Things Keeping Us Alive in July: The Trying to Say God Conference

Things Keeping Us Alive in July: The Trying to Say God Conference July 19, 2017

Every month here at Sick Pilgrim, we like to bring you a feature we call  Things Keeping Us Alive. A diverse group of people share a  couple of small, cheap to free joys in their lives at this moment. Though the Sick Pilgrim blog often treads in melancholy, it’s important not to be swallowed by despair – and that’s as much for ourselves as for our readers. We’re too Sick to be the preachy type. But as St. Teresa of Avila said while clicking her castanets, sometimes you’ve got to make life bearable.

In June, Sick Pilgrim co-sponsored its first conference, Trying to Say ‘God’: Re-enchanting Catholic LiteratureAs I’ve whined about on this blog before, along with our friend and henchman John Robinson, administrator of our online community, I missed that conference, but I was able to see all the way from Louisiana how deeply it impacted those who went.

So this month, I asked the rest of the Sick Pilgrim editorial team to write about what stood out to them about the conference.

— Matt Lafleur, Associate Editor

Jessica Mesman Griffith is our co-founder and editorial director. She co-founded the conference with Jonathan Ryan and Ken Garcia of Notre Dame.

Falling out of my seat during Heather King’s keynote. It was that good. She is that good. Warm, humble, encouraging, inspiring in the best way–the way that makes you want to run out with your hair on fire and make art. She acknowledges the darkness and helps you see the light all at the same time. Listen here (And if you listen close, you might hear me shriek with emotion at the end…) 

Mass. Most of us at the conference had never met in person. We support each other online, and we’ve shared our deepest doubts and angers and frustrations and wounds.What a gift to kneel together in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and worship side by side. My only heartache was watching those who couldn’t join us at the altar to eat the body of Christ even as they made Him so palpably present to me.


Cassidy Hall is the newest addition to our apocalyptic dream team. She’s all about planning and actually seeing things through, and she’s a pro at technology. It’s a wonder Sick Pilgrim has lasted this long without her.

The Feast of Intelligence at the Table for All. The conference was a LITRAL (for all you Chris Traeger fans) banquet of brilliance. The schedule was filled with wisdom beyond my capacity to contain. Wisdom of the weird, wisdom of brokenness, wisdom of the historical nature, wisdom of the arts, and especially the wisdom of craving more knowledge. I left with my cup overflowing from each presentation I went to—drunk off of insights and feasting on the buffet of intelligence. The most beautiful part of this banquet, however, was the fact that all were welcome at the table. The array of views and thoughts represented was beautiful, but far more beautiful was the way these varying views were hosted with a sincere respect and reverence. Though I’m not Catholic, I never felt like I didn’t belong or didn’t have a place at the table at this conference, within this space, or among these incredible people. Now that’s a beautiful banquet.

Community and Solidarity. Being at TTSG was far more than just a place to learn and grow in individual art forms. When I think of our time together, I think about the heartbeats of community that showed up: the company of a friend on a bench comforting me in a moment of need, seeing the pain on someone’s face and being able to be present, a beloved checking in on me because I just couldn’t do the rest of the day; I think about the way the nearness of community insists on a solidarity that is palpable, however that solidarity is shown. 

To be at a place where you look to your right and see your beloved sitting next to you bar-side, stand solemnly in silence by the coffee with another beloved, chat in the lobbies and foyers with beloveds surrounding you … that was TTSG. Community was ever-present and it was a palpable community of beloveds. A space where even the amount of love could be overwhelming—bringing me to my knees or making me want to flee. But it was always a love that pointed back to the mystery; it was always a love that reminded me that it isn’t the hand but the moon I’m here for. The mystery and the unknown. The strange and the uncertain.

“…To point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon…” Zen Master D.T. Suzuki

I cling to and still yearn for the “wholeness” I felt in those days together. A hidden wholeness that reminded me everything is going to be okay. A wholeness that took all our broken pieces and kept us all intact for a few days.

“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life
Staying in Touch. One thing keeping me alive right now is the continual and more in-depth communication with these wonderful humans. Sweet friendships with those I met and have yet to meet. From messages, to letters, to calls and texts—being able to touch base and be present to one another in a variety of ways is healing, honest, and sacred. This centeredness carries over into other areas of my life, reminding me to be more present to those in my current company and even the natural world around me. This darling photo of Walt Whitman holding a butterfly really summarizes presence for me (and life goals). And, this is all summed up best in Whitman’s own words from the closing of “Song of the open Road”:
“…Camerado, I give you my hand! unnamed (2)
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?”
Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”
Elise Erikson Barrett is our spiritual advisor, source of sanity, and Homecoming Queen. You can’t help but be pained by her absence whenever she’s not around.

Sleep. Seriously. I was, without a doubt, one of the biggest slackers at the conference. I didn’t make it to South Bend until Friday night, and once I got there, into a hotel room with no children, my body just kept saying things to me like “SLEEP YOU WILL NEVER GET ANOTHER CHANCE LIKE THIS.” So…I did. The other Sisters Sinjin and I did a sound check over at LangLab, I enjoyed the Notre Dame sacred music concert, and I went to bed early. In the morning, I considered getting up and doing things, but no – I turned over and slept some more. And then some more. I did make it to the Beyond Liturgical Cupcakes panel, and was glad I did – and then we had a delightful lunch with a poet whom I’d hitherto only known online – and then I went back to bed. Again. I slept all afternoon. Didn’t get up until it was time to go back over to LangLab to get ready for the afterparty. After the afterparty? Yeah, I went back to bed. Left a bit after 5 am to drive my children to the southern coast of SC to spend our annual beach time with my late husband’s family.

In some ways this feels like a waste. To be sharing space with such an amazing community of people and to sleep through most of it? But those hours of sleep – and my act of choosing to give that gift to myself in the face of so many reasons not to – I believe this – kept me alive. It was the manna I needed to keep single-working-parenting my way through the glorious exhausting summer season. And sharing that holy breath and community with those human beings I know were there, whom I saw in brief beautiful moments during those days – maybe that’s exactly the gift that let me rest. I’ll take it.

Jonathan Ryan is the co-founder of Sick Pilgrim and the conference, and don’t you ever forget it, Matt Lafleur.
As a co-founder. How to describe the experience? It was amazing to watch people talk, laugh, cry and interact with one another. Too often, writing conferences devolve into talking about the next book deal or cynical discussions about the book industry. Instead, we had a bunch of creative people encouraging and helping one another. I loved just basking in that vibe, which is exactly what we’d hoped to create. It’s one thing to talk about it on paper and its another thing to see it incarnated.
As a writer. I’ve often described myself as a “Blue Collar Writer.” Meaning, I can’t write like my partner in crime, Jessica Mesman Griffith. There’s no way I can reach those artistic heights. And for so long, I felt like I had to. Now, I realize, I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I can just be me and write how I write and people seem to like it. I don’t have to be what I’m not. It was incredibly freeing for me to have Tim Powers there along with a lot of other people who are in love with genre reading and writing. It restoreth my soul. But, really, the convo between Tim Powers and Brother Guy was the highlight of my birthday. How often do you get to spend your birthday with one of your writing heroes and the head of the Vatican Observatory?

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