Before my conversion to Catholicism (and before a rather lengthy agnostic walkabout), I was born and raised an Evangelical Protestant. There’s a lot of good things to be said for Evangelicalism: it’s pragmatic, it strives to speak to the world in a language it will understand, and it proclaims a message of hope. However, those very strengths were precisely what made it seem untenable to me from my early adolescence onward: the pragmatic eagerness to “fix things” felt like a refusal to treat my struggles as anything but a problem to be fixed, its desire for relevance felt like a refusal to engage with the deeper, messier questions that no one in the mainstream culture nor in the church seemed willing to ask, and its hope felt more like a coercive demand (you will feel loved by God!) than like an authentic possibility to be considered. [I should also note upfront that my experiences of Evangelicalism shouldn’t stand in for the whole movement. This is my story, but it should not take the place of the stories of others.]
Once I left for college, I basically left Christianity behind me. I’d always insistently asked the hard, uncomfortable questions—the questions that weren’t “allowed.” I’d always been accused of being both too depressed and too depressing. So I went to what felt like a safe place for that kind of dark and rigorous inquiry: literature and philosophy. If you couldn’t think about death, about suffering, about the experience of meaninglessness, in either pop culture or in the mega-church, you could talk about it— you had to talk about it—when you were talking about Shakespeare or Sartre, about Kafka or Kierkegaard. I still love literature and philosophy to this day because both have the remarkable ability to cut through the comfortable numbness of our days and make us look, however briefly, at the wounds—individual and social, personal and existential—that we’ve kept bandaged and out of mind.
In my youth, there was a lot of rhetoric in our church about wholeness and healing, about resurrection and restoration. There was some talk about suffering, but only in relationship to its end. It had no value except as something to be fixed, no purpose except as a “testimony” that you could share once you’d been healed. Healing and wholeness were the negation of wounds and fragmentation. Easter wiped out Good Friday. I, meanwhile, for reasons that are probably too multitudinous for me to ever fully grasp—and which doubtlessly include hereditary factors as well as environmental ones—was busy suffering in the midst of all this “wholeness” and righteous joy. I was an awkward, socially inept kid with few friends. My parents separated—and reunited—in the wake of a messy affair. My father had fallen into a deep depression, rapidly losing weight and becoming increasingly dependent on alcohol for self-medication. My mother also grew more withdrawn and depressed. I was given over more and more to obsessive thinking patterns and deeper and deeper self-withdrawal. I preferred talking with books (I was on a Beat kick back then) than with people, which is sometimes still the case with me.
College felt like a certain escape from all this and, in a way, it was. I made more friends, succeeded in my studies, and gained something like a “surrogate parent” in the form of a few mentor professors. I felt more free to explore the darker emotions for which I’d had no real outlet in the church or in my own home. I read Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade, I thought about Wildean decadence and Foucauldian limit experiences, and I generally tried to transmogrify my suffering into some experience that could be bigger than me. I sought to attain some transcendence, even if it was a perverse and destructive one. All of this remained, however, a more or less academic exercise.
Once I graduated, I was convinced that I’d escaped the more raw, unprocessed sufferings of my youth by converting them into something more intellectual and aesthetic. However, I was swiftly reminded that I’d yet to truly do battle with my demons. A disastrous relationship, replete with alcohol and drug abuse, serious depression, and a brief period of cutting, underscored how little I really controlled these emotions. To make a very long story very short, I eventually found my way to a gifted therapist. What impressed me about talk therapy—in distinct contrast to the religion in my youth—was that my experiences were not simply treated as “problems” or “failings” to be addressed but were acknowledged as being important in themselves. There was a healthy focus on correcting some very destructive self-talk, but I was not encouraged to see myself as “healed” or “whole” but to instead take a truly honest look at my flaws and my strengths, at my failures and at my successes.
My road back to Christianity and ultimately to Catholicism was a long and windy one and came long after my entrance into therapy; I hope to write about it in greater detail in a later post. But, for now, I want to underscore one thing that drew me in. In the Evangelical circles I’d traveled in during my childhood, there was always a great distrust of the Catholic obsession with crucifixes. “We believe that Jesus is off the cross!” folks would exclaim, implicitly suggesting that there was something suspect—maybe even downright perverse—in the Catholic dwelling on the scene of the suffering body. What mattered was the empty tomb, was hope, was Easter! We should, of course, acknowledge Christ’s great love (and, as we were oft reminded, our great guilt in causing his suffering), but the cross was a necessary horror which we must not look at too long lest we forget how it was “fixed” on Easter morning. It was a mentality that informed an entire cultural worldview; for instance, I knew many Evangelicals who would disapprove of many darker realist films that didn’t have a “redemptive” message at the end. On the other hand, I always looked—I had to look—at suffering as suffering because I was always more compelled by the wound than by the bandage (of which I was always suspicious).
Yet the longer that I looked at the broken body of Christ I realized something about the risen body of Christ: it was not simply “whole,” it was not a simple restoration of what had happened before Good Friday, it was instead a wounded body that was also whole. It was a broken wholeness (or a whole brokenness if you prefer). It was a repetition of the great “both/and” at the heart of the Incarnation (and of much of Catholic theology in general): Christ was both human and divine and his risen body was both broken and whole. The realization opened my eyes to a third way of thinking about suffering: I didn’t have to choose between the embrace of a sunny wholeness that quickly glossed over suffering with a vision of divine redemption or the embrace of a defiant nihilism that would give itself over entirely to senseless suffering in a last-ditch effort to hold onto anything that felt real. The risen body of Christ affirmed both the wound and the Resurrection, it embodied both Good Friday and Easter, and it was through the wounds of Christ—which cried out to my own—that I could enter into a relationship with God that had always seemed impossible.