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.