Catholic-Attracted? Come Sit By Us. A Reflection on the Festival of Faith and Writing

Catholic-Attracted? Come Sit By Us. A Reflection on the Festival of Faith and Writing April 19, 2016
Author and Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber doing her "Mothra" impersonation right before she made us all cry like babies at her keynote address. Photo by Tammy Perlmutter.
Author and Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber doing her “Mothra” impersonation right before she made us all cry like babies at her keynote address. Photo by Tammy Perlmutter.

We’re still recovering from our first-ever Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College–where Jonathan and I were both blown away by the great stuff and people and books and art and music we heard and encountered. Wow. Nothing like being jolted out of the darkness by the goodness and beauty of God and our fellow man. Those Calvinists are kicking our Catholic asses at this celebration of the arts and culture thing.

The drama began for us when Jonathan’s co-panelists canceled at the last minute, leaving him to scribble together an entire talk on Weird Fiction as Sacramental Practice. “Maybe nobody’ll come?” I offered (helpfully). But the room was packed–standing room only–and I totally lied when I said to him, “you’ve got this!” and went and hid in the back. But then he went and killed it with all his knowledge of Charles Williams and the origins of weird fiction among Catholic and Anglican writers. He made a rousing call to action for Christian writers to explore the realms of the unseen and take back the weird. I wish we could post the talk, but he made it up as he went along. I do remember he talked a lot about the Eucharist and a sacramental view of the world–which he defined as “taking a concrete seen thing and using it to communicate the reality of an unseen thing.” In other worlds, he went Full Unapologetic Catholic, and I was surprised to see so many heads nodding in the crowd. After this talk, it seemed like everywhere we went at the conference, people wanted to talk to us about Catholicism and liturgy and ritual and magic. We met so many fellow travelers, which made us both wildly happy and took us completely off guard. We celebrated by going to see The Mountain Goats, where we were both converted to the hero-worship of John Darnielle and had to hit the merch table for t-shirts. That performance deserves its own post, but please, go and listen to this right now and imagine it REALLY LOUD:

I hate public speaking and was so nervous about my talks that I didn’t sleep at all that night, so Jonathan offered to test out Charles Williams’s theories and bear my anxiety for me. And y’all, I really think it worked. This was the first time I’ve ever spoken in public without rocking my imaginary baby or having to stop to breathe into a paper bag. Meanwhile I watched Jonathan in the audience, turning magenta and sweating.

Memoir as Feminist Testimony panel. I'm in the middle.
Memoir as Feminist Testimony, featuring me.

My first talk (with Daniel Bowman, who gave a deeply moving talk about his life with autism) about mental illness and creativity drew heavily from my Ash Wednesday thoughts here on Sick Pilgrim, and I concluded with some thoughts on a quote from Robert Bly:

I remain offended that there are problems that can’t be solved, debilitating conditions that can’t be cured, suffering that doesn’t end and grief that won’t resolve. I won’t pretend that’s not so. My illness is not a gift or an opportunity for a divine lesson. Nor is it a failure, a character flaw, a punishment, or a sentence for a crime. It isn’t wanted and it isn’t loved. It’s often an embarrassment. And yet this confluence of unidentified mental illness, spirituality, and creativity is where I have begun to feel like myself–and it’s where I have learned to give of myself to another.

The poet Robert Bly wrote that “Wherever the wound appears in our psyches … whether it stems from isolation, disability, or disease, that is precisely the place from which we will give our major gift to the community.” This isn’t a justification for masochism, but an intuition of the maddeningly paradoxical way that God so often works.I’m not sure why I’m surprised. I readily accept an instrument of torture and shame—the cross—as the ultimate symbol of hope.

My second panel was on memoir as feminist testimony. I said some stuff about why we need to tell our stories, especially when our stories don’t fit the conventional narrative of Christian life: sin, repentance, resurrection. I argued for memoirs that are not afraid to show us what it looks like to choose wrong, to fall, to hate God. Meanwhile, Katherine Willis Pershey told us that testimony comes from the word testes, and that in Biblical times men used to swear on their balls that their stories were true.

After that talk, a writer confessed to me that though she’s protestant she is “Catholic-attracted,” which I thought was the best thing ever and I immediately invited her to contribute to Sick Pilgrim.

Author M.T. Anderson talking about bizarre religious rites and bagging on his own spiritual tourism.
Author M.T. Anderson talking about bizarre religious rites and bagging on his own spiritual tourism.

Other highlights included Jonathan being mistaken for my husband and/or boyfriend (an honest mistake, but just to clear up any confusion, here’s evidence of my actual husband’s existence and a link to a story about how even the pope couldn’t have a female friend without arousing speculation); visual artist Makoto Fujimura talking about the exquisite Catholic novel Silence (soon to be a Scorsese film); M.T. Anderson on the unusual mythic rites he’s witnessed, including exorcisms, and how they’ve inspired his writing; Tara Isabella Burton on American religion (especially her take on Las Vegas street preachers); and lunchtime discussion about “Re-enchanting Christian Writing,” in which James K.A. Smith talked about the ways ritual and repetition form the imagination.

So yeah, the protestants are kicking our Catholic asses at celebrating the arts. But we noticed everywhere at this conference a real hunger for and attraction to the things we love about the Catholic Church. Mystery. Magic. A place where darkness and suffering are not denied but transformed into meaning and beauty.

Thank you Calvin College, and thank you to all the writers and artists and musicians who shared their talent and beautiful brains, and thank you to the readers and listeners who shared their stories with us–their heartbreaking, heartwarming, sad, funny, ugly, beautiful stories. You energized us and gave us the courage and energy to press on. Catholic-attracted, Catholic-repulsed, not Catholic at all, this is your blog, and you are our people.

Onward, Sick Pilgrims!





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