“Stabat Mater” (poem)

la pieta

Did you mourn him, mother?
Did you cry?
When they took him down,
or after – borne away
by half a dozen hands.
Were your hands one of them?
Or could you not bear to touch?

Did you cling, or
did you stand apart –
silent, or
directing their touch –
hold his head that hangs
and hold his arms
and lift his feet that drag
and place a cloth over his cool face,
place a cloth: he used to like that
when he was small.

Did they have to wrest him from you,
gently,
wrest him from your arms
as they laid him down?
Or did you watch the silent descent,
gentle,
silent descent down to the cool stone,
wrapped white in the figure of a man
who was once your son.

And no longer.
The outline of a face
marked here and there with blood.
Once a face now covered over,
limp and seeping crimson
against white.
You saw a lamb like that once,
mauled by a wolf in the wild.

Did the apostle carry you home,
or did you carry him?
A dozen ashen faces staring
at you in the dusk.
Minus one.

Did they touch you,
perhaps for comfort – or their own?
Hands and fingers at your cloak:
what now, mother?
Now that your son is gone?

And you alone in your silent room:
Did you cry then, or was it too much?
A sob half-caught in your throat,
a howl seeping into darkness with a moan.
Did you fall to your knees, or
topple a chair –
rage the friend of ragged despair.
Head in your hands, and
tears flattened against palms,
shaking, or
absolutely still. Were you?
Absolutely wordless and absolutely
still?

What words anyway,
and what prayers?
A single phrase building
in your chest like burning sand,
choking away the sound:
prayer of the barren desert,
prayer hot and stretched to endless borders,
prayer of Rachel, who refuses to be comforted,
because her children are dead.

Did you mourn him, mother?
In the dark with a single candle,
soft orange tinting edges gold,
a devastated sanctuary
with unguarded doors.

Did you stand in the night, mother,
strained face guilded at shifting angles,
motionless yet taut?
Keeping watch.
Like long ago with the angel –
mother, what were you waiting for?

Anne M. Carpenter

N.B. – Originally posted June 17, 2014

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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.

Beatrice and Kenosis: On Power and Words and How We Use Them (and Hans Urs von Balthasar)

“The First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Hans Urs von Balthasar loves the word kenosis. “Emptying.” It’s a Greek word that I’ll explain, and it’s a problem. It should be your problem, too. A problem that I’ll resolve by making it worse, telling a story, complaining in German, and all in all pretending that I’m not addressing a huge issue in scholarship in a damn blog post. So then.

Balthasar, the influential 20th century Swiss Catholic theologian and my hero, does not draw his ideas from nowhere. When he himself emphasizes kenosis, he is touching a very ancient Christian nerve.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

– Philippians 2:5-11

This poem of sorts comes to us from Saint Paul, and it is sometimes called the “Kenotic Hymn” after some speculation from biblical scholars that this may well be a Christian hymn that pre-dates Paul and he’s simply quoting it, or perhaps adjusting it. Or perhaps it’s not that at all. Either way, this “hymn” tells the essential story of Christ: the one equal with God who became human, died, and was exalted to the Glory of the Father. That is the whole movement of Christianity, all of it right there, an arc away into humility that returns again as glory because, really, humility and glory are the same.

So we’ve already touched the edges of the problem.

Kenosis (ἐκένωσεν as it appears in the original text) means simply “to empty.” Jesus emptied himself. The word is the lynchpin of the hymn, and it has long been a profound animating force in Christianity. This, after all, is the attitude (φρονεῖτε, understanding, feeling, mind) we are supposed to have: that of Christ, who was kenotic (emptying). So we should be Christ to one another, to the world. We should be as he is. Emptying.

For the Christian, Jesus – who is God – is humble. This isn’t a change in God; this is God. The remarkable feature of Christianity is its God: the infinite God who becomes finite, the Word who becomes flesh, not because anyone forced him to and definitely not because we deserve it, but because this is what he does. He loves us. Or, I should say, he is love. And this love – that God is – takes a specific shape, is recognizable and alive. The love that overcomes through humiliating defeat, the divine strength revealed through weakness. Balthasar will sometimes call this “the power of God’s powerlessness.”

If humility is glory – if the last shall be first – then we have an extraordinary inversion of what we thought was real. This impulse is what has Christians through the centuries embracing the poor; this is what drives them near to the suffering and ill; this is what has them visiting jails. In the faces of these people, Christians see their God. And so they treat these least with the dignity that they would God, and in doing so – in loving with humility – they show God to others. That is to say, we surrender to one another in love.

However.

What, exactly, does this power-in-powerlessness look like? This could be devastatingly beautiful, as above, or simply devastating. Friedrich Nietzsche, famous opponent of Christianity, saw an element of Christianity’s inner power of destruction: by valuing the weak, he said, you make everyone weak. He meant this because he thought everyone had a “will to power” and should be able to dominate others if they could, and if they couldn’t – well, that’s your fault. It’s a more interesting critique if all we do is understand that powerful people do want to dominate others, and that this domination keeps others weak. Christianity, then, could become a coda for oppression. We love the weak, so we keep them weak.

This is all rather abstract, so let me offer a couple of examples. The first comes to us from literature: Dante’s Beatrice. She herself, and his love for her, animates the entirety of the Divine Comedy. But is this Beatrice, really? Dante met the real Beatrice twice in real life, after all, and she was a constant figure in his poems even after her death. Especially after her death. Well, there was a pause with Lady Philosophy, but we’ll get to that. In any case, Dante rather deliberately renders Beatrice in ecstatic symbolic forms: she is a beatified woman, she is Beatitude itself, she is divine love and judgment incarnate, she is Christ. So, commentators wonder, is Beatrice even Beatrice anymore? Or has Dante done violence to her memory and made her someone else? All in the name of Christ, no less. This gets at a certain problem of how to imagine other human beings when we look at them as Christ. It could result in some kind of erasure.

Or there is the more sophisticated critique of feminist theologies, which I will simplify here but bring to life with my own life. Outside of the arts, there have been many ways that power has reinforced itself by concealing its intentions in something “good.” Balthasar calls this “the lie.” It would take too long to list the horrifying examples of even the recent news cycle, so I will simply reference my own experience. As a young victim of violence, much of which revolved around doctors, I was often convinced to behave by being told it wasn’t that bad or asked don’t you want to feel better? My suffering, you have to see, was placed on my shoulders as my responsibility. I was crying at nothing, or I pushed away the hands because I didn’t want to get better. It was my fault if I hated it. Or – and this is more vivid, so feel free to skip down to the next paragraph – I was frequently made to surrender by sheer physical force. I can remember being pinned down and my head shoved away and then I remember much worse, and God damn if wasn’t some kind of surrender when I gave up and went limp. And it was my fault if I hated it.

Notice the perplexity here, which gets at a certain problem with how we use words to mask truth, and how surrender and self-emptying can apply to things that are truly awful. So for Balthasar – right, back to him – to use this word kenosis, to pair it with surrender, to praise self-offering… Well, it becomes possible to see why people might have a problem with that. Because these words have been used to conceal incredible suffering. They have. Balthasar still uses these terms, these ideas. I don’t see any point in denying these things.

However.

The thing about Lady Philosophy in Dante (of the Commedia) is that she’s a lie. Beatrice in fact calls him out on it, framing Dante’s life as infidelity. You went and loved another woman, Dante, and she doesn’t even exist. The accusation of infidelity is described as a betrayal of Dante’s love for Beatrice, a love “that should have led you to the Good.” Beatrice, as someone who is real – Lady Philosophy is a figurement of a field of knowledge – is able to be loved in a way that leads Dante to better things, and only inasmuch as her specificity as a real person plays a role in his love for her. Dante doesn’t have to confess “I am a totally lost and confused guy”; he has to confess to her about where his heart has been. Yes, Beatrice’s eyes flicker with Christ-the-gryphon, and she shines with a glory we can easily guess is God’s. But these only veil her as long as Dante lies. When he tells the truth about her – to her – she pulls her veil away. (And the angels sing. I think there are flowers thrown around too. It’s pretty epic. Dante, you insufferable poet.) In other words, praising humility in itself or surrender in itself or virtue in itself don’t get us far. They have to be expressed in specific people and specific situations. Or else we end up admiring all surrender instead of only loving surrender. This is one reason why the saints are so important to Balthasar: they show us what the difference between wonderful and horrible humility might be.

To the far messier point about physical force, the concealing of oppression, and so forth, I can only gesture toward something important. Balthasar discusses self-surrender and kenosis all the time, it’s true. But we’re forgetting a word: “letting-be.” It’s inconsistently translated, to be honest, but still this further phrase (typically Sein-Lassen) is key. Letting-be is, in Balthasar’s parlance, a summary term for the free act of allowing someone else their agency. Letting-be is what Mary does in the Annunciation (called her Fiat, “let it be done”), which is both an act of agency on her part and an allowing of God’s action. In fact, letting-be is always a twinned action – the act of the person letting and of the person being, the one allowing and the one doing (or even simply existing). The twinned act of letting-be has to be mutual, then, or else they’re not letting the other person freely allow. They’re committing an act of force. If it doesn’t have both freedoms at work, it’s not Sein-Lassen. It’s something Balthasar variously names “demonic” or “titan” or “violent.” The archetype of letting-be is to be found in the Trinity, in the three Persons who entirely share one divinity. Here the archetype spins away from what is even remotely possible for us, since the Persons all offer to one another a specific relation of “letting be,” and perfectly share the one divine will. The Trinity explodes what in us is “twinned” or double – you there and me here – but nevertheless provides the ground of the possibility for our letting-be.

Especially where he goes on and on about kenosis and surrender, Balthasar either frames the discussion with letting-be or carries letting-be throughout. In other words, for him, surrender – the authentic kind – cannot be understood without Sein-Lassen. What is more, the surrender of letting-be is always to a real person (even in the Trinity). It cannot get lost as a mere concept, or again it ceases to be itself. It must always be shared. And, as with Christ, it must lead to the greater glory of both.

Obviously, my experience as a youth meets absolutely none of those criteria.

Real kenosis is also “letting-be.” Kenosis without “letting be” is mere violence. Balthasar actually helps us work to see the difference.

“My Daughter Night” – Excerpt, Charles Péguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope

“Entombment,” Fra Angelico

O Night, o my daughter Night, the most religious of all my daughters
The most reverent.
Of all my daughters, of all my creatures, the most abandoned into my hands.
You glorify me in Sleep even more than your Brother, Day, glorifies me in Work.
Because in work man only glorifies me by his work.
Whereas in sleep it is I who glorify myself by man’s surrender.
An it’s more certain, and I know better how to go about it.
Night, you are for man a more nourishing food than bread and wine.
Because the man who eats and drinks, if he doesn’t sleep, will not profit from his nourishment.
Ant it will sour and upset his stomach.
But if he sleeps, the bread and wine will become his flesh and blood.
For working. For praying. For sleeping.
Night, you alone dress wounds.
Aching hearts. All out of joint. All torn.
O my dark-eyed daughter, of all my daughters you alone are, and can call yourself, my accomplice.
You are in league with me, because you and me, me through you,
Together we cause man to fall into the trap of my arms
And we take him a bit by surprise.
But one takes what one can get. If anyone knows, it’s me.
Night, you are the beautiful creation
Of my wisdom.
Night, o my daughter Night, o my silent daughter
At Rebecca’s well, at the well of the Samaritan woman
It’s you who draw the deepest water
From the deepest well
O night who gently rocks all creatures
Into a restoring sleep.
O night who bathes all wounds
In the only fresh water and in the only deep water
At Rebecca’s well, drawn from the deepest well.
Friend of children, friend and sister to the young Hope
O night who dresses all wounds
At the well of the Samaritan woman, you who draw, from the deepest well,
The deepest prayer.
O night, o my daughter Night, you who know how to keep silent, o my daughter of the beautiful mantle.
You who confer rest and forgetfulness. You who issue a healing balm, and silence and shadow
O my starry night, I created you first.

O my beautiful night, I created you first.
And practically before first
O silent one, draped with veils
You who descend on earth as a foretaste
You who scatter by hand, who pour out over the earth
An initial peace
Forerunner of eternal peace.
An initial rest
Forerunner of eternal rest.
An initial soothing balm, an initial beatitude
Forerunner of eternal beatitude.

You who lay the child in his mother’s arms
The child, brightened with a shadow of sleep
Laughing inwardly, laughing secretly because of his confidence in his mother.
And in me,
Laughing secretly out of the corner of his serious mouth
You who lay the child, inwardly bursting, overflowing with innocence
And with confidence
In the arms of his mother
You who used to lay the child Jesus every night
In the arms of the Most Holy and Immaculate one.
You who are the turn-sister of hope.
O my daughter, first among all. You who even succeed,
You who occasionally succeed,
You who lay man in the arms of my Providence
My maternal Providence
O my daughter, glittering and dark, I salute you
You who restore, you who nourish, you who give rest
O silence of darkness.

But above all, Night, you remind me of that night.
And I will remember it eternally.
The ninth hour had sounded. It was in the country of my people of Israel.
It was over. That enormous adventure.
From the sixth hour to the ninth hour there had been a darkness covering the entire countryside.
Everything was finished. Let’s not talk about it anymore. It hurts me to talk about it.
My son’s incredible descent among men.
Into their midst.
When you think of what they made of him.
Those thirty years that he was a carpenter among men.
Those three years that he was a sort of preacher among men.
A priest.
Those three days when he fell victim to men.
Among men.
Those three nights when he was dead in the midst of men.
Dead among the dead.
Through the centuries of centuries that he’s been a host among men.
This incredible adventure was finished.
The adventure that has tied my hands, God, for all eternity.
The adventure by which my Son has tied my hands.
Tying the hands of my justice for eternally, untying the hands of my mercy for eternally.
And against my justice, inventing a new justice.
A justice of love. A justice of Hope. Everything was finished.
Everything that was necessary. As it had to be. As my prophets had foretold it. The veil of the sanctuary had been torn in two, from top to bottom.
The earth had shook; rocks had been split.
Tombs had been opened, and many of the bodies of saints that had died rose again.
And around the ninth hour my Son uttered
The cry that will never fade. Everything was finished. The soldiers had returned to their barracks.
Laughing and joking because another task was finished.
One more guard duty they’d no longer have to make.
One centurion alone remained, and a few men.
Just a simple little post to guard the insignificant tree.
The gallows where my Son was hanging.
Only a few women had remained.
His Mother was there.
And perhaps a few disciples as well, beyond that we can’t be sure.
Now every many has the right to bury his own son.
Every man on earth, if the great misfortune befalls him
Not to have died before his son. And I alone, God,
My hands tied by this adventure,
I alone, father at that moment like so many fathers,
I alone was unable to bury my son.
It was then, o night, that you arrived.
O my daughter, my most precious among them all, and it is still before my eyes and it will remain before my eyes for all eternity
It was then, o Night, that you came and, in a great shroud, you buried
The Centurion and his Romans,
The Virgin and the holy women,
And that mountain, and that valley, upon which the evening was descending,
And my people of Israel and sinners and, with them, he who was dying, he who had died for them.

And the men sent by Joseph of Arimathea who were already approaching
Bearing the white shroud.

Translated by David Louis Schindler, Jr.
William B. Eerdman’s Publishing
(c) 1986 (orig. 1929)