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.

Survivor.

Scriptorium de l'abbaye de Vaucelles - Nord -

I am alone. The phrase echoed dully in my head, and I scowled at it as my awareness slowly widened to the soft gray of a foggy bay morning. I dragged a hand over my face, sitting up with my head down. Trying to feel my way into some response to the hour, finding only the silent phrase lonely in my skull. It’s what I should’ve said. I am alone. The answer to a question from yesterday.

But not today.

My therapist calls it “putting yourself together.” He means that time when we awaken and prepare ourselves for the day. Mental illness is something of a disintegration, especially for the traumatized, and slowly they (we, I) learn to piece themselves back together. Learn to be aware of a consistent and durable self. Until then, the jagged edges are arranged and scattered anew every day.

I felt angry and sad that I’d only just figured out what to say. For yesterday. I felt even angrier that this was what I had to say. Today. Only now did I register my emotions – just as they drowned me awake.

Maybe that’s what it’s like some mornings: a strange, suffocating too much all empty of light.  A collapsed star.

In any case, I understood that I felt extra upset because I’ve been sick. I tried to file that away as something to forgive myself for. Being sick.

I’ve been sick most of the semester. Not just – you know – sick in the head, but also physically struggling. Thus the medical visits and such, which I hate, since I hate anything associated with doctors. (And I am one. Ha.) Medical visits that require every inch of my strength exactly when I don’t have much of it. Only the sick visit doctors, after all. And the sick are weak. And the weak are not safe in the hands of the strong. It’s an old thought that has followed me wherever I am.

Half my nightmares involve some kind of… I can’t look even in memory. Anyway. Stabbing me apart with needles. Basically.

My therapist says that I’ve had a difficult semester. He says it like it means something significant that I should understand, and I see that he thinks this and I see that I do not understand. It’s something just outside a window. I know it’s there, whatever it is. But I’ve done hard things my whole life, and when I look back all I see is some impossible inability to totally die. And it’s hard to be impressed.

At first there was all that… There were those things that happened, and I wish I’d died. And I tried to forget, and I couldn’t, and then I really wished I’d died. Nowadays I don’t wish it that often, but that leaves me with… Well. Everything else. The whole world outside of dying and forgetting. The whole world. Those terrible things, and some existence shivering in them and without them. And me, armed with only my inability to completely die.

The long road of healing is a a bloody-knuckled fight every damn minute of the day. I have to learn essentially a whole universe of skills. Life. That thing people did while I not-died –  they lived. So natural and so beautiful, and I protected it with the only thing of mine that worked: my mind.

I am amazing at thinking.

Nowadays I want to live too.

I sat miserable in my office, working hard, feeling thoroughly sick and thoroughly awake. It reminded me of something ancient, like a blood memory. Something I knew well. That old, clawing awareness of being able to think and unable to move. Like in the hospital beds, or at home. Eyes blinking wearily over a collapsed body and a living mind; a mind flexing all of its strength until it was as if there was no pain. And no body.

Scowling, I felt the ancient thing rise. That old and terrible awareness. I didn’t want it, not at all, and I didn’t want my body to keep failing and I understand that my mind fails too. I can’t do it anymore, and my poor mind can’t anymore. It can’t. My whole self bleeds together, body and soul. Nowhere to go.

Healing is a new kind of pain. It means that now I can feel the unraveling of my own thoughts. It scares me more than anything. I am amazing at thinking. After all. And then – then it’s gone. Gone. Split apart in some brutal Gnostic fantasy. And I hate watching the thoughts scatter and die. I hate being awake to it, burning alive in the self that isn’t thoughts. Self alive and dead to all.

And so weak. The strong are not kind to the weak.

I came home shaking and near tears, and the thing that kept me from crying was that fierce old understanding that crying would only make it worse – I’d definitely pass out then. Crash my car. Collapse down the stairs. I hated the way my vision would go black as I walked, and then my heart would stutter, shoving blood to my brain and sight to my eyes. And I’d stand there on campus, hand gripping a railing. White knuckles. Breathing calmly. Getting upset would do me no good. It would rob me of whatever blood pressure I had left, and I just wanted to go home. And not go to a hospital.

God, please. Not that.

So I arrived home, grim and pale, and silently curled up on my couch. I slept. Not a tear shed.

I feel a little better. My mind is alive with thoughts, almost angrily. A weary part of me doesn’t want that. Just some rest. I won’t be going to work tomorrow, though I hope I get those damn grades in. If I’m too weak, I’ll have to file it away in my head as something to forgive myself for.

Still. I’m not sure which I’m more miserable over: the fever cold thing that turned into a game of chicken with my own judgment, or that I knew how not to cry as I dealt with every single jolt of pain. I knew. I had to go away. File myself away. And I felt it. I felt myself go away. Felt the lights in the library flickering out one by one until there was just a lonely empty desk. Deliberately, carefully, smoothly.

Don’t think. Don’t feel. Survive.

It’s so fucking lonely. And I should’ve said it. When my friend asked how I was feeling and not what I thought. I’m not as good at that. At feeling. How lonely it is. I wish I’d said it. That this is what I feel most of all: I feel how lonely it can be trying to live.

And I know there’s something just outside the window, but I don’t understand.

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.

The God Who Was Afraid

Superman. Duh.

Superman. Duh.

I remember a Superman cape. It reached almost to my feet, swallowing my skinny child-frame. I must have been three. I remember straightening my shoulders, fists planted at my waist. I was the little girl who wanted to be Superman. The kid who needed to be brave and invulnerable. The memory says more about my young self than I wish it did.

I know I was three because it was the first preschool I attended before we moved. Other than my steadfast and vicious hatred of preschool, I don’t remember much of it. Almost nothing of that first one other than the cape. That, and some godforsaken “Wheels on the Bus” sing-a-long that I passively lip-synced to, bored, ever the quiet little anarchist. God, I hated preschool. Even the second one, whose efforts to get me to eat food-dyed green eggs and ham utterly failed.

Anyway. I wanted to be courageous, indestructible, strong. Superman was all of those things. I can still see myself standing there, silent and shy as always, for once stiffening resolutely with that damned cape across my shoulders. When I think more deeply about it, I see a terrified little kid desperate for ways not to hurt so easily. Desperate to be fearless somehow. Because I already knew the world to be a grim and violent place. Even if only inchoately (I mean, I was three), I grasped some hidden horror just enough to need the cloak of a superhero. This continued with me as I grew. I remember being deeply concerned with this, with who was strong and who was not.

It puzzled me that Jesus wasn’t a hero. He just wasn’t. He was God, sure. But that guy died, too. I’d stare at the crucifix in total sympathy. I felt I knew what it was like to be him. I drew crosses all over everything.

I’d always end up sitting by my very best friend in the world, a patient and sweet girl. She had a native tolerance for my long list of intolerances. She had a gentle way of reaching past my frequent silences. She was the only safe human being in my universe.

(Jesus was something, but not safe.)

What a weird kid I was. Don’t think I don’t know.

I do remember how scared I felt. I do remember thinking the world quite a violent place. I knew this as a simple fact. The world was disturbing: fact. Deal with it or don’t. So I made sure I wouldn’t go down without a fight. Of course, I lost again and again. Little kids don’t win against adults. I do remember those losses – sometimes painfully clear, all etched in glass; other times a felt impression made of bare fragments.

God damn if I didn’t learn how to go down without a fight at all. It was quicker that way.

Then I would fit the mask back on, don the cape. Admit nothing. Quietly tag along with my very best friend, who was brave in ways I very much wished to be.

Jesus was pierced and he bled. I was fascinated by the whole story. It was important to me. Not quite comforting, but definitely real. The world was disturbing: fact. Jesus knew.

It is more accurate to say that Jesus felt all that human flesh would feel at the prospect of death: fear, sadness, repulsion. The Son, the divine Son, felt these in his human flesh. This is an important distinction – that he wept as a man and not as God. It means he felt our fright as we feel it. We human beings. Then, with a breadth only possible to divinity, Christ drew every single one of our feelings to himself. Words begin to fray here, at the edges of a mystery. What I mean is: all of human experience, all of it, has been embraced by God in Christ. That doesn’t make every inch of it good. Just embraced.

Even my experiences.

There are large swaths of my childhood I have not learned to forgive, cannot remember without stifling anger.

I wonder sometimes at how Christ forgave everyone on the cross. I wonder if he’ll forgive me for being so unable to forgive. Or I wonder if that divine mercy toward me will be the painful working out of forgiveness stretched through the remaining hours of my life.

Jesus was never a hero, and certainly has never made me one. I have resented him more than one time in more than one way for that. I mean that I could never be brave enough, or tough enough, or smart enough to win. God lost, and so did I. And I struggled very much to understand.

I don’t know if I understand any better fully grown. Still, my gentle best friend remains so. And she remains braver than me in some secret way that is, I am convinced, closer to the cross than all my scowls and scars and white knuckles. Not that she is willing to lose, or weak. Not that God is, either. There is simply a gentleness required to acknowledge the reality of fear, a tenderness that faces it and somehow passes through to another side. A fierce patience that steps through instead of fighting against, finding a place where fear is, though not vanished, at least transfigured.

I have no idea why gentleness is the key. I don’t know how it doesn’t shatter along with everything else. I don’t know why divinity bothered to be afraid like us. Statements of faith aside – to redeem us, I know – I really don’t get it. The logic is bewildering. But it does require gentleness, this bothering to be like us, whatever the logic is. Not superhuman feats.

Which is good, in the end.

We cannot be superhuman, but we can be gentle at least.

All the Saints and All the Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God makes no exceptions. Nor should we.

This is what is so very demanding about Christianity.

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

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

And why not?

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

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

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

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