There might be some changes to this blog coming relatively soon. A bigger place wants to pick me up. I’m sitting here with the paperwork half-done, wondering what the hell it means.

I don’t know what my “tag-line” should be. I don’t know kind of “brand” to create for myself, and I resent the idea of having one. (Tag-line: “Sometimes I say things”? Brand: “I’m not a shoe, thank you”?) Nor do I know whether I’ll end up somehow permanently destroying myself and my career.

I’m an optimist.

And though I know how they found me, sort of, it’s also puzzling. I’m not relevant, I write however I want, I don’t care to be provocative, and I’m super bad at catchy titles. I’m not that clever person who understands how social media shapes audiences. Basically, I just love writing, and in many ways I rely on it for my sanity. Rely on it in very, very real ways. So I write and write and write, professionally and…here. Doing this thing, here, this thing that now begins to cross over into my professional life.

I almost wish I could ask you, reader, to take my words and hide them away from my professional life. Make sure they’re safe, that not all of me is the job.

Lord, prevent me from being a public intellectual.

And yet.

Wouldn’t it be fun to wander through the Internet being maddeningly useless? Stubbornly continuing on with the odd poeticisms and Christological obsessions and obscure references. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if people liked it? Me and my really rather ordinary Catholicism; me and my complete disinterest in evangelizing anyone. I’m normal. Hurt in a lot of places, some common and some not, and I’m just normal.

I’m also an impulsive sort, and I have the hardest time resisting the chance to thwart expectations. I love doing that. This seems like a chance.

Oh, to be ordinary and therefore interesting. What a thing. And how funny it would be if it meant people could run out ahead of me. Loving the ordinary things I also love, and loving them better than me. I like that better than anything. Than anything at all.

So I don’t know what description I’d give my blog so search engines would find it. Really not sure what my brand is. I don’t know how to not just be intentionally frustrating about the meaning of my entire blog. And every time I think of signing my name, I get anxious and refuse to finish the paperwork.

Part of me thinks I have something to say; part of me thinks I have nothing. I don’t know what I’ll do, but here I am.




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

Head and Heart and Brains (…and Words)

Zombie attack

“Calculating,” my colleague said, looking at me with a warm smile. “Whatever Professor Carpenter ends up saying, she chooses her words very carefully.” I felt myself smirk. Whether I liked the monicker depended on whether I remembered a moment when my heart had been there while I used words – or not.

I don’t know why I’m good with words, but I am. My mind leans that way, always has, even when my best friend had to tell me what the hell was happening in seventh grade grammar class. “You’d just doodle on the worksheet and shade in all the words perfectly,” she recalled to me recently, exasperated even in retrospect. I think I was classy: I was always kind enough to wait for her to teach me what I’d ignored.

That bent of mind makes me a poor study when it comes to actually teaching others how to write. I want my students to have had nine years of grammar like I did, a love for beautiful writing like I do, and an ability to absorb the lessons of good writing implicitly like I do. They have absolutely none of those things. I fret about that as a professor, worrying over both their illiteracy and my struggle to sympathize with it.

Words are a knife-edge, and with them we can carve a beautiful face or dismember like a surgeon. Words are powerful. And they are most powerful when they neatly come to a point.

See what I just did there with knives and edges and shit? Yeah, I’m clever as hell. It’s actually almost bad writing: it’s too well-ordered around its little metaphor, and threatens to mean too little because its symbolizes too much. What I mean is this: words are imprecise, and there are two ways to ruin them by forcing them into precision. The first is to remove everything distracting from a sentence. “Thou shalt not use a metaphor or a metaphorical verb.” Yeah, well: that’s boring, not precise. The second method is to use an image until it has died a horrible death of strangulation. “I have the perfect metaphor for this and I will explain each aspect of it to you.” Congratulations: it’s not a metaphor anymore.

But I’m not sure I’m being helpful in that paragraph. I know what I’m talking about, but do you? Have I made myself clear? And that’s the thing, imaginary reader: imagining you in a way that helps me write for real people.

This is where we return to the heart. Perhaps it is simply strange, but I write best when I have an idea of the emotional impact of a phrase. I speak best like that too. Words have feelings as well as meanings (or rather, meaning provokes feelings, and therefore so do words). When I hold that in mind, my writing is infinitely more effective. Again, I might well be odd. I always threaten to forget the heart. Words are almost like geometry for me: shapes whose proof is found in each other. They are interrelated sets of relations cohering together. I’m good at that, good at seeing the forms and relating them, and I don’t need to feel anything to be effective at that. I can even be cruel, calculating in the negative sense. I can build a beautiful but empty cathedral.

If I am angry, my words are cut glass.

For me, then, to feel is to grasp the shape of meaning in a way that can actually welcome others. Readers, listeners. And it softens me, soothes the edges of my creativity. I am first a creature of form, and the temptation is to forget splendor.

Many writers strike me in the inverse: immensity of conviction without a supporting structure. Words poured all against one another in a mess of paints. Restraint and grammar have all but vanished, making the sentences weird and long – or almost angrily terse. Academic writing, for all its insufferably boring contortions, is also like this. Meaning gets all lost in the face of word-using. Nobody remembers grammar here, either, even if they’ve also forgotten feeling.

Academic writing is horrible. Mostly the sentences are too long.

Having a heart for an imaginary reader seems to be a key point of departure in either affliction, the one of the heart or the brain. There in the imaginary reader, after all, it is necessary to imagine someone who is intelligent but not an expert, who needs something reasonable and clear. And if that someone has a heart, then he or she feels the impact of words. Can be moved or can resist. The reader doesn’t end up looking like one person, and the writer doesn’t end up with one solution.

So I should perhaps teach my students how to imagine a reader.

Oh God. How do I do that?

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.”

“Remove your sandals…” (An essay on how hard it is to know where Catholicism is and isn’t)

“Moses with the Burning Bush,” Marc Chagall

I am almost always in the middle of thinking of how to make sense of something Catholic – in general, yes, but also in terms of the context in which I live. In California, at a small Catholic liberal arts college. Like everywhere Catholicism is, there is a deep struggle to really know it. A struggle that not everyone owns, and one owned differently among those who do.

Frequently, I find myself navigating between several senses of Catholicism while simultaneously trying to confront Catholicism’s total absence. There are stressors here unique to California, but we would be lying to ourselves if we felt assured this absence is not the case elsewhere. Catholicism is always a singular form, but expressed plastically – flexibly. Often in the same place at the same time. I sometimes think of it as Catholicism’s inherent pluralism. This fundamental complexity of expression renders Catholicism’s lack similarly complex. Flexible Catholic self-expression can become half-expression, or ignorance of Catholicism outside of its bounds may yet know something intimate of the Church. If we could map these relationships, we wouldn’t end up with spiderwebs of lines so much as various likenesses that resemble one another in different ways. A shifting span of near-infinite mirrors capturing near-infinite variants of the same image.

The image (form) is Christ. The infinity is his. The near-infinity is ours.

It is not so simple as explaining Catholic things to a world that has abandoned or never known it. If we are to be serious in our claims, the world has always known something like it. This is an aspect of what it means to be universal (catholic). Community, faith, reason, self-offering: people know something like these (logos spermatikos). Existence itself is made for prayer, and our very existence is – and can be made ever more – a prayer of praise. This also means that the ways we do not know bear a relationship to what we already do. Our knowledge can quickly become a weapon against what we do not. That is, Catholics can be more difficult and stubborn than non-Catholics.

I almost prefer it when someone simply has no idea.

Because Catholicism is deeply convinced that truth is always true, it has long expressed optimism about truths known outside the direct confines of faith. Science and religion do not oppose one another. This despite the cruel caricature of Catholics and Galileo. Beneath the deformed face is a religion whose members have often led the way in scientific progress. Beneath the myths is a Church that readily appropriates non-Christian philosophical forms in order to express its Christian faith. If it is true, it is always so. It is true, it is God’s, and it speaks to us of Christ. Even if we have not yet known it.

This does not make truth Catholic quite yet. I could be uselessly clever and say that catholic truth does not yet make it Catholic – a statement only clear to you if you are already aware of what that might mean. So what I mean is this: it is not enough to be beautiful, or good, or true to be Catholic.

What is easiest to share from Catholicism is that which the Church already shares with others. The verities of life and of reason: these are treasures that it is almost simple to offer. We must serve the poor, and this is a value the Church has given to the world. Because the world knows the poor too, even if the world hasn’t always known what to do with them. Everyone is of equal dignity, and this is a truth the Church has given the world reasons for acknowledging. Because we are always someone, even if the Church herself could be as blind as the world about it. These are values and truths that the world shares thanks to Christianity, ways of living and doing possible without it. Perhaps not as coherently, but human beings don’t always worry about that.

If these are gifts the Church has offered the world, it seems absurd to ask for them back. You shall never say the word person again; find some other way to articulate the inviable uniqueness of every human being. No: to say that is to deny the universality of its truth. (Even if, as happens sometimes to me, that truth is used against the Church as if she’d never known it at all.)

The Church is entirely gift, though. What of hers, if anything, could never be carried away? Surely there is something she has or is that cannot be known without her. Or will she, like Rilke’s Orpheus, be torn and scattered to sink into the world and permeate it with the presence of her absence?

It is not quite true to say that the Church has Christ: he cannot be owned, even by his own Church. And yet we can only know him through his Body – even if in some unseen mediation – because the Word who became flesh does not un-become. We will never cease knowing the Son through his humanity, through the Spirit that overshadows his flesh. How this works, I don’t really know. I have my guesses. I know this: the Catholic Church never fails to call herself universal, and yet she only does so by relativizing herself. (I have known no other tradition that is capable of both.) That is to say, the Spirit works tirelessly to bring all to the Son for the Father and the Spirit does not need the Church. The Church knows this.

There is an old Scholastic saying: the Church is the ordinary means of salvation, but this does not prevent God from using extraordinary means.

Ah, Catholics. We are so unique. But don’t forget we’re ordinary.

Still, it is painful sometimes to experience the strange poverty of seeing the Church’s riches held in others’ hands. Where this poverty becomes harmful rather than humbling is when these blessed hands that have something Catholic call themselves Catholic for it. To be able to agree with, understand, or live a Catholic idea or a Catholic ethic is not to be Catholic.  If that’s not true for Catholics, it’s definitely not true for non-Catholics.

My poor colleagues must be so tired of certain things I always say. One is this: if I’m the only one doing it, it’s not Catholic; it’s a Catholic doing something. I often say this when we wish to tie a ribbon on something and call it Catholic by having a Catholic or two there. Frequently I am one such human ribbon. But it’s not Catholic just because I’m there. Another is this: we need to be able to see religion as more than a series of logical and ethical premises. Being able to list Catholic ideas is a way of knowing the Church; so is being able to live certain Catholic ideals. But it’s not Catholic just because it’s there.

What, then – oh, what – makes us Catholic? What gift cannot leave the Church’s hands?

Being together in holiness.

The two things I am always saying push us toward this: it’s Catholic if we do something together under the light of holiness. Not this idea or that, or some Catholic talking about whatever.

Catholics aren’t individualists. They can be, but that in them is an absence of Catholicism. Many, many aspects of Catholicism are personal, yes. But they’re not individual: separate from the others. Even when you are alone, the Church is with you, carrying you. Baptism is a baptism into the whole Church with the help of the faith of the whole Church. So, truly representing the Church means unveiling something of that togetherness.

It is a togetherness lived not just with holiness, but with holiness standing before it. If the presence of Catholicism rested on the holiness of its members… Well. The Apostles wouldn’t even pass that test. And definitely not St. Peter, who according to Catholics is the first pope.

Catholicism is defined by a specific awareness of holiness. Sometimes this is called “sacramental imagination,” but the phrase has been used so much I’m not always sure it has meaning. What it means, really, is this: all good things somehow bear the presence of God and should be treated that way. Only God is holy. So wherever God is, that place is holy with his presence. And, for Catholics, God is everywhere. God is also especially somewhere too.

This is not a generic holiness or a pan-sacred. God can be especially with a place, or a person, or even a person’s bones. This is what is so peculiar about Catholic awareness: God is everywhere, always, and especially in many places.

If we do not know why monks would bow to each and every guest… If we do not know why Christians would go on a pilgrimage somewhere… If we do not grasp why a Catholic would fall to their knees before this wine and this bread… If we fail to see the reason Moses would remove his sandals before God… Why a Catholic would bow to the poor… We have not acquired the Catholic sense of holiness. This odd universal-specificity. Most especially in the Eucharist: Christ is everywhere, but he is here.

All kinds of strange habits result. Catholics will kiss books and cloth and tombs. They do not want to leave Jesus alone in the monstrance. (He’ll be fine; they won’t be and they’ll worry.) They will try and bless anything, and cannot be convinced to stop freaking touching things.

I grow so tired of sophistications that don liturgical vestments with no one underneath. We can use all the Catholic words we want. It’s nothing if Christ isn’t there. (In this way, the Church is never in control of her own presence – and yet is.) The absence that the Church cannot live without is holiness – the holiness of the Spirit and awareness of his holiness. That’s Catholicism. I am so weary of other things. It’s not just having Catholics around, or repeating Catholic ideas, or doing something amazingly Catholic. It’s the presence of the only One who is holy. Presence in truth and goodness and beauty.

I’m never sure how to explain it, this mystery. I don’t quite know how to welcome others – even myself, sometimes – into it, but it is essential.

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.

Paradoxes and Double-Vision. (There is more than one reality in a single life.)

“The Drowned Cathedral,” M.C. Escher

By the time I was twenty-eight, I had defended my dissertation, earned my doctorate, and agreed to a tenure-track faculty position across the country from where I grew up. I am very, very proud of these facts. They mean that I did something quite hard at a younger age than most. They mean that I am very, very good at what I do. These are facts that even at my darkest I’ll be able to call up and hold onto as real. I have also suffered immensely under the cross of mental illness. My life has threatened to splinter apart from it. This is also real, also true, and I don’t care who knows this about me. My colleagues have been nothing but supportive, for which I am both lucky and blessed, and if I know one thing about suffering, it is this: keeping it a secret makes it worse.

My mind is good and my mind is wounded. I can be both. One does not invalidate the other. There is a part of me that loves the apparent contradiction of a trustworthy and untrustworthy mind. Take that, Gnosticism and René Descartes.

There is more than one truth of mine that gathers in a complexity like this.

One of the symptoms of depression and anxiety is a kind of hyper-attention to a single truth. The truth of knowing that a thing can be hurtful or unstable, or that life is profoundly sad. We all know things like this. The one who suffers knows only this. It’s not that people with mental illness believe lies, though some do. It is much more that someone is unable to receive any other truth.

There is no “bright side.” There is no “safety.” Not for the person whose world has narrowed to darkness or danger. And they (we) cannot be argued out of it. What others say has very little purchase. Because the person who does knows nothing but danger does not think that safety exists at all. They’re not living in an alternate reality; they’re living in a single aspect of the truth. The world is very unsafe. Especially in a panic, the one truth is literally all they can think of.

I remember being able to think of nothing else but my own death. I remember this terrible repetition, this single fixation. And it made sense. It felt entirely logical, appeared intellectually and emotionally coherent. I was abused, and I never said anything, and no one knew. That is terribly sad. That is a harsh reality that makes living hard. It was easier, in a way, to think of death. It meant I could concentrate on my loss instead of a life lived through loss.The mind tries to preserve itself.

The more I focus on how to live these days, the more challenging it becomes to come to terms with my losses. It is a kind of mourning. A grief over what gave out and gave in. All those many things.

I love my parents. I have never once doubted that they love me. They said so, and they tried to show me so. And still they didn’t notice this dark secret. They struggled to assist a terribly shy and emotional child. They didn’t know about mental illness. Even so, it means everything to me that they were at my dissertation defense, that they saw me do what I am very good at doing. They wanted to be there. My sister was there too. Because they love me. They still dragged me to hospitals, struggled to notice year after year of trauma. They watched much of it. It hurts. Their care and my horror can both be true even if none of us understand.

My mother sometimes held me. Eventually I didn’t want hugs at all.

It’s not like I never assisted in my collapse. I have always have a hard time receiving affection, and being nudged to go hug and kiss my relatives felt like torture. Encouraging me to go do the thing I hated made me more afraid of it. I found what praise I received intolerable. It’s an unfortunate mix: parents who were not quite aware of certain hurts, and my own inability to feel comforted. Each assists the pain of the other. Even recently, my dad said he’s proud of every little thing his children do. I grumbled at the phone and felt the weight of two truths: that he is and always has been proud, and that he never expressed it in a way I understood. In a further prism, he didn’t know that I didn’t understand and I never said so.

Could my mother predict how alienated I felt from her, from women, when she wanted me in a dress so badly? No. Why was it so very important to her? Why did I intuit from this that I’d never be pretty? I don’t freaking know.

And I love them. So fucking much. My mother helped school me into the talented learner that I am. She was almost always at my side. Or there was being able to talk religion with my dad. The times he assured me it’s okay to ask questions about faith. And my mother’s simple faith, so much wiser. The closeness we once had. I never felt close to either, though I know they felt close to me. I complicate the good things.

I care that they baptized me when I was born and dying. I care that they cared about that. What better gift to give a child but faith, even if only briefly? I lived, but no one forgot. The twelve weeks I wasn’t in the womb, the two-pound weight. The incredible survival. The uncertainty over what kind of life that would leave me.

My siblings helped me. Especially my sister. When I became very, very sick. She was there (except when she wasn’t, some part of me hisses), and she has carried me down staircases. Still I withdrew from everyone, including her, even in high school. I loved them and I love them and didn’t – and don’t – know how to love them. Not at all.

Yet I can be incredible at supporting others, listening. I can be very, very soft. Very nurturing and attentive to life. And I can vanish too. I tried to kill myself, after all.

I have known God, I have lost God. I don’t really understand my relationship with God right now. I have asked why we suffer, and refused to ask at all. I flourished in school and was still very lonely. I taught myself nearly half of high school, which is cool to say but was the worst. I have never trusted anyone with my body, and the one man I did repeated all the old hurts. Which is sad. There are memories I can’t stand. There are those I can’t live without. I didn’t really understand that I was smart until much later, and I never figured a kid as shy as me could grow up to be a great speaker.

Weirdly, I didn’t know I was funny. Dammit. I could’ve killed it in school.

On and on and on. My childhood was good; my childhood was awful. My family was wonderful; my family failed a lot. (They have always been good people.) It seems to me to be very difficult to hold these things together, and that each truth lives in me and I live in them – or I’m learning. I’m not sure I can be expected to put the fragments together. I’m not the one who holds the whole of me. That I know.

I am aware that I focus on the dark things as I struggle to trace the cracks in my heart. All are true and all are not everything.

I trust that there is time for mourning, always time. And time to live on.