The Place I’ve Always Wanted to Be

George Weigel over at First Things has a short essay on the 50th anniversary of A Man For All Seasons, the Oscar-winning biopic of Sir Thomas Moore. It was a hugely successful film, and an odd one, given the tenor of the late 1960s, but Weigel notes it was author Robert Bolt’s decision to portray Moore as an “existential hero” that made the movie work in its time.

Moore, however, was not such a man. He was not sacrificing himself so that he could be honest to himself. Rather, Weigel says, Moore was sacrificing himself to an external truth. He was “a Catholic willing to die” for truth and love.

Which is something very different from the kind of existential heroism that is the theme of much of modern literature.

Then Wiegel writes this:

There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances—some quite legitimate—in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.

“Neither victims nor executioners.” This is where I have always wanted to be. This is where my early reading of Solzhenitsyn drove me to, a place where one lives where one is neither a victim or an executioner, not part of the messy world in which we live, as one who neither suffers nor inflicts suffering. Not invested in the things people make. It’s an easy place for me to want to be, since I’ve always been an outsider, a malcontent, and a misfit, someone who has never belonged much of anywhere. And never much wanted to belong anywhere.

Well, the church — the church is the first place I feel like I could without reservation belong. But the people in the church … don’t want me. And won’t make room for me.

Being a reporter has always felt comfortable, at least from the standpoint of being able to be a professional spectator. Someone who is not invested in the outcomes of things, and who can find some kind of belonging. It wasn’t satisfying — one of the reasons I left journalism to begin with was reporting left so many inchoate spiritual desires unfulfilled — but it may be all I am granted.

Unlike Bolt’s Moore, I am a modern, striving more to be true to myself and my nature than any truth external to me. (Because like most moderns, I have found that fealty and devotion to external truth is, in the end, intolerant and brutal.) And that may be a great part of my problem. For a brief moment I realized who I would have been had I been raised in something resembling a caring society — a ukulele-playing pastor — but no one is having that. I will have to find some contentment, some meaning, and some belonging, in what I can be. In what I am allowed to be.

I do want to devote myself to the truth — that Jesus Christ is Lord — and to love in a way greater than our casual or even professional Protestantism allows. I have always wanted that, and I have never known how to. In my call to seminary and ministry, I thought for a while it was possible for me to live like this. And the church, such as Protestantism is made right now, won’t let me. So am I stuck, almost exactly where I was in the summer of 2001, not sure where to go or what to do.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Because I know exactly what I am called to do and be. And no one will let me. No one wants me. I don’t fit. I thought I might, but the truth is, I don’t fit. I never have, and I never will. Learning to live in this … that will be the task for the rest of my life, I suspect.

My Next Calling?

Earlier today, I was browsing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cincinnati’s web site, looking for any openings I might could apply for — because you never know — when I came across this on the bottom of the vocations page (under consecrated life):

Hermits: They live a life of prayer and solitude; they pray for the Church and give witness to the life and holiness of the Church. They are under the direct authority of the Bishop.

Hermits? This is still a thing?

So, I looked for articles on hermits in the church, and sure enough, there are hermits. Not quite everywhere, but this is now a thing, apparently. And then a feeling came back to me, one I have not felt for a long, long time — that desire I have had, and have not ever really make sense of, to give myself utterly and completely to God. To devote my life, my breath, my being, my purpose, my living, and my dying, to God.

The last time I had this so intensely, I was Muslim, and I wanted to go to Bosnia. I didn’t. But I wanted to.

And while this wasn’t quite a driver toward seminary, for a very long time, I thought becoming a pastor would sate this hunger, quench this thirst, satisfy this yearning.

Yeah, right.

Then I read this bit on hermits. And I felt it. Again. That desire. To hand myself over to God. Completely. Utterly.

Allow me to explain something. I have an odd marriage. The best way I can describe it is vaguely “polyamorous.” I am married to Jennifer … but God has a claim on me, and takes me, whenever God wants. And every time it happens, frankly, it’s both amazing and more than I can really deal with.

One morning, I went to daily mass at the local catholic parish in the McKinley Park neighborhood of Chicago — Saints Peter & Paul is the name of the church, an old Polish church long since abandoned by the Poles and given over to Latin Americans — and I found myself overwhelmed. It was a powerful meeting with God that morning. I cannot adequately describe it. (Look, you deal with God.) These things don’t happen often to me, but they happen often enough. I am engulfed, overpowered, overwhelmed, used. It’s amazing, but it’s also frequently terrifying. Sometimes, writing my Bible songs is like this. I’m not really the author, I’m more like a conduit or a scribe, wondering where the melody and the words comes from. Because they don’t feel like they are mine.

Anyway, that morning, I just sat in church for an extra half hour, dealing with what God was doing to me in that time and place. I came home late, and apologized to Jennifer, and tried to explain.

She smiled.

“I wasn’t worried. I figured it was a ‘you-and-God-thing.’”

I looked at her. I remember that she once was envious, and a little angry, that God had talked to me, and even did stuff to me.

“Does it make you jealous that you have to share me with God?”

“Not any more. It used to. But it’s just part of being married to you.”

Just part of being married to me. (Be happy, “Anna” and “Lauren,” that neither of you had to put up with God having His way with me.) I know what I want in life. I want to give myself over to God. I still want to give myself over to God. Body, soul, mind, breath. All of me. I want to lose myself in God.

I think this is a very real, and very human desire. It dovetails nicely with my previous blog. Some people follow Jesus, and some people are called to follow Jesus. Modernity doesn’t understand this. Or rather, it does, but it thinks this desire can be subsumed into something else, something properly “godlike,” such as the state, or an ideology which promises a bright, shiny new tomorrow. And those are terrible substitutes for the ineffable.

And Protestantism doesn’t understand this, for all the reasons I outline in my book. Which you should read if you haven’t. (Go and read it now. This essay isn’t going anywhere…)

This yearning is real, and hasn’t ever gone away, though it got subsumed in seminary studies and candidacy and internship(s) and, for the last year, in a heady mixture of endless waiting and sporadic despair. And it’s probably why I am unemployable. (It’s been 18 months since I’ve had anything remotely resembling a real job, though The Deseret News said they thought really good thoughts about me in their rejection letter!) I once thought an MA from Georgetown University would banish that prospect (ha!), but the truth is I’m probably not really fit for anything with a detailed, professional job description. (And my resume fails to adequately state how I added value at my previous jobs; honestly, I wouldn’t even know where to start with that.) Since being tossed from the ELCA’s candidacy process, I’ve discovered that this job market is mostly about who you know, not what you know.

And I … don’t know anyone.

I think the sad truth is that I am not fit for modernity. I’m fit for something far more medieval. How Jennifer and I will eat and find a way to put a roof over our heads (we could happily live together in one of these little Slovak ecopods), I have no idea. The book, and whatever response it generates (which is coming), is our entire future.

But if I could become a monk or a hermit…