Wide White Margins, And A Few Words

On the days when I particularly overwhelmed–when I am convinced that any reform in my church will require at least 10 million perfect words, when I am sure that nothing I can think or say or write will ever make any difference, when I am tempted to think that the countless number of books in Harvard’s theological library may actually make so little an imprint on the world–on these days you will probably find me cross-legged on the floor of the Harvard Bookstore.  I will be hunched over barren pages held together by thin bindings in the poetry aisle. Their words belong to people that most people do not know, people I do not know.

I don’t just come for the poems; I come for all the white space that fills these poetry books.  The white space actually comforts me more, I think, reminding me  of two things:  First, reminding me of the arduous silence–all the wordless thinking–that accompanied very worthwhile word I have ever written.  Wordlessness can be precious and productive in its own ways.  Second, reminding me that I do not need to say everything–I do not need to say everything–only a few beautiful, dangerous, honest-to-God, true things.  Poems are so captivating because they say so much with so little.

I am so little, and I want to say something worth so much.

Jessica Coblentz is currently studying at Harvard Divinity School where she is pursuing a Master’s degree in theology.  Find this post, along with her other online writings, at www.jessicacoblentz.com.

A Catholic Middling

When did this begin?  When did I become a Catholic?

I started reading a book on major themes in literary theory this evening, and (naturally) the first chapter detailed the topic of “beginning” in literary criticism. The opening lines of Dante’s The Divine Comedy were among the examples treated in the chapter. These lines read: “Midway in the journey of our life I find myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”  The book’s commentary describes this beginning as a “middling”–a beginning in the middle of life, in the middle of a dark wood–suggesting that Dante’s opening communicates that, “there are no absolute beginnings–only strange original middles.  No journey, no life ever really begins: all have in some sense already begun before they begin” (3).

I thought of my faith when I read these lines. I think the beginning of my faith was a middling.

Some people teach that Christian faith begins in baptism.  (This idea of beginning seems particularly fitting for consideration, as it is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord today!)  They might say that when I was baptized a Catholic by my parents as an infant, something about my existence changed in that moment.  I became a Christian.  Or, they might say that in baptism my parents established the context that would determine my faith in the the future.  Baptism was the beginning of what would unfold in me later in life.

Others cite a one-time proclamation of Christian faith as the definitive beginning.  When one accepts Christ as his/her Lord and Savior from sin, he/she becomes a Christian. Many people tells stories of this moment when they knew something in them changed.  They became Christians.

But I think my faith began with a middling more like the one described in this textbook of mine: “There are no absolute beginnings–only strange original middles.  No journey, no life ever really begins: all have in some sense already begun before they begin.”  I cannot tell the story of how my Catholic faith began, so much as I can look back at the story of my faith and realize that it began before the moment that I recognized it.  When I try to pin down a moment, I always identity some precursor–some prior person or event or moment or memory full of grace and faith and god–one that complicates any notion I have of “beginning.”  Every “beginning” I consider becomes more like a “middling.”

I cannot tell of my faith’s beginning, only that it began.  And the story continues.

Jessica Coblentz is a student at Harvard Divinity School. This entry is cross-posted on her personal blog, www.jessicacoblentz.com, where you can also find more of her musings.

Mother Teresa’s Footsteps

During my senior year at Santa Clara University, I worked a job in one of the campus’ most beautiful buildings.  The walls of the bright, naturally-lit interior were lined with a collection of black and white photographs depicting influential peacemakers from around the world.  All of them are striking portraits, capturing men and women with strong postures and warms smiles.  Only two photographs are exceptions.  In addition to a headshot of the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, there are two other photographs of her–one of her old, maternal hands; the other, of her tiny deformed feet.

I always found myself standing in front of those feet. I have not seen a pair of feet like them anywhere else–so worn and, honesty, quite ugly.  I was drawn to them nevertheless because, while I could have never imagined feet like those, when I stood before them I always thought to myself, “Yes, these are exactly what the feet of Mother Teresa would look like.” That is, like feet contorted by her ceaseless labor, her walking back and forth along the streets of Calcutta where she cared for the poorest.  The sores of her feet were a tangible manifestation of the difficult work that she embraced with such love and altruism.

Most of us don’t have feet like those–feet that reflect the streets we choose to walk.  We protect our feet with socks and shoes, and hide the few imperfections they bear.  As this year comes to a close, however, I have been wondering what my feet would like like if they did, actually, reflect where I have been.  Where did I choose to place my footsteps this year?  Where have I been?  And how were this year’s footsteps different from those of the last few years? Continue reading

The Difficult “Thank You”

Perhaps because this is the first Thanksgiving I will not spend at home in Seattle, I have been particularly struck by how much of a “family” holiday this occasion really is in our culture.  People endure busy airports, expensive travel costs, and many miles to gather together on this special day.  Embarrassing or sentimental memories of family and friends are as much a part of the American image of Thanksgiving as mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.  And whether one’s family is big or small, unusual or ordinary, biological or adopted, dysfunctional or thriving, this holiday challenges us to celebrate what we’ve got.

This year I’m reminded that I need to love my Catholic family, too.  In the left-leaning Catholic community where I live my day-to-day life, it is easy for me to avoid certain branches of my religious family tree—certain individuals with doctrinal interpretations I don’t like, or with priorities that conflict with my own.  Even when we gather for our weekly family meal at Sunday liturgy, it is easy enough for me to wave and smile, never engaging them in a loving, personal, familial way.  Yet our common faith in and commitment to this Catholic faith makes us family, in a sense.

This year, Thanksgiving has made me wonder: What if I treated the Eucharistic meal like a Thankgiving meal? Like a holy-day meal during which we gather to celebrate one another, regardless of how colorful and difficult our Catholic family is?  “Thank you” can be reduced to easy words–but I think the Thanksgiving holiday, an occasion when many of us go out of our way to spend quality time with one another, can challenge us live out “thank you” in our interactions with other Catholics. How can we live out the difficult “thank you’s” in our Catholic family today?

Jessica Coblentz is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.  Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.

What’s the body got to do with God?

stteresa-ecstasyof-gianlorenzobernini-500I was talking about the body last week at a Halloween party.  A friend had asked me, “If God is transcendent, how are our bodies important for connecting to God? Can’t we just use our reason? Maybe even emotion?  What’s the body got do with it?”  I was surprised by my reaction.  My gut instinct was to aggressively defend the sacred nature of the body–I’m a feminist! Feminists care about bodies! I must salvage the body! Instead of simply pouncing on this genuine friend with my feminist enthusiasm, I began to explore the origin of his question. “Haven’t you experienced God through physical ritual and practice? Through spiritual disciplines of fasting or feasting? Maybe through sexual desire even?”

“No. Not really.”

Hmmph. For some reason, instead of charging back with those pent up imperatives, I began to think about how I came to take for granted the seemingly obvious role of the body in my spirituality. Was this rooted in my Catholicity–in my belonging to a faith characterized by the standing,  kneeling, eating, drinking, singing, and moving around of the Sunday liturgy? Or was it simply a personal reaction to all the body-bashing I find in Catholic sexual ethics?  Was it an outgrowth of the Church’s social teachings about the goodness of creation and our affirmation of embodied life?

I brought these questions with me as the school week started.  On Tuesday nights, I gather with a few other first year students at the Harvard Div School to discuss primary texts written by Christian mystics. While a number of tangental topics arose, as usual–prayer, scripture, liturgy–the mystics kept bringing me back to these questions of the body. Continue reading

Still Enough

Train windowMy cousin grew up practicing Buddhist meditation.  She says that, contrary to popular perception, thinking doesn’t cease in the meditative state.  Rather, she finds herself in this still space where thoughts pass in front of the mind, like fleeting images on a TV screen. Instead of being whisked away with them, as in regular consciousness, she is still, watching them, all those thoughts that unconsciously accompany her throughout the day. This is transcendence.

This is a ride on the Boston T, the city rail system that carries me across the metropolis every day.  Today I am sitting in a quiet car, nearly vacant, staring across the aisle out one of the big glass windows.  Sitting there, I am still for the first time in many days, and I am mindlessly mesmerized by the images that pass across the transparent screen before me. Continue reading

A Contemporary Pilgrim’s “Progress”?

Recently, for the first time ever, I read the English theological classic Pilgrim’s Progress.  The book, presented as an allegorical dream experienced by the author, follows the protagonist, Christian, in his journey to the gates of the Celestial City.  Along the straight and narrow way, he encounters numerous characters who personify various virtues and vices that one commonly comes across in life’s journey—folks like Hypocrisy, Patience, Hopeful, Ignorance, to name a few.  Time and time again, these characters distract or encourage him along the pilgrimage, but in the end Christian preserves nonetheless.

While it is a brilliant, multi-layered text that presents a reader with plenty to ponder, the book’s title and even the simplest consideration of the allegory inevitably begs one to consider: What counts as progress in Christian life?  What is the ends toward which a Christian should progress?  How can one tell if he/she is making progress?  Continue reading