Hans Urs von Balthasar and Mickey Mouse

balthasar with mickey

Above: my least favorite picture of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

If I ever make it to Heaven and I get to meet my hero Hans Urs von Balthasar, the first thing I’m doing is walking up to him, shoving him backwards against a gleaming wall (Rev 21:11), and asking, “Why the f*ck did you go to Disneyland, Hans Urs von Balthasar?” Then I’ll be escorted back to Purgatory by St. Michael while yelling, “WORTH IT.” For which I’ll get five more years, which I’ll also call “worth it.” Then after eighty years becoming best friends with Cato, I’ll get to come back and ask my question a nicer way.

Dammit, why, Balthasar? Everything I know about you leads me to think that you’d hate Disney as much as I do. You resent lies, and for you the most loathsome lies are the ones that seem the most like truth. Those are the ones that rob us of freedom. The ones that eradicate real memory. What is more stultifying than a fantasy that robs fairy tales of danger and parents and surprise? Dude. You love surprise.

Let me be clear: I come from a “Disney family.” My nuclear family, my cousins. We all know Disney stories really well, we’ve all been to the parks together, and there are even some of us who work for Disney. I’m the heretic who wants nothing to do with Disney and hates visiting the parks. A query about it from an uncle had me melting down in a rant about nihilism in the middle of Epcot Germany.


And when I woke up, a German lady was telling her pet baby deer not to eat apples.

I know my enemy. I’ve studied the texts, both major and minor. I’ve cried at all of the Toy Story movies. Hell, I’ve visited the temples of pretend, those strange, ritualistic parks that promise to offer another world. I don’t want another world. I’m not a Gnostic. And I don’t want a voice external to me telling me what right and wrong is, and I don’t want songs about believing hard enough.


Doing the good is not an imposition from the outside, Jiminy, you lazy Kantian!

What fascinated you, Balthasar? Is this like Heidegger again? A danger that you found useful? Is this like the Russians?

You dislike magic. For you, that means a human being trying to know or control the future. “Magic” like Shakespeare often meant the word. That old way, where “divining” meant trying to be like God. But we’re not God, and our glory is in not being God. You resist magic, whether it takes the form of pretending to know the end of things or pretending we can control the world with technology. So why do you tolerate the presence of Mickey?


“What happens after midnight?” “Honey, I ain’t telling you a damn thing.”

I understand that Disney – the company and the man – revolutionized animated and cinema technology more than once. I also understand that the animatronics at those parks is astounding. But still. That doesn’t outweigh princesses or literally all of The Fox and the Hound. Did you see that movie? Oh my God. Rilke could write dark German sonnets about that thing.


Rainer Maria Rilke

Which actually might be a point in that movie’s favor, but you are never making me watch it EVER again. Balthasar. You.

I forget what my point is because I’m all sad now. Look, whatever. You go hang out with Mickey. I’m gonna go hang out with the drunk snowman from Frozen, all of Captain Hook’s pirates (cartoon and Robin Williams versions), and Marion from Indiana Jones. I’ll meet you when the park closes after a parade, light show, and fireworks.


Has never walked a straight line in his life.


From “The Satin Slipper” by Paul Claudel

soulier satin

Le Soulier de satin (1929) is a play by Paul Claudel, a French Catholic poet and intellectual. The play is notoriously difficult to stage, and so is presented only rarely, but Hans Urs von Balthasar considered it the lone work to reach the grand dimension of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (see Glory of the Lord III). Below is an abridged excerpt.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you not recognize me?

DONA PROUHEZE. I do not know. I see only an uncertain shape, like a shadow in the fog.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It is I. I was there. I have never left. Your Guardian Angel. Do you really think that you were far from me until now? There was continuity between us. You were touching me.

Thus, when autumn comes how warm it is still! The air is blue, the swallow everywhere finds abundant provender,

And yet how does she know it? The autumn is come, nothing will hinder her departure, she must, she goes, braving the sea.

She is not troubled about direction.

In like manner, in a conversation, one who is all caught up and possessed by the conversation,

If he hear a violin somewhere, or simply two or three times in succession those taps one gives on a piece of wood,

Bit by bit he holds his tongue, he is interrupted, he is elsewhere, as they say, he is hearkening.

You yourself, tell me, is it really true that you have never felt in the depth of yourself, between the heart and the liver, that dull thud, that sharp pull-up, that urgent touch?

DONA PROUHEZE. Too well I know them.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It was my hook in the very midst of you and I was paying out the line like a patient angler. Look at it twined about my wrist. There are only a few lengths left.

DONA PROUHEZE. It is true, then, that I am going to die?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. And who knows if you are not dead already, otherwise whence would come to you that indifference to place, that helpless inertia?

So near the frontier, who knows from which side I can send you, back or forward at my playful will?

DONA PROUHEZE. Where am I and where are you?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Together and apart. Far away and with But to bring you to the inwardness of this union of time with no time, of distance with no space, of movement with a different movement, I would need that music which your ears as yet cannot endure.

Where you say, is perfume? Where you will say, is sound? Between the perfume and the sound what is the common frontier! They exist together. And I exist with you.

Listen to my being. Yield to the persuasion of those waters gradually unbinding you. Give up this earth which you think solid and is but chained down.

A frail mixture, at every second thrilled with being as well as not being.


DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, when you speak again I feel in the depths of me the fishing line, the pull of that straightforward longing against the surge, of which I have so often known the ebb and flow.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. The angler brings his catch from the river to the land, but my trade is to bring to those waters where I dwell the fish that is native to them.

DONA PROUHEZE. How shall I get there with this dense body?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. You must leave it behind a little while.

DONA PROUHEZE. Then how shall I do without it?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is it not now a little late to ask me that?

DONA PROUHEZE. Myself that corpse I see down there forsaken on the sand, is that it?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Try if you can again fit yourself into it.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Look closer. What do you see?

DONA PROUHEZE. Rodrigo, I am thine.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Again the line in my hand has unrolled.

DONA PROUHEZE, Rodrigo, I am thine.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. He hears, he stops, he listens. Silence, a faint rustle in the palm-trees, a soul in Purgatory going up to Heaven,

An enormous cloud-bank hanging in the stilled air, a wavering sun, lighting up innumerable surges, a sun clearly not the sun of day, the moon on Oceania!

And again, like a captive beast worried by the gad-fly, I see him between the two walls taking up his furious race, that bitter beat of his.

Will he never stop? Ah, what a hopeless road he has already trodden between those two walls!

DONA PROUHEZE. I know it. Day and night I hear those steps continually.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Are you glad that he suffers?

DONA PROUHEZE. Hold, dour angler! Do not pull the line so! Yes, I am glad that he is suffering for me.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you think it was for you that he was created and sent into the world?

DONA PROUHEZE. Yes ! Yes ! Yes, I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is for me he was created and sent into the world.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Are you great enough for a man’s soul?

DONA PROUHEZE. Yes, I am great enough for him.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is that the way you answer me on the threshold of death?

DONA PROUHEZE. Brother, kill this poor creature quickly and do not let her be so foolish any more.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What keeps you from going to him?

DONA PROUHEZE. This line holds me back.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. So that if I let you go . . .

DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, then no more a fish, ’tis a bird that you would see take wing! Thought is not so prompt, the arrow does not cleave the air so fast,

As, away beyond the sea, I should be that laughing, sobbing bride in his arms!

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Have you never learned that ’tis the heart that must obey, and not the will materially held back by an obstacle?

DONA PROUHEZE. I obey as I am able.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Then tis time for me to pull the line.

DONA PROUHEZE. But I can pull so hard against that it will break.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What would you say if I ask you to choose between God and Rodrigo?


DONA PROUHEZE. You are too clever an angler.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Why too clever?

DONA PROUHEZE. To let the question be heard before the answer is ready. Where would be the angler’s art?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Still if I put the question?

DONA PROUHEZE. I am deaf! I am deaf! A deaf fish, I am deaf and have not heard.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. But why this Rodrigo my enemy, who holds me up, why did I not strike him? ‘Tis not the line alone that my hand can manage.

DONA PROUHEZE. And I will hold him so close in my arms that you will never see him.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. You only do him ill.

DONA PROUHEZE. Rodrigo, is it with me you want to catch him?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. That man of pride ! There was no other way to get him to understand his neighbour, to get inside his skin;

There was no other way to get him to understand the dependence, the necessity and the need of another on him,

The law upon him of that being, different for no other reason save that it exists.

DONA PROUHEZE. Oh! And so ’twas lawful, that love of creatures for each other, ’tis true then that God is not jealous? Man in woman’s arms…

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should He be jealous of what He has made, and how should He make anything that does not serve Him?

DONA PROUHEZE. Man in woman’s arms forgets God.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is it forgetting Him to be with Him? Is it away from Him to be bound up in the mystery of His creation,

Crossing again for a moment into Eden by the gate of humiliation and death?

DONA PROUHEZE. Love without the sacrament, is it not sin?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Even sin! Sin also serves.

DONA PROUHEZE. So it was good that he loved me?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It was good that you taught him longing.

DONA PROUHEZE. Longing for an illusion? For a shadow that evermore escapes him?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Desire is for what is, illusion is what is not. Desire through and by illusion

Is of what is, by and through what is not.

DONA PROUHEZE. But I am not an illusion, I exist! The good that I alone can give him exists.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. That is why it must give him the good and nowise the evil

DONA PROUHEZE. But, cruelly dragged by you, I can give him nothing at all.

soulier satin NY

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Would you give him evil?

DONA PROUHEZE. Yes, sooner than stay barren and unfruitful like this, what you call evil.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Evil is that which does not exist.

DONA PROUHEZE. Let us then unite our double non-existence.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Prouheze my sister, the child of God exists.

DONA PROUHEZE. But what use existing if I do not exist for Rodrigo?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should Prouheze ever exist otherwise than for Rodrigo when ’tis by him that she exists?

DONA PROUHEZE. Brother, I do not understand you.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. ‘Tis in him that you were necessary.

DONA PROUHEZE. Oh sweet word to hear! Let me say it after you. What, was I necessary to him?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. No, not that ugly and ill-favoured creature at the end of my line, not that sorry fish.

DONA PROUHEZE. Which then?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Prouheze my sister, that child of God in light whom I do hail. That Prouheze die angels see, ’tis to her he looks without knowing it, ’tis her you have to make, to give to him.

DONA PROUHEZE. And ’twill be the same Prouheze?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. A Prouheze for ever, whom death does not destroy.

DONA PROUHEZE. Always lovely?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. A Prouheze always lovely.

DONA PROUHEZE. Will he love me for ever?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What makes you so beautiful cannot die, what makes him love you cannot die.

DONA PROUHEZE. How shall I shine, blind that I am?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. God will breathe upon you.

DONA PROUHEZE. I am only a brand beneath the ashes.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. But I will make of you a star flaming in the breath of the Holy Spirit.

DONA PROUHEZE. Farewell! then, here below! Farewell, farewell, my best beloved! Rodrigo! Rodrigo! Over there, farewell for ever.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Why farewell? Why over there? When you will be nearer to him than you are now? Bound up beyond the veil with that cause which makes him live.

DONA PROUHEZE. He is seeking and will not find me any more.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should he find you outside when you are nowhere else but within his heart, himself?

DONA PROUHEZE. You say true, I shall really be there?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. This hook deep-bedded in his heart.

DONA PROUHEZE. Shall he always desire me?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. For some, the understanding is enough. ‘Tis the spirit that speaks purely to die spirit.

But for others, the flesh also must be gradually evangelised and converted. And what flesh can speak to man more powerfully than that of woman?

Now he can no longer desire you without at the same time desiring where you are.

DONA PROUHEZE. But will heaven ever be so desirable to him?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL [making as if to pull the line]. For such a silly word you shall be punished here and now.

DONA PROUHEZE [crying out]. Ah, brother, let this moment still endure.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Hail dear-beloved sister! Welcome, Prouheze, to the flame!

Do you know them now, those waters where I willed to guide you?

DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, I have not enough! More! More! Give it back to me at last then, that water I was baptized in!

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Behold it laving and entering into thee on all sides.

DONA PROUHEZE. It bathes me and, I cannot taste it! It is a ray that pierces, it is a sword that sunders, it is a red-hot iron dreadfully pressed on that very nerve of life, it is the bubbling of the spring that seizes on all my constituent parts, to dissolve and recompose them, it is the nothingness I drown in every moment, and God upon my lips reviving me. And beyond all delight, ah, is the pitiless drain of thirst, that horror of dreadful thirst that lays me open crucified!

soulier satin 3

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you ask me to bring you back to the bygone life?

DONA PROUHEZE. No, no, do not separate me any more for ever from these desired flames! I must give up to their melting and devouring this frightful shell. I must bring my bonds to the fire to be burnt! I must hug it to the destruction of all my horrid sheathing, all that God did not make, all this rigid bristling wood of illusions and sin, this idol, this abominable doll that I built up in the place of the living image of God, whose seal my flesh bore printed!


Translated by Father John O’Connor (with the help of Paul Claudel).

Scholarly Ambition

The Leeds Library

If there is anything that I chomp at the bit over, it is scholarship. I want to learn, to write. And I’m bored easily, so sitting still with the knowledge I do have leaves me impatient and restless. I’ve been reading a colleague’s work. It makes me so happy.

My poor students are subjected to my restlessness. I assign them books I want to read in my work. I’m always changing the books when I teach a course again. I never offer them something at their actual reading level. “It’s important to get used to not understanding everything and still reading,” I insist. We read Irenaeus, Michael Gorman, Max Scheler, Basil the Great. I’ve learned to pare down the length of the reading unto strategic minimalism so they don’t get overwhelmed. However much that slows our pace, I don’t particularly care. I want them to walk with me through live questions. It is for their sake, but I doubt I’d be so damn determined if I didn’t need it so much too.

We have no teaching or research assistance at a place like this. Every year, some senior walks through my door asking me a question. (Why is it always a senior?) We talk about it. Then I ask, “Do you want to study this with me?” And we do. I pull out articles, excerpt from books. We talk about them. I’ve helped students study philosophies of time, of mind; Max Scheler; music.

They could ask me to study the death of God and I’d eagerly agree.

I’ve told my classes, with every seriousness, that they have inspired and are helping me to write my next book. (So ambitious, another book.) One that will attempt to understand what it means for Christianity to be a tradition. A tradition that encounters a world it has never yet faced. This strange world, California, and its profound post-Christianity. To have known Christianity and to leave it aside: Christianity has never known such a challenge. How can the Church be herself, yet flexible enough to greet the newness of her situation?

So I play them music. Lots of music. I am convinced music is a key answer, offers itself up as a fertile analogy. I’m not about to insist theology must become music. We need to learn from it so that theology might understand itself better. As the Fathers borrowed from Plato, so I want to borrow from music. (And everything else.)

What Hans Urs von Balthasar wanted theological aesthetics to be was an absolutely serious form of theology. He thought of beauty as that necessary quality of the real without which theology would only narrow and harm itself. Beauty does something. It opens doors that otherwise wouldn’t even be seen.

I am weary of “theological aesthetics” that spend themselves in pretty comparisons between theology and the arts. “Look here: theology and the arts are kin!” Yes, they are. And so what? I could do much of what is currently done in the field – my field – with “pure” philosophy, especially phenomenology. Where is beauty doing what the logic of the truth and the desire for the good cannot? It is no wonder that theological aesthetics threatens to be a corner of theology that speaks only to itself. Those elsewhere need not attend to the voices if, really, they offer nothing.

I want a theological aesthetics that does something. I think music shows us something everything else can at best only gesture toward. I want to explain this.

And why the hell do I think I can offer such an explanation? I’m not sure I do. I only speak with the assurance that it must be done. Someone must do it. I’ll at least be willing to fail. I’ll have to learn music, but I find myself oddly unfazed by the task. Maybe I refuse to comprehend it, or ache so deeply to be challenged that I’ve found something just impossible enough to soothe.

Imagine such a heart, though. The one that won’t accept a lesser demand. It is hard not be impatient and restless. Lonely to always lead with expertise.

Lonely to always be explaining simple, simple things. Of course I must; of course it’s good. My faculty colleagues don’t know what an ecumenical council is and it is good that they do now. But there’s a certain sadness in it, too. The fissure at the very center of my book: how to hold the depths when barely at the margins. How to understand what it is to watch my beloved Church in some way die, living only with the hope of the resurrection.

She does die. What else is it to watch the Brothers literally die away, or to be the only Catholic in a room? Conscripting Catholics – as I was, in a way – is but a superficial stemming of blood. Catholics will still experience the questions. What is it to mourn these deaths? To wonder how to love as they are endured? To care about how to keep the earth prepared for when the seed finishes dying, then presses through, alive?

I suppose it is this: what’s it mean for a note to endure while it dies?

Without f*cking Hegel, or Heidegger, or Rilke. (Well. Maybe Rilke.)

I want to know. Brother Charles told me I have a voracious appetite. I do. I like that. Plus “voracious” always reminds me of velociraptors for some reason. They’re even better.

I want to be able to write. I am, naturally, and there’s more freedom for it than people might think. Still, there is that awful solitude. I’m not yet sure how to integrate it into my experience as a scholar. I do not persist under the illusion that it would be all that different at some other institution. “Humans is humans,” I like to tell my students. (I torture the English so they remember it.) There’d be more time for writing at another place. That’s assured. But it’s really the solitude of inhabiting the massive unknown of the Catholic Church that hurts. Not the time. (Sometimes the time.)

And I do worry that my ambition will be interpreted as eagerness to leave. I don’t want that for more than one reason, most of all because it isn’t true.

I simply don’t know what to do with how it feels to be where I am sometimes. I don’t know how to describe the hurt in softly explaining that there have been more than three popes since the opening of the 20th century. It’s not a pain at their ignorance – well, sometimes it is – so much as it is a pain of distance. Of not sharing the very small things. The details that are a way of life. I work always to make them known, but I think I get to say that it can be exhausting and solitary. It’s true.

I worry that it’s the secret curse of ambition. Of wanting too much. And of bearing a melancholy, reflective disposition.

I don’t really know what I’m after here, or what to do. It is true that I’d never write as much from St. Mary’s. It would be a sacrifice for my students, and a freely offered one. I’m not quite sure it’s that. I’m early in my career, a young scholar. There’s immense vulnerability in it. Doors may or may not open depending on what I do. And I don’t know, always. What to do. And who around me could I ask? It makes me grateful for the spaces I am allowed simply to exist as myself rather than some kind of constant educationally Catholic presence. I haven’t yet figured out how to hold all that together, to understand the plenitude of being along with the pieces of my life that inevitably lack.

It’s a human problem, really. A problem stitched into being human. That’s not an answer, and it doesn’t soothe. It expands and shares it, is all. This thing I’m trying to say.

Humans is humans.

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.

Beauty, Writing. Illusioning and Disillusioning

“Untitled,” Zdislav Beksinski

Once I burned every story I had ever written. Literally. Then deleted the files. Or, I suppose I should begin in another place: I used to write stories. Then I burned them all. The act was at least partially inspired by G.M. Hopkins, who had burned his early poems on entering the Jesuit novitiate, and that was probably the only thing I liked about Hopkins at the time. What Hopkins and I shared – and I was much angrier about it than he – was a keen sense of beauty’s power to deceive. I had become aware, painfully aware, that my stories had become crutches, escapes – illusions. So I burned them away.

I also really enjoyed burning things and I was twenty-one or something, so I don’t put that past me as additional motivation. I wouldn’t even put that past me now.

Not a single copy of any of my stories exists. I think. Maybe a cousin has a copy of one, I don’t know. I like to think in epic terms, so I imagine that they’re all entirely lost and this delights me simply because it’s severe. Though I hated, hated the arts and literature – and took none of them seriously – I had a fondness for writing. As a very sickly adolescent, I had but few things to keep me occupied: reading, make-up homework, video games, writing. I retreated often to my intellect, which was the safest place I knew how to be. Writing became a way to play for once, to simply see what I could do, and it became a way to work through emotions that felt largely unavailable to me. Which was any emotion. At all. I had a strong affection for Spock.

The irony is that my career today is built on my knowledge of and sensitivity to the arts, especially poetry. The truth is that I love poetry, literature, the arts. But I didn’t know that. I was young and an idiot and really hurting.

I hated beauty because I perceived its strong relation to feeling. To desire, to willing. The Ancient Greeks and Medievals thought that beauty was simply an aspect of what they called the Good, which was the “highest” goodness, or goodness “itself.” For them, the Good was especially associated with the will. In other words, we want good things. Want and will match together. Beauty was woven with wanting. I knew something of this, though I knew nothing of philosophy. Feeling and desiring flared unstable and horrific in my young mind, twisted all together on tenterhooks. I could not bear to want or to feel. My secret life of trauma and abuse – I told no one, after all – left me wracked by profound distrust and confusion over nearly any feeling at all, especially desire. Especially that.

Once I failed a moral theology test because I couldn’t make myself read any of the questions on sex. I circled whatever. I literally couldn’t read the words. I never failed anything in theology. I have a fucking doctorate in theology. It’s funny. Kind of.

So by the time I reached college, there was a way in which storytelling – especially writing – remained with me as this single, unanticipated avenue to yearn and to feel. And that I did. I wasn’t all that great at it, the feeling or the writing, but I worked hard at both – and only together.

One central character was a young woman with four vicious scars across half her face. She herself was vicious, angry and half-feral. Dangerous with knives. Always taciturn, never cautious, never soft. She was an unsubtle figure of my own inexplicable feelings, the ones so haunted by violence and that singular rage that comes from violence. May no one ever have to know it. That peculiar, suffocating self-hating fire.

It would have fit nicely with one of those young adult series about horrible worlds that are so popular these days, the ones starring young women who are heroic and beautiful. Only my creation was much, much more brutal and physically marred. She grew up among demons. (So had I.) And it could’ve fit for a movie so long as I was never in charge of it. All of my stories ended with everyone dying.

I can see it so clearly, looking back. The young mind struggling so hard to understand violence.

I wasn’t that great at writing stories. My temperament left me far too impatient for a story arc, and I hated dialogue with absurd passion (so no one freaking talked). For reasons entirely lost on me, I had a strange talent for writing romances (and battles). More than one friend told me so. I’d blush and write more battles. (Desire was not okay. It wasn’t. Not when it hurt so much. When others made it hurt.) I much preferred building to some kind of harrowing image played out in intense engagement with my reader. My imaginary reader. The one I was trying so very hard to convince something was wrong, very wrong. Imaginary, since I didn’t think I lived in a world that could be convinced by anything I said.

Why would I let myself feel, really feel, in a world like that?

Still, I became aware of just how imaginary the infinite display of personalities, places, and scenes could be. They increasingly drew me away from the world, the real one, and I felt breathlessly afraid of the feelings I could not escape – and felt suffocated by a weakness for illusion that seemed especially serious in me. It’s not real, you know. The stories. They’re not real like that. They’re just stories. And no one turns out okay, and isn’t so wrong to think that anyway? I shouldn’t even symbolize it.

A lot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon folktales involve fairies, often women, and many of them reside around water. (Thus King Arthur’s “Lady of the Lake.”) They weren’t always nice, either. These fairies. This definitely isn’t Disney, though there might be singing. These creatures were rather dangerous. Like those sirens that had Odysseus going mad, the fairies would lure men away with their beauty and lead them to their death. It’s a fairytale-truth about something we all know: beauty tells the best lies. Why else are perfect people in advertisements telling me to buy things I don’t need?

Beauty unhinged of truth isn’t good anymore.

So I burned all my lies and with them the truths I otherwise desperately hid. I gave up on the last bit of art in me. Still, I fiddled with words. Couldn’t seem to help it. I met a friend who saw in me a certain talent, and he carefully tricked me into reading poems. At first only the very Catholic ones. The Catholic poems about Catholic things. Anything Catholic meant I’d read it for sure. Then my friend offered me Catholic poets who stretched up and away from explicitly religious topics. Then non-Catholics, atheists, anyone. By then he had worn me away into the sincerity of my love for real beauty. I started learning foreign languages and he started handing me poems in those languages. God, I loved beauty. And yearned for it.

Like some immense experiment, I absorbed everything I read. I mean the technique of it, often quite unconscious. In stories I had started to mess with the rhythms of words, and now I accidentally wrote in meter with no story at all. I made games of collapsing images together. Playing. Imitating clever little things on purpose, and many others with no awareness at all. So eventually I began writing poetry. And, to be honest, I was far better at it than I ever had been at anything else with words.

And Hopkins is the best.

My mentors in graduate school knew. I’d reference poems in class – if I spoke at all. They knew I had a certain talent, and that I tried at poetry, though I wouldn’t show anyone my poems save my friend. Maybe two other souls. With immense fear and conviction, I protected my small corner of art. Of feelings and desire. I didn’t want poetry taken from me, as if that old fire sought to consume my work again. Besides, I didn’t want to be considered strange or insane. I could do theology, dammit, and I was very logical and compelling. I wasn’t a sentimental idiot. I just wrote poems sometimes, is all, and fuck you for asking.

I loved Hans Urs von Balthasar endlessly. That unusual and brilliant theologian of beauty. I was such a hopeless contradiction, stubbornly against even a hug but enamored of theological aesthetics. What can I say? Scars do strange things to people.

My mentors eventually wanted me to combine the poetry and the theology, since Balthasar did something like this and since my double talent allowed me to understand it. I fought them the whole way. Partly I’m just crazy stubborn. Partly I resisted out of extreme (and misplaced) anxiety over whether doing this would make me “weird” to other scholars. D. Stephen Long said, “You know, it’s good to be different.” And finally, out of a very real awareness that this effort, this theological poetic, would force me to unite intellect and will – knowing and desiring – and these two I had fought very hard not to unite for most of my life. I knew, keenly, that this union would hurt.

It was agony. The words emerged elegant and calm, but the struggle to unite what even the Academy refuses to unite (intellect and emotion) left me ragged. I was fiercely determined to be clear, logical. Almost cold. Carefully, deliberately, cooly – I tried. And then I’d break in with yearning, bittersweet pain, beautiful hope. It was a kind of cunning, the writing. Ever so clear and aching. My every power bent to keep them – clarity, aching – close.

And through it I reached those things in me that hurt the most. The terrible, breathless losses. Everything true and real in me broke open and broke apart. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Honestly, I was also exhausted by far too many years of silence. Trauma doesn’t exactly go away. It hides right in your skin, lights up nerves. Still, I’m not sure I’d have really seen that in myself so vividly if I hadn’t been encouraged to draw together the two things I loved. Beauty and truth.

It cost not less than everything.

And finally, finally I could learn to stop lying. It has been a long road since, but good.

Beatrice and Kenosis: On Power and Words and How We Use Them (and Hans Urs von Balthasar)

“The First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Hans Urs von Balthasar loves the word kenosis. “Emptying.” It’s a Greek word that I’ll explain, and it’s a problem. It should be your problem, too. A problem that I’ll resolve by making it worse, telling a story, complaining in German, and all in all pretending that I’m not addressing a huge issue in scholarship in a damn blog post. So then.

Balthasar, the influential 20th century Swiss Catholic theologian and my hero, does not draw his ideas from nowhere. When he himself emphasizes kenosis, he is touching a very ancient Christian nerve.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

– Philippians 2:5-11

This poem of sorts comes to us from Saint Paul, and it is sometimes called the “Kenotic Hymn” after some speculation from biblical scholars that this may well be a Christian hymn that pre-dates Paul and he’s simply quoting it, or perhaps adjusting it. Or perhaps it’s not that at all. Either way, this “hymn” tells the essential story of Christ: the one equal with God who became human, died, and was exalted to the Glory of the Father. That is the whole movement of Christianity, all of it right there, an arc away into humility that returns again as glory because, really, humility and glory are the same.

So we’ve already touched the edges of the problem.

Kenosis (ἐκένωσεν as it appears in the original text) means simply “to empty.” Jesus emptied himself. The word is the lynchpin of the hymn, and it has long been a profound animating force in Christianity. This, after all, is the attitude (φρονεῖτε, understanding, feeling, mind) we are supposed to have: that of Christ, who was kenotic (emptying). So we should be Christ to one another, to the world. We should be as he is. Emptying.

For the Christian, Jesus – who is God – is humble. This isn’t a change in God; this is God. The remarkable feature of Christianity is its God: the infinite God who becomes finite, the Word who becomes flesh, not because anyone forced him to and definitely not because we deserve it, but because this is what he does. He loves us. Or, I should say, he is love. And this love – that God is – takes a specific shape, is recognizable and alive. The love that overcomes through humiliating defeat, the divine strength revealed through weakness. Balthasar will sometimes call this “the power of God’s powerlessness.”

If humility is glory – if the last shall be first – then we have an extraordinary inversion of what we thought was real. This impulse is what has Christians through the centuries embracing the poor; this is what drives them near to the suffering and ill; this is what has them visiting jails. In the faces of these people, Christians see their God. And so they treat these least with the dignity that they would God, and in doing so – in loving with humility – they show God to others. That is to say, we surrender to one another in love.


What, exactly, does this power-in-powerlessness look like? This could be devastatingly beautiful, as above, or simply devastating. Friedrich Nietzsche, famous opponent of Christianity, saw an element of Christianity’s inner power of destruction: by valuing the weak, he said, you make everyone weak. He meant this because he thought everyone had a “will to power” and should be able to dominate others if they could, and if they couldn’t – well, that’s your fault. It’s a more interesting critique if all we do is understand that powerful people do want to dominate others, and that this domination keeps others weak. Christianity, then, could become a coda for oppression. We love the weak, so we keep them weak.

This is all rather abstract, so let me offer a couple of examples. The first comes to us from literature: Dante’s Beatrice. She herself, and his love for her, animates the entirety of the Divine Comedy. But is this Beatrice, really? Dante met the real Beatrice twice in real life, after all, and she was a constant figure in his poems even after her death. Especially after her death. Well, there was a pause with Lady Philosophy, but we’ll get to that. In any case, Dante rather deliberately renders Beatrice in ecstatic symbolic forms: she is a beatified woman, she is Beatitude itself, she is divine love and judgment incarnate, she is Christ. So, commentators wonder, is Beatrice even Beatrice anymore? Or has Dante done violence to her memory and made her someone else? All in the name of Christ, no less. This gets at a certain problem of how to imagine other human beings when we look at them as Christ. It could result in some kind of erasure.

Or there is the more sophisticated critique of feminist theologies, which I will simplify here but bring to life with my own life. Outside of the arts, there have been many ways that power has reinforced itself by concealing its intentions in something “good.” Balthasar calls this “the lie.” It would take too long to list the horrifying examples of even the recent news cycle, so I will simply reference my own experience. As a young victim of violence, much of which revolved around doctors, I was often convinced to behave by being told it wasn’t that bad or asked don’t you want to feel better? My suffering, you have to see, was placed on my shoulders as my responsibility. I was crying at nothing, or I pushed away the hands because I didn’t want to get better. It was my fault if I hated it. Or – and this is more vivid, so feel free to skip down to the next paragraph – I was frequently made to surrender by sheer physical force. I can remember being pinned down and my head shoved away and then I remember much worse, and God damn if wasn’t some kind of surrender when I gave up and went limp. And it was my fault if I hated it.

Notice the perplexity here, which gets at a certain problem with how we use words to mask truth, and how surrender and self-emptying can apply to things that are truly awful. So for Balthasar – right, back to him – to use this word kenosis, to pair it with surrender, to praise self-offering… Well, it becomes possible to see why people might have a problem with that. Because these words have been used to conceal incredible suffering. They have. Balthasar still uses these terms, these ideas. I don’t see any point in denying these things.


The thing about Lady Philosophy in Dante (of the Commedia) is that she’s a lie. Beatrice in fact calls him out on it, framing Dante’s life as infidelity. You went and loved another woman, Dante, and she doesn’t even exist. The accusation of infidelity is described as a betrayal of Dante’s love for Beatrice, a love “that should have led you to the Good.” Beatrice, as someone who is real – Lady Philosophy is a figurement of a field of knowledge – is able to be loved in a way that leads Dante to better things, and only inasmuch as her specificity as a real person plays a role in his love for her. Dante doesn’t have to confess “I am a totally lost and confused guy”; he has to confess to her about where his heart has been. Yes, Beatrice’s eyes flicker with Christ-the-gryphon, and she shines with a glory we can easily guess is God’s. But these only veil her as long as Dante lies. When he tells the truth about her – to her – she pulls her veil away. (And the angels sing. I think there are flowers thrown around too. It’s pretty epic. Dante, you insufferable poet.) In other words, praising humility in itself or surrender in itself or virtue in itself don’t get us far. They have to be expressed in specific people and specific situations. Or else we end up admiring all surrender instead of only loving surrender. This is one reason why the saints are so important to Balthasar: they show us what the difference between wonderful and horrible humility might be.

To the far messier point about physical force, the concealing of oppression, and so forth, I can only gesture toward something important. Balthasar discusses self-surrender and kenosis all the time, it’s true. But we’re forgetting a word: “letting-be.” It’s inconsistently translated, to be honest, but still this further phrase (typically Sein-Lassen) is key. Letting-be is, in Balthasar’s parlance, a summary term for the free act of allowing someone else their agency. Letting-be is what Mary does in the Annunciation (called her Fiat, “let it be done”), which is both an act of agency on her part and an allowing of God’s action. In fact, letting-be is always a twinned action – the act of the person letting and of the person being, the one allowing and the one doing (or even simply existing). The twinned act of letting-be has to be mutual, then, or else they’re not letting the other person freely allow. They’re committing an act of force. If it doesn’t have both freedoms at work, it’s not Sein-Lassen. It’s something Balthasar variously names “demonic” or “titan” or “violent.” The archetype of letting-be is to be found in the Trinity, in the three Persons who entirely share one divinity. Here the archetype spins away from what is even remotely possible for us, since the Persons all offer to one another a specific relation of “letting be,” and perfectly share the one divine will. The Trinity explodes what in us is “twinned” or double – you there and me here – but nevertheless provides the ground of the possibility for our letting-be.

Especially where he goes on and on about kenosis and surrender, Balthasar either frames the discussion with letting-be or carries letting-be throughout. In other words, for him, surrender – the authentic kind – cannot be understood without Sein-Lassen. What is more, the surrender of letting-be is always to a real person (even in the Trinity). It cannot get lost as a mere concept, or again it ceases to be itself. It must always be shared. And, as with Christ, it must lead to the greater glory of both.

Obviously, my experience as a youth meets absolutely none of those criteria.

Real kenosis is also “letting-be.” Kenosis without “letting be” is mere violence. Balthasar actually helps us work to see the difference.

A short lesson in poetry.

Sainte Jeanne d'Arc

Poetry returns to me in small pieces. I miss it. My last good poem was dark with fury, so I’m not sure how many poetical words I have in me right now. In any case, my most recent poem is a short and simple and I thought I’d use it to point out something in poetry that is also simple, but very important. The key is a kind of “not-saying.” A silence with the purpose of saying something.

So then. Here’s the poem, a brief stanza:

I lay silently in the grass.
Arms stretched out.
All angled like a compass rose.
I closed my eyes.
The sun burned bright.
Hot all along my skin.
And I remembered another fire.
And Joan’s final word.

It’s neither the best nor the worst poem. I think it gets a bit choppy right about when the sun appears. Didn’t quite pull off the one sentence thing without sounding a bit like a robot. Simplicity is difficult, you know. Anyway: it’s a simple image. The speaker, or “me” – don’t confuse the actual me with the “I” in a poem (take that, Romanticism) – or whoever, lays down on the grass. It’s warm. Then the poet thinks about some Joan person who died saying something. End.

Nice, um… Well. Sorry about Grandma Joan who died in a fire? The sun sounds nice, at least.

What is all this?

If you’re familiar with any Joan associated a fire, it’s probably Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc). A saint of the Catholic Church, Joan was a young French peasant who kicked the asses of English armies in the 15th century, driving them backward across France and dragging that lazy punk Charles to Reims so he could be crowned king. This was during the famous Hundred Years’ War. She was captured by the English and tried for a number of things, mainly heresy, and they were very upset about her cross-dressing too. She wore armor, after all. This was seen as evidence of her heterodoxy for…reasons. Point is: they wanted her dead, and they searched for ways to make that happen. Then they made it happen. Let’s keep in mind that everyone is Catholic at this point. So Catholic France rallied behind Catholic Joan of Arc, and Catholic England captured her and condemned her. She was burned at the stake.

Now she’s a saint.

As G.K. Chesterton says of Joan, “The Canonisation of St. Joan came very slowly and very late. But the Rehabilitation of St. Joan came very promptly and very early. It is a very exceptional example of rapid reparation for a judicial crime or a miscarriage of justice. … [I]f we take the tale of St. Joan as a test, the really remarkable thing is not so much the slowness of the Church to appreciate her, as the slowness of everybody else” (from “The Early Bird in History”).

In any case, this is the Joan of the fire in the poem. The poem simply expects us to know that, and good luck making sense of the thing without knowing it. And what was Joan’s last word? It is said – with a fair chance at historical accuracy – that Joan’s last words as she died were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” The poem elides this into one word, but all the same: it doesn’t say it. It expects us to supply the last word and, even, the real end of the poem itself. “Jesus.”

Fun fact: my own favorite words of Joan from her trial, other than these, involve her response to her captors as they continually pestered her about the saints she saw and spoke with. “Do they speak French?” they’d ask, mocking her. She’d never respond. Finally, they pushed her to the end of her patience. Again they asked of the saints, “Do they speak French?” Right there in the records of the trial, we can see her snap, “Better French than you!”

Haha. Teenagers.

So then, I need to know something already before the poem can be a poem to me. Almost all poems do this – all words do it, too – reaching out to what we already know in order to offer us meaning. Words speak through a shared world of understanding or “text” (Ricoeur), taking advantage of an “echo” (Hollander, Vanden Eykel), since words have metaphorical ranges mapped neurally in the brain (Masson), and we arrive at the meaning in words through their approximation to other words (Derrida). To shove aside the philosophers and theologians, I mean this: nothing speaks to us unless we speak back. We actually have to offer ourselves to what we read.

You’ve got to know, or figure out, who Joan of Arc is and what her last word is to understand the poem. Not because the poem fails, but because the poem is being a poem. Just saying it is philosophy; not saying it is poetry. Both are meaningful, but they mean differently.

Now, if I’ve solved the simple puzzle of the poem – a simplicity that presumes Christianity in order for it to actually be simple, a presumption that fascinates me even though I’m the one who wrote the damn thing – I’ve got at the basic meaning of the poem. If I go back and read again, as poems always demand, some new details come forward. For example, if I don’t know what a compass rose is, I can guess a bit even without looking it up: something cross-like, probably, or in any case the speaker is splayed out lazily on the ground. The image is sharper if I look back and I am able to supply some of the last words of the poem to the first words: something cruciform or Jesus-shaped is there. The explicit comparison of fires (sunlight and burning execution) stands out more clearly, if not rather more strangely. Why in the hell would this person be at peace imagining being on fire? Well.


And to get that, the poem seems to beg for a specific way of thinking about him.

Not that it says what that is. No: that’s ours to give.

Oh, and, uh… *cough* I kind of have a book coming out about this stuff. In case you wondered why I could list a bunch of thinkers on the same thing. And please click on that photo above! Father Lawrence is a Dominican who takes the greatest religious photos ever.