It is official.

Well, I have my official webpage at Patheos and everything. There are still some bumps and hiccups, but the adventure has begun. I posted a reflection there to try and get things started. You can find everything here.

I will miss this place. My little corner shared with you. I hope to see you at the new place, though I know it won’t be so cozy. Having each other will make it warmer, I think. Change is good, and so are memories. I will cherish these I had here with you.

 

Teaching the Trinity

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“Disputation on the Trinity,” Andrea del Sarto

Our semester begins next week. I’ve been chipping away at updating my syllabi, staring at the texts we will be reading together and imagining the incredible distance I will have to reach to help my students grasp the text. Imagining the infinitely further distance between all of us and the Trinity.

Many of my students will have never been in a church, ever. Dear God – and that’s a prayer – dear God, how am I supposed to describe Christianity’s innermost secret. That is one of the meanings of the Greek word mysterion, which is the word used for what the West calls the sacraments. Ancient Christians used to refrain from exposing “the mystery,” leaving that only to the baptized to know. The mystery is God, and God in Christ. Here I am, divulging the secret from the start.

But the Trinity remains a secret even to those who have the eyes of faith, and without those eyes the Trinity is only ever an interesting theory. A possibility or perhaps a dream.

Practically speaking, I’m not terribly worried about whether they’ll “get” anything from the demanding theological texts I’ve assigned. I keep notes on what we discuss, and I only test them on what I think they understand, pushing hard where they are close to something larger. We do not even remotely approach the depths of the theologians we read. I do not expect them to. Just surviving a passage from Augustine and piecing together some kind of accurate general statement is enough of a challenge.

Students are very bad readers. They are quite literal most of the time, and never know what part of a text is important and what part isn’t. This is especially so in religion. It’s all about God, so, isn’t it all important?

Well.

No.

But that is what theological learning is for: not merely knowing something, but also knowing how to figure out what is important in something.

I always tell students that, while I am a believing Catholic, I do not require faith from them. I tell them that I do not even believe that I am able to give them faith. That is God’s work. I am almost defiant about not trying to convert them to a damn thing. But that is the unsettling appeal: I fiercely love this thing, love it enough not to need to prove it to anyone else. And I don’t hide my ferocity.

Sometimes I imagine that the classroom is like this safari, this dangerous tour through foreign land. I am their guide, even protector. They have to learn to trust that I won’t let them drown, which is a trust that must be earned. So we wander along and I show them a lion, a terrible and beautiful thing, and I show them how to stand under his teeth. Always play-acting, in a way. Acting like a Christian and a theologian to help them understand. They may watch or they may join me, mimicking my movements or perhaps deciding the lion must be dead.

And what a Christian theologian does, I insist to them, is ask questions. These are the dangerous things I teach: how to ask good questions, especially about religion. How to cut to the marrow. This, I repeat, is what theology is especially good at doing, since every question is possible to it, any question at all. The answer may well be “No,” but we may ask.

I do not know what else I could give them, realistically speaking, other than this manner of “choosing out” what is most important and asking about it. And most of them won’t learn it. It requires too much practice to learn all at once.

I know they won’t retain most of it. I tell them, even, that there will be a day when they forget my name. But I believe in a God who poured riches upon everyone, and I am bound to him and by him to do no less. I must give the few coins that I have. Maybe they will come to these mysteries again. Maybe another class will light up something I referred to but never made them learn, or something we never saw together at all. Or, probably, they will have a dim memory of religion that was not awful.

Rather defiantly, I am thrilled by the wilds again and again. Repeating the gestures – teaching the Trinity again, reading the texts again – and arriving at what is always new. I will have fun with or without my students, dammit, and I’ll try not to begrudge them. God doesn’t.

And I am bound to do as God does.

It is chaos those first weeks. I am at my most excited, having forgotten how stubborn students can be. They are at their least excited, dead certain everything will be horrible and the readings are too hard and they’ll fail and it’ll be horrible, just horrible. I’d like to think I charm them into learning otherwise, beguiled by the goodness of theology and my unremitting kindness. Probably it is much more like I cheerfully shove them into the jeep and pretend they’re excited until they are.

God, it’s so impossible. Teaching the Trinity to students who haven’t even heard the word. Dear God – and it’s a prayer.

Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding.

– Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion (11th century)

Get ready for the blog to move…

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So, I’ll be moving to Patheos Catholic soon. All the paperwork is signed and such, and I’m told that my new site should be ready sometime in February. They asked me to create a Facebook Page for it, and it is right now so minimal I’ve started to wonder if I’m being a bit defiant about the whole thing. Knowing me: probably.

If you wanted to follow me with the move, I’d be both touched and grateful, and I would indeed recognize the names. I’d like to think – on my best days – that we come from some shared corner of existence that I don’t know how to describe, but that we’d all know if we saw it. People who love things, especially Catholic things, and find them very hard to love too.

Right now, my profile theme is a reference to Götterdämmerung (and ravens), and to Saint Francis meditating over Scripture and death. Yeah. So I think we’re getting off on the right foot over there on Facebook.

I will update here when everything is official. Until then, I’ll happy putz around here in this little corner of existence with you.

Poetry in the hands of a saint. And mine.

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“You’re not a monster,” the song in my headphones said. And I cried, strangely heartbroken by happiness, because for once the words seemed true.

Why does happiness do that?

I covered my face with my hands, hands that I’d used to cut the scars on my arm and across my neck. Hands that had just finished a poem instead. A real poem. Vivid with everything unsaid, everything fully mine. I have not written a real poem since before the scars, and however much I healed it has seemed that poetry left my voice. That all of it was register I could no longer reach. And my own book, published with poems of mine in each chapter, stared at me like a mirror with eyes I no longer knew.

I felt like I’d been in a horrible car wreck – a car wreck called life – and I could still walk but I’d been badly disfigured.

I had the good grace to whine about it a lot.

So I occasionally tried a poem. Really the only one that worked was a bilingual mimic of and response to Charles Baudelaire. (Because why be normal, I guess? Shut up, I love French poetry in French.) Clever, sure, but mostly carried by Baudelaire. It wasn’t quite a poem, not really, though it was closer. I could perhaps continue on as a translator. (Which I also love. Shut up.)

And then.

I was playing a video game. (Shut up.) It is called Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and I played it because I got it for free and because I really like its historical settings. My little guy and I ran around 18th century revolutionary Paris – recreated at a massive 1:1 ratio! – and I was enamored of reading about each landmark and then looking up more. F*ck the plot; it’s Assassin’s Creed, so it’ll just be weird and confusing anyway. I won and I assassinated a lot of people. The end.

My little guy and I also ran around Saint-Denis, Paris. It is a real town, and I was struck by its devastated basilica. The tombs and the rumors about the ghosts of kings. So I read about it: the basilica was where the French kings had been buried, extending as far back as the 6th century. It was a famous church, renovated as it was by Abbot Suger (of the attached monastery), and it is considered the first gothic church.

I couldn’t stop imagining it. This resplendent church with centuries of kings underneath, wrecked during the French Revolution. At two different points in 1793, the kings and their families were dug out of their tombs and thrown into a mass grave. They were covered with quicklime to secure and speed their disintegration, and their riches were robbed and sold. What survives now does so because of an insightful museum curator. The French call these events La profanation des tombes royales de la basilique Saint-Denis.

The profanation. The desecration.

Emptying the very earth of history, unburying the dead: what anger that took, and what agony. So much destroyed forever. As if being rid of the bones would somehow rid France of its royal past. As if time itself could be dug up from its roots.

Is this how tradition dies? Is it murdered? Is this what I watch, helpless, on my own campus?

Then I read about Saint Denis himself, whose relics are still there. He is the patron of Paris, and he was bishop there in the third century, when all was still under the Roman Empire. Denis was beheaded during a persecution of Christians, and it is said that his body took his head and carried it all the way to where Saint-Denis is now, preaching repentance the whole way before he came to die.

My first reaction to the hagiography was, “That. Happened.”  Something child-like and defiant in me somehow refuses to die. I frequently sass students about these miracles by saying, “Prove it didn’t happen.” Just to push. Twist my arm and I’d say it’s more likely that an alternate tradition claiming Denis was thrown in the Seine is probably more accurate. Probably. But hagiography isn’t history, and there is something in them that needs to be trusted or else the saint vanishes away. Denis carried his damn head because that’s important somehow.

All these bones and decapitations looked like a poem to me. I don’t know why. They just did: a poem was in there if I could manage to put it together. I was so excited. I had found a poem.

So then. I won’t explain the poem, which is below. I also won’t describe the drastic editing. I think both destroy the chance to be a reader. But I’ll list a couple of details:

  • I liked making Saint Denis’s head on fire.
  • I read that Saint Denis was confused with Dionysius the Areopagite (aka “Pseudo-Dionysius”) in the Middle Ages. They were considered the same person – both Denis! So I deliberately borrowed images from Dionysius.
  • I directly quote GM Hopkins somewhere in there, if you can find it.

I wrote a f*cking poem. A real one. I don’t know everything it means, but I don’t have to know. I could cry, because I at least know it means that I am not only scars. And dying doesn’t mean staying dead.

Saint Denis, 1793

Saint Paul died like this, head cut clean off.
But he didn’t get up and walk as I do,
rising over the bloody sword at my feet,
head held in my hands as I move through

the brilliant dark. My eyes burn with holy fire,
and I am living and I am dead, head held
at my heart. I am both and I am neither,
body of a church that bears the head

leading on. I am dusk and I am dawn;
like a lantern I see on to where
God bids me to live and to die. I am drawn
where God bids my bones be crucified.

The church grows around me like a stone tree,
and in her cool shadows she collects
the royal dead. She gathers gold and silver
and with them she bends herself to elegance.

Everything pulls the eyes upward,
all glittering. Archways twine together
in the warm blood of the setting sun.
As under the carved limbs all gazes are set down

to the stone and marble that stares back at them.
The sightless eyes of the semblanced dead
that watch as they are all unhoused
of the figures they were shaped to vigil over.

There will be no kings for the people now.
There will be no bones. Throw them down
together to the dark. They with their empty eyes
and silent jaws, unable to object as they are buried

in a shower of powdered fire.
They lived once and they died,
and now their likenesses are the choir
present for a second death, which is to forget.

Now there is nothing behind these gathered stone eyes.
And my hollow gaze is fiery dark,
solitary witness to death and to life,
likeness of living one as slain.

God bids me up; Lord of living and dead.
God who makes from chaos and void.
And God bids me rise again in death,
for he has made even an empty tomb his sign.

(c) Anne M. Carpenter

For life.

Byzantine Art

I almost killed my mother when I was born. This fact has followed me always, always, and I thought of it as I curled at my mother’s feet shortly after Christmas. She lay huddled in a chair under a blanket, head throbbing because of a ruptured blood vessel in her eye. It leaves her vision half-blurry, and the strain exhausts and pains her.  The rupture itself emerged from a long-hidden weakness in her vessels from when I was born. It’ll heal, but it takes a while. I reached up and touched her arm, hurting for her.

“Because of me,” I said in a low voice.

“No, Anne,” my mother answered, eyes closed. “You didn’t do it.”

“An instrumental cause, then,” I said. “Or material.” I had looked up Aristotelian causes earlier that week, reminding myself of them, trying to trace the delicate lines of the guilt I felt. I do not feel as if I did anything with my own hands. That almost makes it worse, because it’s harder to understand.

My mother’s retinas detached when I was born. Her blood pressure rocketed because she was sick; because she was suffering from preeclampsia, which threatens mother and child. Her kidneys had shut down. Her limbs had swollen with fluid and she was blind. Her liver threatened to shut down too.

I was born via C-section at 28 weeks. That’s three months early. I weighed two pounds and eight ounces, and I quickly lost those ounces. I stayed in the hospital long after my mother recovered.

It is hard for me to imagine how terrifying it was, and my parents don’t talk about that part. It’s hard for me to remember what knowing all this meant for me when I was young. My aunts and uncles on my mother’s side always said, “I thought you were gonna die.” My mom would always look at me and say, “I knew you’d live.” Her confidence always soothed a strange ache in my heart.

Something in the stories always hurt.

I cannot imagine how much love it took for my mother to insist I be baptized. A deacon did it the second I was born. In case I died. A Jesuit once suggested to me that my parents were being peasants subject to mythological thinking to have me baptized. It is the only time I almost punched a Jesuit. It matters to me that the first touch I felt was the water of baptism as doctors and nurses carried me away. It matters to me that it mattered to them.

And I cannot imagine what it took for my mother to make my dad, a young man, promise that I would come first. If she had to die so I could live, she had no doubt what she wanted to do. My mother is many things, and always brave.

We almost died. The both of us. I almost took her away from my dad, and my siblings away from all of us. Just by being born.

I still suffer because I was born that early. My mother still suffers for me. I can’t wrap it in a tidy box of meaning, a grand fable of maternal sacrifice and cruciformity. Like a music box under torn wrapping paper. It’s complicated, with lost edges and broken notes. It doesn’t fit neatly, doesn’t entirely soothe.

And I wish being born didn’t hurt me for the rest of my life, but it does. Or hurt my mother for the rest of hers, but it does that too.

My birthday arrives sometime soon, and thirty-two years later I can hardly grasp what it means to look in my mother’s wounded eyes and know it’s because of me. I don’t know how to mourn the loss of a regular birth story. I’ve never had one, and I can’t picture what I’m missing aside from this: not being a threat to my mother. I wonder what that is like. To have been born that way. Unremarkable.

My mother sees me entirely as a gift, but it’s hard not to see the fullness of the truth, which is more shadowed. Her love made her blind, and it makes her blind still.

Good things are very hard, even mixed with violence that no one intended. It’s no one’s fault, and that’s almost harder. I don’t want to have died, and I don’t want my mother to have suffered. But these opposing wishes would not have prevented each other. Sometimes we pretend as if medical science can absolve us of the mystery of motherhood. Of being a child.

They wanted my mother to abort me, and I’m glad she didn’t. But I know what they were trying to protect her from, and it was me. We don’t have words for this. For whatever this is.

I don’t know how to say it. What it means to have been born and to have almost killed my mother.

Wanderlust

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There might be some changes to this blog coming relatively soon. A bigger place wants to pick me up. I’m sitting here with the paperwork half-done, wondering what the hell it means.

I don’t know what my “tag-line” should be. I don’t know kind of “brand” to create for myself, and I resent the idea of having one. (Tag-line: “Sometimes I say things”? Brand: “I’m not a shoe, thank you”?) Nor do I know whether I’ll end up somehow permanently destroying myself and my career.

I’m an optimist.

And though I know how they found me, sort of, it’s also puzzling. I’m not relevant, I write however I want, I don’t care to be provocative, and I’m super bad at catchy titles. I’m not that clever person who understands how social media shapes audiences. Basically, I just love writing, and in many ways I rely on it for my sanity. Rely on it in very, very real ways. So I write and write and write, professionally and…here. Doing this thing, here, this thing that now begins to cross over into my professional life.

I almost wish I could ask you, reader, to take my words and hide them away from my professional life. Make sure they’re safe, that not all of me is the job.

Lord, prevent me from being a public intellectual.

And yet.

Wouldn’t it be fun to wander through the Internet being maddeningly useless? Stubbornly continuing on with the odd poeticisms and Christological obsessions and obscure references. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if people liked it? Me and my really rather ordinary Catholicism; me and my complete disinterest in evangelizing anyone. I’m normal. Hurt in a lot of places, some common and some not, and I’m just normal.

I’m also an impulsive sort, and I have the hardest time resisting the chance to thwart expectations. I love doing that. This seems like a chance.

Oh, to be ordinary and therefore interesting. What a thing. And how funny it would be if it meant people could run out ahead of me. Loving the ordinary things I also love, and loving them better than me. I like that better than anything. Than anything at all.

So I don’t know what description I’d give my blog so search engines would find it. Really not sure what my brand is. I don’t know how to not just be intentionally frustrating about the meaning of my entire blog. And every time I think of signing my name, I get anxious and refuse to finish the paperwork.

Part of me thinks I have something to say; part of me thinks I have nothing. I don’t know what I’ll do, but here I am.

 

 

The Unfolding of Forgiveness

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“The Prodigal Son,” Max Slevogt

The air stuck to my skin, humid enough to hang suspended and thinly substantial. Like a veil. A torturous, hot, stifling veil. It was a typical late Spring day in the Midwest, and I found myself back in Milwaukee for work and for family. And for a friend. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it turned into the most important thing.

My friend was a former friend, and we had once been very close. I admired her still, though I had lost that thought for a time. I lost a lot of thoughts for a long time. Cracking at the seams after my dissertation, I struggled to stitch myself together. Every relationship in my life shifted under the strain, and I – a mess of threads – often forced the change. I withdrew, lashing out when threatened, and I felt very threatened indeed. So I hurt people, deliberately and accidentally. Always, always reacting to the stress as if I were scrabbling at rocks at the edge of a cliff. Desperate, shivering. Angry.

I endured some kind of subterranean implosion, an upsetting of the farthest reaches of me in a catastrophic  supernova. Everything scattered, no longer intelligible. I clutched together what fragments I could, collapsing inward like a neutron star.

One of the casualties of this event was my friendship with this woman. A fiercely warm and nurturing person, cleverly intelligent and intensely energetic. I pushed away her nurturing in particular. Raw on the cliff edge, fighting for autonomy by fighting to be left alone. And I did so viciously. The lick of flames over a collapsing bridge.

It wasn’t fair to her. It wasn’t at all. I understood that a little at the time, and better later.

In the present, we walked together down a serene sidewalk in an old Milwaukee neighborhood. Green grass and bright sun. Sticky air. I clasped my hands behind my back to hide their trembling. She was all lean edges of muscle and bone, striking and beautiful in a clever outfit – always clever – and I felt miserable by comparison. She resplendent and I a collection of scars.

I apologized. I tried to review what I had done, and tried to describe the ways I was sorry. Trauma and all that stuff explained my actions, sure, but it did not excuse them. I stumbled in the middle of my confession, needing to gather my thoughts as if they had scattered to the ground.

Her voice came strong at my side: “I forgive you.”

She proceeded to explain why. Incomprehensible things like how she loved me and missed me. How she could see my unbearable pain.

My invisible mental notecards dropped from my shaking hands again. I blinked, heart suddenly pierced by a strange hurt that bloomed warm. “I’m… I’m not done yet. I wanted to say more. You can’t just instantly forgive me.” I paused. “Goddamn Christians,” I added, acting grumpy to hide soft and vulnerable wonderment. Probably unsuccessfully. She’s not an idiot.

She laughed. I smiled.

Then I finished my confession, and she repeated her forgiveness, and we cried.

I do not know when she felt ready to forgive me. It took me a couple of years to grow into an existence that could bear to miss her. Two years to unfurl again, unsteady and different and the same. Long days spent learning how to mourn, how to forgive. How to live with the very, very sad things that had happened to me, and how I made it worse.

It arrives to me unevenly and in fragments.

My friend is this mystery to me. This frail human being is able to be broader than the fracture, arms poised outward to embrace the all of me: the one who hurt her and the one who loves her.

It hurt to be forgiven, and I barely understand why. And I don’t understand how the sting became comforting.

But I cherish these things I don’t understand. And I cherish the memory. And my friend.

 

Hans Urs von Balthasar and Mickey Mouse

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Above: my least favorite picture of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

If I ever make it to Heaven and I get to meet my hero Hans Urs von Balthasar, the first thing I’m doing is walking up to him, shoving him backwards against a gleaming wall (Rev 21:11), and asking, “Why the f*ck did you go to Disneyland, Hans Urs von Balthasar?” Then I’ll be escorted back to Purgatory by St. Michael while yelling, “WORTH IT.” For which I’ll get five more years, which I’ll also call “worth it.” Then after eighty years becoming best friends with Cato, I’ll get to come back and ask my question a nicer way.

Dammit, why, Balthasar? Everything I know about you leads me to think that you’d hate Disney as much as I do. You resent lies, and for you the most loathsome lies are the ones that seem the most like truth. Those are the ones that rob us of freedom. The ones that eradicate real memory. What is more stultifying than a fantasy that robs fairy tales of danger and parents and surprise? Dude. You love surprise.

Let me be clear: I come from a “Disney family.” My nuclear family, my cousins. We all know Disney stories really well, we’ve all been to the parks together, and there are even some of us who work for Disney. I’m the heretic who wants nothing to do with Disney and hates visiting the parks. A query about it from an uncle had me melting down in a rant about nihilism in the middle of Epcot Germany.

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And when I woke up, a German lady was telling her pet baby deer not to eat apples.

I know my enemy. I’ve studied the texts, both major and minor. I’ve cried at all of the Toy Story movies. Hell, I’ve visited the temples of pretend, those strange, ritualistic parks that promise to offer another world. I don’t want another world. I’m not a Gnostic. And I don’t want a voice external to me telling me what right and wrong is, and I don’t want songs about believing hard enough.

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Doing the good is not an imposition from the outside, Jiminy, you lazy Kantian!

What fascinated you, Balthasar? Is this like Heidegger again? A danger that you found useful? Is this like the Russians?

You dislike magic. For you, that means a human being trying to know or control the future. “Magic” like Shakespeare often meant the word. That old way, where “divining” meant trying to be like God. But we’re not God, and our glory is in not being God. You resist magic, whether it takes the form of pretending to know the end of things or pretending we can control the world with technology. So why do you tolerate the presence of Mickey?

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“What happens after midnight?” “Honey, I ain’t telling you a damn thing.”

I understand that Disney – the company and the man – revolutionized animated and cinema technology more than once. I also understand that the animatronics at those parks is astounding. But still. That doesn’t outweigh princesses or literally all of The Fox and the Hound. Did you see that movie? Oh my God. Rilke could write dark German sonnets about that thing.

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Rainer Maria Rilke

Which actually might be a point in that movie’s favor, but you are never making me watch it EVER again. Balthasar. You.

I forget what my point is because I’m all sad now. Look, whatever. You go hang out with Mickey. I’m gonna go hang out with the drunk snowman from Frozen, all of Captain Hook’s pirates (cartoon and Robin Williams versions), and Marion from Indiana Jones. I’ll meet you when the park closes after a parade, light show, and fireworks.

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Has never walked a straight line in his life.

Mary Is Brave: In Honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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“The Annunciation,” Domenico Ghirlandaio

Tonight, I am speaking to some of our students as they celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is a copy of what I will read.

Advent has just begun. This is a period of time that marks the beginning of the Catholic year, and it marks a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. Adventus in Latin means “coming” or in better English we might say, “arriving.” God is arriving among us in Christ. We are preparing.

Catholics have a strange understanding of time. Strange is good: here it means that, for Catholics, every year is a time when the Incarnation – the Word (God) becoming flesh; that is, Jesus’ whole life – happens all over again. Even though it took place thousands of years ago, it happens again. Year after year, we celebrate what happened and it lives in us again. This is why we prepare for Christmas again and again: it is happening in our hearts.

I bring up Advent for us right now because Our Lady is fundamental to it. She is the first person that Jesus comes to, arriving to her as her very own child, carried in the secret darkness of her own body. Mary knows what it means for God to arrive, and she still knows. She teaches us how to know. Among many other things, her life teaches us this: God asks us to be fiercely brave. Incredibly brave.

When I think about Our Lady, the first thing I remember about her is her fiat, her “let it be,” her Yes. I imagine her in the dark of her room – I always picture this event in the dead of night even though Luke never says what time of day it was, but I think of the dark because the mystics of the Church say that God is a brilliant darkness – and I imagine Mary whispering her agreement to the angel Gabriel. I think she said it softly. Softly because many of the most wonderful and daring things in the world are soft. And what a world-shifting moment this is! Such simple words, and they are enough to change everything. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a whole prayer to Mary about this moment. He begs her to say Yes, trembling in that breath between when she listened and when she spoke: “Answer, then, quickly to the angel yes.” Her words are simple, simple action, but they require a tenacity that sometimes frightens me. I do not know if I can be that fierce.

Think about it: how much she gave in that moment! Not only did Mary give her very body to the task, but she also offered much more. Her faith, her life. Her reputation probably collapsed. Everyone in her small town probably figured that she’d had some kind of affair. This is what Joseph thought before his dream (Mt 1:18-25).

Mary’s life was transfigured in that moment, in her Yes in the brilliant dark, and it reveals the presence of God in a fearsome light. Surrendering deep and human things for God seems so hard, and even if she wasn’t thinking of all that at the time, Mary still agreed. This is why God loves her so much: when she acted, she threw everything she had into the action, even her own flesh. The early Fathers of the Church loved to talk about this, about how important her very flesh was. She gave of her own flesh! This is what she gives to her Son! I don’t imagine that she really understood what she was doing – what teenager would? – but that makes her more daring.

Did she even try to defend herself? The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar takes her silence in the Gospels to be a real silence: she left it up to God to defend her. She did not explain what had happened. This might seem like an offensive idea, like a timid response. For Balthasar, though, Mary chooses silence, and she does so because she is brave enough to trust God. Mary does the one thing that is so hard for everyone in the Old Testament to do, so hard for us now: she trusts. She is willing to be vulnerable, willing to open herself to the possibility of being hurt – very much hurt – knowing that she will be protected under God’s wings. Here is a woman who knows when to speak, and when not to speak. When to act, and when not to act. “Where words are many,” says Proverbs, “sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well” (10:19). This understanding of how to act and when to act is an important theme in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially Proverbs. Much later in history, around 1200 A.D., Mary came to be associated with wisdom. She is called the “Seat of Wisdom” because she held Christ, because she agreed to God’s wisdom, and because she understood the mystery of acting and of letting be.

Mary goes to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. She goes to be with someone who needs help, which is always where God goes too. In fact, she brings God with her to Elizabeth. That is, she brings Jesus with her. I always imagine that Mary went alone, though this probably isn’t true. I imagine her alone because I am trying to find some way to understand her solitude: it is lonely when you do something people don’t understand. So I imagine Mary walking fearless and alone on an open road under a starry sky.

Mary is powerful because she isn’t powerful. This is a Christian mystery. All she has is her Yes, and even that is given to her. But she offers everything and she moves quickly to where God needs to be, and in her everything she offers God. God has made this possible to her because she made room for God’s infinite possibility. Saint Irenaeus says, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary.” Mary trusted that God can do anything and everything.

Mary’s song, the one she sings after Elizabeth greets her, emphasizes her powerful trust. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she says, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Lk 1:46, 49). She even talks about how God throws rulers from their thrones, scatters the arrogant, and keeps his promises (v. 51-55). Mary in some way grasps that God’s entrance into the world always upsets world order, always challenges. God’s entrance into her life upset every expectation, after all, and challenged her profoundly. But here in the Gospel of Luke, she’s singing and she’s happy because she knows that God never does anything without making it new and wonderful again. I do not know how a vulnerable teenaged girl can stand torn from regular society and be able to see that, but she does. I cannot imagine the strength that takes.

In the East, Mary is called “All Holy,” and I am fond of this title because it stresses her active holiness. Holiness is not just a lack of sin: it is something positive, something good. Something to sing about; something to topple kingdoms. Mary angers the dragon in the Book of Revelation, threatening the dark order of things, and she continues to do so when upsets expectations in the Americas. She appears to a simple peasant, Juan Diego, someone like her, and blesses a persecuted people. Our Lady is the patron of the Americas because she chose to appear here, because she wanted to lift up the native people rather than the powerful.

Mary is, for us, a blend of powerful symbols and youthful simplicity. I try to remember both when I remember her, though I think her poverty and youth are often forgotten. But without these, you see, her courage is forgotten too. The incredible power Mary has is found in her willing vulnerability. In her very smallness. In how she didn’t know everything that was happening, but trusted God anyway. I try to remember this, especially during Advent, as everything happens all over again. Think of what it is like to lift our empty hands and open our empty mouths to God when we receive the Eucharist. Here is a moment where our smallness and fragility are made obvious: we have so little. But if we say “Amen” – which means Yes – and give everything to God, he will give everything to us. He is everything. He gives himself.

So let us prepare.

Let us be brave.

Thank you.

Catholic Imposter Syndrome

virgin mary night light

Maybe I’m a Virgin Mary nightlight kind of Catholic. Shiny and plastic.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’m a fake Catholic. Whatever a real Catholic is – it’s a natural question – I’m confident I’m not it.

We do have an identity. Identity enough to be hated across the world and loved across the world, serving in the middle of the world’s worst conflicts and standing in the middle of the world’s most painful scandals. In the midst of that profundity and chaos, it is natural to wonder: how am I a part of this too?

Am I really a part of this, or do I just say that I am?

If I wake up on the wrong side of the bed and the world tilts sideways, I understand that I am not as invested in the Faith as I could be. I understand it painfully. That there are parts of me that tell a lie. If the world is all at an angle that day, those parts ends up being the only things that I can see: my own hypocrisy.

I want to laugh and say something about Catholic guilt. Nothing comes to mind, though. And I’m not smiling.

I used to want to be a “real” Catholic. I wanted, very much, to feel a strong bond to my Church and her people. For me, “real” meant obedience (and, not very coincidentally, a rejection of the values of the adults at my parish). So I bound myself to the Church’s laws like hot iron, hammering down, feeling the sharp pang of the inextricable. The Church and her teachings – as best as I understood them – formed my thought, served as my thought, shaped my new thoughts.

But the Church isn’t a monolith, and never has been. The more I threw myself into what I understood to be authentic Catholicism – a blend of the Fathers and hardcore rightwing American Catholicism – the more I apprehended how the Church is not quite one thing. She wasn’t what I thought, even refused to be what I thought.

She lives. She doesn’t hold still, and she isn’t the unfolding of a logical argument through time.

My studies lit a fire and forced me by dint of my own obedience to hammer myself into a new shape. I will now either stubbornly refuse to say whether I am “liberal” or “conservative” – while quietly resenting that you asked – or I will say that I am something else. Not that I have a name for it. Sometimes I worry that this nameless thing means I’m not really a Catholic anymore.

A younger version of me would think I have betrayed the Faith. That younger version still lives in my head. I have a hard time forgiving her, and the feeling is mutual.

I had to give up a specific kind of certitude. If I wanted to really understand what the Fathers were saying, what Thomas Aquinas achieved, how the Church could develop and shift, I had to let go. Leave behind the iron conviction that comes with having a circumscribed point of view.

Everyone puts themselves into a box. What Catholics accuse each other of is true: the “left” replaces Christian thought with an indistinguishable modernity; the “right” thinks retroactively, and so lacks creativity. They’re right about each other for the wrong reasons, and never right about themselves.

I learned that I had to leave behind the forge work altogether.

I learned that God is uncircumscribable (Anselm), is the Uncircumscribed (John Chrysostom, liturgy), and yet so definitive that he can make my very life into divine life (Athanasius) – even allowing me to cooperate with that change (Thomas Aquinas). God is so definitive that my own little will, that small potency that is mine, matters fundamentally for my ultimate end. So uncircumscribable that ultimately the only word I can offer is “thank you” (eucharistia). To “circumscribe” something is to draw a line around it. No one can draw a line around God.

In an effort of serious agnosticism, Christianity calls God mystery. Unlike serious agnosticism, Christianity calls God mystery. God is known in a “luminous darkness” (Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa).

What this means, practically, is that my life in faith and my identity as a Catholic is comprehensible and incomprehensible at the same time. Never quite holding still. Never definitive, never quite not-definitive. I comfort myself with the thought that I have appropriated something very, very important from the Catholic past. All while mystery draws me away to a place that infuriates liberals and conservatives.

No, I don’t think the Catholic Church needs an update.

Yes, I think the Catholic Church needs to learn.

It’s her job to learn. It’s not her job to measure herself according to the standards of what is up-to-date, nor to measure herself according to her own, external lack of deviance. The measure is a mystery. The measure is Christ.

What that means, I think, is a constant striving. It means hanging over an abyss, as Hans Urs von Balthasar would say.

I do not really know, ultimately, if I am enough. It is not in my power to know. Only to hope.

Am I right?

Perhaps the wrong question.