Wednesday, August 29, 2018

closing chapters

As I sort through the carefully-packed boxes that have not been touched since May, I discover two emotions hiding in them:

A strong distaste for things that, once owned, feel essential and difficult to doff. Having lived all summer out of suitcases and overnight bags, the sheer amount of material goods that is not even an apartment's-worth is demoralizing. But once in your possession they become harder to free yourself from.

But the things do not dictate your response towards them or stance towards them—not if you ground yourself on something deeper.

The things cannot control your disposition or sway your inner stability—if you are resting on something other, entirely—something or one of a sortal difference from them.

The second is a remembrance—a missed and vaguely forgotten taste of My Books.

My library does not have all the right titles, it is not filled out with all the important books to own. It is still many sizes smaller than its gaps, and it is unabashedly idiosyncratic. It records, like tree barks phases of growth and periods of lack. It holds in resin the history of my own thought and constant education. This small bunch of Dorothy Sayers books notes that postgraduate obsession, the smalls scripts slipped between larger volumes is half-a-dialogue with another discipline, the preponderance of Jane Austen recognizes an identity given more than embraced, and the always-enthroned Theo-Drama is the only manifestation of bibliophile excess, indulged in during weaker [or perhaps stronger] moments.

As I pull them out, looking for the few lost coins in their ranks, I feel a certain calm arising with the scent of cardboard. Even as I tote around my small rag-tag ersatz reading-list library this summer,I have missed being surrounded by these books—the books of ownership, the books of past and future, and not just present. These are the little dog-eared guideposts that remind me of where I have been. The codex is a nifty mnemonic devices not just for recalling its own paginated contents but for recalling us to the self we left within it. And the perpetually unread books, the still half-finished, and the newest, freshest acquisitions promise that this journey of learning—of absorbing new ideas, of constant conversion of one's life to beauty glimpsed outside of it in page and person—has unbroken continuity and is at least three full shelves or two cardboard boxes—pressed down, shaken together, and running over—from over.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

sucker branches

It's the time of year for pears,
says my father on the feast of St. Augustine.

They're good now and they don't last for long.

It's tempting to reach for them,
knowing how—in just a few short weeks—
they'll have all the give of bricks beneath your hands
and turn sandy in your mouth.

Why not take them now?

In just a few months,
they'll be useless,
you'll wait for them to ripen on the shelf,

Just take them while you can,
pluck them while the
summer's good and its dog days are still long.

I am reminded
of a page of poetry I found

in a small manila envelope,
marked with cipherous setences—
notes from a long-forgotten
Carolina road trip.

the poetry is prophecy.
In simple script that became
I wrote on the 6 train going downtown
what I wanted life to yield to me,
harvest hopes penned in the dead of winter.

It jots down all the moments I was looking for,
and sketches them in ink:
what I hope romance can be—
what it must be if it will be.

Conveyed by a page decorated with naive,
youthful (mis)calculations
and discernments so half-baked—
an earnest ersatz—
my own voice calls to mind a vision:

It is you.
It was you, then.
And I was reaching for
unripe pears.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Rodrigues' Rock

It is a new type of event. It can be attested by witnesses as an event of entirely new kind. Indeed, apostolic preaching with all its boldness and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside, with something entirely new and unforeseen.—Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Volume II

The notes of our existence are deciphered for us so that we can read them and translate them into life. God’s will flows from God’s being and therefore guides us into the truth of our being, liberating us from self-destruction through falsehood. Because our being comes from God, we are able, despite all of the defilement, to set out on the way to God’s will.
 — Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth

It has been really something to be another sinner in the church this summer. The crisis has been shocking and saddening because it is not many sins that have been revealed over and over rather it is one sin: not that bishops and cardinals are corrupt, not that priests have abused those in their care, but that there has been a silent consensus that the raping of children is simply collateral damage of having a church. Yes, we all make mistakes, and we are all sinners, but the church, it seems, has not said: it is unacceptable to harm children while being a leader in the church. They have made various efforts to sideline or silence leaders who have harmed children, but rarely does the mode of correction seem to be: how do we operate with an eye towards ensuring that not one single child is harmed in the making of this Eucharistic community? 

Every society has the downtrodden whose well-being is offered up so that the majority can prosper. The Church could perhaps stand to embark upon some self-reflection upon whom the prudent choice of sacrificial lamb would be. Children, it seems to me, are not that.

There is a quote by Dorothy Day circling the hallowed halls of Catholic twitter, to the effect of: Bishops have always been corrupt, it is the saints who are the leaven of the Church. The ecclesial body offers us the Eucharist, the bread of life, and that’s the only reason I’ve barnacled myself to this disaster of a ship.

I do not think Dorothy Day was envisioning bishops who had sacrificed on the altar of whatever gods they are worshiping the bodily and spiritual well-being of the very children who constitute the church.

I do think that there is a categorical difference between jockeying for worldly power and tolerating the systemic abuse of young people. I don’t think Dorothy would have been as blasé about that particular crime, nor would she disagree that it is chilling to learn that moral authorities have no moral floor. Not to put words into a saint’s mouth, or anything, but I think she would agree with my mother that bishops who commit crimes or abuse seminarians are not to be swept under the rug, but into a jail cell.

The funny thing about being human is that most stones picked up to throw at others can also be launched right back at ourselves. Most of us have injured someone—not in such a criminal manner, not at the expense of our spiritual authority—and how do we make sense of ourselves: are we sinners with any hope of redemption? Will we all eventually be outed as the selfish monsters humans are capable of being? Does the sacrament of reconciliation offered in our churches actually have the power to heal and to transform? Can we really trust this broken, terrible structure that is our church? Yes, the Church is the Eucharist. Yes, the Church is the mystical communion of saints in heaven in the divine life of the trinity, and we are just one subsection. Yes, the Church is you and I. But the point of being Catholic and not something else is that the Church is also the men who are its ruling structure. And we have learned that they are, whatever else they may be, not infallible and probably not to be trusted.

I think of Rodrigues, the young priest hero of Shusaku Endo’s lovely and terrible Silence. He is a priest who has the choice to either apostatize and save the peasants being tortured to death or to stand his ground and condemn them to death. Rodrigues decides to apostatize, to step on the image of Christ’s face, guided by Christ’s voice. He has perhaps saved the peasants in the pit, but has he made a mockery of the faith of all the many secret Christians throughout Japan? Has he shown them, in the end, this faith is mostly fantasy? Did his actions attest that it is better to live in the secure comfort of life than risk death for a hollow pipe dream voice of the divine? Or did he commit an exterior action he did not believe in order to lay down his life for his suffering sheep?

Perhaps both. The point is that making decisions is a dangerous game we will probably always get wrong, and, almost inevitably, our own selfishness and fear will most likely get in the way. As I read Carlo Viganò’s testimony, I think of each of the leaders he lists as this Rodrigues, caught between a rock and a hard place even as they carry the weight of caring for the foundation of billions of faithful. As I read, I think of standing in St. Peter’s square watching Benedict leave, watching Francis walk out onto the balcony, and I wonder if this was Benedict’s choice. If Benedict’s resignation was his Rodrigues-like-attempt to do his best in the horrible circumstances given to him.

And I think of this summer, re-visiting, at the prompting of my boyfriend, Benedict XVI’s gorgeous Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. The dates listed in Viganò’s testimony would indicate that it was in the midst of all these scandals that Benedict began to write his “personal search for the face of the Lord.” And it is a slight-but-not-small consolation that this image of Christ Benedict gives us, luminously written with the stunning clarity of truth,  is created with a full understanding of the brokenness of Christ’s Church. Benedict’s search for the Lord is from his position within the darkness which has infected the heart of his Church. But despite the darkness, we can still seek the face of Christ, defiled by our sins and sorry footsteps.

His books become not just beautiful meditations on who and what Christ is, but perhaps they offer even more than that: perhaps they are a testament of his own faith and cause for hope. Perhaps sin can really be forgiven and healed in Christ. Perhaps we can learn to cease our selfishness and grow to sainthood. Perhaps, even in the midst of a clamor of a crisis which demands a thousand solutions that we are incapable of offering—through either our vincible or invincible ignorance—there is only one thing that is needful. Perhaps, maybe, this God we love is real, and this God loves us, and this love can become something concrete and real upon the earth.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

it’s been silent for a long while now

Quietly, imperceptibly, everything which could have been life has become a mechanism behind which my soul has laid itself to rest. Life is so long, and the constant repetition of the same thing causes such lethargy. If you live near a waterfall, after a week you’ll no longer hear the rumble. In the same way, we have forgotten how to listen. The spheres make music, but all we hear any more is ourselves and the clatter of our own existences. More and more cracks are filled in and the stilling of the divine call becomes more and more a matter of course. It is walled up, mortared within the systems of life we’ve invented. Just as during the day we allow the caged bird to sing and at a night we cover him up so from times to time I take a fancy to listen to God’s Word play a tune. [...] Always enjoyed in the context of a comfort which is expensive enough as it is, these solemn moments of life are quite sufficient for any religious needs—which in any event are so muffled that I hardly need to cover the cage any more. Under the weight of my good conscience and under the ample bottom of my great heart, the voice of Truth has been stifled. It’s beeen silent for a long while now.
—Hans Urs vonBalthasar, The Heart of the World

I noticed at the beginning of mass that the altar cloth was decorated with the same pattern of fruit and flowers that decorated my home church growing up. Is this some standard image of ordinary time that a committee thought up? Was this one enterprising young nun’s design that really took off and captured the imagination of church supply vendors everywhere? Whose anonymous design is this that is the now standard fabric of bourgeois worship?

Most of our lives are inherited. Rather than being created ex nihilo, they are simply the most recent iteration of humanity’s contingent history. Our preferences are built out of our early childhood memories, of our parents’ habits, of all the events that were imposed upon us before birth.

There is much grace in receiving who and what we are with gratitude from a world outside of our control. There is much grace is overcoming the limitations and restrictions of the environment placed upon us. But I think there is grace, most of all, in what comes to us from outside the pattern.

As the last hymn ended, and the congregation began to pick themselves up out of the pews, the swell of the organ reverberated through this utterly proper church—a stunning mix of Northern European richly velvet Catholicism and the clear sunlight of a Southern Presbyterian meeting house. The organ sang through the post-mass lull.

As John Dryden boldly claims: the organ is a psalmist who sings hymns no human voice can match, whose song can mend even the defects of the heavenly choirs’ praises. The organ sings the music of the spheres we try to ignore, the song of divine harmony that came roaring into this small church. The organ played that morning the song I have been trying to follow all summer long.

As the strong pipes poured an overwhelming solo symphony of sound into the church, the music offered a vision of how life ought to go. The pounding crescendos of the organ overwhelmed the moan of the vibrating cellphone, the anxieties about past and future, and spun the sunny August Sunday morning into a chorus of divine praise.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

holy ghost in lilacs

God is gone from the world, and we have had a hell of a time trying to get him back. The spirit blows where it wills, and its winds have swept off the coastal ice shelf of the end of our deflated, flattened earth.

We’re not in good hands, we’re barely in any hands at all. We’re not thrown into or extended above the nothing, we are buried in it. When the hands of God feel not even angry but simply absent, the world rattles with a sort of uselessness. The water reflects the brilliant blue sky sparkling through the thick summer trees—but what’s the good in that? The water is simply a muddy puddle in a flooded patch of unkempt grass.

The hands of the God are the soft ones of the stranger who snaps my finger joints back into place, who senses fear and tension leaking down my arms and into my wrists, and whose deft fingers squeeze it out with gentle pressure. The intimacy of the nail salon is jarring, but soothing. Jarring, because it highlights how healing from other people is so accessible. Any of these common strangers around you can smooth out the wrinkles in your sadness with quiet care. The comfort of other humans is much nearer than we think.

The hands of God are the ones covered in dark hair that lift you out of the valley, not by carrying you, but holding yours as you walk, that provide a steady pace by which to move forward with a prudent and passionate consistency towards the good you know is submerged beneath the shimmering mud.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

an aquatic eucharist

there was a moment of doxology
in the swimming pool lane,
where I felt the freedom of receiving
from the God who gave me legs
the gift of movement—
and I would offer back to that same God
my gifts of fine, and growing finer—

That all I had I could call God's,
and could offer back to God what's God's

I believed, with faith deeper than a confidence,
That I could possess the joy of living
For this ultimately generous God.

In the thick of the finite swimming lane,
I knew that I would live there infinitely.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

summer fling

Will you not content yourself with half?
Are you not satisfying by “later”?
Have you never known the fear of surrender?
Why do you ask for my everything,
God of love,
why is it such painful joy to give it you?

Will we sit here, night after night in this chapel,
to bicker out our disagreements,
discovering in our differences some common Word?
I have wasted all my best summer days with you,
and dallied away hot nights lengthening to autumn blue.

But there was a cold wind
as I left your house last night,
Minnesotans shivered in the breeze
which was no spring zephyr,
spelling the end of August on the horizon—
and our love affair?

It is time to leave—
the moon is nearly full,
I am tired of the liminal.

Will you go back to your altar,
Me to my stage,
spend the rest of our lives
staring through the lovely holy ghosts
haunting all the holy Horebs we have made—
sprung up between us like Trinity
decorating our dates and places like
a high solemnity.

Will I avert my eyes when entering the nave,
glaze my gaze when it roves over your sanctuary,
pretend I cannot see your own,
wistful through the cocktail glasses,
and thick beauty in the bar?
will I smile as you approach my lips
our mutual silence the only mention
of the last time we were here we were in love?
Will consecration always call to mind
that summer when I toyed with the heart of the divine?

you called me,
and I answered every call.
For one season, one summer,
I was your heeding Samuel—
will our late-night conversations
go to voicemail?
here am I,
be it done to me as you will.

Monday, August 20, 2018

incarnation of fragile

A small avian prophet taps at the glass greenhouse window of my mother’s kitchen. He hovers in the air for a few slight seconds, darting around the stained-glass medallion of a butterfly my sister soldered one summer. (Because, true to form for any older sibling, she has and can do anything and everything.)

He flutters towards the purple petunias baking in the sun which hits the bleached out wooden deck. His eyes are bright and his shining breast feathers are peculiarly dull. The hummingbirds in North Carolina seemed a little fresher and more vivid when I visited them a month ago. Maybe in August summer's color just grows exhausted. It's a lot of chromatic exuberance to keep up for so many months—and in such heat.

Hummingbirds seem to have lost the stability lottery, as never resting your wings must have its negatives. But I suppose sharks operate similarly—although I find shark's plight particularly tragic. Hummingbirds are prey, and most prey is doomed to constant movement, as evasion is the most effective means of survival.

Humans are sort of like sharks in that we are now mostly at the top of the food chain. And yet we keep moving. Why must we?

The hummingbird is such a fragile goodness, whirring through the air with such contingency. But he keeps up his fluttering with regularity.

I am always afraid that the goodness given will always result in an Abrahamic sacrifice of Isaac. Here is this man who prays long and hard for what he wants, only to be met with receiving a command to give it all up, slaughter it mercilessly. What is one to do in the face of Abraham?

There is nothing to be done in the face of this God who demands everything, who marches into every plan you made quite nicely on your own—oh here comes God again quick everyone act like we’re having no fun so he’ll go away—and we’ll get back to the real living once we pay our weekly due of simper, smirk, and wait upon an annoying visitor who dropped in without invitation.

The givenness of things means that they are always able to be given, it means that there is no sheer existing, only a constant giving. I used to think the Eucharist was magic and the priest a sorcerer who incanted words that had entrapped God into appearing on the altar. But it is not so—really, the Eucharist reveals we ourselves as our true identity: receivers.

What is one to do in the face of a constant giver? One who offers sunsets without ceasing and who gives the world with all its flora, fauna, and sweet humans each day with such insistent joy?

What can I do but open my hands to receive what is already there and whisper to the bread that is become God: what you have placed here is beautiful, and can you give it to me again today, please.

And what can Iwe do but hover, like the hummingbird, constantly above the flower that I hope will give up its nectar to me again today.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

invasive species

So you’re going to New York? asks Dad, on our way with the dog to the local sandbar-on-the-lake where we let our dog paddle to his heart’s content and swat at schools of blue gills in the shallows. You can’t do this in New York, I comment—the sort of neutrally inane observational comment which makes up most of life in a family. He agrees, a little wistfully.

My father was a Green Bay born-and-Catholic-elementary-school-bred boy. And he loves whatever has been given him to love with his entire heart and he believes, even in the thick of conflict, that everything will get better, because he loves with such entirety that he cannot imagine it not.

He is keenly aware of how astronomically quickly the world has changed. And the church, to him, I think represents in many ways the preservation of what is good in the past. Change means things you love and ways of being in the world that you love disappear. It is hard to let go of what you love. And if there is an institution that promises to be unchanging in the midst of a world of change, that is certainly an institution worth sticking with.

There are many people like my father, who hold onto the church because it is something steady in an unsteady world, who find meaning in their lives through marking liturgical seasons, who chart their children’s growth through first communions and confirmations, who delve the depth of their own lives through rites which accompany them through finding love, starting families, and meeting death. In a world in so many ways that disbands and disperses our small human communities, that distances us from working with our hands, that strips our lives of their earthy human meaning, the church offers us this primal need to have a life that is ritualized, that is connected to history, that is lived with an eye towards those who have gone before, that locates God in our bodies, that connects us to each other and to God in an intimate ritual of communion.

Yes, the church is a resource of rich thinking, and its treasures includes heights of heady philosophy and theology, esoteric meditations upon the heart of reality itself. Theologians chart diagrams that try to map out the Trinity like a mathematical formula or complex sentence. Their intellectual endeavors only attest to the richness of the truth offered in each small parish church—the liturgy that this community celebrates has given birth to a canon of sacred writings and spurred great minds to delve deeply into truth, to articulate the mystery of each mass.

The intellectual beauties of the church exist, like the hierarchy, only to support the church’s task of bringing light and beauty to the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Several years ago, when Francis was elected, I was there in Rome, in the thick of the glamour of an extraordinary moment of ecclesial drama. But as I stood there in the middle of St. Peter’s square, surrounded by ordinary pilgrim Catholics that: All that extraordinary fuss exists for the ordinary, I wrote. The Church exists for the little second-graders in Stillwater receiving their first Holy Communion. It exists for the young couple getting married and starting a regular family. It exists so that a small piece of unleavened bread can be transformed into the body of the Savior of the World. — the grandeur of St. Peter’s is simply the grandeur that is in every tiny little parish church, with the veil of the ordinary removed. The extraordinary moments pull back the dim guise of ordinary-ness that we live our lives in, and reveals to us just how extraordinary each everyday moment truly is.

The church is here to offer ordinary people the extraordinary that is located both in their everyday lives and themselves. It is not the intellectual playground of the overly-educated, it is not a library of great authors, it is not the fraternity of brothers-in-arms-against-the-rest, it is the heart of the world, pumping the life of God into our own lives.

As we left the lake, my father—who faithfully drops two envelopes into two collection baskets each Sunday, his promise of fidelity to the place that promises it to him—and I broached the topic of the apology our pastor offered in lieu of a homily.

Although I spent last night reading the Grand Jury's report of the Pennsylvania dioceses, and I felt the pain of angry father's fighting for their children, and my heart and body hurt reading of the violence practiced against victims, and I read with disgust the blind, self-interested negligence of bishops, I don't know that the full weight of the crisis until I heard my father express his own sense of betrayal. I have rarely heard my father speak ill of the church (an institution and ecclesial body I love deeply, but am certainly not slow to offer my critique to), and I have never seen my father so disappointed, discouraged, and betrayed as when he spoke about these bishops who cannot seem to hold themselves accountable unless examined by grand jury, exposed by journalists, or dragged to civil court to the tunes of millions, so appalled by a clerical culture that has seemingly made its peace with evil.

Although our pastor offered an apology today, it seemed to me slightly off-the-mark. Not half-hearted, in the least, but as he didn't quite understand the crime committed. He didn’t seem quite to realize—or at least failed to convey his grasp of—the breach of the faithful's trust committed by the church's ordained authorities. 

Yes, the sacraments are brought to us by broken people. Yes, the church is the body of Christ made of sinful humans. Yes, we all fall short of grace. But there is a crucial space between a sin and a crime. Surely, yes, all priests are sinful humans, but surely a criminal ought not to be a priest. Surely a human who has committed a crime should not be a shepherd. When persons commit crimes that are against the very people entrusted to their care, they should be removed from positions of caring for those people.

These are common sense statements, but they are common sense statements that have not guided the bishops of this church. The allegiance of the clergy has clearly been to one another. This is only human and understandable, but it is short-sighted, unchristian, and should be eradicated at whatever origin point from which sentiment arises. There is a culture, clearly, among the ecclesial elite that is not just spoiled by a few bad apples. It is a culture that tolerates rot, perhaps foments it, and instructs the "good apples," (to really milk this metaphor) to stay quiet and out of the way. This clerical culture seems to assume this rot is in some way normal and to be expected and is just another occupational hazard of getting in the barrel.

This church's leaders have failed us. They have made a mockery of our faithful tithing, and our sacraments, and the quiet faith of good people seeking meaning in an often dark and harsh world.

Well, my dad said, after punctuating a mournful topic with a coda of silence, Did you see the black walnuts in the back yard? The neighbors told them they are an invasive species. But that's what plants do, he laughs. They take over the environment—plowing over the other flora in the forestto ensure their own survival.

There have been a number of choruses that repeat the refrain: we are not Catholic because we think all priests good and perfect, because the church is without sin, we are Catholic because we love Jesus and this church offers us access to his body in blood both in the Eucharist and in baptism into the Christic body of believers. 

If only those who bring Christ's presence to our altars could make Christ their sole aim as the grandmothers who populate the pews do, as the eager young people seeking a noble purpose at all the pious collegiate worship services I never went to do, and as my father does, who strives to be not-perfect-but-good, with unassuming determination, and who is not shocked, but only heartbroken when the men who lead his church can't do the same.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

sprinkler season

He would let the world do its will, and thereby accomplish the will of the Father, he would grant the world its will, thereby breaking the world's will; he would allow his own vessel to be shattered, thereby pouring himself out; by pouring out one single drop of the divine Heart's blood he would sweeten the immense and bitter ocean.—Balthasar

August is the month of sprinklers: of spinning water wheels circling brown lawns.

I sit in the lake, and troll around in the sand for rocksI was always on the hunt for pretty ones back in the days of six and seven, and here I am at twenty-six, floating rather aimlessly in the clear blue lake, on the hunt again for pebbly stubs of beauty.

I sit in an office and remember all the office-y things: wearing the right clothes, keeping up with TV shows and the headlines so there is something to talk about, filling co-workers in on weekend plans and events. So much of doing is embarked upon solely to be able to make conversation.

If all our activity is simply for the sake of community, what if, I wonder: all extraneous activity were suddenly dropped, shaved awaywhat would become of this community then? What would it look like as it lies naked. I feel a little naked right now.

I run with my dog in circles around the park where I once saw a snake. There are no snakes here, just one giant symphonic sunset on the crest of the hill. We watch it together, as he pants and rolls around in the cool grass.

I lie in the grass of the small neighborhood park, and I watch the martens dart darkly through the light blue sky. I watch the ants crawl over the purple mountain of my water bottle. I read a book on cotton. There is not much here that has changed.

For an oasis moment in the August desert, I lie in the grass, and I am happy just to be here. I have exhausted the summer exuberance for growth and green. I am wilting, a bit, in the heat. Each day, the task of finding meaning is a full-time job. I am spent.

This is good.

Friday, August 17, 2018

the finite

Where is God? The convenient question of a creation squeezing their eyes shut in the face of Glory.
Where is God? The desperate cry of suffering beings trying to order this chaos into some semblance of a theodicy.
Where is God? Demands an honest answer. It cannot be stylish without substance.

I don’t care if truth is elegant, it must be true, I think as my gaze bores a second set of holes into the palms of the crucifix at mass, as though I am excavating specimens for testing. Is this true? This mystery of cross? Did this really happen once? Is this just a pattern which we are supposed to cut the cloth of our lives to, because it’s aesthetically appealing, and that distracts us as long as death is at bay?

I don’t want symbolic language, I want a reality I can sink my teeth into that won’t dissolve underneath my feet like sand on a stormy beach.

Where is God?

Don’t give a bullshit answer. If God’s not here and tangible, I don’t care. I don’t care. Or I can pretend I do as long as I am well-fed, successful, and busy seeking meaning for myself as an all-consuming project of self-aggrandizement. But I will eventually stop caring about a God who is not here.

Where is God?

It is easier to answer where God is not: God is not in Walgreens, and God is not at Taco Bell, and God does not work in insurance.

Why? Because these places are mundane. They are not pure, they are smudged with all the dirt of the commonplace. They are small capitalist outposts, such strange cancerous outgrowths of human society.

But I have most recently seen God in Walgreens, Taco Bell, and working in insurance.

Walgreens is nothing special, it abuts a scummy pond. But it is light. I am light. This Walgreens is Thomas Merton’s 4th and Walnut (or is it 5th and Chestnut?), and it is also transparent with divinity. It is certainly designed for people to mostly forget God—to think about the relative prices of deodorant and the dalliances of celebrities on the gossip magazines. There is a lot in Walgreens that pulls one’s thoughts away from transcendence.

But there is a cashier who smiles very sincerely, and is very earnest in ringing up your purchases correctly and instructing you on how to use the machine that reads your card. And I don’t know why I ever thought there was more to life than smiling back at him, thanking him for his help, and saying “have a good one,” on my way out the door. Perhaps there is nothing more.

Taco Bell is a freaking dumpster fire when my sister and I land there after work. The orders are all messed up, and the kitchen workers are very flustered, as they are being yelled at by a customer who is rightfully frustrated, but certainly is expressing that very eloquently or helpfully. I’m even more confused after listening to her. My sister points out it’s hard to know how to act in those situations—people on New York subways agree—you are pulled into simply watching someone’s bad behavior, and you feel rather skeezy for watching, but you don’t know what else to do. Somehow, their tantrum overtakes the room and they drag all of us into this oppressive space of ill treatment.

But then you could be the very quiet and flustered Taco Bell line worker who drops my Crunchwrap supreme and kicks it, frustrated with himself. And then makes another one, with determination making his mouth one thin line, and then hand a bag full of five extra tacos and one Crunchwrap supreme to an overjoyed and not-at-all expectant customer. FIVE EXTRA TACOS my sister and I squeal, as we leave the Taco Bell.

There is no need for gratuity to be sophisticated or gratitude erudite. Gift and generosity are abundant.

I am working at a small insurance office, and I think the woman who runs the office is the saint I’ve always wanted to be: present to her family, kind, meaningful, and good.

There is a lot of finitude—Galilee is just a subdivision on a lake full of hitchhiking young Israelis—but the people who inhabit it are infinite. And their reaching towards something never-ending seems to invite us to do the same: they hold out the face of God to us just as firmly as they offer the paper bag full of tacos, unmerited and wholly welcome.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

giving infinitely

Finite Anxiety: Or, A Quick Biblical Guide on Gift-Receiving

In general, I am always slightly panicked about the akedah. I sit around wondering what whats and whos will be my Isaacs, eventually demanded from me by a God who will not rest until I place my happiness in the divine alone. But it is so easy—so easy and so terrible—to turn gifts into idols, and then you’ve lost them anyway. Gifts are sustainable and sustained—idols are anxiety, which must eventually crumble beneath the force of a love that will not even brook the separation of death. Having spoiled sprincipalities and powers, as Paul writes, Christ not only conquers but mocks these false securities which dominate our human lives. If we happen to stretch out our Midas hands and turn the love which runs to greet us into gold, we have doomed that love to die.

To grasp at what was going to be given as a gift is the primordial sin and the fundamental human temptation. To grasp is to deprive ourselves of the joy inherent in the love in the first place. To grasp is to let it slip out of our fingers, to turn the beauty of the gift into the cold death of the idol. Can I imagine Abraham’s temptation? I think, on my way out of the powder room. Here is the child so long longed-for. Here is the fruit of his loins, at last! How quickly—almost instantaneously—we forget that the products of our efforts are not ours, but the contingent gift of a thousand different coincidences. Luck is a creditor so easily neglected. We recognize the necessity of fortune, but give her none of her due. How easily the gift of a son must have been turned into the prize of his own righteousness.

What a god-awful religion, I think, that demands such a sacrifice. Surrender all you have to God? What is the morality in that? Possessions, sure, I understand that. But people are not made to be returned. People are not the sort of entity to whom you casually remark: yes, I love you, but I love God more, so you know, I have to get rid of you. Unfortunate, isn’t it that I am so holy that it gives me the prerogative to act like a prick? Rather hard, yes, of course for you but incredibly convenient for me. My condolences. Humans are not our possessions, that we can dispose of us as we deem prudent and necessary.

What a stupid bind of morality: give up a human person—who is fundamentally made for holding onto? Or to lose them in the rust of your own selfish, prideful grasp upon them? How does one constantly rediscover gifts as given?

I exit the church, and come face-to-face with a stone image of a God whose back—for the moment—is turned to me.

He gets him back.

You goose, he gets him back.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

calico time machine

Growing up, with a regularity approaching a liturgical once-a-week, my mother carted all the haphazard denizens of her brood to the truly magical land of Mill End. Mill End (pronounced MILLehnd in my heart, to this day) was one of those locales frequented so often in childhood it was a common backdrop for childhood dreams and nightmares (as was the children’s clothing section at Target, which became populated with Disney villains in its dreamworld counterpart).

Its full name was Mill End Fabrics, and it was exactly that—fabric remnants and overstock from cloth mills—but I never really understood the concept behind the warehouse store. Just that we Got Better Deals than at Hancock Fabrics or Jo-Ann. And, more to-the-point, you could run around and explore at Mill End, and no one—including Mom—seemed to mind.

At the front of the store were bright, colorful cotton prints. These my sister and I religiously referred to as Calico. The heroines of the Little House on the Prairie books and Understood Betsy and all the Dear America diaries were always wearing their Best Calico Dress and this, we figured, must be the sacred stuff itself. We would pull bolts of fabric off the shelves, hold them up to each other’s face, make judgements on which print went best with whose eyes, and pretend to be in the market for a certain coy print called gingham (also favored by our 19th century prairie heroines).

We would wander through the endless lanes of cotton cloth back to tall, tall leaning pillars of fleece, to which we always added the prefix “polar.” You could climb in between the tall vertical bolts, or hide your little brother in them. You could lean back into the wall of fuzzy fabric, and feel it hold you up, while pulling you into its depths.

Next were the satins and the silks, admittedly less interesting. They were alluring to the touch, but without the warm luxury of the velvets. In the end, they were never quite as fascinating as the iridescent squares of nylon and polyester that could be turned into a leotard for gymnastics or a swimsuit for summer in Ontonagon.

The final stop was always the "notions" section—buttons, lace, ribbons. They were located conveniently close to the checkout counters to provide diversion during the endlessly long process of adults talking. We would rummage through the bins of buttons to find the ones shaped like roses or small cameo broaches. We would drool over the grosgrain and satin ribbons, color-coordinated into a rainbow running down the length of the wall. We would unroll spools of lace and imagine it trimming a dress, like Sara Crewe or a small Borrower daughter.

Underneath our small explorations were the comforting sounds of the bolt of whichever fabric our mother had purchased being turned over on the cutting countertop—thwack, thwack, thwack—and the metallic sizzle of capable counter woman’s (always a woman with glasses on a decorative lanyard) sharp scissors slicing through the fabric in one quick movement.

Being completely unable to draw or cut in a straight line at the age of six, I was overwhelmingly awed by her capability.

The other day, my mother told me Mill End closed.
- Why? I asked.
- Oh nobody sews anymore, she said.

I suppose Mill End was a sort of time capsule, even then. Connecting us, quite materially, to all the cultures of the past that populated our books. It was the sort of place your imagination, fired up on all the stories from a different world—the past—was given literal material with which it could play. Words read were connected with their material counterparts—notions encountered were given tactile form and shape.

The connective tissue between human beings is so silly and arbitrary, made up of such inconsequential and mundane things like calico.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

In Gottes Einsatz leben

“Are there jobs for you theologians?” asks the doctor, who will heal the body too often neglected in the search for that which is not bread. (Although the search for bread is a perpetual and very seriously meant quests, let me assure you.) And I wonder, as I spin my theological training into marketable expertise for non-academic positions, if this is not—in many ways—the purpose of studying theology in the first place. “What else are they looking for in me, if it is not a spark of faith in love and light?” asks Balthasar.

If one thing is for sure than there certainly is a job market for light-bearers. It is not a traditional workforce, nor does it come with the desired package of benefits. But it is maybe the only work, in the end, worth doing.

In fact, it seems to be the only task that is truly scriptural in its warrant—the call to be to the world light and salt—seasoning and enlightenment that our environment cannot muster on its own. Thus the study of theology finds its job market as a field where the Christian can cultivate herself into this light and this salt. While there is certainly a value in tending to the field, and in the careful cultivation of the source, it seems that the purpose of the study is like the purpose of most things in creation—to become a source of life for that which is other, to shine some light on the dark world out there.

Balthasar describes the ministry as the church's skeleton, the interior structure that supports it and holds its form coherent and the parish as the church's skin—these varied, particular planes where the Word meets the world. Theology seems to be part of the Church's ministry; it is a resource which gives the structure shape. It is also part of the parish—it is a plane of encounter between the world's philosophy and the Church's thought. But perhaps it is something different as well—the muscles which silently undergird all the movements on the surface, the organs whose repetitive and quiet responsibilities ensure the continued survival of the body.

There is no sure guarantee that studying theology is reaching towards the source. But there is a certainty in a path that tosses the believer back and forth, that shifts the wheat from the chaff, that in sifting out the immaterial or extra material leaves the remainder purer and sterner: a clearer light and a sharper salt. While there are many headwaters of the streams of life, if the light is to remain strong and the salt fresh, then the Christian must derive her light from the true source and not from a watered-down variant or dimmed periphery.

The overriding force that drives these light-bearers is the imitation of a Christ for whom the will of God was, to quote Balthasar again, “the pedal note, sounding beneath all the intricacies of the fugue of his actions, controls and steadies the rhythm of the whole movement.” This steady drone-note is the foundation of the entire piece, and without it there is a deeper dimension of the music which is lost. The witness of the Godman is the irruption of that source of light and that single origin of the salt into the world in need of seasoning. In his presence the world choir recognizes the voice that has been missing all along, the integrating presence that will tie together the tapestry of their harmonies.

So there certainly is a task, even if the jury is still out on employment. That task is the fundamental one which gives the unpalatable world the savor of creation and renders an inhospitable cosmos bearable again.

Monday, August 6, 2018

les étoiles rient

How do you discern the voice of God? the news anchor asks Jeremiah. The prophet of Israel is silent. There is not much good speaking to a stiff neck or closed ear, both conditions that run emphatically rampant in the Kingdom of David these days. It’s a pandemic spiritual malaise which is crippling the population physically.

But one can bet, sure as—well nothing’s sure as that bet—thinks Jeremiah, that the voice of God is not in the hand of fear that grips your heart at night. The voice of God is not in the rat on your shoulder, that whispers its poison in your ear: you’re just not good enough, you never were, and odds are you never will be. Dreams of good are pipe dreams, what’s real is simply isolation. Hell is the ultimate reality—the darkness which swallows the sun each evening will one day never break, you’ll see. You are living in the fantasy of sunrise, but one day that will end, poor child. And you will see that the world is all those nightmares you have been fortunate enough to awake from.

The voice of God is not that, he knows. It is not the fear that everything good is gloss over some malheureuse reality. Will one day everything break? And reveal underneath the lie you have been running from since the beginning?

The voice of God is not that. The voice of God is the honest love one senses in another. It is the kindness in their eyes. It is in the surprise of what they offer. It is in their remembering your letter at the last second. The voice of God is the truth you maybe do not dare to believe. 

Lying on his bed at night, Jeremiah remembers his youthful bouts of prophecy. Perhaps they are for him, now. Perhaps wisdom he has recorded publicly is not for his audience, but for him: to remind him of what God sounds like amidst the dismal cacophony of decision and small cataclysmic dins of despair.

Jeremiah’s people are incurable enthusiasts, who press for signs when there are only weather patterns. The voice of God is not the natural beauty of two souls meeting, or the silence of love or the wealth of good conversation. Or is it?

Where else will we find it? Other than in the holy which rises up from the everyday, intimately woven into it, offering a joy far beyond our own creation. Is not the voice of God that which calls us to be better, that exposes our own darkness, scattering our inner cockroaches with its light? Is not the voice of God located in that which in creation is good? If nothing is good than God alone, then any glimpse of golden wheat hidden in our tares is vocally the Lord. Perhaps that is the primordial miracle—that there can be wheat even in the most weed-ridden field.

Jeremiah opens his mouth to speak, but he thinks better of it. The media runs its own operation of theosis, and it tends to canonize his voice, utterly fallible, into a misplaced divine.

Who can say where the voice of God lies? It is not something certain, to be grasped, but a certainty that grasps us.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

metaphysical beggars

“Sir, give us this bread always” is the most plaintive of Gospel pleas. This abject address of absolute  dependence, “sir,” is the cry of creature to the only one who can heal them, who can raise them from their helplessness and misery. We are at your mercy, sir, and we beg for you to do the only thing you can do and we cannot, which is to give in the midst of lack, to create abundance in the midst of desert, and eke water out of rock.

This bread—a linguistic reach towards a symolic reality that is dangled in front of us, but of which we still have no conception. This bread, promised by a God we do not understand, is the vague object of our request. What is “this bread”? It is a gift beyond our comprehension, an offer we cannot apprehend, yet is the shape of our salvation. The request is made with the confidence of children asking for what the adults in the room know is impossible.

Always is the sort of word someone uses only when they do not know its meaning. Only when they have never been tested by the long, slow march of time and the assault of its storms. It is a word of faith used when that faith has never been tested. No one wise or cunning says “always.” The wise know that the world is stitched together of particularities which vary with each moment and each breath, and the cunning know that “always” is a recipe for a bad bet.

To ask for “always” risks eternity in the midst of time. And if there’s one thing we know about time, it is not friendly to the stable. Time is an agent of corrosion and erosion. Time buries cities and wears down mountains to sand. Time does not believe in “always.”

And we, for all our freedom and our willfulness, are simply caught in time’s current, and are rudely rushed forward, despite our own desires on the subject.

What can be for us an “always”? We have never known an “always.” We use a word whose definition is inaccessible.

But this deep desire for salvation—whose vision is still vague, whose shape is an “always” we have never seen—comes from the deepest corner of our hearts, from the only place where desires truly matter, but simultaneously far above and beyond us, a challenge from outside the borders of our imaginations.

We ask for what we cannot see, what we have no proof even exists. Perhaps this bread is just a dream, it is wishful thinking of a few optimistic idealists.

Or maybe there is a bread that can sustain us in the thick of time. Maybe there is a gift that history cannot bury. Maybe there is a god who will hear us—and give it.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

a quiet glorious

There is a simple grandeur in the vision of the United States as represented by the artists—I have this sense these paintings will last as long as the culture and show us beauty there, in the midst of it. These are the first painters of Rhodes and Venice. There is no need to reinvent the wheel upon its inaugural invention.

Do you like salmon?

The interruption of the question underscores the oddity of the current endeavor—what am I doing here, sweating in this city? What is waiting for me at my destination?

There is no uncertainty in these paintings, there is no crisis of modernity. The land is bold, saturated, cracked with the lines of millennia of erosion.

It is a strange mix of intimacy and foreign nature. It feels a lot like faith. 

Do you like salmon?

That question is a first brushstroke sort of question. The first smooth line of gauche upon a canvas. And there is a sort of certainty in it, that matches the big-boned Georgia O’Keefe portraits of big-sky country, but it is a primer, when I have been living so much in the finishing details.

Do you like salmon reminds me that I am still walking very much by faith. I am, in this way, terrified. This whole summer, however, has been nothing else but faith. I can keep walking by faith, the . Keep painting mountains, keep capturing the enchanted jewel tones of the waterfall forest. 

These paintings are acts of faith in a land. An act of love for a new land whose history with the sons and daughters of Rome is still young, but certainly not unhopeful.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Meditating on H.O. Tanner’s L’Annonciation While Waiting on the Tarmac

Trapped on the Philadelphia tarmac,
On my way to Nashville,
I return my mind to the silent salon where I sat in front of
H.O. tanner’s L’Annonciation.

The girl is not frightened,
But merely waits, 
With patience, 
for the cloud of light to speak.
Annunciations are more easily received when they are rapid.

The more difficult visions are the ones developing underneath us, slowly,
Which we must wait upon, uncertain and scared.
But the light is there,
The angel will speak

The annunciation 
Takes place in the space between the light’s appearance and
The light that speaks. 
The girl
On her cot
And I are both breathing
In the suspended seconds between 
The appearance of the angel and her 
Which will give us
The word
Our divine command
It seems that the only 
Reality this summer has been waiting
Waiting for life to begin,
Waiting for the plane to take off
Waiting for the word which will come from the angel
To do the will of God is to be interrupted by angels.
I am interrupted and left in my state of interruption 
hanging between heaven and earth.               
This is sort of crucifixion too isn’t it?
This extended, terrible drumroll to annunciation:
an offering of self contortion,
a living-into the sole action of self-offering.

An aptly cruel summation of the summer entirely:
To be stymied by forces unknown at the last minute
This is crucifixion—

but I have believed all summer in Resurrection,
and grown to practice it.

tri-state transfiguration

Isn’t it funny,
She said,
While we were waiting for the Amtrak at Penn Station,
That there is a Mount Tabor, New Jersey?

One day a cloud rolled over Tabor,
And hung around the mountain.
Locals made a fuss,
Because it brought down
The value of the neighborhood,
And raised property taxes.

A small girl wandered up to see it,
Taking advantage of the chaos
Among the adults
To risk the black bears who hung about the path,
In search of darkness on the summit.

She saw nothing but a fox,
Who trotted up the path in front of her,
And disappeared into the scrub.

Upon reaching the fringes of the
The girl noticed that the
darkness had subsided,
And the cloud was light.

There were three figures,
Who spoke in only sign language,
Performing a liturgy familiar in its shape
and foreign in its gesture.

She watched the tallest
offer his words through motion,
the others responding in unison,
Their hands made music she could almost hear
Through the morning cloud.

The fog lifted slightly,
To reveal a patterned quilt of farmland,
Doused in sunlight,
Ruins of a castle,
And far away—
The sea.