Monday, December 17, 2018

novena to joseph II

Throw a tantrum—
Pound your fists against your dreams of angels,
Pummel them to sleep.

Cry over gin and tonics,
as the mustached magician in a cardigan
rearranges cups of eggs and crystals
in a monastic's argentine terrarium.

We are upping Joseph's cultural caché,
refurbishing his brand by twenty centuries
at a bar in Linden Hills tonight.

Joseph flips through prayers like Christmas cards.
There's a lot that he can do for you.
And he will,
with the flair of vermouth-dispensing wrists among the glasses,

but one thing he has learned the hard way:
the will of God often comes about the long way—
you can't shortcut providence
or shortchange a deity.

but oh I want to.

Go to sleep.
Something elegant—
a concoction or solution—
celestial, angelic, or none of the above
will come.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

how to build a baby or a world

Balthasar says that God is like the mother,
whose smiling face and cooing voice
awakens us—
before we even know it—
to love.

But God was also once the baby
who had a mother.

The words God made these humans to utter,
and so longed to hear from their hard-hearted lips,
wished they would drip off their stony tongues
were said to him,
reached his tender god baby-like ears
and what sort of person was made in that moment?

The moment between mother who cooed
to her Son of God:
I love you.

I imagine that Trinitarian love
is so palpable and absolute,
so all-encompassing and real,
that our paltry vocalized promises of love
are just small pebbles at the foot of mountains.

But maybe even God was jealous
of each child that was born,
that heard her mother say to her:
I love you,
that those words did not just hang empty in the air,
but shaped the baby's face and brain and heart,
that filled up whatever those strange corners of our selves and souls
that ring hollow without the love that shapes us.
Each mother cradling her child into being reminded God of when he cradled creation out of nothingness and into life.

When God's breath spread out over the waters of the earth,
it said to this shapeless, confused void:
I love you
and look what happened: a universe.
A cosmos, blossoming under the warm, satisfied thrill of being loved unconditionally,
expansively, rolling out into the void of nothing with a comforting infinity.

The world is made in I love you,
built out of those words.
Without them, it will tumble.
To be told I love you is to be brought into existence.

Then Mary looked at the child in her arms,
who was love, who had set the world in motion by his love,
who had loved not only her, but all things into existence.
and said, like all mothers do:
I love you.

And what was made there, between them?
Between the virgin mother whose whole self was nothing but a yes,
and the love who made her, which had brought her to life
who was now being brought to life,
as all children are,
by the love of a mother ringing in his ears.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

godfather of mercy

It occurred to me that I have not been practicing Advent at all. I have been thinking about the season of Advent for months, writing Advent reflections, editing Advent reflections, I have memorized most of the readings, and know the Gospels by heart.

But something is missing. I haven't yet understood Advent to be happening to me. Until today, when I was walking to Mass and I think I realized that Advent was happening to me.

It was not pleasant.

But I think, if you really, really want something, then waiting for it is actually not pleasant. In the sense that it is absent, and your joy is in its presence. This can easily be transformed into a grasping to have it under your control, because you are human and to be human means to be hungry. Unfortunate, really, that we are made with stomachs. We are a collection of cavities, hoping against hope to be filled.

I wonder why I have not married the first boy I fell in love with much the way my brother has married the first girl that he fell in love with. We are similar in many ways, my brother and I. We are both insanely stubborn, both very insistent that we are right, both very committed to ideals (he accuses me of being idealistic, so perhaps I am more than just committed), both very loving. Annoying and arbitrary, then, that he has never discovered that particular heartache of leaving a trail of broken threads behind you: relationships that might have been and aren't.

There's no living with them, really. It's impossible.

I wonder, as the church bells peal the start of the Mass, that if I had never experienced this disappointment in human love, if I had never experienced my own utter inability to love—my inevitable falling-short, if I had never experienced heartbreak or sin on soul-shaking levels—would I ever have loved God? Would I ever have lifted my eyes up from earth? I don't know that I would have. There is so much here to be in love with, and God is stuffed into every corner and small atom of it. When Trinity is bursting out of the material of each day, it is easy to forget that the fabric is not actually deity. There is an invisible and intangible—but crucial—divide.

To acknowledge the divide, to experience your own self as riven by that division between God and earth, is perhaps the beginning of Advent and the first seeds of love. Oh, your heart aches, how I want this chasm to be bridged. Perhaps—oh maybe—there will come a savior, who can reach across it. Perhaps there will be a God who can enter into all the fragile shadow that I love so deeply. Perhaps the quiet God of incarnation can harrow all this hallowed emptiness and fill it with himself. Then, maybe, I will learn how to love.

Friday, December 14, 2018

broken as a bell after the war

I don’t think it is possible to feel all the pain that comes with being a human, so we attach it to other things—like a Vance Joy song, or a window, a bench, a coffee shop.

We can’t even bear all the joy that comes from living, so we store it away in parking lots that we pass on our way to work, we leave it at benches by fountains, we tuck it into books and leave it on beaches or restaurant bars.

I clip-clop up the stairs to the second floor reference section. As I enter the nearly empty Monday morning stillness of the second floor foyer, the memory of studying at those tall tables hits me so palpably, I feel as though I just walked into a wall. The joy that permeates those tables and chairs, that rides the sunlight pouring in those oversize glass window-walls.

Our places are not just environments, they are our storehouses, where we have stored our treasure, where we have left our hearts—because our hearts are not even capable of holding all of themselves. We are supersaturated creatures, spilling over our limits. What we are outruns our capacity to hold it; we outstrip ourselves.

To be a human has always meant to be a person who lives in a certain time and a certain space. There is no human who exists in abstract, who is unmodulated by a place, who can contain themselves in se.

No, to be a human means that you must have a place. And to live in a place means that we will make it a sacrament of our lives. It will become marked with our stories. We add them, like stones on top of cairns, to the stories that our predecessors have left in those places, too.

This land that is called holy—this land where God once walked—is this land holy because Christ, like any human being born onto the earth, began the process, from his very first moments, of making his world a sacrament of his own self? He stamped the soil of Galilee forever with the memory of his first steps, the air still rings with his laugh, his heart was broken somewhere whose significance was made in that moment. He had conversations on a street in Nazareth, and now that street is holy, because in the memory of God exists a specific memory of a person's face, a voice, and the sunshine on the dusty ground—the memory of God contains a memory of himself as a body in a place.

We know that that body is holy, we worship that body. But why is the place holy? Not simply because a holy body walked there, but because a place is always an extension of the body—an extension of one's being into the world, into the world that is not him or it. One's being is extended beyond oneself. Places are assigned memories, and when we enter them, we enter a memory we had forgotten, or we step back into a moment or a love we had left there.

To walk through the Garden of Gethsemane is to walk through the memory of God, to see the earth of Palestine is to behold a land whose identity is stamped by the God whose memories of love are attached to specific plots of land. To walk through any place we have lived is to walk through our memories of love. To walk through the land of Canaan is to walk through the memories of Love himself, come to life on earth, and forever engraving love into the ground where he pitched his tent.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

open as a bell before the toll


The other week, at the small desk where I work in the midst of lawyers fussing about clients and contracts, I stumbled across one of those viral videos hiding in the dusty corners of the internet of a mother and a child. In this particular video, a baby born deaf hears her mother's voice for the first time, and I promptly burst into tears watching it. (I am re-watching it as I type this, and I am—again—crying.)

I was (and continue to be) surprised by the violence of my emotional reaction. I thought I had left baby fever behind in the dark days of the early twenties. But maybe it is simply that teaching teenagers and living with college students is both a reality check—this is who those babies truly are and will very shortly blossom into: free agents, whom you can't coddle forever—and a natural pasture where nurturing instincts can be harnessed for the good of a little flock, if not your own particular little lamb.

This is the first time, since I stepped into a detention room full of high school seniors one hot August morning, I realized, that I have not had a flock to care for or belong to. I think this was a facet of post-grad adulthood I took for granted. Shepherding has very heavily informed what I think adulthood is, and I am now realizing that young adulthood is an entirely different thing without it. It is, perhaps, important to finally feel its absence. This is an educational emptiness, if nothing better can be said for it. It is not an emptiness solved with plants or pets. Flocks are something that both require other shepherds, and rebel against you as only humans can and plants and pets (mercifully) cannot.


Along those lines, it struck me tonight that this is the first time in my life when I am not living in a community, and this probably explains some of the rattling unfulfilled-ness that has been besetting me for most of the year. For the past two years, I have shouldered the duty of delight that comes from living with 100+ undergraduate women, and while the community never replaced the obvious need for a complementary community of friends, it filled a certain place in my heart that I realized is a vital space, for me. There is a necessity for a human being to belong to something they know is good, whether or not they are entirely happy with it (they are usually not), whether they have complete control over it (they don't), or whether it mirrors perfectly their ideal community in their heads (it will never). I have now just stated a pitifully attenuated ecclesiology. It is important to live in community—something constituted of people you did not quite choose, even if you chose it. A community is something that is mutually forming, and it is formed by the people who constitute it, even as it molds them to the image of nothing other than each other. I think one very particularly qualification of a community is that it is filled with people you have no control over and who make the community frustrating, because they do not operate like you, but who make it real, because you learn to exist with these very, very different people, as you are held together by a bond that is above and beyond simply personal preference or inclination.

Perhaps this is why I have become so attracted to monasteries—if only monasteries had babies.

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.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

between glamor and a garret

It will take more than simple intercession to save what we have intentionally lost—or can you, dear friend, by the souls you also have harmed, the story you have already made, the life that you have lived before me—save me via proxy, petition us through loopholes around purgatory's pain?

Merton has provided me with an inordinate amount of comfort this autumn. For Merton demonstrates that even very, very good people can be very, very selfish.

Even in a monastery, you can decide to hurt others out of great, deep willfulness. Not just venial, quotidian decisions, but the monumental you know so much better than this stop yourself now before you go any farther decisions.

Even as you seek God above all else—only God, in fact—you can still choose yourself. Pathetic, for a saint.

I wish this were not so. I wish this were not so at all. Perhaps there are other, better (actual) saints I should turn to. Perhaps there are less scarred and selfish men and women who could send aid to one very self-absorbed soul.

Perhaps there are humble saints who do not have my prideful assumption that everyone will see the good person I truly am underneath it all and that I will get a free pass for being her. Perhaps there are men and women who could point out that actions are concrete and they build worlds. In fact, the world I'm living is made of them.

Actions are not imaginary actions of Concrete Actor Me on Imaginary Other People.

Actions are the real, objective reality made by my concrete self with and to and for and against the other concrete selves. Those others are one day, someone reminded me the other day—and I cannot remember if it was a book or a homily or a poster on a campus wall—the others who will people our heavens. Perhaps this is why the monastery is heaven on earth: it is populated with very real others.

Communities are like this—you can't escape the others who constitute them.

Perhaps this is why Merton found an escape in an other outside the monastery, someone who was still part of the shady reality of the world, this vale of tears which doesn't seem to quite matter. This vale of tears is still the realm of our ego, and we mostly act in the small and murky world of that—we don't really consider who else is out there. We are just buried in ourselves.

You can feel when you are with someone who is swallowed up in themselves. They clamor for you, they claw at you, trying to foist themselves out of the shadows and into something real, something concrete, something you have built together.

It is so easy to destroy something you build together. It is so easy to tear relationships, without the thought of: what will this take to mend?

Heavenly unity is our eschatological destination—Christ will not rest until he is all-in-all. If we are on board with this, then we are on board with Christ becoming the sole measure of all things, including ourselves—including our relationships.

We are so accustomed to wrestling with what in ourselves is askew from Christ: it is a daily conversion which seems to affect no one but ourselves. We pay the hidden costs of crucifixion in our hearts as we sear away all that is not God.

But when we deform and bend the Christ-shaped unity between us into something dark and broken, something that looks like shadow, not like light, then the cost of its salvation is so corporate and corporeal, even mystically. It is so painfully public. It, too, must be made new, made over, so that Christ will be all-in-all. So much energy of the divine economy must now be redirected to save it, too.

You have torn it. I have torn it. We have mangled it until it is unrecognizable, unreconcilable. Perhaps it, like many other souls, will not be saved this side of death. But, one day, it too will reach heaven, and—God, how long will it take to get it there? What will it cost us to heal what we have harmed?