The night of my baptism I was annoyed by screaming of children, the shuffling of the elect in their pews. Throughout my catechumenate year, I had been nurtured in a community of gracious liturgical snobs at Corpus Christi. On top of my weekly RCIA classes with the pastor, I also learned to read Latin and to sing in all the modes of Gregorian chant. I knew my neumes and my mystics better than I knew the Apostles’ Creed. Our Sunday Mass was precise and beautiful in a way that’s hard to find outside the church of England these days, and because I am so profoundly attracted by the beauty of the liturgy, I can only imagine that I would be an Anglican today were it not for Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton. But the Easter Vigil was an important enough occasion that the whole parish was expected to come together to celebrate it, meaning not just the art history professors and theologians who came to the 11 o’clock Mass but also the working class Latino community who filled the pews more completely during the Spanish Mass right before ours, and the families who came in with their many children afterwards. So the level of solemnity was noticeably lower than I was used to, and it took me a few minutes to give in to the beauty of Eve’s daughter’s wails. I hadn’t eaten since Thursday, and part of my Good Friday observance had been to get blood drawn for my first HIV test. I looked into the eyes of Caitlin and Andrew’s baby son while the litany of the saints was sung by all. The water was poured over me in the same font through which Merton himself entered the Church. I was annointed, and I shivered, and after I had received the Body of Christ for the first time, and the Mass had ended, I went down to the reception smiling and crying. One person after another came up to tell me how I had been glowing as I walked down the aisle, and I stuck nearby beautiful Suzanne, who was baptized with me. We went home together on the 1 train after midnight that night, our white garments smooshed into our bags, laughing and hugging and kissing one another’s oily foreheads, and there is no doubt at all that the few other passengers on the train that Easter night thought we were terribly drunk.
I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.
– letter, July 20, 1955
[W]hat one has as a born Catholic is something given and accepted before it is experienced. I am only slowly coming to experience what I have all along accepted. I suppose the fullest writing comes from what has been accepted and experienced both and that I have just not got that far yet all the time. Conviction without experience makes for harshness.
– letter, Aug. 28, 1955
The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints. Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.
. . .
To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been, even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt. For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is.
– letter, Sept 6, 1955
Well Simone Weil’s life is the most comical life I have ever read about and the most truly tragic and terrible. If I were to live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent, I would like to write a comic novel about a woman — and what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?
– letter, Sept 24, 1955
[On the Eucharist:]
I then said, in shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize not that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
– letter, December 16, 1955
This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
– “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable” (1963)
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.
. . .
Penance rightly considered is not acts performed in order to attract God’s attention or get credit for oneself. It is something natural that follows sorrow.
. . .
Whatever you do anyway, remember that these things are mysteries and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself.
– letter, 1959
I don’t know if anyone can be converted without seeing themselves in a kind of blasting annihilating light, a blast that will last a lifetime…
I don’t think of conversion as being once and for all and that’s it. I think once the process is begun and continues that you are continually turning toward God and away from your egocentricity and that you have to see this selfish side of yourself in order to turn away from it. I measure God by everything that I am not. I begin with that.
– letter, February 4, 1961
You’ll have found Christ when you are concerned with other people’s sufferings and not your own.
– letter, November 11, 1961
What I see, when I stop to look, is so immense that it seems impossible to talk about. And yet, the entire vastness is reflected, in full, in every corner. Every moment contains all of history. The most mundane image — coming home on a hot day, I see the cat curled up and sleeping on the serving dish in the middle of the dining room table — when I stop and appreciate it, begins to radiate in all directions. I notice the connections, how this cat merges with every other cat, this hot day with every other hot day, how the memories of past and future cats and dishes and tables shimmer, leaving every hair on the cat’s body shining in the light. Just looking at the cat in the dish, I sense something vast. It takes the subtlest shift in perception to see her glowing that way! And, really, the profane scene is glorious. Each grain in the wood of the table seems so unbelievably sharp. Looking at the cat in this way, I think, is not so different from going to Mass, where we are expected to look for Christ in bread.
But, usually, I do not see any aura around the cat! Because I do not stop. And the cat, I think, is just something else, a cat, a category, over there. The table is just a table, not an altar, which is another category entirely.
It is like, being outside, and staring at the ground at your feet. At first, you see only grass. Then, you notice one ant. And then, five ants. And suddenly, you realize there are hundreds of ants in the grass under your feet. But the ants were there all along. We used to call this “putting on our ant eyes,” but what was actually happening was more like a taking off of shades. When we put aside the idea that the ground is static, we see that it is moving on a thousand tiny feet.
Kafka reminds me I do not even need to go anywhere to see the world. I only need to awaken my senses, and realize that what our senses do is bring what is out there into me, so there is no out there:
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”