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.
Jesus turned to her and said, “Mary”. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!”
What is lonelier than not being seen, not being known?
It is said that the Holy Spirit is the look of love that passes between the Father and the Son. Think of the look of love: think of how unafraid it is, how it sees every bit of us, and delights in what it sees. Think of the certainty that it produces, the certainty that we are understood.
It is this look that kindles in us our selfhood, gives us confidence to live, gives us ground to stand on.1
Some of us grew up unseen. Our parents, maybe, saw only the reflection of their own failures — or were too consumed with their own hurts to see us at all. Or our schoolmates looked and saw only our differences and kept their distance, as if our social leprosy was catching. Or, somehow, nobody saw us at all; we didn’t fit into any group, were outside of every plan. We were spare parts.
What happens when we are not given the look of love? We become afraid. We will go to any lengths to draw this look out of others, but we despair at the same time, because we know that the look is worth nothing unless it is given without our asking.
For this reason, this moment in the Gospel — at the empty tomb, when the risen Jesus calls Mary by name, and finally she recognizes him — is, for me, the essence of Easter. We are surrounded every day by Jesus, Jesus, Jesus:
…For 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.2
He is all around us, but we cannot recognize him, because we have no self to recognize him with, until he calls our name, sees us. This seeing gives us a self, selves us; and once selved, we can respond to him, call him by his name — the name we have for him.
Mary calls him Rabboni, teacher: we might call him Master, or Friend, or Lover; we might call him My Hope, or My Expected One, or My Joy. It is out of our experience of God that we name God.3
Once on a bus trip I met a recovering alcoholic named Hank. I knew he was a recovering alcoholic because that was practically the first thing he said.
I didn’t know whether to be fascinated by this kind of haphazard self-disclosure, or put off by it. I recorded the incident in my journal; I was about twenty-one and in the middle of a very romantically-conceived bus-and-train trip around the country, and I filled my journal with what I considered to be brilliant, penetrating, and above all poignant observations about my experiences and my fellow travellers.
Hank struck me at the time as very humble; you would have to be humble, wouldn’t you, to go around telling your wounds and weaknesses to some guy you just met on a bus? It was certainly the last thing I would have ever done, concerned as I was with keeping my armor in place at all times, managing my image obsessively; something I still struggle with.
He seemed different from most people: his journey out of alcoholism defined him the way some people seem defined by their conversion stories, maybe even the way the Jews were defined by being liberated from slavery in Egypt.
And well it might define him. I’m not and never have been an alcoholic (if I’m down, booze makes me too weepy to be anything resembling an escape), but I’ve always identified with them: the self-destructive patterns, the feeling of entrapment, the knowledge of your own condition combined with an utter helpnessness to drag yourself out of it.
It is a strange way to look at yourself: always seeing the good thing that you are in terms of the bad thing that you used to be. It reminds me of THE ONLY GOOD passage in a TERRIBLE, NOT RECOMMENDED novel by Chuck Palahniuk, when a recovering sex addict says something like: “My life has to be about something besides not jerking off.”
Of course there is something like this in Christian tradition — aren’t the Psalmists constantly praising God for having pulled them out of this or that pit? Hank kept saying how blessed he was to be out, but I wondered if this was what it looks like to be out of something: if you’re out of it, do you still talk about it all the time? The first part is being freed from something; the second part is being freed to do, or to be, something else.
I once said something imprudent and uncharitable to my friend A., who made a habit of exposing the darkest corners of his soul on LiveJournal.1 It was awful stuff, full of false grandeur and barely-masked self-pity. I didn’t think it was worthy of him, so I posted on his page this poem2 by Cavafy:
As Much As You Can
And if you cannot make your life as you want it,
at least try this
as much as you can: do not disgrace it
in the crowding contact with the world,
in the many movements and all the talk.
Do not disgrace it by taking it,
dragging it around often and exposing it
to the daily folly
of relationship and associations,
till it becomes like an alien, burdensome life.
I love that phrase: “an alien, burdensome life.” Think too much about your life, talk too much about it, and it becomes a dead weight, something to be dragged around.
But just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to say it to your friend. Seven or eight years later, I still remember his exact reply, because of how it stung:3 “What am I to think of a friend who says to me, ‘Stop, this is too much of you’?”
I’m thinking of all this because of the way, for my three or four months of turmoil,4 I buttonholed anyone and everyone who might listen and might help, and spilled out my grief, as much of it as I could dredge up. It was the only way I knew to try to get rid of it. It was okay, I don’t mind, I’m glad I did it, it helped. If my friends wearied of my moaning, they didn’t show it, and if for a short while I turned into an emotional black hole, they don’t seem to hold it against me now. But now that that time is more or less over, I’ve got to be sure I break the habit.
It’s okay to be the center of everyone’s attention when you’re sick, but when you’re on the mend, it’s business as usual. You don’t go on laying on the couch and waiting for people to bring you chicken broth.
1You can tell this happened a longish time ago, because, LiveJournal?? 2I know this poem because of my father, who once gave me Cavafy’s collected works and said with some kind of half-glint in his eye, “This my favorite homosexual poet.” 3And because, even when it’s barbed and directed at me, I can’t help appreciating a phrase as well-turned as this one. 4those months / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
His name is Charles de Foucauld, and that is nearly all I know about him.1 Except what is visible in his face, which I will not try to put into words. My mother says that when she saw the picture some years ago, her first thought was: “How did they take a photograph of Jesus?”
It’s clearly Him. This is what Hopkins meant, or part of it, when he said
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.2
This past week I’ve been enjoying the new translation of the Mass. One part stood out particularly: “Welcome them into the light of your face.” I love it. It makes me think of the blessing my father used to give us, the same one Aaron gave his sons:
May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
May the Lord life up his countenance upon you, and grant you peace.3
I’ve heard people wondering whether this is an apt translation — does God have a face? The answer, of course, is yes. God has a face because we have faces; or rather, we have faces because God has one.
When we’re comparing ourselves to God — the fact that we have faces, that we have desires, or that we hunger and thirst — it’s tempting to say: “Yes, that’s true of God, in a metaphorical sense.” The implication is that our faces and our desires are somehow more concrete than their correlatives in God. We, after all, are flesh and bone, and He is only spirit.
No, no, no! We are the ones who are metaphors. Flesh itself is a metaphor. Our faces are symbols of His. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we’ve only ever seen shadows. And more often, shadows of shadows: how often have you met a man whose face burns as brightly as Charles de Foucauld’s? What would it take for your face to look like that?
And if the shadow of God’s face, God’s tenderness, God’s smile, looks like this, what will the reality be like?
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?1
It was bad, dear readers, very bad. I spent last night in the lowest parts of the pit, and all day today the black dog gnawed at my leg, and only gnawed harder when I tried to kick his face in. That’ll teach me to boast about how well I’m doing, how fine I am, and how out I’ve got everything figured.2
Crying didn’t help, and neither did yelling. Talking to myself, talking to God; I didn’t have any answers, and neither did he. Came home, cried some more, tried not to punch anything. Finally settled down, after Compline, enough to be able to write something. I won’t even look at it today, just going to delete the whole thing. You think you know maudlin? Baby, you ain’t seen maudlin ’till you’ve seen me blog in the middle of a good old-fashioned funk.
A good night’s sleep didn’t clear it up, so tonight after the gym and a quick dinner, I got out the cigarettes and the kleenex and called Father T. I told him about my frustration, my anger, my depression. My feeling that I had failed, again, to be the man I wanted to be. How I don’t usually feel this bad but I never feel all that good, either; how feeling bad was a kind of relief, because at least I was feeling something, and maybe that something was closer to the truth.
Answer me, tell me I’m doing something wrong; tell me I feel this way because I’m living the wrong way. Tell me that everything is okay, and that I just can’t see it because I’m not wise enough, tell me that everything will be fine, and that I just can’t get there because I’m not strong enough. Tell me, tell me. I can take it.
That wasn’t what he told me.
What you want is something real. We’re all wired for it. It’s just that your wires are pointing in the wrong direction.
We’re all meant for love and for fulfillment. It’s the fulfillment that a man finds in marriage.
Do you get what I’m saying?
Yes, yes, I get it. Sure. But what I don’t get is why I’m meant for something that I never get to have.
I don’t have an answer. I wish I had an answer. There is no answer.
That was the right answer.
Fr. T, if you had told me that I was wrong to feel how I feel, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that God was good and the world was beautiful, I might have believed you, but I would have hung up.
Instead, you gave me the truth that so many people think is too hard for me and for those like me. You respected me and trusted me, as they do not. You told me that I am called to a kind of martyrdom. That the world is difficult, and that there is no answer, not here, to the question of man’s woundedness. That my SSA is not fair, any more than Down Syndrome is fair, or poverty is fair.
That those who cry “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, are lying. I am not okay, the world is not okay, none of us is okay. If you’ve never noticed it, then you’re not paying attention.
Being a secularist means believing that there is nothing wrong with the world or with us — or anyway, nothing that can’t be fixed by politics and technology. Thank God I’m a Christian. We don’t lie to ourselves; we know the world is broken, and all of us are broken with it. We know evil is real. And we know where to take it. We take it to the cross, we take it to the altar.
So I’m not okay, not today. But you’d be surprised how good I feel about it.
1The whole thing is here. 2Here in the writing business we call that “parallelism.” Not to be confused with its close cousin, “poor sentence construction.”
Call me a sap if you want, and you’ll be right, but I found the new Planet of the Apes moving. It wasn’t the friendship between the James Franco character and the ape, although that was pretty nicely done. It wasn’t the Noble Savage thing, which is not only tired but silly — it’s not civilization that makes man cruel, it’s sin.1
Nope, it was all the jumping through the trees that did it. I swear I was born to be roaming a veldt somewhere, which is funny because (a) I stare at glowing rectangles for a living, and (b) I’m not even sure what a veldt is.2 But Andy Serkis and the animators did a tremendous job of capturing the physicality of the apes: their simultaneous grace and heaviness, their total physical joy. Like Hopkins’ windhover: the fire that breaks from thee then!
I can’t see that kind of thing without thinking of Heaven. When I go for a hike3 and come to a clearing, somewhere where you can see the earth spread out below you for miles and miles, I always want to jump, because I’m almost certain that if I did, I would just glide. It seems like the thing to do: food is for eating, people are for loving, and mountain views are for leaping into.
Except you can’t, because you’ll go splat. Which is the difference between here and Heaven. Another good thing about being a Christian: knowing that desire doesn’t lie. If I want something that’s impossible on earth — and I do, so often — it’s because earth is just the shadow of the real thing, put here to remind us of what real life is.
1A fact that is entirely missed by people who think that “civilization” means the same thing as “technology.” 2But it’s a great word, isn’t it? How many English words have silent d’s? 3And it’s been much, much too long since I have.