Saturday, March 27, 2010

All roads lead to Rome

It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.
- GK Chesterton
This Chesterton quotation strikes me as the kind of universal declaration only liked by those to whom it applies. But since I am evidently one of them, I do like it.

“So...” my friend interjected in a conversation about calling, a topic heavily on my mind in the aftermath of yet another graduation, “do you feel called to the Catholic Church?”

I pondered her question, unsure of the word. In the years leading up to my decision and in the months that had followed, I had certainly felt a sense of leading, longing, and provision, but I always associated “calling” with a command, and I had never felt ordered to enter the Catholic Church.

“I don’t know,” I hesitated. “I think I’d say I feel invited to the Catholic Church. It’s not something you would have to tell me to do at this point; I feel more like I’m standing on the edge of a great ocean of graces, and God has invited me to jump in. Is that what calling is?”

Maybe it is. At least in the case of the nation of Israel, “calling” had been God’s extension of a world of blessing to them, and their invitation to live into it. Maybe if God has specific assignments for us, he will make them clear as the time comes; Moses didn’t have to pray about finding God’s will for his life, after all. In the mean time, he has called us to be a people of blessing, a people who receive his lavish, superfluous graces and extend them to those around us. It is a calling I rejoice to live into.

This post was my way to make the official announcement on a blog that I have steered away from being a personal journal: I will be confirmed into the Catholic Church the weekend of Pentecost. Since this is not a blog of theological treatises, you can rest assured that I will not use it as a platform for controversial issues (and feel free to hold me to that!); a theological blog has invited me to contribute a “Why I am joining the Catholic Church” article, and I will point you there afterward if you are interested. But as I am about to travel to Rome for Holy Week, I imagine I’d have a hard time keeping it secret in any “listening” posts for the next two weeks.

The God who stands over our theological divides has beckoned to us that the mysteries and wonders of his Grace are deeper than we have imagined. We are called to jump on in. Come, let us plunge them together!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feasting in our Fast

As Lent approaches its climax in Holy Week, we are suddenly celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation (nine months before Christmas). For some reason, in this strange celebration at the height of fasting, this commemoration of the Incarnation right as we prepare to walk through the Passion, I am remembering a poem by Mark Jarman whom I discovered almost two years ago in a 20th century American poetry class. Here in the ancient cycle we imperfectly try to follow as Jarmen imperfectly follows the sonnet form, we celebrate feasting in our fast, Alleluias in our Lent.

I am not necessarily ready for a feast today, but I pray that as the cycle of the Church calendar forces some celebration in a time of sorrow, my spirit can receive joy that Christ has entered the world through the door of the human womb, even today as we near his entering of Jerusalem on Sunday.

I cannot actually explain what this post has to do with Jarman's poem, other than imperfection and cycles of the Church year, and perhaps the fact that it begins with the Incarnation that we celebrate today. At any rate, Happy feast day!


Everything around the central meaning,
Whatever grips that something in the womb
And, when a door slams, looks as if it’s leaning
From all the objects in a startled room;
Everything that passes through the puzzle
A spider glues together or is caught,
And bends the whisker back until the muzzle
Twitches, and tugs, then loosens the square knot;
Everything surrounding everything
That’s going to happen, even the manger’s planks,
The barn’s stone lintels, poised as if to sing,
The angel choir of matter giving thanks;
And all that made the world seem passing strange:
Everything is about to know a change.

Everything is about to know a change,
For someone will appear and say a word,
And someone else will hear and rearrange
His life as no one ever thought he would.
And something like an earthquake or a storm
Will happen somewhere like a little town,
And that place, although nothing but a stem,
Will snap off and the tree will tumble down.
And the about-to-be, a secret cache,
Will smoulder like a spark inside a couch,
And those who sat in darkness, dropping ash,
Will see a great light. Everyone will touch
And be touched by the change no one can stop.
A single leaf will speak. A voice will drop.

A voice will speak. A single leaf will drop.
And the whole tree will wither where it stands
And never bear again, though he could help,
As he has helped the withered bones of hands,
The corneas of clouded over eyes,
The blood and breath of loved ones, dead and dying,
And even water, calming frantic seas,
And even water, turning it to wine.
The poor world must have fallen with the fall
For him to curse a fruit tree, out of season,
For giving nothing, like an unborn apple,
And then to make up, for some obscure reason,
A lesson on the power of faith and prayer.
Perhaps to understand, you had to be there.

Perhaps to understand you had to be
Alone with the absent presence he called father,
Alone with the dysfunctional family
Of stars and darkness, deaf and dumb together,
And in that interaction see a sign,
The way a bedside watcher will believe
A twitch or flicker—almost anything—
Is proof the injured sleeper will revive.
Perhaps to understand, you had to die,
Having acknowledged with your body’s pain
That everything does, unmythically,
Knowing only that it won’t happen again,
And then to wake and find your death the proof
Of an abstraction that the world calls love.

The abstraction that the world calls love
Appeared to grieving friends and cooked them food
And walked with them a way and let one shove
Fingers into his wounds and take a good
Look. And then he turned to wind and fire
And pieces of his clothes and eyelashes
And thorns and rusty nails and locks of hair
And red letters on a few translucent pages.
He took on flesh and then he took it off,
Or else he kept it for a souvenir,
Or else—but why keep going back and forth?
He dwelt among us, then he disappeared.
And we are left to be and keep on being,
Like everything around a central meaning.

-from Mark Jarmen's Unholy Sonnets

Sunday, March 21, 2010

If a tree falls...

“I hate philosophy,” I heard a girl in the table next to me say. It was startling enough that I looked up from my coffee to the table of undergraduates bustling beside me.

“Philosophy is retarded!” one of her friends agreed. The friend had the look of an engineer, and I was not surprised at his opinion or his inaccurate adjective. I looked back down at my coffee, trying to tune out the philistines.

“I took this philosophy course my freshman year,” she went on, “and we spent half the semester discussing when a tree falls in the middle of the forest with no one to hear if it makes a sound. I spent the whole class wanting someone to shoot me. I wanted to shake the professor and say, ‘This is retarded! It makes a sound already! Get over it!’”

As much as I hate to say this, perhaps the undergraduate was right. Perhaps it is ridiculous. Only humanity could ever come up with such a question; only we could imagine that our perception of the world changes reality.

Perhaps, at least, it is ridiculous (in a damaging sort of way) the way I have enacted the if-a-tree-falls principle in my faith. One of the things that drew me into sacramental theology six years ago after my Pentecostal/Evangelical/Baptist background was the deep peace I encountered in the realization that God’s presence is not dependent upon my ability to perceive it. In a way, sacramental theology is the faith that if a priest breaks bread in the middle of a church with no one paying attention, Christ is still present. And if I come forward without any spiritual epiphanies or transformational feelings, I am still receiving him.

These days, as my initial wonder and surprise at that notion has drifted into confidence and joy, it is a belief that fills me with great hope. There are too many things in my life dependent upon the efforts I can concoct; let the work of redemption, at least, be God’s work.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What did the Irish ever give me?

I, Patrick the sinner, am the most rustic and the least of all the faithful, and contemptible in the eyes of very many.
-opening line from the Confessio of Saint Patrick
I was once informed by an Irish medieval historian over a pint of Murphey’s that most of the legends surrounding Saint Patrick were doubtless false. It was politically expedient for any town to claim roots to the saint, his reasoning goes, and it was not humanly possible for one man to have been founding churches in all the towns who trace their roots to him across the island.

I don’t remember how I answered my friend. I do remember feeling almost as sorry for him as he did for me. The atheist felt sorry for the ways I as a naive Christian (or naive American—which is worse?) believed whatever local legends people spouted out, and I felt sorry for a medieval historian who misses the beauty of his field of study because his worldview could not allow for mystery.

And today as we break Lent to celebrate the feast of the man who seemed to spawn churches in his footsteps, who could not be burned or poisoned drowned or stabbed by any king or druid he encountered, who sailed back from the continent on a slab of rock, who lit the way through darkness by his fire on the Hill of Slane or the lights from his fingertips, who beat his drums loudly and quickly enough (and until you’ve heard Irish music, you can’t appreciate that one!) to make all the snakes flee into the sea, I am in no mood to sort between legend and history, whatever that would mean. And as today is my birthday, I am going to excuse myself from the task of explaining the “right” way to read legend or to understand mystery.

The Irish have given me a world (quite literally) soaked in living mystery, an appreciation for the beauty and livability of suffering from their stories and music alike, a life-long love of the colour green, my knowledge (such as it is) of reading Latin and Greek, banter and quirks enough to make a foreigner feel at home, a handful of sonnets I couldn’t help but write while I was there, a push-start in a pinch, faithfulness and foibles that are interwoven like a devotion to the Eucharist and the pint, stories where anger and reconciliation are too closely knit to separate, reminders of the gentleness of God, and a heck of a day to celebrate a birthday. Today, I raise a pint to Patrick and the Irish.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Robert Frost

Generally, the liturgy of my year finds me every autumn soaking in the crisp smell of falling leaves, wondering perhaps if I should allow autumn to replace spring’s life-long position as my favorite season. Then every spring, I shake my head and realize that she will never lose her supremacy in my heart.

But a love of seasons did not come naturally to me, and as a little girl (and even as a teenager) I dreaded the first hints of orange in the autumn leaves, knowing that they signified an end to the vibrant green that made spring and summer so full of life. Autumn meant death, and winter was a long, cold decay.

I wished that leaves would stay just as I wished relationships would. I wished life could be hard and firm, a foundation that did not crumble with coming years. I suppose I wished that life were a thing somewhat like stone. If I had my wish, life would not be life and green would not be green. It is because the leaves fall that we know they will come again, and it is because love can be lost that I know it is eternal.

This past autumn on a retreat to the mountains with my siblings, siblings who have scattered around the world in years past and are all together for now before we scatter around the world again in a few months, I thought about the firmness of life and death and rebirth, the fixity of change. As we watch the new leaves explode into life this spring only to fall in a few months and await rebirth, we know that our loved ones and the entirety of Creation itself have taken part in a story that ends not in death, but in life.
It is a common myth that seasons pass;
For by their very nature they declare
That Life endures while stone and marble wear
Away, eternal monuments like grass
That cooled the Neolithic footprints as
They will my children’s toes, and therefore there
Is little proof of fixity but bare
And savage change itself that years amass.
For what does Autumn prove if not that Spring
Will be forever, or at least that they
Are different ways of saying the same thing,
As if in four-part harmony they’d sing:
Be still, eternal creature of a day,
For Death spells Life in a round-about way.

Friday, March 5, 2010

But I shall be gone

I spent last week on a campus visit to the first university I heard from last month, and, with four rejections, two wait-lists, and three unheard-from inferior schools in my wake, I went saw no reason left to keep my favorite school waiting. I officially accepted the astoundingly generous offer that I had never expected to receive, and will be moving (back) to the Midwest this summer.

I will miss my green cottage, my immediate proximity to my family, and all the endearing qualities of the South where I have lived for the past twenty two years. But of course, the liminal life of a student is one of the qualities I knew I was buying into when I reluctantly made the decision to move out of my intercity commune to start graduate school. Here's to hoping some fixity lies before me five or six years down the road when I am done with my PhD!

But the visit confirmed that the way is already being prepared for me: the personality of the school that makes even the faculty of unrelated fields interested in my research, the supportive nerdy students who get as giddy about research as I do among whom competition seems virtually nonexistent, the various anecdotes about the campus and town well-suited for my own quirky personality. It is no green cottage, but it is a comfort to know that as our faith prepares places for God, God continues to prepare places for us. And on these tiny legs of middle-voice faith that have been given to me, I (perhaps reluctantly) rejoice to follow.
I WONDER about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.
-----Robert Frost, "The Sound of the Trees"

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The very best Idol ever (reposted)

Today after a Bible study in which we reflected on Gideon's downfall and the rise of Abimelech in Judges 8 and 9, I found myself reflecting once again on humanity's need for a tangible God, a need that incarnates itself on our constant slippage into idolatry. Though this is Lent and not Advent, I found a lot of hope in rereading a post I wrote in the early days of this blog, comforted to remember that God knows our frailty and has met us accordingly. Knowing that many of my readers are new, I thought I would repost it.

* * *

Yesterday I sat through Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, which is quite an intense fete: not only are 1950s operas characterized by harsh tones and absence of melody as a principle, but I had to follow the various strands of antimelody with German subtitles.

In the Jewish composer’s interpretation of the brothers, I was surprised to be given another submersion into the thrill of the Christmas season we are celebrating. Schoenberg characterizes Moses as a Platonist, who opens the play by chanting, “Eternal, omnipresent, invisible and unimaginable God.” Throughout the opera he refers to God as “the Idea,” and writes triumphantly upon the wall “I think God.” He comes across very harshly, loathing fleshly depravity and holding to God’s intangible holiness.

Aaron, on the other hand, is the man who knows how to work the crowd. He sings the closest thing to melody Schoenberg composed, and writes “I love God” upon the wall. When the Israelites reject Moses’ intangible God in favor of their Egyptian gods who have image and substance, Aaron gives them tangible signs and wonders that they can see and touch. If Aaron is the spokesperson for Moses’ God, the people finally conclude, we will follow him into the desert.

The opera spins out of control when Moses does not come down from Sinai after forty days, and the people cannot keep following this unknown, unseen Idea that Moses had declared to them. Aaron gives in to their demands and gives them an Image that they can touch and hold and love, something that meets their present needs and cares: in Schoenberg’s interpretation, he gives them a golden ICH, the German for “I.”

In the confrontation between Moses and Aaron at the end, Aaron insists to Moses that people will never be able to follow an intangible God, nor could they ever love him. They need images. They need idols. They need to touch God. Moses is left in despair, on his knees, still clinging to his defeated Platonic notion and pleading for “the Word.”

Enter the Incarnation: the Word became Flesh.

We are a weak people, as Schoenberg’s Aaron argues to Moses. We people demand signs in the desert; we worship the bronze serpent on a pole; we demand a king to Samuel. The astounding thing that God does is that he ultimately meets their demand for an idol. Christ is the very very best Idol ever, the best tangible Image of the Idea. The people demand to Aaron that he give them a god they can see; God finally enters the world and says “Here I Am.”

I expected to come away from the opera ashamed of all the ways I have bowed down to various bronze serpents when God didn’t seem real and tangible enough to me. I find instead that I walk away bewildered by Love. God has met my frailty by providing the idol I require; when I bow down and worship relationships and feelings and ambitions, it’s really more ridiculous than depraved. God has not condemned my idolatry as Schoenberg’s Moses would expect: God has sanctified it.

The Word became Flesh, fashioned in a virgin’s womb into a crying baby. This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!