The Triune God and the Theologian With a Broken Head

Franz Stuck, “Pieta”

It was hard to re-read my dissertation-turned-book. Not simply because I really don’t like listening to myself – it’s like hearing your own voice in a recording, familiar yet strange. It’s just… I tried to kill myself four months after the defense. And I remember the span of thoughts and emotions that carried me there. That I carried. It’s true that I was already cracked in the head before the book. Still, the book reminds me of the time I snapped apart like so much brittle glass.

After. After, my mom asked me how someone religious like me could do it. All I said was, “Please don’t.”

I don’t know how. All I know is that there’s a place in our hearts where there is neither God nor not-God. I don’t mean metaphysically. Of course God is there.  But it is a place of non-relation, a sort of severing even from the self. It doesn’t matter where anyone is or isn’t. That person is hurting in a very lonely way, and it is not a path one can accompany.

It’s not your fault if someone tries – or succeeds – you know. Suicide. Please don’t ever think that.

The book has very little to say about suicide. If anything, it traces Hans Urs von Balthasar’s careful refutation of the suicide of thought in modern theology, philosophy, and the arts. As I read it, I wondered if the past me would “convert” me. That is, draw me closer to God.

It has not been very easy, being close to God. After.

Other things are. These days, I have significantly more facility describing what mental illness is like. Helpless and unearned and a harrowing responsibility, mostly. Is what it’s like. Surrounded by all kinds of cultural ignorance. I thought everyone had violent nightmares every night – or at least a lot of them. Surely no one ever feels safe. Everyone hates themselves at least a little. Surely. I didn’t understand the signs.

So I really didn’t know that I was sick. And, I’m sorry, but graduate school isn’t a place that makes such things obvious. I have never again seen so much goddamn anxiety and maladaptive coping mechanisms all clustered in one place. I love you guys, classmates, but holy shit. Did you see us? Our professors didn’t know the signs or weren’t paying attention. Or maybe that’s not their job. Either way. It wasn’t healthy.

Once in grad school, while my grandmother was dying of cancer and my brother was in incredible distress, two friends pulled me aside into one of the chapels and had an intervention. They told me that I needed help and didn’t believe in the resurrection. I wish they hadn’t brought faith into it. I wish they’d known that college counseling services are easy to reach. I wish they’d been compassionate about how hard my family life was at the time. And I kind of wish it wasn’t them. I wasn’t close to them.

I was already heavily traumatized. I needed some real help and had no idea that I did. I needed help in high school. I needed help in kindergarten, for God’s sake. So I’m not saying they were wrong. Not exactly. It’s just that the whole thing was wrong. The time and the place and the people.

The resurrection thing – in a church – well, that was a bit much.

Mental illness shouldn’t be a condemnation. It isn’t a question of faith. God gives that anyway.

I don’t think I’ve ever not believed in God. There was a time in high school that I was an atheist and I kept it secret from everyone. I was the saddest little atheist, because even if there were no God, it seemed clear enough we needed one. Which is still a kind of faith, albeit stripped of most of its gnosis (knowledge). Even when I taped that note to my mirror and held a knife to my throat, I didn’t think there was nothing. I just didn’t care, or had drawn so near to an iron-jawed simulacra of nothing that I knew little else.

Nichtigkeit. The Nothing, the Not. Heidegger’s word, which von Balthasar distrusted. I wrote about that.

I wonder many times, when I reach hesitantly toward prayer, whether I still participate in that strange Nichtigkeit that held me with its sharp edges. I have the scars that ask the question if I won’t. And the answer is that I don’t know. I can laugh now, I have a job, I care about others. Heavy doses of medication slow me down enough that I can open my eyes. It’s a physical condition, the illness. Neurochemical distortions and depletions. That doesn’t make it un-spiritual. Our bodies simply don’t do that. Become un-spiritual. I’d have to die to do it.

I wrote about von Balthasar’s love for the physical, the specific, the concrete. The flesh. I wrote about that too.

If you’ve been hit in the head by a tire iron, you might lose some sight. That injury will henceforth affect what you can see, and you’ll have to learn your way around and through it. Well: mental illness isn’t any different. I don’t know that Jesus wants to save me from mental illness any more than He does you the tire iron. Which is to say: suffering just doesn’t seem to work like that.

I do think God did not let me die. So did I. So did others. Not let me die.

God always seems to insist on collusion.

There is a difference between art and the artist. This was, during the book, an obsession of mine. Total bastards can create beautiful, profound art. Their art ends up better than they are. I wonder now if this is so with me and my book. Its perspective – von Balthasar’s perspective – is much broader than the well I sat by. Not that I had nothing to do with it. Only that I don’t determine the meaning of everything I create. Only the one Creator does that.

There are ways that God is there in the gap, between art and artist, the measure of the distinction between esse and ens, colluding even with what we lack.

Von Balthasar was determined to show us this, in his way. He is famous for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday. Christ plunges into the uttermost depths of loss, embracing even the threat of nonbeing. In terrible silence, von Balthasar says, the Son descended. And so does the Church, following along in her liturgy: the great silence of empty sanctuaries during the Triduum. Yet all is in the light of the resurrection: God knows how to make something of wounds.

Still, I sometimes fret over whether von Balthasar went and cleaved apart the Trinity.

But there is another part of me that knows that place, that hell. Very well. And God is there, even if all I can manage for worship is silence.

Von Balthasar would say that God doesn’t leave us the last word. Just His.

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.

However.

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.

However.

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.

She held him so gently, and he was so soft.

“Madonna della Scala,” Correggio

I remember visiting a friend of mine when she was a brand new mom. Her husband welcomed me inside and whispered for me to be extra supportive. “She was cutting our baby’s nails, and cut her finger a little. She’s devastated.”

I walked over to the living room, and found my friend holding her little baby in her arms. She didn’t seem to notice my entrance. She just cradled her newborn against her chest, long hair shielding them both as she tilted her head down and rocked gently where she stood. It was, for me, so beautiful I could not speak. I had no idea what to say anyway.

My friend looked up at me, dark eyes wide and wet and vulnerable: “I hurt my baby.”

And there it was, all the messy hurt of a tender mother and a tender child. There was something true in it that I have not forgotten, and that continues to surpass me now.

I remember listening quietly as my friend mourned that first tiny wound with me. I remember how very soft her baby’s skin felt as I held her. I remember gently brushing a thumb over her forehead, amazed. And I was amazed at my friends, whose baby this was.

All babies are surprisingly soft. Their skin is delicate and new, and just the warmth of it is enough to astound. Before widening to consider a baby’s dignity, or future, or anything so grand – I am amazed at how soft a baby is, how vulnerable.

And I am heartbroken to imagine that first wellspring of blood and hurt. However small. There is something in it that surpasses me.

As we prepare for Christmas, I cannot help but think of these things. As words spin across the Internet, weaving every golden thread of meaning possible. It feels so bright. It feels so loud. Perhaps because I am so fragile myself: it is so, so loud.

The world is very loud, very violent. So much blood and hurt.

Even in the Christian outrage against the CIA torture efforts – justifiable outrage – I feel myself overwhelmed and lost. Perplexed at the various arguments that seek to show how insane torture is, how wrong. Not that I disagree. Only that my ears hurt at the volume, and I wonder at its purpose.

Perhaps to mask our heartbreak.

Yes, Jesus was hurt. And Mary wept. And it is wrong, so wrong, to physically and psychologically destroy anyone, anyone at all.

I struggle to understand it. This response. Struggle to understand how it would reach anyone, anyone at all, who hurts. Jesus hurt, and Mary wept, and it was wrong – what happened to you, and you, and you. How many millions of times must we say it? How many hundreds of millions of times until the coldness of such words echoes back to us?

This Christmas, I keep thinking of the softness of that baby Mary held. How vulnerable they both were. How she cradled him in her arms, so gently. How aware of hardness of the world she must have been, and how aware of his softness. Dreading that first little wellspring of blood and hurt.

I do not know what to think, except to say to my Mother that I am soft too. That we all are so very fragile. That I want so much to be held when I hurt so badly it feels impossible. Just impossible. The hurt. And I don’t want to be forgotten.

I wonder if we threaten to forget the tortured, the broken, as we decry the wrong done to them. It’s easier to decry it, sometimes. Easier than holding them, holding that shattered human being, and whispering softly: “Oh child, you are so hurt.”

All the Saints and All the Souls

“The Passover in the Holy Family Gathering Bitter Herbs,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

My great-grandfather was an angry man. A drunken, racist misogynist. I hated him. And I’ll remember him, often, with my students. When they make Heaven all rather easy. “Really?” I’ll ask, eyebrows raised. “How about the man who scowled at me just for being a girl?” Not that I think he is in Hell. Only that not all souls are easy to think about, and not all mercies simple to imagine.

So, yes, I hated him. My great-grandfather. Not that I am proud to admit it. Nor was it the powerful hate of venom and spite, the hate of action and consequence. I felt the worse kind of hate: the fearful kind, which knows nothing but trembling inadequacy. It was hard, as a young teen, enduring his scowl. Watching him grin at my brother, the young man saddled with the family name. I did not feel that my brother was lucky. I imagined that it was difficult and painful for him in other ways.

I never heard anyone say anything nice about my great-grandfather. I never saw him smile, except at my brother, and that did not seem nice at all. (Though, naturally, I took it as an opportunity to ditch my brother and sprint out of the room. Because I was much more coward than saint.) And I never saw him without a drink.

Many people have stories like this about one person or another. Sometimes these are the only stories they have at all.

My great-grandfather’s funeral, which I remember in broken pieces, was awkward and sad in all the wrong places. He had lived to his mid-nineties, so most of the people he had known were already dead. The minister, of a Protestant sort, had not known him and struggled to find things to say. I remember asking my dad difficult questions about my great-grandfather, wrestling with what the death of such a man meant. I did not hate him so much anymore. I worried about him, even while I hurt deeply over the memories of him.

He was Irish-Protestant. He made bathtub gin during Prohibition. He worked on the mail cars for the railroads, and for that he had a switchblade and a gun – in case of robbery. I think he had a flask, too, but I’m no longer sure. He seemed like he had one, maybe, is what that almost-memory probably means.

I remember the last time I saw him, and this is really the point of writing him down. The point of the challenge of his being, which was so beleaguered by anger and bitterness.

He was in a home by then. My mom said we were going to see him. I did not want to, because he scared me. My brother was with us too, and I think my sister as well. We are all fuzzy. But I remember my mom said we should see him, that it was the right thing to do. I did not understand.

She bought some cards for him. One was of a cute puppy, and that is the only one I remember. We walked into his small room, and he was sitting at his old desk – a desk that rests now at my parents’ house, and which will be my brother’s someday. I have no idea when or where it is from, though I am sure someone knows. There were nice pens on its surface, and papers and envelopes neatly stacked. “He likes to write letters,” my mother whispered into my ear, “and it is hard, because so many people he knows have gone.”

That was the first stab of sympathy I had ever felt for him.

My mom stuck the cute puppy on his wall, and a few other things. All colorful and lively and so unlike him. She spoke to him cheerfully about how we had come to brighten up his room and to say hello. She ignored his scowl, and asked how he was doing. I can’t remember what he said in reply. I stuck close to my mom, both for protection and yet somehow determined to protect her right back. I can’t remember if I said anything, or if I had a real moment of gentle awareness. I wish I did, but I probably didn’t.

I was rather familiar with death by that age. All too familiar. I had seen it in faces at hospitals, had brushed close to it more than once myself. This kept me haunted, not brave. Not at all.

It should be obvious, you know: I was and I am in terrible need of mercy, too.

My mother said it was the right thing to do, and of course it was. I wonder sometimes if she was remembering the old Corporeal Works of Mercy, which we had memorized at Catholic school. One of them is to visit the sick, and another is to bury the dead. None of them say that we are to do these things only for the kind and good-hearted, for the people we like. We are supposed to care for everyone, in every way. My mother knew that, and I am glad she did. The memory remains with me with a curious sort of power: both my young weakness and my mother’s courage. She insisted that everyone should be cared for, perhaps especially the ones who make it very hard.

God makes no exceptions. Nor should we.

This is what is so very demanding about Christianity.

There is an ancient theme in Christian thought called apokatastasis, a theme both condemned and defended. It refers to the idea that all will be redeemed, even the fallen angels. While this latter portion has been firmly rejected, the genuine hope that mercy will reach all human flesh has remained with the Christian tradition – even as it remains controversial.

We still pray for the entire world in the liturgy. The whole world. For all time.

And why not?

Mercy, real mercy, has a deep cost. It is no easy or simple thing, as we too readily imagine nowadays. But I do not think it a cost God is incapable of paying. Or, if we must part ways with economics, I have a hard time imagining a place where God’s infinity does not reach. I have a hard time imagining the prayers of the Church as futile.

Surely my mother carried God’s own mercy with her when we walked into that dim and lonely room. Surely the prayers of the Church echoed in her very steps.

And, perhaps, God’s mercy found me, too, in my great-grandfather’s presence. Mercy gently goaded me. Through him, somehow, as well as through my mother. Why not? Who says that is impossible?

I do not imagine that my great-grandfather is in Hell. I am not able to know what that would mean. The mind cannot comprehend loss like that. I wonder instead what he might look like transfigured by mercy. Maybe I wouldn’t recognize him, since I knew him so little and since I only knew the bitter old man. I’d like to think I would recognize him, though. I’d like to think I’d be very happy to see him, God willing, and he me.