The Catholic Theologian in Therapy

“The Heaven of the Fixed Stars,” Gustave Doré

“Thomas Aquinas is dead.” My therapist’s words reached me like a thunderclap, though softly spoken. I stared at him, halted in my reverie. I paused, resisting an impulsive “No, he isn’t.”

I allowed what I thought he meant by “dead” to reach me and unfold. Thomas Aquinas is not here to tell me how to say what I am afraid to say. Thomas Aquinas does not live in the present day. “Yes,” I said low, “I suppose he is.” And a small part of me, with a child’s voice, whispered in secret: It’s okay, Thomas, I know you’re here.

I am a Catholic theologian and, yes, I am in therapy. If you want to make assumptions, go ahead. Just don’t share them with me. I will make you feel extremely stupid, and I won’t regret making you feel so.

My therapist is not a Catholic, and not a theologian. He is not a woman. These “nots,” which separate him from me, are important to me. They permit me to unfurl with a certain freedom, since he does not greet me with the freighted expectations involved in being a Catholic, a theologian, a woman. All are terms with a complex weight on my shoulders. I am not unaware.

I wonder sometimes what my therapist makes of me: a well-schooled professor who has an easier time quoting phrases from long-ceased centuries than saying, “I feel angry.” I can conceal the tensions and turmoil with all manner of sophistication, and mostly humor, though I try to be honest and simple. I try to drop the words that follow me into the therapist’s office. But, like all words, they follow me.

And the saints crowd the room too. They gather in, demanding space as much as my memories do.

I am certain that I have not quite explained, and equally as certain that it is impossible to explain entirely. What it is like to have the saints in the room. Once we had to spend a whole session covering Catholic ecclesiology, so he understood my sense of place in the wider Church – and my responsibility. Catholicism is not a set of ideas. It is membership. And I had to explain, or at least try. Sure, it’s my job: but you’ll forgive me if I do not always want to be a professor. I am always explaining.

And apologizing. In the old sense of the word: apologia, a defense. I am always spending my time trying to articulate Catholicism in the best possible way to understand it, all while facing down broad misunderstandings and keen objections. I am not an apologist, really. Certainly not a good one. I am much too busy reading poetry, and somehow cannot be convinced to be relevant. My students are often shocked, I think, when I stand before them – Catholic, theologian, woman – and ask in all sincerity: What do you love? Seems much more interesting to me.

What was it like to grow up in a universe hemmed in by saints and angels, guarded by holy water? To be an American Catholic, that odd bird whose vote is sought, whose identity has been ghettoized and perplexed? Already, you see it in the sentences: I retreat to theology. Theory. Leaving the life lived barely outlined.

There are really many Catholicisms. An inherent plurality pulsing through time in a unity. We fight with each other more skillfully than most siblings. We are never, and have never been, a monolith. There are many kinds of saints shouldering their way into the room. I am never alone, even when I wish I were.

Evoking a saint is calling forth a friend. Not a favorite author, or beloved concept. Naming a saint somehow calls forth their presence. And I do not, in my heart of hearts – where the broken child still lives – think it merely imaginary. Sometimes I may well growl in frustration, abandoned and furious, and articulate doubts like carefully sharpened knifes against the tapestry of my faith. But even then, I catch myself worrying: have I hurt you, Thomas? Thérèse? Athanasius? Maximus?

So on.

My confirmation saint, whom I chose, is Thérèse of Lisieux. I read her Story of a Soul in high school. I liked her simple ways. Anything, she says – even the smallest things – are worthy of God if done with love. This was important for a sick kid to hear. And still, as I recalled this for my therapist, I remembered my fury at her when she called herself a “little toy” that the Child Jesus could throw aside if he liked. “I put the book down,” I told my therapist, “and couldn’t pick it up for days. I was so angry with her.”

“So thin a line,” he said in response, “between surrender and submission.”

I twitched, an unbidden scowl twisting over my face. The comment struck an elemental nerve, one important to consider. And still, in the back of my mind, I wondered: have I hurt you, Thérèse? As if I had just spoken behind a friend’s back.

How to explain? How does one explain those sorts of things? Not the system, but the thing. Not the host of angels and saints, but the presences? How to describe the plurality and the unity…without the chalkboards, without the books? Just me with my empty hands, furious at a saint and apologizing to her all at once. Sometimes I just want to make my therapist read Colossians and unveil from it the whole Catholic form of being. But then: is that me with my empty hands?

“Where is your home in the Church?” my therapist often asks.

I can only offer a weak smile as the saints watch, and lift barren palms. It is not no-place, but it is not a place.

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2 thoughts on “The Catholic Theologian in Therapy

  1. Bruce Campbell says:

    I follow you via my work email. Your blog resembles nothing else, and receiving your posts here is like finding a butterfly in my toolbox. I converted to Catholicism six years ago, age 55. Sticking with it has required lots of carrots and sticks. Your blog is definitely one of the carrots. Thank you. Bruce

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