Why I am still a Catholic. Or, Watch me not answer the question.

“The Wilds of Lake Superior,” Thomas Moran

I have found it important to point out to my students, many of whom have never been in a church, what they will find in one. I will recall various attitudes and questions and strangenesses of Catholics. My mother and the Holy Mother; Advent and its purple; angels crowding the altar. Catholics are strange, I find myself saying about eighty times a semester. I want so much for them to experience Catholic things as other, as creative and odd, and I want my Catholic students to see this too. There is something wild beating in the heart of the Church. Some impulse or instinct impossible to cage.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

G.M. Hopkins, “Inversnaid”

Perhaps it is all an effort to try and see it myself. This breathless adventuring thing underneath centuries of accumulated existence. A wanderer all restless, and the wisdom is in the sleepless pilgrimage itself. I have seen it sometimes. Enough to ache for it again and again. Wandering restlessly myself, like those old Irish stories, when the will-o-wisp flickered in the dark.

I asked an extremely talented student of mine – a veteran my age – if he thought Catholicism could “play.” If, in the delicate order of a gothic cathedral, there was room to be spontaneous, alive. The psychologist D.W. Winnicott, who worked with English children traumatized after World War II, once wrote

“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

We agreed that Catholicism could play. I admitted that sometimes I feel as if some winged thing whispers in my ear, You know that’s not true. I wonder what I’m thinking of when I say yes or when I say no to that.

I’m not sure Catholicism can be said to live spontaneously in someone who has never felt it to be so real it could be lost. Might’ve been already. Might’ve never been found at all. Not that loss is necessary to “know” a thing. Only that finding and losing are necessary to having something. Lose your life and you’ll find it.

We all know something like a painful-sudden awareness that my God – this so real and so soft and so unsafe. Like a heartbeat against an ear. Painfully there. And the real possibility of not-there sounds between the measured beats. Or like the helplessness and recklessness in waiting to know if someone loves you back. Terrible silence, wide eyes before wild human loving, unable to make it be. Wanting so much for it to be. Oh please – what I cannot make reality. Let it be.

I have seen it sometimes. I dislike when it is named – except maybe in a saint. The restless storm in the heart, the madness and strangeness beating unstoppable or maybe from the tomb. There are many wonderful mysteries that we might call Catholic, but this bursting untamable yearning is most of all. It is barely Catholic at all. Could never really be owned by anyone. Held there in the empty hands of those who’ve neared the wild living light. (Don’t touch me. I must return.)

I have never been near. I accept the realness of that. I have been very far from the restless wild. Not that this is a thing for measures. Not unless the measure is a rule, like Ireneaus, a rule in the old way. A rule that sees the realness of a thing.

And, really, we often hold onto the present or the past instead of feeling that distance. Or cling to this thing or that. Since nearing it would mean being soft and unsafe. Asking if God could make it be. Knowing we cannot.

I know that I thirst. For this, or that – that life or that someone, or all in all. I know an ache so fierce that to feel it is to feel an unbearably near, an unbearably not. Not near at all. The mouth that waters for what it does not have.

And sometimes I see a strange life in the lack. I mean the not-having. I see this insatiable yearning all restless and awake. Wild enough to go wandering. To roam and sing – and laugh and cry – all empty of everything. Able to play in the open space of what might yet be.

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One thought on “Why I am still a Catholic. Or, Watch me not answer the question.

  1. Fariba says:

    Beautiful response! Francis of Assisi was one of those wild, restless individuals. It’s too bad that he and so many other saints lose their spontaneity and passion when their stories are told. So many of them pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, all the while being in love with Christ and the Church. When I get frustrated with something in the Church, I am encouraged by the stories of the saints. They didn’t play it safe but went all out to renew and enrich Catholicism.

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