“Remove your sandals…” (An essay on how hard it is to know where Catholicism is and isn’t)

“Moses with the Burning Bush,” Marc Chagall

I am almost always in the middle of thinking of how to make sense of something Catholic – in general, yes, but also in terms of the context in which I live. In California, at a small Catholic liberal arts college. Like everywhere Catholicism is, there is a deep struggle to really know it. A struggle that not everyone owns, and one owned differently among those who do.

Frequently, I find myself navigating between several senses of Catholicism while simultaneously trying to confront Catholicism’s total absence. There are stressors here unique to California, but we would be lying to ourselves if we felt assured this absence is not the case elsewhere. Catholicism is always a singular form, but expressed plastically – flexibly. Often in the same place at the same time. I sometimes think of it as Catholicism’s inherent pluralism. This fundamental complexity of expression renders Catholicism’s lack similarly complex. Flexible Catholic self-expression can become half-expression, or ignorance of Catholicism outside of its bounds may yet know something intimate of the Church. If we could map these relationships, we wouldn’t end up with spiderwebs of lines so much as various likenesses that resemble one another in different ways. A shifting span of near-infinite mirrors capturing near-infinite variants of the same image.

The image (form) is Christ. The infinity is his. The near-infinity is ours.

It is not so simple as explaining Catholic things to a world that has abandoned or never known it. If we are to be serious in our claims, the world has always known something like it. This is an aspect of what it means to be universal (catholic). Community, faith, reason, self-offering: people know something like these (logos spermatikos). Existence itself is made for prayer, and our very existence is – and can be made ever more – a prayer of praise. This also means that the ways we do not know bear a relationship to what we already do. Our knowledge can quickly become a weapon against what we do not. That is, Catholics can be more difficult and stubborn than non-Catholics.

I almost prefer it when someone simply has no idea.

Because Catholicism is deeply convinced that truth is always true, it has long expressed optimism about truths known outside the direct confines of faith. Science and religion do not oppose one another. This despite the cruel caricature of Catholics and Galileo. Beneath the deformed face is a religion whose members have often led the way in scientific progress. Beneath the myths is a Church that readily appropriates non-Christian philosophical forms in order to express its Christian faith. If it is true, it is always so. It is true, it is God’s, and it speaks to us of Christ. Even if we have not yet known it.

This does not make truth Catholic quite yet. I could be uselessly clever and say that catholic truth does not yet make it Catholic – a statement only clear to you if you are already aware of what that might mean. So what I mean is this: it is not enough to be beautiful, or good, or true to be Catholic.

What is easiest to share from Catholicism is that which the Church already shares with others. The verities of life and of reason: these are treasures that it is almost simple to offer. We must serve the poor, and this is a value the Church has given to the world. Because the world knows the poor too, even if the world hasn’t always known what to do with them. Everyone is of equal dignity, and this is a truth the Church has given the world reasons for acknowledging. Because we are always someone, even if the Church herself could be as blind as the world about it. These are values and truths that the world shares thanks to Christianity, ways of living and doing possible without it. Perhaps not as coherently, but human beings don’t always worry about that.

If these are gifts the Church has offered the world, it seems absurd to ask for them back. You shall never say the word person again; find some other way to articulate the inviable uniqueness of every human being. No: to say that is to deny the universality of its truth. (Even if, as happens sometimes to me, that truth is used against the Church as if she’d never known it at all.)

The Church is entirely gift, though. What of hers, if anything, could never be carried away? Surely there is something she has or is that cannot be known without her. Or will she, like Rilke’s Orpheus, be torn and scattered to sink into the world and permeate it with the presence of her absence?

It is not quite true to say that the Church has Christ: he cannot be owned, even by his own Church. And yet we can only know him through his Body – even if in some unseen mediation – because the Word who became flesh does not un-become. We will never cease knowing the Son through his humanity, through the Spirit that overshadows his flesh. How this works, I don’t really know. I have my guesses. I know this: the Catholic Church never fails to call herself universal, and yet she only does so by relativizing herself. (I have known no other tradition that is capable of both.) That is to say, the Spirit works tirelessly to bring all to the Son for the Father and the Spirit does not need the Church. The Church knows this.

There is an old Scholastic saying: the Church is the ordinary means of salvation, but this does not prevent God from using extraordinary means.

Ah, Catholics. We are so unique. But don’t forget we’re ordinary.

Still, it is painful sometimes to experience the strange poverty of seeing the Church’s riches held in others’ hands. Where this poverty becomes harmful rather than humbling is when these blessed hands that have something Catholic call themselves Catholic for it. To be able to agree with, understand, or live a Catholic idea or a Catholic ethic is not to be Catholic.  If that’s not true for Catholics, it’s definitely not true for non-Catholics.

My poor colleagues must be so tired of certain things I always say. One is this: if I’m the only one doing it, it’s not Catholic; it’s a Catholic doing something. I often say this when we wish to tie a ribbon on something and call it Catholic by having a Catholic or two there. Frequently I am one such human ribbon. But it’s not Catholic just because I’m there. Another is this: we need to be able to see religion as more than a series of logical and ethical premises. Being able to list Catholic ideas is a way of knowing the Church; so is being able to live certain Catholic ideals. But it’s not Catholic just because it’s there.

What, then – oh, what – makes us Catholic? What gift cannot leave the Church’s hands?

Being together in holiness.

The two things I am always saying push us toward this: it’s Catholic if we do something together under the light of holiness. Not this idea or that, or some Catholic talking about whatever.

Catholics aren’t individualists. They can be, but that in them is an absence of Catholicism. Many, many aspects of Catholicism are personal, yes. But they’re not individual: separate from the others. Even when you are alone, the Church is with you, carrying you. Baptism is a baptism into the whole Church with the help of the faith of the whole Church. So, truly representing the Church means unveiling something of that togetherness.

It is a togetherness lived not just with holiness, but with holiness standing before it. If the presence of Catholicism rested on the holiness of its members… Well. The Apostles wouldn’t even pass that test. And definitely not St. Peter, who according to Catholics is the first pope.

Catholicism is defined by a specific awareness of holiness. Sometimes this is called “sacramental imagination,” but the phrase has been used so much I’m not always sure it has meaning. What it means, really, is this: all good things somehow bear the presence of God and should be treated that way. Only God is holy. So wherever God is, that place is holy with his presence. And, for Catholics, God is everywhere. God is also especially somewhere too.

This is not a generic holiness or a pan-sacred. God can be especially with a place, or a person, or even a person’s bones. This is what is so peculiar about Catholic awareness: God is everywhere, always, and especially in many places.

If we do not know why monks would bow to each and every guest… If we do not know why Christians would go on a pilgrimage somewhere… If we do not grasp why a Catholic would fall to their knees before this wine and this bread… If we fail to see the reason Moses would remove his sandals before God… Why a Catholic would bow to the poor… We have not acquired the Catholic sense of holiness. This odd universal-specificity. Most especially in the Eucharist: Christ is everywhere, but he is here.

All kinds of strange habits result. Catholics will kiss books and cloth and tombs. They do not want to leave Jesus alone in the monstrance. (He’ll be fine; they won’t be and they’ll worry.) They will try and bless anything, and cannot be convinced to stop freaking touching things.

I grow so tired of sophistications that don liturgical vestments with no one underneath. We can use all the Catholic words we want. It’s nothing if Christ isn’t there. (In this way, the Church is never in control of her own presence – and yet is.) The absence that the Church cannot live without is holiness – the holiness of the Spirit and awareness of his holiness. That’s Catholicism. I am so weary of other things. It’s not just having Catholics around, or repeating Catholic ideas, or doing something amazingly Catholic. It’s the presence of the only One who is holy. Presence in truth and goodness and beauty.

I’m never sure how to explain it, this mystery. I don’t quite know how to welcome others – even myself, sometimes – into it, but it is essential.


The Triune God and the Theologian With a Broken Head

Franz Stuck, “Pieta”

It was hard to re-read my dissertation-turned-book. Not simply because I really don’t like listening to myself – it’s like hearing your own voice in a recording, familiar yet strange. It’s just… I tried to kill myself four months after the defense. And I remember the span of thoughts and emotions that carried me there. That I carried. It’s true that I was already cracked in the head before the book. Still, the book reminds me of the time I snapped apart like so much brittle glass.

After. After, my mom asked me how someone religious like me could do it. All I said was, “Please don’t.”

I don’t know how. All I know is that there’s a place in our hearts where there is neither God nor not-God. I don’t mean metaphysically. Of course God is there.  But it is a place of non-relation, a sort of severing even from the self. It doesn’t matter where anyone is or isn’t. That person is hurting in a very lonely way, and it is not a path one can accompany.

It’s not your fault if someone tries – or succeeds – you know. Suicide. Please don’t ever think that.

The book has very little to say about suicide. If anything, it traces Hans Urs von Balthasar’s careful refutation of the suicide of thought in modern theology, philosophy, and the arts. As I read it, I wondered if the past me would “convert” me. That is, draw me closer to God.

It has not been very easy, being close to God. After.

Other things are. These days, I have significantly more facility describing what mental illness is like. Helpless and unearned and a harrowing responsibility, mostly. Is what it’s like. Surrounded by all kinds of cultural ignorance. I thought everyone had violent nightmares every night – or at least a lot of them. Surely no one ever feels safe. Everyone hates themselves at least a little. Surely. I didn’t understand the signs.

So I really didn’t know that I was sick. And, I’m sorry, but graduate school isn’t a place that makes such things obvious. I have never again seen so much goddamn anxiety and maladaptive coping mechanisms all clustered in one place. I love you guys, classmates, but holy shit. Did you see us? Our professors didn’t know the signs or weren’t paying attention. Or maybe that’s not their job. Either way. It wasn’t healthy.

Once in grad school, while my grandmother was dying of cancer and my brother was in incredible distress, two friends pulled me aside into one of the chapels and had an intervention. They told me that I needed help and didn’t believe in the resurrection. I wish they hadn’t brought faith into it. I wish they’d known that college counseling services are easy to reach. I wish they’d been compassionate about how hard my family life was at the time. And I kind of wish it wasn’t them. I wasn’t close to them.

I was already heavily traumatized. I needed some real help and had no idea that I did. I needed help in high school. I needed help in kindergarten, for God’s sake. So I’m not saying they were wrong. Not exactly. It’s just that the whole thing was wrong. The time and the place and the people.

The resurrection thing – in a church – well, that was a bit much.

Mental illness shouldn’t be a condemnation. It isn’t a question of faith. God gives that anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever not believed in God. There was a time in high school that I was an atheist and I kept it secret from everyone. I was the saddest little atheist, because even if there were no God, it seemed clear enough we needed one. Which is still a kind of faith, albeit stripped of most of its gnosis (knowledge). Even when I taped that note to my mirror and held a knife to my throat, I didn’t think there was nothing. I just didn’t care, or had drawn so near to an iron-jawed simulacra of nothing that I knew little else.

Nichtigkeit. The Nothing, the Not. Heidegger’s word, which von Balthasar distrusted. I wrote about that.

I wonder many times, when I reach hesitantly toward prayer, whether I still participate in that strange Nichtigkeit that held me with its sharp edges. I have the scars that ask the question if I won’t. And the answer is that I don’t know. I can laugh now, I have a job, I care about others. Heavy doses of medication slow me down enough that I can open my eyes. It’s a physical condition, the illness. Neurochemical distortions and depletions. That doesn’t make it un-spiritual. Our bodies simply don’t do that. Become un-spiritual. I’d have to die to do it.

I wrote about von Balthasar’s love for the physical, the specific, the concrete. The flesh. I wrote about that too.

If you’ve been hit in the head by a tire iron, you might lose some sight. That injury will henceforth affect what you can see, and you’ll have to learn your way around and through it. Well: mental illness isn’t any different. I don’t know that Jesus wants to save me from mental illness any more than He does you the tire iron. Which is to say: suffering just doesn’t seem to work like that.

I do think God did not let me die. So did I. So did others. Not let me die.

God always seems to insist on collusion.

There is a difference between art and the artist. This was, during the book, an obsession of mine. Total bastards can create beautiful, profound art. Their art ends up better than they are. I wonder now if this is so with me and my book. Its perspective – von Balthasar’s perspective – is much broader than the well I sat by. Not that I had nothing to do with it. Only that I don’t determine the meaning of everything I create. Only the one Creator does that.

There are ways that God is there in the gap, between art and artist, the measure of the distinction between esse and ens, colluding even with what we lack.

Von Balthasar was determined to show us this, in his way. He is famous for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday. Christ plunges into the uttermost depths of loss, embracing even the threat of nonbeing. In terrible silence, von Balthasar says, the Son descended. And so does the Church, following along in her liturgy: the great silence of empty sanctuaries during the Triduum. Yet all is in the light of the resurrection: God knows how to make something of wounds.

Still, I sometimes fret over whether von Balthasar went and cleaved apart the Trinity.

But there is another part of me that knows that place, that hell. Very well. And God is there, even if all I can manage for worship is silence.

Von Balthasar would say that God doesn’t leave us the last word. Just His.

The Unchanging God

“God Son,” Viktor Vasnetsov

“I don’t know if God, or whatever you want to say, changes.” A woman at a morning prayer group frowned, thinking. “But,” she continued, “I hate change. I need to change, but I hate it.”

I twitched, struggling with silence.

I am fortunate to be a part of this little prayer group, which meets in the mornings. It is a ragged band of the irreligious and religious, most not at all Christian – if not vehemently not Christian. Every age and background seems to have found its way into the collection of chairs. We read little snippets of items together, and for the most part share about our own lives. Half prayer group, half support group. None of us is less than severely troubled, which is how we found ourselves together in the first place.

“I don’t know about God, you know,” a gruff male voice offered, “but I needed to change, you know. I really did. And there’s something out there. You know.”

This is how it goes, raw and simple. Mostly we trade little of substance – no thesis, no world-tilting idea – but the hearts underneath the roughened, repetitious words make their way through. Often the word God is replaced by Higher Power as a somehow less invasive phrase. This makes profoundly little sense to me, though I never say anything about it. They could insist on using the word strawberry and I’d find a way not to care so long as we granted the possibility of strawberry. Human words are rough and repetitious, especially as they gesture toward and bear divinity.

Most know what I do, professionally. Theologian. Well-trained in all those words. I keep a studied silence when God comes up in conversation, quietly attending to what they say. There are places to be a professor, and there are places not to be. There are places where silence gives me enough space to learn.

God is a hard topic for us, though we all walk in knowing we will pray together. I don’t think God is an easy topic for anyone, but offer the matter to a group of people whose single common trait is their shared brokenness, and they’ll all wear the struggle on their faces. It has nowhere else to go. And we are too worn down to put it someplace else anyway.

I’m not sure how the topic of God and change came up that morning. We continued on as we always do: avoiding God as best we could and dogged by God anyway.

I leaned forward in my seat, elbows on my knees. Silence grated against my ribs, and I clenched my teeth. That God does not change is very important to me. I don’t think I’d believe in God without it. In theology, we call it God’s immutability (un-change-ability), and it grounds the further claim of God’s impassibility (un-suffer-ability). God is Pure Act: pure existence that is absolutely complete, eternal, and splendid. To suggest that God changes is to suggest that God has room to improve.

Not that theologians can resist suggesting as much about God. And here I grin softly at the insult I’ve offered them.

Some want God to suffer so that we might explain our own suffering. Some want God to change so that we might explain the Bible. There are many other reasons. Mostly to give reason to things that concern us. I don’t think that’s what God’s existence is for: for helping me explain what I’m worried about, what interests me, what I need to be true. If that is what God is for, then Feuerbach was right: God is a projection of ourselves.

It is all perhaps much too obtuse and obscure to care for, I know. These questions.

I made it through forty minutes of the hour before I smoothed a hand over my face and stepped in with a thought. “Change matters to me,” I explained. “It matters because I think forgiveness is the acceptance of change. Forgiveness accepts the possibility of change. If I’ve hurt somebody, or myself… And if they forgive me, if I forgive myself – I accept the possibility of change.” I sighed, not quite happy with how I’d put it, struggling to lean on small words. “God does not change. I do – and I need to. But God doesn’t. This means that whatever God is, He is always. And so, whatever I’m doing, however I am, if God has been with me, God still is with me. Wherever I turn around, God is there.” I swallowed back Augustine and Thomistic relations, felt the scowl on my face. “So if God forgives, God is always forgiveness. God accepts the possibility of change in me. And even if I don’t, God does. With or without me, God is. Always.” I coughed. “Thank you.”

The room was quiet, which it often is after I say something. I tried not to feel miserable about my lesson in metaphysics and mercy. Dammit, professor.

“I grew up abandoned,” a woman offered into the quiet. I could hear the tears in her voice. “I even abandon myself. It means so much to me that God never… Never, ever will.”

There it was. And much better said.