Hate Me As I Am: The Academic Job Market, OCD, Affective Stutter, and a Time to Abandon the Rhetoric of Diversity

A friend of mine was suffering depression during her PhD, and was working with diversity services to try to figure things out. It was infinitely frustrating. Not only did they have no real policies in place to help grad students – it was all designed for undergrads – but they were so interested in preserving a division of labour (so as not to get sued for failure) that no one could ever deal with anything effectively, least of all the thing that is depression affecting the entire mind, body, and spirit. The campus of course was full of the wonderful inspirational posters one sees on diversity and inclusivity on campus – talk to someone if you are suffering mental illness etc. So she did. And encountered frustration. As she put it, the posters were mocking her.

I have recently found myself in a similar situation. I’m not naïve enough to think that my experience of mental illness is the only reason I am having trouble getting an academic job – there are perfectly well people who don’t either, and that’s simply because it’s a brutal and bad market. And yet, I also can’t help feeling the effects of having OCD when I apply and interview; let me explain.

For far longer than it has been known as OCD, OCD has been known as the doubting disease. This is because compulsions are the response to obsessions that involve doubting and rechecking things – whether the door is locked, whether one washed one’s hands thoroughly, whether one is appropriately pious in one’s mind. It can affect some areas and have absolutely no effect on others – for instance, much to the chagrin of my wife, the tidiness so often stereotypically associated with OCD is not something I suffer from at all.

Now, the way to manage OCD is (among many other things) some version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which can involve a number of mental tests, which at the end of the day work because, with OCD, there is always a part of one’s brain that knows how irrational one’s obsessions and compulsions are. One of these is the “reasonable person” test – one thinks oneself into the mental space of whomever is the most reasonable person one knows – and proceeds based on what he or she would do rather than on the gnawing fear to check again and again and again. Another test is called the “gun test.” This is a matter of imagining oneself with a gun to one’s head, and one has to make an impulse decision immediately or else someone will pull the trigger. Aside from the fact that the experience of OCD very often makes you feel you would prefer someone to pull the trigger, it can work very well. The idea is that, in our gut, we know what is reasonable – this is what differentiates OCD from actual delusion – and can act on that in moments of crisis. It is a variation of what O’Connor’s Misfit says of the grandmother – we with OCD would be able to make good decisions if someone were there to shoot us every moment of our lives.

But there is a cost, and that cost is emotional. When we make decisions like this, we are doing so either emotionally blind or in crisis. We do what the reasonable person does – and we decide as though a gun were to our heads – but there can be no emotional distinction for us between doing every day things in this way and pressing an A-bomb button that will explode the world. In areas of OCD, every decision is anxiety laden. The theory behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that the more reasonable decisions we make like this, the more desensitized we will get to those feelings. The better theories suggest pursuing things one loves and desires – at precisely the times one is desensitizing oneself to the anxiety – to try to replace the anxiety with appropriate joy and happiness in appropriate areas. Yet when, as for me, part of the root of one’s OCD consists in a deep fear of one’s desires and joys (restricting them carefully lest they contaminate the world), that doesn’t really work. So we are left making decisions either based on a map given us by others or on a gut we have to work into a traumatic fever pitch in order to force it to give us the answers.

This leads to a condition I would like to call “affective stutter.” As one might expect, the person with OCD navigating all these matters is very often not immediately sure how to respond to things in the moment. If s/he has learned how to work with his or her OCD, s/he can eventually come around to a decision or response, and it has been my experience that this circuitous means of figuring something out, difficult though it is in practice, can sometimes produce results more surprising and beneficial than those produced by normal people. Even so, it is those who are well and can put things straightforwardly who get listened to, just as those who speak confidently are trusted over those who physically stutter, even in cases where those latter may be more intelligent and thoughtful.

Now, I can understand how certain levels of OCD could in fact keep one from fulfilling the duties of a professor – in its worst form, it could make it impossible to lecture, mark and write. Yet, there can be workarounds, and I would dare suggest that there may be even benefits for students who have professors with OCD – an understanding of suffering and the grace that can come with it can be a good thing, as can the eye for detail that often accompanies those personalities prone to OCD. Yet, as I experienced recently, none of this matters in the interview. The way the person with OCD comes across is indecisive, unprepared, and scattered. It is because he knows that one is speaking hypothetically of particular contexts – that deep listening would be required before definitive answers could be given – that in fact caring would mean waiting and listening rather than decisively knowing the answer immediately. But what is meant as carefulness compounded by the difficult set of cognitive processes for decision making demanded by OCD simply comes across as a lack of investment. Caring too much – and treating the questions the committee asks as real-world problems that one might encounter daily – is precisely the way not to get a job. It is those who are normal – or those who have a better skill set for performing normality – who get jobs.

I can understand this – it is not as if those with mental illness or other impairments have been treated otherwise throughout history. It is our lot to be kicked about. But what I would at least like is a bit of rhetorical honesty, and this might mean packing up the inspirational signs and programs, the rhetoric that mocks, the tokenism we use to remind ourselves what wonderful benevolent people we are in a liberal society. It breaks my heart to say because there is a secret and real inclusivity, sensitivity, breadth, and diversity at the heart of the humanities – which is in part why I love them – and it is right that universities should be aspiring for such things.

However, the current situation is that we have failed and do not want to admit failure. We want to cherish the illusion that we are loving and inclusive people. We are not. I have no problem living in a world like this; it is the world we have always lived in. But let’s at least call a spade a spade and pack up the sexy rhetoric. A friend of mine of African American descent once told me of his grandmother who said the only people she trusted were the ones wearing pointy white hats – because she knew what they were thinking. I would not want to categorize my own experiences of marginalization anywhere near the experience of such deep and horrible racism, but the principle applies. If I know you hate me and think little of me from the get go, there might even be a chance we can be friends later. But don’t patronize me. Don’t tell me things are fair and then let “nature’ (or, in this case, the blank face of administration) take its course. At the very least, give us the benefit of acknowledging those of us dying by the side of the road before you proceed to walk by. If you cannot love us, at least do us the honor of hating us in a human way, a way that is not the oblivion of the machine. It is too much, I think, at this juncture, to ask for a job. But at least let me be despised properly, like the human being I am.

What Happens Amongst the Lilies: Tentatively Considering St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul

The first rule of the Dark Night is that you don’t talk about the Dark Night. Or perhaps put more aptly, can’t. Indeed, St. John of the Cross makes it clear that part of the Dark Night is a failure or perceived failure in understanding – it will seem that one is going nowhere. Conversely, it is probable and possible that those most excited about the Dark Night are romantics and have not really tasted it – they are envious of those who have walked it and remain silent because they could never possibly find the words. Given these factors and my own misgivings, I don’t want to presume the degree to which I have experienced the dark night of the senses, let alone that of the soul; further, the fact that mental illness and the dark night are overlapping but distinct categories makes it even more difficult to tell. It is why, I think, John of the Cross presumes spiritual direction as a sine qua non – without it, we will get lost in the dark. This is why a theology of the dark night flourishes just to the degree it occurs within a strongly hierarchical ecclesial structure and disappears when the priesthood of all believers is interpreted as a mutually exclusive alternative to a magisterial hierarchy. If we are are compelled to undertake the spiritual equivalent of deep sea diving, we had best be sure the vessel connecting us to the surface is sound. But to return to my main point, a claim to personal experiential access to the intimacy that is the dark night would be foolish at best.

What I can do, though, is express appreciation for some of the most explanatory and powerful ideas of St. John. And so I shall begin. What is beautiful about St. John of the Cross is that he discovers space in the body of Christ for the rest of humanity. There are those who seem able to maintain a particularly affective engagement with Christ throughout their lives – their motto is “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” and they do taste and do see – and are often puzzled by those who don’t or can’t. Whether such ongoing affectivity is the result of particular blessing or spiritual immaturity is a matter best left to God, and I imagine it varies on a case-by-case basis. What I do know though is that it very often leaves others enormously confused. Not only those who are not at all Christian, but those who are but find their affective relationship with God difficult if not apparently impossible. An affective theological framework without the possibility of an apophatic counter will end up excluding such persons from the kingdom of God. They will fake it or fall away. And what might have been an opportunity to help someone encounter God in the night is lost – the person is implicitly if not explicitly dismissed as one who just didn’t try hard enough.

This of course is not to say that the rest of humanity are automatic participants in the dark night – indeed, far from it. As developed in my opening caveat, those most eager to embrace the theology of the dark night may be least prepared for it, and may have other things to work out. Indeed, there is a far more common dark night, the dark night of sin, and while there is always the hope of this being transformed into the dark night of the soul, this hope hangs on what must always and ever be the response to sin – repentance. But it must always be kept in mind that the efficacy of repentance cannot be gauged by the affectivity with which God encounters the penitents – for it is possible He may encounter them secretly and unknown in the dark night.

This no doubt all sounds cold and clinical, and indeed it would be were it not for the fact that this apparent non-encounter – this apparent absence – is somehow also supercharged with an unnameable and aching intimacy and love. God feels absent – and it is a dear absence we would not give for the entire world. It is the secret of the lover and beloved too delicate and interior to name. All descriptions of one’s spiritual life during this time sound plain and boring – because who would dare begin to describe it? It would be shameful and enticing and frustrating all at once – better to answer in boring monosyllables that contain some shadow of the semblance of the truth than to break out blushing and stammering. What happens amongst the lilies stays amongst the lilies. But others can sometimes tell – what has gone on in the absence sometimes makes us glow, and we know it not. Sometimes, what we may or may not know, may or may not have – all this blaze we are at the heart of – so bright it is dark – all this contagion, this longing – all this we know not of – kindles the tinder of the hearts around us – even if we know it not. What we know is darkness. But perhaps that is enough.

For Hwan Modsefa Min Ne Gesweorce: The Single Truly Serious Philosophical Problem and the Sacrament of Christ

We are not Christians because being Christian makes us prosperous, happy, and free of suffering; if we think this, it is because we forget that though God may love us and have a wonderful plan for our lives, his definition of “wonderful” may be a bit more slanted than ours. God loved Job and had a wonderful plan for his life too.

Christians rediscover this from time to time – there was a reason Boethius’s Consolation was a spiritual staple of the Middle Ages – and I take it for granted that such is the case: some people have horrible, miserable lives, and some have glorious lives – and this will be the case whether we are Christian or not.

This though raises the question of why we are Christian at all. On the bald surface of it, Christianity would seem to promise a better life and not deliver. What is the good of speaking of all the riches in Christ if at the end of the day they merely dissipate into some always already deferred hope at the end of time? What is it that keeps us going as Christians? It is certainly not immediate success.

In many ways, I might suggest that my life itself is an experiment dedicated to discovering this. The poem that drew me inevitably into a love affair with Old English poetry, The Wanderer, articulates how I feel well: “Why should my thoughts not grow dark, when I think on this mortal life…” And why indeed should they not? There are darknesses and ruins all about us. Camus put it well when he said that there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide – by which he meant the problem of knowing why people don’t commit suicide. There is a riddle deeper than the riddle of the Sphinx, and it is this: a man or woman walking – and not stopping – though his or her road is paved with despair. What is this about? What kind of offense is it that leads one to prolong suffering in a world that would rather see him and his suffering buried and out of sight? What kind of scandal leads him – even wishing to die – to live? What kind of monster is he that will remain and inflicts the burden of his life on others? I cannot speak for all humans, but I can speak for one at least. He is this kind of monster: he is a Christian. St. Paul knew this; he wrote the letter to the Ephesians.

Part of the brilliance of this letter is Paul’s recognition that it is not, contrary to popular assumption, desire that leads us to sin, or at least not directly so. It is despair. Christ, he tells us, saves us from the way of the Gentiles, “who despairing have given themselves up to lasciviousness, unto the working of all uncleanness, unto covetousness” (4:19). There are some debates here over what precisely the Greek means; depending on which manuscript one goes with, the Greek can either mean despair or numbness. Jerome opts for despair in the Vulgate. But both meanings are of a piece. For despair is simply spiritual and emotional leprosy. It is the increasing loss of feeling as hope dies – with less and less awareness of things out there to touch, we begin to lose our sense of touch. And so we try to touch harder and more violently. We cut ourselves like the priests of Baal facing off against Elijah. We turn to dark fantasies. No one ever wants sin. Rather, one sins because one wants love and fears he has lost the capacity to feel it. We seek harm – our own and that of others – because we fear it is the only way we will be able to feel touch. There is a world of moral difference between embrace and strangulation. But the desire behind both is the same, to touch and be touched; the difference depends on the choice all desire must make: to hope, or to despair. And so the Gentiles, despairing, have given themselves up to lasciviousness etc.. But Paul notes that we, however, did not come to know Christ this way.

Certainly not, but the question is, how did we, and how does it avoid this position of the Gentiles? For it is indeed a powerful position. The world is a wreck. And we don’t have the energy or time to feel it all – all its pain, all its suffering. And so we begin to cut corners in the way we live – we can’t after all be responsible for it all, and we have to focus on our own survival. We start with things that won’t hurt others – or things we think won’t hurt others. A little bit of selfishness here. A little lust there. A little greediness here. But a little is never enough. Our hunger runs deep – and it will run deep as hell if it will not run to Christ. What feels like a fresh and honest pushing of the boundaries today will be felt as prudish romanticism tomorrow, and so on. What starts as an innocent desire for the other will turn to possession, manipulation, and control. Desire will not be satisfied till it has destroyed its object: “All men kill the thing they love.” And it is all related, this destructive desire. We love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Suicide – whether our own or the assisted suicide of the rest of the world – is the manner of our love. Suicide is the manner of our desire. And unless we Christians realize this – the deep power behind the modern narrative of despair – we will have little to say. We will be naïve romantics in a world gone to hell.

But what then is the Christian response? Too often it has been to deny the deep dissatisfaction and longing behind such despair. Too often it has been the counsel that things are maybe not quite so bad as that – that if we were good perhaps we would not be so unhappy – if we were normal, well adjusted people, perhaps we would not be making such a fuss all the time. Too often, Christians presume to deal with the despair of the pagans by denying its validity – too often, what distinguishes us from those pagans who mourn like there’s no hope is not (as it should be) the fact that there is hope – ontologically so – but that we think there’s no reason to mourn. And that is precisely where Saint Paul understands what the Job’s comforters and Pollyannas of the world do not.

What is brilliant about St. Pauls’s response – and I interpret the entirety of Ephesians to be this response – is that the primary thing he gives us instead of idealism or despair is the mystery of Christ. For modern readers, his precise use of this term may itself seem like a bit of a mystery – trying to imagine the gospel as a great whodunnit – which strictly speaking isn’t wrong, given Chesterton’s perennial observations concerning the overlap of faith and detective fiction. Nonetheless, “mystery” here means something more. It heartens back to Greek mystery religions, with the idea of something that contains the plenitude of something sacred that cannot be fully plummed, but in Christian tradition it comes to mean sacrament – indeed, the Latin of the Vulgate uses sacrament where the Greek has “mystery.” Paul is revealing to the Gentiles the sacrament of Christ.

Now, at this point in theological history, he is probably not within his own context referring to sacrament in the way we might talk about the Eucharist – though such an interpretation is obviously well within the bounds of retrospective theological exegesis. But there is a sense in which his use of the word here indicates a grace at once both partially veiled and plenitudinous in its abundance. Plenitudinous, since the riches of Christ are unmappable and never exhausted. Yet partially veiled insofar as the metaphysical reality he describes is not necessarily obviously evident from the things immediately seen. Paul tells the Ephesians not to mourn his tribulations, and he describes himself as a prisoner of Christ – here, more than a mere metaphor. To use the transubstantial language of St. Thomas, the accidents of Paul’s life look like anything but the dazzling and freeing mystery he describes. What he sees and describes in his life is the substance of Christ, but it looks no less poor on the outside for all that – the Eucharist still looks like a bit of bread, and the blood still tastes like mere wine. And so it is that this – the mystery of Christ – not even always seen – not even always felt – but substantially and ontologically the content of our faith; so it is that this is what sustains us. It sustains us against the shallowness of idealism, for there really always is more we need; the hunger is real and we can always go further into Christ. Yet it is not an unsatisfied and hopeless hunger like that of the pagans. It does not begin with meaninglessness, turn to self pleasuring, and finally to the destruction of the other and ultimately ourselves. No, it does not do this because with the mystery of Christ there is faith. Even when our senses tell us contrary – when the bread tastes stale and the wine cheap – when we feel we cannot taste and see that the Lord is good – when our lives and experiences look like anything but the mystery of Christ – even then – and maybe even especially then – do we feed on the mystery of Christ by faith and thereby resist the despair of the pagans. For faith is the substance of things hoped for. And it is in this substance – Christ in us, the hope of glory – that we put our faith.

Like a Hart on the Mountains: My Vexing Discovery of the Song of Songs

The details are hazy to me, but there is a story about a Winnipeg priest guilty of pedophilic abuse. Alongside the legal questions was the question of his priesthood – what was his vocation now he was convicted? Those concerned consulted another priest with wisdom in pastoral matters. His response? Chain him to the organ – keep him away from kids – and let him learn to sing the gospel in his chains. It is the answer they generally don’t teach you in pastoral care 101. But there is some blunt truth in it.

I am not in the same position, but I know enough – I am a sinner. And though the chains I feel are more psychological and subtly psychosocial than material in this way, they keep me fast nonetheless. I’m not going anywhere. In the words of Hopkins, “Birds build, but not I build.” Nonetheless, there is something I can do. However alienated and lonely and unChristian I feel, I can sing what I don’t fully understand. I can sing the gospel out of my chains.

But I’m going to begin at a rather odd Scriptural place. The gospel is not found in the gospels alone, and I suspect there are many “little gospels” strewn throughout the Bible and awaiting discovery through Christ who is the key of interpretation. For me, the gospel I return to again and again is the triad of Solomonic books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Canticle. Not that this is in any way a different gospel than those we find in the gospels proper, but rather that we find in these books the body of Christ proclaimed in those gospels.

But what is the gospel in this triad? Traditionally, these books have been considered in terms of a mystical ascent. Proverbs holds social day-to-day morality, Ecclesiastes is the ascetic confrontation with the vanity of the world, and the Song is the mad love story that is our erotic life with Christ. And all this must of course be understood as something different than a merely secular Platonic ascent – it all takes place in, with, and through the body of Christ.

For the longest time, my “place” in this gospel has been Ecclesiastes – the stubborn and dogged attempt to map the hollow footprints God has left upon the earth to frustrate us. And it has been good – the next best thing to approaching the presence of God is approaching His absence and touching the indentation his body left in the bed while he was lying beside you and you knew it not. Yet recently, I have seen something else. I have begun to discover what it means to move from the via negativa of Ecclesiastes toward the more kataphatic. – though no less frustrating therefore – Song of Solomon.

I have always trusted that the Song is something I would eventually understand, but till now I think I had neither a full enough grasp of Christology and ecclesiology, nor had I inclination on account of the juvenile fantasies that have grown up among Christians and tried to present the Song as a Christian Kama Sutra. Nonetheless, something unlocked in me as we approached Easter this year, and I began realizing that the Song is best understood contextually within the Passion narrative – for there too we have not only longing and love and pain and pleasure, but the very definitions of these things in Christ. And this answered one of my reasons for deferring engagement with the Song: a fear that it would gloss the difficulties and frustrations of life with a flip romanticism proclaiming ” You think you have problems, but really all you need is to get laid.”

But what I was happy to find is that the Song is honest. It is not a dissolution of frustration through sexuality, but rather a translation. Life for those in the Song isn’t any less vexing than life for those in Ecclesiastes. But they are in love – confusing, complicated, inscrutable love – and this is the key. The dead end of Ecclesiastean vanity is translated into the purgatorial love longing of the song. Things are not easier. But I am my beloved’s, and he is mine – even though there’s no end to the ways he drives me nuts.

Most recently, I have been trying to capture this shift in poetry. And though the entirety of the poem is probably, as they say nowadays, NSFW, I would like to share a conclusion of one of these poems reflecting on the frustrating tension in the Song between individuated, jealous love for Christ and the seemingly mutually exclusive fact that Solomon has concubines and Christ has the rest of His church – their loves are not exclusive at all. I know it may sound like a rather frustrating conclusion to some. But please be patient with me – to begin finding Christ and the conclusion of His Song annoying rather than not finding him at all is a significant thing for me:

But though I warned him I would forget,
It is he who has now forgotten.
When I learned of his litter
Lathered with love
For the daughters of Israel
– harlots without number –
It was not enough to tell me
I was the only jewel of my mother –
I would be His alone.
“I will be to you like a hart on the mountains,”
He said in reply –
And indeed he has been
As inscrutable as that.

When Darkness Reigns

This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.

In these two verses, Christ sums up the law, not so much in the sense that these are the conditions for salvation, but rather that they are in fact the state of it – for what else can heaven be except being deeply and madly in love with God and others? In reality, the other of the commandments are simply clarifications of what such love looks like.

And it is from these – or at least any sensible perception of them – that mental illness shuts us out. Love your neighbour as yourself. Perhaps not even a mandate so much as a statement. Perhaps we love our neighbours as we love ourselves as a matter of course – but that is damning when you so much despise yourself you can’t see the point of crossing the road and trying to revive that body of yours beaten and bruised and dying. Can one save others who cannot save himself?

One can leave the ache and fear alone and try to love – if not ourselves, then at least God, at least those around us. But the thing inside us hunts us doggedly so that what we wish to be love for others and God turns to dust – despair overwhelms and anxiety makes us more of a complication than a blessing to others. And so we are sent defeated back into ourselves, fearing to help or love lest our love come out as hatred.

Yet going inside ourselves is no comfort either. For a more optimistic person, I suppose this would be an opportunity of “dealing with” things, whatever that might mean. If you deal with pain once or twice or three times, perhaps this might seem viable, that life itself is generally triumphant or at least tolerable, and “dealing with” things can restore that general state. Chronic suffering is different. Who will save me from this body of death?

Yes, Christ. But the promise is not always an experiential one – it is a promise in the dark. I hardly know how much of my own state I am culpable for, how much I can change, and how much not. And though well-meaning people would suggest that I shouldn’t worry about culpability, such people would rob me of one of the few things I have left – the capacity for choice and action. Not that I am able to choose in many circumstances – I certainly did not and cannot choose away mental illness. But there must be some crevice of my life left where I can choose, and a way of choosing in this crevice love for God and others – perhaps even love for myself – if only I can find it. Yes, there must be some way that I am my beloved’s and He is mine. But His body next to mine in the lilies feels cold as a corpse. Night is in the garden – and this is the hour when darkness reigns.

Wyn Eal Gedreas: An Unreasonable Lament

I wanted this to be measured and planned and well thought out. And I wanted a few posts to introduce a theory and metaphysics to serve as a backdrop and explanatory note. But this is exactly my problem – I build my fortresses of words and hide behind them. Throw any given situation at me, and I will have it hand delivered in a neat parcel of words by next morning. Of course it doesn’t take the pain away, but the neatness is a useful distraction – for myself temporarily, and sometimes more permanently for others. We who write like this know well the adage of the Ecclesiast, that the more words there are, the less the meaning – and it profits us very much, thank you, because where there is meaning, there is pain. Writers like us know very well that the letter kills and the spirit gives life – and so we hide behind the letter because life, like meaning, is the site of pain.

But this post will be different because this post, rather than an argument, will be a lament. My thoughts will not be moderate nor will they be justified point by point. I am not even entirely sure why I am lamenting, as it feels selfish in the superlative. What worth do I have to merit the praise implicit in a lament? None, probably – but I have worked with enough literary laments to know they have mysterious purposes beyond what is seen, and had best be spoken when they come regardless of their apparent folly. I trust that one of the most mysterious instances of transubstantiation is the translation of lament into prayer. And so I provide raw material in hope of a miracle.

I have a Doctorate in literature, and my job consists in writing ad copy. It is a job. I should be at least grateful for that. But as I look at the pile of thing in the docket – things simply waiting for me to unfold their splendour to the world – I can’t help recalling Enoch Emory and the man selling “thisyer peeler” in O’Connor’s Wise Blood (and yes – I do in fact write about peelers). I suppose it is maybe itself a fairly O’Connorian thing to discover oneself to be precisely one of her characters whom one doesn’t want to be. And I suppose she might even go so far as to say that there may be an odd grace in it – though with grace like this, who needs enemies?

My heart is in and with literature and theology – they are what I love, and love to teach – but I am presumably too attached to both in a market in which love is a liability, and in which I am bad at finding those communities where it might not be. Besides which, between OCD and depression, I am well-practiced at putting my worst foot forward – I see nothing in myself to recommend, in part because my standards are far higher than I can ever aspire to, and so the jobs generally go to those who are loud or affable or shy in the right kind of way, and who are able to gloss over or ignore any disjunction between their ideals and their performance. As for me, people either take me for a scattered and uncareful scholar and person – encountering the part of me that whistles so I do not weep – or for a standoffish and uptight person who is guarding the pretense of scholarship through aloofness – because of course, even at this point of having a Doctorate, I still feel like I’m faking it. I understand that this is a common feeling, but with OCD, and with having to prove myself as a medievalist outside any of the normative centres of medievalism, it is I believe intensified. And it is no good to appeal to alleged allowances in university hiring policies for things like depression and OCD. The process is set such that, long before candidates even reach the point where these allowances might be made, such candidates are weeded out. Universities love in their generosity to tout their deep benevolence, rather in the way they might say they are infinitely gracious and eager to hire people who are lame – but only, of course, after they have won a marathon against able-bodied persons.

Of course, all this I could bear – or at least seem to have done in the past – if there were Christian community to help orient me. But that too is largely disintegrated. After having experienced some fairly nasty and confusing politics in Christian circles, I simply have trouble trusting people. Dipping your bread in the cup with me is no guarantee you won’t betray me. And when I do seek friendship, I am either too aloof and not warm enough, or my heart spills out in intense ways that frighten others.

And added on top of everything, I am a Catholic convert. The problem with this on the Protestant side will be obvious enough – most Evangelicals are benevolent enough to imagine that some Catholics might accidentally discover Jesus and blunder as it were into the kingdom of heaven – I know this because I am from such a background. But it is another thing when it is a decision – further, when it is a decision made by someone who knows the Bible and takes his relationship with God quite seriously. It is a problem because it demonstrates deep peril – if he could become Catholic, then there is no saying who else might not. And if he was walking with God before, and then became Catholic, why, then, there is almost the peril of suggesting God did it, which is a temptation we must resist. And so I am usually explained away as the product of intellectual pride or false logic or a tilter at straw men or something generally incoherent – anything, really, that can drag matters of the heart reluctantly into the ring of gladiatorial disputation and force them to fight – all the while feeling treble not only the blows they receive, but the blows they give.

This on the Protestant side, but then there are other alienating factors on the Catholic side, the primary one being what seem to be standard modern narratives of much lauded converts. You see, converts in general don’t fit well immediately into what one might call broader Catholic culture. One can hold all the doctrines and follow the magisterium and all other necessary things, but there are certain habits, mannerisms, and ways of speaking and thinking that one only picks up after long habituation in Catholic contexts. And this is of course fine – part of the attraction for me to Catholicism is the way it makes culture in this way rather than letting secularity make it and then baptizing it. What is more difficult, however, is that for some Catholics, these mannerisms and habits etc. – the secret handshake, so to speak – are more determinative of one’s Catholicism than what is in the Bible and catechism. And so it is hard to break into community when one does and perhaps always will speak the language of Catholicism with the clipped accents of Evangelicalism.

Of course, the way some converts avoid this is by becoming apologists or dramatically experiencing an effluence of love that oozes from their very pores – these things can help them fit in. I speak with sinful jealousy, and so I do want to make it clear that I would sooner be thrown in the sea with a millstone than denigrate their experiences with God or fail to rejoice with them as far as I am able. Yet there are some of us who cannot be those converts. There are some of us whose faith is so entangled in their lives that a full justification – a full apology – cannot be given till doomsday. And there are some of us for whom intra-Christian apologetics hurts because it is the body of Christ wounding the body of Christ, and all the pain is ours. And there are some of us who do not ooze love – indeed, who bristle – and who have experienced the proper and entirely expected but not therefore less painful transition from being confused, complicated Protestants to being confused, complicated Catholics. We have heard the stories of those who have found “Rome Sweet Home,” but what I need – thirst for, in fact – are modern stories of converts in the dark. Because even in the dark we can sense that Edenic dictum that it is not good to be alone.

Bowdlerizing Spiritual Narratives: John Donne and the Izaak Walton Maneuver

At the end of my honours degree in English, I took what was one of my most memorable and enduring classes, a course on John Donne with a mentor who would eventually become my MA supervisor, and who is a leading scholar on Donne’s sermons. The course was efficacious not only in the short term, but in the long term, as bits of it keep coming back to me in my own moments of grappling with matters of faith and life. And I suppose it makes perfect sense that it would be Donne – as one who grew up Evangelical, is now Roman Catholic, and who deeply appreciates Medieval literature on the one hand (PhD) and poets such as Milton on the other (MA), I can certainly empathize with his ecumenical tendencies, and appreciate that his is a matter of real theological grappling rather than the frustrating and contentless “I’m okay, you’re okay” liturgical iteration of kumbaya that ecumenism often devolves into in the present. Long before Barth identified it, Donne was recognizing indeed that, far from being what Marx would later identify as an opiate, religion and faith and God and our relationships in the midst are perhaps the single most vexing problem of being a human. Not, of course, a problem in the sense that they needed elimination, but a problem in the sense of being the agonizing and difficult crux or crisis on which everything hangs. Donne might have concurred with John Lennon in “Imagine” that things would be more peaceful with “no religion too”; where he would I imagine disagree is with regard to the worth of such peace – the kind of peace that has no room for our souls and their frustrations is in fact the kind of peace in which we might gain the whole world and forfeit our souls. Peace is probably not worth having if the price is our real humanity and the real spiritual struggles that come thereby.

Of course, what is interesting, and where I want to take this post, is that there are as many if not more Christians as alarmed by this idea of troublesome faith as Lennon is. Subtly, they have in fact accepted the Marxian interpretation of their own narrative, and when someone challenges the status of their faith as opiate, they become alarmed. And it is further no good to say that such attempts are merely attempts to recapture a so-called precritical medieval golden age. The sheer hardness of medieval life and the constant exposure to pain and death kept, I think, such precritical theology from becoming wishful romanticism – optimism was a matter of survival rather than luxury, and if medieval theology sometimes sounds naive, it is arguably the naïveté and simplicity one might find in a trauma survivors’ group, not simple because medievals did not known suffering and complexity, but seemingly simple perhaps because it is the memory of small, simple, joyful things that keeps one going in the midst of immense pain.

However, at the present historical moment, the socioeconomic situation means that some of us can live in bubbles detached from the pain and suffering and reality around us, and this state combined with participation in a faith we mistake for an opiate makes us problematically opposed to the voices of people like Donne, and it very often takes an immense amount of suffering to break through this bubble – one of the first steps in salvation is realizing that poverty is a precondition for blessing, and further, that the poor are in fact us rather than some abstract ideas of persons to be saved or fixed. We must, to draw on Donne, ask not for whom the bell tolls, but realize it tolls for us.

But many still prefer narratives that are neater than this, and it is indeed such a narrative I want to turn to as a way of prefacing what I hope will be a series of posts on the subject of narratives of conversion and spiritual experience. This narrative is one which we looked at in the aforementioned class: Izaak Walton’s biography of Donne. Now, Izaak Walton was quite the admirer of Donne, and seems to have been well meaning. But the author who could appreciate the serenities of angling in The Compleat Angler might have been better off sticking with the literal descriptions of angling than trying his hand at the biographies of fishers of men, particularly ones like Donne. The attempt is, if I recall, rather like that of a friend trying to praise another friend in an area of expertise the former doesn’t really understand. As a result, Walton gives Donne’s narrative a neatness and tidiness that it almost certainly didn’t have – in particular, he fudges the fact that Donne’s spiritual trajectory was from the Roman Catholicism in which he was raised toward an Anglicanism alive to the complexities, problems, and possibilities of many manifestations of Christian faith. Walton instead prefers a more Augustine-inflected narrative entailing a clean break with a sordid past and a happy conversion to Anglican Christianity. And this narrative has had influence, perhaps not least because of our attraction to such narratives – it is much easier and straightforward than the complex but real alternative, which involves grappling. And it is exactly this kind of treatment of spiritual narrative that I am introducing in this post – we might call it the Izaak Walton Maneuver. In the next few posts, I want to use this maneuver as a backdrop for discussing two sets of conventions related to two spiritual narratives with which I am familiar: the favoured Evangelical conversion narrative – in essentials not that much changed from the narrative favoured by Walton – and the favoured narratives of the reception of Protestants into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, which comes with its own set of conventions and expectations.

Beaten by the Keepers of the Walls: Sexual Violence and Ecclesial Betrayal in the Song of Solomon


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The worst wounds are the wounds caused by other Christians. In direct persecution, one can at least identify someone doing something evil to one. In general adversity, one can rage at the turn of events without needing to mold them into a neat narrative. But pain and betrayal that we experience from other Christians are of a different order. They are of a different order because the person doing the afflicting is part of the same body as the afflicted. To hate the other – the wounder – is in a sense to hate someone who is part of you, which one cannot do. And so these matters remain so often unresolved. We cannot cut ourselves off from the body, nor can we take control of it. And so it is that such wounds lead to deep confusion and perhaps far deeper lasting effects than any other kind of wound. When we are hurt from the outside, we can cleave to the body of Christ; but when those in the body of Christ hurt each other, to what can we cling?

This, I think, is why betrayal is such a central problem in the Biblical narrative, perhaps even more than the more recent and modern problem of evil: “Even my friend, who has shared bread with me, has lifted up his heel against me,” says the Psalmist. Job too is about the betrayal of friends, with the central question being God’s apparent betrayal of his friendship with Job. Indeed, the Old Testament is a narrative of a faithful God dealing with a treacherous people, with the determining moment being the crucifixion scene when creatures perform the ultimate act of betrayal against their creator. Given such a narrative, it is not surprising that Dante reserves the deepest pit of hell for traitors, particularly the archetypal Judas who is the model of intra-ecclesial wounding. Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come.

But to return from types and archetypes to the matter at hand, my purpose in this post is to hazard – and I do so gingerly and tentatively, because I don’t want to say more than should be said – that wounds between Christians are a little like the spiritual counterpart of sexual violation. Because sexuality is a locus and crossroads for so many parts of ourselves, sexual abuse and violation assault that very core of ourselves that might give us fortitude and strength when facing less intrusive wounding. Even so, wounds dealt within the church are dealt in a space of intimacy, and therefore throw into conflict that very faith that might otherwise be our mainstay – they affect a spiritual nexus of faith that shapes and channels our identities, even as sexual abuse affects the psychological and existential nexus that converges in matters of sexuality.

Indeed, even if one is not a romantic, and knows that “such things must come” among Christians – even then, no amount of cognitive anticipation can prepare one existentially. The kiss of Judas is always expected, yet also, by its very nature, always a surprise. And we are devastated. And what I want to talk about here are some partially formed thoughts I have been having on these matters and the Song of Solomon. As per Christian tradition, I will be taking the relationship between Christ and his church as the primary meaning of this, and the more overtly erotic interpretation as the secondary meaning (even as marriage is sacramental before it is erotic). The relevant passage is below, from the Song of Solomon, Chapter 5:

2 I sleep, and my heart watcheth: the voice of my beloved knocking: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is full of dew, and my locks of the drops of the nights.
3 I have put off my garment, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them?
4 My beloved put his hand through the key hole, and my bowels were moved at his touch.
5 I arose up to open to my beloved: my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh.
6 I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved: but he had turned aside, and was gone. My soul melted when he spoke: I sought him, and found him not: I called, and he did not answer me.
7 The keepers that go about the city found me: they struck me: and wounded me: the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
8 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him that I languish with love.

9 What manner of one is thy beloved of the beloved, O thou most beautiful among women? what manner of one is thy beloved of the beloved, that thou hast so adjured us?

10 My beloved is white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands.
11 His head is as the finest gold: his locks as branches of palm trees, black as a raven.
12 His eyes as doves upon brooks of waters, which are washed with milk, and sit beside the plentiful streams.
13 His cheeks are as beds of aromatical spices set by the perfumers. His lips are as lilies dropping choice myrrh.
14 His hands are turned and as of gold, full of hyacinths. His belly as of ivory, set with sapphires.
15 His legs as pillars of marble, that are set upon bases of gold. His form as of Libanus, excellent as the cedars.
16 His throat most sweet, and he is all lovely: such is my beloved, and he is my friend, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.

17 Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou most beautiful among women? whither is thy beloved turned aside, and we will seek him with thee?

I am not going to lay out the meaning of these passages verse by verse, but it is enough to say that what we encounter at the beginning is an invitation to intimacy, exposure, and vulnerability. Regardless of whether we take this as simply a late night bedroom visit, or whether we take the language of keyholes, head, dew, and bowels in a more suggestive direction, the “beloved knocking” is seeking vulnerable intimacy with the primary speaker. However, what happens to her is what lovers exposing themselves most fear – her beloved and the context of trust that accompanies him disappear just as she responds to him, and her response without an answering context of trust and safety leaves her exposed and feeling foolish in the streets – again, an image subject to a variety of interpretations, but at bottom representative of the intimate vulnerability that is the pleasure of love in the presence of the beloved, but the cause of deepest shame and embarrassment when exposed to the public eye. Indeed, in this moment of intimacy, when she is, so to speak, caught in the act, she is not only shamed, but physically harmed – to make things worse, beaten by those who are supposed to protect the city, the keepers of the walls. “Who watches the watchmen?” indeed!

To clarify from the start, I do not intend to interpret this story as a model for how Christians should respond to sexual abuse anymore than I would follow some in mistaking the Song for the Christian version of a Kama-sutra-like sex manual. It is neither, and to force it to be either obscures the deeper meanings of the book, even as it straightjackets those who hold it as such into a shallow imposed formula not at all designed to deal with human complexity.

What I do want to suggest though is that, in its primary mystical sense, it does present a suggested response to abuse, but this abuse is of the spiritual kind – the identity shattering wounds described above which are the spiritual counterparts of bodily sexual violence. To be clear again, I do not mean in doing this to offer the Christian response to such wounds, but rather to use the text as a way of unwrapping and thinking about ways it might help us navigate our own moments of discovered shame, vulnerability, and wounding in the church.

To be part of the Christian church is to be intimate with Christ and His body. For those of us from an Evangelical background, we know this intimacy best through the beautiful, dangerous, and holy experience of pouring our hearts out to fellow Christians. For those of us who are Catholic, such intimacy, in my experience, comes through the sacrament of reconciliation, or the fact of baring our souls before the blessed sacrament during adoration or the celebration of Eucharist. In any case, regardless of the manifestation of our experience, there is always risk, because we are vulnerable in the body of Christ amidst His people – and some of them may wound us in exactly that place where we experience intimacy most deeply. This does not in the least discredit the church; the first lesson in ecclesiology is Christ’s words that some will arise within the church to distort the truth, and charging the church with hypocrisy in her body is to forget that she prophesied it well before we were around to notice.

Expected though it may be, however, the toll on the wounded individual is grave and disorienting indeed, and this leads me to the question I think the aforementioned passage from the Song of Solomon can help us think about: I After such deep wounding, can we ever fall in love again, that is, into something that is more than intellect and assent of the will? Can we know the intimacy of Christ on this side of heaven? Or are we stuck in wariness and confusion till the present age passes? To be clear, my question is not whether those so hurt can be Christians and part of the church – of course they can. My question is rather whether they will be allowed in this world to feel again. I don’t have an answer, and indeed, the answer probably varies depending on the individual in question and the depth of wounding.

What I do suggest though is that this passage in the Song offers an example of recovery in such an instance. And there are a few aspects of this recovery I think we can learn from. One thing that we can notice is that the initiation of healing is on the side of the beloved herself, but it is also very brief and inadequate. She knows enough of her woundedness to be able to identify herself as sick of love, but is able to say little more. And this is where it is the business of fellow Christians to step in, figured here as the daughters of Jerusalem.

It is their job – and therefore ours – to respond to an inarticulate cry of pain and take up the burden of negotiating that pain. The beloved herself is too wounded in too intimate a place to be able to do this, and so the rest of the church takes up this burden for her. And the nature of this burden is to help the beloved see her lover again, to help her, if we might recall the Lacanian phrase to its Augustinian roots, never give up on her desire. She is catechised concerning the beauty of the lover, and presumably this allows her, at least partially, to recall and re-experience her love for Him. When the beatific vision of the lover is eclipsed for the beloved – that is, for the Christian – by fear, it is the rest of the church’s job to recall to her His image which will in turn recall her to adoration.

This will probably not be exactly the same kind of love as before – love raised to life after shame differs from its former form, even as the resurrected body of Christ differs from His former body. But it does suggest there may be hope for those of us blundering about in the dark after all the candles have been snuffed in the Cathedral. We for our part can do what we can do – produce a feeble and confused cry of pain – and we can only hope that there are those in the church who will respond to that incoherence and love us back to life. For it would seem to be God’s purpose that wounds that can only be opened in the intimacy of the church can also only be mended in that same intimacy by those willing to hear the intention rather than the matter of a cry of pain that is also a prayer.

A Spirituality of Awkwardness

Awkwardness is the space where interesting things might happen. It is the space where the hum and buzz of social convention is suddenly paused, where we are forced for a moment to contemplate the silence and creaturliness wherein – as apophatic theology points out – we might find the beginning of wisdom. What we feel when we feel awkwardness is the feeling of nakedness in the garden – we are exposed – and for a moment (or for some of us, many moments), the routine and business behind which we hide is stripped away. We are called upon to act, but there are no stage directions. We are called upon to speak, but we are not given a script. And so we stumble, and stammer, and try to gather the cover of business and routine and words more closely about our hearts. We fear we will be found out. We fear that when we are found out, we will not be loved.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in relation to some of my favorite spiritual texts. Particularly, I’ve been thinking about it with regard to the gifts of grace, that is to say, all the gifts God has bestowed upon us, including our very selves. To think of being given so much by God is the most awkward thing of all, because what can one do? One can’t pay Him back. One can’t reserve a part of oneself. And it is absurd to even think of trying to explain and defend oneself before the very creator who made us. We are at a loss because we are the recipients of gifts. God has put us at the centre, and however hard we try, we can’t escape from the givenness of things. The giftness of the world focuses like a spotlight on each of us, and it is awkward, because it means we have been seen. And we don’t want to be seen – at least not in that way, the whole way, with nothing held back. We may want parts of us seen, but not the whole. And so we stand in awkwardness before God – given everything, even the very good works we do – and are able to give nothing in return. Our awkwardness is a sense of gratitude with nowhere to go. To give so much to us seems a radical miscalculation. And so we want to do something, and hide behind the something that we do.

What texts am I thinking of? Biblically, I am thinking of the parable of the two lost sons, the prodigal and the other – the prodigal experiences such awkwardness when he thinks of his gracious father, and then, when he is ashamed to imagine himself in that grace, imagines he will go back and work for him as a hired laborer. He will come back as a mere servant, and his servanthood will be his cover. It is a way not to deal with the awkwardness of things. Except where it impinges on his service, the business of a servant is his own, not his master’s. But a father is different. With the father, there is awkwardness.

Similarly, I am thinking of Martha in the kitchen. It may not be that she doesn’t feel the same awe Mary feels toward Christ – but perhaps she feels it secretly, so secretly she needs to hide it. She has been seen, spotted – and it is too much to bask in the awkward exposure of it. Better to do. Better to work. They will not notice you doing. The safest place is in the centre, working and facilitating, because no one notices the workers. But Christ does, because this is what Christ does – he makes things awkward.

These are the Biblical texts, but there are two others. One is Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul. One of the central features of her story is a sense of grace achingly, intimately, embarrassingly profound – it is secret and awkward. Hence, Therese describes how she is “not going to give every detail. Some things lose their fragrance when opened to the air, and there are stirrings of the soul which cannot be put into words without destroying their delicacy.” This is Therese’s secret, awkward grace. For those scandalized by the radiant openness of this grace, she, like Moses, wears a veil, which is the typical reluctance of the saints (beginning with St. Paul) to talk about the grace – the gifts – that have been given them. And this veil is cut from the same fabric as that of the prodigal and Martha – speak less and distract them by what you do, and maybe people won’t notice the awkwardness of grace lying thick about your heart. But if they do, it doesn’t matter – the gift that is awkwardness – intimacy with Christ – is more than enough to make up for being found out.

The last text I want to talk about, and the one that inspired this post, is the last text in George Herbert’s Temple. “Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back.” Why? Because “guilty of dust and sin” – the presence of real love is the presence of awkwardness. And when invited to sit and eat, the speaker does exactly that thing we have seen in the prodigal and Martha, the thing that becomes a beautiful translucent veil in the work of Therese of Lisieux – the attempt to hide in service. “My dear, then I will serve…” The line itself is ambiguous – it is unclear whether it is love or the speaker speaking – and this is as it should be. The voice of the lover and the beloved speak in unison, and indeed the thing the speaker turns to to cover his shame and awkwardness before grace becomes at once the grace itself. Even in service we can’t hide, because the service itself is grace – and grace, whose name is Christ, is patient enough to wait until we accept love’s invitation to eat the feast before us. Love and grace are awkward – and it is awkwardness that binds us to Christ.

Scary Ghost Stories and Tales of the Glories: Wishing You All a Christ-Haunted Christmas


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This blog was begun out of Facebook posts I began writing during Advent. And so it is perhaps fitting that, as this time of year rolls around again, I should offer some thoughts on the season. As usual, they will be vexing and vexed, but here goes.

To begin, I don’t know who to be more frustrated with: those who reduce the season to commercialism and saccharine songs that are not even good by pagan standards, or those who allegedly want to put the Christ back in Christmas – by which they usually mean their favourite id(e)ol(ogy) which they have given the name Christ. If I were feeling uncharitable, I might make some sort of comment about it being impossible to put the Christ back in Christmas without putting the Mass back in Christmas, and you can decide for yourselves what I mean by that – at the very least, it means that it is certainly hard to understand Christ apart from the work of His bride through whom he has chosen to reveal himself. But I am not feeling much more uncharitable than normal, so I shall leave it at that for now.

What I do want to talk about though is how we navigate this odd holiday context in which Christ is in some way inescapable – for simply calling it “the holidays” or dating the world back to BCE rather than AD is just a manipulation of language; there is still the history behind the thing we are celebrating, and the uncomfortable fact that in secularity we are left with neither supernatural nor even basic pagan reasons for keeping the feast. In such a context, we are left with a vague feeling that we should have warm hearts and special generosity around this time because – well, because it’s Christmas.

Perhaps the most positive way we can put this is that the season is a mystery in the cultic sense – we don’t really know why or what we are doing when we celebrate Christmas, but we do so anyway because something in the mystery draws us; like Bryan Adams we simply feel that there’s “something about Christmas time,” and because of the difficulty of sustaining such a mystery religion in a modern, “progressive” world, we find ourselves longing for the infantile innocence of stupidity, which we excuse by mislabeling it as childlikeness, but nonetheless need if we are at all to maintain a state of confusion of which we are rightly fond as something preferable to pure secularity. In the immemorial words of Josh Groban, “you have everything you need, if you just believe” – and it is integral to the maintenance of this season that the fact of belief rather than the content of what is believed in is emphasized.

But if this is a problem for those who want to celebrate Christmas but have no idea why, it is equally a problem for Christians, who ought to know better than to simply lock themselves in a fortress-like dualism over against an ostensibly confused culture. We all know the rhetoric on the other side, the return to the “true meaning” of Christmas, whether this is understood as the iteration of Christ’s nativity narrative, a particular sobriety, the ousting of mammon, or the rather childish abolition of Santa Klaus and other Christmas mythopoeia. What always astounds me about this position is the dead certainty with which these people seem to know the “true meaning” of Christmas. Really? Is it so simple to grasp the fact of God becoming human and also remaining God? Have we really got a handle on this such that we can go about like busybodies correcting the imaginations of our friends and relatives? As you can see, I am happy about neither stance – confused secularism or dead certain faith with an emphasis on “dead.” So where can we find the answer? In ghosts, evidently.

Yes, quite seriously, I think we would do well to pay heed to Dickens and the spooky stories of twelfth night because they get at a fact about Christ’s incarnation that neither the secular sops nor the hard-nosed Chistian killjoys understand; what is primary about Christmas is that it is uncanny. Let me explain. In literary theory, when we talk about “the uncanny,” we are not talking about simple concrete gruesome horror, nor are we talking about something that cannot be known at all. No, what is uncanny exists in a realm that is related in a complicated way to our epistemologies – in negative terms, we might say it is uncertain, or in more positive terms, we might say it is a mystery. The uncanny disappears when certainty appears on either side, that is, when the ghost we are afraid of is debunked, or when it is put to rest within a solid and comprehensive metaphysics. In some Christmas traditions, this uncanniness is negative, as in the case of the poem “Old Christmas Morning,” but in Dickens, the uncanny ghost exists halfway between the worlds of marvel and terror, and the uncanniness of time – that is, the ungraspability – is shown in the persons of present, past, and future. What I want to suggest is that, far from being a distraction from the “true meaning” of Christmas, this tradition of uncanniness gestures in an analogical way to the central story of Christmas – the uncanniness of Christ’s incarnation. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” speaks more truth than ought to be allowed such a schmaltzy song when it speaks of “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories,” for in a very real sense, the stories are of a piece. What ghosts are to our perception in a negative sense, the incarnation of Christ – inspired after all by a Holy Ghost – is in a positive sense. And we know this from the gospel of John.

For it is in John more than any other gospel that we get the fullest account of Christ’s birth. No, it is not the gospel we usually associate most closely with the Christmas story, given the omission of historical details. Yet there is a strong case to be made that John does in fact recount the Christmas story in the opening of his book – the difference is that he is recounting it from a metaphysical rather than merely human perspective. John, the eagle, looks into the sun of righteousness, and is dazzled. To say John points to the “true meaning of Christmas” here would be moot; rather, the logos has got hold of him and won’t let go. The fish need not draw attention to the whale.

But if this – what John is describing – can happen, then anything might happen. And this is the explanation of the uncanny stories that crop up at Christmas. Our imaginations are tantalized. In such a world, challenged as it is by the incarnation of God, men might come back from the dead. Flowers might bloom in the bleak of winter. Sinners might even learn to repent.

Aside from the more frightening instances of uncanniness, this also helps explains much of the needless frivolity, absurdity, and complete silliness of Christmas – which is perfectly justifiable on Christian grounds. In a world in which God can become incarnate, even the most foolish of things has potential to be folly for God. We do very silly things like sing songs of hope in the middle of a blizzard, or gather together with the people we argue most with – our family – and talk about peace on earth, good will toward men. Indeed, this overturn – this incarnation – may be enough even to redeem the most unredeemable of things. Even kitsch and schmaltz and jest might with the mages lay their gifts at the manger. This comes to pass, when a child is born.

What is clear then is this – that, when Christians seek to have a stranglehold on the “true meaning of Christmas,” they often miss the fact that its truest meaning is dazzling mystery, a mystery indeed patient enough to wait out their clumsy attempts to wield it like a club. Seculars and pagans get the bit about mystery – but without anywhere to point, it collapses into a dualism between ignorant sentimentalism and cynical despair. And it is with these problems in mind that I want to wish you all a Christ-haunted Christmas.

The description is Flannery O’Connor’s, asserting that if the US south is hardly Christ centered, it is certainly Christ-haunted. And it is precisely this perspective I propose in our approaches to Christmas. The season is saturated with Christian images, and imagery, and palimpsests, and erasures. Yet simply trying to go back to a “good old days” when people knew what Christmas was about is not the answer; nor is the answer steamrolling current society so we can rebuild a Christmas worthy of Christendom. No, what I suggest is a return to the mystery of incarnation, a mystery so powerful it does not even need to speak about itself all the time, but can in fact sustain imagination and the beauty of the world – from the highest instances of these to the silliest. All these instances point of course to the one Instance in the scansion of the inscape of creation, and we would do well to follow O’Conner in the realization that even a chaos and confusion of symbols and theologies – a thoroughly haunted labyrinth – is not a great obstacle to a God who calls order out of chaos and enters that order in the ambiguity known to us as flesh, and as the Ghost Who haunts us, moving as He lists.


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