Last week I headed to sunny South Bend, IN for “Trying to Say ‘God’: Re-enchanting Catholic literature.” Its official sponsor was “the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts” but a bunch of the organizers were people from the Sick Pilgrim blog/community and that sounds cooler. Anyway, my notes:
# Notre Dame in summer is ridiculously lush. I swear whoever planted this rambling campus made it a project to get every kind of tree and just jam them right up next to each other. Do they repeat a tree? I don’t think they repeat a tree. Like the diversity of the saints!
# Panels, talks etc at this kind of thing are always, for me, basically pans full of gravel, which occasionally shake out a gold nugget. I thought this conference had better panels and talks than most but you don’t go to these things for that, I think, or at least I don’t–the point is meeting people and having those intense nighttime conversations. So all my notes are scraps of things, the one thing in a talk which struck me, e.g. in the opening thing by Bishop Daniel Flores, he said to write “from the poverty of our moment” which I’ll be mulling over. If we must have mission statements, that’s not a bad one.
Also, editing to add that this post comes off as pretty critical, but I really had a great time at this thing, and most of these critical points only came up because the panelists etc were doing interesting things. It was an unusually intellectually-diverse conference, and diverse in terms of genre. So uh let me say “thank you” as well as all this other stuff I decided to say first.
# Sticking this here: When I first posted this I forgot to say how great Vocale was! They’re a ND sacred-music chorale (?) and they did a really complex program including Arvo Part, iirc Thomas Tallis??, a great mix of eras, with real spiritual depth. Lovely.
# “When each man has a civil and a moral part, the stranger and the brother live side by side inside him” – poss misquoted, from Lewis Hyde, The Gift, a book which is maybe about usury or maybe about art??? and which got quoted a bunch here. Tell me if you think I should read it. I liked this line and it chimes w/e.g. Maggie Gallagher’s “Justice is for strangers,” as vs the sacrificial and needy love of families, in her first book, Enemies of Eros.
# I went to this panel on “place and affliction” and while the stories of life and service on an Indian reservation, in Appalachia etc were powerful, there seemed to be an underlying moral or theological assumption that suffering is good for those who choose it voluntarily, but bad for those who suffer due to injustice and inequality. I’m not sure that’s right. It tends to make suffering only good for the rich and privileged, which, perversely, means they/we get to be better at even suffering than the poor! And people suffering due to injustice have often, in Catholic spirituality and also just like on the bus or whatever, said that their suffering and/or their acceptance of it has borne fruit for them, has cleansed or gentled their souls.
There are a lot of ways to come to terms with suffering, within Catholicism, and I don’t want to impose my own “what if humiliation is….. good??” spirituality on everybody. It is probably more often a good spirituality for those whose suffering is mostly the result of their own sins (to the extent that we can ever tell why we suffer). But let’s not make resignation a luxury good, people.
ETA: Lol I forgot a fairly crucial point here, which is that what I want is a better understanding of how to pursue/what it is like to pursue justice when your spirituality is pretty heavily weighted toward acceptance, resignation, humiliation etc. That’s something I think about a lot w/r/t gay Catholic stuff, and it also comes up a lot in addiction-recovery circles, where people may be working a very 12-Steppy recovery while also fighting the criminalization, degradation or mistreatment of drug users.
# from the same panel: “If you can keep a sense of humor about being humiliated then everybody likes you better.” Can confirm….
# Buy One Weird Catholic Book for Your Parish Library. Or Catholic-school library, or whatever. I’m going to try to make this a thing. Get a weird book on those shelves for once! Also, buy Kristin Lavransdatter for them. The three-volume Tiina Nunnally translation with the romance-novel covers. I’m right about this.
# That’s coming from the excellent point at one panel: To get Catholic writers, make Catholic readers.
# Chatting about which things various Cat’lick publishing houses will and won’t take–my book is a great metric for this, like, if Ave Maria is all, “We love your work but this is a little too much for us,” cheers, your life story is edgier than mine! (They did take out one cuss word without telling me, which really annoyed me especially because I wasn’t even the one speaking. But no, overall Ave Maria was amazing to work with; also, buy my book, you can write in “fucking” with a pen when you reach the relevant place. Or elsewhere!) Anyway, point being, editors at lots of houses do want grittier or less predictable books, but don’t want the risks involved (that’s not a criticism, dearly beloved we are gathered here today to get through this thing called late capitalism) and so I have a suggestion, which is an imprint specifically for books too hot for the Catholic press. Ignatius After Dark… Ave Maria Aegypti… Our Sunday Visigoth….
# via Kaya Oakes I learn that REBECCA BROWN IS A CATHOLIC CONVERT! For real?! She’s one of the first lesbian authors whose writing I fell for, back in high school, these grim gleaming fables–her book The Terrible Girls was a big influence on my writing and outlook. And I’ve often wondered if I could do some kind of pregnancy-center equivalent of her Gifts of the Body, vignettes about caring for men dying of AIDS/meditations on the human body. I note that mine would have at least 82% less mercy-killing, because that’s evil. Anyway, now I have to go get her book that Kaya cited.# from dinner conversation, summarizing one of the panels I skipped: We make both Christ and women ethereal, we’re scandalized by His and our bodies–there’s a parallel between the kind of sanitized, Precious Moments Jesus and the view of women mocked/reified in “Celia, Celia, Celia shits.” Vulgarity in writing (I’d assume this is more about subject matter than language?) can be a way to expose and avoid that ethereal Jesus and ethereal woman.
We try to make both Christ and Woman the answer to men’s questions. Rather than letting them question us, and thus be subjects instead of solely objects of our longing.
I’ll generally defend Woman-as-Beloved, woman as icon, Lady Poverty and all that, but these were I thought good points. Plus I know a weakness in my own spirituality is that I’m much more comfortable treating God as Beloved rather than as Lover, so I never have to learn how to be loved, how to be the beloved. How to welcome instead of court, how to receive instead of strive.
I’ll also say though that one other alternative to the ethereal Christ/Woman is the triumphant one. I am always more about the gory Spanish crucifixes, but Christ reigning from the Cross is not a Precious Moments figure, nor is Mary in her Magnificat.
# Oh my gosh, let’s just take a moment to gaze in blank defeat at the panel on race, which was three white Catholic pro theologians and a Latina Protestant, mostly talking about black theology.
People sometimes want to be all, “Why can’t white (/not-black) people do that panel?” and the answer is exactly what happened here, which is that it will be unfocused, people will lack confidence, it will swing weirdly from hesitancy to self-aggrandizement, and we’ll all get sidetracked by talking about how hard it is to be white and write about race. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t!” Yes, welcome to literally all public witness, come on now.
Also if it’s a theology panel don’t sucker me in with a description about literature. Also-also the best part of this panel was the book lists for further reading but it was all theology. If I did want black Catholic literature (since I do), what is out there other than Edward P. Jones? I mostly want black Americans but am open to elsewhere.
If you don’t have black theologians on your panel don’t make it a panel about black theology. It won’t work!! I know you think you can make it work but it will not. Reframe or get different participants. The exception is that I bet it could work at a conference all about black theology or with multiple approaches and events on black theology. This was not that, although there was also a talk on black sacred song. Which I want to say I should’ve gone to instead, even though I would’ve missed out on this excellent spiritual gossip about Rebecca Brown.
# The panel “Not Always Sweet: Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes in Catholic Women’s Writing” was very odd to me because of what was missing. There was a lot of talk about getting beyond happy fluffy mommy stuff, and how we need to see women in narratives which aren’t focused on getting a man and being married. The thing is, we do have that. They are called nuns. I (obviously?) know that there are also other options, but why did nobody on this panel ever talk about women religious, or suggest them as models, or try to enter metaphorically into their lives the way they did with marriage and motherhood? Why were marriage and motherhood the only images of women’s life discussed, whether people were reacting against these images or reinterpreting them?
Several of the women on this panel talked about ways to be fruitful or maternal without, you know, physically bearing children. Which is good theology, although it often gets defensive, I feel, and downplays the unique intensity and visceral, physical risks, pain, passions, inescapable obligations etc of actual childbirth and motherhood. There are ways in which writing a book or counseling a pregnant teen is like childbearing but we’ve gotta be able to say that childbearing is harder.
And this exploration of motherhood as analogy maybe needs to be accompanied by celibacy as analogy. Why weren’t any of the married moms asking whether they could give themselves more wholly to God, as a nun would? Why was monastic life so totally absent from the images, here, of who women can be–and even who we can be like?
# That said, I enjoyed this panel. It was a lot more ideologically diverse than you usually get at this kind of thing. Women who’d had to leave behind repressive Catholic cults, and learn new ways of being Catholic and new images of God; feminist NFP instructors (“What I see there is women who feel betrayed by their bodies in a lot of different ways”); one woman who noted her struggle “to understand patriarchy as a religious transcendence and not a cultural oppression,” being honest about the ways patriarchy does operate in the Church as a cultural oppression but wondering if/how it can be something more. (I don’t know that I love using “patriarchy” to describe what the Church is, since men are called to Christlike self-emptying, cf my whole “Fr. Mother” shtik. But I like that this was the question, rather than just, How can we defend patriarchy or how can we smash it.)
My favorite moment was when Leticia Ochoa Adams busted out with, “I get shushed by the side that’s like, ‘Down with the patriarchy!’ and I’m like, ‘Noooooooo I love it!'” Her serious point was that she hadn’t known her own father, and so she needed to see fatherhood in the priests she knew. I think this happens a lot: When priests actually are selfless, gentle, humble, they become touchstones and sources of healing for people who didn’t experience these qualities in their own fathers.
# The panel on detective fiction was simultaneously fun and kind of obnoxious, since it used Agatha Christie-style mysteries as a foil, like, this is the thing we all want to get beyond so we can read detective fiction that’s also critiques of the power structures of society. Oy! First of all, Christie is excellent and she has more insight into human nature than you do. Second, this is a very small point but if you do in fact want a mystery novel which makes power itself the villain (including the power of the author!), you won’t do better than And Then There Were None.
Third, and this I want to hit hard, it’s true that Poirot and Marple restore order and represent an idealized vision of societal order. That vision is false. Fine. But the longing for order is a longing for harmony, for peace, for finding one’s place in the world and learning contentment there. This longing deserved to be honored.
Finally, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union very much fits this panel’s mandate: a noir meditation on Messiah, in which the Jewish community is simultaneously a corrupt power structure and an arrow loosed from the bow of God.
# Tim Powers gave the last keynote speech. Tim Powers is hilarious. That is all.