It is official.

Well, I have my official webpage at Patheos and everything. There are still some bumps and hiccups, but the adventure has begun. I posted a reflection there to try and get things started. You can find everything here.

I will miss this place. My little corner shared with you. I hope to see you at the new place, though I know it won’t be so cozy. Having each other will make it warmer, I think. Change is good, and so are memories. I will cherish these I had here with you.

 

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Teaching the Trinity

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“Disputation on the Trinity,” Andrea del Sarto

Our semester begins next week. I’ve been chipping away at updating my syllabi, staring at the texts we will be reading together and imagining the incredible distance I will have to reach to help my students grasp the text. Imagining the infinitely further distance between all of us and the Trinity.

Many of my students will have never been in a church, ever. Dear God – and that’s a prayer – dear God, how am I supposed to describe Christianity’s innermost secret. That is one of the meanings of the Greek word mysterion, which is the word used for what the West calls the sacraments. Ancient Christians used to refrain from exposing “the mystery,” leaving that only to the baptized to know. The mystery is God, and God in Christ. Here I am, divulging the secret from the start.

But the Trinity remains a secret even to those who have the eyes of faith, and without those eyes the Trinity is only ever an interesting theory. A possibility or perhaps a dream.

Practically speaking, I’m not terribly worried about whether they’ll “get” anything from the demanding theological texts I’ve assigned. I keep notes on what we discuss, and I only test them on what I think they understand, pushing hard where they are close to something larger. We do not even remotely approach the depths of the theologians we read. I do not expect them to. Just surviving a passage from Augustine and piecing together some kind of accurate general statement is enough of a challenge.

Students are very bad readers. They are quite literal most of the time, and never know what part of a text is important and what part isn’t. This is especially so in religion. It’s all about God, so, isn’t it all important?

Well.

No.

But that is what theological learning is for: not merely knowing something, but also knowing how to figure out what is important in something.

I always tell students that, while I am a believing Catholic, I do not require faith from them. I tell them that I do not even believe that I am able to give them faith. That is God’s work. I am almost defiant about not trying to convert them to a damn thing. But that is the unsettling appeal: I fiercely love this thing, love it enough not to need to prove it to anyone else. And I don’t hide my ferocity.

Sometimes I imagine that the classroom is like this safari, this dangerous tour through foreign land. I am their guide, even protector. They have to learn to trust that I won’t let them drown, which is a trust that must be earned. So we wander along and I show them a lion, a terrible and beautiful thing, and I show them how to stand under his teeth. Always play-acting, in a way. Acting like a Christian and a theologian to help them understand. They may watch or they may join me, mimicking my movements or perhaps deciding the lion must be dead.

And what a Christian theologian does, I insist to them, is ask questions. These are the dangerous things I teach: how to ask good questions, especially about religion. How to cut to the marrow. This, I repeat, is what theology is especially good at doing, since every question is possible to it, any question at all. The answer may well be “No,” but we may ask.

I do not know what else I could give them, realistically speaking, other than this manner of “choosing out” what is most important and asking about it. And most of them won’t learn it. It requires too much practice to learn all at once.

I know they won’t retain most of it. I tell them, even, that there will be a day when they forget my name. But I believe in a God who poured riches upon everyone, and I am bound to him and by him to do no less. I must give the few coins that I have. Maybe they will come to these mysteries again. Maybe another class will light up something I referred to but never made them learn, or something we never saw together at all. Or, probably, they will have a dim memory of religion that was not awful.

Rather defiantly, I am thrilled by the wilds again and again. Repeating the gestures – teaching the Trinity again, reading the texts again – and arriving at what is always new. I will have fun with or without my students, dammit, and I’ll try not to begrudge them. God doesn’t.

And I am bound to do as God does.

It is chaos those first weeks. I am at my most excited, having forgotten how stubborn students can be. They are at their least excited, dead certain everything will be horrible and the readings are too hard and they’ll fail and it’ll be horrible, just horrible. I’d like to think I charm them into learning otherwise, beguiled by the goodness of theology and my unremitting kindness. Probably it is much more like I cheerfully shove them into the jeep and pretend they’re excited until they are.

God, it’s so impossible. Teaching the Trinity to students who haven’t even heard the word. Dear God – and it’s a prayer.

Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding.

– Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion (11th century)

Get ready for the blog to move…

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So, I’ll be moving to Patheos Catholic soon. All the paperwork is signed and such, and I’m told that my new site should be ready sometime in February. They asked me to create a Facebook Page for it, and it is right now so minimal I’ve started to wonder if I’m being a bit defiant about the whole thing. Knowing me: probably.

If you wanted to follow me with the move, I’d be both touched and grateful, and I would indeed recognize the names. I’d like to think – on my best days – that we come from some shared corner of existence that I don’t know how to describe, but that we’d all know if we saw it. People who love things, especially Catholic things, and find them very hard to love too.

Right now, my profile theme is a reference to Götterdämmerung (and ravens), and to Saint Francis meditating over Scripture and death. Yeah. So I think we’re getting off on the right foot over there on Facebook.

I will update here when everything is official. Until then, I’ll happy putz around here in this little corner of existence with you.

Poetry in the hands of a saint. And mine.

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“You’re not a monster,” the song in my headphones said. And I cried, strangely heartbroken by happiness, because for once the words seemed true.

Why does happiness do that?

I covered my face with my hands, hands that I’d used to cut the scars on my arm and across my neck. Hands that had just finished a poem instead. A real poem. Vivid with everything unsaid, everything fully mine. I have not written a real poem since before the scars, and however much I healed it has seemed that poetry left my voice. That all of it was register I could no longer reach. And my own book, published with poems of mine in each chapter, stared at me like a mirror with eyes I no longer knew.

I felt like I’d been in a horrible car wreck – a car wreck called life – and I could still walk but I’d been badly disfigured.

I had the good grace to whine about it a lot.

So I occasionally tried a poem. Really the only one that worked was a bilingual mimic of and response to Charles Baudelaire. (Because why be normal, I guess? Shut up, I love French poetry in French.) Clever, sure, but mostly carried by Baudelaire. It wasn’t quite a poem, not really, though it was closer. I could perhaps continue on as a translator. (Which I also love. Shut up.)

And then.

I was playing a video game. (Shut up.) It is called Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and I played it because I got it for free and because I really like its historical settings. My little guy and I ran around 18th century revolutionary Paris – recreated at a massive 1:1 ratio! – and I was enamored of reading about each landmark and then looking up more. F*ck the plot; it’s Assassin’s Creed, so it’ll just be weird and confusing anyway. I won and I assassinated a lot of people. The end.

My little guy and I also ran around Saint-Denis, Paris. It is a real town, and I was struck by its devastated basilica. The tombs and the rumors about the ghosts of kings. So I read about it: the basilica was where the French kings had been buried, extending as far back as the 6th century. It was a famous church, renovated as it was by Abbot Suger (of the attached monastery), and it is considered the first gothic church.

I couldn’t stop imagining it. This resplendent church with centuries of kings underneath, wrecked during the French Revolution. At two different points in 1793, the kings and their families were dug out of their tombs and thrown into a mass grave. They were covered with quicklime to secure and speed their disintegration, and their riches were robbed and sold. What survives now does so because of an insightful museum curator. The French call these events La profanation des tombes royales de la basilique Saint-Denis.

The profanation. The desecration.

Emptying the very earth of history, unburying the dead: what anger that took, and what agony. So much destroyed forever. As if being rid of the bones would somehow rid France of its royal past. As if time itself could be dug up from its roots.

Is this how tradition dies? Is it murdered? Is this what I watch, helpless, on my own campus?

Then I read about Saint Denis himself, whose relics are still there. He is the patron of Paris, and he was bishop there in the third century, when all was still under the Roman Empire. Denis was beheaded during a persecution of Christians, and it is said that his body took his head and carried it all the way to where Saint-Denis is now, preaching repentance the whole way before he came to die.

My first reaction to the hagiography was, “That. Happened.”  Something child-like and defiant in me somehow refuses to die. I frequently sass students about these miracles by saying, “Prove it didn’t happen.” Just to push. Twist my arm and I’d say it’s more likely that an alternate tradition claiming Denis was thrown in the Seine is probably more accurate. Probably. But hagiography isn’t history, and there is something in them that needs to be trusted or else the saint vanishes away. Denis carried his damn head because that’s important somehow.

All these bones and decapitations looked like a poem to me. I don’t know why. They just did: a poem was in there if I could manage to put it together. I was so excited. I had found a poem.

So then. I won’t explain the poem, which is below. I also won’t describe the drastic editing. I think both destroy the chance to be a reader. But I’ll list a couple of details:

  • I liked making Saint Denis’s head on fire.
  • I read that Saint Denis was confused with Dionysius the Areopagite (aka “Pseudo-Dionysius”) in the Middle Ages. They were considered the same person – both Denis! So I deliberately borrowed images from Dionysius.
  • I directly quote GM Hopkins somewhere in there, if you can find it.

I wrote a f*cking poem. A real one. I don’t know everything it means, but I don’t have to know. I could cry, because I at least know it means that I am not only scars. And dying doesn’t mean staying dead.

Saint Denis, 1793

Saint Paul died like this, head cut clean off.
But he didn’t get up and walk as I do,
rising over the bloody sword at my feet,
head held in my hands as I move through

the brilliant dark. My eyes burn with holy fire,
and I am living and I am dead, head held
at my heart. I am both and I am neither,
body of a church that bears the head

leading on. I am dusk and I am dawn;
like a lantern I see on to where
God bids me to live and to die. I am drawn
where God bids my bones be crucified.

The church grows around me like a stone tree,
and in her cool shadows she collects
the royal dead. She gathers gold and silver
and with them she bends herself to elegance.

Everything pulls the eyes upward,
all glittering. Archways twine together
in the warm blood of the setting sun.
As under the carved limbs all gazes are set down

to the stone and marble that stares back at them.
The sightless eyes of the semblanced dead
that watch as they are all unhoused
of the figures they were shaped to vigil over.

There will be no kings for the people now.
There will be no bones. Throw them down
together to the dark. They with their empty eyes
and silent jaws, unable to object as they are buried

in a shower of powdered fire.
They lived once and they died,
and now their likenesses are the choir
present for a second death, which is to forget.

Now there is nothing behind these gathered stone eyes.
And my hollow gaze is fiery dark,
solitary witness to death and to life,
likeness of living one as slain.

God bids me up; Lord of living and dead.
God who makes from chaos and void.
And God bids me rise again in death,
for he has made even an empty tomb his sign.

(c) Anne M. Carpenter

For life.

Byzantine Art

I almost killed my mother when I was born. This fact has followed me always, always, and I thought of it as I curled at my mother’s feet shortly after Christmas. She lay huddled in a chair under a blanket, head throbbing because of a ruptured blood vessel in her eye. It leaves her vision half-blurry, and the strain exhausts and pains her.  The rupture itself emerged from a long-hidden weakness in her vessels from when I was born. It’ll heal, but it takes a while. I reached up and touched her arm, hurting for her.

“Because of me,” I said in a low voice.

“No, Anne,” my mother answered, eyes closed. “You didn’t do it.”

“An instrumental cause, then,” I said. “Or material.” I had looked up Aristotelian causes earlier that week, reminding myself of them, trying to trace the delicate lines of the guilt I felt. I do not feel as if I did anything with my own hands. That almost makes it worse, because it’s harder to understand.

My mother’s retinas detached when I was born. Her blood pressure rocketed because she was sick; because she was suffering from preeclampsia, which threatens mother and child. Her kidneys had shut down. Her limbs had swollen with fluid and she was blind. Her liver threatened to shut down too.

I was born via C-section at 28 weeks. That’s three months early. I weighed two pounds and eight ounces, and I quickly lost those ounces. I stayed in the hospital long after my mother recovered.

It is hard for me to imagine how terrifying it was, and my parents don’t talk about that part. It’s hard for me to remember what knowing all this meant for me when I was young. My aunts and uncles on my mother’s side always said, “I thought you were gonna die.” My mom would always look at me and say, “I knew you’d live.” Her confidence always soothed a strange ache in my heart.

Something in the stories always hurt.

I cannot imagine how much love it took for my mother to insist I be baptized. A deacon did it the second I was born. In case I died. A Jesuit once suggested to me that my parents were being peasants subject to mythological thinking to have me baptized. It is the only time I almost punched a Jesuit. It matters to me that the first touch I felt was the water of baptism as doctors and nurses carried me away. It matters to me that it mattered to them.

And I cannot imagine what it took for my mother to make my dad, a young man, promise that I would come first. If she had to die so I could live, she had no doubt what she wanted to do. My mother is many things, and always brave.

We almost died. The both of us. I almost took her away from my dad, and my siblings away from all of us. Just by being born.

I still suffer because I was born that early. My mother still suffers for me. I can’t wrap it in a tidy box of meaning, a grand fable of maternal sacrifice and cruciformity. Like a music box under torn wrapping paper. It’s complicated, with lost edges and broken notes. It doesn’t fit neatly, doesn’t entirely soothe.

And I wish being born didn’t hurt me for the rest of my life, but it does. Or hurt my mother for the rest of hers, but it does that too.

My birthday arrives sometime soon, and thirty-two years later I can hardly grasp what it means to look in my mother’s wounded eyes and know it’s because of me. I don’t know how to mourn the loss of a regular birth story. I’ve never had one, and I can’t picture what I’m missing aside from this: not being a threat to my mother. I wonder what that is like. To have been born that way. Unremarkable.

My mother sees me entirely as a gift, but it’s hard not to see the fullness of the truth, which is more shadowed. Her love made her blind, and it makes her blind still.

Good things are very hard, even mixed with violence that no one intended. It’s no one’s fault, and that’s almost harder. I don’t want to have died, and I don’t want my mother to have suffered. But these opposing wishes would not have prevented each other. Sometimes we pretend as if medical science can absolve us of the mystery of motherhood. Of being a child.

They wanted my mother to abort me, and I’m glad she didn’t. But I know what they were trying to protect her from, and it was me. We don’t have words for this. For whatever this is.

I don’t know how to say it. What it means to have been born and to have almost killed my mother.

Hans Urs von Balthasar and Mickey Mouse

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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.

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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.

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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?

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“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.

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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.

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Has never walked a straight line in his life.

Meditation on Teaching – Jean-Baptiste de La Salle

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[Your students] are a letter which Christ dictates to you, which you write each day in their hearts, not with ink, but by the Spirit of the living God. For the Spirit acts in you and by you through the power of Jesus Christ. …

In order to fulfill your responsibility with as much perfection and care as God requires of you, frequently give yourself to the Spirit of our Lord to act only under his influence and not through any self-seeking. This Holy Spirit, then, will fill your students with Himself, and they will be able to possess fully the Christian spirit.

All your care for the children entrusted to you would be useless if Jesus Christ himself did not give the power, the quality, and the energy that is needed to render your care useful. “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself (our Lord says), unless it remains attached to the vine, so neither can you bear fruit, if you do not remain in me. This will be the glory of My Father, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” …

Jesus Christ wants you to understand from this comparison that the more your work is energized by him, the more it will produce good in your disciples. This is why you must ask him earnestly that all your teaching be energized by his Spirit and draw all its power from him. Just as he is the one who gives light to everyone coming into the world, he also gives light to the spirit of your students and leads them to love and to practise the good that you teach them.

St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (d. 1719)