The birth of memory.

Study of a figure for Hell, John Singer Sergeant

Only last year, my mother was telling me a few details about when I was born. The myth itself sits heavy on my shoulders, and has rested there my whole life. We spoke of it so many times: how I came three months early, I almost died, my mother almost died, and I was baptized immediately. I’ve seen the photos. My mother, rail-thin and pale, dark hair and glasses just like me these days. My two-pound self lying there in a clear plastic box, tubes and needles everywhere. The red of my skin, which didn’t soothe into the soft pale of a newborn. Unnatural. I’ve looked at the images my whole life.

My therapist says I need to remember that child. The little baby alone in the incubator. For the first few months of my life, I only rarely received affectionate touch. My parents had to scrub themselves perfectly and wear gowns. The other touches: they were needles and pain. There wasn’t the snuggling regular newborns receive. The constant soft assurance. Babies are shaped by their early months. Science shows us this.

Me: I was primed by a brutal world.

I hate the science. I hate the goddamn facts that point like daggers to my painful shyness, the tearful anxieties that haunted me through school. Struggling to feel attached, which worsened as the doctors did. I hated the doctors, hated them more and more as I saw them more and more. Sometimes I think: I just couldn’t seem to live or die. I feel so angry at that child, can’t seem to avoid hating myself at any age, and I blame myself. Sometimes for just not freaking dying. The anger conceals terrible loss, terrible disappointment.

In a world that will send no one to rescue me.

My mother told me that when I first came home from the hospital – in Cabbage Patch Doll clothes, because they didn’t make clothes for premies then – she sat with me and held me all day. Just held me. I try to picture it, and I’ve made it a memory of my own, though of course I don’t actually remember anything. I treat it as if I do. A memory of how much my mother suffered and cared. And simply that she held me. I don’t have a memory of her holding me, not ever. I know that she did. But I don’t remember, and I don’t know why.

Flesh hardened for an unkind world doesn’t remember touch, I suppose.

My sister doesn’t like it when I say these things online. She says I never remember the happy things. I do – and I don’t. And I don’t like it when she suggests I’m not remembering it right. I’m worried it’s true – and I know it’s not.

Once she spoke of my life like it came to me easily, my success, like an unrolling carpet. I saw something then: that certain things are very, very easy for me. That this was painful for her to see. School was never so simple for her. That I forget. I also understood that she didn’t, she can’t, know what it felt like inside. And both are true: school was really goddamn easy even when I missed half of it sick; also, I missed half of school sick.

God damn high school. I have dim memories. It all runs together, the shapeless days and me half-dead inside. Deeply withdrawn, deeply religious, hyper-intellectual. I still get that way in the summer, because summers are still the most like back then. (And the world is brutal.) Most of the real remembering is impossible. So when I seek to reference high school in class, I ask students for their memories. I can’t offer any of my own.

And I still can’t fully remember what happened to me. The really bad things. They are purely concentrated conjectures, perhaps, that try to provide answers for feelings I have. Their reality is more in the shape of my pain than their flickering, tenuous concreteness. My body remembers something. The confusing flashbacks to hospitals, the sudden crawling spider-waves of fears – these are memories of a kind. Recollections of a body already long primed by a brutal world, shaped to perceive what hurts.

No one will come and rescue me from all that. From the memories and suffering and confusion. I’m sorry, but it’s true. No one will glide in and carry me away. No one ever has. No one at all. They can’t. Lift me from the waters all you want: I cannot be made to breathe. Sure, there are machines; medicines. But don’t mistake those for breathing.

This is the impossible conundrum of freedom: that to be had, it must be used. Even when the free one in question desperately is not.

Because there isn’t some moment of titanic willpower into being better. Not from things like this. Sometimes I think mental illness terrifies people because it exposes the limits of our willing. My suffering isn’t actually explained by any of the memories, you see. Not quite. Yes, in part – and yet not. My sister remembers our childhood, and she makes an effort sometimes to set her memories against mine. But the suffering isn’t in the memories themselves. Not quite. I could take control if it were true, if everything came to remembering – or not remembering. If it came to “moving on.” Time doesn’t work like that, though, and neither do memories – we can’t will them away.

Remembering is a strange sacrament. These words and symbols that somehow more than they are – even pain. The fragility of a memory isn’t the problem so much as the strength of what they impart. A brief half-trace can burn all over.

Even if everything were reducible to the trauma of my birth – which it isn’t – and the rest is just a self rather helpless before experiences that would never hurt anyone else, it would mean so very little. The answer. If it were all that one thing. Like it always was, growing up: “She’s a premie, so…” God dammit, I’ll never escape the shadow of being born. And neither will you. Part of what being born means is that you will never be able to summarize yourself.

Being unable to recount high school doesn’t leave me unmarked by it. The lack of memory shows me how the past is more than what I am able to see in it. Even in the presence of memories – like the time a teacher asked me what happens to us when we suffer, and I felt the whole world of a suffering adult settle on my shoulders – I do not fully understand.

Trauma is a particularly painful and broken way to remember. This doesn’t make it unreal or more real than the rest. (As if suffering could summarize me instead.) But it does hurt, far too much, and we at least must say that memories ought not do this. Something must somehow break the hold. Yet what would it be, that thing, if you cannot offer it and I cannot either? We don’t like to ask that question. This one than mental illness lays to bear.

The obvious implication is that my spiritual powers are not enough. We think we see guilt on the faces of the mentally ill, some kind of failure on their part. No: they are signs of a frightening impossible. The uncomfortable proposition that we are not enough for ourselves. Nor even for each other.

There is a word in Latin: conveniens. Thomas Aquinas uses it to discuss when something is “fitting.” It isn’t necessary; it isn’t arbitrary. It fits, makes sense in the strange way only beauty makes sense: inexplicably reasonable. Of course, of course – that just suits you. It just does. Conveniens.

There is a doorway somewhere in our imaginations and wills, there where memories and dreams live. A door that can’t be made – not with human hands – nor opened. But by some fitting measure there is a way the heart (which dreams and remembers) can be soothed into the perfect shape to open it. The measure of a different willing, a will that is not the heart’s yet not without the heart. So suitable it goes on unnoticed in the beating dark. There may be no memory of it, none at all. Or the recollection may rise up sudden from the past in some future far from now.

A grace that doesn’t rescue so much as it breathes within, and the dead gasp awake.


“Stabat Mater” (poem)

la pieta

Did you mourn him, mother?
Did you cry?
When they took him down,
or after – borne away
by half a dozen hands.
Were your hands one of them?
Or could you not bear to touch?

Did you cling, or
did you stand apart –
silent, or
directing their touch –
hold his head that hangs
and hold his arms
and lift his feet that drag
and place a cloth over his cool face,
place a cloth: he used to like that
when he was small.

Did they have to wrest him from you,
wrest him from your arms
as they laid him down?
Or did you watch the silent descent,
silent descent down to the cool stone,
wrapped white in the figure of a man
who was once your son.

And no longer.
The outline of a face
marked here and there with blood.
Once a face now covered over,
limp and seeping crimson
against white.
You saw a lamb like that once,
mauled by a wolf in the wild.

Did the apostle carry you home,
or did you carry him?
A dozen ashen faces staring
at you in the dusk.
Minus one.

Did they touch you,
perhaps for comfort – or their own?
Hands and fingers at your cloak:
what now, mother?
Now that your son is gone?

And you alone in your silent room:
Did you cry then, or was it too much?
A sob half-caught in your throat,
a howl seeping into darkness with a moan.
Did you fall to your knees, or
topple a chair –
rage the friend of ragged despair.
Head in your hands, and
tears flattened against palms,
shaking, or
absolutely still. Were you?
Absolutely wordless and absolutely

What words anyway,
and what prayers?
A single phrase building
in your chest like burning sand,
choking away the sound:
prayer of the barren desert,
prayer hot and stretched to endless borders,
prayer of Rachel, who refuses to be comforted,
because her children are dead.

Did you mourn him, mother?
In the dark with a single candle,
soft orange tinting edges gold,
a devastated sanctuary
with unguarded doors.

Did you stand in the night, mother,
strained face guilded at shifting angles,
motionless yet taut?
Keeping watch.
Like long ago with the angel –
mother, what were you waiting for?

Anne M. Carpenter

N.B. – Originally posted June 17, 2014

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.

“My Daughter Night” – Excerpt, Charles Péguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope

“Entombment,” Fra Angelico

O Night, o my daughter Night, the most religious of all my daughters
The most reverent.
Of all my daughters, of all my creatures, the most abandoned into my hands.
You glorify me in Sleep even more than your Brother, Day, glorifies me in Work.
Because in work man only glorifies me by his work.
Whereas in sleep it is I who glorify myself by man’s surrender.
An it’s more certain, and I know better how to go about it.
Night, you are for man a more nourishing food than bread and wine.
Because the man who eats and drinks, if he doesn’t sleep, will not profit from his nourishment.
Ant it will sour and upset his stomach.
But if he sleeps, the bread and wine will become his flesh and blood.
For working. For praying. For sleeping.
Night, you alone dress wounds.
Aching hearts. All out of joint. All torn.
O my dark-eyed daughter, of all my daughters you alone are, and can call yourself, my accomplice.
You are in league with me, because you and me, me through you,
Together we cause man to fall into the trap of my arms
And we take him a bit by surprise.
But one takes what one can get. If anyone knows, it’s me.
Night, you are the beautiful creation
Of my wisdom.
Night, o my daughter Night, o my silent daughter
At Rebecca’s well, at the well of the Samaritan woman
It’s you who draw the deepest water
From the deepest well
O night who gently rocks all creatures
Into a restoring sleep.
O night who bathes all wounds
In the only fresh water and in the only deep water
At Rebecca’s well, drawn from the deepest well.
Friend of children, friend and sister to the young Hope
O night who dresses all wounds
At the well of the Samaritan woman, you who draw, from the deepest well,
The deepest prayer.
O night, o my daughter Night, you who know how to keep silent, o my daughter of the beautiful mantle.
You who confer rest and forgetfulness. You who issue a healing balm, and silence and shadow
O my starry night, I created you first.

O my beautiful night, I created you first.
And practically before first
O silent one, draped with veils
You who descend on earth as a foretaste
You who scatter by hand, who pour out over the earth
An initial peace
Forerunner of eternal peace.
An initial rest
Forerunner of eternal rest.
An initial soothing balm, an initial beatitude
Forerunner of eternal beatitude.

You who lay the child in his mother’s arms
The child, brightened with a shadow of sleep
Laughing inwardly, laughing secretly because of his confidence in his mother.
And in me,
Laughing secretly out of the corner of his serious mouth
You who lay the child, inwardly bursting, overflowing with innocence
And with confidence
In the arms of his mother
You who used to lay the child Jesus every night
In the arms of the Most Holy and Immaculate one.
You who are the turn-sister of hope.
O my daughter, first among all. You who even succeed,
You who occasionally succeed,
You who lay man in the arms of my Providence
My maternal Providence
O my daughter, glittering and dark, I salute you
You who restore, you who nourish, you who give rest
O silence of darkness.

But above all, Night, you remind me of that night.
And I will remember it eternally.
The ninth hour had sounded. It was in the country of my people of Israel.
It was over. That enormous adventure.
From the sixth hour to the ninth hour there had been a darkness covering the entire countryside.
Everything was finished. Let’s not talk about it anymore. It hurts me to talk about it.
My son’s incredible descent among men.
Into their midst.
When you think of what they made of him.
Those thirty years that he was a carpenter among men.
Those three years that he was a sort of preacher among men.
A priest.
Those three days when he fell victim to men.
Among men.
Those three nights when he was dead in the midst of men.
Dead among the dead.
Through the centuries of centuries that he’s been a host among men.
This incredible adventure was finished.
The adventure that has tied my hands, God, for all eternity.
The adventure by which my Son has tied my hands.
Tying the hands of my justice for eternally, untying the hands of my mercy for eternally.
And against my justice, inventing a new justice.
A justice of love. A justice of Hope. Everything was finished.
Everything that was necessary. As it had to be. As my prophets had foretold it. The veil of the sanctuary had been torn in two, from top to bottom.
The earth had shook; rocks had been split.
Tombs had been opened, and many of the bodies of saints that had died rose again.
And around the ninth hour my Son uttered
The cry that will never fade. Everything was finished. The soldiers had returned to their barracks.
Laughing and joking because another task was finished.
One more guard duty they’d no longer have to make.
One centurion alone remained, and a few men.
Just a simple little post to guard the insignificant tree.
The gallows where my Son was hanging.
Only a few women had remained.
His Mother was there.
And perhaps a few disciples as well, beyond that we can’t be sure.
Now every many has the right to bury his own son.
Every man on earth, if the great misfortune befalls him
Not to have died before his son. And I alone, God,
My hands tied by this adventure,
I alone, father at that moment like so many fathers,
I alone was unable to bury my son.
It was then, o night, that you arrived.
O my daughter, my most precious among them all, and it is still before my eyes and it will remain before my eyes for all eternity
It was then, o Night, that you came and, in a great shroud, you buried
The Centurion and his Romans,
The Virgin and the holy women,
And that mountain, and that valley, upon which the evening was descending,
And my people of Israel and sinners and, with them, he who was dying, he who had died for them.

And the men sent by Joseph of Arimathea who were already approaching
Bearing the white shroud.

Translated by David Louis Schindler, Jr.
William B. Eerdman’s Publishing
(c) 1986 (orig. 1929)

“The Heart of the World” – Hans Urs von Balthasar’s writing set as a poem

“Ecce Homo,” Jusepe de Ribera

He regarded them with his Father’s eyes.

He must first fashion eyes for them;
he must implant in them nonexistent ears;
he must give an unknown sense of touch.
That they may feel God; and hear; and see.

He will have to take their dead, dull senses upon himself.

In death, his Heart will have to dissolve and–
now as a wholly ruined Heart, a shapeless sea–
he will give himself to them as their drink.
He himself. Providing love and the return of love.

And how careful he will have to be!

It is a Heart like ours, a human Heart,
which itself thirsts for a return of love.
A human human heart is not, like God, almighty.
What will it do if we do not want to love?

Foolish did God’s love become.

It seemed to struggle in the darkness.
But no enemy is mightier, no night more full,
than the radiant darkness of love.

Original text from “The Broken Sun” in Heart of the World by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Translated by Erasmo S. Leiva
(c) Ignatius Press, 1979 (1954)