For 25 years I wrote a newspaper column. Friends and family routinely critiqued what I wrote, politely saying little if they found a particular column ridiculous.
For the past 18 months, I’ve written a column for Crux. Those same chatty friends and family — some Catholic, some lapsed, some not religious at all — have said nothing about my work.
My thesis, confirmed by those I’ve asked: they’re uncomfortable talking to me, or anybody, about faith. It’s too big, too unsettling, and too personal. Nothing against me or religion or the Church, with all its flaws. We agreed, bizarrely, that it’s easier to talk about sex or race or Donald Trump or even each others’ salaries than to talk about faith.
“You learn in public discourse not to be very specific about your religious life. It is a general agreement that we will not talk about these things,” writes Richard Rodriguez, the Catholic journalist and author. “We will not talk about levitating — will not talk about this overwhelming experience of peace.”
We will not talk about a felt sense of God’s presence, either, something that sounds to a non-believer totally irrational, if not insane.
The truth is I’m just as uncomfortable talking about my own faith as my friends are hearing about it. Words don’t work. How do you communicate to an agnostic what you mean by the “indwelling Holy Spirit?” I fear sounding pious, preachy, crazy. And as Rodriguez also says, there is little irony and paradox in religious talk. Or much humor either.
Two week ago, I made a women’s Cursillo retreat. That’s the “little course in Christianity” intended to inspire the laity and train Catholic leaders to transform their lives and evangelize. Most of the Cursillo women were bold, right out there, totally at home advising me “to let the Holy Spirit guide me,” to “put on the mind of Christ,” to “visualize (myself) completely supported by God’s loving arms.”
“Just be with Him, the one who will be with you until the end of time,” one woman told me. “Your relationship with Him will grow so much deeper.”
Easy for her to admit.
Yet I am regularly emboldened by a lawyer friend with deep faith, too. He talks about “spiritual freedom” and “spiritual poverty” and his utter “dependence” on the love of the Lord even though he’s been a successful attorney for years.
Let me admit a snobby bias. I love it when smart people come clean with their own big time “relationship.” Then faith is not so easy to dismiss as the opiate of the desperate, teeming, what-else-have-they-got-going-for-them masses.
When you read the Bible, the saints and spiritual writers, there’s a description of faith as a relationship, too. Sometimes it’s even va-va-va voom erotic — not something the Catholic hierarchy tends to dwell on, for obvious reasons. But from the Song of Songs (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”) to the Gospel of John (“Remain in me, as I remain in you”), from monk Thomas Merton to monk Thomas Keating to the great women saints of the Church — from all of them come descriptions of powerful, sensual relationships between themselves, human beings, and a living Christ.
Merton: “This total surrender (to Christ) is not merely a fantastic intellectual and mystical gamble, it is something much more serious. It is an act of love for this unseen person who, in the very gift of love by which we surrender ourselves to His reality, also makes His presence known to us.”
Keating: “We surrender to the attraction to be loved, to be still, just to be … totally given, totally received. God wants to relate to us mouth to mouth. A kiss. A mystical marriage.”
Symeon, the mystic: “Awake in Christ’s body as Christ awakes in ours.”
St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
St. Catherine of Siena: “The more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find, the more I seek.”
St. Catherine of Genoa: “I am so submerged in his immense love that I seem as though immersed in the sea, and nowhere able to feel, see or touch ought but water.”
Evelyn Underhill, British spiritual writer: “He is here, now, in this room calling you, demanding your complete surrender in order that you may become complete. Nothing matters but that demand and your soul’s response …
“Seek Him in prayer. Yield to Him in prayer. Look at Him. Let Him look at you.”
Lucie Christine, French mystic: “He (is) to me light, attraction, and power …. God gives himself to me and I give myself to Him … transported into another life, a region that is no more this earth … it is rapture and inebriation.”
Safe to say, not everybody feels uncomfortable talking or writing about faith. Yet there is a commonality between the rhapsodic language just quoted and the simpler, less grandiose words of the Cursillo women or my lawyer friend or those of us just starting on the spiritual path, too nervous, embarrassed, or unsure to come up with many words at all, never mind full sentences.
In one way or another, we’re all trying to describe the same thing: a love affair.