I strode into the classroom and began speaking without taking roll, intentionally catching them off balance. “We’re starting over. So. Let’s start here: there’s something Christians do. It’s called the sign of the cross.”
My students watched me, befuddled. It was my very first semester at Saint Mary’s, and this was a liturgy class. Which is sort of like Christian rocket science if you’ve never been in a church – and many of my students hadn’t. The more I interacted with them, the more I could gauge where they were. Mostly nowhere, was where they were. Right. I had never before realized how much Christianity permeated the Midwest until I left it and found myself trying to figure out how to speak to students whose first thought at the word monk was not some kind of Benedictine-ish guy in robes – possibly evil, maybe good, but looking the same either way. Nope: they pictured Eastern monasticism.
I had to learn what on earth they thought of when I said a word. Mostly they thought of a giant question mark, I think. Besides that, there was the entirety of Christianity for us to try and understand. And it is a different thing to speak to people who can associate words with concrete images (if not also experiences) than it is to speak to those who cannot.
When I first learned about the theologian Bernard Lonergan – some people managed to avoid him while at Marquette, probably by some dark magic, but I did not – I was taught the difference between “general” and “special” categories. A general category is what is shared across different kinds of knowledge. A special category is unique to the field. Theology has a lot of special categories, ways of speaking within itself like grace and justification and Trinity. Those words either aren’t used outside of theology or have radically different meanings outside of it. So anyway, I was also told that Bernard Lonergan is the master of general categories and Hans Urs von Balthasar was really best at special categories. (This is an over-extension of an important essay in the land of Lonergan.)
My first response to this thesis was outright hostility. Are you saying the pure amazing that is Hans Urs von Balthasar has a weak natural theology? Well, your face is a weak natural theology. Really what they meant is that Balthasar spends most of his time discussing revelation rather than the the world that receives that revelation. He’s busy talking about Jesus, not human nature. Or, more accurately, he’s busy insisting that we have to think of Jesus when we talk about human nature.
Well I wanted to burn my copy of Insight in some kind of ritual of academic disagreement.
I couldn’t help the sneaking suspicion that having insufficient general categories was somehow bad. According to these folks, anyway. And by the bye: Lonergan doesn’t even work that way. Graduate students stereotype everything. It leads to a lot of unnecessary burning of books.
The critique of Balthasar continues even now, though from other corners of theology. I haven’t burned anything. I’m much more civil these days.
The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a way in which I am not the person to bet on when it came to making sense to the religiously ignorant. At least it seems that way at first. Saint Mary’s needed someone who was steeped in the things at the very heart of Catholic theology. I am that. But, you know, am I anything else? Moving from the center to the very peripheries is a long distance indeed. Sometimes I don’t understand why my colleagues did bet on me. I’m so glad they did. Don’t tell my colleagues this, of course. That first semester, I was perfect and confident, and not at all confused and frustrated to the point of tears behind my office door. Or whatever. My colleagues were right, though. To bet on me. I work hard to make sure of it.
Back we go to the sign of the cross. It is a Trinitarian, cruciform symbol – and hey! Those three things are in the liturgy! Yay us! Now let’s break down all three and connect them with baptism. And what do we have here? “Professor, my mom taught me to do the sign of the cross with the water by the church doors.” That’s fucking right she did.
Trinity. Paschal Mystery. Symbol. – Sacrament
Drop the mic and walk away. Or, really, repeat this stuff eighty times and watch them still forget.
I’m actually pretty good at this. Having to explain Christianity to those who don’t think of it.
I just love the stuff. I get a stupid kind of happy if someone quotes a Catholic or an old hymn finds its way into a concert. I’m not sorry, really, for that. But I never push anyone. I might make them acknowledge that Christians invented the word “person” (I’ve totally done that), but I won’t push. I’ll probably just laugh because we mentioned a Catholic thing and I’m happy (I’ve also done that). I think random acts of kindness are hilarious, too. So if I bought you coffee, I’m already entertained. Everything small does.
Very small things. There are so many of them. Small things that each hold in them what is not only bigger, but also more. Like that bread the priest lifts at Mass – everything, absolutely everything, is right there. Right there. And yet uncontained.
The Eucharist is unique. Still, everything general, or small, or anything at all is with and in Christ. Even your damn pen. That’s right, I said it. I’m doing something wrong if I can’t somehow find Christ where you are. I’m not walking a distance. Not really. The face I greet in the Eucharist is visible in you too. How then can I lift you up? Do you not see that there is more?
Perhaps not yet. God has long patience, and so do I. That’s one reason I haven’t told you what to think. Another is that it has to be yours. Really yours. Not mine. Or perhaps I mean: Jesus isn’t mine to trade and take and give. Other than in how I love you. And Christ in you. He’s right there.
I think Balthasar has a point when he says that people want to see Christ. That Christ is beautiful. So get out of the way.