There might be some changes to this blog coming relatively soon. A bigger place wants to pick me up. I’m sitting here with the paperwork half-done, wondering what the hell it means.

I don’t know what my “tag-line” should be. I don’t know kind of “brand” to create for myself, and I resent the idea of having one. (Tag-line: “Sometimes I say things”? Brand: “I’m not a shoe, thank you”?) Nor do I know whether I’ll end up somehow permanently destroying myself and my career.

I’m an optimist.

And though I know how they found me, sort of, it’s also puzzling. I’m not relevant, I write however I want, I don’t care to be provocative, and I’m super bad at catchy titles. I’m not that clever person who understands how social media shapes audiences. Basically, I just love writing, and in many ways I rely on it for my sanity. Rely on it in very, very real ways. So I write and write and write, professionally and…here. Doing this thing, here, this thing that now begins to cross over into my professional life.

I almost wish I could ask you, reader, to take my words and hide them away from my professional life. Make sure they’re safe, that not all of me is the job.

Lord, prevent me from being a public intellectual.

And yet.

Wouldn’t it be fun to wander through the Internet being maddeningly useless? Stubbornly continuing on with the odd poeticisms and Christological obsessions and obscure references. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if people liked it? Me and my really rather ordinary Catholicism; me and my complete disinterest in evangelizing anyone. I’m normal. Hurt in a lot of places, some common and some not, and I’m just normal.

I’m also an impulsive sort, and I have the hardest time resisting the chance to thwart expectations. I love doing that. This seems like a chance.

Oh, to be ordinary and therefore interesting. What a thing. And how funny it would be if it meant people could run out ahead of me. Loving the ordinary things I also love, and loving them better than me. I like that better than anything. Than anything at all.

So I don’t know what description I’d give my blog so search engines would find it. Really not sure what my brand is. I don’t know how to not just be intentionally frustrating about the meaning of my entire blog. And every time I think of signing my name, I get anxious and refuse to finish the paperwork.

Part of me thinks I have something to say; part of me thinks I have nothing. I don’t know what I’ll do, but here I am.




Catholic Imposter Syndrome

virgin mary night light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I think the Catholic Church needs to learn.

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

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

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

Am I right?

Perhaps the wrong question.

“Assumpta Maria” by Francis Thompson

“Coroação da Virgem,” Domingos António de Sequeira

Thou needst not sing new songs, but say the old.’—Cowley.

Mortals, that behold a Woman,
Rising ’twixt the Moon and Sun;
Who am I the heavens assume? an
All am I, and I am one.

Multitudinous ascend I,
Dreadful as a battle arrayed,
For I bear you whither tend I;
Ye are I: be undismayed!
I, the Ark that for the graven
Tables of the Law was made;
Man’s own heart was one, one Heaven,
Both within my womb were laid.
For there Anteros with Eros
Heaven with man conjoinèd was,—
Twin-stone of the Law, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos.

I, the flesh-girt Paradises
Gardenered by the Adam new,
Daintied o’er with sweet devices
Which He loveth, for He grew.
I, the boundless strict savannah
Which God’s leaping feet go through;
I, the heaven whence the Manna,
Weary Israel, slid on you!
He the Anteros and Eros,
I the body, He the Cross;
He upbeareth me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

I am Daniel’s mystic Mountain,
Whence the mighty stone was rolled;
I am the four Rivers’ fountain,
Watering Paradise of old;
Cloud down-raining the Just One am,
Danae of the Shower of Gold;
I the Hostel of the Sun am;
He the Lamb, and I the Fold.
He the Anteros and Eros,
I the body, He the Cross;
He is fast to me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

I the presence-hall where Angels
Do enwheel their placèd King—
Even my thoughts which, without change else,
Cyclic burn and cyclic sing.
To the hollow of Heaven transplanted,
I a breathing Eden spring,
Where with venom all outpanted
Lies the slimed Curse shrivelling.
For the brazen Serpent clear on
That old fangèd knowledge shone;
I to Wisdom rise, Ischyron,
Agion Athanaton!

See in highest heaven pavilioned
Now the maiden Heaven rest,
The many-breasted sky out-millioned
By the splendours of her vest.
Lo, the Ark this holy tide is
The un-handmade Temple’s guest,
And the dark Egyptian bride is
Whitely to the Spouse-Heart prest!
He the Anteros and Eros,
Nail me to Thee, sweetest Cross!
He is fast to me, Ischyros,
Agios Athanatos!

‘Tell me, tell me, O Belovèd,
Where Thou dost in mid-day feed!
For my wanderings are reprovèd,
And my heart is salt with need.’
‘Thine own self not spellest God in,
Nor the lisping papyrus reed?
Follow where the flocks have trodden,
Follow where the shepherds lead.’
He, the Anteros and Eros,
Mounts me in Ægyptic car,
Twin-yoked; leading me, Ischyros,
Trembling to the untempted Far.

‘Make me chainlets, silvern, golden,
I that sow shall surely reap;
While as yet my Spouse is holden
Like a Lion in mountained sleep.’
‘Make her chainlets, silvern, golden,
She hath sown and she shall reap;
Look up to the mountains olden,
Whence help comes with lioned leap.’
By what gushed the bitter Spear on,
Pain, which sundered, maketh one;
Crucified to Him, Ischyron,
Agion Athanaton!

Then commanded and spake to me
He who framed all things that be;
And my Maker entered through me,
In my tent His rest took He.
Lo! He standeth, Spouse and Brother;
I to Him, and He to me,
Who upraised me where my mother
Fell, beneath the apple-tree.
Risen ’twixt Anteros and Eros,
Blood and Water, Moon and Sun,
He upbears me, He Ischyros,
I bear Him, the Athanaton!

Where is laid the Lord arisen?
In the light we walk in gloom;
Though the sun has burst his prison,
We know not his biding-room.
Tell us where the Lord sojourneth,
For we find an empty tomb.
‘Whence He sprung, there He returneth,
Mystic Sun,—the Virgin’s Womb.’
Hidden Sun, His beams so near us,
Cloud enpillared as He was
From of old, there He, Ischyros,
Waits our search, Athanatos.

Who will give Him me for brother,
Counted of my family,
Sucking the sweet breasts of my Mother?—
I His flesh, and mine is He;
To my Bread myself the bread is,
And my Wine doth drink me: see,
His left hand beneath my head is,
His right hand embraceth me!
Sweetest Anteros and Eros,
Lo, her arms He leans across;
Dead that we die not, stooped to rear us,
Thanatos Athanatos.

Who is She, in candid vesture,
Rushing up from out the brine?
Treading with resilient gesture
Air, and with that Cup divine?
She in us and we in her are,
Beating Godward: all that pine,
Lo, a wonder and a terror!
The Sun hath blushed the Sea to Wine!
He the Anteros and Eros,
She the Bride and Spirit; for
Now the days of promise near us,
And the Sea shall be no more.

Open wide thy gates, O Virgin,
That the King may enter thee!
At all gates the clangours gurge in,
God’s paludament lightens, see!
Camp of Angels!  Well we even
Of this thing may doubtful be,—
If thou art assumed to Heaven,
Or is Heaven assumed to thee!
Consummatum.  Christ the promised,
Thy maiden realm is won, O Strong!
Since to such sweet Kingdom comest,
Remember me, poor Thief of Song!

Cadent fails the stars along:—
Mortals, that behold a woman
Rising ’twixt the Moon and Sun;
Who am I the heavens assume? an
All am I, and I am one.


Francis Thomspon

Posted on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, August 15, 2015

Guardian of the Faith

Mostly I just think this image is awesome. "Hi. I'm gonna stop you with my BARE HAND."

Mostly I just think this image is awesome. “Hi. I’m gonna stop you with my BARE HAND.”

It was lunchtime. I was sitting in the faculty lounge with my department chair and faculty from multiple departments. For the life of me, I can’t remember how it came up. But I remember the second I did, part of me started whispering to the rest of me: Don’t say anything, don’t say anything, don’t say anything.

She looked across at us two from the theology department, expression sharp, and teased, “It’s Eve’s fault, right? That’s what you believe. Eve did it.”

I could see her anger. I could feel my own flaring in response. The voice in my head became more urgent: Don’t. Don’t do it… Don’t. Nope.

She repeated the sentiment. “It’s women’s fault, right? But God could be a woman. Catholics don’t believe that, though.”

The logical part of me yelled desperately for me to stay quiet. Responding to anger is often a useless endeavor, especially when anger is masked as an aggressive intellectual joke. Don’t say anything. Don’t do it… I looked at her and affected my very best confused expression: “I thought God was a dude.”

Oh God dammit, you said something.

My chair smoothly transitioned us to a more mundane topic, as he is much wiser than I am, and I honestly don’t think my soft voice made it over the din. Still, I became upset with myself for responding at all. It meant I had succumbed to my own anger, and so I had done what I often do when I’m furious: worked to provoke the other person even more. It’s like tapping a giant bald guy on the head when he’s already glaring. Sometimes I can’t resist.

I frighten myself when real anger flickers into view. That was real anger. That there, that game of playing stupid. Because I’m so tired of being told that the Church to whom I’ve given my life hates women. It is something of an irony, since I’m a woman. Now, I won’t claim that the Church has always treated women well, or that it isn’t an issue of great importance today. I’m just so tired of conversations that have ended before they’ve begun. They’re my least favorite.

And believe me, my plans for dismantling my “opponent” were already coolly arranged. If I provoked her about the nature of God, I’d be able to step behind her assumption about Eve and eventually bring us back there, back to Eve, to show her what the Church really thinks. I’m good at that. Reaching backward to something much more deeply broken. Cracking it apart to show its pieces.

I hate it. Doing it. Once I loved making those kinds of arguments, especially for the Church. And now I hate it, and I especially hate doing it when I’m angry. I always used to lose my skull in defense of the Church. I was basically infamous for it. But the most frightening element of the experience for me, from the inside, was the very, very cold and heartless anger that made my mind a blank slate of logic. All of my compassion – vanished away. My highly accurate perception of where others hurt and need – now a weapon. Others stared at me when I’d burst into angry tears. I trembled inwardly when there were none.

I don’t like it. I know what it’s like to be taken apart on a table.

Nowadays I’ll perform one of those little judo moves that protect by redirecting the force rather than meeting it head on. Convince the other person by using strength they already have. It’s much less violent, and in my experience others are more receptive to the final conclusion. They think it was their own idea half the time anyway.

Or I will wait. I often draw no conclusions. I only hold it in mind, what someone has said. It stays with me and I contemplate it carefully over time.

I had no idea, when I was young, that I was capable of treating others so gently. Especially about Catholic things. I wasn’t gentle; I was fierce. “Too sensitive” (no: just intelligent and scared). People back home still treat me as if I might lose it, or argue with them, or recite some kind of Church law. Ironically, I also know people who would never associate me with that, can’t even picture it. They’ve never seen it. It’s hilarious sometimes, the way I’m still treated like lit dynamite. Other times it’s frustrating and painful. A kind of penance for all my past sins.

The blood on my hands for defending the Catholic Church.

I used to bicker with my grandmother, my Irish Catholic grandmother. Mostly we disagreed on pastoral matters (matters of practice and care), and mostly we were generationally befuddled with one another. Sometimes we’d get mutually upset. Mostly there was something sweet and perplexing about it. I miss debating with her.

I don’t miss the other debates. The ones where, for example, I’d debate classmates in high school religion class (at Catholic schools, adolescents at least learn that one may discuss religion, even if the content of the education is often overwrought and thin). We’d often argue over women and the priesthood. I, naturally, took up the official stance. Usually I’d lead my opponent along through a series of arguments that appeared to strengthen their case only to corner them and leave them bewildered at how thoroughly stuck they were. Which is just freaking mean to do, by the way. It wasn’t fair: I was much better read in theology than them. I read theology all the damn time.

My mom’s family, especially her parents (my grandparents) and her siblings (my aunts and uncles), was much more willing to get into it with me. I still don’t understand why sometimes. I was twelve and passionate. Why tease the kid who could break into tears over it so easily? I spent family gatherings debating. Once I just about tackled my uncle. I read and read and read. I’ll always give myself this credit: I will read absolutely everything.

Yes, I’m kind of angry about that. I was a wound up adolescent anyway, but it left me even more wound up. Anxious, weary. Yes, grandpa, I’m reading about the bad popes in grad school. Them too. I was also significantly more traditional and conservative than my extended family, even my nuclear family. I don’t mean politically. I mean religiously: the Catholic Church is always perfectly right in absolutely everything, shut up. But my love for my faith was for the most part sincere and thorough, highly educated, and cut on the flint of disagreement.

This last aspect did not serve me well at all as the years went on. It left me without an awareness of certain beautiful aspects of the Church. I was too busy defending her to notice. It left my young theology rather rote and aggressive. Walls but no castle, sort of, though not so severe.

If one reads all of the Church’s documents, one can’t remain arch-conservative. The Church isn’t. She doesn’t even believe she’s always right about absolutely everything. So that helped me.

But I also realized this: I need to look at others as God does. I’m not great at it, but it changed everything about how I acted. Mostly because others loved me as God does: patiently, consistently. They didn’t pick fights and didn’t scold me. All the old aggression turned to useless dust. Anger matched with anger doesn’t change anger. Love may not always change anger – though it can – but it never ceases to be itself. It will always be more generous than disagreement. I only learned that when I was given a chance to experience it.

My disposition isn’t for everyone. Not all bear the same responsibilities. But it turns out I’m a rather gentle and attentive person. Dismantling others just isn’t for me. Unless it’s for someone I care about. Then I am, to quote a friend, “Ferocious.” What can I say? I’m used to defending things.

I’m saying all of this because truth isn’t a will to power. It’s beautiful. Christ is beautiful, and the Church is beautiful in him.

If only I had said to that colleague: “Let me tell you about the New Eve. She’s beautiful.”

“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.

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.

Why I am still a Catholic. Or, Watch me not answer the question.

“The Wilds of Lake Superior,” Thomas Moran

I have found it important to point out to my students, many of whom have never been in a church, what they will find in one. I will recall various attitudes and questions and strangenesses of Catholics. My mother and the Holy Mother; Advent and its purple; angels crowding the altar. Catholics are strange, I find myself saying about eighty times a semester. I want so much for them to experience Catholic things as other, as creative and odd, and I want my Catholic students to see this too. There is something wild beating in the heart of the Church. Some impulse or instinct impossible to cage.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

G.M. Hopkins, “Inversnaid”

Perhaps it is all an effort to try and see it myself. This breathless adventuring thing underneath centuries of accumulated existence. A wanderer all restless, and the wisdom is in the sleepless pilgrimage itself. I have seen it sometimes. Enough to ache for it again and again. Wandering restlessly myself, like those old Irish stories, when the will-o-wisp flickered in the dark.

I asked an extremely talented student of mine – a veteran my age – if he thought Catholicism could “play.” If, in the delicate order of a gothic cathedral, there was room to be spontaneous, alive. The psychologist D.W. Winnicott, who worked with English children traumatized after World War II, once wrote

“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

We agreed that Catholicism could play. I admitted that sometimes I feel as if some winged thing whispers in my ear, You know that’s not true. I wonder what I’m thinking of when I say yes or when I say no to that.

I’m not sure Catholicism can be said to live spontaneously in someone who has never felt it to be so real it could be lost. Might’ve been already. Might’ve never been found at all. Not that loss is necessary to “know” a thing. Only that finding and losing are necessary to having something. Lose your life and you’ll find it.

We all know something like a painful-sudden awareness that my God – this so real and so soft and so unsafe. Like a heartbeat against an ear. Painfully there. And the real possibility of not-there sounds between the measured beats. Or like the helplessness and recklessness in waiting to know if someone loves you back. Terrible silence, wide eyes before wild human loving, unable to make it be. Wanting so much for it to be. Oh please – what I cannot make reality. Let it be.

I have seen it sometimes. I dislike when it is named – except maybe in a saint. The restless storm in the heart, the madness and strangeness beating unstoppable or maybe from the tomb. There are many wonderful mysteries that we might call Catholic, but this bursting untamable yearning is most of all. It is barely Catholic at all. Could never really be owned by anyone. Held there in the empty hands of those who’ve neared the wild living light. (Don’t touch me. I must return.)

I have never been near. I accept the realness of that. I have been very far from the restless wild. Not that this is a thing for measures. Not unless the measure is a rule, like Ireneaus, a rule in the old way. A rule that sees the realness of a thing.

And, really, we often hold onto the present or the past instead of feeling that distance. Or cling to this thing or that. Since nearing it would mean being soft and unsafe. Asking if God could make it be. Knowing we cannot.

I know that I thirst. For this, or that – that life or that someone, or all in all. I know an ache so fierce that to feel it is to feel an unbearably near, an unbearably not. Not near at all. The mouth that waters for what it does not have.

And sometimes I see a strange life in the lack. I mean the not-having. I see this insatiable yearning all restless and awake. Wild enough to go wandering. To roam and sing – and laugh and cry – all empty of everything. Able to play in the open space of what might yet be.