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I embarked on a new adventure with the start of the school year: I am now a “TA,” or Teaching Assistant, for an undergraduate theology class at Boston College. After a couple weeks on the job I have greater insight into some of teaching’s challenges, but I also have a greater sense of the immense joy that teaching can bring. For instance, the comments of our students fascinate me, leaving my mind spinning with thoughts every time I depart from a class discussion or grading session.
Since early last week I’ve been circling around an observation one student voiced in class. We had spent the hour unpacking the first chapter of Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, which includes his argument that doubt is an essential component of faith. The professor asked whether religious communities are typically places where doubt is welcome, and unsurprisingly, most students replied in the negative. It was the phrasing of one student’s response that struck me in particular. She explained that she grew up Catholic and never felt like she could express her doubts about faith and God. Because she felt that her sincere doubts were unwelcome in the community, she often felt quite lonely.
This immediately stirred a mix of emotions in me. I empathized with this student, remembering the acute spiritual loneliness I experienced when I showed up to my first theology class as a freshman in college. Somehow I had also internalized this message that I was strange, even bad, because I couldn’t shake the personal doubts and intellectual questions that I brought to Catholicism. I was sad to hear that, all these years later, another young adult sits in a theology class feeling like I did, as if very little separated her experience of Catholicism and mine.
Meanwhile, I was hopeful and excited for this student. It was precisely the study of theology that dissolved so much of my spiritual loneliness. In theology I found a space where inquiry brought people together—a stark contrast to the feeling of isolation that doubt had engendered previously. Consequently, theology was from the first a space of immense vulnerability. The theological classroom was a space where I disclosed and engaged my “ultimate concern” in life—that which, according to Tillich, is the site of our finite encounter with the infinite. To question and doubt that which is most dear to us necessitates risk, and I was fortunate to experience the theological classroom as a safe space for such risk.
As the years passed, however, I have increasingly doubted whether theology is actually a safe space to explore and question what matters to me most. There are many reasons for this. It is due in part to the appropriate loss of naivety that has accompanied my advancement in the theological academy. Theology does not appear as romantic as it used to, and that’s probably a good thing. However, over the past year I’ve concluded that I’m often afraid to risk my questions and ideas in theology for a host of reasons that aren’t so good. Some of these inhibitions are purely internal to my psyche. Some are external. In the end, they are all inhabitations—factors that have, overtime, restricted my ability pursue my theological vocation courageously and with my whole heart.
In the next few days and weeks I plan to share about these inhibitions through some reflections on theology, fear, and vulnerability here on the blog. For many who have been a part of my everyday life during the past year, many of the forthcoming reflections will be familiar. I’ve decided to share them with everyone else here on the blog in light of what this student reminded me of earlier this week. One of the great lessons of my theological formation is that we are not alone as creatures in this world. When I look back on the past nine years I have never regretted the times when I reached out of the loneliness I experienced to be vulnerable and share openly about my struggles, doubts, and questions. So far, this vulnerability has been received with the confirmation that we are, in fact, not alone.
On Sunday I headed to Mass with my parents where the new pastor of their diocesan parish introduced himself to the eager congregation. He skillfully utilized a story about growing up with “boat people” here in the Seattle area to offer a little background on his upbringing and simultaneously make a point about the day’s scripture readings. His mother is a life-long sailor, and met his father, a football player, when he came to her for sailing lessons at the university recreation center. When they married they bought a “fixer-uper” on the lake so sailing could continue as a regular part of their lives together. Consequently, this pastor grew up on the water, “rowing before he could walk.”
He recalled that the first thing his father taught him about sailing concerned steering. “Figure out where you want to go and pick a spot in that direction on the horizon,” his father instructed. “Steer the boat in that direction.” Trouble arises, he explained, when things distract the sailor from that far-off guide-point. When this occurs one’s steering shifts, thinkingly or unthinkingly, and the boat will quickly veer off course. “We must, as Christians, keep our eyes on that right spot in the horizon to ensure that we’re steering our lives in the proper direction,” the pastor exhorted.
As I continued to ponder his illustration after the liturgy, it began to reframe an issue I have been grappling with for a couple weeks now. At the end of July my friend Dan over at datinggod.org and America reported that Pope Francis had formed a “ground-breaking lay committee.” The committee “will have broad, unprecedented powers at the church’s highest levels” he explained. Dan’s commentary illuminated the significance of this reform within the Vatican: “This move marks a significant change in the way that the Vatican power structure had been previously organized”—a change that empowers lay people, satisfying (at least in part) an enduring hope among many who rally for anti-clerical church reform.
Yet, amidst my excitement about the symbolic capital of this committee, I found myself distracted by a number of nagging doubts. “I wonder if there will be any women on this committee….” This was one of the first thoughts I had upon the news of the committee. I would learn that there is one female committee member. “Just one?” As I read the comments on Dan’s posts, another disappointment arose. Someone observed that there is only one committee member from outside Europe. “Just one?” I found myself asking again.
Even as the virtual comments about this committee echoed doubts I had already named or disappoints that quickly resonated when I read them, they bothered me. They bothered me, and have subsequently led me to reevaluate my own response to this good news from the Vatican: Why is it that disappointment is one of my first responses to this good news of reform? Why is it that negative observations about this committee ring much louder in my mind than points of appreciation? Why am I so vulnerable to being distracted by the shortcomings of Vatican happenings, even when I am confronted with such positive signs of reforms? Why do I so quickly render this reform a failure of some sort?
These comments bothered me because the shortcomings of the lay committee seemed to garner more attention (from me, and from many others) than its apparent gains. I thought about this after the homily this weekend. The pastor’s sailing image poignantly presents Christian life in terms of orientation. It invites us to consider whether we are headed in the right direction, generally—whether we are on our way toward the proper destination, a destination that is always ultimately out of reach. It invites us to consider whether or not we respond to the happenings of the world in a way that keeps us oriented toward God.
We can consider this as individuals and as a church community: As an individual, I suspect that my doubt and disappointment can distract me at times from hope in the world and my church. Pessimism about the Vatican distracted me from encountering good news with hope—the kind of hope that is so central to a Christian orientation in life. It distracted me from recognizing that the Church may be changing, moving—oriented in the right direction. And in fact, my pessimism may distract me from participating in the movement of the Church.
That is not to say, of course, that one is misguided in recognizing and responding to the shortcomings of the church. We are a pilgrim church, a reforming forming church, and we must work toward a more Christian life together. However, it is tempting as a Catholic to be distracted by the endless shortcomings of the institution and the people who make up our church. (Likewise, it is easy to be caught up in one’s own personal and perpetual failings as a Christian). This orients us toward our failings rather than the orienting point in the horizon—a point we will never reach but nevertheless steers us in toward better life together.
Attending to the shortcomings of our community is imperative to staying the course of Christian life. My struggle as a Catholic (and I suspect I’m not alone) is learning to tend to our personal and communal failings without being so consumed by them that I shift my gaze and the direction of my life toward them alone. In order to move in the right direction, we must fix our eyes on the guiding point that will lead us toward God and a more holy life together.
I didn’t turn to Etty Hillesum to consider writing. Earlier this year some mentors urged me to read the work of this young Dutch Jewish woman as a source of spiritual insight, testifying to the profound impact her writings have made on their own lives. Furthermore, knowing my affection for the writings of Simone Weil, another bright Jewish woman who grappled with questions of faith amidst the Shoah and the Second World War, they thought I might find another kindred spirit in the pages of Hillesum’s diaries and letters, as so many others have. While a collection of her diaries and letters sat on my shelf for months, I began to come across references to her work in the other books I made time to read. Suddenly her name seemed ubiquitous. It appeared that I would not escape her.
Last week when I followed up on the recommendations and began to read her diaries, I learned that Hillesum died at the age of twenty-nine at Auschwitz. On a train en route to the gas chambers, she had released a postcard out the window. “We left the camp singing…” it reported. I suspected when I read this that she would indeed capture me. I’ve long been intrigued by people who retain such hope amidst the horrors and tragedies of life. In view of the praise of my mentors and the facts of her biography, I anticipated her spiritual wisdom, reflections on suffering, commentary on evil, and a testament to enduring hope. What I did not expect, however, was how much of her writing focuses on, well, writing.
Like many others who enjoy writing and appreciate the good writing of others, I am fascinated by reflections on the craft of writing. There is a way to approach texts about the craft of writing in a “how-to” fashion, as if learning the details of another person’s writing practice could enable one to replicate the method and quality of his/her writing. I’m quite convinced that this is a very limited, if not totally misguided, way to engage the self-reflection of other writers. Hillesum would agree with me that one can only write oneself. That is, one can only write well according to one’s own particular method and style. There is no single formula for the craft or product of good writing. Yet Hillesum would also agree with me that for many of us it is easier to think about writing authentically than to actually do it. It is this struggle, recorded throughout Hillesum’s diaries, that intrigues and surprises me. In fact, I think it is this struggle that intrigues me about so many authors’ reflections about the craft of writing. I read it, selfishly, because I relate to it. I read it for companionship in writing.
“There is a strange little melody inside me that sometimes cries out for words,” writes Hillesum, “But through inhibition, lack of self-confidence, laziness, and goodness knows what else, that tune remains stifled, haunting me from within. Sometimes it wears me out completely. And then again it fills me with gentle, melancholy music.” How well this characterizes my experience of writing! Often, I have something to share, some drive to communicate and connect with others through reflection on a topic or experience—and yet something gives me pause. Something—insecurity, laziness, whatever—leads me to doubt my ability to convey what I want to convey. I question whether what I have to convey is worth any reader’s time and effort. This leads to total self-defeat, of course. For even when my writing is often lost to these inhibitions, I do not lose that “gentle, melancholy music” that stirs within me, and “cries out for words.” So, with Etty, I too often find myself compelled to write but held back my own doubts, however silly they may ultimately be. Too often I can’t even bring myself to try it.
Some days I feel so overwhelmed by my doubts and inhibitions that the only thing I can bring myself to write about is my writer’s inhibition itself. And when I do, it never escapes me how unproductive and self-indulgent this can be. I might be better served to move ahead—to just write already!—rather than wallow in my interior hang-ups about it. This, too, is a tension I see in Hillesum.
On one hand, she chastises herself for her self-indulgence, for her mental “masturbation,” and for all the factors that serve as obstacles to her writing. “I protest too much,” she writes, “I have all the time in the world to write. More time than anyone else, probably. But there is that inner vacillation. Why, I wonder? Because I think I must come out with nothing but brilliant ideas? Because I haven’t yet worked it all out? But that can only come with practice.” She spares no harshness when she turns on herself in these pages.
On the other hand, as I have already noted, she does frequently indulge her inhibitions by dedicating entry after entry, page after page, to her doubts about her ability to be a good writer. At one point, she even presents a moving justification for the energy she dedicates to exploring her interior life, with all its anxieties and irrationalities. “I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their head and busy it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside.” “There is really a deep well inside me,” she observes, “And in it dwells God.” Hillesum truly believed that interior exploration would help her discover God, and in discovering God, she would be free for authentic writing and a more loving, peaceful engagement with the world.
It is this back and forth between self-reflection and action—between reflection on writing and the act of writing itself—that fascinates me in Etty’s writing (among many other things, too). It has helped me to think differently about my own writer’s inhibitions, and now—with this post—to act differently—that is, to actually write, even if all I can do today is write about my inhibitions. Hopefully, if I continue to address my inhibitions while continuing to write, all while hedging against the rut of self-indulgence like Etty tried to do so earnestly, then I will, actually, come to write more freely.
Etty once wrote, “I really must abandon all that laziness, and particularly my inhibitions and insecurity, if I am ever to find myself, and through myself, find others.” Perhaps today this is my charge, too.