizm for the Altima in the following spring, during Holy Week. And I kept driving, a fresh car with new memories, playing a Beyoncé CD on repeat.
Somewhere in all that time spent in my car, my car became a church. There’s an icon of Christ the Teacher in my console and a St Benedict medal hanging from my rear-view mirror. More than once there’s been a black leather bag with a phial of God’s blood and a hunk of God’s flesh in it on the seat next to me, ever so gingerly placed (and buckled in).
In addition to giving Jesus a ride, I gave a stranger a ride too; they’re the same thing, after all. I shared meals with friends at the Parkette. I blasted dance music in parking lots. I took the Eucharist to darling people. I forgot to take the Eucharist to someone (ask me about that later). I swore like a trucker and got mad. I had long, hard conversations. I wept and I guffawed. I drove to go see a moonbow at 3AM the night before I had to preach for the first time in years. And then I packed up all the crap I could fit and drove–not ran–home to start a new job in a new field as a new person.
A car might be a means of grace. It’s not so patently ridiculous–if God becomes bread and wine to feed God’s people, if God is blowing everywhere and filling all things, then surely she can use metal and vinyl and upholstery and glass and gasoline to be a sacred space.
Whenever I had to make that long slog from my parents’ home in the DC suburbs to my college town–when I was still running, in other words–my dad would always pray for traveling mercies. In fact, dad still prays that whenever we take a trip together, or when I’m off for a trip by myself.
Maybe it wasn’t that he was praying I’d get there safely, though perhaps that was a part of it. Perhaps he prayed that I’d be able to hear the voice of God amid the road noise and Beyoncé beats.
When I mentioned packing all my crap into my car and driving home, what I failed to point out was that said trip was actually my second haul from Lexington to DC in a month’s time.
During the beginning of November last year, I wept in my Altima during a conversation when told by an administrator from my seminary that I was under disciplinary investigation by my conservagelical seminary. Someone had reported statements I had made on my blog regarding my identity and support of queer people. That same administrator–in the same breath, almost–told me that my calling and identity were sacred gifts that nobody could take from me.
Later that month I was in a Red Robin bar when I got a phone call from my dad, who was audibly shaken. My godfather had passed away. We knew Fletcher was going to pass for a while—he was in his late nineties and had lived the kind of teeming, abundant life Jesus talks about in John’s gospel—but even when one expects these things, one is never quite prepared for the lurch.
A hurried missive from the bar—I was trying to keep it together—went to my field placement mentor to ask for a bye for the following Sunday. With her blessing I went home and threw together my clericals, cassock and surplice, and some other odds and ends of clothing so I could leave first thing in the morning to make it to the funeral.
There wasn’t a lot of music on that trip; mostly road noise and a smattering of Beyoncé songs from the CD still in the dash. The next morning we sullenly dressed, piled into the car and set off on our way. Dad prayed for traveling mercies before we backed out of the driveway; between Dumfries and Fredericksburg I remember numbly saying my morning office to myself in the back seat of my dad’s hybrid, the ceiling too low for my enormous head, the plastic rectangle on my clericals digging into my throat and pulling whiskers that I hadn’t had time to trim.
I didn’t weep until the frigid Sunday afternoon when we buried Fletcher in Danville, while we were singing “In the Garden.” I remember hiding my face behind the half-sheets of paper with the lyrics on them while the guardsmen’s captain hassled the presiding pastor about the funeral taking too long.
We ate at Wendy’s later, mom, dad, and I; we didn’t say much.
Fletcher baptized me and set me on my journey, and I suspect that he’s surprised by the turns it’s taken since I was a rotund little thing in the baptismal waters. He was responsible for my dad’s meeting Christ, and in that mystical communion-of-saints way, my own. And more besides.
Fletcher was the kind of man who prayed for traveling mercies, and I suspect that he still does. And I pray to St. Fletcher sometimes, too, because he didn’t just pray for traveling mercies; he lived them.