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.