Posts that are catholic-ish
There’s an image that comes to my mind every time the Feast of the Assumption rolls around — this is why this day always makes me smile. I won’t do it justice in writing, but here goes.
There’s a young mother kneading bread dough on a hot day, dark hair framing dark eyes, strong arms streaked with flour. There are a million things to do to keep the household running, and there’s never enough money no matter how hard Joseph works, but they make do, they manage –
She is interrupted by a tugging on her skirts, a tapping on her knee. “Mama?” pipes her toddler, in that baby voice that breaks her heart with gladness. “Mama!” Her son raises his hands in that universal tiny child gesture that means I Want To Be Held, Right Now.
And her strong hands bend down, wrap around him, lift him up into the light of the sun; he shrieks and giggles with delight and joy because his mama is here, his mama is with him, and he’s flying high above the world…
This is probably the laughter she remembers when she holds his bloodied body thirty years later, laying him down, dead, in the tomb. Her little boy, her baby. A mother’s grief.
Fast forward many years.
Now she is old, lying in bed; breathing is hard. White hair framing dark eyes, clouded with age. Trembling arms, spotted with sun. There were a million things she did to keep their spirits burning, but now the men and women who were among the first disciples are gathered around her, praying softly, keeping vigil –
She is interrupted by a tugging at her blankets, a tapping on her knee. And that familiar baby voice.
Her eyes have not seen clearly for some years now, but she turns towards that voice that breaks her heart with gladness. “Mama!” And her son, now fully grown — her Lord, her God — is there, stretching his pierced hands towards her, and she Wants To Hold Him, Right Now.
Jesus grins, eyes sparkling mischief, glory, tears. He cocks an eyebrow. “Mama. Up?”
She laughs, and strong hands bend down, wrap around her, lift her up into the light of heaven; they both are wordless with delight because His mama is here, His mama is with Him, flying with him high above the world…
And she still remembers this, the long, long life of joy and suffering entwined, as she prays and walks with each of us always, next to Him. Her little boy, her baby. A mother’s joy.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” –John 12:32
At the end of each Mass, the priest lifts the newly consecrated Eucharist high in the air; shortly thereafter, the people stream forward to receive it. It’s the culmination of the Mass — really, the culmination of our whole faith.
Most of the time, I act like it’s just Boring Wafer Bread, as if I don’t know what — or who — the Eucharist is. Because to know and act on that knowledge means admitting my hunger, my particular version of the infinite ache that takes a different form within each person. My particular hunger largely takes the shape of communion.
I hunger for connection, for community; for belonging in a seamless cloth, effortlessly, not torn-between. For a gushing stream of infinite-bandwidth, full-spectrum, multi-chorus union flooding in all directions — no struggle, no holes. No dropped packets, no anxious clutching for syllables; no straining for words across distance or in the foggy memory of unfamiliar languages. No gulf. No gap.
No loneliness. I’ve been so powerfully formed by loneliness for all my life.
And yet I have communion, if I will reach out and take it. Holy communion. In the midst of what so often looks like banality and dead ritual; in the midst of what looks like apathy and grudging obligation. Can I believe that God is there, in the form of a tiny white host? Can I believe that Christ is there, and the Mystical Body of Christ is there, and all of Heaven itself is somehow in the Eucharist — and then, as I receive it — in me?
Can I believe that when I receive Christ in the Eucharist, I am closer to the stranger in the pew beside me than husbands are to their wives? That I am flooded by a grace that perforates through all of time and space (like a Portal gun on steroids!), so that we touch forever and the whole world in that moment? It doesn’t feel like enough. Through the veil of my senses, it seems entirely inadequate and logically ludicrous.
And yet I go to be with Him. And with myself, each past and future Mel drawn into the Eternal Now at Mass — the sleeping baby and the restless child (the 12-year gap where Young Agnostic Mel vanishes), the bewildered grad student — the older self I have not yet become, but stride to meet.
And in the Mass and in the Eucharist, I stride to meet the people I have known who are now gone; the people I have yet to meet (my husband and my children, if I have them) — all the people who have come before me, all the people who will come after. And for each of these people, all of them in time and space — their crawling, squirming baby selves, the men and women that those babies grow up to become, the babies they will hold in turn within their wrinkled arms. All their infinite and glorious complexity at every moment, drawn also into the Eternal Now.
Christ plays in ten thousand places
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
– Gerald Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”
At a few Masses, I have had glimpses of a shadow of a fragment of this streaming; I try to remember those, and how they point me towards what I have. I have communion. And I ache for it. And the ache is something that rips my heart open — when I let it, because I constantly fight it — rips it and scours my heart with scalding light, a love I don’t deserve and cannot understand.
I am still learning to believe that this is true. If the Eucharist is real, then my hunger is as well. And that hunger is just as infinite as God is. And it hurts. Too much. I cannot hold the infinite within me.
But God can. And I can hold God, through the grace of God.
One of those “dang, these fragments have been crying out to be patched into a writing-thing for a long time” blog posts. I don’t know how much sense it’ll make to anyone else, but I’ll at least get it out there so that my fingers can stop itching and my mind can clear.
Pentecost is one of my favorite stories.
You might know it: a small group of stunned and grieving friends huddled inside a room. A flaming wind descending upon them, sending them forth to teach — and an international crowd stunned to find themselves able to understand. “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:7)
To me, this a story and a celebration of communion — and of community, and of communication, intertwined. These are the things I thirst for, and can never get enough of — communion is my heaven, isolation is my hell. There are three stories that join into the way I understand the flames of Pentecost: Babel, the summer lake, and Cana.
The first is the story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), the story of the scattering and splitting of humanity due to their pride. I don’t know if the tower is historically accurate, and I don’t care — I’ve felt the splinter-shards of that shattering in my own life, because I stretch between dozens of worlds that don’t talk to each other easily: Asian/American, arts/technology, deaf/hearing, femininity/male-dominated-fields, the span of generations in my family, the gap of distance that is part and parcel of a heritage of immigration, and many others.
Humanity splits itself apart in millions and millions of ways, stretching and snarling. It’s part of how the world is broken. It’s part of our job to help repair it. Pentecost reverses Babel, restoring our ability to understand the mystery of others. The connection of those two stories is nothing new or unique; they’re read together every year at Mass.
The second story is from last summer, and probably won’t make much sense to anyone who wasn’t there. I was with church friends at the end of a long day, exhausted and unable to communicate. Too much lipreading for too long will burn the brightest brain out, and mine was fried. We were by a lake, in a large circle, chatting. Or rather, my friends were chatting. Ironically, they were chatting about the Holy Spirit — the same Spirit that descended at Pentecost, bridging and understanding — and the way that Spirit had recently acted in their lives. And all the while, I was struggling in my tiny hell of isolation, straining to catch the communications that were being flung across the space, failing again. And again. And again.
Until I wasn’t. Something shifted, and the understanding became effortless. I couldn’t hear the words any better than before, but they made sense. They slipped into my brain, instantly — and I could localize the speaker with pinpoint accuracy (an ability that wearing hearing aids is supposed to destroy, and usually does) — and I could recognize their voices individually, and I could understand them. I could understand them, I couldn’t hear them any better, but I could understand –
With a start, I realized that night had fallen. I couldn’t see who was next to me, let alone lipread them. This made no sense at all; exhausted deaf person loses the ability to see and gains effortless conversational comprehension? Everything was backwards! I began to laugh, and then I tried something I’d always wished for — I flopped backwards in the grass and watched the stars. And the effortlessness continued! I’ve never been able to look at something else while listening — my eyes and neck are always riveted to track the speaker’s lips, my concentration straining — and now I could watch stars, or stretch — or even close my eyes! — and still remain connected to the conversation, sweet and easy.
The spirit of Pentecost, the spirit of communion and of understanding, had descended upon me as well. I relished this for a long moment with a sense of growing awe.
Eventually, I piped up and somehow semi-coherently explained to my friends what was happening. Then I began to shake and weep into the grass in gratitude. We were all stunned. But we were also (mostly) science majors, so of course we tested out this strange ability with small experiments to check what I could do — and yep, I could understand them with my eyes closed, point to them, couldn’t hear any more sounds than I usually could (I was definitely still profoundly deaf). Some of them jumped into the lake, swam out — I could still hear them, pinpoint their location, understand them without strain.
The next morning, I woke up, and it was gone. But I’ve carried that tiny taste of heaven with me since — what it’s like, what it could be like, to touch that understanding and connection that goes deeper than our words. To have my gnawing hunger for connection lifted, for a moment, in one way.
The third story is Cana (John 2:1-11). The version in the Scriptures is short and sparse; Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding party when the couple (ok, mostly the groom) doesn’t even realize they’re about to run out. I didn’t think much of this story until my first Ignatian retreat, when I abruptly found myself caught in the middle of it, watching a scene unfold within my mind’s eye for over two weeks every time I sat down to pray.
The wedding I saw was not the sort of wedding that my family historically has had — two people from within the same community, already known and intertwined in the same social fabric long before their birth. My grandpa’s sister married my grandma’s brother. My two grandmothers were childhood playmates; years later, my mom’s mom recognized my teenage dad by family resemblance the first time he showed up at their house to see my mom. My parents’ older (and younger) siblings and the siblings of their friends were school classmates, and a collective set of older sisters set my mom up as the prom date for my dad’s friend since kindergarten. That friend later married my mom’s 7th sister. Another of my dad’s friends since kindergarten threw the college parties where my parents started dating, and later married my mom’s 8th sister… I could go on, but yes, this is normal. Filipino-Chinese society is small and deeply intertwined. (I’ve had relatives who married outside it, more recently — and that was weird.)
But the version of Cana I saw (in my prayer — your mileage may vary) was a patchwork of people who’d never met, and who you’d never expect to find all in one place. Apparently, the bride and groom were from — and/or had been — all over, so the people they had met along the way were a bizarre collection of “how in the world are you even in the same room?” People who’d journeyed from far-flung places, disparate social circles, mutually unintelligible languages, with clothes and foods and customs strange to one another. The groom’s schoolmates from one place, the bride’s cousins from another, the many circles of friends, family, and colleagues — wild diversity, something that should be shattered, fragmented, unable to connect –
And yet — instead, they danced their way into a mosaic. Connecting. Pointing, laughing, learning new words foreign on their tongues. Finding ways to patch themselves together. Sometimes with translation help from a few bilinguals, but often without words — children playing variants on universal games (tag!), cooks helping to prep and sample one another’s unfamiliar dishes (nom!), laughing, stretching, miming, scribbling, drawing — dancing, hugging, listening with bright, attentive eyes. Reaching out to share and thread together a great tapestry of stories from all over time and space and viewpoint — a polyphony of lives joined together by narratives that started with “so, how do you know the couple?”
This seemed to have nothing to do with anything, and I was terribly confused, and spent quite a few prayer periods going “uh, God, I… explanation, please?” Eventually, I grasped the point — or at least one of them, as best as I could. It wasn’t that this was a wedding — it could have been something else without a bride and groom. A classroom, a town hall, a cafeteria, a conference table. Ordinary human places, convened by ordinary human people.
The point was that this tapestry and this communion was knit around — and threaded through by — ordinary human people, doing ordinary human things. (Which also happen to be miracles. For instance, being born — a miracle we’ve each experienced.) And I looked upon the scene at Cana, and heard — or rather, felt — somebody tell me: hey, look! That’s your job, Small Human Mel. You’re made to weave impossible communities together.
That’s why, for me, Cana is also Pentecost.
At the end of the Pentecost story, some people make fun of the disciples. They see these ordinary people teaching a crowd they should not have been able to communicate with, and they snicker: “They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:13)
Yep yep. They are. They’re absolutely sloshed on wedding wine — transfigured wine from Cana and the marriage supper of the Lamb. Inebriated with the spirit that has come to dwell and make a home within them (John 14:23), they embody the love that draws all people to itself (John 12:32). In other words — in software words — they merge and patch the world. Filled with fire, they patch the stories of the world together, bring people to listen to each other, teach them how to build communion and hold it together — both at the loud and joyful party full of fellowship, and within the privacy of a quiet tent. (“The second is way easier for lipreading,” my brain chimes automatically. I laugh and shake my head at deaf-environmental-scanning-habits.)
And this is why I love Pentecost. It’s communion. It’s my heaven. It’s my job. (Also, it’s fire. I like fire. Fire is shiny and fun.)
Ite, inflammate omnia.
It’s hard for me to be fully present sometimes, so I am seeing what it’s like to start my mornings by writing from somewhere that I actually am. (This morning’s post completion was delayed by dropping Morgan off at the airport, and that’s okay.)
I want to write about my friend Megan. One of my memories of Megan is from last year, sitting in our kitchen, talking about satellite trajectories — which is the work she does now as a rocket engineer. We were on the couch, using a chair back as a frame of reference, stacking and tangling all of the fingers of both our hands in an attempt to build axes atop of axes atop of axes, pointed into outer space (our living room). Megan’s hand swooped in, becoming the satellite, launching from origin. Her steady explanations built and built and built, and my mind followed — I’m a quick study at math, and a strong visualizer — and she and the satellite and the calculations climbed into the thinning atmosphere until my lungs burst and I could no longer follow, and my fragile understanding tumbled like a deck of cards, and I could see Megan’s mind sailing on, out and up into space, out into things I could not grasp or understand…
She’s brilliant, and I don’t say this lightly. It’s a beautiful sort of brilliance, being able to admire a friend whose mind can far outstrip your own on certain matters.
Last year, during the epic Indiana power outage, she brought me light — quite literally so. It was my prayer hour, and I was sitting in the chapel, doggedly trying not to be too scared of the dark. Even as an adult, I struggle with a fear of the dark — I’m so dependent on my visual input that the darkness feels like being thrust into a great unknown. But I had promised, so I was sitting there, trying very, very hard to not leave the Tabernacle. Very hard.
Finally, feeling like a foolish preschooler, I whispered: “Look, God — I… I want to stay here, I do — but I need some light, I’m scared, I can’t stay here without being able to see, I need…”
A short while later, I heard footsteps — and then a familiar voice broke in. “You know where the candles are, right?”
“What are you doing here?” was my stunned response. Apparently she’d felt like it was just a good idea to swing by. Randomly. Because. We lit big fistfuls of candles from the sacristy until the chapel glowed enough by candlelight for me to lipread, and she waved and left me sitting there, laughing at God’s sense of humor, and in gratitude for friends who carry out the joke for Him.
Megan’s a swimmer. She was a competitive swimmer all the way through her time at MIT. I want to write about the first Luminous Mystery (of the Rosary), because that’s something that reminds me of Megan. (Explanatory websites for the Rosary are generally hideously designed and dull as dishwater, by the way). It’s the Baptism of Christ at the Jordan, and I was praying a Rosary for Megan one day when this image hit me.
Two young guys — Jesus and John, not that much older than us as grad students — standing in the river. Soaking, grinning, breathless. Speechless, because — well, what else do you say after the heavens have opened, and the Holy Spirit has descended like a dove, and the voice of God has just declared “Hey folks, that’s my boy! This one! So proud of him!” His voice still rings inside the cousins’ ears. They’ve been preparing all their lives to hear that voice, and now — they’re still processing it, clambering half-overwhelmed onto the river banks, where people watch.
And there’s a girl there, in an MIT swimsuit. And she’s holding fluffy towels for them — pool towels — with a shy smile. Waiting for them to climb out; waiting to serve, proud to be there.
When I first saw this, I laughed out loud. That is exactly where Megan would be. Of course. And now, each time I hit the Baptism in prayer, I only have to look — and there she is, bashful and beaming, radioactively happy just to be near this man whom she adores.
I do miss Megan now that she has graduated, and I will miss her even more next year. I miss living with her, I miss driving with her, I miss working late nights inside the house with her. I miss pulling each other into prayer, I miss conversations that ended with us making dinner — and then watching an Avengers movie — and then driving to the Adoration chapel in the middle of the night, because we needed to (1) eat and (2) pray and (3) really really really wanted to go see Winter Soldier.
I miss buying grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk with her and sitting down to lunch with Jesus & the Apostles in the life-sized tableau of the Last Supper that’s about an hour from campus. We were discovered by an amused tour group and a less-amused tour guide. “He looked lonely!” I explained, as Megan turned several shades of red. Later that day, we howled with laughter at the Resurrection statue, because — well, I’ll leave these two reminders for my future self: laundry detergent and shampoo. Oh, and abs. Definitely abs.
I miss so many things, and have so many memories that won’t get written down, because that isn’t what they’re for.
It’s Megan who first helped me start to understand why women would have bridesmaids, and why women would be bridesmaids. I always thought it was about some social obligation — a place to stick your sister(s), if you had them — or some excuse to dress up pretty, which… seemed silly to me. I didn’t understand the need.
But there is a place for sisters — biological or otherwise — in that part of your life. There is a space that seems to fit that sort of person, standing there to be with you — just be with you, support you, beam at you in pride as you transition to something beyond them — soaring off, beyond your tangled hands; soaring off, beyond what even your bright minds can understand — sailing off into the stars, beyond where you can see.
My friend Abbee was excited to discover that I’m taking a 6-week course on Christian Marriage, and asked if I could post my weekly essays — so Abbee, this one’s for you. First essay topic: Marriage in the modern world. Yes, I know my citations are sloppy; it’s an informal essay for the class discussion, not a fancy thing for publication.
Ye Olde Standard Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m talking about
I’ll open this essay with a disclaimer: I’m the youngest person (by far) and the only unmarried person in this class, so take these perspectives with a grain of salt. I am unqualified to answer questions like “What is marriage in today’s culture?” and “What do you think a good marriage is?” as anything other than a naive twentysomething who’s spent most of her life avoiding the topic (long story), but… here you go.
The purpose of marriage: a vocation that witnesses divine love to the world
Marriage is a vocation. If you’re called to marriage, that means that married-you is the best possible version of you – that your Maximum Love Throughput will come through having and loving a spouse and family and having your home be a “reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church to the world,” as Gaudium Et Spes says. If you are married, your marriage becomes the base station from which you get your superpowers.
This is hard. Gaillardetz describes marriage as entering “into the dying… of Christ,” which doesn’t sound like fun to me. All love comes intertwined with loss and sorrow; as Shakespeare’s sonnet 64 puts it, “we weep to have what we most fear to lose.” Whyte’s commentary on Shakespeare expands upon the topic: “All the most precious things in a human life are the very things to which we find it most difficult to make ourselves vulnerable and open. To feel a joy in life is also to know it is fleeting and will pass beyond our grasp.”
When I was a teenager, I was told that marriage was good because (1) it makes babies, (2) it stops the spread of STDs, and (3) it comes with legal benefits. Oh, and there was the whole “and because you love each other” thing, and the “God Said So” argument. I didn’t buy it. You can love someone without marrying them; we love our siblings and our friends all the time, but we don’t propose to them. “God Said So” seemed like an excuse not to think about it. Besides, in a world where medicine can produce children without sexual intercourse, where sex can happen without pregnancy and disease, and where we are steadily expanding legal rights to encompass all sorts of household relationships, why would anyone ever bother with this marriage thing in the first place?
Romantic misconceptions: why I thought marriage was stupid
One of my stumbling blocks was confusing “marriage” with “dramatic romance.” This “perfect mate myth” is a prevalent view among today’s young people; according to the 2001 report of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, 94% of never-married singles in their twenties agreed with “when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” Swooning maidens in Victorian novels and dramatic musical montages in romance films! These all seemed silly. What a waste of time and energy! As a smart, independent teenage girl, I recognized that waiting for Some Dude to come around and fix my problems was far less efficient than just fixing them myself.
Because of what I was exposed to growing up, I thought that all relationships were either (1) weak excuses to have wistful, useless daydreams, or (2) duty-bound, woman-subordinating, drudging things with the occasional good moment. Neither seemed particularly worthwhile to me, so I came to the conclusion that romantic partnership and marriage and so forth were Not For Me, Thank You. As a consequence, my high school friends (and I) thought I was asexual. (We were very, very wrong — but that’s a different topic for another day.)
The friendship of marriage: the wonder of ordinary companionship
What did I want, then? Searching and prodding and friendship. Companionship on the difficult and worthwhile path to living fully and doing good and learning how to love. I wanted — and still want — that. I just didn’t know what that was called, or if it was even a thing. And then last week, I read Gaillardetz’s depiction of an alternate montage:
“Scene one shows a couple herding children into the back of a minivan; scene two shows a woman paying bills at the kitchen table while the man washes dishes; scene three reveals a woman hauling in groceries from the car, while scene four shows a man trying to give cough syrup to a screaming three-year-old. In the final scene we see the couple, finally relaxing in bed, reading together. Soon they turn to kiss each other, turn out the light, and go to sleep.” — A Daring Promise
I didn’t know that was something marriage could be. Turns out there’s a word for it — “companionate marriage,” the sociological term for friendship in marriage. That’s what my heart aches for, way more than a dramatic scene under a balcony (yes, Romeo and Juliet has beautiful poetry, but really — those kids were just bad at communicating). Companionate marriage is the blessing and the wonder of the ordinary — the privilege of loving in the ordinary way, day after ordinary day. There’s a deep satisfaction in that sort of friendship, the notion of a work and companionship that suffuses your entire life. It’s an image of marriage that makes me think: “Yes, that would be worth it; how can I do that? Tell me more.”
Rejecting the “therapy” model of perfect expectations
The question of “how can I do that?” implies an attempt to do as well as possible, but it does not imply an expectation of perfection that can’t be upheld. One common sentiment on marriage is that you should find a partner who “meets your needs” and “gives you space.” Gaillardetz calls this the “therapy mentality,” and critiques it as unrealistic; a therapist is paid to do this work with you asymmetrically (you don’t counsel your therapist back) and occasionally (for short, occasional, and temporary time periods). “All good marriages meet some of our needs some of the time, but no marriage can meet all of our needs all of the time,” Gaillardetz points out. “…to the extent that our culture offers us models that lead us to expect as much, we will never be able to cultivate a fruitful lifelong marriage with another.”
Seeing and rejecting the “therapy model” of marriage is liberating. I no longer have the expectation that I have to be the perfect therapist, the constant need-meeter, the one who always has to drive and carry and make sure things are going to be all right. (In hindsight, Teenage Mel saw a lot of this broken expectation placed on married women, which is one reason she disavowed becoming one herself.)
Stepping away from the “therapy model” also frees us from a consumerist perspective which treats marriages (and spouses) as products with a certain feature set. Spouses aren’t cell phones. When next year’s model comes out and it’s shiner and sexier, we can’t just say “whoops, I’ll divorce you so I can go get that upgrade.” That’s no way to treat someone, and no way to be treated.
Meeting each other’s needs: becoming training partners who always keep trying
Now, this does not mean that spouses shouldn’t try. Husbands and wives should absolutely strive to serve each other, meet each other’s needs, and give each other room and encouragement to grow; they absolutely should. Love is shown in service and in action. But to say we fail and have a “bad marriage” unless we do that constantly, unrelentingly, 24/7 for decades on end without a single slip-up, regardless of how tired, sick, burdened by outside factors, etc. we become… is to pretend that we’re perfect, inhuman beings. That’s always a setup for failure. We can and should always try, but we also need to recognize we’ll fall short and be shortchanged in our turn, despite how hard we try to love each other, and so we also need to constantly forgive, and there will be that recognition of our mutual humanity and an encouragement to deepen within it.
A Daring Promise describes husbands and wives as “more than the source for the fulfillment of our needs and desires — our spouse is also the mysterious “other” who cajoles and sometimes demands our growth.” To me, this is like two training partners working towards a marathon together. Yes, they should always run their fastest and encourage each other to perform their best — but this includes stopping to rest when someone’s out of breath, and getting a sprained ankle splinted and through physical therapy, and readjusting when someone catches a cold, or when it’s pouring freezing rain, or whatever things life throws at you. You adjust together and do the best you can, and recognize that your success lies in the discipline of doing the best you can — not running a 6-minute-mile pace for 20+ miles every day for years with a perfect unbroken record, because humans can’t physiologically do that. Life will happen, and to be successful, we have got to be okay with that and able to adapt.
And this is painful. Once again, this change — and supporting this change in our partners — is painful. Whyte describes the agony of this sort of work in a passage that struck me so hard that I’ll just reproduce it here in its entirety:
“ To find our partners’ desires, we must sustain a conversation with them that helps to bring those wants and desires to light. Sometimes we have to do this even when they are afraid of discovering them themselves. The deep, abiding fear is that we will stumble across the desire in them that wants a life different from the one we are capable of giving them. Essentially, we are afraid that they may find that their desire is to love something or even someone else – one of the most painful discoveries a partner can make. The crux then, the most difficult ground in the relationship, the portion of a relationship that elevates it to the level of a religious discipline or practice, is that I must “love,” must see the very part of my partner that could take this person away from me. I must keep contact with the part of the person that is pulling him or her into the future, though I risk not participating in that horizon.” — The Three Marriages
I understand why people would want to be able to receive and give this sort of support, and if one finds it within a marriage, I understand why marriage would be “worth it.” However, I couldn’t figure out how this was humanly possible.
How is marriage possible? Answer: it is both human and divine.
Well, I was right. It isn’t humanly possible. But that’s what blows my mind about the Sacrament of Marriage. After this week’s readings, I understand it — dimly, vaguely, but in awe — as a Love Transplant. In marriage, God takes human love and replaces it with divine love — which gets a little logically loopy, because God is love.
But that’s what happens; Love himself becomes the heart and center of your marriage; Love himself becomes the thing that holds the two of you together. Not feeble human will, not temporary human feeling. And not the watered-down variant of “love” that only has surface expressions of hearts and flowers. Love. The kind of love that leads people to sacrifice, even die for each other; the kind of love that keeps vigil in a hospital in the middle of the night and scrubs toilets in double shifts to send a child to school. Gaudium Et Spes says that “such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves, a gift providing itself by gentle affection and by deed, such love pervades the whole of their lives.”
By having that love pervade our marriages and lives, the nurturing and healing of relationships and the rearing of children become topics we can serve as witness to and things we can concretely help others with, because we share them. Marriage is also a secular institution, so it is common ground for those of all faiths — and of no faith. Secular marriage can point towards sacramental marriage, which always points to Christ/Love/God. However, being in the world and of the world can make it easy to forget that marriage is also divine. Hearing so many conflicting messages on “marriage” from the society around us can cause us to question the accuracy of our compass. Standing up for the truth can cause us to be labelled as intolerant and exclusionary — and I have personally been frustrated by the ignorance and intolerance of Catholics and Christians who condemn LGBTQ people (which is totally against Church doctrine, by the way) and don’t have an understanding or a sympathy towards alternate perspectives and family arrangement — and the very, very real love that lives within them. I’m hoping we will wrestle with these topics later in the course.
But I digress. The beauty of marriage is that you commit to loving someone forever — and that you’re given the grace to do that. It’s possible to do that. You don’t love them for the things they do, or even the qualities they have — you love them for who they are, as who they are, simply because they are. You love them for their sake, because they’re there for you to love, and you have chosen to love them. With all the difficulties that inevitably come up in life and in any relationship between people — how easy it is to get frustrated or annoyed or angry, how fragile these bonds sometimes are — it astounds me that us human beings are given the privilege to make that choice and the grace (if we ask for it) to keep it. I am awed that we can choose that, and I… think that it would be… a real honor to do so.*
*while still keeping in mind that it would also be a real honor to have either of the other two vocations (single life and religious life). God calls you where you’re going to be the happiest, and all that.
In preparation for helping a local 8-year-old Deaf boy get ready for his First Reconciliation and First Holy Communion, I’ve been enjoying the Deaf Bible (ASL) as an Android app (free, and also available for Apple and Kindle!) It isn’t the Catholic Bible, meaning Tobit, Judith, etc. are missing (which is, for now, totally fine with me). More importantly, it just plain isn’t… finished, so it’s missing big chunks (biggest bummer: all of the Psalms) but all the Gospels are intact and I’ve learned a lot about ASL just watching it.
My favorite “Let’s Learn About ASL, This Is Hilarious!” bits so far:
“God Calls Small Boy; Small Boy Wanders Through REALLY VIVID ARCHITECTURAL SETUP,” or 1 Samuel 3, which exemplifies the idea of “before you tell a story, set up the location, as if you were setting a stage.” The first two full minutes are devoted to location setup — the signer’s hands draw the temple walls, courtyards, fires, animals, etc. in space — before the story of the Lord calling the boy Samuel even begins. But it’s fantastic, because when the story starts, and the boy Samuel wakes up and wanders through the temple (indicated by the signer’s index finger) to find the old priest Eli, we see him like a tiny doll traversing this rich, imaginary architectural space — here’s little Samuel leaving the tent, walking by the wall, climbing in this doorway and that, etc. Way more interesting than just the words “he ran to Eli,” which is how the English translation goes.
“How To Translate Erotic Poetry Without Being Incredibly Awkward” aka The Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs), which is done in costume. With characters. I could not stop laughing. The Song of Solomon is incredibly erotic love poetry; there are breasts! there are tongues! Not just tongues of fire, the… other kinds of tongues, like… uh… erm. Yes. There are — look, its English translation opens with “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” and it goes on from there, okay? (I will not, by the way, be covering this particular section of Scripture with the 8-year-old. I’ll… let his mom do that.)
It’s overwhelmingly sensual, terrifyingly volatile — at least to me. It’s the only part of the Bible I could not read, could not stand to read, until last spring when I decided that for Lent, this was the fear I wanted to face head-on right now, just reading that short section of the Bible and not trying to escape/avoid it. (Now that was an adventure, but it’s another story for another day.) And now it’s one of my favorites, if not the favorite of all of Scripture to me — still volatile, still terrifyingly overwhelming, but… wow. Wow. Mystery.
Anyway. They do it in ASL in costume and with characters, which is — it’s way more formally dramatic than it plays out in my head, but that’s why I was laughing — because as hard as they try here, the comparison between the video and the way I experience this section of Scripture is like the difference between watching an excellent production of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet (or perhaps more contemporarily, The Fault In Our Stars*) and watching those scenes as reenacted by very excited third-graders! who really can’t… feel, or understand, or express… very much… of the words they’re saying. But then again, anything would pale in comparison to how I experience the Song of Songs; I don’t think you can actually physically capture it. But boy, do these folks try a lot harder than any spoken-word rendition I have ever heard! (It stuns me how a hearing reader can make “turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle / or a young stag on the cleft mountains!” sound like a set of clinical instructions for assembling IKEA furniture. Seriously, hearing people. Really?)
“WHEEEEE CYMBALS BOOM BOOM BOOM” – And finally, 1 Corinthians 13, because of the gong in the beginning. That’s it, just the gong. Totally cracked me up.
*Edit: after writing this post, while being distracted by The Fault In Our Stars‘s Wikipedia article, I found to my surprise that Fr. Robert Barron had written a film review that ends with a reference to Song of Songs 8:6, “for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.” I now feel totally vindicated by referring to that book in this blog post.
Since I am writing my dissertation proposal (the first in my department from a poststructuralist perspective), I am grappling with paradigms today. (Again.) Let me think-out-loud by writing.
As a poststructuralist scholar, I question the very concept — the very existence, the very truthiness (as Colbert would say) of “truth.” I’ve spent my whole life frustrated at the inadequacy of totalizing metanarratives that sweep history under the rug and try to make the world seem simple enough for everyone to agree upon: “Of course it’s this way; it always has been.” There’s usually an agenda. Far too often, those stories are the tellings that benefit the folks in power; winners write history, but losers are complicit in retelling it. But we fall into this because metanarratives are so… comfortable. Clean.
I’m uncomfortable in the messy, just like everyone else. And yet I also have — and follow — a great thirst for the places where you can’t set “truth” down simply, or at all. In a strange way, I feel more truthful without “truth,” more honest allowing mystery to remain mystery. It’s not a passive “allowing” where I throw up my hands and say “why bother — we won’t understand it anyway!” Rather, it’s a place where I wrestle. And I wrestle fiercely, as anyone who’s ever encountered me as a scholar or a hacker or a friend can attest. My mind — my heart, even my physical body — is restless; I drive and attack, search and prod, double back over even my own perceptions trying to get them to crumble. Because… science. Because to be a scientist means admitting we can never know.
As a poststructuralist scholar, I question truth — am highly skeptical of it, draw upon Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Lyotard, and other thinkers for tools to dislocate and fracture any notion of it — or more accurately, to see and point out places where a supposed “truth” dismantles and deconstructs itself. Derrida said that structuralism — the belief that you can find the underlying structure of all reality — only makes sense if you assume stable external points of reference. Derrida and other poststructural theorists go on to rip facades off many things we usually assume as stable points of reference — power structures, gender and sexuality binaries, all sorts of thoughts about religion and belief, the very notions of what it means to know and be — and I cheer, because — finally! The multiplicities! Bursting out from all these limiting ideas, all these structures that have bound them for so long, bursting out and challenging the ways we see and breathe and walk within the world — oh, yes. Oh yes, indeed.
As a poststructuralist, I sometimes feel as if I’m supposed to say that there’s no stable point of reference, just a self-referential set of signs and symbols navel-gazing messily into itself. I can see a crazy self-entangled, ever-shifting tangle of signs and symbols, absolutely — but I can’t say that that’s all there is. As a Catholic, I do believe in a very particular, yet indescribable, yet stable point of reference, which I use the symbol “God” to refer to. I believe in Truth with a capital T, and I believe in that Truth with a faith I cannot express or comprehend. It’s a young faith, and I am bewildered by it, stumbling with it and within it, praising it with joy and crying out against it with frustration in the same breath (as one is wont to do with love, I suppose). Less than two years ago, I was surprised to find that all my wrestling to shatter “truth” was instead breaking me, time and time again, into the midst of an incredibly uncomfortable mystery that was Truth itself, one that was both whispering wind and consuming fire.
I fought that Truth; I fought the very idea of its existence. I lost. I fight it still, because… that’s part of how I love; I grapple. Except that here, each time I lose, I actually win. I can’t explain it any more coherently than that.
But I don’t want this to be a “hey everybody, come to Jesus, ain’t the world just full of rainbows puppies everybody holding hands hooray!” post. I started writing because I had reached a point of intellectual grimacing — because I was wading through all of my notes on Derrida and Lyotard and so forth, and said: wait, wait — I don’t know any more, where does this leave me? I was — and am — disoriented. Which, as a poststructuralist, I should be happy about — and I am. But as a human, I’m also just… disoriented. I’m not trying to come to a resolution in my explorations; I am simply trying to explore.
I don’t want to just say that “poststructuralist tools shatter our habitual, inadequate little-t truths so we can explode into the mystery of big-T Truth which is of course God and etc. and now we’re done,” because that’s the sort of oversimplified totalizing modernist metanarrative I rejected in the first place (and still do). I find a lot of things that people say about God to be incredibly frustrating little-t truths — not the God I believe in, not at all. I poke and watch those little-t truth statements twist and crumble. “We believe because we know it’s right.” “We must simply take it as a matter of faith.” I can’t stand leaving things at that, so I wrestle, and the wrestling shatters. Shatters the comfort, shatters the structure, tears down the scaffolding of peace that people — even myself — might try to build.
I realize that, by definition, we cannot express the ineffable. I realize that all we’re doing is trying really hard to say something about it, and that it’s so easy to slip into readerly habits, take the model as the real thing, forget. I realize that by even writing about this, I am doing the exact thing I critique. Words are such a limited medium; they have a quality of solidity and permanence that I do not intend even as I type them here.
I think what I can say is that poststructuralism is a very useful tool for me to think with, because every “truth” I have encountered as an intellectual statement is not the Truth I have encountered in and as relationship, and the toolset of poststructuralism makes me more adept at articulating why. I can say that poststructuralism does not provide rational proof for relativism or atheism — you can use it as a tool to think relativistically and atheistically, but you can also use it as a tool for just the opposite, just like the many different types of logic are used to argue opposing sides of any argument. I also want to say — mostly to Christians, here — that “aiee, relativism!” is no excuse for dismissing anyone’s attempt to wrestle with either little-t or big-T truth. If it’s a little-t truth, it’ll shatter; excellent. If it’s a big-T truth, then — well, I rather think the infinite can handle it.
The only metanarrative I actually believe in — if I can even call it a metanarrative — is love (and boy, does that word feel inadequate as a symbol; it’s a pointer to something that no memory address can hold). But love is about as far from a totalizing, oversimplifying, power-structure reinforcing metanarrative as you can get. It’s a radical discomfort and a peculiar peace that takes your gift and at the same time is the gift you’re flooded with. And I stand in that discomfort. Or I try.
No, actually. I don’t stand; I wrestle. I wrestle as a poststructural scholar, but in this place, I wrestle with angels. The ineffable infinite and the finite concrete, the human and the divine, panting and tangling and sweating and struggling in the very finite, human, concrete dirt… but also pointing somewhere far beyond it that was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
And I don’t know. I still don’t. But I feel as if I can leave this place now and go on with writing.