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.
Jared Fath said:
I am probably going to sound a little rough, but we should all be having a collective lament as a nation over this idiotic (although the culprits themselves would call it “considered” and “dignified”) decision to allow euthanasia.
There are a lot of inner laments that one can make – for the things that aren’t right in one’s own life, and I will not say the Bible isn’t full of that, but I also see a lot of prophetic laments, for what isn’t right in society. What I’m saying is this: Depression is a syndrome, a disease if you will, and it affects an individual and a family, and friends. Wickedness damages and poisons societies – and there is a lot of wickedness in the world today. Wickedness creates systems of exclusion which entrap already vulnerable people, causing them to soak in myopic misery.
Wickedness kills the elderly and unborn and calls it “compassionate”.
Wickedness turns us all into Moloch worshippers, convincing ourselves, that besides the above we wouldn’t want ourselves or others being a “drain on resources”.
Wickedness beheads journalists who come into one’s town to see how things lie.
Wickedness turns the worship of one True God into a bloody and vicious idol-feast of destruction, vileness, and hatred.
Now as to the present divide between Protestants, and Catholics, and Orthodox I say this: We are Christians all, and if there is any doubt, look how the Moloch-worshippers treat us, driving us out, killing us, silencing us for speaking our minds. They do so without regard for confession, denomination, or whether one has had one’s dry communion wafer recently. The Demons know what we are; do we?
No, we obsess about what others think of us, we wink the eye at each other, we drown in spite, and imagined insults.
I wish I could say you were the only one.
Obsession drives so many Christians.
It is a Modernist idiocy; a need to know just exactly where one lies, and how one is in favour with others, and where the lines are, thank you, so I don’t cross them.
I bear singleness, loneliness, and isolation.
I bear otherness.
I sometimes have to take walks in river valleys, running off at the mouth, saying voiced and unvoiced prayers to drive off the conviction, arrived at, through many years of voluntarily convincing myself, that I am not really worth much. That asking for love and help from others is burdening them. That my life of isolation and wandering is God’s judgment on me for something I did, some sin I committed, some vileness in me.
And it’s not; it’s just my damn life.
In fact, when I have one of these long walks I can check myself, drive off the demons, maybe pull out a guitar afterward and sing a song.
The burden I bear, I can just, barely, bear. And God is in there to help me simply in giving me space to work out my social anxieties and vent at something.
I can’t go there to Southern Manitoba and be a comfort to you. Instead I am tied down in the place I am, stuck, happily stuck, as it turns out, with odd friends: One who suffers from depression, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. A female youth pastor with a harsh, nasal, and, paradoxically, lovely voice. Children of poverty, abuse, and abandonment. Old loggers. Civil servants. A motley bunch. I have a job that pays well enough for me to indulge in occasional idiocies.
But as much as I’d like to comfort you, I think something more is needed. You see, I remember meeting you, having to go on an insufferably long bus ride to Point Grey to see a bunch of brilliant Christians, people more refined, and more well-spoken than myself, who always gave considered and brilliant responses to theological and intellectual questions.
I’ve been with PhD students who were stupider. It was a treat to find that the most brilliant ones I met, the ones with the finest feeling, and the quickest wit, were all Christians.
And I remember liking your questions; how you would take some time to think a response through, and give something quite deep and quite interesting.
I always felt like an odd-duck out in that group.
I can offer no great consolations for your position. You are living in a depressed economy, and in an age where people scrupulously follow the principle of utilitarianism – hence the idiotic decision of our wise justices – as opposed to worth. But perhaps you merit something better than wasting your time in the self-congratulatory swill-hole that is modern academia.
I think writing ad-copy may be good for you.
It may force you to bear the cross of touting the positive qualities of things – qualities which are scarcely to be believed. But grace consists of God touting the positive qualities of things that are so broken and sinful that they can scarcely be said to exist.
Creation comprises God calling good a world of thorns and spines, and blood-drawing competitiveness, in God touting the excellent qualities of thunder-lizards, and nightshades, basalt flows, and bare-assed men. Creation is God writing ad-copy that those who work, and suffer, and toil and sweat in creation find overwhelmingly true yet also somewhat ludicrous.
Writing ad-copy may teach you to have faith, even in humble vegetable peelers. Thank God you don’t have to write ad copy about the other sort.
I find it strange that I wrote this telling you to lament larger evils than those that beset you – although I expect you do anyway – and I ended up telling you to praise smaller goods than you would wish to.
Well, take it for what it is. I am sure it is not all utter bullshit.