This is a post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com. This is an essay written during a writer’s residency at Friday Harbor Labs, a University of Washington research center on San Juan Island.
My favorite thing about people today is deep time and deep space.
A little flamed-out moth carcass of a star in our cosmic backyard, the red dwarf Gliese 832, has been found to nurture three planets. Its outer planet, Gliese 832C, weighs about as much—and gets about as much light huddled up close to its dwarf—as Earth does. It is the third most Earth-like planet ever discovered.
In a thousand years, the BBC’s “Stunning Infographics” tells me, a majority of words now spoken will be extinct, and in a hundred thousand, the titanium in the MacBook Pro I write this on will have corroded and a star in Canis Major will go nova.
The first fishes, 540 million years ago, looked like swimming armor-plated beetles. Their gills are what make them, taxonomically, fishes. They were born in an evolutionary explosion. They are the fathers and mothers of everything since.
My great-uncle Mal Gorham, who lives at Matthews Beach eating crustless baloney sandwiches, listening to Duke Ellington, and ordering the history of the Gorham family, found the headstone for my great-great-uncle Asa in upstate Wisconsin, and a newspaper article explaining that Asa had been fatally shot by a man, George Jameson, who was having an affair with Asa’s wife. Asa made the mistake of beating George Jameson not-quite-to-death in Jameson’s front yard when he discovered the affair; Jameson pulled himself up then limped back to Asa’s house to kill him with a shotgun. From this, Cait and I added “Asa” to the list of contenders for the name of our son-to-be. There were many, many ways to die in Wisconsin in 1903. Mal commissioned Asa a new headstone reading “Asa Gorham, Valiant Defender” and took a Polaroid which he showed me.
One of my favorite things about Mass—stand and sit, dab the water, cross the heart, say the words, take the Host into me—is the chance to do the same thing every week. In Mass, I brush against the surface of a timescale different from the timescale I do my paid work in, parent in, teach in, do political work in, and make plans for. To take communion is to do something the same way as the unborn and the dead, W.H. Auden said.
I was born a little more than thirty years ago. We’re often told that contemporary people lucky enough to be born into affluence will see more information in a day than 17th century Europeans saw in their whole lives. Stranger than this fact for me is the particular tenor of the information available to us. Well-off Global Northerners can now watch a YouTube video of galaxies in the Ultra Deep Field streaming past like fireflies in a night drive, get thunderbaked and dive alongside James Cameron as drives a robot seven miles under the surface of the ocean, and watch livestream video of Egyptian soldiers using American guns to kill the people who put them in power this time last year. From the apple-skin-thin surface of this frail dot I live on, I see into the past, extrapolate into the future, peel back Earth’s layers, and see intimately from all sides our fallenness and dishonor toward one another. I carry this information, these pieces of deep space deep time and deep soul, forward with me toward my own death, when they will be imprinted briefly like smoke then disperse at the membrane-edge where time meets timelessness.
I want to love God, my desire beyond my desire, the horizon past which my transcendence will never see, my ground and foundation, the still small voice nearer than my ear, the Being that doesn’t exist.
What keeps you from sleeping? I once had a dream where my friends and I were riding in an immense boat. The boat was a ride among many: we were at some sort of amusement park; I was watching myself and I was being watched. Instead of water, the ride sailed through Earth’s future, to the very end of its life, and back around to its distant past. I remember the sick aged sun, so dim it cast into the water a yolk-colored shadow that glided alongside of us. I remember my own haloless shadow below me in the moving water. I remember us, later, crossing the soupy red ocean in which life first was born, storm waves pounding and heaving over our big boat without getting us wet or rocking us. I remember our boat sailing upstream on a river surrounded by green blank fields: Earth is waiting for us, I thought. I remember, later, the ocean widening until it was everything, feeble little meteors snuffing themselves out in it. There was no life—or this was life. The children on the ride with us screamed in delight. In the texture of the dream were billions of years.
The profound and melancholy grouch St. Augustine asks, in Book X of his Confessions, “What do I love when I love my God?” This question resists an answer, but it requires a response.
But what response is adequate to faith? Here at Friday Harbor Labs, cozy in my salt-dank, wood-shingled house, my old friend and college sweetie E. is constantly in my thoughts. E. was a sober, kind, and serious polymath. She studied genetics, computational biology, and math, and her letters to me from these laboratories—where she was wowing the old men with her computer models of, I think?, mutation in plankton populations—included rigorous, artful, and mordant little fictions run off on the lab’s library printer-copier-scanner. She thought through her emotional life with her stories; her letters had a precocious and slightly-hard-to-credit poise. I imagine her eating with a book in the dining hall, writing me at the desk I write this at (A203: who knows, it’s possible), watching the tame deer in perfect silence. Re-reading her letters now makes me want to write her again. By the time E. was here working, we had broken up—our relationship was more a product of her ardent and flattering intention than a workable thing, once she was confronted by my flushed, lonely, and half-grown actuality—but we spent the better part of a decade after in an epistolary friendship. I got letters postmarked from Oxford, then on MIT stationery. The day last spring I was getting my first sacraments at St. Mary’s, I got a call from a friend telling me that E. had killed herself. A few weeks prior, grieving after her own mom had succumbed to cancer in her fifties, E. lied to her doctor about her own warning signs to get a higher-than-safe dose of a new antidepressant that had suicidal impulses as a deep-fine-print side effect.
What is true about this? Her pain, for one absolutely serious moment, was more than could be borne. Now, to use the language of philosophy, E. not-is here, just as she not-is anywhere else. The becoming that was her life has now ripened into finality, into timeless being in and among the virtues she inhabited and glanced against and skated over in her life: ardor, seriousness, love, kindness, intelligence. The deep space and deep time her mind embraced vanished with her, or they are what she vanished into.
What else is true? I once felt the heart in a dear body beat against mine, and that body is gone. I pray for her and I ask her to pray for me. A few months after her death, I dreamed that she and I got to catch up. She asked about Finn and Cait. She was appalled that I had become, of all things, a Catholic, even though, in this dream, we were in the Vatican library, which should have given her a clue. Her disbelieving laughter had that same self-surprised, narrow-escape quality that it had when she was alive. The physicality of the dream—sunburnt dustmotes drifting in the sun from the library’s windows, the rasp of her nails as she idly scratched the eczema on her elbow—assured me of something, but I don’t know what. The event in her name stirs inexhaustibly in me when I hear Dona Nobis Pacem—the round which, one summer, she taught me and some poet friends on another island around a driftwood fire. It stirs when I read her letters. It stirs when the deer gawk in the windows of my Corolla as I leave Friday Harbor Labs for groceries.
One of my favorite things about Christianity is something I used to be too smart to understand: that the strength of the cross is its terrible weakness. The emblem accepts into itself the dark night of irrationality, tragedy, and the species of self-privation and forgetting and consequent moral evil that Catholics call sin. “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” says Paul in his letter to the Corinthian church, “and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” It’s in one’s response to this holy foolishness and overpowering weakness—in the actions one is stirred to by the event that is God’s name—that one might act. One might act out of one’s grateful silence at the basic incompleteness and inescapable mystery of one’s own life. Or one might act, better yet, out of faith, hope, and love.
So I sit, tired and bored and emotionally hungover, at a red light on a socked-in afternoon, wondering if this name I love is actually nothing, a significant and capital-N sort of nothing, maybe, but still, nothing, and who can find a lack worth loving. Since our minds are just our brains and our brains are just chemicals, and we’ll all in some sense be eaten by bears, cancer, faulty airbags, dementia, serotonin drops, and picnic lighting. I sit in front of this widening silence and feel no reverence, only loneliness. All around me, like a faraway Fourth of July, I hear—puff…puff…puff—people’s pieces of deep space deep time and deep soul snuffing out against the impermeable barrier of death. Any human fact—such as the belief in the dignity of another, or moral revulsion at cruelty—is, as a human fact, a choice, something I must affirm as I needn’t affirm the wavelength of red light or the depth of the Marianas Trench. This affirmation, I realize as the light remains red, is my choice and my responsibility to make, though this immanent presence and immense self-giving silence certainly isn’t waiting around for me to affirm it. It is my responsibility, even though, frankly, on days like this the best way to let God remain absolutely free and clear is to be an atheist. I affirm your dignity. I am meat. My consciousness is meat. And suddenly there it is again: that faint throb of brother- and sisterhood, admiration and comradeship I feel whenever I see someone find a way to love the damaged, the absurd, the partial, and the unspeakable, the God who “comes to rest upon the least among us” and sometimes even lifts our meat above its own blind force. I want to know when to say I don’t know. I want to know when to be silent. I want to be reminded, by my daily small bafflements, of the single big unknowability that pours itself into my mammal mind. There is no God and I cannot reject him, so in myself I know I must let God be.