Conversion is an odd phenomenon. I’ve often observed that those who convert, who ”tum around” radically in some aspect of their lives, tend to embrace their newly adopted beliefs and behaviors with a sense of urgency and commitment that can border on fanaticism. Thus those who quit smoking become front line enforcers in the “No Smoking” brigade, those who cut caffeine (or sugar, or anything significant) out of their diet will regale those of us who have not quit with endless data about why what they just quit ingesting will kill us, and someone who just lost fifty pounds looks at the ten-pound-overweight person with a judgmental eye.
But such converted commitments pale in comparison to the righteous energy of the religious convert. I’ve known many people who professed a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion experience, reporting that while once they were blind, they now see. And that new vision often looks more like tunnel vision than anything else. The beliefs and accompanying rules of their newly found religious perspective, beliefs and rules that they either rejected with disdain or were entirely ignorant of just yesterday, suddenly become the instruments according to which they measure the acceptability quotient of those outside their group. And the outsiders are generally found to be seriously wanting.
I was raised in a religious environment in which such “once for all” conversions were the hallmark of membership. But since I never had such an experience, I felt something like an outsider on the inside during all of my childhood and adolescent years. Although I stopped thinking of myself as a part of that religious community many years ago, issues of my religious identity were frequently front and center during my recent sabbatical residence at an ecumenical Institute on the campus of a Benedictine University and Abbey.
I am comfortable as a non-Catholic in Catholic surroundings, having spent my last twenty-five years teaching philosophy in Catholic higher education. This was different, though, because the whole focus of my sabbatical experience turned out, unexpectedly, to be about my own spiritual identity. I’ve always called myself a “person of faith,” even a Christian, but was no longer sure of what I meant by that—all I knew was that the usual definition of “Christian” was becoming less and less meaningful all the time. Seeking some sort of reawakening I took full advantage of the daily prayers at the Abbey, and even received behind-the-scenes permission from one of the monks to receive communion if I wished, in total violation of Catholic exclusivity.
So I was somewhat taken aback by a conversation with a fellow resident scholar at the Institute shortly before the end of my four and a half month stay. The topic of conversation was a former Institute scholar who, during two year-long residencies at the Institute in the early nineties, wrote two books that spent several months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s now a very famous author, and made a couple of brief visits to the Institute, Abbey, and campus while I was there. She even ate corned beef dinner with the current residents on St. Patrick’s Day; I got to speak with her for ten or fifteen minutes and, just like any other groupie, got her to sign my copies of three of her books.
Although she was on campus for several reasons during her brief stays, it was clear to me that she, as non-Catholic as I, was getting her spiritual batteries recharged as she sat a few seats over from me during morning, noon, and evening prayers. So it surprised me when my fellow Institute resident, a Catholic convert whose powerful intellect and even more powerful spirit I’d come to respect and admire, expressed annoyance at the famous author’s behavior. “It bothers me that she for years has come here to the Abbey, and to other monasteries (as described in her books) to bask in the liturgy, take full benefit of the prayers and services, and get reviled, yet she remains non-Catholic,” he said. “If she’s going to reap the gains, she should also have to suffer through the shit that we Catholics have to put up with on a daily basis.”
I assured my colleague that Catholics have no comer on dealing with religious excrement; my whole stay at the Institute had focused on struggling with the constricting grave-clothes of my own conservative Protestant upbringing. Furthermore, I reminded him, the transformation of spirit and soul that had been taking place in me over the past months, about which the two of us had conversed many times, had centered around my full participation, as a non-Catholic ,in the liturgical and prayer life of the Catholic Abbey. “Your criticism of her applies to me too,” I said, to which he replied “but this is all very new and unexpected for you.”Implied but unspoken was his expectation that I would eventually convert to Catholicism.
But I won’t be converting to Catholicism, any time soon or ever. I used to think this was because of the powerfully top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as well as its positions on any number of issues including the ordination of women and abortion. I still believe its positions on these issues are utterly wrong. But I know many Catholics, including the one with whom I was having this conversation, who long for the day when the Catholic Church will adopt a stance that engages honestly with all of the complexities of the abortion issue and will finally come to the realization that women are full-fledged members of the human race and are just as suited, perhaps more suited, to pursue ordination as men.
The real reason I won’t become Catholic is because I have no desire to become anything with a recognizable religious label other than committed seeker after God. I am officially an Episcopalian, confirmed in my late twenties as a response to a church whose liturgies and music I loved and to a specific faith community that embraced and nurtured me when I badly needed to be embraced and nurtured. For years I was not a regular attendee at any church services, Episcopal or otherwise, and my current regular attendance at Trinity Episcopal began three or four years ago when a close friend became their interim rector.
I told my fellow resident at the Institute that, as far as I was concerned, what happened to me at the Abbey had nothing to do with its being a Catholic place of worship. It had everything to do with its being the place that, unexpectedly, I met the Divine in a new and exhilarating way. Under different circumstances, it could have happened in a synagogue, a mosque, on a mountain-top, or in my chair at home. “Oh, I have to disagree with you there,” he said. “I know you do,” I responded as I thought “but it is my encounter with God that I’m talking about. That’s bigger than any religion.”
When we left The Bag last week, she was sitting between the captain’s chairs of a twenty-seven foot U-Haul truck with her parents headed from Memphis to Providence. She adjusted far better as a southern belle to New England than her parents from the deep north had adjusted to Memphis—but then Snow never had difficulty adjusting to anyone or anybody. Except our new landlord. For some reason, he was the one person Snow did not like; she growled at him every time he reluctantly came to take care of something after several calls. She was a good judge of character—he was definitely a dick.
Our first winter in Providence—the winter of 1995–turned out to be a record-breaker with more snow accumulated than any of the subsequent eighteen winters we have been here. The Bag had never seen snow, but it did not cramp her style in any way. In early December she was on the loose again, this time in a still unfamiliar neighborhood during the first snowstorm of the season. It was snowing so hard that Jeanne and I soon gave up trying to follow The Bag’s tracks and jumped in the car to cruise the streets looking for her. We made a fine impression on our neighbors as we drove up and down the blocks with our heads hanging out the windows yelling “SNOOOOWWWWW! SNOOOOWWWW!!” at the tops of our lungs. Wait till these new folks from Tennessee have been here for a winter—they won’t be so excited about snow any more.
After a year and a half we bought our first (and hopefully last) house just a few blocks away from where we first rented in Providence and only a few blocks in a different direction from campus. The Bag continued to make friends. She became a familiar figure in the neighborhood as she found new ways, in spite of my best efforts, to escape our fenced back yard and meet new people. She got into the habit of going from house to house through back yards whenever possible in order to make it more difficult for me to spot her as I cruised the streets responding to the latest Missing Bag Alert. Thank goodness for identification tags. On occasion Snow would get a ride home in vehicles ranging from pickup trucks driven by strangers to the mail truck driven by her friend our mail lady. One summer afternoon when she had been gone for two or three hours and I had given up on trying to find her, an unfamiliar car pulled up in front of the house. A couple from Nicaragua who had just moved into the neighborhood and spoke only broken English had come across The Bag wandering around in the middle of the street. Throwing her into the back seat, they drove her home. Upon my leaning into the back seat and saying “Come on, Snow,” she pinned herself against the opposite back door and cowered as if she expected to be beaten yet again—except that neither Jeanne nor I had ever laid a hand on her in anger. She just was not ready to return to her boring life at home yet—the folks from Nicaragua apparently were far more interesting than I am. Fortunately they did not have the animal abuse hotline on speed dial.
One day we received a call from a guy who lived on a circle close by—Snow had escaped yet again and this time had showed up at Owen and Tina’s door (Owen was the guy on the phone). They invited her in and gave her something to eat. That was enough in The Bag’s mind to establish a long-lasting friendship; The Bag showed up at Owen and Tina’s so often when on the lam that I eventually stopped trying to track her down and just would give her enablers’ house a call. “Is Snow there?” I asked on the phone one day. “Yes,” Tina replied. “I’m on my way.” “Oh do you have to come so soon? She just got here!” I waited an hour or so, then drove over and retrieved The Bag.
Eventually Owen and Tina met Jeanne; one day the four of us (along with The Bag and our hosts’ dog) were conversing in their back yard over drinks. During the course of our conversation we learned that a fellow named Eric, just a few doors up the street from Owen and Tina, was the widower of one of the flight attendants on the second airplane that had crashed into the Twin Towers just a few days earlier. Just as two extroverted women should do, Jeanne, with Snow in tow, knocked on Eric’s door a few days later and introduced herself. We were in Eric’s life for a short time as he worked through the early months of the tragedy that taken his wife from him and as he took tentative steps to move on with his life. Eric moved from Providence a couple of years later to start a new business and a new relationship in North Carolina. We have lost touch, but the two pieces of furniture he gave Jeanne when he moved have a prominent place in our living room. They make me think of Eric, which makes me think of who was responsible for our meeting him—The Bag.
So many vignettes bubble up from my memory banks. The exuberant joy with which The Bag greeted Jeanne at the door every time she walked in. The disdainful manner in which she sighed and walked away when it was just me without Jeanne. How she became so deaf that she literally could not hear you walk up behind her to within a foot away, yet could instantly sense the opening of the refrigerator door from anywhere in the house. How she loved pasta so much that the mere starchy aroma of pasta boiling would send her into what Jeanne dubbed “the pasta dance.” The mountains of white fur that she shed indiscriminately regardless of the season, so abundant that it would have been suitable for ten larger dogs.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about Snow except that she was ours. When we had to have her put down a few years ago at age 17 ½, the only people who shed tears were Jeanne, my youngest son, me, and a neighbor several doors down the street. Marcella, an older Irish woman, became so attached to Snow that for the last several years of The Bag’s life she had 24/7 access to the house in order to take Snow out walking—the same access Marcella still has to our current three dog menagerie. As we sat in a neighborhood pub after the traumatic moments at the veterinary hospital, downing numerous drinks in an impromptu Bag-wake, we recalled that Snow had a knack of connecting us to people who became important in our lives, even in the short-term. She was an agent of grace with a halo of white fur trailing behind. We planted two trees in the back yard three years ago under which Snow’s ashes reside along with those of Spooky (the Pussmeister), who outlived Snow for a year until moving on to his feline reward at age 19. Sometime soon we’ll have a memorial plaque made: Pussmeister and The Bag. The trees will live for a thousand years.
There is a mystery in reading, a mystery which, if we contemplate it, may well help us, not to explain, but to grab hold of other mysteries in human life. Simone Weil
My early years were full of apocryphal stories of how I learned to read. According to my mother, I was reading by age three without anyone having taught me how to do it. I was never without a book, and lined up my menagerie of stuffed animals on the couch to read to them. Knowing how stories tend to take on a life of their own, I cannot attest to the accuracy of these reports (although it was my father rather than my mother who was prone to telling tall tales). I do know that my love of books extends as far back as I can remember, and that I know how to read before I could tell time or tie my shoes—perhaps my parents should have provided me with instruction manuals to read. Because I could read on a fifth grade level before starting first grade, according to the school board member who tested me at home, I went through first and second grade in one year. moving from one side of the room to the other in our little school after Christmas break. I’ve paid a lifelong price for that honor—I joined second grade when they were all the way to the letter “W” in their cursive writing studies. My “w’s.” “x’s,” “y’s” and “z’s” are fabulous, but other than that my cursive has been illegible, even to me, ever since.
Several years ago during an eye exam, my new ophthalmologist asked “do you read very much?” I laughed as I said “I read for a living!” The written word is not only the foundation of my professional life, but has also been my spiritual lifeline for most of my life. For many years all that remained of my religious upbringing was the Bible. Even though I no longer believed it to be the literally inerrant word of God as I was taught, large portions of it resided in my memory, ready to be accessed in class and conversation as well as popping up even when uninvited. I memorized large portions of the Bible growing up, as all good Baptist kids should, continually reminded that “Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.” We were taught that since the canon of Scripture was completed, we should not expect further communication from the divine in the form of miracles, signs and wonders, or direct communication. We already had God’s final word to us in completed form; now we just needed to obey it and hang on until the Second Coming.
I was accordingly jerked up short a few years ago when I read in a book by theologian Patrick Henry that “God died because people forgot how to read.” I don’t entirely remember the context of the claim nor Henry’s explication, but I was reminded of the phrase this past week as I read a manuscript on Simone Weil’s philosophy as an outside reader for a prestigious academic press. In her “Essay on the Concept of Reading,” she argues that we “read” everything in our environment. “The sky, the sea, the sun, the stars, human beings, everything that surrounds us is something that we read.” This is much broader understanding of “reading” than our traditional Western conception, which considers reading to be an exclusively cognitive, intellectual, and mental activity—precisely the sort of activity I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours on this planet doing. So how is it that such a crucial, human defining activity as reading could be forgotten, even to the point of emptying the divine of content? The problem is not with reading per se—it’s that we’ve forgotten that reading is not just an intellectual activity. God’s death is not due to a misuse of or over-reliance on the activity of reading. It’s due to forgetting what true reading even is.
I had heard and read about “lectio divina,” sacred reading before I went on sabbatical to a Benedictine college campus with a large abbey on site, but it had not struck me as a particularly interesting concept. Just another skill to learn, technique to master, perhaps—but really, if there’s one thing I know how to do pretty well, its reading. But after several weeks of daily prayer with the abbey monks, it dawned on me that lectio divina isn’t about words and meaning and retention at all. I often found that I did not remember, even for the amount of time it took to walk from the choir stalls to the front of the abbey and exit, which Psalms we had read nor any of the content. Yet I had a sense that what we were doing was far more important than reading a book, marking it with highlighter and pen in my usual method, and perhaps memorizing a phrase or two for future reference in class or conversation.
What was happening in the choir stalls was not a mind event, but a full body experience bypassing my overdeveloped mind and seeping into all the other parts of me that had been starved for years. My bodily rhythms, my intuitions, my emotions, my spirit. The Psalms speak of God’s word all the time, but almost never of thinking about God’s word. It’s more like what Jeremiah reports: “The words were found and I did eat them, and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.” Simone Weil was channeling her internal Jeremiah when she wrote that “I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat.” And like a mother bird regurgitating food for the babies, an important word or phrase would come into my consciousness later in the day, one that I didn’t remember reading but which had dripped into my soul.
In our “real world” of immediacy, getting it done, making money and a living, is there a place for what I began to absorb in a monastery abbey in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota? Over the subsequent years I’ve seen small but important evidence of change in how I converse with people, how I approach the day, and a heightened and more immediate sense of when a layer is threatening to grow back over my divine reading space. Learning how to read differently is not just another technique; because it is a new way of being, it is transferable to everything. I went on sabbatical expecting to write about trying to sustain a life of faith when God at best is a silent partner who never writes, calls, emails, texts or tweets. Now the divine is everywhere and seems to have a lot to say. Reading the divine begins with believing that everything is sacramental, infused with the breath of God, with taking “the Word became flesh” very seriously. All of creation is a sacred text. I didn’t know it, because I didn’t know how to read.
Today is my lovely Jeanne’s birthday–please join me in celebrating my favorite person’s natal day! This essay was first posted on our twenty-fifth anniversary last July.
A staple of my early years was the “Peanuts” comic strip. That doesn’t make me unusual—I don’t recall anyone in my circle of family and friends unaware of what Charlie Brown and company were up to on a daily or at least weekly basis. Depending on my mood and what was going on in my life, I resonated either with Linus, with whom I shared a host of insecurities; Schroeder, with whom I shared budding virtuosity on the piano; Snoopy, who was the epitome of coolness and could communicate volumes without saying a word; or Charlie Brown himself, whose endearing ineptitude in all aspects of his life was uncomfortably familiar.
I was a hopeless romantic, generally falling in love and making silent wedding plans any time a girl would make eye contact with me. Because of this, the most poignant story line in Charlie Brown’s escapades for me was his unrequited love for the never-seen little red-haired girl. Although she does make a couple of appearances in later, non-canonical television “Peanuts” cartoons, she is never seen in the print comic strip, nor do we learn her name. Charlie Brown most often notices the little red-haired girl while eating lunch outdoors on the playground, often trying to muster up the courage to speak to her, but always in vain. Anything touched by her or associated with her is precious to him. Many strips concerning the little red-haired girl end with a classic Charlie Brown “SIGH.”
I understood Charlie’s struggles because in first and second grade there was a little red-haired girl in my class. Her name was Laura, her hair was carrot red, and since her last name also started with an “M” she sat in the seat in front of me. No one knew that I was enamored of Laura, certainly not her, but one day the secret was out. She unexpectedly handed a note back to me—it said “Can I borrow a pencil?”—someone observed the note transfer, assumptions were made, and during the next playground session it was “Vance and Laura, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” As Charlie Brown would have said, “Good Grief.” Laura set things straight from her end by pointing out that everyone knew that she liked David, not me, but my failure to immediately deny my admiration of Laura confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Word spread fast, and my brother three grades ahead of me announced at dinner that evening to my parents that I was in love with a girl who didn’t like me.
Time passed, we moved away, and the little red-haired girl faded into the mists of memory. Life happened, and I ended up getting married to the first person I had a serious relationship with, my girlfriend during my last two years of high school (she had brown hair). Over the next decade two sons were born, things fell apart, and at age thirty-one I found myself divorced, living in the same town as my ex, finishing a Master’s degree and making plans to get into a doctoral program. My parents invited me along with my sons—ages eight and five—to their place five hundred miles away for Thanksgiving. And oh yeah—they were inviting their friend Jeanne for Thanksgiving as well.
I had heard about Jeanne before—my parents had known her for a number of years. When she came up in conversation, my mother always mentioned her beautiful singing voice and her beautiful red hair. Jeanne and I had even talked on the phone once a couple of years earlier, when she called me out of the blue just to tell me that she had been accepted into St. John’s College, where I had done my bachelor’s degree in the seventies. Jeanne only knew about it because my parents had spoken of it in glowing terms based on my experience. She thought—correctly—that only someone who had been there would know how big a deal it was to get into St. John’s.
So now this person who I knew only through second-hand stories from my mother and a voice on the phone was going to be at my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I’m not big on meeting new people, but figured this was safe because I would have my parents as a buffer.
Those few days over Thanksgiving changed several lives. Although the last thing I was looking for was a relationship six months after my divorce had ended eleven years of unhappy marriage, it was immediately clear that there was something going on between the two of us. On Thanksgiving morning I sat on the sofa in the small living room of my parents’ condo observing Jeanne chatting with my mother who was puttering around in her little kitchen. Leaning with her back up against the wall as she talked, Jeanne struck a seductive pose (or so it seemed to me) and I thought “she’s the little red-haired girl, all grown up!” A few days later, I inexplicably had tears in my eyes as I started the long drive home. In some deep place I knew I was driving away from my soul mate. But after a month of nightly phone calls of more than an hour each, she joined me for Christmas and we were together for good. And the rest is twenty-five years and counting of history still being written.
If being a romantic means being someone who believes that “Love is all you need” or that “Love is the answer,” I’m not a romantic any more. One thing we’ve learned over the past twenty-five years is that love is not enough. A couple of weeks ago the text at church was the fruit of the spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Faith, Meekness, Temperance. We have needed every one of these many times in order to keep going, in addition to the tenth, unmentioned fruit—humor. Each of us considered and even tried walking away from the whole thing more than once. But here we are, twenty-five years in, stronger and more connected than we have ever been. Of the list above, the first three are in the ascendant. Love—because like fine wine and single malt scotch love gets better as it ages. Peace—of the sort that only comes with having spent almost half of your life in love with your best friend. And Joy–because unlike Chuck in the “Peanuts” strip, I got the little red-haired girl.