Wednesday, February 28, 2018

it wouldn't have been so among us

When we first read this Gospel, this chapel was a mess: brown paper, glass panes, dust everywhere. We sat on two chairs in front of an empty tabernacle, and began, there to learn to pray side-by-side. We built a common rhythm of quiet and speech, of heart-silences and soul-greetings. There were no candles here then, no sanctuary lamp announcing the emptiness of the tabernacle. Darkness covered the chaos. I sat next to you, so tense, so untrusting, but wanting so desperately to trust you, to find you trustworthy, to believe that I could trust you like a holy book.

The gelato-sweet simplicity of those first few summer weeks evaporated then. The common pleasure of our innocent activity—watching Spirited Away on separate couches, your gentle hospitality—conscientiousness and berries—smiling accompanying texting—faced a watershed and had to grow.

Would I trust you or run away?

So used to running, I wanted to try something new. What would happen, I wondered, if I stayed past my instinct reversion to flight? Maybe it was the wrong choice. Maybe it was foolhardy, unhealthy, or immature.

Or maybe it was just a waste of time.

Holy books are not all that they would seem. The simple beauty we receive them with is challenged by our reason, by our budding intellects, our questions and our doubts.

I suppose what is holy is what stays to challenge us, even in the very process of our deconstruction. What is human is sheared away by our harsh hermeneutics of distrust. But the divine is what remains, even when we have dismantled what is contingent, human, and corruptible.

In that chapel, I was sheared. Something stony inside my heart decided to open. Perhaps for the wrong person. What does it mean to love the wrong person and is it ever a waste of time? Is there ever a right person, except the one who is in front of you?

What would happen, I thought, if I stayed, if I listened to the promise in those words? In the crepuscular calm of that summer-night-time chapel, in this beautiful, empty, half-finished home, I believed—so fully in that moment—that it would not have been so among us.

It was.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

on mountains and molehills

1. If given a choice, wouldn't you prefer a mountain in your front yard to a molehill? If a mountain springs up in your front yard, then the topographical change offers a significant upgrade in ontological value. No longer are you living in a comfortable suburban cul-de-sac, you are living in on the shoulder of a mountain, or a valley, even. Adventure springs up from the mountain bursting through the soil.

3. If molehills appear, then you simply have more yard work in front of you.

4. Molehills create distressing furrows in the smooth sod of the front yard. They make the calm, placid sea of grass jagged. This is uncomfortable and irritating, if you are someone who cares about lawn care. Or just someone who would prefer your lawn to not be torn up from the inside out.

5. If the moles could just burrow down a little further, we wouldn't be in this mess at all. They would actually have safer tunnels, as they would be harder for predators to spot. As it stands, their tunnels are highly visible, any idiot worth his salt could track those blind bastards underneath their soil cover.

6. Stepping on anthills and watching the ants scatter and stepping on molehills, and feeling them cave into the soft earth under your feet awakens uncomfortable feelings of schadenfreude. It's uncomfortable to acknowledge how very much we enjoy destruction.

7. Does it hurt the grass to be upended from beneath?

8. I would prefer my molehills to be mountains, although I will refrain from making them so.

9. I remember sitting at the bay window in my childhood front living room, and watching moles burrow underneath the snow. Their trails rippled out from behind them. Nose smushed against the cold window pane, I watched the molehills popping up underneath the smooth blanket of snow, mesmerized for hours.

10. I do not like things which are neat and tidy to be torn like grass by moles.

Monday, February 26, 2018

tough luck for cloven-footed critters

I know how the sows snuffling and rummaging in the filth outside the city gate used to look at the pesach lambs being led to slaughter each Nissan.

Their sprightly, spring lamb gait,
bleating in pathetic, naïve bliss
is mirrored in the sparkling pupils of the woman
you love now
as she burbles happily like a baby greeting mommy.
Cold as sow's, my flint eyes smile back at hers.

If the sow could form coherent sentences,
and spoke the Queen's English,
she would think:
you poor lambs,
thinking yourself chosen,
tumbling Temple-toward
over your slender,
smooth hooves,
brides running to be deflowered,
Their blood will run down
the temple gutters
to the sow's garbage heap come sundown.

To be a sow in Israel's to be categorically despised—
tough luck for clover-footed critters, here—
to be a sow in Israel's to be systematically bypassed,
passed by, passed over
(and not just on the fifteenth of Nissan).

You wouldn't know from looking at the sow,
such slights offend her,
surrounded by her piglets and the boorish
boars who bite each other's ears in boredom.

Her tough scarred shell of
encrusted mud she rolls in to hide her heart
belies her one, continual gaping wound,
easily hid in constant snuffling, scuffling,
and sparring with other sows—
snapping at ears and tails—
small bleeding exterior cuts,
petty squabbles distract her from
the sordid sobs she keens into
Jerusalem's cold night.

Her one wound widens
with ritual rejection each annual feast,
re-opened perpetually with
the daily disgust of faithful hasidim
filing past her garbage heap.

To be a sow in Israel's to be overwhelmingly unwanted.

If you could put a pen between
her cloven hooves,
she could give voice to the sorrow
belched out in sobs at midnight.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

cholesterol coping

I whip my hair
(Thank you, God, I washed it today)
back as I sally forth—small tropical storm
emerging from the
au bon pain 
avec un tempérament furieux.

I am SuperBitch,™
drunk on anger,
intoxicated absolutely
at one convenient scapegoat.
Call me René Girard I dare you.

The man sporting a mimetic beard
writes on a yellow legal pad—
To mock my pain!
the shadow side of me screams.

I burn his placid and innocent
face writing earnestly in
a morally neutral writing medium.
with the bile shooting out of my eyes,
combusted dust of Kuiper belt ad extra
hitting earth.
This seminar room's an atmosphere
and I'm catching fire on re-entry.

Anger clogs my arteries like cholesterol
accumulated from eating
those damn teddy grahams we
left in my room
after the party.
Choking on the cosmic Kuiper dust
material rising with my gorge,
I sulk through the late afternoon
refusing to summon mental
strength to even try to conjugate Ohhibbo
and clandestinely consult my notes.

I pound out my anger-cramped
muscles stiff with adrenaline
on the literal punching bag.
Thank you for the boxing lessons.
I should have known they were
the parachute handed to me by
the stewardess as I board the plane.
"Here's a coping mechanism for our inevitable crash.
Aisle seats are open in the back."

The flow of sweat makes it possible again to think,
I mentally compose an angry poem
all through the psalmist's plea,
which I do not heed,
My words are flowing like the swollen
river swallowing this city's parks and streets,
until they hit the dam:
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
a deluged street sign,
handhold to cling to

For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.
I measure out some measly misery,
flavored with rage,
saturated with sour pests
crawling through bitter bread.

I bring that to the alter.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
I hold out my hands,
packed together,
shaken down,
overflowing with my own
angry pain.
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
In a moment,
it is exchanged
for the prettiest sliver of pure white grain
you've ever seen,
Incarnate peace come to mend
my angry tongue and
ebb the angry flood coursing through my heart
rests in my hand like an angel
or a God, more like.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

strange inertia of love

We must be cautious who we let into our beds and into our prayers.

We share our sofas with many friends, we open our table to acquaintances, yet there are so many spaces where we live alone. We are used to living in the private of our hearts. When we let someone into those private recesses, we learn that we can. The invitation to enter is acknowledgement that there is indeed space to enter, and it can truly be shared. We learn that someone can fit into the space beside us as we pray before the tabernacle. We learn that as we stand before the throne of God, we can stand with someone else. The powerful intimacy of that inclusion bring us to life in a new way—we didn’t know that these moments, these spaces could be shared.

Letting someone into your living room or your dinner table is a sacred act of hospitality where the host often unwittingly entertains angels (Hebrews 13:2). These hospitable encounters, however, pass quickly, layered under the dust of many meetings which accrue in the public spaces of our homes. We take fewer people, however, into our hearts, our arms, and our beds. Their bodies remain in our memories far longer than the stray dinner guest, their presence lingers markedly even through their absence. Thus, who we go about inviting in, who we fall in love with, who we make the organizing principle of our lives matters. It matters because they do not go away. 

I used to be so befuddled by couples who persisted in their relationship when neither of them were happy. Objectively, from the outside, I have long operated thinking: if this isn’t right, just leave. From my happy perspective as a rational human being, I couldn't possibly understand what inertia was keeping these two lost souls together. I think I can now sympathize with couples caught in relationships they cannot seem to end. Because the inclusion of another in our lives is fundamentally sacred. They may be a stupid, misogynistic omphaloskeptic and the exhibit A of every Roxane Gay think piece. But they are a human being, imago Dei nonetheless, and the objective act of welcoming them into the sacred, intimate, private moments where we are generally alone has the objective sacredness of heaven which requires caution. Perhaps the only correct response to their ritual of leave-taking is good riddance and amen, but their passing from our lives demands a mourning useless to resist.

There is something devastatingly unnatural about allowing a person to fit next to us inside our heart, to make room for them as we sit before the throne of God together, and then removing them from the inner court of our interior castle. To open your life to a person, to make room for them in all the places we do not regularly make room for people, and then to find yourself alone there again is jarring. Even if they never quite followed us there emotionally, even if they never matched our heights of spirit or plumbed the depths of our hearts, they were with us physically in the quiet moments of prayer and sleep, and that counts for something. It counts for quite a bit. It, in its own way, is a painful apologia for the hylomorphic human. We are our bodies, too, not just our quiet souls. To grant another access our body is to grant them access to our elusive souls. From this new access rises an abscess. There is a gaping hole that demands to be filled—if not with the missing person, then someone else.

Bringing an other into the deep and private spaces of our hearts is a sacred act of intimate and abiding beauty. Bringing someone into the deep inner rooms open up spaces of intimacy we previous did not know existed. When they leave us, we are left with an impotent revelation. I never used to understand the drive to find a new relationship once the old relationship had fizzled. It indicated a pathetic lack of independence and self-reliance, I thought. Now, I think it is simply to be at the radical mercy of our half-empty hearts, seeking an irreplaceable space to be filled.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

healing under a velvet sky

Evan relates the words of Sister Ann Astell, like a prophet carrying golden tablets from the mountain. The mountain is a squat, terribly dated midcentury conference building with few windows and odd chairs. The plain is the dinner table, candlelit.

The word of the blessed sister is such:

Ancient Christian readings depicted Mary as read the word of God, and read it with such faith, she accepted: this story is about me. These words are for me, they are happening in my life. She read the scripture with so pure and strong a faith, such an utter acceptance of the word of God that the Word of God becomes incarnate in the core of her being.

Mary becomes pregnant with the Word, the Word fills her entirely with meaning, as the words of scripture have filled her life with meaning.

This reading offers an invitation to an imitatio Christi through an imitatio Maria. We can let the word take hold in our lives, too. If we listen with pure faith and read with sincere trust, will not God become incarnate in our lives, too? If we read the words of scripture as though they were meant for our lives, will we not also become pregnant with the Word?

"Consider it all joy," writes James, a pastoral epistle to brothers and sisters encountering the trials and mistrials of the day. Global catastrophes. Melting ice caps. Polar bears without a habitat. Syrian refugees living, cramped in their own filth, on Greek islands. Children on reservations hoping to be incarcerated to find their three square meals a day. An unkind word, sent from me to him. A past mistake that haunts us, that trips up our daily lives, as we ungainly catch ourselves on our past sins. The small rats inside our head that whisper you're not good enough. you're not smart enough. and you are certainly not thin enough. The disappointment, the failure, and the pain.

"Consider it all joy."

Only in joy will your perseverance be perfect. Perseverance, like prudence, is a really unmarketable virtue. It has very little glitz.

As I listen to James' letter one particularly attenuated Monday, stretched beyond the limits of the 24-hour day, or my 26-year-old heart, I find it addressed to me, but without much comfort. Instead, as the diffident young woman murmurs the responsorial psalm delicately, biting her lip and lowering her eyes as though apologizing for being so bold to affront us by proclaiming the Word of God in public, I hear the refrain and laugh:

Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.

I laugh because what kind of a low-bar result is that. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall thrive. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall succeed—or at least try. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall be kind to my sister. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall be kind back to you. Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall consider it all joy.

None of the above.

Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.

Shower me with kindness, Lord, and that will allow me the bare minimum required to persist in existence. What utterly, embarrassingly dependent creatures we are, who can't even seem to have the dignity and wherewithal to make it through a single day without begging for gratuity, just to get by.
Psalmists really understand the existential pain of a single day.

Be kind to me, Lord, and I shall live.

How does one read these words with such faith to make them the center of their lives? In all the historically mediated language of scripture, and culturally derived inspired word, the psalms ring out eternal in their temperament and infinite in their valence.

Perhaps if I listen with enough faith, my life will become pregnant with psalm.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

this is not sacramental theology, pt. 2

Not every sign of a sacred thing is a sacrament, rather, says the Angelic Doctor, some short while before a massive stroke stopped him in his tracks. Rather, he wrote, a sacrament is the sign of a sacred thing inasmuch as the sacred thing is making humanity holy.

It was very cold last night and it was very dark when I pulled up to the compact little ranch house on Bader. As always, I was late. And, as I opened the back door of my car to an empty backseat, I had left the halva at home.

I would have muttered a foul imprecation upon my own absentmindedness, but exhausted of self-criticism, I simply slam the door, and walk up the driveway, summoning up the energy to be charming.

I ring the doorbell, and am greeted with the smell of sake and sizzling pork belly. What’s for dinner? I wonder aloud, enchanted by the scent. Pork buns and ramen, responds the chef.

Instantly, I think of one unseasonably warm February night at Ippudo Ramen on 51st street, and drinking sake at the bar while waiting for a table, laughing and biting into the soft sweetness of the bao buns and the juicy pork.

These are sensible things, which might as well signify something holy. But they are not sacraments, because they cannot be called sacraments as we understand them at least scholastically, a strict Thomist would respond, because they do not make us holy.

But don’t they?

Sanctification is gathering at a common table, eating a common meal provided by the free gift of another, learning the common language of each other.

Surely, sacraments are the people who pull you back to grace. Who pull you out of the toxic spin cycle the dirty laundry in your brain's been slushing through for hours, and bring you back to something like reality. Who remind you that God is in this place.

Surely sacraments are formally if not materially the friends who walk out of the open elevators and laugh with you because you were just texting them. Surely they are those who always wait with you at the second floor tall table, the ones who a chance encounter in the library is worth pulling you out of your set trajectory, the one who you can talk to in a Starbucks, subway train, or sitting room in Jerusalem and nothing ever changes.

I walk from the dining hall, the warmth of Starbucks, or my car, back to my apartment, my little monk's cell. I haven't yet found the place I can commit to in indefinite stability. But for now, there's a small fourth-floor apartment all my own. It's not good to be alone there always, the rat-like voice of discouragement or desolation can prey on you alone. And grace comes most tangibly in those moments through the humans that show up to take up physical space which you cannot fill with your thoughts, just extensions of yourselves. To be in the presence of the other means there's less space for you, but you simultaneously can reach further into the world than you can alone. And that is heaven, mediated by the flesh and blood bodies which will one day meet us there. Heaven, brought to us by material objects.

Surely, pork buns and ramen, lovingly made in friendship make us holy.

Monday, February 19, 2018

conversion of heart

From my window in the library, the view opens up onto downtown South Bend, which is really not very far from campus at all. And beyond it to the south, there are lines of trees and fields, and telephone poles of countryside I realize I've never explored at all.

I squint my eyes and instead of fields and trees, I see the mountains of Jordan in the distance, from a roof-top in al-Eizariya, or from Hebron Road, by the Church of the Kathisma (or at least so I pretend to myself).

I look at the maze of building and sidewalks down below, and I wonder how the Old City of Jerusalem would look from this window. According to Google Maps, it would fit neatly into the view, as it is only one-fifth the size of the campus which surrounds me. That seems implausible, as there are so many worlds which fit inside the walls of that city, and the multitude of stories layered into the stones of the city render it so much larger. It feels larger, and I think that's because it really is. At a certain point comparisons falter. What does it mean to say that the Old City of Jerusalem is smaller than this university's campus? Such geographical information is irrelevant as it signifies nothing about relative importance or length of history or experience of either city.

Except, it is mind boggling to think that the distance I walk from one class to the other would be a very different imagined difference if, one morning on the way to class, I were to pick myself up like the Google Maps fellow and drop myself down half a world away.

And let that be a lesson to you, my heart reminds me, the depth and breadth and height of anything is not measured in square footage. Acres are rather meaningless when it comes to measuring meaning.

How do we measure meaning? I wonder. And could I navigate between two systems, like Celsius and Fahrenheit, and would the calculations to equate the two be just as mathematically clumsy? Could I convert from one system to another without much trouble, or is the transformation always messy?

If experience is any answer to the last question: conversion between two systems of meaning is always messy. And complicated, and perhaps never complete.

Someone I once read said that those who love God more than their sin have no reason to fear the last judgement, but rather they welcome it. Perhaps it's because they have spent their lives trying to convert to a new measure of meaning, and they realize that they've carried the numbers all wrong, or their sum came out poorly, and the day of reckoning is just a giant session where we correct our test answers. Show your work, says the teacher, and we realize that our sincere efforts at mathematics ended mostly in poor calculations, but, with some slight correction, we produce the valid equations we were seeking all along.

In the meantime, I guess our task is to cultivate a love of mathematics and try our hand at small sums and simple formulas, Psalm 131 style.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

from the library window

For my birthday, a friend gave me a small paperback book whose cover is black with a very pensive profile of an unspecified primate, which looks to me like a female mandrill, gazing upwards at the dark starless heavens of the book cover.

It is filled with folksy stories, sort of fairy tales for the technological age. One of them mentions offhand how sometimes recording our lives destroys our ability to experience them.

As my reflexive reaction to any occurrence inside my heart or my social sphere is to pick up a pen and take it instantly to paper, I felt particularly indicted by this statement.

I felt confirmed in my overweening journalistic tendencies when reading Schillebeeckx's Christ the Experience of God, when he speaks of the human tendency, or even, the necessity of human nature, to selectively remember the past, and use that manicured image of the past as a hermeneutic for our present and future action.

The more one records the past, the more one is hit square in the face with the unpleasant facticity of one's own history. Thus, moving forward means we have to accommodate all the parts of the story we would perhaps rather forget. This more comprehensive remembrance is costly: in the pain, embarrassment, and discomfort it causes our egos. But its reward is a more authentic version of our selves and the lives we live, a richer story, which resonates with all the various chapters of our past, weaving them back into our present day narrative, echoing what was beautiful, alluding to the painful themes, recalling the good and the bad and building something strong, cohesive, and singular.

At least, so I hope.

Graduate studies could be aptly summed up in the movement between two moments. My soul is constantly ping-ponging between the thinkers I lay it at the mercy of through reading, and they slap my mind back and forth between their paddles, battered with one argument then the other. The trajectory of thought sharply turning with each new philosopher encountered. On the other side of this dialectic ping-pong game, hopefully we will land in some semblance of synthesis, and rest—finally—in wisdom.

At least, that's the hope.

Recently, the weather in South Bend has been a table tennis match between the gods of sun and snow. Last weekend, a weather front and the perennial culprit—"Lake Effect"—dumped gallons of snow on campus. As I walked back to my dorm from the library each day for most of the past week, I got to enjoy the the trees of God quad turned into a beautiful little forest of crystal-encrusted trees. For the greater part of the week, the snow remained fresh and soft. The trees were weighed down by snow which the wind couldn't whip off of it. Each day, I would marvel at its silent sweetness in the sunrise, or how it sparkled under the cold winter stars and chill street lamps, how it wrapped the busy sidewalks in calm, and how beautiful this little wooded patch of lawn looked in its snow-coat.

I would remind myself as I dodged the ice on the front steps running out of the dorm each morning, that to walk out of your front door into this beauty is a rare delight and privilege.

Yesterday, I walked back to the dorm from the library, and was depressed by all the dirty, salt-sullied drifts of snow that lined the sidewalk, the snowmelt that dripped off the tree branches to form impassable puddles of muddy water on the sidewalk, and the dreariness of snow mixed with dirt, endemic to late-winter and early spring.

I couldn't even remember the beauty of the snow which I had enjoyed all week.

That evening, I walked out of a windowless chapel into thick, wet clumps of snowflakes falling from the grey sky. An impromptu gift of that most fickle deity, Lake Effect, and it covered the brown salt-crusted snow with a clean page.

It is important to record small moments of beauty in the snow, otherwise they'll get lost in all the sludge that the rapid passage of seasons produces.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Lent in Antioch (April, 387 CE)

The agora and the shuk rattle with quiet,
their usual rivers of crowds dried up.
Antioch’s clear fountains lie untroubled,
no jar dips ripples in the pure water—
everyone is home.
Or gone.
In the caves.

The hippodrome and baths
are shut.
The echo of the claques’
applause rings accusation in
the theatres of our waiting ears.

Waiting for a word
from Istanbul
Waiting on the mercy or the flame.

We—city of sinners—
waits for mercy.
Perhaps our God will pity us?
Perhaps our lord will pardon us?

Until then, we wait
in ashes
and the sackcloth of silence.

Friday, February 9, 2018

"of-a-piece" ness

Icons of Christ
are gilt, their rich rays
melt across
mosaic walls
or drench domed basilicas
in butter-rich colors.

Corpus Christis
hang on imposing
hanging in classical
their weight
bearing on our hearts.

One small priest,
diminutive in stature
yet not in spirit
reciting Hopkins or Augustine,
coughing during the psalm,
wrinkles one furrowed brow
while raising the host,
shines Christ from his face.

Christ the re-creator
has molded himself
into the living image of
this slight frame whose
entire flesh is love.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

psalm for the self-pitying

You have made us for yourself,
O Lord,
and our hearts are restless:
but you abandon us
to wallow in our own unrest.

Created for communion,
you let us wander—union-less—
through pointed days.
Their barbed, pregnant denouements
would be sweeter meaningless.

Each day

—saturated with too much meaning:
memories echoing the hollow rattle
presence of our present's absences.
Broken ties, tangled webs,
bruised hearts,
paths abandoned—people too—

pierces our palm even as we
(Good little school boys! Doing as we're told!)
drawing fresh blood from
each cosmic car-wreck victim.

You who were to fill us with finest wheat,
feed us instead cold nights,
spanning star-less above our empty beds.

Our heart —corporate abscess
of contagion collected subcutaneously —
gnaws hungry at our breath.

Is it better to have a nature
rendering the Face of God visible to us
and wind up damned,
than to be a crabtree who never had the ability to miss the Beatific Vision?

Is it better to have hearts made for others
and fall asleep to the silence of no answering pulse
than to be a stone, wrapped in a heartbeat of a human hand,
and not be moved at all?