I was…one whose negative demands were more violent than his positive, far more eager to escape pain than to achieve happiness, and feeling it something of an outrage that I had been created without my permission.
— C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy
Two days into my week at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario, two things are continually on my mind. The first is the presence of Jesus, just out of sight, just over my shoulder. The second is the longing for death. So I guess you could say things are going pretty well.
If you are a habitually introspective person, your thoughts rarely surprise you. Outlandish, immoral, surreal, you’ve seen it all before: murder, radishes, bestiality, bellybuttons, whatever. Thoughts happen. So this longing for death doesn’t worry me.
When I say “longing for death” I don’t mean death per se is attractive. For example, I’m not sitting there thinking about pills or ropes or tall buildings. I’m not imagining my friends and family wailing over my pale, lifeless body and saying If only we had remembered to invite him to more parties then he would not have drowned himself in the river, and now all is sorrow, sorrow forever. That’s not it at all.
I also don’t mean that I’m unhappy or in pain. When I was depressed in college, that’s what longing for death meant: I hurt so bad, and couldn’t imagine any possible future where I would stop hurting or even start to hurt less, so I wanted to be dead.
This is very different. For one thing, I am happy, almost painfully so. The tall pines around Our Lady Of the Woods, the still-chilly spring, the easy camaraderie of the other guests, the clean fibrous vegetables and fresh cheese and warm bread. The cry of the loon, the symphony of bugs and frogs, the gentle Madawaska River.
But always this slow burn in the pit of my stomach, not painful, just there. It’s a continual posing of the question: When will all this be over?
Travis and Sam are friends. Travis has been sick for weeks, and spends all day lying in bed. Sam is out of town.
In Travis’ mind, he is staying inside because he’s sick; but he forgets that he only got sick after staying inside. After one week inside, he started to notice that he was breathing shallowly and had a headache. The headache made him close all the blinds, and he began lying in the dark all day. After two weeks, he noticed that his hair was starting to fall out. After three weeks, he was as pale as gray clay. After four weeks, his skin started to develop a rubbery, fibrous consistency, like circus peanuts or half-dried caulking.
Travis is beginning week four. He’s scared, but in a distant, slow-burn kind of way: not enough to do anything about it.
Sam comes back to town and hears about Travis. He is tired from travelling, and he puts off visiting for a few days, but eventually he goes to see him. He can’t see him very well because the blinds are closed, but he can see that his friend is quite sick. He inwardly chastises himself for not coming sooner.
They talk for a while, but Sam finds that Travis only wants to talk about his sickness. So Sam suggests that maybe Travis should leave the house and get some sun.
Listen, do you want to go sit outside? It’s a beautiful day. You look awful. It seems like maybe you need sun.
I look “awful”? I wish you wouldn’t be so judgmental. See, that’s why I stopped going out so much: everybody’s got some idea of how I’m supposed to be. Nobody just lets me be myself. I wish people could just appreciate me the way I am.
Sorry, I just mean you look sick! Sick is not how you’re supposed to be. Don’t you think you need sun?
But what do you mean, “supposed to”? Who made up that rule? How is that fair? What, healthiness is going to be withheld from me unless I go get some sun? Isn’t it my basic human right to be healthy? Are you telling me I have to lie here losing hair just because I won’t go outside? Look, I don’t believe in people imposing conditions on my rights.
Well, I don’t know if it’s your basic right to be healthy, but sun makes you healthy, and you have a right to go out in the sun. And you need sun.
What do you mean, “need”? I’m alive, aren’t I? If I needed the sun, I’d be dead without the sun. I’m not dead, so I must not need the sun. I understand that some people have weak constitutions — no offense, but I know you’ve always been like that, and that’s totally fine with me, I don’t judge — but I’m not like that. I’m not dead, am I?
You’re not dead, but you look like you’re dying. You need sun.
I guess I would like some sun, honestly — not because I’m SUPPOSED to, but because I’d LIKE to. But look, I can take care of myself. Here, come see this lamp I made, all by myself. I’ve been working on it for two weeks. I’ve been kind of obsessed with it, to be honest. I spent a lot of time researching it on the internet. I made the body from these dirty dishes. I made the bulb from this beer bottle. I made the filament from the hair I’ve lost. Look, when I plug it in, it makes a spark.
Dude, that’s gross, and it smells like burning hair. You just need sun.
Look, I’m not just going to throw all that work away! Are you telling me all my efforts were for nothing? That it was all just a waste of time? That would figure, wouldn’t it? Honestly, sometimes it seems like God is against me: I try so hard, I work day in and day out to make this lamp — and it hurts my eyes to be working in the dark like this, believe me; it’s a strain — but it’s still not enough! What would be enough for him? What does he want?
He wants you to be healthy. Just get up and come outside with me! You need sun.
Just get up, huh? What is that, magic? He wants me to perform some arbitrary action, like walking across the room and out the door, just because he says so, and suddenly I’ll healthy? I suppose I have to sit in some special chair, too, and face in some special direction, and say some special words? Why should I have to perform some archaic ritual just to be healthy? I don’t believe in that stuff.
Don’t be silly, it doesn’t matter what chair you sit in. You just need sun.
Well, that’s the thing. I really would like some sun, but I can’t have it. Do you get it? Do you get the joke that God is playing on me? I want to be healthy, right? –
– of course I do. But in order to be healthy I need to go out in the sun; but in order to go out in the sun I need energy; and in order to have energy, I need to be healthy! Do you get the joke? There’s just no way out for me. It’s all a big trap.
Then I’ll carry you out. You need sun.
CARRY me? Um, I’m sorry, I think you misunderstood. I’m not some kind of invalid. I’m just a little sick. I’m still my own man, and I don’t need carrying. And look, I don’t want to cause you trouble.
You’re causing me trouble right now. Do you know how you sound? You need sun.
Well THAT’S kind of condescending. It’s SO simple, right? Just get up and get some sun, and I can be healthy, like you? Gosh, I’m sorry to be such a BURDEN on you. I didn’t realize that MY sickness made YOU unhappy. If you had ever been a month without the sun, you’d talk differently, you know. You don’t know what it’s like to be me. It’s always been easier for you, anyway, with your skin. I burn easily.
You’re probably right, I have it easy! But look, you need sun.
[Pauses] Listen, Sam, I didn’t want to tell you this…but I’m a little scared. It’s been so long. I’ve changed, lying here. I don’t even think I’d like the sun anymore. I peeked out through the blinds once, and the sunlight filled me with a kind of terror…You don’t know what it’s like in my head. Every time I imagine being warm, I get this horrible burning sensation, and I feel SO tired just thinking about it. Or what if I got out there and found out that it was for nothing? What if I tried it and it didn’t work? Then I wouldn’t have any hope at all. And besides –
Listen, can you shut up? Do you trust me or not?
Yes, but –
Do I have your permission to help you?
Sure, but I don’t see how –
Sam picks up Travis from the bed. He is surprised how light Travis is. His body is clammy and he smells bad. also, he keeps writhing around and groaning so that Sam almost drops him. On their way out the door, Sam accidentally bumps Travis’ head on the doorframe, which makes Travis swear and makes Sam feel a little bad, but not too bad.
It’s a beautiful spring day and there’s an old canvas-and-metal lawn chair in the corner of the lawn. Sam walks over with Travis in his arms, stumbling a little bit: Travis is lighter than usual, but he’s still a full-grown man. He drops Travis into the chair. Travis grumbles and snarls for a while, then falls silent and stares straight ahead. Sam gets a second lawn chair, puts it next to Travis, and sits in it. He is silent too. Eventually Sam falls asleep.
A couple of hours later, Travis says, “Hey, Sam?”
Sam wakes up. “Huh? Yeah, what?”
Travis blushes. The red looks good in his cheeks. He says, “I’m hungry. Do you think you could make me a sandwich?”
I’ve been trying for months to write a post to answer a simple question: whether a man can fall in love with another man. After a lot of false starts, I found out that the only way to answer the question is to tell a couple of stories. That’s how the best questions usually work anyway.
I had only known S. for a month or two, and we had just come back from the bar. Two other guys were supposed to have been there, but I had secretly hoped they wouldn’t, because that way I wouldn’t have to share S. And really, for someone with my experiences, that hope should have been the first warning sign. But, well, that was a long time ago.
When the others failed to show, S. and I kept drinking. We came back a little boozy and still deep in conversation. I don’t remember what the topics were but I know the conversation was intimate, or as intimate as it was going to get (this was still pre-coming-out); I had admitted that there had never been a girl that I had cared about Like That, but I hadn’t said why.
In the kitchen, over maybe an extra beer or so, S. and I were professing our fondness for each other, the way straight men are allowed to do when drinking. Then there was a pause, and S. looked down at the kitchen table and said: “I just wanna get to know you better.”
As C. S. Lewis says, I was undone. Whether it was the shyness of his voice, or his vulnerability; or just the feeling of being seen, and seen as good — as worthy of knowing, being known — by somebody like him, someone with his confidence or his intensity or just, okay, his shoulders, what is it with me and shoulders? — whatever it was, my heart liquefied all in an instant, and resolidified in a different shape. Its contours were molded now to fit him, receive him, delight in him.
This happens all the time. I mean, not to me — that would be exhausting!, and two or three times in thirty years is bad enough — but to all humans, or most of us. I’ve never been in love with a woman, but I gather from friends and books and movies that what I felt for S. is like what other people have felt for the people they’ve wanted to marry.
So, yes; if what happened to me then, and lingered for the next 18 months or so (Lord, that was a LONG 18 months), is what is commonly meant by falling in love, then men can fall in love with men. Duh. If you’re gay, and Catholic, and the man in question is straight and/or Catholic, I don’t recommend it.
Anyway, that’s the end of the first story. It was a long time ago, but I am getting tears in my coffee. So maybe not all that long.
Guess what you guys! We interrupt our regular schedule of not-posting-on-Thursdays to bring you this post over on Catholic Exchange. It’s really nice to be writing publicly as Joseph Prever again; I mean, it’s really nice for there to be only one of me.
It’s also nice to write stuff that isn’t about gayness in particular. Anyway, here’s an excerpt.
Is it safe to expose children to such dark images? I think so, or as safe as any real poetry can be; poetry is no tame lion. At that age, I had no categories in my mind for real darkness, and so the darkness couldn’t get in to do me damage. But the image stayed; which meant that when the reality showed up years later, I was not defenseless.
Maybe you could go over there and leave comments, so they’ll think I’m awesome and post my stuff all the time. Peace.
It’s been a long time since I was depressed, and that’s amazing. The odd thing is how not-sad is not exactly the same as happy. When I was habitually miserable, I always figured that being free from the constant oppressive darkness was all I could ever ask for. Turns out, nope, my appetite for bliss is infinite, just like CSL said (somewhere [probably]), so I am probably just getting started.
Truth be told, I am feeling a little empty. Unfortunately, it’s not the Dark Night of the Soul. That is when you are so so so wonderful that God has decided that the only way to make you MORE wonderful is to withdraw the sense of His presence for a while so that your inner wonderfulness can grow. Anyway that’s what the saints say.
I wouldn’t know, because the reason I feel empty is that I am selfish and vain and I don’t pray enough and I’d rather look at my triceps in the mirror than pour out the love of Christ on my fellow wounded immortals. So I assume.
2 – Baby’s Black Balloon
Speaking of emptiness, Zen Pencils has done a curiously affecting illustration of a C. S. Lewis quotation that I had forgotten I ever read:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.
The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
3 – The Perils Of Being Awesome
That bit about the hobbies and luxuries stung a little, because I had just been congratulating myself on having this chastity thing pretty well down — I mean, not that the old habits of solitary vice1 don’t occasionally reassert themselves, just that I’m not lonely and brokenhearted and stuck wandering the echoing hallways of solitude, wondering how to fill all that TIME; which is what, in my early days as a consciously gay Catholic, I assumed I’d be doing around now.
Because why? Because I do fill my time, with the things I always go on about: tattoos (I’ve got an appointment in two weeks) and Kung Fu (ranking coming up this December!) and motorcycles (there’s got to be one more perfect day before the snow comes) and writing (which I pretend I do a lot more of than I do) and working out (see biceps, above).
Which, ruh roh, none of those things are bad and in fact all of them are good, but they do sort of smack of a rich single guy spending his time entertaining himself. That’s not chastity. The point is not to distract yourself from the fact that you aren’t settling down with a mate. The point is to spend yourself on something, lap strength, steal joy, laugh, cheer.2
4 – Cheer Whom, Though?
Not that the two are mutually exclusive. Whatever we do, even if it’s something for ourselves, there are always opportunities to pour ourselves out.
I walked into Kung Fu on Wednesday feeling like I had somehow forgotten how to be in touch with human beings, so Oh well I better resign myself to just sort of drifting until I remember where my heart is.
Then I remembered that, during that year of now done darkness,3 when the Kwoon became the closest thing I had to an inviolably safe place, somehow the classes when I was most gregarious and most able to pour out love were those classes when I started out feeling the most depleted.
I don’t know what that means. Is it that, when I’m empty, I’m more easily filled by love, which, let’s be ontologically honest, never originates from me in the first place anyway? Regardless, it worked. Step inside the magical door with a quick prayer to my Dad to look out for me, and pretty soon I am scattering brightness.
Or that’s how it feels. Maybe I am just scattering annoyingness. I’ll never know, will I?
5 – The Achieve Of; The Mastery Of the Thing4
What makes me not terribly worried that my hobbies are somehow slowly turning me into a self-absorbed emotional miser is the knowledge that when you do things that are awesome and that you love doing, you can’t help glowing, and the glow can’t help lighting up other people. It’s like capitalism! Except it works.5
Which must be why this video makes me happy beyond all reason.
I don’t care that it’s a commercial, or that Enya is lazy music for gooey people, or that there wasn’t any real danger, or that after all he’s just an actor. Maybe it’s that JCVD has passed from goofy sincerity, through postmodern irony, and has come out on the other side as sincere again. I dunno. The video inspires me because it’s beautiful, so there you go. My heart in hiding stirred for a split.
6 – Gweenbrick
I have been waiting to tell you officially about Gweenbrick ever since I mentioned him. I wanted to make a whole post about him. But if I wait till I do that, I’ll wait a long time.
Anyway, I can’t decide which his posts are more: hilarious, symphonic, Zen, or Hambledonian.6 I wish I could write like this man, and I am proud of knowing about him before the whole entire internet descends on him with shouts of adulation. Get in on the ground floor of loving Gweenbrick. Today’s post is called Slow Yoga With Denene.
7 – Clap Your Tiny Hands For Joy
As long as we are talking about beauty, thanks to Simo7 for posting this. Oh my gosh. Go out and give thanks. Happy Friday.
1I <3 euphemisms. 2Hopkins, obvi. 3Hopkins again. Same poem. 4The Windhover, this time, which was clearly written about JCVD, whatever else it may have been written about. 5It is fun to be snarky about capitalism from the comfort of my coffee shop. I do believe that it’s probably the worst possible system, except for all the others. 6Cf. Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Liff, in which he defines Hambledon as “The sound of a single-engined aircraft flying by, heard whilst lying in a summer field in England, which somehow concentrates the silence and sense of space and timelessness and leaves one with a profound feeling of something or other.” That’s Gweenbrick. 7That’s “teacher’s wife” for you nonkungfuers.
“The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it. You had better agree with your adversary quickly.”
“You mean I shall have to become a Christian?” said Jane.
“It looks like it,” said the Director.1
It’s my favorite thing, the four of us sitting around the kitchen table, one in the morning, empty bottles everywhere, eyeballs-deep in the aesthetics of gender, or the theology of sex, or anyway something that has us alternating between cackles and chills.
“I hear Shostakovich,” says Jack P.,2 tracing voluptuous curves in the air to describe how he feels about women but also about certain symphonies, “and I want to put it inside myself. I want it like I want a woman, but I also want it inside me.” He pauses and grins at me. “Is that gay?”
“Well, we’re all feminine with respect to God,” I say, paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, “so that makes sense.” If one response to beauty is the desire to penetrate, another is the desire to be penetrated.
The unspoken assumption is that music, and beauty in general, is a way to experience God, something that the present company (a bunch of Lewis-reading, Beethoven-loving, Aquinas-quoting types) takes for granted.
Jack has just been maintaining that the most beautiful thing in the world is the female body. I’d just say bodies in general, since I appreciate both kinds, even if one of those appreciations is more visceral than the other.
Paul L. questions whether beauty is the right word: if a hungry man sees a hamburger on a billboard, is beauty the right name for what he experiences? Does he delight in the curve of the bun, the pert little sesame seeds, the gentle glistening of the secret sauce?
Or does he just want to devour the thing? What do we want to do with beauty? Gaze at it? Eat it up? Impregnate it, or be impregnated?3 All of the above?
To be continued.
1From C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. 2P. is, of course, short for “Pigford”. This is what happens when you let your buddies pick their own aliases. 3Cf. also a certain passage in Voyage To Arcturus: “If you were to regard nature as the husband, and Panawe as the wife…perhaps everything would be explained.”
“True friendship,” says C. S. Lewis, “is the least jealous of loves.” We in the SSA crowd, or anyway the neurotic crowd, or maybe just the human crowd, hear that and cringe, because so many of us are such amateurs at friendship, amateurs in every sense: we dabble in it, we’re fascinated by it to the point of obsession, and our talent for it is decidedly imperfect.
True friendship? Most of us have scraps of it, but our actual friendships seem to exist on the perpetual verge of collapse, held together by duct tape and desperate good intentions; and jealousy intrudes, painfully, over and over. How well we know the signs of its approach, and how powerless we feel to stop it!
Like any amateur, I sometimes watch the experts — are there friendship experts? — to see how it’s done.
I noticed that my friends A and B had a tendency to express their fondness for each other via insults. “Ah ha!” said my crafty little lizard brain. “This is what friends do! I, too, will insult A, and let’s see whether we become better friends because of it.”
So I tried it out, but something went wrong. When I insulted A, he looked faintly hurt, and instead of responding with an insult of his own (as I had seen him do to B), he laughed uncomfortably and said, “Ah, yeah, you’re probably right.”
Waitwaitwait, cancel, retreat, abort! That isn’t what I meant at all. But this is what comes of being crafy, especially of being crafty where friendship is concerned: your friends get hurt and you look mean.
I understood belatedly what A and B’s insults had meant. It wasn’t that they had made a conscious decision to express friendship via insults, nor was it that insults are the universal language of male friendship. This was just the particular shape their friendship had developed, slowly and organically, over the years of its evolution.
And my appropriation of their particular brand of camaraderie suddenly looked grotesque and desperate, because, unfortunately, it was.
I was driving to work and this particular scene came back to me — you know that horrible splurch you get when you suddenly remember something grotesque and desperate that you’ve done?1 — but, thankfully, I also remembered that bit from Lewis’ Four Loves:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves.2
I’ve seen this in the way only J. will shout when only M. makes a particularly asinine point, or only L. will cackle when only C. is crass in his exactly C.-like flavor of crassness. It’s also evident in the way, if M. and I find ourselves in a room without the accustomed presence of J., we suddenly won’t know what to say to each other: J. turns out to have been a bridge between us, a way for us to enjoy each other. Lacking him, we have to find other ways.
But the other part of that picture is a part we can’t see: ourselves. Cue Walker Percy:
Why is it that in your entire lifetime you will never be able to size yourself up as you can size up somebody else — or size up Saturn — in a ten-second look?”3
We don’t know our own part in the peculiar lattice of relations that exists between us and our friends, but make no mistake — we do have such a part. Whatever my opinion of myself, I am irreplaceable to them as each of them is to me. My own face will suddenly take on an expression that is characteristically Steve, and my friends will notice, but I won’t have the faintest idea about it; if I did, that would spoil it.
That’s how it works. We are not only for ourselves. The list of things I know about myself is not the same as the list of things my friends know about me. I am not even the best lover of myself, since I can never see in myself that very Steveness that is exactly what my friends love about me. I will never be able to see it. But I know it is there, because there are those that love me; so I don’t have to worry about it terribly much.
In other words, I have only to be myself; which (and this is the part they never tell you) I can only do when I am paying attention to the peculiarly lovable selves of everybody else.
1This often happens while I’m driving.4 If you ever see me suddenly wince in traffic, that’s probably why. 2From The Four Loves. Context is here. 3This is from Percy’s Lost In the Cosmos, also known as The Best Book For Weirdos To Read To Feel Less Like Weirdos. The context is here. 4Which is one reason why I sometimes listen to Savant and/or Skrillex when I’m driving. Did you know, if you turn the dubstep up loud enough, you can’t think of anything at all?
1—It’s my writing day, and that’s a good day, but frankly, I’m in a lot of pain. These road bumps come and go, and I know better than to try reinterpreting my whole life in the light of how I happen to feel today, but today I happen to feel really awful. It’s like those days when you lie in bed shaking with the flu and you just think, “Gosh, I’d like this to over, but it keeps going instead.” Just waiting for the upswing, and in the meantime finding comfort where I can.
2—On the bright side, Pope Francis has released a new encyclical today: Lumen Fidei, the light of faith. You can get it on the Vatican’s website, of course. I’m working my way through it now.
3—I’m super psyched for Matt Jones’ coming out post today. He’s one of the best gay Christian writers I know on the interwebz, and a great human being besides. If you haven’t already read his stuff (as “Jordan”) on Gay Subtlety, there’s a lot of wisdom and entertainment (wisdertainment?) there too.
4—This and other events have me rethinking my own stance towards anonymity. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if I followed suit before too long — partly it’s just a matter of bowing to the inevitable, since my voice is already out there on the net, and soon my face very likely will be too (more on that as that story develops), so maybe my name won’t be that big of a step. But I wanna have some fanfare! I want a party! And also I just want to bide my time and make sure I’m doing it right.
5—Today I needed Confession, like bad, and I actually left my writing spot at the coffee shop in the middle of the day to hunt down the priest after the 12:15 Mass at the Cathedral. Turns out this is the one day he couldn’t make it. That didn’t help my day any. It’s like, you know the Lord isn’t actually telling you “I don’t want to see you” or “I don’t forgive you,” but it’s hard not to feel that way anyway. Catholic Guilt, I know.
6—On the plus side, on my way back to the coffee shop, as I’m processing this and reminding myself of everything I really do know about the Lord, how he’s actually not mean and would actually not rather see me burst into tears in traffic, if it could be avoided, I see this bumper sticker: “Esfuérzate y sé valiente”, be strong and courageous; which is not only relevant but contains a little personal nod, because for me (thanks to my stay in Peru), Spanish is the language of the Lord and of the heart.
Then I look up the full verse and just kind of go, Huh. Well.
7—I’m not nearly as big into Signs as I used to be, but whenever I see something like that, I think of that bit in Lewis’ The Silver Chair:
“Don’t you mind him,” said Puddleglum. “There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there when the giant King caused the letters to be cut, and he knew already all things that would come of them; including this.”
I know that doesn’t do a great job of explaining this moment, but if you’ve read the book you’ll get it, and if you haven’t, you should!
I’m sitting in the parking lot of the shrink’s office. This is why I got a laptop: I am so often in transit that if I waited until I was settled at my desk, I’d never get any writing done.
I think the woman two spaces away is in the same boat. She’s parked in her car, running the AC and eating something with a plastic fork. Poor thing, poor both of us. I’ll write for ten minutes more, smoke a cig, and then go get (as my father would say) my brain drained.
I avoid the waiting rooms of shrinks, strange places because everybody knows why everybody else is there. Not really, of course, since there are as many varieties of mental illness as physical. It’s like the waiting room of a proctologist: it’s not your fault if your smelly parts aren’t working right, it’s not even your fault that you have smelly parts, but everybody is kinda embarrassed anyway.
It took me so long to finally see this shrink, and there were so many roadblocks in the way, that Fr. T and I began to suspect either divine or demonic displeasure. I mainly suspected the latter, or actually neither, since I’ve been trying not to spiritualize every. Single. Thing in my life, and get used to the idea that sometimes sh★t just happens; that maybe there’s a supernatural reason for it and maybe there ain’t, but it usually doesn’t do much good to wonder.
You just try to figure out the best thing to do and then do it.1 If there’s a lesson, it’ll come anyway. We’re children and God’s the teacher, right? So nobody expects kindergartners to see the point behind phonics exercises. If you got the point already, you could’ve designed the lesson yourself.
I dunno what we’ll talk about today. I have some ideas; we could talk about my family and how it’s not my fault I’m so nuts, and maybe I will believe it this time. We could talk about why, if a particular love is hopeless and known to be hopeless, it should nevertheless persist and ache and anguish;2 and what to do when it does. We’ll see.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what William Lynch says about hope: that it is not, after all, an interior resource, not something you generate on your own; anyone who’s been in the throes of a serious depression knows this to be true, and the idea that one should be able to generate hope only drives the nails deeper.
Hope is, instead, the belief that help is available from the outside.
So I hope in my shrink, I hope in my friends, I hope in my family and all of my so-many loved ones, and the so-many who love me. I try to get the hang of hoping in God, but I have to admit that I don’t know what that means, and ask his pardon if all I can muster is hope in the people I can see and touch and hug. I know they can help me, because they have.
What God has to do with it, precisely, I don’t know; but since I don’t know, and since wondering about it makes me crazier, I conclude that he doesn’t mind if I don’t know yet.
1Like Screwtape says: “He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.” 2“Ache and anguish” is from this particularly penetrating sentence of Faulkner’s, which often floats into my head: “life is always premature, which is why it aches and anguishes.” From somewhere in The Town.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.1
When I was in college and going through the worst of it, I got tired of praying that the sadness would go away and that things would be easy. I got tired of it because it was a prayer that was never answered. Or maybe it was, since it’s said that every prayer has only three possible answers: Yes, Later, and Something Better. If this prayer was answered at that time, the answer was certainly one of the latter two.
I wondered, then, if there was a prayer that God would always say Yes to, to spare me the suspense of wondering what his response would be. I came up with this one: Lord, let this day be good. I’d say it on the mornings when I woke up and felt the pain settle in, and I’d say it in the evenings when I saw another night of difficulty coming.
The whole trick was not to bother myself about what “good” might mean. All the problems came from bothering: Why me, why this? What’s the use, what’s the point, what’s this for? How did this happen; when will it be over? Questions that tied my stomach into knots. And again, if God answered those questions, I couldn’t hear him — as C. S. Lewis says somewhere2 — over the din of my own grief. Better not to ask till the noise died down.
But “Let this day be good” — this was always answered. Years later I began to have glimpses of how it was answered, but never completely, and never steadily. Others could see it, no doubt, better than I could. I was too close.
It’s an easy prayer to pray. It requires quiet, and it brings quiet. Sometimes it’s the only prayer possible.
It’s the sort of prayer Jesus might have prayed on the Friday which is, after all, called Good.
1From T. S. Eliot’s East Coker. 2Either in The Problem of Pain or A Grief Observed.