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.

Friday, November 30, 2018

when I'm naked I miss you

when I'm naked I miss you
a love poem that's not elegant—
but true.

before I even breathe,
each day,
my morning offering remains
your face on the pillow next to mine.

each night,
I tuck myself in with
memories of your skin.

at matins, lauds, and nones
my psalms are old jokes
and lullabies of your eyes.

Teach my neck how to forget.
Memory may be next to godliness,
but I do not want God's sort of pain.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

ceaseless peregrinations

Lately, I've been waking up in the middle of the night and turning myself over like a pancake in the hands of an indecisive line cook on a lukewarm stove.

Nothing seems to assuage the restlessness: not even, apparently, rest.

It is rather horrifying to discover how deep an emptiness you are at 3am. When there is nothing but the night pressing in around you, you discover yourself to be just one endless cavern of aching desire. I find myself torn open, aching for being met in a way I do not currently even have the language to describe.

I am just one yawning pit of only desire. I am all torn into pieces, wishing and hoping for something that doesn't even exist—whose memories are experienced in fractals and in fits and starts.

guess I’m just going to resign myself to being restless, I say—the first time that a trace of bitterness has ever crept into my conversations with the quiet Jesuit spiritual director.

Usually, when I say something immature, ridiculous, or overly dramatic, the Jesuit tries to hide his smile behind his scarf or jacket. He doesn’t smile at this.

I think, he says, you could ask: “Where can I be of service?” And this will help direct the restlessness.

I nod, slowly.

That's wise, I say, out loud. Because I can think of nothing else to say and I am not wise enough to just keep silent. Instead of meeting a question with an answer, to give my rather desperate questioning a guiding question to ask is wise. It is helpful, not because I will find the answer, but because instead of exhausting myself in a life as a flailing interrogative, I have become a single question, who can receive a single answer.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


It is funny, the companions who arrive when we least expect it.

There is a small statue of Mary that I pack with me constantly. I do not know why Mary comes with me to the Carolinas, to weddings, on work meetings back to South Bend, accompanying me day after day—but I do know that she represents something.

And I love her, this small Mary who has shepherded me. She juggles the lamb of God in the crook of one of her arms and a small little lamb in the other. She carries them all and she carries me as well.

Mary represents a vision and a vocation—a vocation not only to bring Christ into the world as all people bring Christ into the world: a universal human vocation. She represents, in particular my vocation, to make Christ present through words, to bring the Word of life to life in my own life. In moments when I cannot pray (there are many) I think, as I hold onto this small statue that I am at least reminded of the life I should be living, and the heart I should be loving with, and to be reminded of it is to not lose sight of it entirely.

Both times, as I've flown back to New York from South Bend, I have sat next to precocious children unafraid to speak.

Do you live here? asked the small girl as we were landing.
Yes, I said. And I showed them pictures of my neighborhood, and the quiet Sugar Hill brownstones in the fall.
I've never been here before! she shivered with nervous excitement.
I think you'll like it, I said, but sometimes it takes some getting used to.

Next to me on the plane this time, there is a mother with two young children. She has a unique accent: I later learn that she is Romanian. The elder of her sons dutifully watches Inside Out, mesmerized by the screen the entire time. The other, a small tot of 11 months, clambers over her lap, shrieks with excitement and coos at any passenger who will look his way, grinning with glee. He chuckles and smiles, and chews on his small plastic walkie-talkie to soothe his aching gums which are just beginning (I'm sure) to sprout teeth.

I lift up the armrest, and he sits in the space between his mother and me. I help him look out the window at the clouds and city lights. I teach him to say: "wow" at the bright city below him. I show him Thomas Merton’s picture on the cover of my book.

I am enchanted, by the baby’s smile, by his mimicking of my “wows” until his entire face becomes just one single expression of wonder.

Being around a child is so important, I remember, because it reminds you of how gently we ought to hold others—even hard-boiled adults. People walk up to us with stories they are right in the middle of, and we do not know where they have come from. They, perhaps, don't even know what they are coming out of, what they bring with them. You have to hold not just them, but their story, gently.

It is so easy to forget this.

How you interact with anyone is high stakes, because even the smallest gesture has the ability to wound, but interacting with a child reminds you of this, because all of your interactions are first impressions as they teach a child what to expect from the world: teach him or her to expect that the world that greets him or her each morning will be polite, will take him or her seriously, will treat him or her with kindness.

These children, like the miniature Marian figurine, are small companions who contain within themselves a call back to oneself and one's vocation to pick up the world as if it were Christ or a little lamb and cradle it in your arms with kindness.

Monday, November 26, 2018

jane & annie & me & georgia

"Don't solve all of your problems," laughs Jen.

We haven't solved anyyyyyyyy, we moan over our whiskeys.

I walked into the bar that evening and Jen looked up from her old-fashioned with her friends and her jaw dropped as she saw me and we hugged. In that hug, I was so grateful for the women who had seen me through this week.

I woke up from a jealous dream on Wednesday morning before my alarm, because I hadn't set one. As I lay in the warm quiet of the Rancho morning, pulling myself into the world of blankets and tree branches out the window, I felt myself breathing.

This is living.

This is living, in the space between mattress and bedspread, feeling the air enter my nostrils and fill my lungs.

Living gets messy as the day goes by, and I endure some bumps and bruises and dole out others. My grandmother claims she doesn't give advice, but she does.

She says wise things like that sticking with someone for your whole life is either an act of laziness or great courage. She says: do you want a beer? And when I say I'm going for a walk, she says that's a great idea and comes with me to show me where the deer skulls are in the woods. Maybe I will paint them like Georgia O'Keeffe.

(I do.)

Walking through the Rancho reminds me that I am supposed to read Annie Dillard at the Rancho. I am reminded of reading Annie Dillard in the sunroom several Thanksgivings ago.

Painting reminds me even more of that Thanksgiving: I was writing a statement of intent and painting and reading about Tinker Creek and discovering pictures from an old love affair of my mother's, which reminded me I had something in common with this woman I came from but was different from, and I was in an M.C. Escher phase. And there was a boy, of course, who went with the M.C. Escher and the Annie Dillard. Dating is terrible, because once they depart, your shared universe rolls back up like a scroll, and they take with them all the pieces of your world you made together, leaving vacuous space in its place. Not just neutrality, but a positive void.

But as you learn to forget the other person, you have to forget these things, too. You halt these corollary loves which are so good—yes M.C. Escher, or the Sagrada Familia—these are not just 90's bands that have been ruined!

I suppose, however, eventually, you can relearn to love something outside of the memories it holds, as long as it is big and important enough to have space for you without the love that stamped it with its seal—I mean large and lovely things that are full of their own life: like M.C. Escher, the person you in fact once dated, God, or yourself.

I read Annie Dillard out by the pond in between psalms. Annie is also one of those wise women guides, in book form. Unhuggable, but breathable.

My other grandmother (my namesake) laughs at me as I lie wrapped up in a blanket on her sleeper sofa and chat with her in the early morning.

Renée, your romances are always so entertaining.

I laugh, too. But less at my romances and mostly with her laughing at me. They are less entertaining from the inside, I protest. But she shakes her head and tells me how young I am.

Life's full of just odd things, says Darline. There's a lot of just really weird experiences you will have, strange things happen to you. And in between there's a lot of ordinary things.

There are a lot of ordinary things, in between the messes and heartbreaks and ovens locked with pies still inside them and carrying pallets of onions across 52nd street in traffic and funny Thanksgivings flying across the country.

The ordinary things are good: how good it is, says Darline, to just sit together in the morning and laugh about the funny things kids say.

Don't solve all of your problems; leave some for us—problems are more fun when they are shared together, anyway.

You are young enough you think you can solve them on your own, but old enough to know that you will never find your way through them without the authors and the artists who give you a vision you can live by, and the women whose living provides them with clear vision.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

memoria dei, augustine dicit

Don’t feel bad, Augustine, that you can’t explain the Resurrection. We can’t even explain energy in the lab.

There’s a reason our professor keeps relating us to undergrads during this discussion of the Resurrection of the Body. We sound like a bunch of children trying to figure out the universe’s backbone, which is entirely impossible: most of the universe is dark matter and most of our lives is what is forgotten.

In that vein, memory is a sacrament of reassurance to us. A promise encoded into our bodies and our minds, in a being we have received, that what our lives are made of, that which we have forgotten, is not gone, but is deep inside of us and always capable of being recalled. Nothing, really is lost. A stray scent on a street will bring back our grandmother's house. A hand upon our hair reminds us of being in our mother's lap.

Memory is a slight taste, perhaps, of resurrection—our self, our experiences, which have been lost to us are brought back to our consciousness. We are constantly dying in our forgetfulness, losing ourselves as time's conveyor belt carries bits of ourselves away from us. What else is death than this falling prey to forgetfulness, than this conquering, the eventual scattering of who and what we are into the void of what is-not-present.

But, memory whispers, maybe even the dark matter of the universe will eventually be brought to light. Maybe in resurrection, even those patches of what have become non-existent will become illuminated. Maybe they will be tangible to us once more.

Perhaps resurrection is like coming together of memory of the world: we will make the world a memory, but that memory will be alive, tangibly, in our bodies that will live in the memory of God.

When you love someone, you turn your entire world, all your body, into a memory of them. Each of your waking moments is spent re-learning how to pray them. Your body becomes a site where once they were—a geography their hands have traveled. Your lips are marked by theirs, your entire body is now a map where they have met you and become not just a visitor but part of who you are.

Resurrection must be like that: in the Resurrection, which has begun, I believe, even now, God is making us a memory of God's own self. Our bodies have become a map where God has visited us. God has not simply spoken to our hearts or taken up residence in our souls. God has not contented himself to remain in our imaginations or in the headier realms of the spiritual: for where are those?

No, God, too, has touched us. God has met us in the intersection of the corporeal and the spiritual. God became, from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have looked at and touched. God became a place: a place where we can meet him, where we can learn the topography of his wounds, where he can meet us in our bodies, in our memories.

Perhaps that is what it means to be images of God: we are places where God has been.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

how does the war start

- Henry, we've mangled everything we've touched.
- Deny us what we will, we have done that.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

In an award-winning tension-filled family Christmas reunion that no snarky thinkpiece could prepare one for, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II spend most scenes lighting fireworks under each other's skirts and tallying points scored. Their three sons and Henry's former ward now mistress Alice are no better. Everyone's got an angle, to borrow a line from another famous Christmas classic, and these angles are rather sharp and are designed to impale someone eventually.

When someone's conniving crosses the lines of affection and becomes treason against both Henry's heart and crown, Henry reaches a breaking point. After boring through each other's armor for three-quarters of the film, we have finally reached Henry's and Eleanor's hearts.

Henry accuses Eleanor of coming between him and his eldest son, Richard, he roars that he was ousted from her bed and her heart by her doting on their son. Eleanor responds: "only after you replaced me with Rosamund," Henry's first mistress.

It's not that simple; I won't let it be that simple, spits back Henry.

It's a glorious roller-coaster of a movie. Every player in this royal family is armed to the hilt: with words, with political savvy in spades, with claws so sharpened they seem nearly literal. It's a wild west in twelfth-century England. It's thrilling to watch, but distressing, as both Eleanor and Henry recognize that whatever it is they're doing, it's not what they set out to do. Henry mourns his life, when written down, will be better read than lived. Eleanor is taunted constantly for being heartless and deceptive to the core, but, despite Henry's protestations, it appears that it really is that simple.

That at the center of all her political machinations is her broken heart from losing Henry—ostensibly.

James Goldman's script weaves together relational conflict with political comment so deftly and dizzyingly, we are unsure of what the movie sees as the stony heart of this intractable family drama that trades around in its squabbling some of the richest provinces of Europe. What is at utter bottom of these characters' desires: is it power or is it love? Can they even tell the difference?

I was thinking of this when reading JD Flynn's Twitter thread, covering many statements of the recent USCCB conference, including this one, featuring a quote from Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando:

"Life in the Church is moving on. If you're not reading the blogs and you're not watching tv, this is not front and center for most of our ppl." Says he does not mean by that to dismiss the real pain of victims. Says bps have to continue to be good bps to regain trust.

It reminds me of Eleanor's attitude, borne out, perhaps from many Christmases of a similar ilk, that this will go on perpetually, that there is no danger of what they have built breaking. That they are allowed to roar and snarl, entangled in each other's lives forever.
"What family doesn't have its ups and downs?" she quips.

Her final departure from Henry: "you'll let me out for Easter?" as she heads back again to her palace prison, unable to win her freedom this year, is supposed to, I think, be a sort of "happy ending."

This seems to be a declaration, in some way, of trust, of love. Of recognizing that the project that we are embarked upon is one that holds us to it, above and beyond our own inability to transcend our limited human abilities.

Oh isn't that nice, we seem to be prompted to think. Henry's still sleeping with this other woman and Eleanor still hasn't won her freedom, and no one has died or gotten anything that they actually want. Always good to see a status quo of misery really dig its heels in.

But really, this is remarkably troubling. It seems less like stability and more like delusion. True stability is difficult to come by, so most humans opt for delusion. It's cheaper and more readily available.

Yes, of course, there is some human failing that we will always have with us and the projects we undertake and structures that we build must suffer them, account for them, even embrace them, but there has to be a place where one draws the line. It is not acceptable that the potential collateral damage of being in the presence of a priest is that you will be severely physically, emotionally, or psychologically damaged. It is not acceptable that the potential outcome of a visit to the bishop is disregard for a priest's crime or that any person in a position of power has the ability to abuse the men in his care. It is not acceptable, because these are not simply ornamental damages. These are flaws that are fundamentally in opposition to what the institution is trying to be, what the project is trying to achieve that their presence undercuts the project in the first place.

It is no good saying we want to be a Church that saves souls and brings God's grace to the work and this is a task that stands above and beyond its fragile human members when those fragile human members who are responsible for this project abuse souls and obstruct grace. How seriously do you take this project, if your behavior is so diametrically opposed to its goals and there is such flagrant apathy towards preventing that behavior in the future? These are not small foibles, these are serious flaws that cry out for new structures to prevent them from occurring regularly. Since they apparently are able to flourish like weeds in sidewalk cracks, it's time to build a new sidewalk, maybe not with cement which is, as is common knowledge, prone to cracking. This is the sort of rebuilding that is called for. As Bishop Wenski adds, outrage is a popular stance, an industry feeds it and exploits the just anger that ought to lead to some new outcome.

Moving on from anger, relaxing one's grip on whatever stick is available to shake is, sure, good. And it is a blessed natural occurrence. Being a limited human creature means, mercifully, that moods subside, thank God.

But it is no virtue that life in the Church is "moving on," as Bishop Wenski says. There does not seem to be contained in this "moving on" any sort of positive moral attribute. For "moving on" is not a healthy reaction to a problem unless the problem has been solved. Even our sacramental reconciliation commands us to add the coda of a firm purpose to sin no more. We are forgiven, but what good is that if we go right back to our vomit? Our moods subside, thank God, but then our reason has to pick up where our emotions left us and carry the baton, even though our moods and emotions are distracted by a thousand other shiny objects:

Christmas is coming to an end, we are fed up of being stuck in the castle. We really do love each other, so let's just put up and shut up—and, look there's another crusade that we could fight or some other shiny bauble to be chasing—and pretend this never happened. You go back to your place, I go back to mine. In three hundred sixty days, our unrepented prides will land us right back in the ring together, and we'll continue this like Sisyphus for as long as we are standing. It's exhausting, but that's life!

But we are not animals, and habit is as strong a force of nature as any, but we have minds and also hearts that allow us to break toxic status quos.

There is a world, there must be, in which grace can occur—and grace always leads to transformation, teaching even the oldest dogs new tricks. There is a world in which growth, not moving on, can actually occur. There is a world in which Eleanor can get her freedom, in which even churches can convert themselves, and in which even the most weaponized of wills can disarm themselves. In a world where carpenters get resurrected, as says Eleanor, anything is possible.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Eve's New Eden

Eve has been having nightmares of serpents—disgusting, radiant pythons slipping above her head through treetops, vipers slithering through the grass beneath her toes, and beady-eyed copperheads flicking their forked tongues at her as she walks to her waterfall. She steps into the pool and she feels a scaly body wind around her leg—Eve screams and—

she wakes up in a cold sweat.

Adam—she hits her sleeping groom to rouse him and he is instantly awake.

What’s wrong? He asks, groggy but alert.

Eve is sitting up underneath their shared sycamore tree, where they sleep each night. The humidity that hangs about the foothills of Mount Hermon is weighing heavily on her lungs—her heart beats as though it were about to explode. She is too hot to sleep. And when she closes her eyes, she sees serpents that wind around her heart and neck, choking the rhythm of her pulse.

Even though her lungs are like lead—she can barely speak—Eve cries: I feel like I’m in hell.

No human has ever heard this word before—no one has ever said it. But Adam recognizes it instantly. Words arise from shared realities, and he knows the reality that Eve is feeling. It’s something—some dread possibility—they have discovered together in this world beyond paradise. And he hates it, just as she does.

Eve notices that Adam does not seem annoyed at her neologism. She has learned that Adam has an insecurity about new language—he seems himself as an inventor rather than a pupil—and she feels small tendrils of resentment running underneath the crust between them when she improvises something new. It is hard, she grants, to feel the world you've been made a master of slip out from underneath you and rise to greet you as something you must submit to, too.

Adam turns towards her—his eyes closed, but his voice open:

You are not in hell, he says.

It is not much—just a simple statement of fact. But it opens up the cloudy night air for a little space for stars. There is no breeze just yet. But Eve lays back down in the deep shade of the sycamore.

Adam and Eve have learned a lot this night: there is a condition of the heart a doctor cannot heal—when it closes up inside itself and nothing else can enter it. What is usually a space where you can meets the world becomes a prison that keeps you from it. They call this hell.

But if someone else is there with you, even in the miserable death of a humid night, then your hell has been harrowed and you are no longer in it.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Prayer for Claire and Jon and Emily

This is not Chinatown—
and I am not drinking whiskey—
this is a leftover white wine in Harlem
sort of night.

I call my mother,
crying, outside St. Patrick's:
please don't try to fix this can you just listen, I plead
with the woman who taught me problem-solving,
as Italian tourists stare at me

Inside St. Patrick's,
the church is its regular maze of dazzling,
serene brightness.

It, like the small pleasures of finding your own supermarket,
are a call to Eucharist.

I wasn't supposed to spend much money,
but the Mexican sweet bread looks too tantalizing in the Rubbermaid bin,
and it tastes like home
and thanksgiving
so I tear off thick pieces with crumbled icing
while learning my new neighborhood.

Once you re-arrange things,
it’s a wonder that you allowed yourself to exist in the squalor of before.

I hang up the Cranach painting of Adam and Eve,
as a gesture of
delusion or denial,
despair or,
like Eve's gesture,
a return:
placing the apple back on the branch,
placing the picture finally on the wall.

This is a thank you for Emily
and to Jon for reminding me that art can be
(and is often)
made in the midst of loneliness.
This is a thank you to my mother for teaching me to fix things:
that even what is messy can be tidied,
that it is never too late to send Christmas cards, hang photographs,
that even what is broken can be mended.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Letter from Philemon to Paul

No, friend—
I have experienced so much joy
and such great encouragement from
The love that pours out of you
onto the page and into the world,
into the hearts of all the holy ones.

You refresh us, like a small stream of water on a long and dusty hike.

How can I receive Onesimus as anything other than
our mutual friend—
a mutual child, almost, of our love?

I am a harsh master and have sent many slaves away.
I do not know how to receive Onesimus as a changed man,
but, for your sake, I will try.

It is difficult, I know, to let go of people you have learned to love, so your kindness in sending Onesimus home is not lost on me.

If youth is the side of our hearts that grasps at what the world offers us, fearing to be alone, and age is the wisdom that rests in reality, then you are not so old as you have learned perfectly how to let go of what you love.

What virtue would it be for me to demand him from you? Or what virtue would it be for you to demand him from me? That would be an insult to our friendship, to this long love that we have shared, to the work that we have partnered in together, Paul. And yet, even though you would like to keep him, you sent him to me—your very self, your heart, as you say.

You say Onesimus will stay with me forever—but I will die, and one day he will be alone. All that will remain of us will be the memories we have left him. For his sake, yours, and my own, I will try to learn gentleness, so that the remainder of our days will be filled with the sweetness of love shared between equals. So that the memories he will live of us when we are dead are good.

In a poor effort of repayment for the great gift of your heart, I have no other way to share with you my love than to love Onesimus—your son—now mine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

hard turning

Ellie’s eyes laughed and she looked up to the ceiling of the E train and chuckled—the way people who have lived a lot remember the time before they had lived as much—as she said: “You have so much going on. And it’s all good stuff.”

Good stuff?

I mentally stomped my foot the way I used to physically when I was three. It’s hard to be laughed at when you are seven and it's—I suppose it’s actually easier when you’re twenty-seven. It just doesn’t happen as much and it’s usually not as obvious.

"What do you mean?"

She laughed again out loud and listed back to me all the decisions and angsts I had listed to her, none of which included feeding children, spouse or aging parent.

"It’s all good stuff. And you’re figuring it out."

Giant sigh.

"I don’t know what I’m doing with my life."

"Well, let me tell you, you never stop figuring that out."


How annoying, I thought, not to be given answers to all the questions I am trying to resolve. How frustrating to explain the problems and find no solution.

Even as a gripe for answers, I try to imagine what living a solution is like. Are there times in my life that I have lived this way that I imagine what “True Living” (once I have worked through all this becoming and growing nonsense) looks like in my head: perfectly at peace, sticking with my prayer routines, effortlessly giving myself over to work or school or whoever appears in my life that day, knowing without a doubt that this is where I am meant to be and who I am meant to love, right now, in this moment?

It is not an accident that the myth of a golden age is so universally appealing: as I look back on seasons in my life that are not now, it is not only easy but fundamentally natural to forget the small daily battles of ego versus other which actually make up the bread and butter of each day. I forget the internal struggle to take time to talk to a student when I am rushing to class. It is easy to erase from memory the nights I went to bed lonely, even after praying. I quickly elide over the anxiety of planning out a life and mapping everything into one day. Of not having time to breathe or write a letter to a grandmother. Even in the times I look back on most fondly, that radiate beauty into sad mornings and ward off despondency like sunshine—if I recall them honestly—even then I was caught in guilt or angst or heartbreak. I wrestled with doubts and insecurities and fears even in Kolkata and East Harlem and South Bend.

No, as I think about it, there doesn’t seem to be a single time in my life I have lived in a solution. I have always been living in a problem, living in tensions—creative or no—living in the question of what will I become? What will I do with my life—the only comprehensible unit of which is a today?

I was not “happier” before today, in another place, in another time. Nostalgia is so tantalizing, but it is such a siren’s call: memories are woven into our present, but try to make them the locus of our living, and they vanish. There isn't any other time than now, and there isn't any other place but here, and there are no other people than the ones that appear in your today. True living isn't lived in the external accidentals, but in the quiet place of your heart where the binding and the loosing take place. That place has never changed, not since you were very little. You are still in it. And the question is: are you happy there or not?

Ellie gets off the train and I am still on it.

As the wheels of the train pound, their rhythm churns out refrains of Annie Dillard: There are no events but thoughts and the heart's hard turning, the heart's slow learning where to love and whom.

The rest is merely gossip and tales for other times.

Monday, November 12, 2018

allow me

Allow me, please,
One miserable pseudo-sonnet,
Because I am not sure if I am
Disillusioned or merely broken-hearted.

Symphony sings through the coffee shop speakers—
This shop feels like Tmol Shilshom
—the perfect place to ponder heartache
mull as long as you please
dissect your feelings
while the bearded theology student pays.

Symphony comes on—
this time,
I did not turn it on or request it—
It was not that.

It was you
Pouring in in ways I hadn’t
anticipated or suspected
You were a surprise—
Ill-timed, really,
Interrupting work.

Out-of-place because what about this was surprise?
This was just another plan of mine,
a play I schemed and you slipped into place,
acquiescing passively, allowing the world
to happen to you,
until you resist a porous world—
until I realize a character has gone rouge
until you were doing something else.

But no.
That’s not quite true:
you were unexpected,
uninvited to the party,
unplanned homecoming on a Thursday morning,
unanticipated chianti.

Here you are again,
Doing your own thing
In this truly terrible
imitation of Tmol Shilshom.

And I want you to arrive
On your own
Like Symphony.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

nothing's broken

Do not be so gauche as to actually
break a bond you've forged
do not be so heartless as to actually snap
shared life back into two.

Rather, let the velocity of selfishness
pull her to her feet, speed her from you.
Let the inertia of misery keep you in your place.
It's less a break than a falling apart
some rot at the center eats away at it,
some atmospheric static keeps the glue from holding,
a common rationale went missing,
the logos of an earthly paradise got lost.

It's less a severing than a slow bath in lethe,
fingers turning into prunes underneath the water,
but no one exits,
we are dehydrated, but no one drinks.

It's less a breaking than
an intentional mis-remembering
of your face, your hands, your heart.

It's a purposeful forgetting of how to hold you gently,
a slow-withdrawal from your
newly shark-eyed arms.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

eternity springs from hope

"People can feel when you give up on them," I said to Sam on the phone in the doctor's office—feeling, for one moment, like my mother, juggling the phone on her face, pulling cards out of her wallet, while checking in with the nurse. It is easier to give up on someone than hoping in them.

I think of all the ways we try to ward off heartbreak—making vows, building systems, creating a world we can be sure of, certain of, without the pain of faith, without that terrible, awful feeling that we will be hurt and wounded. We insist on our rights, because we know that it is fundamentally right for us to be met in love, and it is absolutely guaranteed that we will be unmet in love. The potential for total devastation runs under every single day of our lives.

There are two sorts of people in this world: the people who respond to this perpetual potential with denial: this will not happen to me. I am a Smart, Competent, Truly Highly-Able Person. All about me, I see the common fool continually crushed under the weight of disappointment and heartbreak. This will not happen to me. This person seeks with whatever very capable talents that they have, to control their lives. They set their mind to achieve the goals they have laid out for them, they make plans and stick to them, they devise systems of understanding, categorizing, and responding to the world. They do not brook surprise, they have already ordered their world. There is no space for an ounce of uncertainty, there is no room for anything they have not already previously accounted for—particularly not the radical variable of another person.

If they will only accept that which they control, their world will slowly shrink until it is no wider than the boundaries of our own self. For humans really cannot bring anything under their domain that is not them. To rule by control, then, means to make everything Self. This is not Adam's paradise, but Hell.

Adam in paradise ruled not by naming all things "Adam," but by naming them their own unique names. Adam ruled by seeing the world as what it truly is—something mysterious and other. Something beyond the boundaries of himself. And then he fell, because he saw that he could take the world and subsume it into his control, into his own self.

There is another response to the human condition of constantly standing on the precipice of heartbreak. There is another way.

You must respond to the chasm that opens at your feet by constantly extending yourself over it—because that is love. Love says: do not give up, do not shrivel up into the snail shell of your meager heart. Love is both endless surrender and constant boundary-keeping between self and other —it is tempting maybe even to the Father to turn the others divine love seeks so ardently into puppets, to collapse the distance between self and other, to control. Control is the opposite, I think, of love.

But, no, of course God has not been tempted to control, because control arises, first and foremost, from fear—love's nemesis. God, perfect love—perfect love who daily dazzles with the risks he dares to take—pours God's lovely self out so that divinity could very well run dry. God gives so utterly that very quickly God would become empty—that is the risk of God: to love with a love that is not guaranteed a response.

Beyond a guarantee, beyond a promise or a vow, the Son responds in love each day, unfettered by a previous commitment from time past, but moved simply by his eternal present to enter into the fullness of his being: love. The Son, each day a surprise, rises up like dawn, like the world's first sunrise, before all mornings without beginning and end.

This miracle of perfect love, who move toward one another in concert and out in to the world, is the miracle that is reality. It is the world's fundamental truth—the world's foundation is impossible, but the only possible foundation of a world at all. It is painful, terrible to love creatures, because they will not respond—we all do it to one another—the un-responded text dangles frozen like a blue banner advertising our un-metness. We continually reinforce the fear that we will extend ourselves across the precipice and fall, because it happens far too frequently.

But love demands we do not hoard the world into our self and give it our own name. Love demands we see the beauty that surrounds us and surrender to it—giving it its own name, letting it be what it is. And hoping, as a gardener watches the silent earth, that it will yield itself to us as we have yielded to it.

These are the only two responses—there is no middle way. Either we live in fear and control or we live with hearts in great danger of shattering. But a heart that keeps itself safe is hardly a heart at all.

And where is God? God is found not on the other side of danger, or in the answers our love seeks—God is with us, in the uncertainty of our side of the precipice. And God says: leap.

Friday, November 9, 2018

dehydrated eucharists

My head feeling as dark with last night's wine as Homer's sea, and as desiccated as his bones, I slap my feet repeatedly against the harsh concrete sidewalk. I am in the haze that comes from dehydration [Purple Alert: Missing. Water. Bottle. Feared missing on the 1 train.] and travel with an overloaded suitcase in the rain.

I scroll through Instagram on my flight because it is very easy to let yourself slide into bad habits. I discover an acquaintance runs a Christian motivational Instagram account: my eyes flatten into skeptical lines instantly, and my internal cynic mocks the curly calligraphy photoshopped over images of beaches and trees.

Over a somewhat choppy-looking sea is a quote of Mother Teresa's or some simple statement of a saint that says:

What do you want me to do for you?

And I stop myself mid-sneer, because this small little image of water is doing more to make Christ present than anything I have done today.

And I wonder why I think that I am being more theologically sophisticated or intellectually palatable by talking more about myself than about Christ, when really this small piece of pop theology contains the entire life of sainthood in 2 square inches of digital water.

Why do I turn my nose up at Pinterest Evangelism? There's something very simple and good in it. Perhaps because it is trying to make the Gospel beautiful in a way that is conventional (there is nothing wrong with this I don't think). The Gospel is beautiful—so you must change your life. There's maybe something more radical and less tame and precise in the God who flips tables. Who decided to be born not in a quiet suburb but in a geopolitical war zone.

I was thinking of this again when reading a professor's piece on why discipleship isn't as exciting as youth ministry makes it seem; as in, the Christian life offers a system of meaning, not a series of exuberant emotional experiences. No, of course not, I thought, discipleship is more exciting.

Good gracious, the Christian life—the meaning Christianity offers—is not in any way about disabusing us of our Romantic daydreams or flattening our desires. Christianity does not demand our desires to live on the mountains is curtailed, rather it says the God we used to seek in high places has pitched his tent among us, here, in the valley, in whatever mundane life we're living. Christianity is about teaching us that whatever ecstatic experiences, overweening desires, and high mountain peaks we seek are present to us in the simplest things, above and beyond our wildest expectations. All our wildest dreams are present, here—if only we have the eyes to see, then yes, each day is constant epiphany.

The Eucharist is not less exciting than an apparition of Jesus, breaking through the clouds with blue and red rays of light streaming from his breast. The Eucharist upends our idea of what thrilling is, because the source of all our life comes to us each day in the very ordinary and mundane bread. The bread does not stop being ordinary bread—to our eyes, ears, tongues, to every sense we possess that is capable of ingesting the world, it is bread. The fact that the bread is God does not make it less ordinary. The Eucharist invites us into the extraordinary by entering more deeply into the ordinary.

The extraordinary does not become anything less than what every single fiber of our being longs for because it comes to us in ordinary, humble forms we do not invent. God is not a gotcha game, who lures us in only to disappoint. God offers saints and sinners the same world—but the saint has learned to see this world from its heart. The saint sees everything the sinner does, but the saint does not just see what she sees—she loves it.

And the world is different when you feel inside yourself the undeniable call to pick up every single part of it, hold it in your arms, close to your breast, and love it into wholeness. It is ordinary. But it is beautiful—dazzling, even.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

#TFW your life is post-lapsarian

His fire is to burn on in others. Now and then he actually succeeds, like dynamite, in blasting a soul into the air, and far and wide the windows rattle and the foundations of houses quake. - Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World

Adam's rib is gone and Eve's heart was broken in the fall.

Adam's wounds, his physical sense of lack has, slowly, made him stronger. He is older now—truly a fully-formed man. Pain bakes the half-baked human, and makes him wiser than he was. Gingerly, each morning, Adam stretches each numb toe and cracks his wayward vertebrae back into their places in the fresh Syrian sun. He has learned to listen to the small ticks inside his ribcage and the moanings of his intercostal muscles. He trains his mind's eye on the tiniest muscles of his shoulders and exercises them with tiny movements. Adam has had to rebuild from necessity. He adjust his lungs; they have a new pattern of inspiration. The air tastes newer now.

Having stitched his body back together, slowly, over many months, Adam is expert in the field of physical healing. His body is wise: he has broken man's fundamental impulse of isolation, seeking help from others, knowing corporeal healing is a communal project.

Eve's heart was shattered the moment they departed Eden. The angel's flaming sword seared her to the core, and the cardiac fragments scattered all throughout their exile. She has spent the nights of their diaspora wandering the world and gathering all the broken remnants of her soul back together.

She cries sometimes at night, for no reason other than that the night is very black and she cannot see the stars. Adam holds her to his chest then, tightly, but gasps in pain as Eve's head hits the hole in his side. He loosens his grasp on her.

Eve is still young in many ways, but she has learned that healing is something slow and steady, that you sometimes have to search for what seems obvious. Eve's body has never been broken, and she does not understand why Adam quietly obsesses, like a watchman guarding a castle, about every single twinge of muscle. Eve's heart has been wrenched apart and put back together.

Adam watches Even when she walks, willing her gait to steady and to straighten, afraid for all the accidents that can accompany one misplaced muscle or unaligned bone. Eve does not understand why he worries.

Adam lost his trust that the body he is not imprisoned with, but entrusted to, will hold up underneath him, will not ultimately rebel against him—he sees the great enemy of death making advances all throughout his body. Eve has lost her trust in a world that withholds her heart from her—that has stolen from her what gives her greatest joy.

It's a lonely exile most evenings—the world does not seem to sing, like it did in Eden, and the water is not as lively. The animals shun their campfire, instead of frolicking around it.

Adam and Eve have an entire world to make—even though their heart and lungs feel old and wizened, history is quite, quite young. Today, they exist in two separate wounds—they cannot even reach each other in the other's pain. But they were made to build something beautiful.

Perhaps, thinks Adam, we can try tomorrow.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

turned tables

God, I don’t know where you are today in the grey clouds
of fifty-third and sixth,
but I ask you to be right here, with me:
A young woman sitting on these benches,
offering as sacrifice this needy loser pigeon with a bad hairdo,
and the incense of Halal Guys' gyro meat:
A young woman who can’t quite piece together words,
Or fit together discordant puzzle pieces.

Sometimes we build up castles in the clouds—
illusions we lullaby ourselves to sleep with,
to ward against the stings of disappointment.

Nothing shatters those shallow mirages like the memory—
clear and sharp, like you are right here in front of me,
on fire—
Of your deep and gentle face,
behind which flowers all of earthly paradise.
Of your heart, coming out to meet me in a thousand quiet ways,
Of laughing by the lake at night,
Of your eyes that shine like sparks in stubble,
Of your tender gravel voice, whispering Ave Marias in my ear,
Of sitting together in the bejeweled quiet of a Basilica afternoon.

I think we imagine that God is in the finished picture.
But God is right here—in the shattered pieces we'll one day puzzle back together.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

raising paralytics

One might argue that all parents know that they are delivering their children from the blank constancy of nonexistence into a world that is certain only to change, and that it’s impossible to be sure of anything except that life is not permanent and is prone to radical, sudden revolutions. This is true, if a bit more determined, in the case of climate change. Bringing a child into a world staring down the throat of its own deadly excesses is both as reasonable and irrational as having a child in any other frightening epoch, and there have been many. — Elizabeth Bruenig, October 12, 2018

If you are a critical person, you are probably aware of two things:
1. How much better everything could be and isn't.
2. That things are not as they appear to be.

Two corollaries follow from the first awareness. First: you, unfortunately can easily tend to see the dark sides of the cloud—whatever the opposite is of a silver lining, you live in that world. You are able to see the ideal—the purest form—and you can quickly measure up the distance between that ideal and the milieu within which you are existing. What is weighs on you, because it is not what it could be. From your particular vantage point, you can see how much better things would be if they were just a little more ideal and less real.

Second, this idealism often constricts our imagination into: either it must be this right way, or it will be forever the wrong way. Once we have charted that terribly long and winding path between where we are now and where we ought to be, the sheer improbability of ever reaching that distant ideal often forecloses other, truly viable solutions. But they are not the ideal, so how can we possibly settle for them?

This second awareness causes a more subtle disruption. For if you recognize that things are not as they appear to be, then you realize there is a possibility the phenomena themselves are deceptions. If you are aware of the existence of deceiving phenomena, this probably generally means that you are unwilling to be taken in—and you will inevitably, like all humans, probably be taken in.

As an intelligent person, you are taught to cross-examine everything: from the statement your classmate made in seminar to your GRE questions. A test means a question is presented that is designed to make a fool out of the too-trusting person—"passing the test" means refusing to let yourself be duped. Those of us who have never been fooled are declared intelligent.

But the beginning of wisdom is perhaps at an altogether different point than the basis of critical thinking.

Wisdom seems to take not just as a possibility, but as a given, that we will be fooled. The wool is going to be pulled over our eyes, and that's just a fact. Good on you, deceiving world for taking us in with your endlessly marvelous bait.

Wisdom tends towards remembering that things could be better—but hypotheticals are a charming illusion for restless minds. What's good (what's best) is what is in front of us. Wisdom seems to remember that what is good is abundant, and really the only way to become wise, is to not make the good better, but to love better what good is in front of you— to offer the love you have to a world that will inevitably spit it back in your face.

We are trained to be intelligent and smart by being the people are who are always a few crucial steps ahead of hecklers, keeping several yards out of spitting range. But wisdom in the flesh was once spat at, so perhaps we are trained to be intelligent in vain. The smarter you are, the harder it is to let yourself be got. But the wise are constantly being gotten the better of—and I think they laugh, all the same.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Harlem Annunciation

There's a—well, just a sliver of light
in a very light little corner of the room.

There are plants, but they are sort of nondescript.

And there's a small ray of light, in the midst of the day.

Today has light in it.

But it's often difficult to see.

I resent the idea that angels just appear, like beams of light.

I think angels are the man at mass who hits his head with excitement while in communion line.

I am right | but also wrong.

If you look into the cup at a poor church,
you see white wine.
And Christ is so present in this small indignity.

the stained glass windows on the ceiling are full of light,
and perhaps angels—who am I to say?

I pray, with the church full of people: Viva Maria!

and laugh.

Monday, October 29, 2018


"Woman, you are set free of your ailment.”

After eighteen years of pain—a pain so heavy she could not even stand upright—I can only imagine the lightness and relief this woman must have experienced at Jesus’ words that caused her to burst into praise.

I remember moments I have experienced this joyful rush of healing and relief.

I remember the first run after months of recovering from a knee injury. As I ran over the packed dirt in the Minnesota woods, an uncontainable, childlike grin broke out on my face.

I think this is the healing today's Gospel describes. In moments of healing, we almost cannot help but thank God—there feels like no other appropriate response.

But after this surge of our newly lightened spirit upwards, there comes the slower, harder work of healing. I wonder if, after this Sabbath with Jesus, this same woman had to learn this slow work of healing, too.

I wonder if it took this woman many weeks—years, perhaps—to retrain herself to stand upright. She must have had to remember each day that her muscles now had the strength to hold her head up high. She must have had to remind herself that God had done great things for her—and deserved her same thanks.

It is easy, in the moment of healing, to thank God. Being healed is one thing, but learning how to live as a healed person is another. It is too easy to go back to the old habits, the stooped posture, the same sins.

Living as healed persons means that we—that I—have to let go of the old, sinful habits I have formed.

To live as someone healed means that we slowly learn to turn what is hurt and broken in us into a hymn of thanksgiving to the God whose love, each day, brings us joy.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

surplus of form

It is very strange to me, I have noticed, how the word “conform” is seen as somehow dry. Someone told me they thought it was "overly technical" and cold. But "conform" is a word of deepest intimacy.

Forming ourselves into something else is a sacramental act. Forming ourselves into something that is other than ourselves is the most human action.

As I stood in the shower, and water fell all over my naked hips and breasts, I found, almost to my dismay, that I was not alone here. My body was no longer just a landscape of myself, but a shared topography. As I gingerly touch myself in the act of cleaning, my fingers turn into matches. My body flames with memories of you. My body has become a space that is a sacrament of the people who have been there, much like the couch that used to be in my living room or my kitchen table. My body is also a site of hospitality, but of a much more intimate variety.

I can not longer even touch myself without touching you. Your form is stamped on mind. Lightly, perhaps, but inescapably.

Memory is not just something takes up space inside our minds, or that inundates our hearts, it sinks into our cheeks and takes over the hairs on our arms. Our entire bodies become sacraments of who has been there. Our bodies become sacramental memories; but they are not orderly, categorized entities.

I cannot comprehend the sheer horror of having someone in your body you do not want there. You want to rip out the offending party, to utterly erase them from your life, and you discover that they are still embedded in your bones.

Our noses smell their breath, the squish of their coat on ours, and the pull of their arms on our back.
The memories, repeated as our skin cells multiply, encoded in each new cell's DNA, make me want to vomit or retch, or scrape away whatever layer of epidermis those memories hover within. I want to burn whatever it is that still holds these old memories. But the memories are inescapable—the memories make up me, not just my past, but the building blocks of who I am here in the present: I cannot erase the presence of his chest against mine, unless I evacuate my chest of anything that gives mine meaning.

Perhaps this is what the wounds on resurrected Christ mean: we are made up of scars. Christ cannot rip away the burning voids flaming through his hands and feet. The vacuum of skin caused by sin is stamped upon Christ's body, even in the perfection of resurrection. It is how the disciples know that it is him.

This sort of inedible physical presence is challenging. How can it be redeemed? Christ is not just scarred, but also resurrected.

We are not only our bodies and we are not tethered to the clay of simply our own lives.

Eucharist makes up a space where we can re-discover ourselves as spaces of memory not of who has visited us at night, but at the God who comes to save the human race through touch.
The Eucharist is a sacrament of anamnesis, where we do this "in memory of me." The body Christ gives us is his body in memory, and it becomes a piece of our own body's memories.

We do not transcend our bodies; bread is not vanquished in the Eucharist, rather, it is—they are—consecrated. In its intimate encounter with the holy our bodies are utterly transformed—they are conformed.

Friday, October 26, 2018

walking season

I am walking through Morningside park and thinking that this is the time of the year I love so much. Autumn is the time of year the world falls, like Rahner says, into the mystery of God, like all things that must die. The Upper West Side in autumn is quintessential Madeleine L'Engle New York.

There is a strange piece of street art by the 1 train stop on 157th Street and Broadway, that features an asinine Bottom gazing at a mermaid Titania in a fish bowl—it is certainly grotesque. But something about it makes me feel—in a very pleasant way, that I am living in a fairy tale.

I am walking through Morningside Park now and there are dark cloud banks descending from the northern edge of the park. They are not dropping rain, just atmosphere. I am beating the pavement with my heels at my usual breakneck pace, until I realize I do not have to this time. I am actually on time for Mass. I can slow down.

And I do. I pocket my digital atlas, and I breathe. I walk like I am simply walking. I do not walk at a snail's pace, even when meditating, so it not necessarily the shift in tempo that causes the greatest change. No, it is rather some intention that has shifted. There is a different purpose to the walking.

Rushing causes a tightening of focus to the point that we can no longer really see anything other than our decision about what comes next. If every moment we are seeking next is simply the next thing in the long list of things we have strung together like pearls onto the necklace of our self—what's the good in that? Or rather, how can we possibly see the good in them?

As I walk, I am absorbing what I'm walking through. The walk's purpose has become nothing other than to notice and adore the world around me—the ivy climbing up the trees, the quality of light above the pond, the wonderful, ridiculous slopes of the stairs and the steep cliffs of the park—it's like a playground and a maze in here—and the raccoon lumbering through the crepuscular leaves bordering the path. "Oh hello, sweetie," I say. Thankfully the raccoon simply glances at me and ignores the diminutive worthy of the cashier at Food Lion.

As I walk over to Domenic after Mass, we linger for a moment in the soft gold gloom of the church, staring at the Ave Maria script circling the dome of the church. He stands, and we begin, unthinkingly, to walk out of the church at a normal pace—the way you walk when you’re simply trying to move from point A to point B. But then—
he or I—or both of us, make the same shift to walking not like bankers but like monks. We walk very, very slowly through the nave to the door, swiveling our attention from side-to-side, taking in the Jeanne D'Arc statue, the terrible small statuette of Michael, and the curve of the pillars. Simply, for a moment, taking in what is around us—for a moment, really opening our eyes to see things clearly.

And this, I think, is closer to prayer than most things.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

twenty-seven blessings

It is easy, in the midst of noticing what's wrong (a lot!) what is upsetting (legion) and what is potentially hurtful (don't get me started) to forget to notice what is actually, objectively, and indisputably good.

- This morning, the light was bright. And I know "bright morning light" is an unholy cliché. But there's a reason that sub-par poets praise it. The world shines sometimes when there are no clouds in the morning. When the brightness of morning rises over the river, or over any body of water, it's even better. Because the water shimmers and glimmers and becomes part of the sky the way that water is always part of the sky but more so.

- This morning as I got into the shower I looked at my body, which for at least the last half of the twenty-seven years I have lived has looked foreign and strange to me, has looked like something that belongs to someone who is not me. It has been something I avoid looking at if not to find ways in which it can be improved. But this morning it greets me, as I step into the bath, like it is returning from somewhere far away: it is mine again and I love it. It is not easy to love what is not in your control—bodies are hard to love in this way.

- After the run in the bright morning light, my hip started to hurt with a stinging pain like this summer's, but more so. I sat in a coffee shop drinking a pleasantly acrid almond milk latte, and felt my hip join complaining every which way underneath me. The internet was on the fritz so I was using my cellphone as a hotspot, while on a video call for work, while feeling like a small crab was pinching six different tendons in my leg—but the cheddar apple scone I selected on a whim was not dry. It is an absolute law of nature that coffee shop scones, whatever their flavor are consistently as dry as tacks and this one was not dry. It had the slightly damp, pillowy consistency of my mother's famous cream scones. A sufficiently moist scone covers a multitude of sins.

- At the Cabrini Shrine in Upper Manhattan, the sanctuary is covered with beautiful mosaics of Mother Cabrini's life, surrounding the rather startling image of her body, in a Sleeping Beauty-esque casket that displays her body.

After Communion, the priest burst into song: a song of praise that just poured out of him as effortlessly as a response. It is simply joy. The priest who burst into How Great Thou Art after communion and harmonized with the music brought me joy.

I remembered in the midst of singing that I do not need to have all the answers. I am asking the same questions I asked at twenty-six: where to love and who, and I do not have the answers. But the questions should make you sing.

- I walked out of the Cabrini shrine and called The Insurance Lady—I think her name was Holly. She was one of those people who really does ooze Christmas. The sun was shining, and sometimes Washington Heights right below Fort Tryon is so utterly charming, you want to just pinch its concrete sidewalk cheeks. I walked to Uptown Garrison, walked inside and went to use the bathroom—it's one of those bathrooms they call a water closet. And now you have the perfect image of the sort of place that Uptown Garrison tries to be. Not what it is, though.

I walked out of the bathroom and saw Domenic. If you have ever seen a face you did not expect but always expect in a place you did not expect, then you will know the sort of joy that kind of surprise brings. It is trinitarian, really: to expect and be met is perhaps the closest we come to God. The trick is that you have to always extend your expectation—that is exhausting, risky, and inevitably will be painful. You have to do it (expect and anticipate and desire), otherwise half the joy of someone showing up is robbed.

- He showed up with a Levain Cookie. Those things are my favorite.

- I spent much of the day in pain, in stress, or being stymied in my attempt to get done all the tasks that needed doing. But, there were just these few small moments that reminded me that there are many people who bring many gifts into our lives. And often they bring them gingerly—they are not quite sure what they're doing there either.

But, in the thick of all the sunny Thursday stress, I realized: there is so much of the world that needs to be embraced. You can feel it, a vacant sort of gap in need of love. And really, all I want to do is pick up each piece of it, hold it close to my heart, and love it back into itself—strong, beautiful, and whole.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

prayers like turtles

“Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplexing us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us.”
—Augustine, letter to Proba

Too often we imagine prayer as transaction—not even prayer, simply communication: it is a pedestrian task designed for us to correspond with the other individuals in the world around us. 

But prayer, like most communication, is not at all about treating words as pack-mules to ferry our mental luggage from tongue to tongue.
Like most communication, it is about something other than just the content of the communique.
Like most communication—but mostly like correspondence.

Correspondence has always been a practice born of at least a small bit of leisure—composition demands leisure in that it demands a small space to breathe and nothing else: a sliver of space in which to think. Correspondence does not pretend that spatiotemporal distances are collapsed or vanished, but rather that they are irrelevant. There is something sacred in sitting down to pen a letter, whether that is really your only option and the speediest form of communication available to you in some Pony Express outpost, or whether you could easily pick up the phone to call them or text. A letter is not offering expediency, but a different space of meeting. In the intermediary medium of the page, a letter offers an eternal space of meeting, like a book, that will say the same thing, no matter the events of the intervening weeks between composition and reception.

It’s a superfluous means of communicating in a digital age, but, I think that letter-writing, really, has always been somewhat superfluous. If expediency was the chief concern, then the fastest and most efficient means of communication possible would be to simply send a messenger, even if he is liable to be shot.

Uttered from a hammock in St. Patrick’s Park, on an unseasonably warm spring day—the woods is suspended in a purgatorial crepuscular haze, like the last weeks of autumn. But it's May.

You know what I think dating is.
Turning yourself inside out.

It is making yourself as naked as a tortoise without a shell, and offering yourself up for another person's gaze.

Perhaps when they see you, foundering without any armor, their gaze will turn to close inspection, and you will be constantly measured up to a standard and fall short. Perhaps they will be the sort of judge who does not subscribe to the slow and steady win the race mentality which your family has lived by for generations.

But, honestly, most of us can make out the shapes underneath our shells, even when fully clothed. Humans are quite obvious, and we hardly need to turn ourselves inside out to see what is on the inside. It oozes out of us if not exactly with the gathered greatness of Hopkins' oil, at least with all its grand transparency. Human beings are not as opaque as we imagine ourselves to be.

We are certainly not God, and we cannot read each other's minds or hearts infallibly, but how often do we meet the revelation of another with: "I know." We very clearly did not know, because we could not read their minds and they had not communicated their mind to us, and yet, we knew.

But it is not this sort of knowledge we are interested in, nor, according to Augustine is God.

God does not want to know what is inside of us. For, God as whatever sort of divine creator he purports to be, must be at least somewhat responsible for whatever is inside of us. Nothing within us is news to God, we do not share our hearts with God because God is in some sort of deep need for the hearts which rest always in the divine hands to begin with, but rather because our hearts, if they are to be hearts at all, demand to be shared.

We do not want to know for the knowing's own sake. We do not want to turn one another inside out as some sort of practice of relational vivisection, out of the callous control of empirical certainty. We do not want to see what's inside for our own benefit, but because we are creatures made to be turned inside out.

So we lie in hammocks and tell stories to each other we already know. So we lie in our bed and whisper back into the dark desires that came from the glittering darkness to begin with. Not because the dark is in the dark (as it were) about what lies at the bottom of our hearts, but because we are hearts only full when emptied. We ask for what will be given anyway, because the asking clears room for the gift we could not receive properly on our own.

Prayers, like letters and like falling in love, are inefficient, but eternal.

Friday, October 19, 2018

a monstrous weight

—December 20, 2014— 

One of the great beauties of St. Patrick's Cathedral is that the back doors are usually left wide open.
It's an extravagant gesture (and not just because it must add significant figures to the heating bill), they are flung open like an embrace, welcoming the City into the arms of the Church. They are New York's answer to St. Peter's colonnade; but instead of stone pillars lined with saints, they are gold monoliths flanking the entrance of all the saints and sinners who stumble into their sanctuary.

Through the open entrance, you can hear the bustle of Fifth Avenue, and catch a glimpse of the bustle of Christmastime in New York City outside. Most importantly, you can see the colossal statue of Atlas that stands guard in front of the Rockefeller Center. It is an imposing and impressive sculpture. The bronze titan's brow is furrowed, yet his body seems unbreakable, capable of bearing a globe on his shoulders without breaking a sweat.

If I were to worship a god, I would expect him to look like that—no, I would need him to look like that. If I were to lay aside all my own selfish interests and desires for another being, and declare that being not only lord of my heart, but lord of all the universe, I would want to imagine him vast, unconquerable, powerful: powerful enough to trample all my enemies, strong enough to carry me on his shoulders, powerful enough to be able to grant my every request.

Just opposite of Atlas, staring at him lovingly from the high altar of St. Patrick's, is a gloriously ensconced crucified Christ. Although the cross and corpus are gilded, the pathos of this image is not lost in the glamor of the material, or in its marble surroundings. The figure of Christ, so broken, so injured, so hurt—so very palpably, visibly wounded in his mission. He hangs on the cross, an image of failure, derided by the world. That is what love will do to you.

Fall in love, stay in love, and you will endure more slings and arrows than just the bright agony of a cupid's dart, whispers the crucifix.

They stand opposite each other, across the avenue and the nave: one god a giant in bronze, triumphantly bearing the globe on his shoulders, celebrating the success of human industry. And then, this other strange god of Christians: a broken man, bleeding to death on a cross, enduring all the evils that human industry can impose upon one slight figure. Atlas' gaze is powerful, penetrating. He seems so sure of his success. He seems convinced of his destiny: to bear the weight of the world without assistance, and to offer none to anyone else. He is untouched by the sorrow of the humans blundering about on the burden on his back and taking pictures by his pedestal. He is removed from them, and their lives—to him—mean nothing at all.

But the face on the crucifix is carved with sorrow because the evils that harm us matter. Our lives, touched with sorrow, with glory, with failures and with victories matter. They matter so much that a God more powerful, vast, and unconquerable than Atlas entered into them. This God was beaten by his enemies, as we will be. This God endured hardship and cold, insecurity and uncertainty as all of us do. This God was born not as a titan but as the most vulnerable of creatures: a human baby. This God's body, hanging there on the cross looks much like mine: fragile—oh so fragile—and pitiable. This God endured all this indignity to what end? For the small possibility that one day I might learn to love him back? What an unspeakable insanity.

If I were to craft an image of love, I would expect it to look just like that.  If I were to lay aside all my own selfish interests and desires for another being, and declare that being not only lord of all the universe, but lord of my own heart, I would imagine that face just as Christ's on that cross. His arms are open in a posture that Atlas seems to mimic, but can never fully imitate: outstretched in an embrace, in an offering—an offering of his own self—an an offering not just of strength or power, but of his very being.

When you are in love, you want to understand the other person's life: you want to hear about it—through a text, a letter, or a phone call, or even a dynamic story over dinner—but you know  that you have to get inside the experience to fully understand it or them.
If they like to knit, you don't just want to know about the latest scarf they're working on, but you want to know way the yarn feels slipping through their fingers; if they like riding horses, you want to know how the wind on your face feels galloping across a field; if they love their apartment, you want to know what the sunrise looks like from their window each morning. Love demands that we enter into the lives of those we love, not just admire them from a distance. It is messy, it is painful. Everything is clean and simple, like Atlas' strong, immobile figure, if we just watch from a distance.
But to enter into someone's life is messy. It will contort your body into a new shape that will look both like failure and like love.

So I stoop to kiss this crushed man's feet, so close to me—so reachable—and I sit back on my heels to adore a broken God whose mission was to be failure, that my failures may be an avenue through which I can come to know him.

His posture is the grammar by which I form my stammering words of love.

Monday, October 15, 2018

free solo

Let us accept that we are lovable. Let us imagine, a priori, that we have already achieved and are achieving everything that has been set in front of us to do. Before we begin, let us feel quite firmly that we have nothing to prove.

 What happens after that?

Alex Hannold, it seems, has a lot of things to prove—to himself.
And a lot of cliffs to climb before he feels—personally—that he has established himself as what and who he wants to be.
 His girlfriend, Sanni, appears to have absolutely nothing to prove to anyone.
Apparently, she wants nothing but to sleep on a bunk bed in a van with this strange, ascetic desert father of a man.

She appears to be happy, sane, and with a sense of self-worth fully intact.

What can we achieve, when we are driven not by our desire to make ourselves into something—that ever-present phantom of what we might be, what we could be, the specter known as our ideal self which haunts us, but no one else seems to be burdened by—but when we have already accepted that we have everything we need?

Alex would answer: nothing.
Sanni would answer: anything.

Are we really living anything if we are still living in that terrible threshold before worthiness. Life can't be lived in a holding pen.