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.”

Allowing another’s faith to be.

By Andre Kohn

By Andre Kohn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A prelude to forgiveness.

“The Church doorway,” Grant Wood

“They don’t understand,” she said, soft on the phone. I sighed and closed my eyes. She meant our vast shared family. She meant mental illness. “No, they don’t,” I said, voice just as soft. “It isn’t their fault.”

I have an enormous network of family members, there are a million, or close to that, and I remember in kindergarten figuring out that when the other kids said “family,” they didn’t mean all their cousins and aunts and uncles and second cousins and so on. Everyone in my family is wildly different, whatever branch of the family tree I imagine.

I have loved and hated that tree. Every inch of it. With all of my being. Loved. Hated.

The side of the family in question, in that phone conversation – well. I won’t name it. The story would wander through different details to arrive at the same destination. Let us leave some things to rest.

Either way, I do not… It has been very hard to face what no one noticed when I was young. The awful things. I do not know how to mourn the horrible, the shameful things – that no one knew. Not really. They didn’t. They couldn’t. My God, they would’ve stopped it. Right? If they just knew. And why didn’t they? It hurts. Why didn’t they know?

My keen awareness of how little others could do for me slices me apart inside, like I’d swallowed razor blades.

I hurt. All I did was hurt. It still hurts.

It has made me angry, this question about the past. Sometimes I thought I’d burn alive right where I stood, consumed by a rage so powerful I feared I wouldn’t survive it. I hated every soul who’d ever known me as a child. Fuck them for never rescuing me. I had never felt such anger. Or, I should correct: I had never realized how angry I was inside. Very, very angry. Burning up.

Sometimes it comes up again, the howling rage. It terrifies me every time, though I do remember I’ll survive it. That it doesn’t make me evil, or a monster, or unredeemable to feel it. For a long time, I worried that I had betrayed my family, and that was the one thing I knew I should never, ever do – betray them. I needed to love them, not hate their guts. Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I stop hating them so much? I was the worst, the worst human being, to hate them so much.

And.

Strangely, I have learned that love can survive hatred. Anger, too. It just…doesn’t burn.

That is a mystery to me, that strange quality of love. It has a way of redeeming even an anger so fierce it eats everything else alive. All red and orange claws, all breathless heat. Snarling.

I hear their voices on the phone, and I know. I still love them. I do. Even when it hurts all over again.

It is the case that no one understood what happened to me, or in any case very few did, and definitely no one did anything. It doesn’t matter: I was alone with those feelings. They are painfully difficult even now. It is also the case that no one understood as I fell apart with those feelings and many, many more. I was alone with those feelings, too, hurting in a different way.

And.

It isn’t their fault. Not understanding, whenever they don’t understand. There is much, so much, underneath all that lack. Like some darkly crystalline cave beneath the floorboards. They don’t do it on purpose, not knowing. It’s a twisted history under there, carefully unspoken. They still love me as much as they know how, even when there is so little to hold onto in the dark. Love has a strange way of surviving…really goddamn demented family histories, and gut-wrenching blindnesses, and secret devastations. Not everything survives. Not happily. Even if none of it did: it isn’t their fault. How they are isn’t their fault. And they are still lovable, just the way they are.

Even when I hate them.

Even when I don’t understand them at all.

It isn’t their fault. Somehow. When I first said it on the phone, I did not expect the other voice to understand it, even as it seemed to echo in my ears all new and mysterious. I’d add that a weight was lifted from my shoulders, but really it wasn’t, and really I felt deep sorrow. Sadness at the strange blamelessness of guilt in the world, that saturated and surpassing guilt. The kind of shuddering thing that’s no one’s fault as everyone hurts under its power, as everyone hurts each other – which is their fault, that part.

Is it possible to forgive a strange mess of measureless guilt and (sort of) measurable responsibility?

I worried, sometimes, that to forgive would mean somehow voiding the past. Like it never happened. Like that hurt never cut. Someone once told me that when God forgives us, God doesn’t remember our sins at all. That’s not forgiveness, that’s forgetting. How much more real is it when the dark is there in plain view – and forgiven? In other words, forgiveness is for things that need forgiving – not things that go away. The remarkable turn isn’t so much that the hurt vanishes, but that it is relinquished as it is acknowledged. It is as if it never happened, but only because it did happen and it was forgiven, and somehow the wound itself is more precious because it became an experience of genuine mercy. Remembering the agony becomes a window to remembering that aching relief, that breathless happiness that strangely makes us cry. Why forget that?

“Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20).

I have things I need forgiveness for, too. After all. And I do hope that I can be forgiven, someday, for what I did and do. I hope that those people don’t have to forget what I did, or say it wasn’t real, but can know it in some new and precious way. For them. Not for me.

I need to forgive my young self, too. After all. For all that silence.

And… My family. I understand, a little, the jagged pathways of fault. They don’t understand, didn’t. I barely do. Must I keep waiting around for them to cry for my every tear before wiping them away from all of our eyes (Rev 21:4)? I don’t think forgiveness needs that. Not really. Though of course many other things must pass before grace finds its way through the wounds. It’s not easy. I’m not saying that. And maybe there are some things that wait for another time, a time beyond time, for forgiveness. Hell: it has taken me years to arrive to wherever it is I am. It is somewhere or something, though.

I wouldn’t call it forgiveness. Not from me. Not yet.

It is something like the shadow of forgiveness stretching across an open door.

Who Can Think of It?

“Who Can Think of It?” Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya has a series of horrific and leering political portraits of Spain falling apart before his eyes. Called “The Disasters of War,” they were only published after his death. The court painter – going deaf – revealed himself as a sensitive observer of violence, able somehow to paint with it – to make it real. Famous for his rich colors and smooth lines, everything went black and sharp and stark. As if violence itself skittered through his fingers, spidery and knowing.

They are fascinating. They are brilliant. They are awful. It is possible to see them glaring in a chronological list of his works, right next to portraits of the Duke of Wellington. The contrast cuts as much as the paintings do.

I love them. I love their brokenness. The thick, horrible lines. They say something that I cannot.

They announce something about memories that I have, and for which I have very few words. Very few, even as the memories themselves, firing through my nervous system, return with strangely specific vengeance.

Memory is a complicated thing. Every time we surface a memory – actively recall one, that is – scientists say that we seem able to edit them before tucking them away again. In fact, we frequently modify our memories. The science seems to imply that memory is nothing if not unreliable.

Memory is alive. I don’t know if that means it’s unreliable.

“I don’t remember anything happening to you,” someone in my family once said. I cried. Memory against memory. It’s a bad fight from the start.

I don’t know what Goya did and didn’t see. I know that his paintings are real. I mean that they know something real. They know about it. He knew. It’s on the canvas. He knew something without words. It’s there, remembered, in the paintings.

It is as if the art testifies to the moment that God vanishes from everything all in one horrible, violent instant. There is something very real about atheism, at least this kind. It never sounds like the atheism argued in the academy, so I’m not sure they’re the same. The kind I mean is to have seen God nowhere.

I have experienced that nowhere, that awful blank page. It is its own kind of negation, whatever it is, and different than the logic that would claim there is no God. This other place is simply, violently, nowhere. Apart and alone. Every theology disappears, even the theology that there is no God.

This place, where God is nowhere, I felt it again just yesterday. As a needle carefully punctured my skin, and I felt the sharp burst of pain as it entered and the dull ache as it remained. I watched dark blood, my blood, fill vials. I feel sick and scared just writing the spare words. The vials were for a whole series of blood panels. For my doctor. So I can feel better. But in the moment, I couldn’t remember why I was there.

All was nothing but me and that needle. Nothing at all.

I cried, later, in my therapist’s office, curled into a tiny ball on the chair. “Jesus wasn’t even there,” I whimpered.

You and I could both argue to me that He was, but you and I both know that’s not what I meant.

I was absolutely unable to be anything but alone. (Hell is being alone in C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce.) Nothing was anywhere, is what I think I meant. Something like that. Because of my own memories, everything went away. Like it has hundreds of times before. That strange nowhere, where nothing is. Not even God.

I hate that nowhere.

And I wonder if Goya knew it. That place that cannot be thought. Where there is no thought.

Did Jesus know it?

And does God remember me, think of me, when I remember and I cannot think? He must, but that’s not what I mean.