I was baptized, confirmed and educated in the Church, but I learned what it meant to be Christian mostly by example. When I was a child, my father resettled refugees for the YMCA, and then worked for many years as Vice President of Catholic Charities in the Houston-Galveston diocese, and my mother taught science at a troubled, inner-city high school. We often had 3 or 4 people living with us while they were transitioning from one country to another, and my parents also welcomed several foster children and exchange students into our modest home.
We were not a typical “parish” family—I was only required to attend CCE classes until I was confirmed, and even then, my parents did not require regular attendance at mass. However, somehow my brother and I still intuited that we were to act within the walls of our home and in the larger world as loving followers of Christ’s example. We were not told this in any explicit way; rather, we witnessed it. Both of us can recite the Corporeal Works of Mercy faster than we can the Nicene Creed.
In this way, Catholicism for me became a familial, cultural, and private aspect of my identity, a thing I was born into, a thing I could no more choose than I could my hair color or height or Southern accent. I never felt the need to proclaim it or restore it in public—it was as deeply hidden and powerful in me as my chromosomes.
I did not recognize my Catholic upbringing as an influence on my behavior or my writing until recently. In 2007, a man I loved asked me to marry him, and I said yes. He was raised in the Baptist and then Presbyterian traditions and after our engagement began to push me about my spiritual life. At the same time, I was experiencing a crisis in my writing life. I spent three years in an MFA program swinging back and forth between writing fiction and nonfiction, having much difficulty discerning between the two and convinced one—fiction—was the higher form. This crisis grew out of an earlier one. When I decided to dedicate my energy and time toward writing by leaving my job at a human rights non-profit organization, I suffered a crisis of conscience. After all, I had been heavily schooled in the idea of vocation and service—how could my writing serve the world in any real way?
What saved me was my teaching obligation. Teaching was certainly a form of service, as I knew from watching my mother. I still believe that teaching is sacramental in that it is a kind of “anointment”—teachers anoint their students with knowledge and thought. And teaching, of course, is a kind of communion, the classroom a sacred space.
But at that time, as my fiancée began to push harder—our disagreements as political as they were religious—I found solace in reading and writing the personal essay. As a friend of mine once described it to me, the personal essay is a space for provisional truth. That is, the essayist never reaches her destination but is ever-arriving. The personal essay, then, becomes a space for deep contemplation, a tool for the vital attempt we all make to transform the private and personal into meaning. The essay form offered me a way to voice what I like to refer to as my “intellectual faith”, or what Marilynne Robinson refers to as “faithful doubt.” In my romantic relationship an expression of doubt was a touchstone of failure and in my academic community of writers an expression of sincere Christian struggle was laughable. This paradox often left me feeling bound and voiceless. The personal essay unshackled me.
I began to study and be moved by writers like St. Augustine, Robert Coles, SimoneWeil, Thomas Merton, Marilynne Robinson, and Andre Dubus. Formative books for me during this time were Dubus’ “Mediations from a Movable Chair” and Coles’ “The Harvard Diaries” as well as his biographies of Weil and Dorothy Day and his writings on the relationship between story-telling and moral imagination in children. One particular passage of Coles’ rang true to me. He writes:
…in the lecture halls and seminar rooms of our colleges and universities, where relativism and deconstructionist criticism make a mockery of any person’s struggle to find a faith that persuades, convinces, and even a mockery of the attempts that particular novelists, or poets or short story writers have made to find meaning in life, and render it through words, through images, through narration that bespeaks of, well, the utter essence of their humanity: we are the creature of language, and through it a moral awareness that gives us a sense of the ought, and naught.
For one thing, I felt protective of my fiancée. His increasingly traditional and conservative religious practice and beliefs left him susceptible to ridicule by my university colleagues and contemporaries. In my soul, I agreed with them. But I also knew from my experience as an undergraduate student in the Northeast that liberals and academics, many of my closest friends, could be some of the most intolerant people on the planet. I did not want to be intolerant—what kind of liberal would that make me? How could that kind of intolerance inspire people to change?
Still, a fierce loyalty to my family’s variety of Catholicism made it impossible to abide my fiancée’s shifting beliefs about homosexuality and abortion. My own relationship to God, while cultivated and real was less literal than his, and occasionally his language and the language of his church alarmed me. We both worried about raising children together. Most of all, both of us wanted to be loved for who we were and not in spite of it. Our friends and family members, at best, were good skeptics. Every day we endeavored to avoid name-calling and blaming, to praise each other’s sincere efforts, and to hold each other accountable for our actions and beliefs so that we could live together peacefully. At that time the country was in the thick of the 2008 election season; the political and religious climate heightened our awareness of discrepancies in our worldviews. I was all in for Obama. To my dismay, my fiancée was not. In many ways we became a microscopic reflection of the painful reconciliation required at much higher levels in the nation.
In the end, while the nation found the common ground to say, “We can,” my fiancée and I failed to say, “We do.” I left him. In one of the saddest and more pathetic moments of our demise, I cried and screamed at him, “I don’t want to marry a Republican,” and he whispered back, “I know you don’t.” At that point neither of us could tell the difference between “Republican” and “Christian” and “conservative” much like the rest of the country. I threw myself into writing essays in the wake of our dissolved engagement. While my pain was personal and private and real, in my writing I did not want so much to vent or confess as to relate and work through what I recognized as an essentially American story—a Red State story, a Christian story. I also began to see my nonfiction writing as a form of service and vocation that harkened back to my spiritual upbringing. I recognized what I thought of as a failure of liberal Christians in the face of rising Christian fundamentalism. We had lost our voice, or at least our willingness to use it. The ascension of fundamentalism and its hold on vulnerable young people like my ex-fiancée was, as Marilynne Robinson writes, “the fault of the liberals in large part, because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism.”
I think what I have been trying to achieve in all my essays is a return to the beautiful “story” of Jesus, because as I writer I know the metaphor moves people, the symbol. This is because when an artist uses a metaphor she is reaching toward something God-like that is unreachable. The metaphor is the artist’s confession: the best I can do is approximate. There is no symbol, no representation that will suffice, there will never be a symbol that will suffice, and so those symbols must be graceful, thoughtful, and sacred. I think the writers of the Gospels instruct us to read their words metaphorically, and encourage us to use our own metaphors. Each book of the New Testament is replete with similes, sentences that begin, “God’s Kingdom is like…” or “God’s love is like…” We cannot know God, we see, as Peter reminds us, “through a glass darkly”. Our imagination brings us closer to God—to be a Christian (or religious in any way at all) is to have a wealth of imagination. St. Paul says in is a hard life, Kierkegaard says it is a foolish life precisely because it requires a faith in the improvable thing. (I cribbed that line from my father.)
It is not important that I write my life from a doubtless and fixed place, and therefore reduce God to a concept that fits neatly into my narrow vision, and then live a rigid life according to that vision. No, what is important is that I seek in the direction to which those symbols point—that I look unflinchingly toward redemption, forgiveness, and hope even when I suspect these things might elude me in my work and in my life. The artist’s job is to open new avenues of hope, widen the space for definition and representation, and welcome others into grace.
Or, as Thomas Merton advises in his New Seeds of Contemplation, “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish, or from doubt.”
I will always be “catholic.” But when I go to church now, I attend the Episcopal church—close enough to Catholic that I feel comfortable (I don’t want my grandmother rolling over in her grave), but the Episcopalians have demonstrated great foresight by moving with the tide of history in terms of gender and sexuality issues. I am most recently inspired by the writings of Henri Nouwen, Alain de Botton, Rebecca Solnit, and Bishop John Shelby Spong. My (new) fiancée finds the ritual and serenity of the Episcopal Church inspiring, having grown up, like my first fiancée, in more spartan churches. We live inside our doubts; they form the walls of our home and church. Inside these walls we observe our own unique brand of shared faith. We will both vote for Obama in large part because his story more closely resembles our own faith story.
Architects build skyscrapers to withstand wind load by making them bendable at the top, much like nature’s trees. A tall building’s ability to lean in strong wind protects it from falling. I think the long tradition of intellectual debate, contemplation, and personal writing in more progressive Christian sects—as in Judaism and other faiths—acts in a similar manner. Moreover, this tradition matters a great deal in a culture where ego-driven confession is sold on television and in bestselling books as entertainment and our politicians and religious leaders engage in nuanced debate less and less frequently. Our doubts and fears, thoughtfully considered and expressed, are the wind-bearing architecture of a kind God, given to us so that we may bolster ourselves and construct meaningful lives.