“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.


Wordless Presence: On Dog-Whispering and Human-Whispering

“Boy with dog,” Boris Kustodiev

I know a dog named Foxy. She was rescued – probably from abuse. So she’s scared of everyone she doesn’t know. She also sheds all over the damn place.

Human beings love their pets in utterly extravagant ways. It’s proof of how much we want to love, of how capable we are of love: that we take animals and treat them like part of the family. It can get weird quickly, like most of our loves do, and we forget the way animals speak to us mostly through the language of their physical presence – not with secret thoughts or intentions. Certainly not with words. We forget the way we mostly speak that way, too. We express ourselves in the wordless speech that is our bodies.

Back to Foxy.

When I walked through the door to see my friends, she came barreling into the kitchen with a loud bark and rushed over to keep on barking. She shoved herself in front of her owner, defensive, all lean wolf-dog and fluffy white hair. I was handed some treats to give her if she quieted down for me. She did, albeit reluctantly.

I’m not an expert on dogs, but I’m an expert on fear. And I saw that Foxy feels afraid. I understand that. Being hurt by someone else has a way of writing itself all over your skin. Like somehow fear has stitched itself in invisible letters all across your whole body, and nothing that touches you doesn’t remind you how it felt to feel that way. It is a feeling, really, more than it is a thought. A kind of electric hurt wired through every inch of skin. It hums and expands and throbs on contact.

Maybe that’s how Foxy feels. I imagined that it was. It felt important to imagine that in someone else, even a dog. The way she’d jolt and jump then calm herself down, wary and weary: I envied how obvious she was about it. I thought maybe I should pick up barking. Then people would know when I felt upset, because I certainly don’t know how to say it when I am.

I do resent, sometimes, when people need me to spell out how I’m feeling. At my most irritated, I picture some kind of dim lecture hall and a projector, and I need to have a PowerPoint prepared. A chart of emotions and their compelling reasons, all neatly lined up next to each other. As if that’s how any of that worked.

The Church doesn’t have a chart. You know. For what to feel and when. She has lots of things, but not that. And I’m glad.

I patiently set myself to convincing Foxy that she should let me pet her. She’d wander by and I’d conscientiously give her a little soothing touch, let her be on her way. It’s not like I could say, “Hey, I won’t hurt you.” I could only show her, and it’s not the kind of showing that happens all at once. It builds itself through small actions and patience. The crackle of physical fear can’t be overpowered by affection so much as slowly soothed. Loved in broken pieces.

Foxy slowly let me touch her more and more. We all like feeling safe; we all like returning to that place.

You’re not supposed to stare a dog straight in the eyes. This is a challenge in their language, animal to animal. I knew this and still stared right at Foxy, indifferent over whether she’d take up my challenge or not. I don’t really recommend that. I just didn’t care if she bit my face. “Whatever,” I thought, “I’ve had worse.” That was the stubborn shape of the writing on my own skin showing itself a little bit. I’m always rather determined to prove I won’t flinch, that nothing can make me flinch. As if I could somehow in some final way reveal the terrible chasm of hurt that leaves me so cut through with fear that everything else seems inconsequential. As if not crying could summarize how I cry myself to sleep at night.

Eventually, the exhausted dog laid down and let me pet her belly. This is submission in their language, animal to animal. I almost cried, a little jealous and deeply amazed that she could do this, and I touched her with soft reverence. Still she watched me, the strange creature who refused to hurt her and refused to look away. She was waiting, I imagined, for my betrayal. “Oh, Foxy,” I whispered, “what happened to you?”

Not that she could say. Not any more than I can, really.

There’s not a Sacrament that doesn’t involve touch, you know. Not a single one. Even if it is only the gentle touch of words on ears. Because, mostly, we express ourselves through the wordless speech that is our bodies. The host on hands and tongues; the soft feel of oil smoothed over foreheads; palms and fingers and rings.

The slow and patient touch of God.

Fragmentary Offerings

Thine own of Thine own: 32 of 365

Fraction. Usually some hellish math-thing. A freakish almost, a broken thing, a thing not enough to be whole. It is hard, sometimes, not to think of myself like this. As a collection of fragmented pieces, not quite whole. Especially when I pray.

I’m never sure where I got the idea that I needed to have my act together to pray. To really pray. Perhaps because saints do it, and I’m definitely not saintly. They can feel so far, so very far away – the saints. Or maybe because people talk about prayer with such reverence, I knew it had to be marked by uniqueness somehow. Real prayer is for real people. It makes enough sense, doesn’t it?

Until I cease my endless internal chatter, and try to remember God. And then I become aware of how little prayer I know. And I don’t feel very real at all.

Of course, technically, all else compared to the Being of God is not real. God is – God is the Real – and I am barely.

And, technically, knowing that still doesn’t sew together enough pieces of me to reach out to God without trembling. Without feeling all the terrible edges of my own inadequacy.

And if you told me to cheer up, or if you said I was just fine, I’d tell you that you don’t understand what I mean.

It is neither sadness nor insecurity that has got me thinking of myself in pieces. It is simple self-awareness. I know there are many fragments of myself shattered into nothing by terrible experiences. I know there are areas of strength in me that I stress all too easily. I know there are corners of me I’ve never known.

God knows all these things. Sees them written in my own jagged language, and all the rest underneath. And I want so badly to at least tell God that I know. That I know He knows.

But do I?

“Like a stranger in a foreign land, unacquainted with the language, they are almost inarticulate children again, wanting to say something but unable to do so.”

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

Like a child, then, I want so much to speak but cannot quite. I am fractured pieces of sentences.

There is another meaning of the word, though. Fraction.

It is when the priest breaks the Eucharistic bread during the Mass, recalling when Jesus did so at the Last Supper and at the same time signifying the unity of the Body of Christ (the Church) in the Eucharist. The bread is broken to stress the wholeness of Christ’s people in Him.

Sometimes it helps me to pay attention to the fraction. To think of myself along with it. I am, certainly, not whole. Or, if I am, I can only assemble small pieces of myself in any case. I am yet missing the wholeness of heart that is willing to stand before the God who knows its depths. Or, in any case, I am distracted and strained and often quite broken. But if this is all I have, these broken pieces of myself in my shaking hands, then will not God have those too? What if He supplies the wholeness, and I whatever I manage to have on hand?

I am not so sure prayer needs to be a special experience. I think it can be. But I think it also can be me desperately trying to pay attention. Some days, all I might be able to offer is my own confusion, or hurt, or rage. Shaking hands that hardly know what to do.

If God loves three pennies from a poor woman, surely He can love three seconds of awkward stuttering from me. And, no, I don’t think of it as all that fun. But I think of it as good. I do not think that it is enough. But I think that God is. I do not think that it is the end. But all beginnings have a chance to end with God.