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?


Symbols that do not efface.

Children kabuki theater in Nagahama (lady Shizuka, 10 y.o.)

A performer in children kabuki theatre. Men have long played all the roles, though its origins are the inverse.

Kabuki is a type of Japanese theatre. It features highly stylized performances, and everything from what characters wear to how they move indicates who they are, what their roles are. Roles that are also heavily styled – sweeping sets of brushstrokes rather than detailed portraits. It might seem cartoonish if we expect the slanted realities of “serious” theatre or musicals. That expectation prevents any openness to a play of human beings speaking to one another as painted, gesturing symbols.

Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a Theological Dramatics (“Theo-Drama”) in which God’s interaction with the world and the world’s action within itself are understood through the analogy of drama. Balthasar pauses only once to tell us that this is a “play of freedoms.” In other words, the movement of the play is between its performers rather than resting in, say, the characters “themselves.” Hamlet is very different if there’s no Ophelia to drive into drowning madness. So Balthasar speaks often of freedom that expresses itself in the midst of action. This is his play.

God is the main actor – this is a theo-drama – he is the self-expressing freedom around which all our much more limited freedoms revolve. A bit like a galaxy of stars – if the galaxy could be said to inhere in that which is infinitely more than itself. In the case of Christ, we are offered fundamental roles in the play. Balthasar often speaks of these roles with his own stylized vocabulary, and here that way of speaking is intentionally biblical in shape. The roles, the characters, are biblical, and we find our character in theirs. Mary signifies the perfect love of the Church; John represents mystical love; Peter the gift of loving authority. And so on.

Balthasar’s way of speaking often comes under fire at exactly this point. The angle of critique is multiple, but the heart of it is rather consistent: Balthasar has stretched humanity into simple symbols that hurt rather than protect. Pulled all the wrinkles from our being. A bit like when someone doesn’t expect me, a “religious” person, to curse. They think of an idealized role that ends up having very little room for me and my damn bad habit. So when Balthasar speaks of surrender or gender or – buckle in – forms of surrender as if they had gender, scholars rightly wonder what the hell he’s on about. I’m sorry, what did you say about women?

I’m not about to defend everything he says. Not on my life. But I want to clarify the logic by which he arranges these roles because I think it’s a logic we can’t lose without implicating ourselves in an essential misapprehension of freedom.

Balthasar’s background is originally Western – he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the surviving Greek tragedies – and one of the things that Greek theatre taught him is the use of masks. To project their voices and make their roles clear, Greek players would wear painted masks in the ampitheatre. This was to help the audience. Unless I have “court-side” ampitheatre seats, I won’t be able to make out who is who. The bright colors and stylized faces on the masks help me to know the action better.

Or, in kabuki, all of the colors, clothing, and movements help me to know the action. Balthasar actually learned about Japanese art forms and indeed cites them as examples for his analogy of the stage (kabuki is named explicitly at least once). I prefer the kabuki analogy because it gets at something Balthasar himself prefers: the “style” of the role is found in the person. How they act, who they are as it is “written” on their skin, their place among others. There are no blank symbolic roles that sit empty, waiting to be filled. Well, shit, I hate gardening, but I guess we need a gardener for the Lord. Balthasar sometimes slips into that way of speaking, but fundamentally the human being bears the characteristics of their own role. They have a natural facility for certain things, talents and temperaments and so on, that predispose them to certain ways of interacting with God and the world. While they’ll only really know their role if they receive its fullness from God and embrace it – pure grace – still that “embrace” means they’ve got to figure out how to be who they need to be. I care for the poor and I love them in this way. The role will always be shaped by who they already are.

Biblical figures are hyper-stylized, but it’s the same principle: the Virgin’s unconditional love is already a disposition to which she’s predisposed (especially in the Immaculate Conception). In other words, no role is imposed from the “outside.”

So when we look upon a role that has been played – one that say, we want to figure out how to mimic – we see the “style” of the person him or herself. It is hyperbolized to us; it is symbolized in our eyes; it is known in the broadness of major actions. I don’t know Joan of Arc’s entire life. Still I know her, and I know how she died, and I know the intensity of her devotion to Mary. This renders her a symbol that may well obscure her, but it reveals her as long as I never make a claim to it (to her). Ultimately, she reveals Christ to me – all that is good is always showing us Christ – and always in her way. If I want to be like her, it’d have to be in my way. Wandering around in armor would miss the point entirely.

Human beings are living, breathing images. This is what Balthasar is after, what he sees. Not stereotypes, but particular human beings whose gifts are able to be rasterized into the features for a character in a play. Saint Francis was not the first saint to love nature, wander around penniless, and reform the Catholic Church. Most of the virtues of his that we can imitate are old news among the saints. Oh, another one? Yes, another one. Of course another one. Because he is an image of a role we can play, his actions are movements of a character we can have by imitating.

Balthasar does not speak literally. He speaks in terms of a high drama. He is trying to name the movements that carry the weight of the play, the colors and the voices, the patterns of being. Hero, servant, foil, counterpoint. All as they have in various ways already been performed. What is so important and so hard to remember is that when Balthasar gives us a name, a virtue, a feature – he means it as drama. This is why he can call Christ both masculine and feminine. If we think he means chromosomes or appearance or social status, we’ve got it wrong. If we think he means something external to Christ (“not” his body and place, if you will), we’ve also got it wrong.

It’s a role in a play meant to reach the people in the very farthest seats.

Beatrice and Kenosis: On Power and Words and How We Use Them (and Hans Urs von Balthasar)

“The First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Hans Urs von Balthasar loves the word kenosis. “Emptying.” It’s a Greek word that I’ll explain, and it’s a problem. It should be your problem, too. A problem that I’ll resolve by making it worse, telling a story, complaining in German, and all in all pretending that I’m not addressing a huge issue in scholarship in a damn blog post. So then.

Balthasar, the influential 20th century Swiss Catholic theologian and my hero, does not draw his ideas from nowhere. When he himself emphasizes kenosis, he is touching a very ancient Christian nerve.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

– Philippians 2:5-11

This poem of sorts comes to us from Saint Paul, and it is sometimes called the “Kenotic Hymn” after some speculation from biblical scholars that this may well be a Christian hymn that pre-dates Paul and he’s simply quoting it, or perhaps adjusting it. Or perhaps it’s not that at all. Either way, this “hymn” tells the essential story of Christ: the one equal with God who became human, died, and was exalted to the Glory of the Father. That is the whole movement of Christianity, all of it right there, an arc away into humility that returns again as glory because, really, humility and glory are the same.

So we’ve already touched the edges of the problem.

Kenosis (ἐκένωσεν as it appears in the original text) means simply “to empty.” Jesus emptied himself. The word is the lynchpin of the hymn, and it has long been a profound animating force in Christianity. This, after all, is the attitude (φρονεῖτε, understanding, feeling, mind) we are supposed to have: that of Christ, who was kenotic (emptying). So we should be Christ to one another, to the world. We should be as he is. Emptying.

For the Christian, Jesus – who is God – is humble. This isn’t a change in God; this is God. The remarkable feature of Christianity is its God: the infinite God who becomes finite, the Word who becomes flesh, not because anyone forced him to and definitely not because we deserve it, but because this is what he does. He loves us. Or, I should say, he is love. And this love – that God is – takes a specific shape, is recognizable and alive. The love that overcomes through humiliating defeat, the divine strength revealed through weakness. Balthasar will sometimes call this “the power of God’s powerlessness.”

If humility is glory – if the last shall be first – then we have an extraordinary inversion of what we thought was real. This impulse is what has Christians through the centuries embracing the poor; this is what drives them near to the suffering and ill; this is what has them visiting jails. In the faces of these people, Christians see their God. And so they treat these least with the dignity that they would God, and in doing so – in loving with humility – they show God to others. That is to say, we surrender to one another in love.


What, exactly, does this power-in-powerlessness look like? This could be devastatingly beautiful, as above, or simply devastating. Friedrich Nietzsche, famous opponent of Christianity, saw an element of Christianity’s inner power of destruction: by valuing the weak, he said, you make everyone weak. He meant this because he thought everyone had a “will to power” and should be able to dominate others if they could, and if they couldn’t – well, that’s your fault. It’s a more interesting critique if all we do is understand that powerful people do want to dominate others, and that this domination keeps others weak. Christianity, then, could become a coda for oppression. We love the weak, so we keep them weak.

This is all rather abstract, so let me offer a couple of examples. The first comes to us from literature: Dante’s Beatrice. She herself, and his love for her, animates the entirety of the Divine Comedy. But is this Beatrice, really? Dante met the real Beatrice twice in real life, after all, and she was a constant figure in his poems even after her death. Especially after her death. Well, there was a pause with Lady Philosophy, but we’ll get to that. In any case, Dante rather deliberately renders Beatrice in ecstatic symbolic forms: she is a beatified woman, she is Beatitude itself, she is divine love and judgment incarnate, she is Christ. So, commentators wonder, is Beatrice even Beatrice anymore? Or has Dante done violence to her memory and made her someone else? All in the name of Christ, no less. This gets at a certain problem of how to imagine other human beings when we look at them as Christ. It could result in some kind of erasure.

Or there is the more sophisticated critique of feminist theologies, which I will simplify here but bring to life with my own life. Outside of the arts, there have been many ways that power has reinforced itself by concealing its intentions in something “good.” Balthasar calls this “the lie.” It would take too long to list the horrifying examples of even the recent news cycle, so I will simply reference my own experience. As a young victim of violence, much of which revolved around doctors, I was often convinced to behave by being told it wasn’t that bad or asked don’t you want to feel better? My suffering, you have to see, was placed on my shoulders as my responsibility. I was crying at nothing, or I pushed away the hands because I didn’t want to get better. It was my fault if I hated it. Or – and this is more vivid, so feel free to skip down to the next paragraph – I was frequently made to surrender by sheer physical force. I can remember being pinned down and my head shoved away and then I remember much worse, and God damn if wasn’t some kind of surrender when I gave up and went limp. And it was my fault if I hated it.

Notice the perplexity here, which gets at a certain problem with how we use words to mask truth, and how surrender and self-emptying can apply to things that are truly awful. So for Balthasar – right, back to him – to use this word kenosis, to pair it with surrender, to praise self-offering… Well, it becomes possible to see why people might have a problem with that. Because these words have been used to conceal incredible suffering. They have. Balthasar still uses these terms, these ideas. I don’t see any point in denying these things.


The thing about Lady Philosophy in Dante (of the Commedia) is that she’s a lie. Beatrice in fact calls him out on it, framing Dante’s life as infidelity. You went and loved another woman, Dante, and she doesn’t even exist. The accusation of infidelity is described as a betrayal of Dante’s love for Beatrice, a love “that should have led you to the Good.” Beatrice, as someone who is real – Lady Philosophy is a figurement of a field of knowledge – is able to be loved in a way that leads Dante to better things, and only inasmuch as her specificity as a real person plays a role in his love for her. Dante doesn’t have to confess “I am a totally lost and confused guy”; he has to confess to her about where his heart has been. Yes, Beatrice’s eyes flicker with Christ-the-gryphon, and she shines with a glory we can easily guess is God’s. But these only veil her as long as Dante lies. When he tells the truth about her – to her – she pulls her veil away. (And the angels sing. I think there are flowers thrown around too. It’s pretty epic. Dante, you insufferable poet.) In other words, praising humility in itself or surrender in itself or virtue in itself don’t get us far. They have to be expressed in specific people and specific situations. Or else we end up admiring all surrender instead of only loving surrender. This is one reason why the saints are so important to Balthasar: they show us what the difference between wonderful and horrible humility might be.

To the far messier point about physical force, the concealing of oppression, and so forth, I can only gesture toward something important. Balthasar discusses self-surrender and kenosis all the time, it’s true. But we’re forgetting a word: “letting-be.” It’s inconsistently translated, to be honest, but still this further phrase (typically Sein-Lassen) is key. Letting-be is, in Balthasar’s parlance, a summary term for the free act of allowing someone else their agency. Letting-be is what Mary does in the Annunciation (called her Fiat, “let it be done”), which is both an act of agency on her part and an allowing of God’s action. In fact, letting-be is always a twinned action – the act of the person letting and of the person being, the one allowing and the one doing (or even simply existing). The twinned act of letting-be has to be mutual, then, or else they’re not letting the other person freely allow. They’re committing an act of force. If it doesn’t have both freedoms at work, it’s not Sein-Lassen. It’s something Balthasar variously names “demonic” or “titan” or “violent.” The archetype of letting-be is to be found in the Trinity, in the three Persons who entirely share one divinity. Here the archetype spins away from what is even remotely possible for us, since the Persons all offer to one another a specific relation of “letting be,” and perfectly share the one divine will. The Trinity explodes what in us is “twinned” or double – you there and me here – but nevertheless provides the ground of the possibility for our letting-be.

Especially where he goes on and on about kenosis and surrender, Balthasar either frames the discussion with letting-be or carries letting-be throughout. In other words, for him, surrender – the authentic kind – cannot be understood without Sein-Lassen. What is more, the surrender of letting-be is always to a real person (even in the Trinity). It cannot get lost as a mere concept, or again it ceases to be itself. It must always be shared. And, as with Christ, it must lead to the greater glory of both.

Obviously, my experience as a youth meets absolutely none of those criteria.

Real kenosis is also “letting-be.” Kenosis without “letting be” is mere violence. Balthasar actually helps us work to see the difference.

Allowing another’s faith to be.

By Andre Kohn

By Andre Kohn

We sat in a darkened church just before Easter Vigil. I was with a young family, good friends of mine. Their four-year-old girl twitched next to me, teetering toward an oddly polite version of desperately bored. I leaned back in the pew and cocked my head at her: “What do you think Jesus was like as a child?”

This particular child scowled at me, smooth face suddenly stark and stern. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I wonder about it,” I said, unfazed. “I think he played games, had fun. Like you.”

“I don’t know,” she said again, displeased with me. She hung on her mom as she watched me, one arm around her mother’s neck while she leaned her whole body weight in the other direction. This is simply what one does with moms.

I smiled, not quite sure what bothered her. Perhaps it was the impossibility of knowing concrete facts about Jesus’ childhood, or the lack of stories about it, or some kind of preternatural sensitivity to historical verisimilitudes, or that it was getting kind of late. I didn’t mind. I love talking to children about almost anything, especially religion. They really do think about things with all their hearts. And I really do take them very seriously.

“So,” I tried again, “What do you think Jesus was like as an adult?”

“I don’t know,” she groused, tone sharp. Her mother tenderly scolded her. This is not how one speaks to adults.

I raised my eyebrows. “Why do you think it’s so hard to know?”

The young girl twined her hands around her mother’s neck to leverage herself up over her mother’s lap. Her mother gently steered her daughter’s thin frame, folding her away from disaster without a second thought. The child released her mom and sat down – laid down, really – half on the pew, half on her mother’s lap. “I don’t know,” she said again, softer.

I waited.

“It’s just hard,” she said, staring at the ceiling of the church. “Jesus is pretend.”

Out of the girl’s line of sight, I saw her mother twitch at the words. She wants her daughter to know Jesus is real, wants this very much. And it is hard, answering a child’s questions about infinite things. It is hard, repeating the words we ourselves barely understand. How is one supposed to raise anyone among mysteries anyway?

I stared at the empty tabernacle – it was Easter Vigil, remember – and thought carefully over her words. This, especially, is what I love about other people. Trying to imagine what they mean on their own terms. I could see the young girl’s mother frowning, trying to think of what to say too. It’s hard, trying to know that.

“Yes,” I said after a moment. “Jesus is so hard to picture. We can’t see him, so we have to imagine him. So it’s like pretend.”

Her mom’s face lit up. “Yes, that’s right. But he’s always with us, too.”

The girl twisted around and crawled over her mother’s lap to slump against her dad at an awkward angle. She shifted immediately, back to using her mom as a swing set. I took this as agreement.

“He’s hard to picture,” the child said.

I grinned and folded my arms. “Yes, but in the Mass he’s very near to us. We meet him in the Eucharist. We get to see him.”

The little girl did not respond – too busy working on some new impossible way to sit – but I didn’t expect her to. Nor did I expect her to understand a word I’d said. It should be like that, I think. Or I should say that it is like that, the world we’re in: people saying things we don’t even realize we don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean the words don’t sit with us. Or that the strangeness of it doesn’t follow us. These ways of speaking, the ones we don’t get, are friends that walk with us in the dark. Right next to the words we do understand.

Because knowledge, real knowledge, has a certain infinity to it. And faith only makes it more infinite. This is why it is okay if someone doesn’t understand – as long as we never treat them like they never will. It’s why it’s okay that we also don’t know, can’t know – as long as we don’t act as if we never will.

God is the one who walks among the words we do and don’t understand.

All Things New | Laudato Si

Sons of Saint Francis

Praise is the first word of Laudato si’. Literally the first word. Nor is this praise an opaque and misty compliment to existence. No: praise be to you, Lord, the encyclical begins, citing a famous prayer from St. Francis. In other words, the pope begins with the words of someone in particular (St. Francis) to someone in particular (Christ, the Lord), and these are the highest words possible for human beings to speak – the praise of worship. Worship is that word beyond words that humans sing rather than speak. So it is that Pope Francis’s encyclical begins in the attitude of worship. An attitude that, like all Catholic worship, is articulated through what is specific, bodily, shared: here a saint; elsewhere water, oil, bread. Everything material in the world is from God and exists to the glory of God.

And who is this God?

God is the Creator of absolutely everything (73-75), and here Francis recovers the radical claim of early Christianity, which is that God created ex nihilo, out of nothing. This was at the time and remains now a major element of Christianity. God created everything that exists. Everything. This makes God very different from his creation because he was never, ever created. It also makes God very deliberate about creation. This Creator-God loves his creation. God is not only Creator, but also Father. According to Pope Francis, this awareness of God is given to us especially by Jesus: “Jesus took up the biblical faith in God the Creator, emphasizing a fundamental truth: God is Father (cf. Mt 11:25)” (96). Francis gestures toward the very heart of Christianity in the very heart of Christ, and indeed the opening lines of its most important ancient creed (the Nicene Creed). The Father, Creator of all, is praised.

All of creation praises the Father. We human beings are a part of this praise, and as part of this cosmic liturgy, it is our role to care for the fragile creation of which we are a part (67-68). Pope Francis describes these attitudes, rooted in faith in a loving Creator, as a necessary aspect of being human. We must not forget who we are. The pope’s claim deepens:

A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality (75).

Knowing our place in the complex network of relationships between ourselves and creation, among ourselves, and with God helps us to be more whole. Helps us to remember who we are. Helps to heal something rather wrong with us. And there is something very wrong with us. Pope Francis is entirely willing to be blunt, and his most basic metaphors for this wrongness revolve around violence, fracture, wounds. He is willing to describe devastating violence, and also small acts of disregard, a violence against love. Human beings, we with that strange heart of immensity and cruelty, find expression in the particular and simple.  “Saint Therese of Lisieux invites us to practise the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (230).

So Francis posits several ecologies that he wants to draw together into an “integral ecology” (above). As he has expanded our notion of human beings, so he expands our notion of ecology. The logic of being in creation is a logic of loving creation, a love that takes a particular shape, that is tender about the details of existence. So it is that Francis includes a general ecology of nature with special concern for water (27-31), acknowledging climate change (25-26), and more. He adds to this ecology another necessary ecology, a kind of ecology of human beings with one another (see esp. Chapter IV). It makes sense, thoroughgoing sense, in his mind to therefore include abortion as a ecological harm in the world (120). The details of existence. Every detail. Loved.

So to love all life means not only loving human beings – all of them – but also loving the trees and shadows that welcome us. All of them. For Francis, our “gaze” is to be the “gaze” of Jesus, who shows us how to look integrally at the world.

The Lord was able to invite others to be attentive to the beauty that there is in the world because he himself was in constant touch with nature, lending it an attention full of fondness and wonder. As he made his way throughout the land, he often stopped to contemplate the beauty sown by his Father, and invited his disciples to perceive a divine message in things (97).

Instead of attending to beauty, we are distracted, rushed, often violent. We are neither self-aware nor aware of others, and this is especially so in the crush of cities, in the pull of digital communication. Pope Francis praises technology, but also expresses concern over how we use it. Our use of our power hurts the poor most of all. Not everything is identical in Francis’s vision, and while all should be loved, not all are to be loved in the same way. His ecological logic continues with powerful coherence. It means that the poor are to be loved most of all. (This is what Catholic social teaching calls “the preferential option for the poor.”) They are instead the worst victims of pollution, of technological wars, of economic domination. Pope Francis reserves his angriest words for what happens to the poor, whom he definitely loves most of all.

In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted (123)?

To lack relativism is to throw away domination over others, and it is to cease to see anyone as exchangeable or replaceable. As useable. Pope Francis is devastated by the acts of domination that characterize the human heart, especially as our hearts act in modernity. The “market” and “progress” are not good enough excuses to overthrow the common good. Pope Francis’s perspective is frequently grim, dismal. It is not as if goodness has won out, as if it simply will without us. Christians are not supposed to flinch at evil. Not supposed to shut their eyes to it. If the way is truth, it demands honesty.

And Francis is honest. He doesn’t particularly think we have it in us to fix this unless we enter into a real spirituality that acknowledges God, who made all things, and that loves all the things God made. Harmony – a well-played, differentiated key – is one of Francis’s themes. We’re supposed to live a beautiful music of sorts, one aware of the variety of notes in creation. Each with its own sound. So, weirdly, perfectly, this praise of the Lord rests at the very heart of Pope Francis’s integral ecology. Caring for the environment requires the hope of faith. It is God, really, who makes all things new. God made all things in the first place. We are nearer to all things the nearer we are to God. So God is the one who gives Francis hope that we might change. Or rather, be changed. To the glory of God.

In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for “if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must enquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator”. Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope (244).

Redemption in the Dark

Jean-Leon Gerome, “Dante and Virgil in Hell”

It figures my return to poetry would be brutal. I hadn’t wanted it to be. I wished to write words with the frail edge of something new. I wanted that so very badly, in a tender and trembling way, unsteady on my feet. What came of it instead was the painful shape of over-saturated rage. And loss. Loss so deep it pauses in a breathless gasp before it can scream. Loss enough, that is, to describe poetic silence.

Poetry was freedom. To me. It was the thing I’d never wanted but found anyway. The talent that was mine without my intending it. The skill so effortlessly my own that it could be nothing but weightless and wonderful. A secret daring that no one, for once, could take and use for their purposes. (How many other times, how very many, I had been asked to speak, to write, to explain, to read, to learn, even to listen – the other things I was good at, always somehow made someone else’s great instrument.) Poetry was straightforwardly useless. It assisted none of my work in the academy, convinced no one to request it violently from my hands. And I loved it for that. Poetry was something I had never been encouraged to do. I didn’t even grow up “artistic.” That was my siblings. I was the one who hated art, the one who wasn’t artistic. I hated subtlety. I hated intuition. I hated feeling. And I loved poetry so much for that. For all the magnanimous reversal that it was.

And then.

I collapsed. Under the weight of a nearly measureless agony. Sometimes people wanted me to explain. How could I? What words are there to describe the motives that made my hand reach for a knife to drag it across my neck? If you do not know, you never will, and I pray sincerely that you never learn. I remember it, all that silence of profound inner disintegration, eyes wide and staring at the lies I could no longer keep.

After all that – after so much – there remained nothing left of me for poetry.

Now was the time to learn how to die. To let myself and the secrets die, though it cost (and costs) so much more than my life. There is no taking up that pulverized human being anymore. I mean that there comes a time when lies end. I cannot be – why won’t you be your old self please? – I cannot be anyone but the one who has learned to die. As if I could go backward and find a self that wasn’t crying anyway. There comes a time, I mean, when the old Adam is buried in the earth with his shame.

I began to ache and complain that I wanted to write poetry again. That it felt hopelessly lost. Still, I yearned. For the first time in a very long time, and in many ways for the first time ever, I yearned. I wanted a poem about learning to die. About the delicate relinquishing of hope. The kind of death that opens up when it closes its eyes.

Then I dreamed of some lines. Lovely and sad. I kept them close, as if to sketch them would shatter them. Tried hard not to try too hard, tried to let the words rest and be what they willed. Not that words are alive, exactly, though they are not exactly not.

I told my therapist how I missed poetry. Cried at a poem I’d forgotten writing but that a friend remembered. A beautiful little poem that I had clearly written as a lark. So simple. So easy. My little play of freedom with its half grin. It was gone, not even there in my mind to be recalled. Buried and gone.

I mentioned my precious lines. My therapist asked me to explain. I stuttered toward the vision, skittish, glancing at him and trying not to blush. The pink ears of a vulnerable thought caught being just that. They were only little words with a vague shape. Embarrassing and unformed. Rough-hewn like a sculpture half begun. I knew enough to know – from long ago – that there was no trying it yet. I had never been a creature who could fumble into a poem and make it right after a sputtering mess.

Besides, my therapist was being encouraging. I had to thwart him.

Eventually, I dreamed of more. So I began to write. I scowled and stared at the blank page, the blinking cursor. Flitted through enough keys and lines to emerge – an ageless time later – with many stanzas and no sense. It wasn’t even poetry, not to my eyes. Anger spiked through my trembling hope, and I raged to my therapist at how awful it was, how it had become something else entirely. Something not lovely at all. And it wasn’t even poetry. My therapist wondered if it really was that bad. I knew it was. I wasn’t being difficult. Not this time. I simply knew. I was simply correct.

I was sad at that. Since it seemed the poem I’d yearned for didn’t exist.

I was even more sad that it wasn’t lovely. That my heart didn’t have that left.

The next day, I still knew it had become something else. I understood in a simple way that my fingers had followed the pattern of something real. The final stanza, the one that had yanked me to a total stop, was much too fierce and firm to be anything else but real. It did not resemble the stanzas that were not poems. It was a poem. The end of one. A different one, one that I didn’t want to write. One that was mine anyway. So very dark. Not lovely at all.

Apparently, I am now a creature that can stumble into poems.

So I cleared the page and placed the end at the end. I drew out another stanza from the mess, saw in it somehow the shape of the real poem that I had – as best as I could tell – no choice but to write. I knew it was the beginning. I simply knew. I made decisions with firm simplicity. Felt out a simple rhyme pattern, fiddling with the rescued beginning, since this poem needed a rhyme. (Not all do.) I was determined. These rhymes would be better than my old tone deaf ones. And so I raised the difficulty level considerably, especially for a return after a long silence. I simply did. Without much thought.

Two other lines, I saved. The rest I buried in the earth. Then I wrote entirely new between beginning and end. Saw the real poem firmly to its conclusion. The grim and angry dark. The one that was my own.

Details of my life were offered up in lines that made them something else. This is the odd redemption that poetry is: where the specific is unmoored from itself, made to drift the way of anyone who reads. My own chronology became a new time, references were dis-ordered for the sake of a new order. I wrote a fiction that says something real. I hewed painful rage into its unmistakeable face – one I’d find in a mirror, one other mirrors would hold.

Brutal. A return so brutal. An unflinching poem about the kinds of things that drove me to the grave.

It is mine. It is what I know. When I think on it, it seems too fitting. Of course it’s brutal. These are the only words that my heart has to give. This is what it looks like to see the dark and die.

Not that there aren’t other words. Only that, right now, these are mine. And in carefully gathering them together to rest in a ribbon on stone – dead flowers – they become, for once, an offering. For once, the dark is redeemed just enough to be a gift.

We tangled together

We tangled together in the shifting dark.
Reaching for what neither had, fingers
gripping nothing tightly, cutting marks.
The bitter trembling not-even-near.
On those hollow insatiable nights.

Once I touched your jaw. A light
thumb tracing a dark curve and gone.
I was all wavering and pulled right
apart as cold eyes settled on
my own and wished I were someone else.

And I didn’t know. How to un-self
the someone neither of us desired,
how the hell to hold still and help
cut me away into the one we required.
I couldn’t fucking figure it out.

I sliced apart my face somehow,
and wept when you stared anyway –
and touched the jagged route
of blood and salt and shaking pain.
Disappointed I was always underneath.

And always I howled with gritted teeth.
It wasn’t fair. I just wanted you to –
I was the one thing you didn’t need.
It wasn’t fair at all. I loved you.
Why the fuck wouldn’t you love me?

And why the fuck would you be
still so bent on holding me close?
Why’d you go and cry and need
so much I’d go and sell my soul
to wipe the tears from your eyes?

We only shared a bed when I cried.
God damn you.
For the dark nights I died a thousand times.
For offering the only touch I ever knew.
And God damn me: I gave myself to you.

The God Who Was Afraid

Superman. Duh.

Superman. Duh.

I remember a Superman cape. It reached almost to my feet, swallowing my skinny child-frame. I must have been three. I remember straightening my shoulders, fists planted at my waist. I was the little girl who wanted to be Superman. The kid who needed to be brave and invulnerable. The memory says more about my young self than I wish it did.

I know I was three because it was the first preschool I attended before we moved. Other than my steadfast and vicious hatred of preschool, I don’t remember much of it. Almost nothing of that first one other than the cape. That, and some godforsaken “Wheels on the Bus” sing-a-long that I passively lip-synced to, bored, ever the quiet little anarchist. God, I hated preschool. Even the second one, whose efforts to get me to eat food-dyed green eggs and ham utterly failed.

Anyway. I wanted to be courageous, indestructible, strong. Superman was all of those things. I can still see myself standing there, silent and shy as always, for once stiffening resolutely with that damned cape across my shoulders. When I think more deeply about it, I see a terrified little kid desperate for ways not to hurt so easily. Desperate to be fearless somehow. Because I already knew the world to be a grim and violent place. Even if only inchoately (I mean, I was three), I grasped some hidden horror just enough to need the cloak of a superhero. This continued with me as I grew. I remember being deeply concerned with this, with who was strong and who was not.

It puzzled me that Jesus wasn’t a hero. He just wasn’t. He was God, sure. But that guy died, too. I’d stare at the crucifix in total sympathy. I felt I knew what it was like to be him. I drew crosses all over everything.

I’d always end up sitting by my very best friend in the world, a patient and sweet girl. She had a native tolerance for my long list of intolerances. She had a gentle way of reaching past my frequent silences. She was the only safe human being in my universe.

(Jesus was something, but not safe.)

What a weird kid I was. Don’t think I don’t know.

I do remember how scared I felt. I do remember thinking the world quite a violent place. I knew this as a simple fact. The world was disturbing: fact. Deal with it or don’t. So I made sure I wouldn’t go down without a fight. Of course, I lost again and again. Little kids don’t win against adults. I do remember those losses – sometimes painfully clear, all etched in glass; other times a felt impression made of bare fragments.

God damn if I didn’t learn how to go down without a fight at all. It was quicker that way.

Then I would fit the mask back on, don the cape. Admit nothing. Quietly tag along with my very best friend, who was brave in ways I very much wished to be.

Jesus was pierced and he bled. I was fascinated by the whole story. It was important to me. Not quite comforting, but definitely real. The world was disturbing: fact. Jesus knew.

It is more accurate to say that Jesus felt all that human flesh would feel at the prospect of death: fear, sadness, repulsion. The Son, the divine Son, felt these in his human flesh. This is an important distinction – that he wept as a man and not as God. It means he felt our fright as we feel it. We human beings. Then, with a breadth only possible to divinity, Christ drew every single one of our feelings to himself. Words begin to fray here, at the edges of a mystery. What I mean is: all of human experience, all of it, has been embraced by God in Christ. That doesn’t make every inch of it good. Just embraced.

Even my experiences.

There are large swaths of my childhood I have not learned to forgive, cannot remember without stifling anger.

I wonder sometimes at how Christ forgave everyone on the cross. I wonder if he’ll forgive me for being so unable to forgive. Or I wonder if that divine mercy toward me will be the painful working out of forgiveness stretched through the remaining hours of my life.

Jesus was never a hero, and certainly has never made me one. I have resented him more than one time in more than one way for that. I mean that I could never be brave enough, or tough enough, or smart enough to win. God lost, and so did I. And I struggled very much to understand.

I don’t know if I understand any better fully grown. Still, my gentle best friend remains so. And she remains braver than me in some secret way that is, I am convinced, closer to the cross than all my scowls and scars and white knuckles. Not that she is willing to lose, or weak. Not that God is, either. There is simply a gentleness required to acknowledge the reality of fear, a tenderness that faces it and somehow passes through to another side. A fierce patience that steps through instead of fighting against, finding a place where fear is, though not vanished, at least transfigured.

I have no idea why gentleness is the key. I don’t know how it doesn’t shatter along with everything else. I don’t know why divinity bothered to be afraid like us. Statements of faith aside – to redeem us, I know – I really don’t get it. The logic is bewildering. But it does require gentleness, this bothering to be like us, whatever the logic is. Not superhuman feats.

Which is good, in the end.

We cannot be superhuman, but we can be gentle at least.