Carving light out of darkness: The art of Kreg Yingst

Kreg Yingst had set himself a task: He would make one block print for each of the psalms.

“I thought I was gonna knock it out in a year,” he said.

He did not knock it out in a year. Some of the images came to him easily, but some were a struggle. The project dragged.

And that was perfect.

“I had to wrestle with it. It became my daily prayer. If nothing came, I had to sit on it, and that would be the one prayer I would pray. If a visual didn’t come, I would read it tomorrow,” he said.

 

He compares the process to meleté, the intense word-based meditative prayer of the Desert Fathers. Many of them were illiterate, so they would go to their abbot, receive some lines of Scripture and immerse themselves in them all day to “pray without ceasing” in their cells, perhaps in song. This slow, repetitious meditation would purify their hearts and allow the words to take root.

More than two years later, Yingst’s prints that grew from these words became a book, “The Psalms in 150 Block Prints” ($35.95).

Yingst, 63, was heavily influenced by the black-and-white graphic woodcuts of German artist Frans Masereel and American Lynd Ward, whose wordless novels are considered a precursor to the modern graphic novel. Yingst’s deft, striking compositions, which often incorporate text, are sometimes exuberant, sometimes mystical and often jarring.

As an artist who shares his work on Instagram as he makes it, Yingst has had the disconcerting experience of knowing his most heartfelt pieces will probably be social media “duds.”

“We all want to be happy, and we all want sunshine. It’s the sweet aroma of prayer that everybody likes,” he laughed.

But the psalms also carry a lot of darkness, struggle and fear. He chose not to skip over those verses.

“When the rainy days come, how do I deal with it? Because I can’t escape it. That’s what the psalmists were doing. They always came back to [saying to God], ‘You’re still here. You’re my rock, my foundation,’” he said.

At the same time, he learned that some of the more fearsome psalms — the ones begging God to crush our enemies, and the ones that speak of dashing babies against rocks, are not what they first may seem.

“I need to understand this is a spiritual language. I can’t let this bitterness take root in me but cut it off while it’s still a baby. I started reading the psalms that way,” he said.

He discovered that they’re not so much inveighing against an enemy that’s some literal group of people but against whatever darkness every human will encounter.

One especially dark moment was the school shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012. Yingst had two young daughters and couldn’t come to terms with the horror and loss those parents were enduring. So for his New Year’s resolution, he decided to carve one prayer a week for the entire year. Those images became a self-published book, “Light from Darkness: Portraits and Prayers” ($29.95), and he donated the proceeds to orphanages. Sandy Hook parents had lost their children, so he wanted to help children who had lost parents.

“It was reactionary. I wanted to throw light. At least, this will bring a little light,” he said.

Woodcuts and linoleum prints are particularly suited to that goal.

“With the block print, and with linoleum or woodcuts, you have that black square, and every time I make a mark, every time I make a gouge, I’m carving light out of darkness,” he said.

Read the rest of my latest artist profile for Our Sunday Visitor

Previous artists featured in this series:
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion. 

I am once again asking you to make a morning offering

Nobody in their right mind would look to me for advice on how to have a strong, consistent prayer life. All my life, I have struggled with prayer, and I have mostly won. (Think about what that means for a moment. It’s not good!)

But if you could zoom out and look over my life, you could see one thing: The times when I am most at peace and seeking God’s will most often are the times when I was consistently making a morning offering.

This is not a straight “if x, then y” causal connection, of course. It is not magic to make a morning offering. It may even be the other way around: I am more likely to make a morning offering when I’m at a time in my life when I am already feeling connected to God or when I’m already remembering consistently to turn to him to help with hope and trust. One thing I know is that there are not any shortcuts.

Nevertheless, if anyone asked me what was the one thing they could do to start off on a better path spiritually, I would recommend resolving to make a morning offering. It hits that sweet spot: It’s fast and it’s easy, but it takes a small amount of discipline on your part, which signals to you that it is worthwhile. But it also puts the ball in the Holy Spirit’s court, which, well, I am starting to think is the whole entire point of life.

It is also something you can do no matter what your current relationship with God is like. If you’re feeling distant, you can offer up your day as a wistful act of hope, no harm done. If you’re angry, you can do it defiantly: Hey, You! See this sack of garbage you left me with? How about you carry it for a while? [Flings life down at foot of cross with horrible splatting noise.] If you’re feeling lazy, you can do it because it’s quick and easy and better than nothing. If you’re feeling very connected, it can be a beautiful and profound way to begin another day with the Lord. If you’re feeling trusting, you can thank him in advance for whatever is about to come.

The big thing is, you don’t have to be…anything. You don’t have to have particular plans or expectations for your morning offering. It may even be better if you don’t. … Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

***
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What does it say in the belly of the whale?

My community band practices in the basement of a synagogue, and there is a strange work of art on the wall. It’s rendered in wood, painted in bright colors, and it shows something I have never seen before: A whale diving into the deep, surrounded by brilliant fish. Nestled in the whale’s stomach is a man.

You are thinking it is Jonah, and I guess it is. But he is not a desperate, raggedy prophet in dire straits. He is an old man, clearly Jewish, with a noble profile and glasses, a kippah on his head and a fringed blue-and-white tallit on his shoulders. He is sitting on a little wooden chair at a little wooden table. Overhead (yes, in the whale) hangs a little wooden lightbulb, and by its light he is reading one of a stack of little wooden books. Just sitting there quietly reading a book, inside the whale. The whale looks slightly alarmed, but the old man is perfectly at home, learning.

I thought immediately of a Reddit post I recently saw, written by a young woman who was enraged at her father for spending his own money, at the end of his life, on a long-delayed college education. What does the old man need to go to college for? His life is almost over! The money should be preserved, not wasted on a man who’s almost gone. It was even worse than the Prodigal Son: She was not only demanding her inheritance ahead of time but also begrudging that her father should have any of it.

I thought of my own father. Partly because he looked a little bit like the bearded old Jew with his wooden books and partly because he did keep on learning, right up until the end. From books, to be sure. His bedside, when I went there to tidy things up to sell our old house, was smothered in books. But he was not necessarily pushing himself academically in his final years. I think he died watching TV (not that there’s anything wrong with that—he was tired).

What I mean is that the last several years of his life tested him mightily. The family fell to one crisis after another, and finally my mother lapsed irretrievably into dementia, and he had to learn to pour love into her and get nothing in return but mumbles and flutters. He had to learn so much. He was so old, but he had so many things to learn before he was delivered from this life.

During this time, he told me that the Lord was taking more and more things away from him, and he was glad, because it was getting him ready for death. He smiled when he said this. He was grateful it was happening—the getting ready, not the dying. He did not seem to feel, against all odds, that it was a dark time, even as his life dwindled away.

This is what it fundamentally means to be a Christian: It means to know that what we are doing is getting ready. What we are experiencing, all the time, is learning…Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

***
Image: Jonah by Rosalind Welcher, on the walls of the Congregation Ahavas Achim in Keene, NH; photo by Simcha Fisher

Do women need ascesis?

A few years ago, I interviewed James Baxter, the developer of Exodus90, a spiritual exercise aimed at Catholic men who want to find spiritual freedom through prayer, ascesis, and fraternity.

One thing lots of people wanted to know: Why is this only for men? Why was there no companion program for women?

Although I have mixed feelings about the program in general, I was impressed by Baxter’s answer to this question. He said that, while “there’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community,” the program had been written with men and fatherhood in mind, so he didn’t want to just — boop! — shift it over to women.

But people kept pressing him to write up and market a version for women. He said:

“We’re a bunch of men. You don’t want us writing a program for women. So we got a religious order we respected. Their whole mission revolves around feminine identity. We asked them, ‘Would you study Exodus, and if you think this is a model of healing for women, would you write a program, if you feel called to?’

“Six months later, they said they didn’t believe this structure is a model of healing for women.”

I have my own theories for why this may be. Warning: I’ll be painting with a broad brush here, so please keep in mind that my words won’t apply to every last individual human. 

In general, women are introduced at an early age to the inescapability of suffering, and to the ultimate helpless of humans in the face of nature and before the will of God.

When women hit puberty and realize that menses are their fate for the next 30 or 40 years, they get smacked right across the face with the notion that their bodies are not under their control, and there are larger forces at work in their lives. They learn that, while there may be things you can do to mitigate suffering and helplessness, you won’t be able to escape it entirely, and the best you can hope for is to either replace it with a different kind of suffering, or just to accept it and try to become stronger through it.

(I’m not even going to talk about sex, here. Hey, maybe someone should write a book about that.)

Then if they get pregnant, intentionally or not, the next nine months hammer that lesson home: Your body is not your own. Your life is not your own. What you do affects other people, even possibly fatally. At the same time, this thing that is so very intimate is also very much out of your control. Life can happen within you. Death can happen within you. Very often, there is nothing you can do.

Then comes childbirth, with its unpredictability, its glory and its terror.  Like grandmother Mary Rommely said, “When a woman gives birth, death holds her hand for a little while. Sometimes he doesn’t let go.”

Show me a woman who feels the same about life before and after giving birth, and I’ll show you . . . I don’t know what I’ll show you, because I’ve never seen it.

Then comes raising a child, and learning to live with the idea that every effort you make to nurture this child goes toward the loss of that child. Helping your baby to grow means helping your baby to grow away from you. Every inch of life is an inch toward loss. You’re simultaneously responsible for the life of another human, and forced to accept that you cannot protect them from suffering and sorrow.

Motherhood means understanding they will die without you, and also your whole work is to teach them to live without you. You’re constantly preparing your own heart to be broken.

AND THAT’S JUST HOW IT IS.

Women already know they are not in control. Women already know their bodies are going to let them down. Women already know that life is shot through with loss and helplessness. Women already know you can’t always make things better by trying really hard. Women already know that God is immense and that they are very small. Women already know that God can make Himself small to be within us.

Or at least they can know these things, just by paying attention to the things that happen to them over the course of a lifetime.

Women are, as we all know, fully capable of strolling through womanhood vapid and selfish and shallow. They can flee from the reality of the suffering and loss that are baked into human life, and many do.

But the thing is, they do have to actively flee from it, because it’s front and center, inside and outside and all around them, every day.

It’s not so for men.

Don’t get me wrong: Men suffer. Individual men suffer, some at an early age; and manhood presents its unique trials and deprivations. Life asks a lot of men, and without the personal, sometimes brutal sacrifices of men on behalf of people they care for, life would grind to a halt. So you don’t have to start yelling at me about firemen and soldiers and guys who uncomplainingly stand in ankle-deep freezing water while their wives are snugly home in bed.

But, in general (in general! in general!), men must actively choose to take on these sacrifices. They must decide to accept suffering. They must be willing to step into a role where they lay down their lives for other people: To work for other people, to put their bodies in the way of danger, to deny themselves, to take responsibility for their own behavior. It’s a choice.

It’s not that life is harder for women than for men. Everybody’s life is hard! It’s that women have to opt out of suffering, whereas men have to opt in.

And that, perhaps, is why spiritual guides for women are less apt to insist on a lot of regimented self-denial and ascesis as the road to God: Everybody needs it, but men often need a push to go down that road, whereas God has (in general! in general!) already set these things in front of women, and we find Him in learning how to accept them with grace, rather than with fear, anger, and resentment.

So, while I could certainly use some ascesis in my currently rather soft life, I don’t think I really need the lesson that ascesis is meant to teach. I already know it, because I’m a woman.

Well, what do you think?  I will readily admit that this is half-baked idea, but every woman I’ve talked to knows exactly what I’m talking about.

*
*

Photo by Daniela Fazendeiro
A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on March 4, 2020.

We talked about the cross

When I used to teach catechism, with a loud and hopping little class of eight- and nine-year-olds, most of them were more or less willing to learn how to repent of their little sins and get back with Jesus again.

So we talked about the cross. Of course we talked about the cross.

“Let me see your best sign of the cross,” I would call out in my best teacher voice, with one eye fixed on those two boys who would make the most trouble. “Let’s start the class off right,” I would say. And we would cross ourselves: up, down, left, right, amen. Begin.

One of the things I told them about was Miguel Pro. Here was a guy who was so joyful, full of tricks and jokes and trouble, but he was really ready to serve, and things got serious very quickly. He had to sneak around to be a priest, and he soon got arrested for it, and you know the rest.

You know the famous photo, which I decided to show my class: There he stands before the firing squad with his arms outstretched, making a cross with his body. That’s what he decided to do with his life: Make a cross.

Grentidez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Grentidez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I told the kids that, when they were baptized, they were marked with a cross, sealed, signed. “You know how pirates do,” I said. (Things pop out of your mouth when you’re in front of a group of kids).

“You know how, when they bury their treasure, they mark the spot so they can come back for it? How do they mark it?”

They all knew it was with an X. “Well, God marks his treasure with a cross,” I said. “That’s where his treasure is: That’s the spot that he wants to come back to. That’s the thing that he cares about: Right in the middle of the cross.”

And they believed me. They knew that Jesus was on the cross, and they saw that, when they made the cross on themselves, they were right there, with Jesus.

Plain as day. I thought about having them stand and make a cross with their bodies like Miguel Pro about to be shot full of holes, but we settled for making a sign on ourselves, marking the spot where God’s treasure is. 

It’s right there: Up, down, left, right, amen. And I had them shout: VIVA CRISTO REY. It was close to the end of class, and any time we had a little free time, we got a little shouting in. VIVA CRISTO REY.

I know this is too much for little children.

Who is this not too much for?

I’m thinking of Peter, Peter himself, the rock, arguing with Jesus that he should try and get out of suffering and dying, then when they tried to pin him down, denying he even knows the guy, then swinging wildly at people’s heads with his sword to defend him, then in his final wretchedly agonic act, begging to be crucified upside down because when he got a good look at the thing, he decided he wasn’t good enough to be on Jesus’ cross.

Right, left, down, up, good grief. It’s too much. But where else is there to be? Here I am, stuck in the middle with Jesus.

I used to worry, while I taught: How will these little children reconcile everything I am telling them? How will they understand that it’s all the same cross?

This weird little thing I told them about pirates, and the scary picture of the martyr, and the dusty brass crucifix on the classroom wall, and that one funny kid who always whips through the sign of the cross as fast as he can because it makes the other kids giggle, no matter what I say.

The sign that marks them as a spot so precious that God will climb up there and die for them, because that’s where he wants to be. 

It’s something to shout about in triumph, and also something they will probably someday run from in terror, once they get a good look at it. I do. I’m running right now, or trying to. All of my choices are bad and I’m pinned like a bug, so there’s nowhere to run. Last year, my cross was that I felt useless, and I feel like a jackass making that mark on myself, reminding God that I’m his little bitty treasure, and won’t he please come back for me?

People have gotten so mad at me for saying you can’t escape your cross, but I didn’t make that up. It’s always there, one way or another. Open your eyes. 

I recall that sometimes, while I taught catechism, the cross was just showing up. Some classes were terrible, chaotic, pointless, but I had to show up and try. And I did try. I really couldn’t fault the material, anyway. At least I always knew where to start: Up, down, left, right, amen, and begin.

So, open your eyes, and see that the cross isn’t empty. I don’t understand it, but that is where Jesus wants to be. Viva Cristo Rey. Mark the spot, and begin.

*

*

*

*

A version of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Weekly on November 14, 2021.

Photo by Randy Greve via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The cross is meant to be co-opted

When Rod Dreher announced he and his wife were divorcing, the first thing I should have done was pray for them. Instead, I braced myself for the nasty comments that I knew would follow his announcement. And they did follow, as Dreher himself predicted they would.

Dreher has plenty of ill-wishers, and not undeservedly. Despite his large audience and capable mind, he’s not a careful man, and tends to bounce from panic to panic, often resting only in exasperating self-indulgence that’s frustrating even to people who agree with some of his views. And some of the things he believes are appalling.

Still, I guess my corner of the internet is somewhat sheltered, because I wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of delight that followed the news. This wasn’t a case of just desserts, like a bad boss getting fired himself, or a thief having his own possessions stolen. It was a man whose ideas people disagreed with announcing that he had been struggling for nine years to save his marriage, and had finally failed, and it was partially his fault. To respond to such news with glee is to pull hell down on your head. 

One comment in particular stood out, because it presented itself as correcting his christianity. A woman jeered at him for using an image from The Passion as the header image for the essay where he briefly describes his suffering. Dreher was, in fact, in Jerusalem as he wrote that column, and had been praying at Golgotha during Holy Week, so it would be almost unnatural if an image of the crucifixion hadn’t suggested itself to him as a natural illustration for intense personal pain. But this commenter excoriated him for comparing himself to Jesus. She said it was typical self-aggrandizement for him to co-opt the imagery of the cross for his own suffering.

But that is the point of the cross. 

That is why the execution of our savior was public. That is why it was done in the middle of the day, in front of crowd, on top of the hill: So everyone could see, and so everyone would know that Jesus wept and bled and lost the strength of his limbs just like us.  Just like anyone who had ever suffered until that day, and just like anyone who ever would suffer. That’s the point. The cross is meant to be co-opted. That’s what it’s for. 

I think that the woman who scoffed at Rod Dreher probably didn’t have a lot of theological thoughts in her head, and mainly just didn’t like Rod Dreher, and wouldn’t have sympathy for anything he did or said. It is, perhaps, fairly common to think of christianity mainly as a sort of overarching philosophy that describes social services that should be available to other people, and it doesn’t even occur to many that it’s ever meant to be personal to each of us.

In any case, it’s quite common for people who are more fair-minded, and who don’t reflexively kick people who are already down, to do a sort of defensive gate-keeping when it comes to suffering: To say that this or that isn’t real suffering, or that it isn’t authentic or worthy or profound enough to call itself actual suffering. That it’s something lesser, something we should be embarrassed to admit we struggle with.

Well, there is suffering, and there is suffering. I remember hearing how a friend of the family was sitting by the bedside of her dying husband. She had spent the last few months increasingly at his bedside in between her own jobs, wondering how she would care for their many children if he didn’t pull through. His roommate had the TV on, tuned to a televangelist channel, and the notorious Tammy Faye was on screen, weeping into the camera as usual, her gummy mascara bleeding into the neck of her expensive silk blouse as she begged for money for Jesus. A nurse came into the room and brushed past the widow-to-be, looked dolefully up at the TV, and asked the family plaintively, “Aww, why’s Tammy crying?” 

So there is suffering, and there is suffering. This is true. There is such a thing as taking an impartial look at another human’s life and saying, “No, it’s not that bad.” Not as bad as what happened to Jesus. 

And I remember some thoughtful, painful conversations around the painting “Mama,” which shows a Pieta where the dead Jesus closely resembles George Floyd. The artist, Kelly Latimore, told the NYT that he “always responds ‘yes’ when asked whether the painting depicts Jesus or Floyd.”

The artist goes on to say:

“It’s not an either-or scenario. Is it George Floyd? Yes. Is it Jesus? Yes. There’s sacredness in every person.”

I don’t know exactly what he meant by that. There is suffering, and there is suffering, and it’s worth having respectful conversations about just how firmly to draw the line between our suffering and Jesus’. It is one thing to say that he is like us, and another to say that we are like him. 

What I do know is that Jesus is like is in all things but sin, but for many of us, this never feels real until we suffer. That’s where we meet Jesus, and know him, and recognize him, and feel his aid: In suffering. Sometimes that’s the only place we meet him.

And so it’s a very serious thing when fellow Christians want to take that commonality away, on the grounds that we’re not worthy to count ourselves that close to Christ, or to feel that we have so much in common with him. 

Because that, too, is the point: We’re not worthy. That’s why he came for us. Our unworthiness to have anything in common with God is the very reason why we need a savior. 

There is suffering, and there is suffering, but there is only one man who suffered for the purpose of public consumption, as it were. No, not as it were: Literally. Catholics, at very least, should be used to this idea. 

Jesus’ suffering is universal; it is for everyone. And at the same time, it is personal. It is for each of us as individuals, and it means what it must in our specific lives. The cross is for us to use, to co-opt, to identify with, to look to, to cling to, to use however we can so we do not fall into the netherworld. That is what it’s for. As long as it is sincere, it is fair game. 

The suffering of other people, though — yes, even the suffering of pundits we don’t like — is not for us to judge, and certainly not for us to use, certainly not for our own amusement or for clout on Twitter. Be careful, friends. As much as the cross is there for us to use, other people’s suffering is very much not for us to use. Very much not. 

 

**
A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on May 10, 2022.

Sorrow yields a harvest

I was struck hard by some lines I’ve heard hundreds of times:

Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.

It’s meant to be a comforting, encouraging, rousing verse, stirring us to hope because the children of Jerusalem “are remembered by God.” Today I found it comforting because I recalled what a universal experience it is, to “go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown.”

Oh, how well we know about this. How well everyone who has ever worked has felt that sense of working and weeping, trudging in to the fields with your seeds and your tools, and also the burden of the sorrows of work itself.

There are so many sorrows that go along with work. That’s just how it is, so much of the time. There’s the sorrow of working when you’d much rather rest. The sorrow of working and knowing nobody appreciates it. The sorrow of working and feeling completely inadequate to the job.

There’s the sorrow of working and knowing you’re unlikely to be there to see the job completed. The sorrow of working and wondering if anything will come of your efforts, or if you’re just burying seeds in the dark, and that’s the last anyone will ever see of them. The sorrow of working and knowing someone else is likely to get the credit. The sorrow of working and knowing you need help, and knowing you’re unlikely to get it. 

There’s the sorrow of working and wondering if you’re doing it right, or possibly doing the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing. The sorrow of wondering if everything you do is going to be undone as soon as you let your guard down.

I was struck, as I say, by the verse in part just because it is so familiar to me. I’ve heard it so many times, in so many contexts, it suddenly hit home that its very familiarity means that it’s a universal experience. It’s not a sign that I’m defective or lazy or on the wrong track. This is just what work is like.

If work were always enjoyable and fulfilling, and we were always confident and and capable and always got immediately rewarded for our efforts, it wouldn’t be work at all; it would be recreation. But work — I mean the things we would never choose to do, but must do because of who we are — carries with it its burden of sorrow, confusion, uncertainty, guilt, resentment, fear, weariness, and grief. That’s just what work is like, much of the time. This is true for everybody.

And there’s more.

It’s also true for everybody that work brings with it rejoicing, eventually, most especially work that is done in Jesus’ name. And by that I mean any kind of work that you do because you must, and then when you pat the cold soil back into place over the dry little seed, you tell God, “This is now yours.”

I believe that kind of work will bring a harvest even when I can barely muster up the memory of how it feels to rejoice.  I believe that “they shall come rejoicing, bringing in their sheaves” is a universal experience of joy, just as work is a universal experience of sorrow. And I believe that joy plays out in as many ways as work plays out in sorrow. I do remember. It has happened to me, and I believe it will happen again.

I believe because God is literally promising this to us. He couldn’t be more clear. As many kinds of sorrow as there are, there will be ten times more kinds of rejoicing, because that is what work is like, too: It’s the kind of thing that yields a harvest. Sorrow — the sorrow of work, and maybe all kinds of sorrow — yields a harvest. Sweat and tears water the ground for the harvest, because the earth is not always a grave. We know this. Things that are buried do not always stay that way.

God has promised this. Jesus has modeled this. He has told us so, over and over and over again. This is how we unite ourselves with him: Be willing to work. Be there for the burying, and there will be rejoicing.

But to get a harvest, you must work. To get a harvest, you must wait.  

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on February 13, 2022.

How dare you speak that way?

A few months ago, a bunch of Catholics resurrected a funny tweet by writer and comedian Daniel Kibblesmith:

 

The joke was very well received. But a few people, to my gratification, were offended by it. Not offended because someone dared to make a joke about God, but offended in an older sense, as in wounded and dismayed, aware of a trespass, maybe even alert to some kind of danger because a line has been crossed.

That was how I felt, to my surprise.

The joke is funny because, when you try to sum up what God says in the book of Job, it doesn’t add up. Surviving unbearable agony versus inventing the hippo comes across as nonsensical and absurd, out of context. But in the context of Scripture, God is revealing to Job his ineffable immensity, his unanswerableness, in such a way that, well, if you read the whole thing, the fact that he made the hippopotamus does answer Job’s suffering. But you have to be willing to put yourself right there in front of the bellowing hippopotamus and feel his hot breath and smell his smell and think of who made him.

You have to be open to the idea that the Book of Job tears off a veil and reveals a relationship between God and Job. That is, at least, how Job himself perceives it. And so do many people who have read it deeply. They can put themselves where Job is. And maybe that’s why, at least to some people, the joke came across not as a light-hearted spoof but as something ugly. Because, for people who have felt that hot breath of suffering, the flippancy trespassed on something real—a specific, painful, precious, hard-won relationship that exists between actual people and God. At least, I think so. Humor is tricky. So is God.

So why did so many Catholics, who presumably know something about submission to the will of God in the face of profound suffering, share the tweet? Or, more broadly, why do we often have the almost rebellious impulse to make jokes about sacred things?

When I worked for conservative outlets, readers regularly took me to task for my irreverence. I was told I had no business making jokes about holy things like prayer, church, priests, saints or, of course, sex. There are some people who really do live like this: They believe that jokes are all very well and good, but they must be sequestered strictly away from anything remotely spiritual.

This approach makes no sense to me. I wouldn’t even know how to have a spiritual life without laughing about it sometimes. Scripture is very plainly full of jokes, and even if you set aside the possibility that I’m projecting, I would swear God teases me.

And I tease back, when I’m feeling up to it. My husband and I were alone (well, not alone, but you know what I mean) in the adoration chapel a few weeks ago, and he was deep in the Gospel. I nudged him and whispered, “Anything good in there?” He flipped a few pages back and forth, lifted an eyebrow, and said, “Meh.” I laughed so hard I almost broke the kneeler. That was a good day because I was buoyed up with the certain knowledge that of course there was good stuff in there. The joke, in other words, was on us. It was irreverent, but ultimately, it was directed at us and our habit of behaving as if the Gospel is, indeed, meh.

Another day at the chapel, not so good ….Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr Creative Commons

The hard lesson of being unproductive

Because I’m friends with a lot of creative people — painters, poets, authors, poets, clothing and jewelry designers — there is a lot of talk about impostor syndrome, the deeply internalized fear that one’s accomplishments are all a sham. Even though they have successful careers, they routinely have to hush the little voice telling them have no business calling themselves a professional, and that either everyone is already laughing at them, or it’s only a matter of time before the great denouement begins. (I am also friends with a few people who ought to feel this way, but don’t. Somehow it’s always the genuinely talented and accomplished people who feel the most like phonies, whereas there’s no shortage of confidence among the fakers, hacks, and bums.)

So a little service my friends and I perform for each other is to point out the obvious: But you’re doing it. You’re making a living. People are paying you for what you do. Your skills are in demand. If you’re not the real thing, then no one is. The objective evidence proves you are productive and successful. 

The task has been a bit different lately. Lots of creative people are in a bit of a rut. Can’t seem to come up with any ideas. Can’t seem to come up with any enthusiasm for expressing what they do come up with. Can’t seem to drum up a persuasive argument for why it’s worth while to try to express anything to anyone anyway, when everyone is so . . . well, you know. It was one thing when we were doing drawing challenges to get through a two-week lockdown to flatten the curve. Headed past the bend of two years, and the flattening effect has become pervasive, and very flat indeed. 

So the task becomes a bit different. Rather than persuade ourselves that what we produce really is extraordinary, really is above average, really is something special, my friends and I are busily reminding each other that we are valuable and worthy even when we’re not producing anything. And this is a steeper hill to climb. 

But it is a time that will come to all of us, sooner or later. Night, when no man works. The hour when the clock has run out, one way or the other, and we will no longer be able to point to our busywork as evidence for our worth.

For some people, this hour is their entire lives: They never make anything, they never accomplish anything. They simply exist, and the Christian ethos has always insisted that these souls are as worthy of love and respect as the most productive among us. There are saints who never did anything but sweep the floor, and saints who never did anything but pray. There are saints who only became saints after they lost their ability to accomplish the things they thought God put them on earth to do. 

I wish I were writing this essay as a guide to tell you how to get from A to B — how to remind yourself that you have intrinsic worth in the eyes of God, and that your value was never a matter of what you could accomplish or produce. I do know that God sometimes gets our attention by letting our accomplishments be taken away from us.

I’m in no place to teach any lessons, but I can at least point to them. I’m reading He Leadeth Me, and woof, that’s the story right there.

The author, Servant of God Walter Ciszek, tells about how he thought he was going to be a bold and amazing priest who evangelizes Russia, but when he gets there, it turns out he’s not allowed to preach; then he gets arrested and it turns out everyone he talks to has been taught to despise priests; and then he doesn’t even get to talk to anybody at all, except interrogators . . . for five years. 

And he breaks. He agrees to sign his name to a false confession of spying for the Vatican, and is horrified and grief-stricken at his own weakness. And this is the place where he finds himself totally reliant on the mercy and will of God. 

About halfway through the book, after he describes a strange and profound conversion where he fully surrenders to God’s will for the first time, he says:

“Somehow, that day, I imagined I must know how Saint Peter felt when he had survived his denials and been restored to Christ’s friendship. Even though our Lord had promised that he, being once converted, would confirm his brethren, I doubt very much that Peter ever again boasted that he would never desert the Lord even if all others deserted him. I find it perfectly understandable that Peter, in his letters to the early churches, should have reminded his Christians to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. For just as man begins to trust in his own abilities, so sure has he taken the first step on the road to ultimate failure. And the greatest grace God can give such a man is to send him a trial he cannot bear with his own powers–and then sustain him with his grace to he may endure to the end and be saved. “

I am not going to pretend I know what this really means. I’m just going to keep reading the book, which is fascinating and brutally honest about his interior struggles. I’m sure it’s no accident that this book came into my life when the theme of the last many months has been distress over how little I seem to be able to get done. Fr. Ciszek puts a lot of stock — his entire heart, in fact — in the value of being where God puts you, to do God’s will. I wish he had been more explicit about how to tell what God’s will is; but I have gathered, at least, that it’s more about being than about doing. And the good news is, he found tremendous joy, freedom, and relief when he surrendered to being entirely at God’s disposal, rather than trying to be productive. 

This is some good company, my friends, with Fr. Ciszek and St. Peter. If you are, like so many other people, struggling and feeling discouraged, or if you are not only struggling but have actually failed, then this is a time to pray that the place you’re in is a path toward God. It’s not a time to stop praying. That’s always a mistake; that much I know. It couldn’t hurt to pray to Fr. Ciszek. You know he’ll understand. 

Anyway, one thing “impostor syndrome” has taught me is that it’s one thing to recognize my own talents and skills objectively, but quite another to act as if I deserve special treatment because of them. I don’t. But the deeper lesson is that we’re all imposters, as long as we insist that our worth lies in what we can produce. 

***

 

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

We talked about the cross

When I used to teach catechism, with a loud and hopping little class of eight- and nine-year-olds, most of them were more or less willing to learn how to repent of their little sins.

So we talked about the cross. Of course we talked about the cross.

“Let me see your best sign of the cross,” I would call out in my best teacher voice, with one eye fixed on those two boys who would make the most trouble. “Let’s start the class off right,” I would say. And we would cross ourselves: up, down, left, right, amen, begin.

One of the things I told them about was Miguel Pro. Here was a guy who was so joyful, full of tricks and jokes and trouble, but he was really ready to serve, and things got serious very quickly. He had to sneak around to be a priest, and he soon got arrested for it, and you know the rest.

You know the famous photo, which I decided to show my class: There he stands before the firing squad with his arms out, making a cross with his body. That’s what he decided to do with his life: Make a cross.

I told the kids that, when they were baptized, they were marked with a cross, sealed, signed. “You know how pirates do,” I said. (Things pop out of your mouth when you’re in front of a group of kids). “You know how, when they bury their treasure, they mark the spot so they can come back for it? How do they mark it?”

They all knew it was with an X. “Well, God marks his treasure with a cross,” I said. “That’s where his treasure is: That’s the spot that he wants to come back to. That’s the thing that he cares about: Right in the middle of the cross.”

And they believed me. They knew that Jesus was on the cross, and they saw that, when they made the cross on themselves, they were right there, with Jesus.

Plain as day. I thought about having them stand and make a cross with their bodies like Miguel Pro about to be shot full of holes, but we settled for making a sign on ourselves, marking the spot where God’s treasure is.

It’s right there: Up, down, left, right, amen. And I had them shout: VIVA CHRISTO REY. It was close to the end of class, and any time we had a little free time, we got a little shouting in. VIVA CHRISTO REY.

I know this is too much for little children.

Who is this not too much for? …Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

 

__

Image: Execution of Miguel Pro by Grentidez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons