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

A professor in therapy.

Eingang zum Palais de Roure

Sometimes I love the contradiction of my being: capable yet broken. Other times it’s just painful. I know, for example, that travel saps more strength from me than it does others. That’s part of what it means to have an anxiety disorder. At least for now. But that will take time if it ever arrives. Recovery and coping look different on everyone.

I know for a fact that, as able as my mind is, I cannot do all the things I am able to do. This is when I am most frustrated with myself. I can see what I could do – I could translate that, or respond to this article, or whatever – but I cannot. My body is too exhausted after a long day on full alert, or a flashback rattled my heart loose in its cage. I only have so much of myself to give, and much of me is already given to learning to cope with being myself. Whatever myth taught me that I can do anything as long as my mind is willing is a complete lie. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and the spirit is too.

Sometimes I rage in frustration. I don’t handle anger well. I’m much too conditioned to direct it at myself. So even being angry as I mourn all that I cannot do – even that is very hard.

That’s a whole set of reasons I’m in therapy. I don’t “believe” in therapy because I think that belief only has one proper object: God. But I do think that therapy is helpful and effective, and I think that it is so for academics especially. We’re already stuck in our heads. May as well invite someone in there to help understand what it means to be where we are. We all know that just being somewhere doesn’t mean understanding that place.

Hell, being highly intellectualized means that we’re extremely unlikely to be aware of other very important things: feelings, tired bodies, people.

I’d be in therapy even if I weren’t an academic with a fucked up childhood and adolescence and a fun history of mental illness. I could be a completely normal academic – whatever that is – and I’d still want someone to help me think about what it means to be thinking all the time, how to grapple with my inherent remove from popular society, ways to manage the stress of the job. The benefit of slashing my own throat just means I actually got myself to therapy and have a visceral awareness of my need for it. Therapy doesn’t actually require a bloody story to go and need it.

We don’t wait until we have a heart attack to exercise. Hopefully.

My hope for my own therapy is that it helps me do the things I want to do – including wanting anything at all – and successfully mourn the things that will never arrive to me. I can’t undo abuse. It has taken me a long time to be okay with that, and it’s still hard. I’ll probably never be able to work myself like some scholars do, especially if my workload remains what it is, and I’m not okay with that yet. I know I could be. I could really be okay knowing that I have more stressors than others, more because they affect me more. Okay knowing that will always be a part of me. I’m not yet.

My friend says there’s probably some benefit to the negatives of anxiety. I scowled at her and wondered what the hell that might be. She pointed out that I notice more, and more quickly. I scowled at her, still displeased. I’m not there yet. Someone else go notice things. I’m so tired of watching body language like a hawk.

I’ll just blissfully not know you’re upset.

Therapy lays to bare exactly those kinds of dynamics. Those internal conflicts. In good therapy, I get to determine my own goals. If I have a particular perspective on a problem, okay. A therapist will respect that. A good one will, anyway. My current therapist is very respectful of and open to my religious sensibilities, to the ways Catholicism directs my life. I once had a therapist ask my what “my God” would think of something I’d done. I crossed my arms and glared at her. I didn’t appreciate what I interpreted as a game of pretend. Religious people can be touchy about God. I didn’t have to go to her again, and I didn’t.

Some therapists are awful, and that’s important to know because therapy can make us so vulnerable. Many therapists are really, really good. They’re there for you when you are so very vulnerable. There for you when even the other people in your life aren’t there, or don’t know how to be there, or can’t be.

It’s not at all like confession. As a Catholic, I’ve been asked that a lot. Confession is for the things I know I did wrong, for healing breaks in my relationship to Christ and the Church, for grace to help me heal. The sacrament is medicine applied directly to specific wounds. Therapy is about working through the patterns of feelings that surround the sacrament, that keep me from it or lead me to rely on it in ways it’s never been intended for. We could say that therapy addresses the rush and flow of emotions that accompany me everywhere, including to the sacraments. It’s not about feeling God. It’s about being whole enough to offer myself to God. Baptism and confession address this in fundamental ways. So does therapy. We don’t have to pretend they do the same work.

For example, I never believe absolution when I hear it. Never. I think, “Nope. God hates me. Fact.” Regardless of what the sacrament objectively offers – ex opere operato – I have to do the careful work of learning how to subjectively partake in the offering – ex opere operantis. For the saints, this has always meant confidence that seeking God has a way of untying our inward knots. I agree. Therapy is a profound and helpful way to seek God, to try and open up enough to let Him untie me.

Christians also sometimes worry that therapy supplants religion or spirituality. It can, and it has. As with every instrument, however, it doesn’t have to be that way. A hammer can kill someone, but I don’t have to use it that way. I truly appreciate my therapist for being willing to acknowledge a presence greater than either of us can describe, a presence in the room. It is important to me, and important that he is willing to grant it.

He’s not Christian. I love that he isn’t. He has no particular expectations for what a Christian or Catholic “looks” like. That can be confusing for us sometimes, but mostly it’s a relief. Many of my knots center upon failing to look like a “good” Catholic, after all. Other people want a therapist who shares their faith. That’s fine too.

Also, he’s a man. I don’t trust women, not particularly. So that’s fine by me. Others want someone of the same gender. Whatever is comfortable. And it should be about what is comfortable at a basic level. That room won’t always be comfortable, not at all, so elemental forms of trust need to be in place. If that means talking to a man who gets what it’s like, by all means.

Something hard for me is talking about work, and since work is theology, talking about God has the risk of becoming a chance for me to conceal my actual feelings by talking theory. That is my favorite way to not really talk to people wherever I am. “We’ll talk Catholic and I’ll be safe in this corner right here.” So I’ve learned to use simple, simple words. Words a child might use. Other people need to be given a way of talking about that stuff at all.

What I’m indicating is this: because therapy is interpersonal, it is very flexible. This can lead to bad practice, but also to good practice.

I don’t know that everyone should go to therapy. I think it’s good for people, but I’m uncomfortable offering a universal dictum. Unless that dictum has to do with who God is. That one is actually far simpler than diagnosing what ails human beings. The good is more knowable than evil (which is unknowable in itself).

So, yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and difficult to have the difficulties that I do. Still, I don’t think that the extremes in my particular life make therapy utterly strange. Sure, I need it “more” than others. That doesn’t mean only people like me need it. Everyone needs to do the work of learning how to be open to the world. It’s not about you understanding yourself so much as it’s about you understanding how to offer yourself to the world in healthy ways. In ways that God wants. Because every offering to God is meant to give life rather than take it.

How much more wonderful that is after braving the depths of the self.

Being on the Academic Job Market

Saint Jude Shrine Baltimore

I have a few simple thoughts about things I’d wish I’d known or remembered while I was on the academic job market. They occurred to me this morning, so here they are.

(1) So much of this is arbitrary.

I suppose that is a terrible thought, but there’s relief in it. I wish I’d understood how hard it is for a committee to make a decision once they’ve narrowed a list down to its viable candidates. It’s simple to dismiss someone who doesn’t have the skills we need; it is incredibly difficult to discern among the rest. We probably missed things, and we can’t predict the future. We definitely didn’t understand what everyone wrote. That is horrible for applicants since it means there are a million things you can’t control, and it doesn’t matter how hard you work to overcome all of them. You just can’t. It’s also important, even freeing: it’s not all on you. That’s probably the most essential thing I repeat to friends. It’s not all on you. I’m sorry, and at the same time you’re welcome.

(2) They know how to read course evaluations.

Some “bad” evaluations are really good. “This professor was really hard” usually earns poor scores, but if it’s paired with other positives (“very clear,” “tolerated other points of view,” etc.), you’re fine. It just means you’re a good teacher. Most professors that I know understand how to read comments and are not all that fooled by pure numbers. We also notice when you’re missing a year or so in there, and wonder where the hell they went. So maybe explain a bad semester rather than hiding it.

(3) Get over your dissertation.

That’s kind of a mean way to put it. Still, I have never had a colleague explain what I actually wrote about in my dissertation. Usually it’s “Balthasar and the liturgy,” which is half-true. I really don’t mind if they get it right. I understand why they don’t. They didn’t attend grad school with me, and we do different types of things together. My work these days (aside from getting that thing published) does not involve my dissertation at all. My scholarly work has referenced the areas again and also moved forward. What I’m trying to say is something I’ve mentioned before: it is time now to begin revealing an imagination for other things. Being able to indicate this in a serious way is important both for future research and for helping someone see what you can offer to the department, to the institution. Mostly, that isn’t your dissertation.

(4) The judgment of a committee is not a judgment of your career, your worth, or your life decisions.

A committee can’t possibly garner enough from your application in order to really judge your total viability in the job market. There are certain objective elements you simply must take care of (finish that dissertation, for example), but this is not an insight into your soul. It feels like that because of the amount of work you’ve put into your career, but it isn’t. Let that enormous weight be left to you, to those you love, and to the needs of your life as it stands. Don’t let a committee have that kind of power of judgment. Don’t be blind, but see a decision for what it is and what it isn’t.

(5) Where that one sentence is will not make or break you.

Seriously.

(6) Do not spell the name of the college wrong.

Seriously.

(7) Talk about yourself in more than one way.

Even now, when people ask me about my book (then: dissertation), I describe it in various ways depending on what I think my audience can resonate with and understand. I always say something true, but I almost never put it in terms that come purely from the book. Non-theologian academics (in CA) receive something like this: “It combines ancient, ‘classical’ Catholicism with modern ways of thinking.” (Oooh, modern.) Theologians not at all interested in anything I do may get something like, “I want to understand why and what Balthasar thinks beauty contributes to theology, especially in the arts.” People entirely unfamiliar with all of it will get, “I want to know why a theologian, who is interested in eternity, would rely upon beauty, which dies.” (Oooh, death.) I can connect with Thomists, Medievalists, linguists, etc, etc. All by first surfacing what someone else already knows and linking it to what I know. And it’s all true. It’s a bit easier for me because I study a theologian who demands detailed historical, philosophical, and artistic knowledge. But I could just as easily not care to find ways to connect. The principle remains the same: connect.

(8) Know who you are.

You might have to make a list of your skills, your interests, your experience. Just for yourself. You’ll need it so you can sell your skills. Yeah, that’s right. I said it. But you want to point to what a group of scholars can understand, to what in you they might want or need. Hell, convince them they need it. Try to have some trust in who you actually are as a scholar, which means knowing yourself. Only then can you connect, move on from your dissertation, and so forth.

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.

“Remove your sandals…” (An essay on how hard it is to know where Catholicism is and isn’t)

“Moses with the Burning Bush,” Marc Chagall

I am almost always in the middle of thinking of how to make sense of something Catholic – in general, yes, but also in terms of the context in which I live. In California, at a small Catholic liberal arts college. Like everywhere Catholicism is, there is a deep struggle to really know it. A struggle that not everyone owns, and one owned differently among those who do.

Frequently, I find myself navigating between several senses of Catholicism while simultaneously trying to confront Catholicism’s total absence. There are stressors here unique to California, but we would be lying to ourselves if we felt assured this absence is not the case elsewhere. Catholicism is always a singular form, but expressed plastically – flexibly. Often in the same place at the same time. I sometimes think of it as Catholicism’s inherent pluralism. This fundamental complexity of expression renders Catholicism’s lack similarly complex. Flexible Catholic self-expression can become half-expression, or ignorance of Catholicism outside of its bounds may yet know something intimate of the Church. If we could map these relationships, we wouldn’t end up with spiderwebs of lines so much as various likenesses that resemble one another in different ways. A shifting span of near-infinite mirrors capturing near-infinite variants of the same image.

The image (form) is Christ. The infinity is his. The near-infinity is ours.

It is not so simple as explaining Catholic things to a world that has abandoned or never known it. If we are to be serious in our claims, the world has always known something like it. This is an aspect of what it means to be universal (catholic). Community, faith, reason, self-offering: people know something like these (logos spermatikos). Existence itself is made for prayer, and our very existence is – and can be made ever more – a prayer of praise. This also means that the ways we do not know bear a relationship to what we already do. Our knowledge can quickly become a weapon against what we do not. That is, Catholics can be more difficult and stubborn than non-Catholics.

I almost prefer it when someone simply has no idea.

Because Catholicism is deeply convinced that truth is always true, it has long expressed optimism about truths known outside the direct confines of faith. Science and religion do not oppose one another. This despite the cruel caricature of Catholics and Galileo. Beneath the deformed face is a religion whose members have often led the way in scientific progress. Beneath the myths is a Church that readily appropriates non-Christian philosophical forms in order to express its Christian faith. If it is true, it is always so. It is true, it is God’s, and it speaks to us of Christ. Even if we have not yet known it.

This does not make truth Catholic quite yet. I could be uselessly clever and say that catholic truth does not yet make it Catholic – a statement only clear to you if you are already aware of what that might mean. So what I mean is this: it is not enough to be beautiful, or good, or true to be Catholic.

What is easiest to share from Catholicism is that which the Church already shares with others. The verities of life and of reason: these are treasures that it is almost simple to offer. We must serve the poor, and this is a value the Church has given to the world. Because the world knows the poor too, even if the world hasn’t always known what to do with them. Everyone is of equal dignity, and this is a truth the Church has given the world reasons for acknowledging. Because we are always someone, even if the Church herself could be as blind as the world about it. These are values and truths that the world shares thanks to Christianity, ways of living and doing possible without it. Perhaps not as coherently, but human beings don’t always worry about that.

If these are gifts the Church has offered the world, it seems absurd to ask for them back. You shall never say the word person again; find some other way to articulate the inviable uniqueness of every human being. No: to say that is to deny the universality of its truth. (Even if, as happens sometimes to me, that truth is used against the Church as if she’d never known it at all.)

The Church is entirely gift, though. What of hers, if anything, could never be carried away? Surely there is something she has or is that cannot be known without her. Or will she, like Rilke’s Orpheus, be torn and scattered to sink into the world and permeate it with the presence of her absence?

It is not quite true to say that the Church has Christ: he cannot be owned, even by his own Church. And yet we can only know him through his Body – even if in some unseen mediation – because the Word who became flesh does not un-become. We will never cease knowing the Son through his humanity, through the Spirit that overshadows his flesh. How this works, I don’t really know. I have my guesses. I know this: the Catholic Church never fails to call herself universal, and yet she only does so by relativizing herself. (I have known no other tradition that is capable of both.) That is to say, the Spirit works tirelessly to bring all to the Son for the Father and the Spirit does not need the Church. The Church knows this.

There is an old Scholastic saying: the Church is the ordinary means of salvation, but this does not prevent God from using extraordinary means.

Ah, Catholics. We are so unique. But don’t forget we’re ordinary.

Still, it is painful sometimes to experience the strange poverty of seeing the Church’s riches held in others’ hands. Where this poverty becomes harmful rather than humbling is when these blessed hands that have something Catholic call themselves Catholic for it. To be able to agree with, understand, or live a Catholic idea or a Catholic ethic is not to be Catholic.  If that’s not true for Catholics, it’s definitely not true for non-Catholics.

My poor colleagues must be so tired of certain things I always say. One is this: if I’m the only one doing it, it’s not Catholic; it’s a Catholic doing something. I often say this when we wish to tie a ribbon on something and call it Catholic by having a Catholic or two there. Frequently I am one such human ribbon. But it’s not Catholic just because I’m there. Another is this: we need to be able to see religion as more than a series of logical and ethical premises. Being able to list Catholic ideas is a way of knowing the Church; so is being able to live certain Catholic ideals. But it’s not Catholic just because it’s there.

What, then – oh, what – makes us Catholic? What gift cannot leave the Church’s hands?

Being together in holiness.

The two things I am always saying push us toward this: it’s Catholic if we do something together under the light of holiness. Not this idea or that, or some Catholic talking about whatever.

Catholics aren’t individualists. They can be, but that in them is an absence of Catholicism. Many, many aspects of Catholicism are personal, yes. But they’re not individual: separate from the others. Even when you are alone, the Church is with you, carrying you. Baptism is a baptism into the whole Church with the help of the faith of the whole Church. So, truly representing the Church means unveiling something of that togetherness.

It is a togetherness lived not just with holiness, but with holiness standing before it. If the presence of Catholicism rested on the holiness of its members… Well. The Apostles wouldn’t even pass that test. And definitely not St. Peter, who according to Catholics is the first pope.

Catholicism is defined by a specific awareness of holiness. Sometimes this is called “sacramental imagination,” but the phrase has been used so much I’m not always sure it has meaning. What it means, really, is this: all good things somehow bear the presence of God and should be treated that way. Only God is holy. So wherever God is, that place is holy with his presence. And, for Catholics, God is everywhere. God is also especially somewhere too.

This is not a generic holiness or a pan-sacred. God can be especially with a place, or a person, or even a person’s bones. This is what is so peculiar about Catholic awareness: God is everywhere, always, and especially in many places.

If we do not know why monks would bow to each and every guest… If we do not know why Christians would go on a pilgrimage somewhere… If we do not grasp why a Catholic would fall to their knees before this wine and this bread… If we fail to see the reason Moses would remove his sandals before God… Why a Catholic would bow to the poor… We have not acquired the Catholic sense of holiness. This odd universal-specificity. Most especially in the Eucharist: Christ is everywhere, but he is here.

All kinds of strange habits result. Catholics will kiss books and cloth and tombs. They do not want to leave Jesus alone in the monstrance. (He’ll be fine; they won’t be and they’ll worry.) They will try and bless anything, and cannot be convinced to stop freaking touching things.

I grow so tired of sophistications that don liturgical vestments with no one underneath. We can use all the Catholic words we want. It’s nothing if Christ isn’t there. (In this way, the Church is never in control of her own presence – and yet is.) The absence that the Church cannot live without is holiness – the holiness of the Spirit and awareness of his holiness. That’s Catholicism. I am so weary of other things. It’s not just having Catholics around, or repeating Catholic ideas, or doing something amazingly Catholic. It’s the presence of the only One who is holy. Presence in truth and goodness and beauty.

I’m never sure how to explain it, this mystery. I don’t quite know how to welcome others – even myself, sometimes – into it, but it is essential.

On being a professor at a small college.

“Welcome to our fancy committee meeting at our famous institution, everyone. Where do we throw our money next?” – how I imagine the meetings go at research-1 universities

I have been at Saint Mary’s all of two years, but it took me about two weeks of being here to figure out that most of our faculty are quite talented, could move on to anywhere, and chose not to. They chose this place and these students. They’re not “stuck” at all.

That was the rumor. In grad school. That professors who never left the small place where they began either weren’t talented enough or somehow got too distracted. No professor I knew said that outright. (Okay, a few did.) Mostly the impression was given through career advice that included, “You’ll start off at a small place. Then you can move on.”

Meanwhile, at an actual small place, all kinds of perfectly skilled people didn’t want to move on. I’m sure our location in California helps, but if that were the only thing Saint Mary’s had going for it, we would have significantly more faculty transitions than we do.

I always wonder why.

My faculty elders feel a certain ownership of the place, have thrown in their lots with it. They complain about how certain things are not as good as the old days, and it warms me up inside because it means they care about being something specific. No one who doesn’t care tells stories of lament.

There is definitely a certain type of academic who finds their way to a place like this. Someone who cares in certain ways. Without realizing it, departments seem to select a kind of temperament: an academic willing to care passionately about students, a sociable and interactive sort, a scholar with genuine people skills (so rare!). Someone who doesn’t need a million things and accolades to be happy. Not that every professor is universally gifted at all those traits. I am profoundly shy, for example. It is simply that as a faculty, we’re far more articulate and friendly than many academics I’ve known. I wouldn’t go so far as to call us “cuddly”… But kind of, yes.

Or I’m projecting that onto us. I’m definitely a softy, and students definitely like to tackle me with hugs to watch me scowl and pretend I hate everything.

Students expect a certain degree of attention, interaction, and involvement from their professors. Unless the professor is willing to intimidate them away – some do, and I kind of admire them – students want a chance to write multiple drafts of a paper to feel prepared. They are significantly more willing to walk into an office and speak with their professor. They are accustomed to running into professors on campus – where is there to hide anyway? Indeed, so many faculty are willing to give the time that students assume it’s standard. They can be so aggravatingly entitled sometimes. Students who transfer in sometimes become resentful and assure the others that faculty are not nearly as available elsewhere.

You’ve got to have an ease with and affection for students if you want to survive at a place like this. They’re literally in our faces, bumping into us in hallways.

We have no freaking space. Our library is small. Faculty regularly share offices – including senior faculty. We have the one cafeteria, mildly expanded over time. It reminds me of Hogwarts by its size and age, the long tables and the old art. Somehow three thousand undergraduate students wander around our campus anyway.

The place is like a small town. It has all the strengths and weaknesses a small town has. Most people know most people, nobody much minds sharing except for when they don’t, and we have our own little internal language. Rumors abound swiftly and insanely. Once my students watched me give a paper in which I challenged a nun’s theology. That quickly became the time Professor Carpenter totally destroyed a nun. And I swear the next time a student tells me what all the other TRS 097 classes are doing, I’m failing that student. Maybe all of them.

“My friend, in her class they get to bring their Bibles to the exam. And notes.”

“That’s nice.”

“They have to memorize dates, though.”

“Hmm. Interesting, huh? How you don’t have to do that.”

We’re not the best at everything. As a college, I mean. Nobody can pretend we’re the most amazing ever and strut around like an idiot peacock, fancy and preening. But there’s sincere pride in a long history of excellent education, a long history of being very good against all kinds of odds. We typically punch above our weight, though unevenly. Pretty much everything in Performing Arts literally kicks the world’s ass right now. And I want to steal science’s best students into theology. Or at least borrow them for a minor, dammit.

We cost too much. Faculty have the heart to actively worry about it.

We discuss the classroom all the time. Faculty regularly trade successes and failure, everyone trying to figure out what the hell our students know and don’t know. Or why they do the things they do. We do all the grading, and I can never decide if I’m proud of that or if I want to burn everything and give everyone a B. Sometimes I wish I had a Teaching Assistant/Slave to do all that while I do something fancy and scholarly. Still, I like the blue collar academic chip on my shoulder that I get to carry around.

I doubt that at many places other than this I could be so open about struggling with mental illness, and still feel valued and safe. No one wants to drop me from the tenure line. My work for the college is very good, if I may say so myself, and while this is a community that can be as inhumanly academic as any other, for the most part it’s human too. They let me be imperfect and yet very good at my job. I also highly doubt that at many places I could lose my cool at a very, very important committee meeting in front of my own provost and live to tell the tale. And even be appreciated for it.

That still bewilders me.

Scholars can be vindictive and manipulative as hell. You have no idea. I’m telling you, you have no idea. It can be all Game of Thrones in the Academy. I don’t know why I haven’t been punished more for refusing to play the game. I suspect part of it is my damn soft and sincere affection for human beings. Somehow I get away with being pals with departments that have no love for each other. I also suspect it’s something about the place.

Sometimes I think I’m beginning to understand why people would care enough to stay. Why they’d freely accept a situation that will make scholarship harder.

I have a colleague who is downright paranoid about the possibility that some other college will snatch me away. He mutters about it to himself almost anytime we talk. I just smile. It’s not as if some places haven’t begun to test the waters with me. It would be tricky to acknowledge more than that. All I know so far is that I start to think, “But would I see Brother Charles ever again? And what about Paul? And would the students be as irreverent? And there’s Michael, and…”

And everything that isn’t things and accolades. Everything that makes a college real.

So I just smile.