The everything to explain.

reverencing the altar

Alright, everyone. Why is the guy kissing the table?

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.


From the other side of the interview table.

Indiana Jones

Just imagine all the times you won’t do anything like this in your time as a professor.

I’ve been in a tenure-track faculty position for all of two years now, so my memories of the hellish job market are still fresh. In my time on the job, I’ve served on a department-level hiring search and a school/college-level hiring search. (And my department is preparing for an important tenure-track hire this year.) The vulnerability y’all feel – I know. It’s hard, and I know, and I’m sorry. I have a small offering for you. This is a simple list of what I want to say to folks I’ve interviewed:

(1) I know when you’re lying. Seriously. So don’t.

(2) It isn’t in your control, most of this. What we need, how you fit, the way we understand you, the decisions we make. Most of it isn’t in your hands. It’s not even in ours. I’m sorry. This is the simple truth. Just remember – if we say No, it’s not only on you.

(3) Be positive. Say what you like, what works, what you look forward to. Try not to complain, say what you’re against, etc. You might accidentally offend someone, yes, but mostly it’s hard to know how to interpret negativity. So avoid it.

(4) Please, please know how to answer questions about diversity in the classroom. And please remember #1 when you discuss it.

(5) I might know almost nothing about what you do. How you explain what you do means everything to me. I can picture that in a classroom, in a meeting, on campus. You designing courses, or changing courses, or working with others. That’s what I’m trying to picture, really. You, as my colleague, working with me to do what we do: running a freaking college.

(6) And that’s really the thing I need for you to picture: a career, not a dissertation; cranky students, not experts; colleagues, not classmates. If you’re new on the job market, this is the hardest transition to make. If you’re not, it’s still hard. It doesn’t mean having your life planned out. One of the things it means is being able to think outside of what you’ve done recently or where you are now, and it is – so far – the thing candidates struggle with the most.


Dante 2

Oh. That’s right: I’m rather competent at some things. I forget even the feel of it in the middle of the shiver and snap of suffering – and of my memories of suffering. I lose the quiet assurance of strength gently used. And the inner mystery of both living equally real under the same skin was not lost on me as I raised my hand to emphasize a theological idea – the same hand that has marked the other arm with scars. The same hand that carefully marks pages with notes; the one that slid a knife across my throat.

I can almost hear it in my own voice, like some scar living in the sound of elegance matched with pain. I am able to speak very beautifully. I know. And I know what it is like to scream, hands over ears, unable to tell the difference between then and now.

There was a stillness, though, this time. The steadiness itself more real. It wasn’t lost on me as I spent time with some of my favorite scholars, listening to papers, avoiding papers, giving my own paper. (Theologians like papers.) I liked my paper, mostly. I thought it worked. A good beginning for a much bigger thing. A book. I actually liked my own damn paper and I wanted other scholars to hear it, to help me with it.

Some of it employed trauma as a metaphor. I explained it to fellow scholars, describing but never referencing an experience that of course I know all too well. Still, only small tokens of its elements arrived in the context of ideas much larger. Plural and in their place. Helping rather than hurting. Not like trauma usually is, looming and omnipresent as on a bad morning after nightmares, or in the middle of a triggered dissociative moment. Sure, later that night I heard a goddamn beep – I hate them so much – innocent in an ice cream shop. And instantly I vanished to awful places and I did not like it one bit. Sure, that happened. But I remembered the softness of the strength from before and held on to it.

Sometimes the very hard things are one voice among many and it is simply miraculous. I cannot help but smile – even at contradictions. I am a perfectly capable scholar and I speak well and I’m a little broken in the mind – the mind that works wonderfully and does not. As if the word and could mean a redemption of some kind. It does, though. Sometimes the trauma and its kin, those awful places etched in neurons and nerves, are not the only sound in my head. And the gathered choir makes meaning of unspeakable other things, even meaning without them.

My hands shook a little since my medicine still gives them tremors. I felt annoyed and sure my audience could see it, and that they’d interpret it as nerves. But I was fine, dammit. In fact, I thought I was good. My two favorite scholars really liked it and that seems perfect to me. A place among many. Or two.

I’m grateful to be able to hear more than one tone of feeling – even if the hearing isn’t always there. I like being able to listen and remember. Really remember what someone else has said. I have been to unspeakably dark places, but there are many more.

And probably tomorrow I’ll brood and struggle all over again. We can be in more than one place at the same time, I suppose.

Confessions of the Neither Left Nor Right (Nor Up Nor Down)

"a dog is not a toy," by Paul Stumpr

“a dog is not a toy,” by Paul Stumpr (Flickr)

I suppose, if forced to collapse to the left or the right of Catholicism, I’d scowl slightly and twitch to the right. But I’d resent being compelled. I admit I have a panic button that, when struck, makes me look a lot like a toddler with plush doll versions of Ireneaus, the Virgin Mary, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante, hugging them close and yelling, “BUT I NEED THEM ALL FOR THE CAR RIDE!”

I’ll not be very easily or pleasantly unhanded of the great theologians of the tradition. (Yes, Mary was one of them.)

My stubborn clutch of the past makes me something like a conservative, I guess. If by that we mean “someone who likes old things.” I do like old things. Hell yes. If it means “against change and development,” I don’t even think that’s possible for a Catholic. And if it means “angry/stupid,” I honestly don’t remember signing up for that one at my baptism. Not that I remember my baptism. I’m just saying: my baptism is carried along by all the baptized who have come before me. So I like old things, yes.

All the same, tradition without conscientious engagement with the present is no longer itself. Jesus did not say to the Apostles, “Go therefore and ignore people.” The strange adventure of faith means, somehow, a consistency with its origins that is at the same time creative and new. Now, we might well disagree on what that looks like – tell me I can’t bring plush Saint Benedict along and watch me throw a fit – but we must at least agree that faith has to live. That it cannot simply look “the same,” since that ends up being code for “my favorite century of Catholic history.” We are responsible for all the centuries. Including this one.

Which is, I suppose, what the left is said to wear on its banner. So I guess I’m twitching left now. I don’t know: I have two hands, a left and a right. Are we talking about my hands? I have two. You have two, I hope. And if you don’t, you will in Heaven.

I don’t know what side I’m on. I want to be on Christ’s side. “O good Jesus, hear me; within thy wounds hide me; suffer me not to be separated from Thee,” as the Anima Christi says. That seems like a great side to be on, whatever it looks like. And I will suggest only that it looks like Christ. I will add that it probably does not look like us.

I mean, I wouldn’t attend a parish I myself ran. I know that much.

I find them all rather useless, these old little boxes people keep trying to stuff each other into for some reason. I guess it’s easier than facing how complicated the Church and her people are. In any case, I know I’m small, but I freaking hate being shoved into a locker. Stop it. I’m not a freshman in high school anymore, and when I was, the practice amongst the senior girls was to hiss at freshmen girls. Which was just…weird, and not all that frightening.

It might be healthier to think of loving soft things like a toddler does instead of choosing sides. Not to mention it’s infinitely cuter. Essentially, the first and last principle of Christian thought is charity. If that is not what drives what we say and how it reaches others, I’m not sure what we’re doing.

I’m not saying “let’s all get along,” though that would be nice. I am saying we ought to think seriously about what charity might look like, and leave open the possibility that we are not at present being very charitable at all. Even if we are right.

I would very much like to share my very huggable Aquinas with you. He’s so fat, it’s easy to cuddle with him. And what would you share with me?