Marked With Scarlet

“Saint John the Baptist,” Caravaggio

My colleague, Paul, grinned and spread his hands. This always means he has a story for me, and a puzzle. The story is to teach me something, and the puzzle is to see what I do.

He never seems to know what I’ll do. He seems to like that about me.

“I was at a gay pride parade in Oakland on a Sunday,” he said. He described it as very friendly, focused on family. It was an important experience for him, an aged gay man who has seen several decades of varying treatment, changing communities, shifting sensibilities. I listened with careful attention, hearing his affection for the exchange among different generations, for the soft welcoming of families. These affections were what he wanted to share, I sensed. What he wanted me to know exist.

“I thought about you,” Paul continued, smiling and raising his eyebrows. “Where is Anne in Oakland? She is probably at the cathedral, at Mass.”

I smiled back, waiting for the puzzle.

Gentle Paul spread his palms again, open wide and welcoming. “Where is Christ?”

I love his puzzles. They feel real rather than calculated, searching instead of concluded. Others might make such things a trap, but I’ve never seen him do it. After all, it’s a good question: is Christ at Mass, or is He with the gay parade?

My grin widened. “Christ is with all human flesh,” I said, soft and reverent, emphasizing the physicality of the Incarnate One, the deep embodiment of all of us.

“Indeed,” said Paul, and he appeared warmed to his bones.

The either/or melted away before the face of Christ.

It is not easy for me to be something of a token Catholic on a campus fraught with conflict over the very word (as most campuses are). To be asked what I think “as a Catholic.” To be peppered with questions over what the bishops would say, or the Church, or what I think about what so-and-so did. These things arrive to me particularly because my expertise puts a target on my back, though my expertise is a sacramental theology of language and beauty. (Not that I get questions about such things.) Still I think oftentimes most Catholics feel they have a target on their backs, and just for being one.

I do not yearn for moments when I am asked to respond to loaded questions. That is not the point of theology, or even religion. Anyone who sincerely believes anything knows it doesn’t make you feel better all the time. Doesn’t answer everything. One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis comes from A Grief Observed:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

In any case, I do not sit waiting for just right the question about Immanuel Kant or the Sacraments, ready to launch my perfect answer at a moment’s notice. Like everyone else, I struggle along and wonder a lot. I want to find home.

When tasked – as I increasingly am – with articulating a “Catholic response” to various campus matters, I try to think as simply as I am able about the heart of Christ. In the simplest of terms. About the disposition that Heart has toward anyone and everyone. With the smallest words. About the fire and ferocity, the embrace of every breath. I think as best I can about what those around me love. What their hearts desire.

It might sound strange, but it never seems all that hard to draw a line between the two: the Sacred Heart and the human heart. This for me is the gentle broadness of Catholicism: that there is room in it for what people love. For everything that is really loved. The conviction that all love is marked by the scarlet wounds of the One who loves most unrelentingly, most unfailingly.

At our best, Catholics can live this same gentle broadness. At our worst, we empty into broadness without gentleness or conviction without breadth.

I can be as petty as anyone.

Christ runs out ahead of us and behind us regardless. This is the thought that soothes me when I have lost my temper, failed to understand, lacked tenderness. The thought that Christ defeats my failures.

After all: where is Christ?

He is everywhere. Especially where He does not seem to be.


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