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Sometime before midnight on New Years Eve I found myself nuzzled into the living room couch with another friend who studies theology in graduate school. Amid the dancing, yelling, and clamoring of glasses at the party that surrounded us, she spoke one of the most simple, profound things I had heard about God in a long time.
After describing the details of a rigorous seminar course on prayer she had completed early that month, she said, “You know, I came out with a lot of doubts about whether God works in the world the way we often think God does. But I do think that God moves in people.”
A poet friend of mine once described the different types of poems she writes. She identified one kind by describing a visit to a museum when she found herself standing before this particular painting, staring and staring, simply captivated by it at the deepest parts of herself. She couldn’t walk away. She had to write a poem about this surprising moment of wonder that simply grabbed her. She writes these poems about simple, startling moments. I think God moves in people.
The more theology and philosophy I study, the more confused I am about the Infinite working in the finite. I’m reading Karl Barth and at the moment he is trying to convince me that in my human limitation I do not know God from within. He says something like, human beings cannot know this wholly-Other God but through the revelation of scripture and the Church. What to say? I do not have convincing words for responding to this brilliant theologian at the moment.
But I have wonder: I have these moments when God moves in me. And in these moments the finite world may be simply what it is, but something in me is different. The wonder persists beyond the limits of what I can explain with my rigorous reasoning right now. I’ll keep trying to put words to it.
Check out my latest post at From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism, entitled “Going Home.”
I have memories of being a typically-gregarious little girl who was afraid to speak in class. Maybe it was more self-consciousness than fear. My young male peers taunted me on the basketball court at recess and inside the classroom walls–“like children do”–because I was a young female with something she wanted to say. They told me this. They explained to me my boundaries “because I was a girl.” Even though I sensed that all of us knew these were untrue, these young men said all this because it had power. It had power because we all knew it had once been thought to be true. And that was a powerful reminder. (Where do second graders learn this? Probably Nickelodeon sitcoms).
Generally speaking, I imagine these situations evoke two types of reaction: Either young females learn not to speak up in class; studies have confirmed this. Or, they start talking louder. With the impassioned cursive script of a second grader, I decided to report gender confrontation after gender confrontation in our class “Conflict” notebook, which my teacher read aloud once a week before facilitating a detailed lesson and class discussion concerning conflict resolution skills. I started talking louder.
And I’ve been loud ever since. I’m the kind of person who steps out into the middle of Boston traffic to yell at taxi drivers who spit out racist and homophobic slurs in moments of senseless road rage. I have this intense moral compass (undoubtedly learned from my mother) and I will simply shatter if I don’t speak up sometimes.
That’s why I don’t know what to do with the trembling voice and unsteady pen I have found myself with in recent times. In moments like these, I don’t recognize myself. I ask myself, “What happened to that little girl with that strong, loud voice? The young woman who believed in the potential power of her voice?” I am second-guessing my words, projecting onto myself the presumed judgements of others. I doubt whether anything I have to say could possibly make any difference for the causes I address. My voice trembles when I speak, and I struggle to silence its shaking doubt.
I keep speaking, though. I keep writing, clearly. One of my favorite quotes reads, “No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger.” It’s from Rilke, the writer who told a young poet to keep writing when he doubted himself. I think my voice shakes these days because I have given myself to a sort of danger–to the danger of a challenging academic environment, to new friends and brilliant peers, to a world far from the comforts and tangible love of home. It feels vulnerable. But it is getting better.
I still believe that one day I will open my mouth and the words won’t shake anymore. I hope they will resound louder and stronger than before.
Until then, I’ll keep talking.
The liturgy begins when a handsome young man, dressed neatly in an argyle sweater, lifts the worn brass trumpet to his lips. His eyes are closed, his composure calm. With just one breath, everything in the tiny cathedral comes to a halt. We remove drink classes and beer bottles from our lips. Bar chatter hushes. We join the trumpeter’s band in shifting our eyes toward the sound—toward the man who is filling this tiny Boston bar with the most commanding, memorizing music….
Throughout the years I have experienced the benefits of going to worship services at unfamiliar churches. Foreign religious environments force me to face my own assumptions about God and religion—about who God is, how that God is to be worshiped, and what God’s worshipers look like and think about. When I stand with charismatics lifting their hands in praise, or kneel with Muslim women as they whisper Arabic words of prayer, I ask myself, “What can I learn from this genuine expression of worship? How does this push me to think about God in new ways? Who is this God before me?”
Last night in Wally’s Jazz Cafe, I found myself asking these questions. Although I have a casual appreciation for jazz music, I am no musician (to my dismay). I know nothing of the music theory and rhythms and chords upon which jazz improvisation is situated. I could not recognize the finger settings and swift movements as the musicians’ fingers fluttered across trumpet, alto sax, electric guitar or acoustic bass. The rhythmic bounce and sway of the drummer appeared chaotic to my untrained eye.
But while sitting there at the small wooden table—I believed. The aesthetics and decorum of the worship space were foreign, but the energy, vulnerability, conviction of the performance before me was intoxicatingly persuasive. I didn’t know how to recognize It, but I knew the Jazz God was in the room. I believed it. I could feel It. I heard It. I witnessed It in their worship.
I want to believe in the religious experiences of others, at least most of the time. Only in assuming their genuineness can I begin to meet their Gods for myself. And many times, these meetings become meetings with my own God in new ways.
Lately each time I enter the gates of Harvard Yard from the concrete and brick of the Square, I am greeted with the opening word from Pascal’s Mémorial. The demanding red foliage of this one large tree declares, “Fire.”
Mémorial is Pascal’s cryptic account of the two-hour mystical vision he experienced one night at age 31. “Fire” begins the montage of parsed phrases, utterings of fear, wonder, reverence, and conviction. Pascal had the text sown into the lining of his clothes, which is where the account was discovered upon his death. Perhaps he brought it with him because he could not escape it. I have often found that if you listen closely, you can hear his heart racing between the words on the page.
Sometimes when I am sitting in the library here at school, I look out the large windows at the burning trees, and I think of Annie Dillard. In one of her essays she describes a moth flirting with the flame of a candle, irresistibly circling its blazing wick. The moth moves closer and closer, until it is too close; the fire consumes it. The moth is burning, but it has become the wick of the flame it so desires. Then my gaze returns to the book over which I hover. Fire.
It isn’t strange to me that God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Aren’t we all met with moments of fire? “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up,” concluded Moses when he saw it (Exodus 3:3). There are moments of fire that capture us so much that we cannot cease returning to them. They are people, and experiences, and visions we must circle around; we must return to them. We must sow them into our clothes. We must give ourselves to them even if they consume us. Fire.
Today the sun finally broke through the clouds in Boston. So, after finishing lunch in a cute little Italian cafe in Beacon Hill, I decided to head to the nearby Boston Public Gardens for an afternoon stroll while making a phone call to an old friend from school. I didn’t get very far.
Still a couple hundred feet from the park, I could see the flashing blue lights of the police cars that blocked the road along the permitter of the Boston Commons. I heard horns honking, voices chanting, and as I drew closer I began to recognize the “NOW” logos on the large white picket signs along the sidewalk. My studies in feminism have familiarized me with NOW, the “National Organization for Women” that headed up America’s Second Wave feminist movement. I have fantasized about marching in their protest lines at the height of their movement in the 60’s and 70’s, a time when it seems collective action was so much more energetic and visible than today.
As I drew closer, there were other familiar images. Banners with the colorful emblem of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Masses of people, their hands thrust into the air cradling rosary beads or wooden crucifixes. Women in habit, and men with starched white collars. The anger in the air shook me as I realized: I am walking straight into a feminist/Catholic standoff over abortion rights. And that’s exactly what it was.
Where do I stand? My eyes darted from one activist crowd to the other like the screams that flew back and forth between them. Where do I stand? For a moment I thought I would just continue to the park, but I couldn’t. These are my people en masse! How could I pass this up?! …But where would I stand? I kept asking myself this. Where do I stand? I didn’t fit in among the harsh juxtaposition of the protest lines. My convictions about abortion–and any other topic for that matter–aren’t relegated to one aspect of my identity (feminist) or any other (like, Catholic). My views about the world are Catholic and feminist–because I am both Catholic and feminist. In the “us” or “them” of these protest lines–and in much of the moral debate between these parties–there often isn’t a place for someone like me to stand up as I am.
I wanted to stand where I stand–between the lines and posters and the yelling–right there in the middle of it. You see, I live in the middle of it all the time. And the anger in the air shakes me.
Sometimes love is stronger than [one’s] convictions.” -Isaac Bashevis Singer
It is my experience that one of the marks of falling in love, particularly in its glorious initial phases, is an unshakable desire to be with one’s partner. This desire is such that even when physical presence is impossible, alternative connections are eagerly welcomed: a phone call that simply brings the sound of that voice. A message with words that capture that charm. A day on a calendar that marks our next meeting. An imagined vision of what he or she is doing at the present moment…
I realized today that I have fallen deeply in love with the simple Catholic liturgy I experienced on weekday afternoons this past summer. I find myself longing for it, longing to be present to it again, the way I have eagerly longed for the comforting presence of my beloved. I worry, sometimes anxiously, about the next time I will experience a liturgy that brings me such peace. Sometimes I hear a song or enter a sanctuary or recite a prayer here in Boston, and their aesthetics recall that simple noon service, and more than anything I want to celebrate a liturgy like that again. I want us to be together again.
As genuine as it is, I’m sure my longing for the comfort of this beloved liturgy is only magnified by the religious displacement I currently experience. I’m thinking and talking all the time about why I am Catholic, and how that really does make me different from so many people here. I always talk about how I possess lots of convictions that align with the tradition, and plenty of convictions that do not. The more I talk about the former and the latter–especially on the tough days, like today, when the convictions for and convictions against seems particularly convoluted–I sometimes feel as if all I have to offer up in response to “why” is this mysterious longing to be in that simple, white-walled chapel in Seattle. I’m in love, and I long to be with my beloved. That’s why I am Catholic today. I have fallen in love in this Church, with this Church, and today, that is stronger than my convictions.
It was Ash Wednesday on the Green Line in Boston today.
Public transportation became a big part of my life this year. In LA I rode a bus and subway train to work. In Boston now I do the same. Often, when staring out the window on the bus or zoning out over the book in my lap, it has occurred to me that I feel so Catholic when ride public transit. Although this has been a recurring observation, I struggle to articulate why it is I feel this way. What’s so Catholic about riding the bus?
Today this feeling made sense though, at least more than usual. Soaking wet from the walk to the nearby train stop, I collapsed onto the first dry, stiff plastic seat I spotted. I was uncomfortable in the bulky, water-proof parka I had hid under outside; its fabric rustled loudly as I moved in the seat. I clumsily tried to find a place for my wet, folded umbrella and struggled to retrieve my book from purse without shaking raindrops from my coat onto everyone around me. Every moment was awkward, and everyone could see this. I felt so vulnerable.
At each stop a few more folks entered the train, and they, too, struggled with their coats and umbrellas and heavy, wet clothes. I watched them, and I realized that I was not alone. And It felt just like Ash Wednesday on that train. People from every walk of life came together to take refuge there, wearing the signs of their vulnerability–damp, droopy hair styles and rosy cheeks from the cold–like ashes on their foreheads. And we sat there wearing our weaknesses, and being present to everyone else in his or her weaknesses.
It was wet and beautiful: Ash Wednesday on a dreary Saturday morning on the Green Line.
It is very likely that you know the story of Jesus walking on water—the one where his disciple, Peter, hops out of the safe sailing vessel to join his Rabbi atop the waves. When Peter starts to panic and sink, Jesus scolds him, asking, “Don’t you have faith?” If you’re like me, and probably most of us, you understand this story as a message about faith in Christ. If Peter trusted Jesus, he would have been able to miraculously walk on water just like his teacher. With faith in God, all things are possible.
The super hip American pastor, Rob Bell, has another interpretation of this story, however. In one of his super hip movie shorts, (one of the Nooma series), he cites Jewish rabbinic history to charge that Jesus’ question about Peter’s faith was not actually a question about faith in his teacher, as we often assume. Rather, Jesus was asking Peter, “Don’t you have faith in yourself? Faith that you can actually be like me?” Rob Bell suggests that by inviting all of humankind to be Christian disciples, disciples like Peter, Jesus was essentially communicating the radical message that God believes in us—in our ability to live good lives, and to live up to our individual callings. “Don’t you have faith Peter? I called you out here because I believe in you.”
I felt like Peter walking on the ocean today in my philosophy of religion class. As I looked up from the intimidating German names on my syllabus to the pensive faces of my anonymous classmates, and back down to those famous German names again, my faith waned and my heart began to sink.
I can’t do this. Why am I here? What was I thinking? I was drowning in self-doubt.
The thing is, I have read most of these German philosophers and theologians before. In fact, I have worked with these thinkers in classes in which I was quite successful. My fears were not rooted in a rational suspicion about my abilities as a student of philosophy and theology. They were not rooted in wise precaution. I have become self-aware enough to recognize my demons, and I know that low self-confidence is one of them. No award or grade or pat on the back has dissolved them thus far. It is going to take a deep form of self-work.
In the meantime, I find myself clinging to this fresh interpretation of that old biblical tale. Jesus has faith in me—to love my neighbor as myself and to turn the other cheek, ways of life that are simply much more difficult and demanding than the things I encounter in the classroom. If Jesus believes in my potential to do those things, then surely, it is worth having faith in my gifts as a student.
Jesus believes in me, and with time, hopefully I can too.
A community needs a soul if it is to become a true home for human beings. You, the people must give it this soul.” –Pope John Paul II
I hold immeasurable gratitude for all the dear friends and family in Seattle who give this place its soul, who make this community a home for me. Thank you for your Love, and for this blessed season together.
Next blog post…from Boston!