Hans Urs von Balthasar and Mickey Mouse

balthasar with mickey

Above: my least favorite picture of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

If I ever make it to Heaven and I get to meet my hero Hans Urs von Balthasar, the first thing I’m doing is walking up to him, shoving him backwards against a gleaming wall (Rev 21:11), and asking, “Why the f*ck did you go to Disneyland, Hans Urs von Balthasar?” Then I’ll be escorted back to Purgatory by St. Michael while yelling, “WORTH IT.” For which I’ll get five more years, which I’ll also call “worth it.” Then after eighty years becoming best friends with Cato, I’ll get to come back and ask my question a nicer way.

Dammit, why, Balthasar? Everything I know about you leads me to think that you’d hate Disney as much as I do. You resent lies, and for you the most loathsome lies are the ones that seem the most like truth. Those are the ones that rob us of freedom. The ones that eradicate real memory. What is more stultifying than a fantasy that robs fairy tales of danger and parents and surprise? Dude. You love surprise.

Let me be clear: I come from a “Disney family.” My nuclear family, my cousins. We all know Disney stories really well, we’ve all been to the parks together, and there are even some of us who work for Disney. I’m the heretic who wants nothing to do with Disney and hates visiting the parks. A query about it from an uncle had me melting down in a rant about nihilism in the middle of Epcot Germany.


And when I woke up, a German lady was telling her pet baby deer not to eat apples.

I know my enemy. I’ve studied the texts, both major and minor. I’ve cried at all of the Toy Story movies. Hell, I’ve visited the temples of pretend, those strange, ritualistic parks that promise to offer another world. I don’t want another world. I’m not a Gnostic. And I don’t want a voice external to me telling me what right and wrong is, and I don’t want songs about believing hard enough.


Doing the good is not an imposition from the outside, Jiminy, you lazy Kantian!

What fascinated you, Balthasar? Is this like Heidegger again? A danger that you found useful? Is this like the Russians?

You dislike magic. For you, that means a human being trying to know or control the future. “Magic” like Shakespeare often meant the word. That old way, where “divining” meant trying to be like God. But we’re not God, and our glory is in not being God. You resist magic, whether it takes the form of pretending to know the end of things or pretending we can control the world with technology. So why do you tolerate the presence of Mickey?


“What happens after midnight?” “Honey, I ain’t telling you a damn thing.”

I understand that Disney – the company and the man – revolutionized animated and cinema technology more than once. I also understand that the animatronics at those parks is astounding. But still. That doesn’t outweigh princesses or literally all of The Fox and the Hound. Did you see that movie? Oh my God. Rilke could write dark German sonnets about that thing.


Rainer Maria Rilke

Which actually might be a point in that movie’s favor, but you are never making me watch it EVER again. Balthasar. You.

I forget what my point is because I’m all sad now. Look, whatever. You go hang out with Mickey. I’m gonna go hang out with the drunk snowman from Frozen, all of Captain Hook’s pirates (cartoon and Robin Williams versions), and Marion from Indiana Jones. I’ll meet you when the park closes after a parade, light show, and fireworks.


Has never walked a straight line in his life.


Kneeling Theology

“Feet of a Kneeling Man,” Albrecht Durer

Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called for the return of “kneeling theology,” by which he meant theology that breathes with the life of prayer. It’s almost a stereotype now: Balthasar and his kneeling theology. A touching and fanciful idea, soft and perhaps soft-headed. I sense steel underneath the gentle call, however, and I grit my teeth like Jeremiah. I know this is a hard and unflinching thing, and I’ll not be seduced (cf. Jer 20:7).

I suck at praying. I am not only distracted, but also hesitant, standoffish, and insolent. Closer to lost anger than loving trust. I don’t blame God for the immense, even unthinkable suffering that I have endured. I don’t think God wasn’t there. I simply imagine that God will continue to be with me in that strange absence of his, in that wakeful removal that characterizes abandonment. It makes me shake, fearful and furious, to imagine enduring it again as it was at its worst. Something like it continues, and I tremble as I become aware of God’s persistent withdrawal in my life. I don’t know how to speak with God about that. Balthasar says that with prayer, we become “almost like inarticulate children once again, wanting to say something but unable to do so” (Prayer, 14).

No kidding. Half the time I drop to my knees in church and think, “Fuck you.” It is as if all the words I have learned from theology have disintegrated, leaving me only with what is raw and simple. I think “I love you” just as often, and the two phrases echo one another in my head in difficult, confusing ways.

Everything is clearer when I have donned the robes of a theologian. When I bear the weight of the role, the one that is still new to me and that I have instincts about anyway. My instinct is that being a professor of theology is a form of ministry, of spiritual service. Like any ministry, it has duties and perspectives unique to itself. The professoriate bears the scholastic task as its essential form: research, critique, study. Its spiritual service is highly intellectual, even necessitates a certain careful remove from the passions that enliven and twist other ministries. I do not mean that the theologian is unfeeling. I mean that the theologian must patiently last through feelings, must be awake in the tumult, watching and taking note. That is different than being the one to soothe, or the one to bless, or the one to carry. It is being in the thick of things distinctly. As we all are anyway.

I do not imagine myself as a spiritual director (or did you not read the “fuck you” paragraph?). I imagine myself as the one who asks why we need direction, and who asks what that means in the eyes of God. It may even be important, at least in my peculiar life, that I am not a spiritual director. That I not pretend to be one. It is definitely important to know that I am less essential than a spiritual director.

Still, ministry always involves other people, a ministry to someone. Balthasar must have meant something like this when he spoke of kneeling. “It is impossible,” he writes in Prayer, “to contemplate the word without the serious intention of doing justice to it in practical behavior”(223). Balthasar has a profound love for the genius of Catherine of Siena, and he likes to drop her into conversations as a sign and seal of something greater. Her genius consists in the thorough and inextricable link of love for God and love for neighbor. Notice what God says in her Dialogue:

…in no other way, can she [the soul] act out the truth she has conceived in herself, but, loving Me in truth, in the same truth she serves her neighbor.

“And it cannot be otherwise, because love of Me and of her neighbor are one and the same thing, and, so far as the soul loves Me, she loves her neighbor, because love towards him issues from Me. This is the means which I have given you, that you may exercise and prove your virtue therewith; because, inasmuch as you can do Me no profit, you should do it to your neighbor.

Scholarship is for others. I do not mean that the theologian must write what everyone can understand, but I do mean we should try not to forget the people we sit with in pews. Much more essential than this is what the theologian does in day-to-day life on campus. That is where people come up more often than not. How we interact with colleagues and students is an extension of our vocation rather than a pause from it, especially because of the academic setting.

I think of this often as I carefully attend to what another scholars says, even – perhaps most of all – when I disagree with that scholar. The Christian in conflict is always a crisis and a testimony. How I handle a parting of ways is a reflection on the Church whether I like it or not. What I struggle to know, the awareness that needs sharpening, is understanding when to dig in my heels and resist openly, and when to quietly listen without announcing opposition. My tendency is not to say when I disagree. There are times when this cannot, must not, be the case. I never quite know when.

John of the Cross writes about the “wound of love” that the soul receives from God, that sweet ache of being desperately in love. A poem of his, “The Spiritual Canticle,” describes the soul as “she” runs through the world seeking God, who seems to have left: “You fled like the stag after wounding me; / I went out calling you, / but you were gone.” And the world is filled with evidence of God:

Pouring out a thousand graces,
he passed these groves in haste;
and having looked at them,
with his image alone,
clothed them in beauty.

Jeremiah, by the way, lets himself be seduced by God. He and John of the Cross have something in common.

For all my interior struggles, for every painful silence that speaks of God’s absence, there is still the effort to seek him. Despite my intellectual sophistication, I am not much for complicated ways to seek God. I’m no mystic, and I’m too impatient and hurt for immense sanctity. But doing small things: this I can do. (Here is Thérèse of Lisieux.) Remembering a student’s name, or countenancing a small detail in the life of someone else: this I can do. It is not a direct confrontation with what ails me, but it is a confrontation with what yet may heal me. Remember what Catherine of Siena said: what God has given we are to use for others. I have an intellect and I know how to listen. “You’ve gotta use your talents,” my mom would say, semi-quoting Matthew 25.

I like to remember the Rule of Benedict Chapter 53: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me’ (Matt. 25:35).” I don’t know who my guests are except the people who walk through my office door.

I’m not about to claim that all this profoundly shifts my academic writing, transfigures it entirely. To be honest, I’m not sure that it does. But I’m not sure that it doesn’t. What it does seem to do is widen the horizon of what I might say, of what I might find. Because I might find God. Fides quaerens Deum. Or rather, I might find that God has already found me. I know that – and I don’t really. Fides quaerens intellectum. It’s okay to know a truth that I don’t really know yet. That is, in its way, all of theology.

The better a man learns to pray, the more deeply he finds that all his stammering is only an answer to God’s speaking to him; this in turn implies that any understanding between God and man must be on the basis of God’s language. It was God who spoke first.

Balthasar, Prayer, 14

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).

Scholarly Ambition

The Leeds Library

If there is anything that I chomp at the bit over, it is scholarship. I want to learn, to write. And I’m bored easily, so sitting still with the knowledge I do have leaves me impatient and restless. I’ve been reading a colleague’s work. It makes me so happy.

My poor students are subjected to my restlessness. I assign them books I want to read in my work. I’m always changing the books when I teach a course again. I never offer them something at their actual reading level. “It’s important to get used to not understanding everything and still reading,” I insist. We read Irenaeus, Michael Gorman, Max Scheler, Basil the Great. I’ve learned to pare down the length of the reading unto strategic minimalism so they don’t get overwhelmed. However much that slows our pace, I don’t particularly care. I want them to walk with me through live questions. It is for their sake, but I doubt I’d be so damn determined if I didn’t need it so much too.

We have no teaching or research assistance at a place like this. Every year, some senior walks through my door asking me a question. (Why is it always a senior?) We talk about it. Then I ask, “Do you want to study this with me?” And we do. I pull out articles, excerpt from books. We talk about them. I’ve helped students study philosophies of time, of mind; Max Scheler; music.

They could ask me to study the death of God and I’d eagerly agree.

I’ve told my classes, with every seriousness, that they have inspired and are helping me to write my next book. (So ambitious, another book.) One that will attempt to understand what it means for Christianity to be a tradition. A tradition that encounters a world it has never yet faced. This strange world, California, and its profound post-Christianity. To have known Christianity and to leave it aside: Christianity has never known such a challenge. How can the Church be herself, yet flexible enough to greet the newness of her situation?

So I play them music. Lots of music. I am convinced music is a key answer, offers itself up as a fertile analogy. I’m not about to insist theology must become music. We need to learn from it so that theology might understand itself better. As the Fathers borrowed from Plato, so I want to borrow from music. (And everything else.)

What Hans Urs von Balthasar wanted theological aesthetics to be was an absolutely serious form of theology. He thought of beauty as that necessary quality of the real without which theology would only narrow and harm itself. Beauty does something. It opens doors that otherwise wouldn’t even be seen.

I am weary of “theological aesthetics” that spend themselves in pretty comparisons between theology and the arts. “Look here: theology and the arts are kin!” Yes, they are. And so what? I could do much of what is currently done in the field – my field – with “pure” philosophy, especially phenomenology. Where is beauty doing what the logic of the truth and the desire for the good cannot? It is no wonder that theological aesthetics threatens to be a corner of theology that speaks only to itself. Those elsewhere need not attend to the voices if, really, they offer nothing.

I want a theological aesthetics that does something. I think music shows us something everything else can at best only gesture toward. I want to explain this.

And why the hell do I think I can offer such an explanation? I’m not sure I do. I only speak with the assurance that it must be done. Someone must do it. I’ll at least be willing to fail. I’ll have to learn music, but I find myself oddly unfazed by the task. Maybe I refuse to comprehend it, or ache so deeply to be challenged that I’ve found something just impossible enough to soothe.

Imagine such a heart, though. The one that won’t accept a lesser demand. It is hard not be impatient and restless. Lonely to always lead with expertise.

Lonely to always be explaining simple, simple things. Of course I must; of course it’s good. My faculty colleagues don’t know what an ecumenical council is and it is good that they do now. But there’s a certain sadness in it, too. The fissure at the very center of my book: how to hold the depths when barely at the margins. How to understand what it is to watch my beloved Church in some way die, living only with the hope of the resurrection.

She does die. What else is it to watch the Brothers literally die away, or to be the only Catholic in a room? Conscripting Catholics – as I was, in a way – is but a superficial stemming of blood. Catholics will still experience the questions. What is it to mourn these deaths? To wonder how to love as they are endured? To care about how to keep the earth prepared for when the seed finishes dying, then presses through, alive?

I suppose it is this: what’s it mean for a note to endure while it dies?

Without f*cking Hegel, or Heidegger, or Rilke. (Well. Maybe Rilke.)

I want to know. Brother Charles told me I have a voracious appetite. I do. I like that. Plus “voracious” always reminds me of velociraptors for some reason. They’re even better.

I want to be able to write. I am, naturally, and there’s more freedom for it than people might think. Still, there is that awful solitude. I’m not yet sure how to integrate it into my experience as a scholar. I do not persist under the illusion that it would be all that different at some other institution. “Humans is humans,” I like to tell my students. (I torture the English so they remember it.) There’d be more time for writing at another place. That’s assured. But it’s really the solitude of inhabiting the massive unknown of the Catholic Church that hurts. Not the time. (Sometimes the time.)

And I do worry that my ambition will be interpreted as eagerness to leave. I don’t want that for more than one reason, most of all because it isn’t true.

I simply don’t know what to do with how it feels to be where I am sometimes. I don’t know how to describe the hurt in softly explaining that there have been more than three popes since the opening of the 20th century. It’s not a pain at their ignorance – well, sometimes it is – so much as it is a pain of distance. Of not sharing the very small things. The details that are a way of life. I work always to make them known, but I think I get to say that it can be exhausting and solitary. It’s true.

I worry that it’s the secret curse of ambition. Of wanting too much. And of bearing a melancholy, reflective disposition.

I don’t really know what I’m after here, or what to do. It is true that I’d never write as much from St. Mary’s. It would be a sacrifice for my students, and a freely offered one. I’m not quite sure it’s that. I’m early in my career, a young scholar. There’s immense vulnerability in it. Doors may or may not open depending on what I do. And I don’t know, always. What to do. And who around me could I ask? It makes me grateful for the spaces I am allowed simply to exist as myself rather than some kind of constant educationally Catholic presence. I haven’t yet figured out how to hold all that together, to understand the plenitude of being along with the pieces of my life that inevitably lack.

It’s a human problem, really. A problem stitched into being human. That’s not an answer, and it doesn’t soothe. It expands and shares it, is all. This thing I’m trying to say.

Humans is humans.

The birth of memory.

Study of a figure for Hell, John Singer Sergeant

Only last year, my mother was telling me a few details about when I was born. The myth itself sits heavy on my shoulders, and has rested there my whole life. We spoke of it so many times: how I came three months early, I almost died, my mother almost died, and I was baptized immediately. I’ve seen the photos. My mother, rail-thin and pale, dark hair and glasses just like me these days. My two-pound self lying there in a clear plastic box, tubes and needles everywhere. The red of my skin, which didn’t soothe into the soft pale of a newborn. Unnatural. I’ve looked at the images my whole life.

My therapist says I need to remember that child. The little baby alone in the incubator. For the first few months of my life, I only rarely received affectionate touch. My parents had to scrub themselves perfectly and wear gowns. The other touches: they were needles and pain. There wasn’t the snuggling regular newborns receive. The constant soft assurance. Babies are shaped by their early months. Science shows us this.

Me: I was primed by a brutal world.

I hate the science. I hate the goddamn facts that point like daggers to my painful shyness, the tearful anxieties that haunted me through school. Struggling to feel attached, which worsened as the doctors did. I hated the doctors, hated them more and more as I saw them more and more. Sometimes I think: I just couldn’t seem to live or die. I feel so angry at that child, can’t seem to avoid hating myself at any age, and I blame myself. Sometimes for just not freaking dying. The anger conceals terrible loss, terrible disappointment.

In a world that will send no one to rescue me.

My mother told me that when I first came home from the hospital – in Cabbage Patch Doll clothes, because they didn’t make clothes for premies then – she sat with me and held me all day. Just held me. I try to picture it, and I’ve made it a memory of my own, though of course I don’t actually remember anything. I treat it as if I do. A memory of how much my mother suffered and cared. And simply that she held me. I don’t have a memory of her holding me, not ever. I know that she did. But I don’t remember, and I don’t know why.

Flesh hardened for an unkind world doesn’t remember touch, I suppose.

My sister doesn’t like it when I say these things online. She says I never remember the happy things. I do – and I don’t. And I don’t like it when she suggests I’m not remembering it right. I’m worried it’s true – and I know it’s not.

Once she spoke of my life like it came to me easily, my success, like an unrolling carpet. I saw something then: that certain things are very, very easy for me. That this was painful for her to see. School was never so simple for her. That I forget. I also understood that she didn’t, she can’t, know what it felt like inside. And both are true: school was really goddamn easy even when I missed half of it sick; also, I missed half of school sick.

God damn high school. I have dim memories. It all runs together, the shapeless days and me half-dead inside. Deeply withdrawn, deeply religious, hyper-intellectual. I still get that way in the summer, because summers are still the most like back then. (And the world is brutal.) Most of the real remembering is impossible. So when I seek to reference high school in class, I ask students for their memories. I can’t offer any of my own.

And I still can’t fully remember what happened to me. The really bad things. They are purely concentrated conjectures, perhaps, that try to provide answers for feelings I have. Their reality is more in the shape of my pain than their flickering, tenuous concreteness. My body remembers something. The confusing flashbacks to hospitals, the sudden crawling spider-waves of fears – these are memories of a kind. Recollections of a body already long primed by a brutal world, shaped to perceive what hurts.

No one will come and rescue me from all that. From the memories and suffering and confusion. I’m sorry, but it’s true. No one will glide in and carry me away. No one ever has. No one at all. They can’t. Lift me from the waters all you want: I cannot be made to breathe. Sure, there are machines; medicines. But don’t mistake those for breathing.

This is the impossible conundrum of freedom: that to be had, it must be used. Even when the free one in question desperately is not.

Because there isn’t some moment of titanic willpower into being better. Not from things like this. Sometimes I think mental illness terrifies people because it exposes the limits of our willing. My suffering isn’t actually explained by any of the memories, you see. Not quite. Yes, in part – and yet not. My sister remembers our childhood, and she makes an effort sometimes to set her memories against mine. But the suffering isn’t in the memories themselves. Not quite. I could take control if it were true, if everything came to remembering – or not remembering. If it came to “moving on.” Time doesn’t work like that, though, and neither do memories – we can’t will them away.

Remembering is a strange sacrament. These words and symbols that somehow more than they are – even pain. The fragility of a memory isn’t the problem so much as the strength of what they impart. A brief half-trace can burn all over.

Even if everything were reducible to the trauma of my birth – which it isn’t – and the rest is just a self rather helpless before experiences that would never hurt anyone else, it would mean so very little. The answer. If it were all that one thing. Like it always was, growing up: “She’s a premie, so…” God dammit, I’ll never escape the shadow of being born. And neither will you. Part of what being born means is that you will never be able to summarize yourself.

Being unable to recount high school doesn’t leave me unmarked by it. The lack of memory shows me how the past is more than what I am able to see in it. Even in the presence of memories – like the time a teacher asked me what happens to us when we suffer, and I felt the whole world of a suffering adult settle on my shoulders – I do not fully understand.

Trauma is a particularly painful and broken way to remember. This doesn’t make it unreal or more real than the rest. (As if suffering could summarize me instead.) But it does hurt, far too much, and we at least must say that memories ought not do this. Something must somehow break the hold. Yet what would it be, that thing, if you cannot offer it and I cannot either? We don’t like to ask that question. This one than mental illness lays to bear.

The obvious implication is that my spiritual powers are not enough. We think we see guilt on the faces of the mentally ill, some kind of failure on their part. No: they are signs of a frightening impossible. The uncomfortable proposition that we are not enough for ourselves. Nor even for each other.

There is a word in Latin: conveniens. Thomas Aquinas uses it to discuss when something is “fitting.” It isn’t necessary; it isn’t arbitrary. It fits, makes sense in the strange way only beauty makes sense: inexplicably reasonable. Of course, of course – that just suits you. It just does. Conveniens.

There is a doorway somewhere in our imaginations and wills, there where memories and dreams live. A door that can’t be made – not with human hands – nor opened. But by some fitting measure there is a way the heart (which dreams and remembers) can be soothed into the perfect shape to open it. The measure of a different willing, a will that is not the heart’s yet not without the heart. So suitable it goes on unnoticed in the beating dark. There may be no memory of it, none at all. Or the recollection may rise up sudden from the past in some future far from now.

A grace that doesn’t rescue so much as it breathes within, and the dead gasp awake.

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.

Beauty, Writing. Illusioning and Disillusioning

“Untitled,” Zdislav Beksinski

Once I burned every story I had ever written. Literally. Then deleted the files. Or, I suppose I should begin in another place: I used to write stories. Then I burned them all. The act was at least partially inspired by G.M. Hopkins, who had burned his early poems on entering the Jesuit novitiate, and that was probably the only thing I liked about Hopkins at the time. What Hopkins and I shared – and I was much angrier about it than he – was a keen sense of beauty’s power to deceive. I had become aware, painfully aware, that my stories had become crutches, escapes – illusions. So I burned them away.

I also really enjoyed burning things and I was twenty-one or something, so I don’t put that past me as additional motivation. I wouldn’t even put that past me now.

Not a single copy of any of my stories exists. I think. Maybe a cousin has a copy of one, I don’t know. I like to think in epic terms, so I imagine that they’re all entirely lost and this delights me simply because it’s severe. Though I hated, hated the arts and literature – and took none of them seriously – I had a fondness for writing. As a very sickly adolescent, I had but few things to keep me occupied: reading, make-up homework, video games, writing. I retreated often to my intellect, which was the safest place I knew how to be. Writing became a way to play for once, to simply see what I could do, and it became a way to work through emotions that felt largely unavailable to me. Which was any emotion. At all. I had a strong affection for Spock.

The irony is that my career today is built on my knowledge of and sensitivity to the arts, especially poetry. The truth is that I love poetry, literature, the arts. But I didn’t know that. I was young and an idiot and really hurting.

I hated beauty because I perceived its strong relation to feeling. To desire, to willing. The Ancient Greeks and Medievals thought that beauty was simply an aspect of what they called the Good, which was the “highest” goodness, or goodness “itself.” For them, the Good was especially associated with the will. In other words, we want good things. Want and will match together. Beauty was woven with wanting. I knew something of this, though I knew nothing of philosophy. Feeling and desiring flared unstable and horrific in my young mind, twisted all together on tenterhooks. I could not bear to want or to feel. My secret life of trauma and abuse – I told no one, after all – left me wracked by profound distrust and confusion over nearly any feeling at all, especially desire. Especially that.

Once I failed a moral theology test because I couldn’t make myself read any of the questions on sex. I circled whatever. I literally couldn’t read the words. I never failed anything in theology. I have a fucking doctorate in theology. It’s funny. Kind of.

So by the time I reached college, there was a way in which storytelling – especially writing – remained with me as this single, unanticipated avenue to yearn and to feel. And that I did. I wasn’t all that great at it, the feeling or the writing, but I worked hard at both – and only together.

One central character was a young woman with four vicious scars across half her face. She herself was vicious, angry and half-feral. Dangerous with knives. Always taciturn, never cautious, never soft. She was an unsubtle figure of my own inexplicable feelings, the ones so haunted by violence and that singular rage that comes from violence. May no one ever have to know it. That peculiar, suffocating self-hating fire.

It would have fit nicely with one of those young adult series about horrible worlds that are so popular these days, the ones starring young women who are heroic and beautiful. Only my creation was much, much more brutal and physically marred. She grew up among demons. (So had I.) And it could’ve fit for a movie so long as I was never in charge of it. All of my stories ended with everyone dying.

I can see it so clearly, looking back. The young mind struggling so hard to understand violence.

I wasn’t that great at writing stories. My temperament left me far too impatient for a story arc, and I hated dialogue with absurd passion (so no one freaking talked). For reasons entirely lost on me, I had a strange talent for writing romances (and battles). More than one friend told me so. I’d blush and write more battles. (Desire was not okay. It wasn’t. Not when it hurt so much. When others made it hurt.) I much preferred building to some kind of harrowing image played out in intense engagement with my reader. My imaginary reader. The one I was trying so very hard to convince something was wrong, very wrong. Imaginary, since I didn’t think I lived in a world that could be convinced by anything I said.

Why would I let myself feel, really feel, in a world like that?

Still, I became aware of just how imaginary the infinite display of personalities, places, and scenes could be. They increasingly drew me away from the world, the real one, and I felt breathlessly afraid of the feelings I could not escape – and felt suffocated by a weakness for illusion that seemed especially serious in me. It’s not real, you know. The stories. They’re not real like that. They’re just stories. And no one turns out okay, and isn’t so wrong to think that anyway? I shouldn’t even symbolize it.

A lot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon folktales involve fairies, often women, and many of them reside around water. (Thus King Arthur’s “Lady of the Lake.”) They weren’t always nice, either. These fairies. This definitely isn’t Disney, though there might be singing. These creatures were rather dangerous. Like those sirens that had Odysseus going mad, the fairies would lure men away with their beauty and lead them to their death. It’s a fairytale-truth about something we all know: beauty tells the best lies. Why else are perfect people in advertisements telling me to buy things I don’t need?

Beauty unhinged of truth isn’t good anymore.

So I burned all my lies and with them the truths I otherwise desperately hid. I gave up on the last bit of art in me. Still, I fiddled with words. Couldn’t seem to help it. I met a friend who saw in me a certain talent, and he carefully tricked me into reading poems. At first only the very Catholic ones. The Catholic poems about Catholic things. Anything Catholic meant I’d read it for sure. Then my friend offered me Catholic poets who stretched up and away from explicitly religious topics. Then non-Catholics, atheists, anyone. By then he had worn me away into the sincerity of my love for real beauty. I started learning foreign languages and he started handing me poems in those languages. God, I loved beauty. And yearned for it.

Like some immense experiment, I absorbed everything I read. I mean the technique of it, often quite unconscious. In stories I had started to mess with the rhythms of words, and now I accidentally wrote in meter with no story at all. I made games of collapsing images together. Playing. Imitating clever little things on purpose, and many others with no awareness at all. So eventually I began writing poetry. And, to be honest, I was far better at it than I ever had been at anything else with words.

And Hopkins is the best.

My mentors in graduate school knew. I’d reference poems in class – if I spoke at all. They knew I had a certain talent, and that I tried at poetry, though I wouldn’t show anyone my poems save my friend. Maybe two other souls. With immense fear and conviction, I protected my small corner of art. Of feelings and desire. I didn’t want poetry taken from me, as if that old fire sought to consume my work again. Besides, I didn’t want to be considered strange or insane. I could do theology, dammit, and I was very logical and compelling. I wasn’t a sentimental idiot. I just wrote poems sometimes, is all, and fuck you for asking.

I loved Hans Urs von Balthasar endlessly. That unusual and brilliant theologian of beauty. I was such a hopeless contradiction, stubbornly against even a hug but enamored of theological aesthetics. What can I say? Scars do strange things to people.

My mentors eventually wanted me to combine the poetry and the theology, since Balthasar did something like this and since my double talent allowed me to understand it. I fought them the whole way. Partly I’m just crazy stubborn. Partly I resisted out of extreme (and misplaced) anxiety over whether doing this would make me “weird” to other scholars. D. Stephen Long said, “You know, it’s good to be different.” And finally, out of a very real awareness that this effort, this theological poetic, would force me to unite intellect and will – knowing and desiring – and these two I had fought very hard not to unite for most of my life. I knew, keenly, that this union would hurt.

It was agony. The words emerged elegant and calm, but the struggle to unite what even the Academy refuses to unite (intellect and emotion) left me ragged. I was fiercely determined to be clear, logical. Almost cold. Carefully, deliberately, cooly – I tried. And then I’d break in with yearning, bittersweet pain, beautiful hope. It was a kind of cunning, the writing. Ever so clear and aching. My every power bent to keep them – clarity, aching – close.

And through it I reached those things in me that hurt the most. The terrible, breathless losses. Everything true and real in me broke open and broke apart. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Honestly, I was also exhausted by far too many years of silence. Trauma doesn’t exactly go away. It hides right in your skin, lights up nerves. Still, I’m not sure I’d have really seen that in myself so vividly if I hadn’t been encouraged to draw together the two things I loved. Beauty and truth.

It cost not less than everything.

And finally, finally I could learn to stop lying. It has been a long road since, but good.