“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.


Wordless Presence: On Dog-Whispering and Human-Whispering

“Boy with dog,” Boris Kustodiev

I know a dog named Foxy. She was rescued – probably from abuse. So she’s scared of everyone she doesn’t know. She also sheds all over the damn place.

Human beings love their pets in utterly extravagant ways. It’s proof of how much we want to love, of how capable we are of love: that we take animals and treat them like part of the family. It can get weird quickly, like most of our loves do, and we forget the way animals speak to us mostly through the language of their physical presence – not with secret thoughts or intentions. Certainly not with words. We forget the way we mostly speak that way, too. We express ourselves in the wordless speech that is our bodies.

Back to Foxy.

When I walked through the door to see my friends, she came barreling into the kitchen with a loud bark and rushed over to keep on barking. She shoved herself in front of her owner, defensive, all lean wolf-dog and fluffy white hair. I was handed some treats to give her if she quieted down for me. She did, albeit reluctantly.

I’m not an expert on dogs, but I’m an expert on fear. And I saw that Foxy feels afraid. I understand that. Being hurt by someone else has a way of writing itself all over your skin. Like somehow fear has stitched itself in invisible letters all across your whole body, and nothing that touches you doesn’t remind you how it felt to feel that way. It is a feeling, really, more than it is a thought. A kind of electric hurt wired through every inch of skin. It hums and expands and throbs on contact.

Maybe that’s how Foxy feels. I imagined that it was. It felt important to imagine that in someone else, even a dog. The way she’d jolt and jump then calm herself down, wary and weary: I envied how obvious she was about it. I thought maybe I should pick up barking. Then people would know when I felt upset, because I certainly don’t know how to say it when I am.

I do resent, sometimes, when people need me to spell out how I’m feeling. At my most irritated, I picture some kind of dim lecture hall and a projector, and I need to have a PowerPoint prepared. A chart of emotions and their compelling reasons, all neatly lined up next to each other. As if that’s how any of that worked.

The Church doesn’t have a chart. You know. For what to feel and when. She has lots of things, but not that. And I’m glad.

I patiently set myself to convincing Foxy that she should let me pet her. She’d wander by and I’d conscientiously give her a little soothing touch, let her be on her way. It’s not like I could say, “Hey, I won’t hurt you.” I could only show her, and it’s not the kind of showing that happens all at once. It builds itself through small actions and patience. The crackle of physical fear can’t be overpowered by affection so much as slowly soothed. Loved in broken pieces.

Foxy slowly let me touch her more and more. We all like feeling safe; we all like returning to that place.

You’re not supposed to stare a dog straight in the eyes. This is a challenge in their language, animal to animal. I knew this and still stared right at Foxy, indifferent over whether she’d take up my challenge or not. I don’t really recommend that. I just didn’t care if she bit my face. “Whatever,” I thought, “I’ve had worse.” That was the stubborn shape of the writing on my own skin showing itself a little bit. I’m always rather determined to prove I won’t flinch, that nothing can make me flinch. As if I could somehow in some final way reveal the terrible chasm of hurt that leaves me so cut through with fear that everything else seems inconsequential. As if not crying could summarize how I cry myself to sleep at night.

Eventually, the exhausted dog laid down and let me pet her belly. This is submission in their language, animal to animal. I almost cried, a little jealous and deeply amazed that she could do this, and I touched her with soft reverence. Still she watched me, the strange creature who refused to hurt her and refused to look away. She was waiting, I imagined, for my betrayal. “Oh, Foxy,” I whispered, “what happened to you?”

Not that she could say. Not any more than I can, really.

There’s not a Sacrament that doesn’t involve touch, you know. Not a single one. Even if it is only the gentle touch of words on ears. Because, mostly, we express ourselves through the wordless speech that is our bodies. The host on hands and tongues; the soft feel of oil smoothed over foreheads; palms and fingers and rings.

The slow and patient touch of God.

Shadow Sacrament

Georges Antoine Rochegross, "The Death of Messalina" (Detail)

Georges Antoine Rochegross, “The Death of Messalina” (Detail)

Ah, touched in your bower of bone
Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
Do you! — mother of being in me, heart.

– G.M. Hopkins

We tend to think of words as invisible, as notional or suggestive. As a veneer for meaning. But words, you see, are sacramental – like the rest of the world. They mediate the real. They symbolize, participate in, invite and educate in meaning. Like the rest of the world, you see.

Words have touch. That is how I think of them. They reach and pull and bend, communicate and conceal. As our touches do.

I went to the dentist today, and I was not looking forward to the touch of metal instruments and cool hands. I am not afraid of dentists. I don’t hate them like some people do. But touch disturbs me, and the glint of sharp tools leaves me cold. I am not afraid of dentists, but I am afraid of anything that reminds me of anything I hate to remember. And I hate to remember touch and tools.

Sights and sounds and physical pressure, gestures and gazes and more: these are sacraments, too. They are real; they bear what is real; they bear us into what is real.

I followed the hygienist down the hallway to our room, and on the way I caught sight of a young girl laying down in a chair. Saw her splayed out underneath a spinning tool. I shivered and looked away.

“What have you been up to?” the hygienist asked, gesturing toward the empty chair in the empty room.

I placed my jacket in a corner, movements measured and muted. “I am a professor.”

I am good at words. I am aware that I am good at words. Their light touch takes a shape that I am especially adept at attending and guiding. Gently. Always gently. I speak and write with practiced precision, searching for just the moment when my words seem as if they have no touch at all, no pressure: you want to look where I want you to see. Your heart takes you there, just where my words leave you be.

I’ll not have seemed to convince you at all. You’ll have already thought it somewhere secretly. It’ll already be yours, even if I have given it.

“Beautiful,” people say, staring me in the face. Eyes wide, vulnerable. Features softer, younger.


Meaning is beautiful. And vulnerable. And – always – young.

A few weeks ago, I sat quietly in a large, cushioned chair across from my therapist. Holding some coffee in my lap, barely occupying the expanse of the seat. I am naturally small, my mother’s Sicilian heritage reflected in my diminutive frame. Always lean, I have thinned considerably of late. I somehow take up even less space. I’ve been taking better care of myself, though its ironic outcome has been my own physical winnowing.

“I want to mention something that I remember from early on in this process,” my therapist began. I watched him, open and attentive. Holding hard-earned trust. He is soft-spoken, slender, intelligent. I hardly knew what to guess, what it was he meant to surface from those embattled early days. I was cagey and angry then, avoiding much. Lashing at myself with tears and words – if not a knife. Reserving absolutely none of the gentleness I had for others for myself. Remembering those days, I waited, listening.

There is much waiting in being a patient. I am good at being a patient. Sometimes I think of the old word passio, in Latin, which means “to endure” or “to change.” A good patient endures. A patient person is someone who knows how to endure.

I hate that. Enduring.

My therapist looked at me: “You reacted strongly, once. When I asked about the couch.”

I glanced at it, off to the side. A therapeutic couch, narrow and soft. With a pillow. A bit like you might see in a TV version of therapy, which of course is mostly lies, with a patient reclining and remembering as a bespectacled therapist listens with notebook in hand. My eyes flicked to the closed office door. Then back.

Everything in me seized. I felt a lopsided smile pull across my face before I could even think, automatically masking the terror that spread out cold in my chest. He mirrored my grin. These small gestures calm those in whom I sense a threat. Some tiny corner of my mind howled, wordless and raw. The rest of me bent, invisible, in a poised crouch. Every mental power at the ready.

Just as I was in the damn dentist’s office, weeks later. Poised and alert yet calm and affable, gently accepting instructions. Offering nothing by way of explicit resistance, even as the whole of me was prepared to disappear with any touch I found too much to bear.

It didn’t even take a touch, of course. Just an X-ray machine that she asked me to stand in front of, fitting my small frame underneath its bent arms. I clenched my teeth over fitted grooves. There was a mirror. I watched my own thin face become someone else’s as the machine whirred to life and spun. I vanished.

It never touched me. It didn’t have to.

I remember too many machines. The various colors of my bones and veins and organs. The searching digital gazes.

Maybe you know what it is like to vanish before someone else’s eyes. Maybe it happened, once, in a bitter argument: and you knew then that the person in front of you saw nothing about you at all. Can you imagine digital eyes? Will you add the touch and cut of a scalpel? The whispered command to hold still?

Even a word is enough, sometimes. It was just one word. Weeks ago. Just a couch. Just a word.

And not at all.

I held still, coffee clutched in my lap. “What about it?”

Defer, I thought. Distance. Make him say it.

He paused, seemed aware of the challenge. “What do you think about it?”

“The couch?” I swallowed, glancing at the closed door again. Run, the ragged voice in the back of my mind hissed. I held still, commanding a rush of horrible memories into silence with gritted teeth. Distraction would do me no good. I looked at my therapist, watching him. No distractions. I needed to watch him, now. Because now he was a threat, and I am very small. I swallowed again, struggling to find where my trust had gone. “I think,” I said, voice low, “I think if you asked me to even sit on it, I’d try to run out of this room.”

(Not that I really would. I didn’t, at the dentist’s office.)

“I didn’t ask you to do anything,” he clarified, “just think about it.”

I waited, mouth shut. Disbelieving.

“I think it means something important,” he explained. “I know it’s very painful for you, but I’m trying to do right by you.”

Memories clawed at the peripheries of my thoughts. I glanced at the couch, back at my therapist, at the door. Waited for him to command me to lay down, waited for his betrayal. I held still.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Just a couch. Just laying down. Just a doctor asking me to lay down. And he hadn’t even – yet. Not yet.

“What would you do,” he asked, “if I asked you to lay down?”

I scowled, which was the utmost aggression I felt I could show. “I’d probably do it, if you asked. I wouldn’t want to. But I’d go away, and then I’d do it.”

You never run, the bitter voice said to me. I blinked at tears.  I would vanish – the self we have, the self we take for granted, the self we obsess over, the self we try to meditate away, would vanish – and the rest of me would be left to hear commands, to mechanically respond, to nod and obey. This is called dissociation. It is how the mind protects itself from things too awful to comprehend.

Just a chair. Just laying down.

“I haven’t asked you anything,” my therapist tried.

I held still. Waiting.

What an irony, to know I’d lay down weeks later. With ambiguous willingness. I’m not afraid of the dentist. I’m a fully grown adult, and I’ve seen much worse than their damn cleaning tools. Much worse. With much darker intentions.

So what do I care about a dentist? Nothing I can’t handle, except how it bears what I can’t. Except the touch and gaze that mimics the ones I wish I never knew at all. The present sacraments of the unspeakable past.

“There is so much to say,” my therapist said, existing somewhere I didn’t understand, level and even. “So much you have never been allowed to say. Can you not even say what you think when you feel terrified?”

Ice spread through my veins, tears threatening. I shifted slightly, mind collapsing, scattering apart. I thought of being dragged and held down. I thought of hands. Sharp, glinting objects. Needles and knives. A hand covering my mouth. Silence. Those hands holding me down. Forcing me to lay down.

In an instant. A small eternity.

Just lay down. It’s just a couch. Just a word.

Isn’t it?

I opened my mouth, but no word offered itself. I swallowed, shrinking in my seat. A tremor ran its way through my whole body and remained, like the trembling spark and hum of a broken electric wire. I tried to hold still. Tried not to move my hands. Tried to make sure he didn’t see.

I opened my mouth, and a voice weaker than the one I know as my own reached my ears. Strange and soft and so, so afraid. “Please. Don’t hurt me.”

I couldn’t look at him.

He breathed deep, pain etched on his face. “It will follow you until you face it.” Follow me down the street. Into a dentist’s chair. Into every touch I’ve ever received. “You need to let someone in with you.”

I nodded but said nothing, unable to picture anything but strong hands gripping me and dragging me down.

There is no meaning there, where the shadows are. In the depthless darkness that has bequeathed itself to all the gestures of my life, a somber sacrament that somehow perpetuates itself. That somehow will not cease. And the only way out is back into the middle of it, where the hands and needles are. I have to go back there.

Do you even want to look, reader, where I need to see? Where there aren’t any beautiful words, and no gentle touches?

I don’t know that I do, except that I do anyway – every time anything takes the shape of that dark place.

I have to return tomorrow to fix some cavities.

I’m not excited.

Fragmentary Offerings

Thine own of Thine own: 32 of 365

Fraction. Usually some hellish math-thing. A freakish almost, a broken thing, a thing not enough to be whole. It is hard, sometimes, not to think of myself like this. As a collection of fragmented pieces, not quite whole. Especially when I pray.

I’m never sure where I got the idea that I needed to have my act together to pray. To really pray. Perhaps because saints do it, and I’m definitely not saintly. They can feel so far, so very far away – the saints. Or maybe because people talk about prayer with such reverence, I knew it had to be marked by uniqueness somehow. Real prayer is for real people. It makes enough sense, doesn’t it?

Until I cease my endless internal chatter, and try to remember God. And then I become aware of how little prayer I know. And I don’t feel very real at all.

Of course, technically, all else compared to the Being of God is not real. God is – God is the Real – and I am barely.

And, technically, knowing that still doesn’t sew together enough pieces of me to reach out to God without trembling. Without feeling all the terrible edges of my own inadequacy.

And if you told me to cheer up, or if you said I was just fine, I’d tell you that you don’t understand what I mean.

It is neither sadness nor insecurity that has got me thinking of myself in pieces. It is simple self-awareness. I know there are many fragments of myself shattered into nothing by terrible experiences. I know there are areas of strength in me that I stress all too easily. I know there are corners of me I’ve never known.

God knows all these things. Sees them written in my own jagged language, and all the rest underneath. And I want so badly to at least tell God that I know. That I know He knows.

But do I?

“Like a stranger in a foreign land, unacquainted with the language, they are almost inarticulate children again, wanting to say something but unable to do so.”

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

Like a child, then, I want so much to speak but cannot quite. I am fractured pieces of sentences.

There is another meaning of the word, though. Fraction.

It is when the priest breaks the Eucharistic bread during the Mass, recalling when Jesus did so at the Last Supper and at the same time signifying the unity of the Body of Christ (the Church) in the Eucharist. The bread is broken to stress the wholeness of Christ’s people in Him.

Sometimes it helps me to pay attention to the fraction. To think of myself along with it. I am, certainly, not whole. Or, if I am, I can only assemble small pieces of myself in any case. I am yet missing the wholeness of heart that is willing to stand before the God who knows its depths. Or, in any case, I am distracted and strained and often quite broken. But if this is all I have, these broken pieces of myself in my shaking hands, then will not God have those too? What if He supplies the wholeness, and I whatever I manage to have on hand?

I am not so sure prayer needs to be a special experience. I think it can be. But I think it also can be me desperately trying to pay attention. Some days, all I might be able to offer is my own confusion, or hurt, or rage. Shaking hands that hardly know what to do.

If God loves three pennies from a poor woman, surely He can love three seconds of awkward stuttering from me. And, no, I don’t think of it as all that fun. But I think of it as good. I do not think that it is enough. But I think that God is. I do not think that it is the end. But all beginnings have a chance to end with God.

Distracted. And not at all.

There are three lies that I tell in all of my courses. One of them is that I am easily distracted.

I am not, at all, distractible. Certainly not in the manner I feign in the classroom. I have other problems and such, but being abruptly and entirely obsessed with the feral cats that haunt campus is not one of them. Nor is my attention broken by the sudden mention of any pop star I loathe. (I might in fact hate them all. But, recently, at the mention of Katy Perry, I narrowed my eyes and hissed, “Teenage Dream.”) I am neither random nor arbitrary, nor all that susceptible to being swayed away from what I had planned for the day’s lesson.

When I was a little kid, I remember sitting up at night, listening to the quiet thump of my own heart, wondering how it kept me alive. I wondered about everything. I still do. Always with determined scrutiny of every angle, entirely unwilling to respond to the sound of my own name unless I thought I could safely put aside the puzzle for later. My sister says I “research the shit out of things.” (Her words. We shared a room. I can’t remember if I woke her up to ask her about death. I probably did.) I was an intense child. I remain an intense adult.

So, I am not distractible. But I pretend to be, all the time, in the classroom. I will stop, suddenly, and wonder aloud about something I have remembered. I will reach sideways into the universe of pop culture, often deliberately misunderstanding it, to draw out strange analogies. To provoke irritation. To incite laughter. To enjoy confusion.

I will even complain that I am distracted, and stand in front of my students as I straighten all the tendons in my diminutive frame, glancing around the room as if searching through a clearing for a lost conceptual thread.

But I am never. We are always arriving where I prefer. Every twisting thicket somehow always leads to just the corner of the forest I had marked on the map. I laugh to my students as if surprised, but in fact not surprised at all.

Why do I lie? Because my “distraction” is really immersion in things, awareness of and delight in details. Authentic theology – or, dare I say, authentic spirituality – is really a deep attachment to the mystery in everything. I have no idea how to teach that, except I know that it is necessary to thinking seriously. Nor do I know how to surface the thorny matter of faith without a goofy grin and some gentle sleight-of-hand that turns the eyes away from threat and toward joy. Learning is a riot, I tell my students. It’s fun and it’s work. It’s hilarious and it’s sadIt’s wonderful.

Learning is attachment to things that is willing to let them go so that they might be given back again. No one has ever learned anything that didn’t need to be relinquished and relearned. No one has ever ceased an education. Play means willingness to let something go to see what might happen, and work means willingness to follow it to the end. I’ve never had a thought I could hold onto. That’s the fun of it, though. Never holding still.

I suppose I could cleanly argue a position. Certainly I know how to corner someone until they feel compelled start calling me names. I am able to ask a question and entirely dismantle another person.

But will either of us have learned anything? Perhaps a fact or three. But nothing so exhilarating as the thrill at everything.

So I am perfectly willing to wander where my students lead, fully aware that all roads lead us back to what is beautiful. (“We will arrive where we started,” says T.S. Eliot, “and know the place for the first time.”) I play a bit distracted, when really I am listening to the sound of their hearts. A small question, a peculiar detail, a stubbornly interposed reading from a dead Christian… All things that turn the eyes away from threat and toward joy.

Christian Existence

Mausoleum, Christ the Light Cathedral (Oakland, CA)

Mausoleum, Christ the Light Cathedral (Oakland, CA)

When I was young, my mom sometimes used to talk about the Our Lady of the Angels fire in Chicago. 92 children died, and 3 nuns. My mom grew up in Chicago, attending Catholic school. They used to pray for them at school. Those who died. She didn’t remember it herself, but she remembered praying. She remembered the stories they used to tell. She told me the stories, too.

The fire was such a horrendous disaster that it changed national fire codes forever. My mom always makes sure to say that. She will always say: “Some good came of it. They changed things.” I was always much more caught up in the stories of the nuns who fought to rescue their students, of the choking heat and smoke, of desperate children leaping out the windows. I used to picture my own Catholic school, an ancient structure from 1927 with narrow stairways and halls. It always used to smell like wood and dust. My mom said that there was a nun who, thinking quickly, grabbed her scrawny students and physically threw them over burning stairs to safety. I pictured the nun in the flames, face set and hands strong. Doing absolutely everything in her power to protect her charges. I used to imagine myself landing on the other side of the flames, shaking, as she told me to get out. As the flames roared upward and consumed her from view.

I had never met a nun. Not as far as I could tell. This was my first real picture of a nun.

My mom is a teacher at a Catholic school. I thought, and still think, she’d be the first to grab kids by the scruff of the neck and force them to safety. I’ve seen the way she treats them, and the way they treat her. Her 8th graders call her “Momma.” They sense her fierce softness, I think.

I always thought she wouldn’t cry. She’d stare through the flames searching for a way to rescue her adopted children.


I always wondered if I could do the same. If I’d be brave enough.

Sometimes I think of Christianity as unflinching. I remember stories from the early persecutions. Asked to hand over the Church’s riches to the authorities, St. Lawrence gathered the poor. “These are the true riches of the Church,” he said, and they killed him. Catherine of Siena is said to have kissed the wounds of a leper. Francis of Assisi hugged one. Or, to recall the present age, the Sisters of Mercy were some of the very few to treat AIDS patients in the Bay Area during the first wave of terror and death.

When I imagine these things together, I cannot help but picture them as I pass by an altar in a church, or through the crypts they often house underneath. Christianity began among the dead in catacombs anyway – and it began in a tomb. Some said long ago that the Church was born from Christ’s wounded side as he slept, as Eve had been born of Adam. Christian existence somehow bears in and through death.

Today, I stood in the mausoleum underneath the Christ the Light Cathedral in Oakland, California, where I live. I stared upward at the altar that sheltered the crypt, and thought of a priest saying “This is my Body.” Catholics think Christ says it. Catholics think that single event, that death and that life and those words, break through again. Christ says it and Christ does it and we pass with him through death to life. Every Baptism, every Eucharist.

I stared at the altar from underneath, crisscrossed by shadows and light.

I thought of that nun who died in the flames rescuing her students, and I thought of the nuns in Hopkins’s “Wreck of the Deutschland.”

The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

Perhaps most of Christian existence involves passing through a storm of cruciform flames, unflinching. Involves passing through a cryptic offering. One that rises up before us everywhere. Is Christ the one with the strong hands who carries us away to safety? Or is he in the one we drag with us through the fires? Is he ahead of us? Is he behind?

Perhaps, simply – Yes.

The Freak and the Christ: Considering Flannery O’Connor on Good Friday

"A los pies del Amor" by Angel Sánchez Herrera

“A los pies del Amor” by Angel Sánchez Herrera

Flannery O’Connor is the master of Southern Gothic fiction. I never know what that means. The word “gothic” is oddly-shaped in my brain, spanning the pointed arches of old churches and the painted eyes of unhappy teenagers. I also suppose Wuthering Heights is somewhere in there. In any case, my point is that Flannery O’Connor is a hard person to get to know.

She is eminently quotable. O’Connor appears on social media in terse and intelligent aphorisms that paint her in brief, witty touches. Because she has been abbreviated, she seems to be employed for most anything. The pain of brevity is in its pinprick disambiguation: it’s said and then it’s gone, all bright and disconcerting until it leaves me so I can make of it something much easier to understand. Flannery O’Connor is immensely hard to understand. The Catholic writer who was as fiercely Catholic as she was writer, and whose relationship to each term is nothing if not complex.

I dare you, after all, to find any easy link to Catholicism in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the story that ends with the Misfit killing an entire family. Or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” which ends with a man abandoning his young bride. Sudden deaths, strange symbolic encounters, characters of ambiguous or cruel moral demeanor. Patient descriptions of human pettiness and starkly lit small Southern towns. Now there’s a Catholic imagination that’ll leave you pale.

And she faithfully read from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa every night before going to bed.

And that is why I like Flannery O’Connor: I find her impossible.

She has an instinct for how strange the world is, and this – I think – is what Thomas also knew. It is a strange world and often very dark, especially when brightened by the grace it refuses. Flannery O’Connor is the author who knows compunction, that sudden stab of conscience when we realize with horror that we have done something quite wrong. Her stories are all threaded with compunction. Every juncture of the needle is felt as it holds the story together.

Perhaps this is why her short stories and letters live so strongly: Flannery O’Connor knows the strength of a moment.

On my mind in particular is the freak from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” since I will be teaching it in the classroom soon. It is one of O’Connor’s easier stories, since religion rises to the surface and haunts it at every turn in an unusually explicit way. My favorite tale is actually “The Artificial Nigger,” and it shares certain themes with “Temple.” The central of these is an encounter with a grotesque caricature that is impossible to understand. Rather than being understood, the figure seizes the character who meets it, imparting a transformation or a rejection – or some mysterious blend.

In “Temple,” this figure is a circus freak who is revealed to be a hermaphrodite. Men and women are split into groups and stand before a curtained stage. “God made me thisaway,” says the freak, “and if you laugh He may strike you the same way.” After giving the speech, the freak reveals its nature to the men and then the women. The child, who hears the story from two girls rather than seeing it, begins to imagine a scene from a church. After each phrase from the freak, the people respond, “Amen, Amen.”

funfair_self_portrait - youssef nabil

“Funfair Self-Portrait,” Youssef Nabil

The freak returns to the child’s mind at Eucharistic adoration, where the image becomes a mode for experiencing the Eucharist. Before the monstrance, the child pictures the freak saying, “I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.”

Much could and has been said about this story and others of O’Connor’s. I cannot help but hearing the liturgy in the encounter, both in the circus tent with the stage and in the far-off convent with its chapel. Strange lines are repeated, and the people answer with “Amen.” Comprehending and not, all at once.

That is the power of a symbol, especially sacramental symbols. One the one hand they are very simple, good symbols. Understood in an easy way: bread for nourishment, water for washing, oil for blessing. (The last was easier when that was a common practice, and now it is a simplicity borne by history into an odd modern complexity.) What happens with each symbol becomes impossibly mysterious, however, as each in its simplicity bears the totality of Christ. After all, it is a strange thing indeed to bow before a piece of bread. Except it is not bread at all.

Fides supplementum,” says Thomas. Faith supplements the failure of the senses. This from the prayer that O’Connor quotes over the course of the short story.

Faith supplements not because the symbol has gone strange, or has split itself dialectically from the earth in a kind of poetic non sequitur. The gift of faith rises to greet realities for which we do not have eyes. Not absurdities for which we have no sense.

So the freak is really the most honest and real character in the story, though those present haven’t the eyes. The freak is the only character in “Temple” who does not tell some kind of lie: through teenage games, insolent youth, or weary adulthood. The freak and the nun, who hugs the child so hard her cheek is pressed against the crucifix of a belted rosary. In each case, the bewildering confrontation with Christ is illuminated suddenly and never entirely understood. It’s not so much that the encounter is impossible so much as those enduring it don’t quite have the sense to grasp it. So instead they are grasped by it, and it follows them.

I can never make much sense of the “goodness” of Good Friday when I consider only its bare symbols. The naked man who breathes his last, the weeping mother, the mocking onlookers. There are some stories we tell so many times that they become unreal to us, no longer startling or strange. And the brief, measured phrases of the Gospels, their odd brevity (especially in Mark), have a powerful way of laying to bear the res (the reality) with disconcerting frankness that we tend to leave behind so that we can understand something easier.

Good stories, like good symbols, lay to bear the delicacies of our encounters again. Forcing us not so much away from reality back to it. One very good recent story by a living Catholic author reminds us that “all the world is glass.” Ever so breakable and mysterious that knowledge of its precious fragility strikes us like a sudden puncture through our haze. Like the cross: so very impossible and yet it is so. This seems to be what Flannery O’Connor knew.

Photo “A los pies del Amor” (c)Angel Sánchez Herrera. Explore his work on Flickr.

Photo “Funfair” (c)Youssef Nabil. Explore his work at yousseffnabil.com

The short story “Glass Queen” (c)Rachel Japs. Read the full work at Another Realm.