In response to Churl’s prior post, a very close friend of his has taken the initiative to start a new blog focused on building up the body of Christ, His church; some of you who follow this blog might find it interesting.
It often pains me to write posts like the last. It pains me because there are many Evangelicals whom I love – who have cared for me – and to whom I owe my faith – indeed, to whom I owe my present Catholicism. My favourite kinds of Cathollics are generally converts from Evangelicalism or Catholics deeply marked by the movement and who can taste the beauty of the Catholic faith with Evangelical sensibilities. I love my Evangelical brothers and sisters no less than I did when I was looking at Rome from their side – perhaps arguably more – and it is maybe this love which leads me to be so intimately fierce. It is to Evangelicals I owe my life – my faith – my personal relationship with Christ, my first love, and it is the best proof of this debt that my periodic visitations of this site of our first love – this site of a honeymoon so very vexed and unlike a stereotypical honeymoon – is complicated with all the simultaneous venom and beauty and redemption of love. I long for and perhaps even lust too perilously after the time when we will all be one as Christians, a time which, given the way the cultural winds are blowing, we are beginning to encounter all too soon through the ecumenism of martyrly blood. It is a pity it often takes evil – Sauron – to bring to full coordination the dwarves and the elves and the ents and the hobbits, and there may indeed not be full and complete coordination till the very end. But all true unity in faith is as fully Christian and fully Catholic as all lying peace is of the devil and antichrist, and it is for that former we pray, even with tears.
I write this way because it has struck me that, though I need to write posts like that last for the sake of my own personal sanity, and though there is no hope of me being a cogent person or having a cogent faith otherwise, I do realize that such posts can only ever be half my calling as a Christian; as Ecclesiastes so perfectly summarizes the gospel, there is a time to tear down, and a time to build. In what seems a prior life – before the darkness was so fierce – I have done much building, or at least tried to build, though the results from this side look doubtful. The darkness has involved much tearing down to the point that I am left a naked and shivering spirit quaking in the dark and uncertain of my own name. But this, I hope and pray, is not the end. However imperfect, Niggle does not remain in the darkness of hard labour forever. There may yet be hope. And the hope is that, with God’s help, I can live toward being something beautiful. The hope is that, with God’s help, my prayers and the prayers of those I love can bring down fire from heaven to light this sacrifice of my soul, doused with tears beyond hope of burning through any other fire, whether natural or strange.
I phrase it this way because, in thinking about a time of building, I have long since given up any hope of personally “bringing light to others” or “helping others in their darkness.” I used to hope I had OCD and depression so that I could be a help to others, particularly other Christians, suffering from these things. That heroism has died hard. In its place there is a mystery. It is the mystery of why I keep living from day to day, why I keep hoping, why I keep longing, why I keep writing and speaking. It is the mystery of having a heart so broken by every broken person I meet that I no doubt appear to them worse than uncaring because aloofness – the damnable failure to look into the dark pools of their eyes – is the only way I know to keep from drowning. It is the mystery that can only find fulfillment and explanation in what St. Paul calls the mystery of Christ. It is a mystery, inexplicable – but mystery is merely Greek for sacrament. And sacrament means intimate vulnerability in the dark with our God – oh, happy chance! And it is this chance I hope for – long for – as I seek to build.
And what is it I am seeking to build? I have been thinking a lot about it, and what I would like to love myself and be loved into is what I call a disciplined mysticism. The phrase is chosen very carefully so as to be comprised of two things I am very bad at. I am bad at discipline and worse at mysticism. But it seems to me that these are the two things I most need in order to follow Christ. Discipline without mysticism – that complicated affective heart of our knowledge of God – is but a resounding gong and a clanging symbol. Similarly, mysticism without discipline – in truth, love, and obedience – waffles into narcissism and self-delusion – it becomes the subject of the famous aphorism suggesting that it starts with mist and ends with schism. But as I say, I am bad at both, and in need of prayer. It takes a Church to make a sacrament – and so I need you all. Hopkins’ words – “birds build, but not I build” – has in the past seemed my motto. But I suspect – hope – that that can be changed, even if the darkness remains. Pray for me – my heart hungers after lilies.
I am grateful to Churl for asking me to expand a facebook post on the upcoming canonization of Bl. Zélie Guerin and Bl. Louis Martin into this short essay; it has been a welcome opportunity to further my research and my thoughts on the topic. Today, the 12th of July, is their wedding anniversary and the day the Catholic Church observes their feast.
My memories of traveling in Europe in the summer of 2013 are centered on the relative friendliness of manuscript librarians and the quality of Skype connections. Five months pregnant and traveling alone through Europe to finish manuscript research for my doctoral dissertation, I would call my husband online whenever possible, relying on the free wi-fi in visitor information centers to send e-mails when it was not. Alençon is particularly clear: I stayed at a business hotel and the connection was good, and I wept to be so far away from my husband when he shared bad news. An older couple to whom we were close had received two bad diagnoses in the same weeks— she cancer, he a neurological condition, and she was not expected to live long.
The next morning found me at a building I had been directed to by the guide at the town visitor center, but had not expected to visit: the shrine built at the childhood home of St. Thérèse. I am embarrassed to admit how surprised I was when I was directed to the shrine when I asked about things to see: I knew that Alençon was famous for lace, and I knew that her mother had been a lacemaker, but I had not connected the two. After all, she was “of Lisieux.”
My ignorance may be attributed to the fact that I find St. Thérèse discomforting. I read “Story of a Soul” as a college freshman, on a four-hour plane flight the week before my baptism, and the binge imparted a kind of spiritual indigestion and despair. I had not returned to it until this essay. I can intellectually appreciate the value of her focus on small sacrifices and the beauty of her devotion, but French spiritual writings of her era rarely help me and devotion to her always seemed saccharine and unchallenged in a way that did not touch upon the inner struggle that shapes my own way of belief. Much more for me, I thought, was my confirmation saint, St. Teresa of Avila, who arose from her chronic illness to become tough as nails and didn’t really start spiritually maturing until her thirties. (This is yet more comforting now that I am 30 and not very spiritually mature.)
Knowing Thérèse better does not help my anxiety: if you want to be disillusioned of the aspartame sweetness that accompanies so much talk about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I recommend Heather King’s memoir of her time researching the life of St. Thérèse, Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. An adult convert and former alcoholic, King doesn’t shy away from the traumas endured by someone who endured them with—as becomes clear— a remarkable faith, from losing her mother at a young age to her father’s later illness, ending with a young death from tuberculosis, without morphine but still able to look at a crucifix and declare her love. This doesn’t make me feel closer to St. Thérèse. It makes me scared. As St. Teresa is claimed to have said, “if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
As a result, I had no real intention of visiting the childhood home of St. Thérèse in the limited time I had to see Alençon. Wandering about after seeing my manuscript on my first day, I had encountered a shrine to St. Thérèse in the Cathedral of Alençon, where she was baptized. More out of a sense of duty than devotion I had placed an intention to Thérèse, asking her intercession for me as an expectant mother, and that, I thought, was enough.
My conversation with my husband, however, sent me to the narrow chapel beside the house in an abject desperation that will be familiar to some— how do you leave a chapel when you are praying for someone’s life? A comfort to me, and a confirmation that it was the ‘proper’ place for my prayers, was that the shrine was not only devoted to Thérèse, but also to her parents, Zélie Guerin and Louis Martin, whose cause was then awaiting the final steps to move from beatification to canonization. A basket was out for requested prayers that would be offered to the couple, and in my grief I left my intentions there. It was only later I realized the confluence: Zélie, too, had died of cancer; he of a neurological condition. Against predictions, our friend’s wife is still living. It may not be miraculous, but it is a gift and a grace.
Zélie Guerin and Louis Martin will be canonized this coming October. They are justly popular among the young couples I know as a model for developing holiness in family life and a sign that lay couples, too, can achieve the heights of sanctity. Zélie leaves more surviving letters, and the fact that she ran a business has given her a fama among observant working mothers. Less is known about Louis, and unlike his wife, I have rarely seen him discussed without his spouse. He had wanted enter religious life as an Augustinian canon but had no Latin. He was a watchmaker and known for sanctity throughout his life. Beyond the welcome addition of a middle-class married couple to the canon of the saints, however, there is something to be said about the value of holding up Louis as a model of sanctity despite his struggles with mental illness near the end of his life.
Canonizations come with lag time, and it takes much longer for someone to be declared a saint than it does for our ideas of mental illness to change. (One may consider, from the perspective of intellectual history, that the short life of St. Thérèse (1873-1897) coincides with the training and early career of Sigmund Freud.) It will be many years before there is a saint with a substantial body of supporting evidence who has endured the challenges of the conditions we recognize today, and the traditional options like Saint Dymphna, while not without value for many, can be unsatisfying. A declaration of sanctity for public veneration comes with its own challenges— so much of our language and understanding of religious devotion and holiness is focused on intention, the will, as well as emotional experience. Mental illness makes clear—particularly to those who have experienced it—how unreliable these ideas can be. It also, for these reasons, makes it a challenge to decide whether someone’s life has approached the accepted ideals of sanctity.
Changing ideas of the mind and the reticence of the past have made it hard to determine what, exactly, Louis Martin experienced. In The Story of a Soul, Thérèse writes that they feared he would suffer a ‘cerebral paralysis,’ and that “words can’t describe our agony, so I shan’t try to write about it.” A 1949 edition of her letters refer only to “the family trial,” and paralysis. The only hint that his losses have been more than physical are a letter in which Thérèse asks her sister to have their father bless the wreath she will wear when she makes her vows, and says that her request “is not difficult to grasp, and if at moments he understood, he would be so happy!”
Once again, Heather King gives an evocative description of the bitter cup, explaining that Louis Martin suffered not only from paralysis, but from a mental decline that lead to him disappearing for days at a time, and eventually to his being admitted to a mental hospital for several years. It is not clear whether Thérèse, in the convent, was shielded from the rumors that her father had syphilis, or had been driven mad by her young entry into religious life. In her letters, she would declare this period a “family martyrdom.” Louis died in 1894, under the care of two of his daughters.
Rereading in preparation for this post, I discovered that the endpapers in the used copy of St. Thérèse’s letters I bought as a college freshman are covered in pencil notes, marking passages the previous owner found important. The first is from an early letter, and reveals a principle that underpins the spirituality of both St. Thérèse and her father, and one which may help free those of us more troubled than aided by Thérèse’s ability to embrace suffering: namely, the willingness to do so weakly: “Martyrs have suffered with joy, and the King of Martyrs suffered with sorrow.”
How to talk of souls? How discuss our being? It is common— but erroneous—to identify the soul with the mind, and focus entirely on the mental categories of religious experience. With a rising awareness of mental illnesses from depression to dementia, it becomes ever more important to clarify the position of mental illness in our understanding of the human person, and where God’s grace stands in relation to our weaknesses. Saint Thérèse was no stranger to the “spiritual dryness” familiar to mystics throughout the history of the Church, and this traditional acceptance of the dark night of the soul is a crucial reminder that—as a Carmelite once told me— grace is not conferred through emotion. But how can one patiently sustain one’s devotion when your dryness seems less a spiritual step than a problem within; when one’s swinging emotions make you distrust consolations; when abilites begin to fade?
Meditation on the life and sanctity of Louis Martin may be a consolation for those of us who endure such questions. He achieved recognizable sanctity in a very traditional model, despite his illness and the accompanying slander. His elevation to the altar is a validation of marital life, but should also stand as a reminder that we are not far from God, even when we are farthest from ourselves.
Alice is a postdoctoral researcher in Medieval History, working on conceptions of human rationality—and irrationality— in twelfth-century theology. She converted to Catholicism in 2004 and has herself suffered from depression and anxiety; her last (and first) post on A Christian Thing was about Miriam Ibrahim and Saint Perpetua. She’s recently returned to very intermittent blogging at The Accidental Philologist.
I am writing out of the dark. But perhaps that is better given the topic at hand. Perhaps it is better because, when it comes to entering full communion in the Catholic church, narratives are often rife with emotion, whether it be the emotion of those who glow, or those who so bitterly hate their pasts that their evident lack of love makes their need for the Church evident, or those who are so hurt that they don’t know what to say. I have at times experienced all these emotions – particularly the last and the heart-protecting defensiveness that must accompany it for the purposes of survival. But though I have experienced these things, I write at the moment – I wouldn’t go so far as to say objectively – but certainly in the dark. My own experience is a stranger to me, dissociated and alien. But I write in the hope that in entertaining strangers, some have entertained angels unawares.
Recently, a year past my reception into the church, I read G. K. Chesterton’s Manalive. And interestingly enough, though it was written well before Chesterton’s own reception into the Church, he captures the experience perfectly. The quote that caught me is this, a description of the main character, Innocent Smith, conversing with a stranger on a desolate mountain in California:
I heard my wife and children talking and saw them moving about the room,” he continued, “and all the time I knew they were walking and talking in another house thousands of miles away, under the light of different skies, and beyond the series of the seas. I loved them with a devouring love, because they seemed not only distant but unattainable. Never did human creatures seem so dear and so desirable: but I seemed like a cold ghost. I loved them intolerably; therefore, I cast off their dust from my feet for a testimony. Nay, I did more. I spurned the world under my feet so that it swung full circle like a treadmill.”
“Do you really mean,” I cried, “that you have come right round the world?…”
“My pilgrimage is not yet accomplished,” he replied sadly; “I have become a pilgrim to cure myself of being an exile.
Contextually, the quote is literal; Smith really has left his family and home in England so he can go back and rediscover them. But what struck me was the parable of it. Because this – for many of us who have become Catholic from other Christian backgrounds – is such an excellent description of the movement of our spirits, or at least what we know on a good day the movement of our spirits must ontologically be.
You see, many of us know what it is to see the traditions we have left become cold ghosts. We know what it is to see the things we have learned to value slip through the uncareful fingers of the very institutions (or call them “non-institutions” for variety) that taught us to love them – and slip through our fingers because there was not a sufficient theological anthropology to sustain us. We know what it is to be heartbroken. And we know what it is to need a home. We know what it is to feel the only possible way of avoiding exile is to become a pilgrim.
I speak in riddles, but I shall be more plain; I refer to my own journey from Evangelicalism to Catholicism, which I see as the primary dichotomy in my journey – with Anglicanism serving as an intermediary until I realized that the only way I could be seriously Anglican was to become Catholic – else I would drift into the waffle of the broad church, the ambiguous theatrics of the high church, or the incomprehensible Anglo-Evangelicalism that would seem to end in the dissolution of ecclesiology and thereby the very theological anthropology I was seeking.
But it was mainly Evangelicalism I was running from, and this for the simple reason that it has no room for the complications of human psychology. It depends on an understanding of the self – a heresy – fashioned out of the ruins of Christendom during the Romantic period. It is good as far as it goes, and powerful where Romanticism is mistaken for truth. But Romanticism is not truth, and the problematic emphasis on experience and crises of will defined with a particular and dogged narrowness has no room for me or those of my tribe – those who are mentally ill – those whose emotions and reason don’t work the way they are supposed to. Evangelical conversion is a function of particular kinds of privilege – and I am not among those privileged.
Thus, for a long time, I have clung as to a life raft to the beauty of a faith that could deal in externals, a faith that had stuff. For Evangelicals, externals are a problem, a sign of pretense, a hollow shell built over a faith that (allegedly) cannot possibly exist within its shroud. But for us it is the other way round. It is the emotions, the heart, the inward man, or perhaps just what we mistake for him, that are changeable as the weather. Some find comfort in the contrast whereby man looks at external appearance, but God looks at the heart. But it strikes me as a deep terror. For however awful our external appearances may be, we know our hearts to be worse. And we tremble.
That is why grace must come from the outside, why it is not a burden to have sacraments and sacramentals, but a deep and abiding gift. There are things to cling to. The Evangelical imagination would no doubt see this as a weakness of faith, a superstitious preference for things over Christ. I will heartily admit I am weak. But to the latter I can only say that there is no idol greater than the one pretending not be an idol; there is no idol greater than the ethereal Christ you conceive of in your head. At least when dealing with things, we can sort out whether we are being idolatrous or not, and we are not in actual fact likely to be so, at least not in the modern West – Catholic kitsch can be so bad it would nearly take a miracle to mistake it for God, and so Christ comes through it rather than being displaced by it. But the ideas in our heads are more subtle. And it is possible that there may be nothing more dangerous to our souls than the idolatry we sometimes refer to as our personal relationship with Christ – forgetting all the time that it is impossible for us to relate to anyone or anything as persons without bodies.
So fleeing from the ideals I valued in Evangelicalism – the very things I could not have – I clung to forms and things. First in Anglicanism, then in the Catholic Church. This must I suppose seem crazy to sane people – that is, people with unquestioned Romanticism in the blood – but for us with mental illness – for us with troubles – it was the inverse of the Pauline dictum: the spirit killed, and the letter gave life. Or so I thought. But I thought wrong. For the Church will doggedly save in us what is Christian, even if it happens to be Evangelical. She will save in us what is holy, though it should happen to be a vexation of spirit. And so we are not permitted to remain on the outside, the surface of things. Though it cost all we have – and it does – God will call us and pull us deeper. The things in which we sought refuge from spirituality will only pull us closer and make our hearts more tender. It is no good seeking refuge from heartbreak in holy things. They will only pull us closer and soften our hearts – yes, to the degree that we will choose the heartbreak for love rather than be anesthetized by hardness. So if we appear we are hurting, know that it is because we are.
What I mean by this is that the journey of my first year being Catholic has been one of rediscovering interiority – it has been one of rediscovering Scripture. Prior, I had come to a point where both terrified me. My inner life had been at the mercy of insanity. And my Scriptural engagement was at the mercy of a clever mind. Some manage not to cut themselves on the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God by keeping it safely sheathed – enshrined safely in that most impenetrable tradition known as the “plain sense” of Scripture (nothing either plain or sensible about it!). But unsheathing the sword, I knew it was sharp and dangerous enough I could slay myself on it, and I needed training in swordsmanship. I needed tradition.
Intriguingly enough, the recovery of both Scripture and spiritual interiority came together for me in five weeks of training in Ignatian prayer at the end of a year of deep pain and longing. With a spiritual director as the immediate representative of the magisterium – that is to say, tradition – I knew there was something to keep me from going off the rails. And somehow Ignatian contemplation managed to imaginatively short circuit that impulse I have so often felt when reading Scripture, the impulse to fall on my sword. As in the Chesterton quote, leaving Evangelicalism felt like a leaving behind of everything I love: Scripture, relationships, and further, an affective relationship with Christ. Yet it was precisely because of these loves I left – and these loves I have begun to find in a small measure in the Catholic Church. I came to the church as a refuge from Evangelicalism – and she has taken me on the condition that I must become more truly evangelical than I have ever been. Not because of coercion, but because of love. If I am defensive, it is because the Church – Christ’s body – has made me more sensitive than I have ever been before. I go into arguments with guns blazing because I know how deeply it will hurt if a single bullet grazes me.
Lest you should assume the story ends well in an immediate sense, I am truly, as noted at the beginning, in darkness. The course on Ignatian spirituality ended, I have no spiritual director, and I am left prey to the demons in my head and a hermeneutic of cynicism. If one spirit has been driven out and the house swept clean, seven more have entered. Despair is close at hand. But there is One closer, and it is to Him and His church I cling. Though I have no inkling of it experientially – though I narrate this story as though it were the story of a stranger – I have to trust. I have to trust it is to cure myself of being an exile that I have become a pilgrim. I have to trust that this alien story of a stranger who rediscovered a home he thought he abandoned heartbroken can in fact be my story. It is dark, but I have to trust. I have to trust; pray for me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.