Wednesday, December 12, 2018

novena to joseph

He has fallen in love with a woman
Who slips out underneath his fingertips,
Whose hair he can’t quite bring himself to touch,
Even though she wants him to.

He is caring for a woman whom he cannot reach,
holding her head when she cries and her hand when she crosses puddles in the street.
He is making a home for a woman and her child, who has no place to lay his head.

His tasks appear Sisyphean—fruitless—unlike her womb.
He must make something stable in the midst of rootlessness,
something warm within their divinely mandated distance.

His life is a cross of desire—the good and the frustrated.
He builds it with his own two hands, lovingly.

Monday, December 10, 2018

prophets of a future, our own

It is honestly the best feeling when your past self reaches up from the dregs of the internet to hit you over the head with small homilies of wisdom that you have forgotten or just can't remember on today—a Monday where you are missing part of your tooth, your luggage got misplaced at an airport the size of a postage stamp, and you commuted to work on a electronic scooter, because you apparently have no limits to the indignities you will commit:

So, too, I think God strips away so many of the pieces of our identity we rely on. In our moments of weakness, we can always recall that we are talented, that we are virtuous, that we are strong, that we are good. But what happens when those assurances are taken away? When we find that we are not good, that we do sin, that we are beautiful but indeed very broken then we can finally say with Paul that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). 

God’s power is not made perfect in our socially acceptable weaknesses—like our tendency to eat too many slices of cheesecake—but in our dirty, ugly weaknesses: our addiction to pornography, the uncharity in our family, in career-destroying mistakes. Real weakness. Real failure. Real sin. It is in these parts of ourselves that God’s power will work, because these failures force us to finally admit that we are broken and actually need saving...

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

uomo on men's faces

On the corner of 121st and Amsterdam, I stomp my foot in wet concrete.
I am pleased at the literalness of the action:
I have made my mark, and now nunc dimittis domine.

It is satisfying, that particular moment to assert myself on my surroundings. Being a human being is such a frustrating and painstaking process of discovering how very much we are shaped by our environments. So much in us is simply received from who and what surrounds us.

What if, asked the small boy yesterday, someone is born without a conscience?
Well, I said. Consciences are formed by our communities.
So what if they lived in a community that said it was okay to steal?
Then, they would probably think it's okay to steal. But would that society last long?
So is it in their interest to tell people that they can steal?

The question he poses is perceptive, because it gets at that terrible fear: since we learn from the people around us, what if those people are wrong? What if they have shaped us into something we shouldn't be? We are so contingent: wherever we were thrown into this world is where we've landed, and there's so little we can do to choose who and what we will become.

What a strange collection of circumstances have led me to be born in Minnesota and not Texas, to be Catholic and not Methodist, to have gone Jerusalem, or to have seen Assisi in the sunrise. None of these things were under my own aegis, they are substantial pieces of history and personality that have been shaped by others, given to me from something outside of myself.

We wonder why we are so crabby, and we discover that if we only leave a city of pavement and buildings that block the sun, then our mood improves. We see everyone around us mock the same things, or value the same ideals, and eventually we find that we have molded our language, our hair, and our hearts to match theirs.

It is sad, because we want to be what we want to be, that would seem to be the precious pearl of authenticity: who we are without anyone else imposing on us. But we are the result of constant impositions. That is what it means, I suppose, to be human.

So there is a great joy in one moment of stamping ourselves upon something else, upon the place that so often dictates us, we, for a moment, get to impose ourselves upon it, to mark: I was here, and here I will remain.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Thomas' Terraces

…So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom. —Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

I read these words as the 1 train takes off from the 125th Street platform, and its windows are filled with the dark from outside, broken by the bright lights of windows and city.

I grin as a taste of Merton’s freedom seeps off of the page and into the train car. I have been (quite literally) following Merton around the city, walking in his footsteps, and seeing the pavements and the sea of apartment windows through his eyes.

Five weeks ago, a priest said to me: some saint is trying to give you a grace tonight.

Given that the subsequent twenty-four hours and the following five weeks seemed particularly un-graced, I have really wondered what grace and which saint exactly the priest was referring to.

Jesuits don’t usually say things like that though: they rarely risk prophecy, so when they do make strange declarations—you listen.

I wondered, tonight, if that saint was Merton—a Virgil, certainly, of sorts.

And if the grace he was trying to pour back into this poor imitation reality of a city that he both loved and loathed was a bit of that freedom. The freedom he found in the monastery, that all of us find simply by stripping ourselves in front of God and saying: here I am. This is what I am. I cannot run from it; please just take me, for I am tired of tearing myself to pieces.

Perhaps this is the joy of purgatory. Unlike hell, you do not cling to your own stubborn will, damned or no. Perhaps, in purgatory, you begin to open yourself up like a morning glory in the sun, and it is so painful, because you are not yet perfect, and you do insist on closing in on yourself. But, as you beat the same path round and round, and bash your head on the same closed doors and dash your heart on the same stones, you find that you are slowly opening, that God is slowly working, that you are finding the freedom of the divine beginning to burst forth from within you.

Monday, December 3, 2018

two great prayers you should never, under any circumstances, pray

take this cup from me
but not my will but yours be done
is like the original marathon,
which was undertaken to show the remainder of the human race
not to undertake that project:

don't run the race, you'll collapse
pray this prayer, you'll die.

The only human to successfully pray this
was also God,
so it seems less accurate to call it prayer than a verbal expression of the bowels of the Trinity—
pray only if you're in the mood for vivisection.

God, give me what I want
I want it, and it's good.
That logic surely must be sound enough for you.
But don't, you add
(a foolhardy coda
love demands), dooming
your project from the start,
ever let me be happy without you.

And God doesn't.
God tears you to pieces on the horns
of your bull-headed desires.

Or rather, you tear yourself:
reaching for a God who lets
you follow both grace and mammon.
Without effort, he watches as
what is good pulls you back to him,
he doesn't even have to lift a finger,
knowing you'll bring yourself back on your own
he watches as you stray between
two poles of a magnet,
true north always tugging slightly stronger.

God, do not leave me,
you can pray as you wander off.
Oh I won't, God responds.

This is histrionic:
God is not over there,
contained, isolated, removed
from you.

God rests at the core of every day,
prayer is digging until you reach
the divine shining out of every face you meet.

God is here: and even as you beat
your world so it shines like gold:
God is here.

If you want to see the face of God,
you will,
but it will cost you dearly.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

in lumine tuo videbimus lumen

And when I gave into it, it did not exult over me, and trample me down in its raging haste to land on its prey, but it carried me forward serenely and with purposeful direction. —Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain

Submission is an interesting word. At the end of the final verse of Charles Wesley's hymn, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending, after a string of perfunctory filler alleluias, Wesley ends on what shouldn't be a jarring coda, but if you're a self-respecting, egotistical human, is: "Thou shalt reign and thou alone."

It's jarring, because, practically speaking, I do not imagine God's triumph at the end of all time as my own abdication from the throne of my own universe, but that's exactly what this small line is suggesting to me. I have no temporal frame of reference for how that eschatological de-throning of myself might go.

It's difficult to know what submission means in human relationships. Because humans are bound to abuse any person who enters into their sphere, because it's difficult to always choose someone else's good above your own: it is essential to do this to be who and what we are made to be, which is made in the image and likeness of God. Submission, to us, is usually mapped onto a variety of power dynamics, many of which are flawed with some injustice in their pattern.

If we're interested in the word meaning anything positive, or being a word that's not simply a synonym for another human asserting their will at the expense of another, then submission is not meant to be a subduing or a silencing. Submission, surely, can perhaps only be understood after all the imbalances of sex, gender, race, material means, and social status are understood. Perhaps it is impossible to find a true submission between two members of the human race. Then how are we to know what it looks like?

The quote above of Thomas Merton's is such an excellent example of what true submission looks like: it is a quiet giving oneself over to the voice inside of us that we know is most deeply us and not-us, that is surely the voice of God, of our conscience, speaking to us, urging us to do what we know is best. Once he gives himself over to that, he is not trampled.

This submission is not self-negating, which is exactly what we are afraid of when it comes to submission: we are afraid that we ourselves will vanish and disappear. We are so full of raging haste, we know ourselves and our lusts so intimately, it is difficult to imagine that this will not happen to us if we give ourselves over to that voice of God that demands from us.

The penultimate verse of Wesley's hymn goes like this:

Those dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears
Cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers.

and, as I sang them, I began to cry, mostly out of anger and frustration. I do not want to exult in his wounds, they are not dear tokens to me, right now.

But "thou shalt reign and thou alone."

It is no good railing against reality. It is terrible to know that even resurrection doesn't resolve into a saccharine happy ending. But it is deeply consoling—if not always obviously so—to know that there is a God who takes human history so seriously, that what happens to us—and to him—in this life is so serious and permanent and real that those events live on past death.

I suppose I want a God who can overcome what's real—who can overcome what I have made real. Perhaps what God does with reality, with the wounds, is bring to it meaning, simply because it and they are now his.

This is not a fully satisfying answer—at least not yet. I find myself, as I end the hymn, in the strange position of submitting to something. Even though I have on hand the evidence that this glorified wounds things is not a wholly satisfying answer, I proclaim that his body is dazzling, wounds and all. And it is precisely those wounds that make it so. I can feel my entire self resist, even as that whole self knows those words are real and right—as right as anything in this world possibly can be.

If true submission is found nowhere else, it is found certainly in prayer. We learn what true submission is, this submission to that quiet voice of beauty that saturates us in serenity through practicing our submission to God in prayer. I am not fond of the word "submission," I find myself repulsed by the designation "master" for God. I suppose men and women who have been abused by their fathers might have similar qualms about that name for God. The world is rife with examples when the words "master" and "submission" have been used to wound and oppress. Certain groups of scholars would argue that these terms ought to be used for God, as it reminds us that God is the true locus of power, that God is the true master, that God is both the sole source of true power and also the true exemplar of how to use said power.

As we submit to God we learn who and what we are made to be. As I say: fine the wounds are cause of exaltation because they are evil made over into love, I do not feel despondent, I do not find myself suddenly diminished. There is, in place of strife, peace.

Prayer reveals us not just God, but ourselves—the peace of ceasing (at least for a moment) war within ourselves so we can see ourselves. Prayer is perhaps not just the first step in loving God, but loving our neighbor. How can we offer them ourselves if we do not know that self? Perhaps in the moments we cannot submit to them, we submit instead to God.

I suppose, at the heart of what submission means, the content of the word, is the miracle of the Trinity, and perhaps happens only perfectly there: where two people give themselves over to each other and find that neither will exults over the other, but brings an entire world into being out of it.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

broken ink

There is one plaintive bench in the 110th Street Cathedral Parkway train station on the corner of the Park—a sleek, empty plaintiff, voicing her complaint of loneliness—a suit with no defendant and no judge to hear it.

Her slender, shaved-away shape smites my heart with the sort of sadness wine accentuates. Modern upholstery seems to encourage this. Plush Victorian sofas or even curling wrought-iron benches contain a world unto themselves—to sit on them is to be ensconced in an embrace of an objective reality outside of yourself, one that you are welcomed into. Existence isn't a project you are doing on your own: there are rituals and systems, patterns and materials that usher you into their own vision. But sitting on a slick faux-Nordic bench reminds you: you're all you've got. This world is fundamentally individual, limited to what you can make of it—and you can't make much of it, can you? it whispers evenly: pretty slim pickin's, ain't they?

I am surprised and slightly offended by the intrusion that this sad little bench has brought, and it strikes me that I have been betrayed by this environment for the first time. I have never been broken-hearted by this city before. This place—its trains, its parks and corner stores, stoops and parks—have always been mine. I have never shared this place with someone else, there have never been spaces stamped with the force of another's memory.

I resent this rebellion of the place against me. I resent this a lot, suddenly. I think of the ink on my back that traces out the city skyline as it falls into the choppy, pointed waves of a heartbeat monitor. I think of the small ink heart, added by the artist, that I didn't want.

This city was holy, because it was a monastery, a novitiate, a space for me and God. There were other monks that orbited nearby, sure. But this was a sacred space because no one had hurt me here. Sure, I was sad sometimes. There were loves and falling out of them, anger and the slow work of its healing. But none of these bumps and bruises or loves and hopes happened in this place. No one held me in their arms on the 6 train or laughed with me late at night in Tompkins Square Park. The trade-off of that is no fights broke out on my favorite bench in the Conservatory Garden, and no hurtful words or catty lies were exchanged on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 151st. Each significant spot was made so not by pain but by sweetness.

Memories of love and hurt are so embedded not just in the person who you share them with, but the place that you shared together. Walter Brueggemann says that the Hebrew Bible is the history of God with God's people in the land. The Bible is the history not just of a people, but of a people in a place, because that is how relationships work. They do not take place in the ether of Skype call: they happen in the mess of sharing a space together.

Maybe this is how you make a land holy—by building a life in the here-and-now with God. A land is not a temple or a monastery: it is not a space set-apart from the world. A land is where the business of human living is conducted: the whole damn blessed range of it. Land is where you war—with neighboring tribes, with your neighbors, your lover, and yourself. Where you crack your heart on others' until they break open, bleeding. Where the soil is soaked with that blood, where the air is thick with it, and it stains commonplace subway benches like sacrament.

Lands that are holy are cities not just of Joy but of disaster—of train wrecks caused by wounded egos colliding—the slow disfiguring of loves you do not have the heart to kill. Holy cities are those that include a heart, even if you would rather not include the pain that will always follow hearts in your sanctuary, the pain of other people is not supposed to trespass on your hallowed ground.

The holy is supposed to save us from pain—it is supposed to be the remedy for our ills that are incurable. But those dreams we had of a palliative deity died the day we nailed him to a cross and called it Salvation. That God broke brokenness to reveal a new sort of living: a life that is more real than the world of matter that roars with the emptiness of yawning vacuums within atoms. No, the God brought a life more substantial than our daydreams built of dust and magnets. But, to our dismay, even that life is marked with wounds. There might be balm in Gilead, but there is none here.

God is not space set-apart from this terrible universe, God is not our escape route, there is no deliverance from his risen body with his open wounds.

Was it horror or awe that swept over Thomas' face, as he put is hand into the open side? If Christ's wounds live on in resurrection, then where will ours go? The happy fruits of Incarnation—that God is here among us—become, for a moment, terrible when you realize we have exchanged our omnipotent imaginary—the God who made the heavens and earth, and could save us from both—for a baby.
A baby—a fragile, fleshy human—who not only could potentially be crushed by the world that he created but was.

What sort of God is this? Who can reverse death but not the marks death made upon his body? What sort of comfort can he offer us if he will not even do himself the favor of making himself whole again? If I were Thomas, my face would flush with anger upon seeing those wounds—divine physician, heal thyself.

Are you not even upset when things get ruined, broken or marred? Do you want there to be sorrow flavoring our perfect joy? And what good is your sorrow, God, if you won't even mend that which you transparently have the power to?

Because if you can not even heal yourself, how can you heal me?

The subway bench rings with chardonnay-fringed sorrow. And the spotless white tiles that surround it shine an antiseptic sadness into the city that may be holy but is not joy.