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.


Tribal Catholic.

Me. In my head.

Me. In my head.

This morning, I was already carving new arrows for my quiver, brain burning with summary thoughts on Catholic elementary education. My dad texted me: “Pray. It’ll be ok.” I huffed to myself, and it was easy to imagine my dagger and my determination – and my wood-shavings everywhere. My dad in the doorway. Pray. It’ll be okay.

“Tribal Catholic” is my term for a Catholic who is somewhat convinced that Catholic things are somehow better. Even very ordinary things: that Catholic poet, that Catholic scientist, that Catholic shoemaker. Better. Someone who is at least partly of the opinion that all roads lead to Rome, even the ones that never did. The sort who loves the new buildings in town, and cherishes all the old things in the attics of all the misshapen, weathered homes. That ridiculous affection that knows its own strangeness. Its too-much-ness. A Catholic who is loyal to the Church in that odd old way tribes treat their blood-kin: loyalty first of all to blood, often very effectively, sometimes reason be damned.

I call myself a tribal Catholic when I’m about to say something from my heart whose only explanation is my heart. It will be neither an argument nor a claim, only a truth known in what cannot be spoken.

Or when I want to explain the odd ferocity that, say, J.R.R. Tolkien or Dietrich von Hildebrand had for their religion: tribal Catholics, to be taken seriously, and whose extravagance can be both loved and relativized. Other Catholics are diplomats, or clever tricksters, or whatever. I’m not about to offer a typology of Catholics. I’m just explaining a certain way of loving the Church that often finds its way into Catholic self-expression regardless of the personality.

Sometimes, when I want to poke fun at myself, I admit that I am something of a “Hegelian Catholic”: I have never met a truth or a good that I thought the Church couldn’t appropriate. In my mind, she can and will grow to cosmic proportions – and eschatologically, she already (always) has.

It’s often grating, offensive, this Catholic impulse. This clear contortion of perspective. I have learned to soften it, even to conceal it. Never in my life have I tried to convert anyone to Catholicism, nor do I see that in my future. I am very nearly lackadaisical about whether a soul comes to see the countenance of the Church: that is the Spirit’s concern for her, and mine is trusting both of them. I do more still: rarely will I comment as Protestants discuss why they are not Catholic, which often seems to happen around Catholics. (Our tribalism provokes the question without announcing it.) When others tell me their idea of religion, I only listen. If a Catholic says why they are not anymore: quiet attention.

Sometimes my aunt and uncle walk up to me and explain why they’re Lutheran now. More than once, they’ve done so. I’d have never known. They imagine, perhaps, that I think poorly of them. In fact, I think only of the Spirit. He will search us, and I will not.

Catholics can be absurd. We don’t really do everything better, Thomas Aquinas does not answer every question, every single Catholic feels like a bad Catholic (not just you), and we are the worst in the ways we treat each other. I am sure that we confuse the hell out of others, and not just because our words for things are different and our rituals foreign. How odd, after all: the sight of Catholics bickering over whether they love or hate Pope Francis the way that they should – as if that were a real question, a measure of anything, when for the Church herself obedience to the office is the measure. Obedience to the local bishop first.

The sheer vitriol. As if the Church were something to win or to lose.

Or that odd moment: seeing cherished kin across the Tiber, heart to heart, and wanting to punch the Catholic over on this side of the river right in the throat.

I’m too tribal not to know the contradiction, and so tribal that I seriously do not care who wins what. The tribe is the tribe is the tribe. I am here with her. The family brawls behind me on Thanksgiving and I am very pleased with my goddamn sweet potatoes. Only time I’m upset is when a guest laughs at the fight or the meal. Then I drag warpaint across my face and set it like flint.

Mostly I am enamored of the things in the attic and the old things handed over. The crazy family stories and the brave ones. Peasants sprinting from one Mass to another simply to see the elevation of the host; bishops lifted on ordinary shoulders for proclaiming the Theotokos.

I am in the main a Catholic of considerable intellectual sophistication. A theologian cannot help but be so, and it is such a profound aspect of my temperament that I’d be that way even if I were a mechanic instead. (And mechanics are more noble.) Questions have always haunted me. My dad didn’t quite teach me this, but we share the bent of mind. As conflicted about my family as I can be, especially toward the father who was gone so much (even when he was there, too tired), I know this: the fact that he’d give me books and let me sprint far past him was perhaps his greatest act of paternal generosity and humility. Encouraging a daughter to know more than him. That’s hard for men my age, let alone a man who comes from where my dad does. From a family that zealously cherishes the family name and the men who pass it on.

His mother, my grandmother, was very sharp, openly well-educated. She prepared him for such a gift. I am convinced of it.

And she taught me something of Irish Catholic tribalism, gave it to me directly. So did my mom, but in an entirely different way. My mother is a peasant Catholic in that best and most beloved tradition of the Church: the peasant-folk who have always been the life-blood and heart of Catholicism. The ones who are not the treasured lights of a culture, the Augustines and Newmans of the Church. But these not-treasures are the real treasures, the ones that St. Lawrence gathered and offered to the Romans. Augustine, the true Father of the West, is useless to his Church unless he defends these least.

My mom taught me my prayers, and really just the two: Our Father and Hail Mary, simple and true. She was the one who made sure her children all wore a gold crucifix or a medal of a saint. She the one who touched her children’s holy things to relics to make them really holy. Who imagined angels and the Virgin Mary watching us, and said so. My mother of the implacable statement, “God kept you alive.” Neither argued nor explained. A maternal law I’ve never once questioned.

As angry and contradictory as I can be toward the mother who could look and not see so many things in me, her greatest maternal act was to love me into the tangible details of the Faith. The touches and the movements and the places.

As for the rest of me: Catholicism absorbed with baffling alacrity despite indifferent, confused grownup Catholics at the parish; learned at the sides of patient priests; saturated in defiance of liturgical poverty. Despite, indeed, parents who suffered ignorance of their own faith because it had been given to them by a generation perplexed at Vatican II. The generation that wanted to be different and also didn’t, and that is often rather bitter over it. The generation – my grandparents’ – that I least understand. My parents were taught by their confusion. Nevertheless. I am Catholic to my bones, and would be so were I an atheist. This education-despite skewed me enough that I haven’t breathed in all I could of the Church’s life. Not yet. Even had I been raised in a monastery, this would still be so.

God’s unexplained gift to me was my formation outside the confines of my resources. “Unexplained” because He’s never said why He gave me this, and I’ll leave its meaning to the Spirit and the Church.

I always try to embrace the Protestants who sit by me at Mass and cannot receive communion. I try to touch them somehow after I’ve received the Eucharist, and the impulse has something to do with how I think the act comes from the Heart of Christ and the Spirit of the Church. At the same time, I’ll be the first tempted to tackle a non-Catholic for daring to receive the Eucharist without receiving the Catholic Church (her practice is more generous: no one who asks is refused). The treasure of my tribe without my tribe somehow hurts and angers me the most. I don’t understand, can never seem to fathom, why a non-Catholic would dare. Not to have bled for her and yet to grip her heart. I stare at the act as if it were a language I didn’t know. I can’t read it, can’t understand.

The tribe wants to embrace but wants to be embraced, too. The desires are and will always be inextricably twined.

To serve without distinguishing who deserves to be served, because all do. To stubbornly distinguish and guard who serves. These are so innately Catholic, so frequently offensive and misunderstood.

A dear friend of mine mentioned that when next we meet, he might be able to receive with me. I looked at him and tried not to cry, tried not to contrive and convince. Looked at him feeling a desperate desire to have him near. There is a part of me that always wants everyone to be Catholic and never says so. Knows not to say it. It is a burning secret, a letter on the heart. To be able to take and eat with everyone, especially my friends: how desperately I want it, and how fiercely I won’t allow it unless they want it too. To want is to want the tribe, and I know that is hard. We are not so very lovable. Sometimes it seems others don’t join the tribe because of this or that doctrine, which I do vaguely understand. Mostly my heart wants to know whether they can love her, love my gathered blood-kin. All of us. We are all related and we are each other’s. This is what I more readily grasp as something someone can or cannot be.

I would love so much to eat with him. I said only, “Follow where the Spirit leads.” That is the Spirit’s concern and the Church’s too, and the Spirit always paints in the colors of the tribe. This I do and do not understand. I only know that neither the Church nor the Spirit are mine, and this I trust.

From “The Satin Slipper” by Paul Claudel

soulier satin

Le Soulier de satin (1929) is a play by Paul Claudel, a French Catholic poet and intellectual. The play is notoriously difficult to stage, and so is presented only rarely, but Hans Urs von Balthasar considered it the lone work to reach the grand dimension of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (see Glory of the Lord III). Below is an abridged excerpt.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you not recognize me?

DONA PROUHEZE. I do not know. I see only an uncertain shape, like a shadow in the fog.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It is I. I was there. I have never left. Your Guardian Angel. Do you really think that you were far from me until now? There was continuity between us. You were touching me.

Thus, when autumn comes how warm it is still! The air is blue, the swallow everywhere finds abundant provender,

And yet how does she know it? The autumn is come, nothing will hinder her departure, she must, she goes, braving the sea.

She is not troubled about direction.

In like manner, in a conversation, one who is all caught up and possessed by the conversation,

If he hear a violin somewhere, or simply two or three times in succession those taps one gives on a piece of wood,

Bit by bit he holds his tongue, he is interrupted, he is elsewhere, as they say, he is hearkening.

You yourself, tell me, is it really true that you have never felt in the depth of yourself, between the heart and the liver, that dull thud, that sharp pull-up, that urgent touch?

DONA PROUHEZE. Too well I know them.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It was my hook in the very midst of you and I was paying out the line like a patient angler. Look at it twined about my wrist. There are only a few lengths left.

DONA PROUHEZE. It is true, then, that I am going to die?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. And who knows if you are not dead already, otherwise whence would come to you that indifference to place, that helpless inertia?

So near the frontier, who knows from which side I can send you, back or forward at my playful will?

DONA PROUHEZE. Where am I and where are you?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Together and apart. Far away and with But to bring you to the inwardness of this union of time with no time, of distance with no space, of movement with a different movement, I would need that music which your ears as yet cannot endure.

Where you say, is perfume? Where you will say, is sound? Between the perfume and the sound what is the common frontier! They exist together. And I exist with you.

Listen to my being. Yield to the persuasion of those waters gradually unbinding you. Give up this earth which you think solid and is but chained down.

A frail mixture, at every second thrilled with being as well as not being.


DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, when you speak again I feel in the depths of me the fishing line, the pull of that straightforward longing against the surge, of which I have so often known the ebb and flow.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. The angler brings his catch from the river to the land, but my trade is to bring to those waters where I dwell the fish that is native to them.

DONA PROUHEZE. How shall I get there with this dense body?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. You must leave it behind a little while.

DONA PROUHEZE. Then how shall I do without it?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is it not now a little late to ask me that?

DONA PROUHEZE. Myself that corpse I see down there forsaken on the sand, is that it?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Try if you can again fit yourself into it.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Look closer. What do you see?

DONA PROUHEZE. Rodrigo, I am thine.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Again the line in my hand has unrolled.

DONA PROUHEZE, Rodrigo, I am thine.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. He hears, he stops, he listens. Silence, a faint rustle in the palm-trees, a soul in Purgatory going up to Heaven,

An enormous cloud-bank hanging in the stilled air, a wavering sun, lighting up innumerable surges, a sun clearly not the sun of day, the moon on Oceania!

And again, like a captive beast worried by the gad-fly, I see him between the two walls taking up his furious race, that bitter beat of his.

Will he never stop? Ah, what a hopeless road he has already trodden between those two walls!

DONA PROUHEZE. I know it. Day and night I hear those steps continually.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Are you glad that he suffers?

DONA PROUHEZE. Hold, dour angler! Do not pull the line so! Yes, I am glad that he is suffering for me.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you think it was for you that he was created and sent into the world?

DONA PROUHEZE. Yes ! Yes ! Yes, I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is for me he was created and sent into the world.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Are you great enough for a man’s soul?

DONA PROUHEZE. Yes, I am great enough for him.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is that the way you answer me on the threshold of death?

DONA PROUHEZE. Brother, kill this poor creature quickly and do not let her be so foolish any more.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What keeps you from going to him?

DONA PROUHEZE. This line holds me back.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. So that if I let you go . . .

DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, then no more a fish, ’tis a bird that you would see take wing! Thought is not so prompt, the arrow does not cleave the air so fast,

As, away beyond the sea, I should be that laughing, sobbing bride in his arms!

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Have you never learned that ’tis the heart that must obey, and not the will materially held back by an obstacle?

DONA PROUHEZE. I obey as I am able.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Then tis time for me to pull the line.

DONA PROUHEZE. But I can pull so hard against that it will break.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What would you say if I ask you to choose between God and Rodrigo?


DONA PROUHEZE. You are too clever an angler.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Why too clever?

DONA PROUHEZE. To let the question be heard before the answer is ready. Where would be the angler’s art?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Still if I put the question?

DONA PROUHEZE. I am deaf! I am deaf! A deaf fish, I am deaf and have not heard.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. But why this Rodrigo my enemy, who holds me up, why did I not strike him? ‘Tis not the line alone that my hand can manage.

DONA PROUHEZE. And I will hold him so close in my arms that you will never see him.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. You only do him ill.

DONA PROUHEZE. Rodrigo, is it with me you want to catch him?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. That man of pride ! There was no other way to get him to understand his neighbour, to get inside his skin;

There was no other way to get him to understand the dependence, the necessity and the need of another on him,

The law upon him of that being, different for no other reason save that it exists.

DONA PROUHEZE. Oh! And so ’twas lawful, that love of creatures for each other, ’tis true then that God is not jealous? Man in woman’s arms…

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should He be jealous of what He has made, and how should He make anything that does not serve Him?

DONA PROUHEZE. Man in woman’s arms forgets God.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Is it forgetting Him to be with Him? Is it away from Him to be bound up in the mystery of His creation,

Crossing again for a moment into Eden by the gate of humiliation and death?

DONA PROUHEZE. Love without the sacrament, is it not sin?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Even sin! Sin also serves.

DONA PROUHEZE. So it was good that he loved me?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. It was good that you taught him longing.

DONA PROUHEZE. Longing for an illusion? For a shadow that evermore escapes him?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Desire is for what is, illusion is what is not. Desire through and by illusion

Is of what is, by and through what is not.

DONA PROUHEZE. But I am not an illusion, I exist! The good that I alone can give him exists.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. That is why it must give him the good and nowise the evil

DONA PROUHEZE. But, cruelly dragged by you, I can give him nothing at all.

soulier satin NY

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Would you give him evil?

DONA PROUHEZE. Yes, sooner than stay barren and unfruitful like this, what you call evil.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Evil is that which does not exist.

DONA PROUHEZE. Let us then unite our double non-existence.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Prouheze my sister, the child of God exists.

DONA PROUHEZE. But what use existing if I do not exist for Rodrigo?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should Prouheze ever exist otherwise than for Rodrigo when ’tis by him that she exists?

DONA PROUHEZE. Brother, I do not understand you.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. ‘Tis in him that you were necessary.

DONA PROUHEZE. Oh sweet word to hear! Let me say it after you. What, was I necessary to him?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. No, not that ugly and ill-favoured creature at the end of my line, not that sorry fish.

DONA PROUHEZE. Which then?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Prouheze my sister, that child of God in light whom I do hail. That Prouheze die angels see, ’tis to her he looks without knowing it, ’tis her you have to make, to give to him.

DONA PROUHEZE. And ’twill be the same Prouheze?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. A Prouheze for ever, whom death does not destroy.

DONA PROUHEZE. Always lovely?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. A Prouheze always lovely.

DONA PROUHEZE. Will he love me for ever?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. What makes you so beautiful cannot die, what makes him love you cannot die.

DONA PROUHEZE. How shall I shine, blind that I am?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. God will breathe upon you.

DONA PROUHEZE. I am only a brand beneath the ashes.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. But I will make of you a star flaming in the breath of the Holy Spirit.

DONA PROUHEZE. Farewell! then, here below! Farewell, farewell, my best beloved! Rodrigo! Rodrigo! Over there, farewell for ever.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Why farewell? Why over there? When you will be nearer to him than you are now? Bound up beyond the veil with that cause which makes him live.

DONA PROUHEZE. He is seeking and will not find me any more.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. How should he find you outside when you are nowhere else but within his heart, himself?

DONA PROUHEZE. You say true, I shall really be there?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. This hook deep-bedded in his heart.

DONA PROUHEZE. Shall he always desire me?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. For some, the understanding is enough. ‘Tis the spirit that speaks purely to die spirit.

But for others, the flesh also must be gradually evangelised and converted. And what flesh can speak to man more powerfully than that of woman?

Now he can no longer desire you without at the same time desiring where you are.

DONA PROUHEZE. But will heaven ever be so desirable to him?

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL [making as if to pull the line]. For such a silly word you shall be punished here and now.

DONA PROUHEZE [crying out]. Ah, brother, let this moment still endure.

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Hail dear-beloved sister! Welcome, Prouheze, to the flame!

Do you know them now, those waters where I willed to guide you?

DONA PROUHEZE. Ah, I have not enough! More! More! Give it back to me at last then, that water I was baptized in!

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Behold it laving and entering into thee on all sides.

DONA PROUHEZE. It bathes me and, I cannot taste it! It is a ray that pierces, it is a sword that sunders, it is a red-hot iron dreadfully pressed on that very nerve of life, it is the bubbling of the spring that seizes on all my constituent parts, to dissolve and recompose them, it is the nothingness I drown in every moment, and God upon my lips reviving me. And beyond all delight, ah, is the pitiless drain of thirst, that horror of dreadful thirst that lays me open crucified!

soulier satin 3

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL. Do you ask me to bring you back to the bygone life?

DONA PROUHEZE. No, no, do not separate me any more for ever from these desired flames! I must give up to their melting and devouring this frightful shell. I must bring my bonds to the fire to be burnt! I must hug it to the destruction of all my horrid sheathing, all that God did not make, all this rigid bristling wood of illusions and sin, this idol, this abominable doll that I built up in the place of the living image of God, whose seal my flesh bore printed!


Translated by Father John O’Connor (with the help of Paul Claudel).

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.”

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.

Catholic Woman

“Irish Girl,” Robert Henri  (Not particularly what I look like, but hey – Irish Catholic! I’m assuming. My grandmother would’ve loved this.)

Once I had a professor tell me that I should not study Catholic theology because the Catholic Church had no place for me as a woman. She made me cry. Also, I went and studied theology anyway.

Such began a career in which my gender always plays a complicated role.

I don’t get to walk into a room and not have people notice my gender. Classroom, conference panel, job interview. That I am a woman has a peculiar burden because that’s how lack of privilege works: people notice the lack and not the privilege. No one much comments on how I’m white, though I’m that too. The emphasis is always bent toward my gender, because historically women have not had it easy, because that continues today, because I’m Catholic, and because I’m in a male-dominated profession (academic theology).

It is one matter to grasp these realities at least inchoately, to acknowledge and accept, and another to wrestle with them in the pragmatics of my daily life. Suddenly everything splits into a strange vertiginous prism of conflicting interests and pressures, as if a harsh light focused itself on me and yet lanced sideways to where no one is at all. I begin to feel, with rising unease, that somehow I matter least of all. That is, sometimes I suspect that my status, religion, and gender have been pulled away from me for examination without my consent.

I’m pretty sure that I have no idea what it is like for every Catholic woman to be one, but I sure as hell get asked that question all the time. Without prelude, other scholars and colleagues have turned to me and asked, “So, as a Catholic woman…” And I hardly know how to respond. Yes, I am one. I think it is a grace of its own kind to be one. But it is nerve wracking to think that I could speak for anyone else except myself, especially other women. I am not sure how to speak from that delicate place of individual experience and universal abstraction. I often refuse to answer the question.

And I am tired, so tired, of being asked about women and the priesthood. I confess near total exhaustion. I’m asked all the time. Because I’m a woman, a theologian, so I must… Well, must what? What are they asking of me, then and there? When they ask. What really – what are they seeing, when they look at me? Sometimes I refuse to respond to that as well.

Why refuse these things? Because I adore Thomas Aquinas, my favorite theologian is a dead Swiss guy, and I don’t do feminist theology. It’s not my expertise. Not even close. Because I get tired of it sometimes. In a fit of aggravation, I sometimes think that I should just get “metaphysics” and “aesthetics” tattooed on my wrists so people know what it is I love to study, or so they at least know that I know fancy words.

Beneath what I do and the theologians I engage, there is the anxious thought that these matters of mine render me distinctively less somehow. There is, to be sure, a way in which my interests sway elsewhere, and so I do not have a facility for discussing gender as it is being worked out at the scholarly level. I am happy to defer to others. All the same, I have been discounted by other women in my field for the same reasons, and I am not so proud as to imagine they’re wrong. Nor right, exactly. I honestly don’t know what to think.

It is important to acknowledge that there are ways in which I am helpless but to be some kind of living commentary on being a Catholic woman and scholar. Or failing to be enough of one. Any one.

I am aware, very aware, that I have had to be twice as good at philosophy as others in my field in order to be taken seriously. Because logic is, apparently, what men do. I’ve even growled, frustrated, when other female scholars stumble with a simple distinction, aware it’ll reflect badly on me and on her and none of it’s fair but it sure as hell is real.

And I wonder what it means, as a Catholic woman, to have put my work as a theologian first. If that’s another failing grade.

Like when I visit home and I know it’s very hard to understand what the hell it is that I’m doing, let alone why. It does hurt.

And I’d go to battle defending mothers all the same.

Or, unsafe in the walls of the academy, I go to the faculty lounge for lunch, and a female colleague teases me about how I must think everything is Eve’s fault. That hurts too, because it’s not what I think, it’s not what the Church thinks, and dammit if it doesn’t sting to have someone else presume for my sake that I’m complicit in an evil (real or not) against my own gender. Perhaps I am. That cuts at me, all ragged and helpless.

I do not lack concern for how women are treated, in the Church or outside of it, as I hope is clear. I don’t particularly want to be called a feminist, as I also hope is clear.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there have been times, perplexing times, when I have no idea what people are trying to get from me. Or if I could even give it to them if I knew. Painful times that I have been asked about my faith, about how I feel about it as a woman, and what my sexuality might be. What else of mine could they possibly eviscerate and place on the table after all that? Do I need to prove that I believe, that I have thoughts as a woman, that I’m heterosexual? And isn’t that somehow insanely unfair – unfair to all of it, every word? This is what people think they must see, must know, should get to ask about, when I walk into a room. Somehow. I hate the moments when I am placed under such a knife. How will I do anything in response but lose? No matter what I say. I do resent it. I do wonder what else of me is left, after the verbal surgery. Perhaps my intellect, but I can’t say much about what that means without a body and a faith to express and animate it.

It is a grace of its own kind to be a Catholic woman. Sometimes it gets really hard to remember that.

The Hole-y Family

"Margam Castle," Walt Jabsco

“Margam Castle,” Walt Jabsco

If I had a giant mansion, I’d put lots of people in it with me. Probably no one anyone would expect, since I hate expectations and since I love my sophomores from Seminar this past semester. They’d go in the mansion.

As an adult, I’ve never much liked the idea of family. I don’t have one of my own, and getting one of my own is buried deep underneath much more immediate concerns. Like not being afraid of the office printers. (They beep. They scare me. PTSD is super fun.) Concerns like how much I love German, and adore research, and how attached I am to some of my colleagues – Paul Giurlanda is going in my mansion – that distract me entirely from standard wishes about families.

I’d have lots of other people’s families in my mansion. Plenty of children running around sounds just about awesome. And I’d like an entire wing dedicated to the lost twenty-somethings that I keep meeting in my classrooms. They can play with the children and calm the hell down for a while. I will teach them German and philosophy, the children and the lost adults both.

And no one would have a damn timeline. For when they became good enough, or loved enough, or anything at all. There’s not enough time in life for timelines.

Everyone would be allowed to feel crazy, sometimes, and sometimes really happy and sometimes really sad. No emotion would be disallowed. There is enough space for every shade of feeling, and every book. There will be lots of books. And music. So much music.

My young Padawan whom I sent away to Boston College. He’d have a place. And his mom, who is in heaven, she’d be there too. My music major, and my fighter in his wheelchair, and all the librarians I’ve loved. My dissertation director and his whole family. They’re invited. We also need at least one Catholic philosopher, and I think she’ll be available.

Not everyone is my favorite. Not everyone would be in the mansion. They’ve got homes they can get to, or I don’t know them anyway. Or they irritate me. I’m not sure how many social scientists will be allowed in my mansion. Perhaps none. And I think I’ll ban Ugg boots just to see what happens.

But I do love the idea of folks coming and going as they pleased. I love the idea of permanent welcome and generous goodbyes.

And secret passageways. Lots of those.

Sometimes it’s nice just to imagine that mansion.

Photo originally from Walt Jabsco on Flickr