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.

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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.

jiminy_cricket

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.

Mary Is Brave: In Honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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“The Annunciation,” Domenico Ghirlandaio

Tonight, I am speaking to some of our students as they celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is a copy of what I will read.

Advent has just begun. This is a period of time that marks the beginning of the Catholic year, and it marks a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. Adventus in Latin means “coming” or in better English we might say, “arriving.” God is arriving among us in Christ. We are preparing.

Catholics have a strange understanding of time. Strange is good: here it means that, for Catholics, every year is a time when the Incarnation – the Word (God) becoming flesh; that is, Jesus’ whole life – happens all over again. Even though it took place thousands of years ago, it happens again. Year after year, we celebrate what happened and it lives in us again. This is why we prepare for Christmas again and again: it is happening in our hearts.

I bring up Advent for us right now because Our Lady is fundamental to it. She is the first person that Jesus comes to, arriving to her as her very own child, carried in the secret darkness of her own body. Mary knows what it means for God to arrive, and she still knows. She teaches us how to know. Among many other things, her life teaches us this: God asks us to be fiercely brave. Incredibly brave.

When I think about Our Lady, the first thing I remember about her is her fiat, her “let it be,” her Yes. I imagine her in the dark of her room – I always picture this event in the dead of night even though Luke never says what time of day it was, but I think of the dark because the mystics of the Church say that God is a brilliant darkness – and I imagine Mary whispering her agreement to the angel Gabriel. I think she said it softly. Softly because many of the most wonderful and daring things in the world are soft. And what a world-shifting moment this is! Such simple words, and they are enough to change everything. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a whole prayer to Mary about this moment. He begs her to say Yes, trembling in that breath between when she listened and when she spoke: “Answer, then, quickly to the angel yes.” Her words are simple, simple action, but they require a tenacity that sometimes frightens me. I do not know if I can be that fierce.

Think about it: how much she gave in that moment! Not only did Mary give her very body to the task, but she also offered much more. Her faith, her life. Her reputation probably collapsed. Everyone in her small town probably figured that she’d had some kind of affair. This is what Joseph thought before his dream (Mt 1:18-25).

Mary’s life was transfigured in that moment, in her Yes in the brilliant dark, and it reveals the presence of God in a fearsome light. Surrendering deep and human things for God seems so hard, and even if she wasn’t thinking of all that at the time, Mary still agreed. This is why God loves her so much: when she acted, she threw everything she had into the action, even her own flesh. The early Fathers of the Church loved to talk about this, about how important her very flesh was. She gave of her own flesh! This is what she gives to her Son! I don’t imagine that she really understood what she was doing – what teenager would? – but that makes her more daring.

Did she even try to defend herself? The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar takes her silence in the Gospels to be a real silence: she left it up to God to defend her. She did not explain what had happened. This might seem like an offensive idea, like a timid response. For Balthasar, though, Mary chooses silence, and she does so because she is brave enough to trust God. Mary does the one thing that is so hard for everyone in the Old Testament to do, so hard for us now: she trusts. She is willing to be vulnerable, willing to open herself to the possibility of being hurt – very much hurt – knowing that she will be protected under God’s wings. Here is a woman who knows when to speak, and when not to speak. When to act, and when not to act. “Where words are many,” says Proverbs, “sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well” (10:19). This understanding of how to act and when to act is an important theme in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially Proverbs. Much later in history, around 1200 A.D., Mary came to be associated with wisdom. She is called the “Seat of Wisdom” because she held Christ, because she agreed to God’s wisdom, and because she understood the mystery of acting and of letting be.

Mary goes to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. She goes to be with someone who needs help, which is always where God goes too. In fact, she brings God with her to Elizabeth. That is, she brings Jesus with her. I always imagine that Mary went alone, though this probably isn’t true. I imagine her alone because I am trying to find some way to understand her solitude: it is lonely when you do something people don’t understand. So I imagine Mary walking fearless and alone on an open road under a starry sky.

Mary is powerful because she isn’t powerful. This is a Christian mystery. All she has is her Yes, and even that is given to her. But she offers everything and she moves quickly to where God needs to be, and in her everything she offers God. God has made this possible to her because she made room for God’s infinite possibility. Saint Irenaeus says, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary.” Mary trusted that God can do anything and everything.

Mary’s song, the one she sings after Elizabeth greets her, emphasizes her powerful trust. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she says, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Lk 1:46, 49). She even talks about how God throws rulers from their thrones, scatters the arrogant, and keeps his promises (v. 51-55). Mary in some way grasps that God’s entrance into the world always upsets world order, always challenges. God’s entrance into her life upset every expectation, after all, and challenged her profoundly. But here in the Gospel of Luke, she’s singing and she’s happy because she knows that God never does anything without making it new and wonderful again. I do not know how a vulnerable teenaged girl can stand torn from regular society and be able to see that, but she does. I cannot imagine the strength that takes.

In the East, Mary is called “All Holy,” and I am fond of this title because it stresses her active holiness. Holiness is not just a lack of sin: it is something positive, something good. Something to sing about; something to topple kingdoms. Mary angers the dragon in the Book of Revelation, threatening the dark order of things, and she continues to do so when upsets expectations in the Americas. She appears to a simple peasant, Juan Diego, someone like her, and blesses a persecuted people. Our Lady is the patron of the Americas because she chose to appear here, because she wanted to lift up the native people rather than the powerful.

Mary is, for us, a blend of powerful symbols and youthful simplicity. I try to remember both when I remember her, though I think her poverty and youth are often forgotten. But without these, you see, her courage is forgotten too. The incredible power Mary has is found in her willing vulnerability. In her very smallness. In how she didn’t know everything that was happening, but trusted God anyway. I try to remember this, especially during Advent, as everything happens all over again. Think of what it is like to lift our empty hands and open our empty mouths to God when we receive the Eucharist. Here is a moment where our smallness and fragility are made obvious: we have so little. But if we say “Amen” – which means Yes – and give everything to God, he will give everything to us. He is everything. He gives himself.

So let us prepare.

Let us be brave.

Thank you.

Catholic Imposter Syndrome

virgin mary night light

Maybe I’m a Virgin Mary nightlight kind of Catholic. Shiny and plastic.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’m a fake Catholic. Whatever a real Catholic is – it’s a natural question – I’m confident I’m not it.

We do have an identity. Identity enough to be hated across the world and loved across the world, serving in the middle of the world’s worst conflicts and standing in the middle of the world’s most painful scandals. In the midst of that profundity and chaos, it is natural to wonder: how am I a part of this too?

Am I really a part of this, or do I just say that I am?

If I wake up on the wrong side of the bed and the world tilts sideways, I understand that I am not as invested in the Faith as I could be. I understand it painfully. That there are parts of me that tell a lie. If the world is all at an angle that day, those parts ends up being the only things that I can see: my own hypocrisy.

I want to laugh and say something about Catholic guilt. Nothing comes to mind, though. And I’m not smiling.

I used to want to be a “real” Catholic. I wanted, very much, to feel a strong bond to my Church and her people. For me, “real” meant obedience (and, not very coincidentally, a rejection of the values of the adults at my parish). So I bound myself to the Church’s laws like hot iron, hammering down, feeling the sharp pang of the inextricable. The Church and her teachings – as best as I understood them – formed my thought, served as my thought, shaped my new thoughts.

But the Church isn’t a monolith, and never has been. The more I threw myself into what I understood to be authentic Catholicism – a blend of the Fathers and hardcore rightwing American Catholicism – the more I apprehended how the Church is not quite one thing. She wasn’t what I thought, even refused to be what I thought.

She lives. She doesn’t hold still, and she isn’t the unfolding of a logical argument through time.

My studies lit a fire and forced me by dint of my own obedience to hammer myself into a new shape. I will now either stubbornly refuse to say whether I am “liberal” or “conservative” – while quietly resenting that you asked – or I will say that I am something else. Not that I have a name for it. Sometimes I worry that this nameless thing means I’m not really a Catholic anymore.

A younger version of me would think I have betrayed the Faith. That younger version still lives in my head. I have a hard time forgiving her, and the feeling is mutual.

I had to give up a specific kind of certitude. If I wanted to really understand what the Fathers were saying, what Thomas Aquinas achieved, how the Church could develop and shift, I had to let go. Leave behind the iron conviction that comes with having a circumscribed point of view.

Everyone puts themselves into a box. What Catholics accuse each other of is true: the “left” replaces Christian thought with an indistinguishable modernity; the “right” thinks retroactively, and so lacks creativity. They’re right about each other for the wrong reasons, and never right about themselves.

I learned that I had to leave behind the forge work altogether.

I learned that God is uncircumscribable (Anselm), is the Uncircumscribed (John Chrysostom, liturgy), and yet so definitive that he can make my very life into divine life (Athanasius) – even allowing me to cooperate with that change (Thomas Aquinas). God is so definitive that my own little will, that small potency that is mine, matters fundamentally for my ultimate end. So uncircumscribable that ultimately the only word I can offer is “thank you” (eucharistia). To “circumscribe” something is to draw a line around it. No one can draw a line around God.

In an effort of serious agnosticism, Christianity calls God mystery. Unlike serious agnosticism, Christianity calls God mystery. God is known in a “luminous darkness” (Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa).

What this means, practically, is that my life in faith and my identity as a Catholic is comprehensible and incomprehensible at the same time. Never quite holding still. Never definitive, never quite not-definitive. I comfort myself with the thought that I have appropriated something very, very important from the Catholic past. All while mystery draws me away to a place that infuriates liberals and conservatives.

No, I don’t think the Catholic Church needs an update.

Yes, I think the Catholic Church needs to learn.

It’s her job to learn. It’s not her job to measure herself according to the standards of what is up-to-date, nor to measure herself according to her own, external lack of deviance. The measure is a mystery. The measure is Christ.

What that means, I think, is a constant striving. It means hanging over an abyss, as Hans Urs von Balthasar would say.

I do not really know, ultimately, if I am enough. It is not in my power to know. Only to hope.

Am I right?

Perhaps the wrong question.

Kneeling Theology

“Feet of a Kneeling Man,” Albrecht Durer

Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called for the return of “kneeling theology,” by which he meant theology that breathes with the life of prayer. It’s almost a stereotype now: Balthasar and his kneeling theology. A touching and fanciful idea, soft and perhaps soft-headed. I sense steel underneath the gentle call, however, and I grit my teeth like Jeremiah. I know this is a hard and unflinching thing, and I’ll not be seduced (cf. Jer 20:7).

I suck at praying. I am not only distracted, but also hesitant, standoffish, and insolent. Closer to lost anger than loving trust. I don’t blame God for the immense, even unthinkable suffering that I have endured. I don’t think God wasn’t there. I simply imagine that God will continue to be with me in that strange absence of his, in that wakeful removal that characterizes abandonment. It makes me shake, fearful and furious, to imagine enduring it again as it was at its worst. Something like it continues, and I tremble as I become aware of God’s persistent withdrawal in my life. I don’t know how to speak with God about that. Balthasar says that with prayer, we become “almost like inarticulate children once again, wanting to say something but unable to do so” (Prayer, 14).

No kidding. Half the time I drop to my knees in church and think, “Fuck you.” It is as if all the words I have learned from theology have disintegrated, leaving me only with what is raw and simple. I think “I love you” just as often, and the two phrases echo one another in my head in difficult, confusing ways.

Everything is clearer when I have donned the robes of a theologian. When I bear the weight of the role, the one that is still new to me and that I have instincts about anyway. My instinct is that being a professor of theology is a form of ministry, of spiritual service. Like any ministry, it has duties and perspectives unique to itself. The professoriate bears the scholastic task as its essential form: research, critique, study. Its spiritual service is highly intellectual, even necessitates a certain careful remove from the passions that enliven and twist other ministries. I do not mean that the theologian is unfeeling. I mean that the theologian must patiently last through feelings, must be awake in the tumult, watching and taking note. That is different than being the one to soothe, or the one to bless, or the one to carry. It is being in the thick of things distinctly. As we all are anyway.

I do not imagine myself as a spiritual director (or did you not read the “fuck you” paragraph?). I imagine myself as the one who asks why we need direction, and who asks what that means in the eyes of God. It may even be important, at least in my peculiar life, that I am not a spiritual director. That I not pretend to be one. It is definitely important to know that I am less essential than a spiritual director.

Still, ministry always involves other people, a ministry to someone. Balthasar must have meant something like this when he spoke of kneeling. “It is impossible,” he writes in Prayer, “to contemplate the word without the serious intention of doing justice to it in practical behavior”(223). Balthasar has a profound love for the genius of Catherine of Siena, and he likes to drop her into conversations as a sign and seal of something greater. Her genius consists in the thorough and inextricable link of love for God and love for neighbor. Notice what God says in her Dialogue:

…in no other way, can she [the soul] act out the truth she has conceived in herself, but, loving Me in truth, in the same truth she serves her neighbor.

“And it cannot be otherwise, because love of Me and of her neighbor are one and the same thing, and, so far as the soul loves Me, she loves her neighbor, because love towards him issues from Me. This is the means which I have given you, that you may exercise and prove your virtue therewith; because, inasmuch as you can do Me no profit, you should do it to your neighbor.

Scholarship is for others. I do not mean that the theologian must write what everyone can understand, but I do mean we should try not to forget the people we sit with in pews. Much more essential than this is what the theologian does in day-to-day life on campus. That is where people come up more often than not. How we interact with colleagues and students is an extension of our vocation rather than a pause from it, especially because of the academic setting.

I think of this often as I carefully attend to what another scholars says, even – perhaps most of all – when I disagree with that scholar. The Christian in conflict is always a crisis and a testimony. How I handle a parting of ways is a reflection on the Church whether I like it or not. What I struggle to know, the awareness that needs sharpening, is understanding when to dig in my heels and resist openly, and when to quietly listen without announcing opposition. My tendency is not to say when I disagree. There are times when this cannot, must not, be the case. I never quite know when.

John of the Cross writes about the “wound of love” that the soul receives from God, that sweet ache of being desperately in love. A poem of his, “The Spiritual Canticle,” describes the soul as “she” runs through the world seeking God, who seems to have left: “You fled like the stag after wounding me; / I went out calling you, / but you were gone.” And the world is filled with evidence of God:

Pouring out a thousand graces,
he passed these groves in haste;
and having looked at them,
with his image alone,
clothed them in beauty.

Jeremiah, by the way, lets himself be seduced by God. He and John of the Cross have something in common.

For all my interior struggles, for every painful silence that speaks of God’s absence, there is still the effort to seek him. Despite my intellectual sophistication, I am not much for complicated ways to seek God. I’m no mystic, and I’m too impatient and hurt for immense sanctity. But doing small things: this I can do. (Here is Thérèse of Lisieux.) Remembering a student’s name, or countenancing a small detail in the life of someone else: this I can do. It is not a direct confrontation with what ails me, but it is a confrontation with what yet may heal me. Remember what Catherine of Siena said: what God has given we are to use for others. I have an intellect and I know how to listen. “You’ve gotta use your talents,” my mom would say, semi-quoting Matthew 25.

I like to remember the Rule of Benedict Chapter 53: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me’ (Matt. 25:35).” I don’t know who my guests are except the people who walk through my office door.

I’m not about to claim that all this profoundly shifts my academic writing, transfigures it entirely. To be honest, I’m not sure that it does. But I’m not sure that it doesn’t. What it does seem to do is widen the horizon of what I might say, of what I might find. Because I might find God. Fides quaerens Deum. Or rather, I might find that God has already found me. I know that – and I don’t really. Fides quaerens intellectum. It’s okay to know a truth that I don’t really know yet. That is, in its way, all of theology.

The better a man learns to pray, the more deeply he finds that all his stammering is only an answer to God’s speaking to him; this in turn implies that any understanding between God and man must be on the basis of God’s language. It was God who spoke first.

Balthasar, Prayer, 14

Head and Heart and Brains (…and Words)

Zombie attack

“Calculating,” my colleague said, looking at me with a warm smile. “Whatever Professor Carpenter ends up saying, she chooses her words very carefully.” I felt myself smirk. Whether I liked the monicker depended on whether I remembered a moment when my heart had been there while I used words – or not.

I don’t know why I’m good with words, but I am. My mind leans that way, always has, even when my best friend had to tell me what the hell was happening in seventh grade grammar class. “You’d just doodle on the worksheet and shade in all the words perfectly,” she recalled to me recently, exasperated even in retrospect. I think I was classy: I was always kind enough to wait for her to teach me what I’d ignored.

That bent of mind makes me a poor study when it comes to actually teaching others how to write. I want my students to have had nine years of grammar like I did, a love for beautiful writing like I do, and an ability to absorb the lessons of good writing implicitly like I do. They have absolutely none of those things. I fret about that as a professor, worrying over both their illiteracy and my struggle to sympathize with it.

Words are a knife-edge, and with them we can carve a beautiful face or dismember like a surgeon. Words are powerful. And they are most powerful when they neatly come to a point.

See what I just did there with knives and edges and shit? Yeah, I’m clever as hell. It’s actually almost bad writing: it’s too well-ordered around its little metaphor, and threatens to mean too little because its symbolizes too much. What I mean is this: words are imprecise, and there are two ways to ruin them by forcing them into precision. The first is to remove everything distracting from a sentence. “Thou shalt not use a metaphor or a metaphorical verb.” Yeah, well: that’s boring, not precise. The second method is to use an image until it has died a horrible death of strangulation. “I have the perfect metaphor for this and I will explain each aspect of it to you.” Congratulations: it’s not a metaphor anymore.

But I’m not sure I’m being helpful in that paragraph. I know what I’m talking about, but do you? Have I made myself clear? And that’s the thing, imaginary reader: imagining you in a way that helps me write for real people.

This is where we return to the heart. Perhaps it is simply strange, but I write best when I have an idea of the emotional impact of a phrase. I speak best like that too. Words have feelings as well as meanings (or rather, meaning provokes feelings, and therefore so do words). When I hold that in mind, my writing is infinitely more effective. Again, I might well be odd. I always threaten to forget the heart. Words are almost like geometry for me: shapes whose proof is found in each other. They are interrelated sets of relations cohering together. I’m good at that, good at seeing the forms and relating them, and I don’t need to feel anything to be effective at that. I can even be cruel, calculating in the negative sense. I can build a beautiful but empty cathedral.

If I am angry, my words are cut glass.

For me, then, to feel is to grasp the shape of meaning in a way that can actually welcome others. Readers, listeners. And it softens me, soothes the edges of my creativity. I am first a creature of form, and the temptation is to forget splendor.

Many writers strike me in the inverse: immensity of conviction without a supporting structure. Words poured all against one another in a mess of paints. Restraint and grammar have all but vanished, making the sentences weird and long – or almost angrily terse. Academic writing, for all its insufferably boring contortions, is also like this. Meaning gets all lost in the face of word-using. Nobody remembers grammar here, either, even if they’ve also forgotten feeling.

Academic writing is horrible. Mostly the sentences are too long.

Having a heart for an imaginary reader seems to be a key point of departure in either affliction, the one of the heart or the brain. There in the imaginary reader, after all, it is necessary to imagine someone who is intelligent but not an expert, who needs something reasonable and clear. And if that someone has a heart, then he or she feels the impact of words. Can be moved or can resist. The reader doesn’t end up looking like one person, and the writer doesn’t end up with one solution.

So I should perhaps teach my students how to imagine a reader.

Oh God. How do I do that?

Mending Memories

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I know why I keep watching them. The handful of episodes from this one cartoon. Of all things. But I know: I know what it reminds me of, and I know that what I remember hooks its way through my brain and pulls – and then that broken part of me wakes up and steps automatically into the shadows. Tasting it, I turn around, reset the pulleys, and deliberately draw myself to the dark. Again and again. This is how torn memories live on; this is how we try to stitch them back together.

This kid, this young woman – Korra – has been captured. She’s important, this character named Korra, because she is something special and powerful called the “Avatar.” It matters to the plot, although not really to my memories. She’s a child, barely the age of my own students. This matters. She’s restrained, held in the air Christ-like in chains. This matters too.

The fantasy reminds me just enough and not too much. A threatening ghost. I do have specific memories of trauma, though most are confused and fragmentary. Still, some crinkle in my hands like something wrapped up and brand new. I remember being held down at my wrists and ankles. More than once, though there’s one time in particular that refuses to fade. To see something like it on the screen is to somehow to experience it without experiencing it.

korra poisoned

So I watch as the bad guys poison the child. I never know if it’s the poison sinking into her skin or the way she jolts in pain, limbs taut, unable to fold in on herself. Whatever it is, I jolt, too, and I never seem able to look away. Watching attentively, remembering… Something. Many things. They’re never clear to me, the rush of memories, but the feeling is exquisite: hurting badly while stretched out, fighting not to flinch.  Ex-quaerere – exquisite – comes from a word that means “to seek,” refers to the perfectly sought and found. Exquisite pain. Instantly, I know the feeling again. That strangely thin terror, frail and tremulous, unable to comprehend surviving. The feeling is the memory.

But here is where Korra changes and I do not.

korra zaheer

The young woman awakens in her most powerful form and breaks free, snapping the links of titanium chains. She fights, furious, wielding devastated revenge. It is not quite enough, and that not quite is something I know. She still almost dies. The poison eats away at her, and her enemy literally tries to steal her breath away. That flickers like something in the back of my brain – I don’t know what. The heroes capture the bad guy, and poor Korra is freed of the poison (mostly).

I don’t know what it would have been to escape. I watch her fight and lose and win, and this is to experience it somehow. To somehow dream of what it might be like to live outside a tragedy. She fights, and I see in her reckless anger my own. She colors in the details, and so do I: to have wanted so badly to claw free, the rage that kind of feeling requires, the rage that still sits there deep in my chest. Hot anger that conceals trembling fear.

She lives, but she’s still hurt – she’s not the same – and that’s a feeling I know too. Or rather, I know what it feels like to be broken until feeling itself seems to have gone away. It matters that she doesn’t make it out whole. It makes a difference, draws me close. I watch it again, that past and that sorrow living on in me and on the moving screen. I’ve done things like this before. Gotten caught in a mimetic loop. It’s something that the traumatized do. I sit almost helpless, obsessed, aching to watch again and again – and again. Trying somehow to safely touch the memories, searching for a way to escape them.

Mourning what did happen through something that didn’t.

red lotus end

How to listen.

inside confessional

Stop. Just, for a moment, stop. Don’t think, anticipate, or guess. Just – for a moment – stop. Listen. No one says what they mean. And it’s impossible to hear what hasn’t been said without listening to what has.

So stop. Don’t think of what needs to be said next. Nothing is next. Now is not over yet. Anything prepared will twist apart the secret fashioned between this moment and the next. It needs to be heard. The breath between words, the clip of silent elision, the meaning born in the collision of sounds.

What we mean is not underneath. Words are not veils, crimson and purple shrouds over unmoving faces. It isn’t that there’s no similarity between what I hear and what I hear. Perhaps, if I could touch the cloth, trace the edges and planes of bone, and in feeling know the face — If I could see that way, and if I knew that was the only way — Well. Then words are that way.

When we speak, what we mean is neither hidden in the words nor obvious. Neither within nor without words. Or think of it this way: I mean what I say – and I don’t. I do, I do mean it, but I mean more than I can say too. It’s there in the struggle, what I mean, there in the vacillation between what I say and what I mean. In the flicker itself as I find the words, known in the saying and the uncertainty and the more. What I mean is in the words, in what they mean, and in the meaning that animates their speaking. Tantum and res and sacramentum, all there and not there – and not in the same way.

Here is what I mean: it is so hard to mean what we say.

But we really only know what we mean when we try to say it.

If that is how words are, if this is the way, then my God: stop. Wait until the saying is done. Make room for what hasn’t quite been said, but which is still there in the words. This is the hardest, most important thing. About listening.

It is easier to know what I would mean, or what someone else what meant, or to wait with the next argument. It is simpler to forget our own uncertainty, and imbue others with false confidence. It’s work, listening. So much effort to let go, and while letting go to bend the ear with total attention. Poised like a taught string: not yet a noise, but fully prepared to be. Listening is like that. It is not thinking nothing. It is more like waiting with something, or everything, that might help complete the sound. Finish the word that was said. A sentence is brought to an end only if it has been received.

Listening is for questions. It knows what it doesn’t know – or at least that it doesn’t know – and asks.

Listening expects without determining.

Even when listening to a lie: all is waiting and trying to know. Knowing enough to stop. For just a moment.