To Seem The Stranger Lies My Lot

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TO seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

-Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

I re-read the Hopkins poem reproduced above a couple of days ago, when I was in Barnes and Noble buying my mother a small copy of Hopkins for Christmas. While my dissertation writing has not yet reached the chapters addressing Hopkins, he’s still managed to haunt me over Winter Break. Hopkins wrote this poem during one of his recurrent depressive episodes, which became particularly acute when he left his native England to work as a teacher in Ireland. Born and raised in the Church of England, Hopkins’s conversion to Catholicism distanced him from his family and his native country. But Hopkins also felt removed from the national cradle Catholicism of Ireland—and the beginning rumblings of Irish nationalism further drove a wedge between the British Hopkins and his Irish students and colleagues.

I think it is this sort of existential homelessness that makes me particularly responsive to Hopkins’s work and to his biography. Hopkins’s queerness extends far beyond his sexuality: he was never quite in step with anyone but himself, a fact that even the strange rhythms of his poetry bears witness to. I also never quite fit at home: either with my parents (I’m an only child) or, more largely, in the varied Southern towns that I grew up in. I was always a touch too cosmopolitan, my parents’ house a bit too nice, and I far-more-than-a-touch too politically liberal to fit with the people I knew there. But when I went away to school (which, in the seemingly endless train of my higher education, has involved three schools), I never quite fit there either. In my current Ivied digs, I’m not quite well-rounded enough to fit, too religious, too conservative, and from too little money. Parts of me fit wonderfully into the little mini-lives I’ve managed to cultivate. There are folks that I can be quite comfortably “academic” with and there are folks that I can be quite comfortably “religious” with, but there are precious few with which I can be comfortably both. As a result, it’s difficult for me to fully articulate my relationship to either identity, since for me they’ve always been intertwined.

At one level, of course, it’s all very frustrating. At another level, though, I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t also benefits to inhabiting the inside-outside perspective. There are, perhaps, things that those of us who have always been “strangers” can both see and make seen that others can’t. As I’ve been mulling this idea over the past couple of months, a few items in the Catholic blogosphere have helped me along.

 First, Leah Libresco’s recent post about the difficulties of “doing” Catholicism alone:

One thing that bothered me about living in Berkeley this past year was how lonely my practice of Catholicism felt.  I missed the intellectual cross-pollination of the many lectures and group events I get to attend in DC, but I also just missed experiencing Communion communally.  After all, long before I was a believer, I never went to Mass alone.  I would go with my then-boyfriend, and we would discuss (or argue about) the readings and the homily afterwards and hold each other’s hands during the service itself.
Going to Mass alone made me feel a little ghostly.  And having all of my Catholicism happen alone made me feel lonely and odd.  Think about how weird it would be to only ever eat alone, to never witness anyone else eating, and to never hear anyone alluding to meals they had prepared and eaten themselves.

In my own time in RCIA–and now, in helping to facilitate the RCIA at my school for those planning to enter the Church next Easter–I was struck by how different my introduction to Catholicism was from that of most of my fellow catechumens. Most of the people who were entering the Church had found it the way that Leah had: through a significant other or a close friend. Their first experience of mass involved people they knew. I, on the other hand, knew no practicing Catholics and stumbled into mass the first time by myself several years after reading Thomas Merton. (I think I’d put off going to a mass after reading Merton for so long because I knew that once I went, that would be it: I’d become a Catholic.) To this day, with rare exceptions when a non-Catholic friend or family member attends with me, I still go to mass alone. I have begun to cultivate some truly wonderful friendships with fellow Catholics at my school, but the Eucharist remains something that I usually go to alone. Honestly, I think it would feel excessively odd to have it otherwise now that I’ve become so accustomed to it. But this does mean that mass is another reminder of that stranger status: when I’m at mass alone, it’s a reminder that—unlike for cradle Catholics—for me this is not a heritage that has arisen from my own family, my own ancestors. The times that my parents do come to mass with me—and I leave them in their pew as I go to take communion—I’m even more starkly reminded of this fact.

When I was first preparing to be baptized, the priest spoke to the catechumens about how lucky we were to be able to remember our baptism, and I think he was right. Part of the privilege of being a convert is to be able to enter in from the beginning with an understanding of the significance of what’s happening, to experience rebirth in a very particular and conscious way. But it’s also made me feel tied—in a, well, mystical way—to the crying babies I’ve seen baptized. Indeed, it is the very experience of being “outside” of the more traditional familial and communal experience of Catholicism that has allowed me to feel particularly close to the communion of saints. When I went to a non-denom with my parents during my teens I knew the people around me much better, but I never felt the strange intimacy that I experience with the people at a mass—or the even stranger intimacy that I feel when I take the host and think of Hopkins himself taking the host, the same body, over a century before me. Each of us strangers. Each of us more united than we could ever imagine.

The second item in the blogosphere that’s helped me think out this inside-outside experience has been witnessing the experience—witnessing the witness, really—of several gay Catholics who have found themselves, much more dramatically than myself, in this “stranger” position and who have borne it with great grace. In the wake of the controversy surrounding Phil Robertson’s comments (no links here, since if you’ve managed to avoid having to worry about politics and theology in relation to Duck Dynasty thus far, then you should by all means continue in this state of blissful ignorance), Ron Belgau posted a thoughtful, reasoned, charitable critique on First Things of Robertson’s, um, less-than-full conception of human sexuality.  Nothing in the article contradicts Church teaching, to which Blegau is very loyal. That, however, did not stop the First Things combox magisterium from practically branding him a heretic. Belgau’s sexuality has already placed him in that inside-outside position, his commitment to celibacy positions him in a queer place even within the GLBTQ community, and to at least a certain subset of conservative Christians he’ll never quite be in the fold. In biblical times, prophets took to the desert. We have different peripheries now, new liminal spaces, but they may well remain places for prophets. Belgau’s dogged and good-natured intellectual persistence in the face of all of this borders on the saintly. Over at Mudblood Catholic (a title which itself is designed to get at that inside-outside dynamic), Gabriel Blanchard’s “Raw Tact” series aimed to speak openly and honestly to Catholics about homophobia. Like Belgau, Blanchard also got more than his fair amount of pummeling from the Catholic side, but he also experienced hostility from non-Catholic LGBTQ folk.

I don’t think I’d have the patience or the fortitude of Ron or Gabriel to insist, gracefully but persistently, on the lived truth of all of me, on all my experiences, and not just on the parts that fit into one of the pre-made boxes we’re allowed to pack ourselves into these days. But I think I can say with them, “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life/ Among strangers.”

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7 thoughts on “To Seem The Stranger Lies My Lot

  1. I really am enjoying your blog – linked to it from Eve Tushnet a few months’ back. The responses of both Hopkins and Newman to their experiences of living in Ireland is quite a fascinating topic to me (as an expat living in Ireland with a deep affection for English Catholicism). Of particularly interest is the question of what drew each to Catholicism, and whether (and if so, how) the Catholicism they found in Ireland surprised them, comforted them, haunted them, and/or troubled them.
    I am very happy to see Catholics like you, Eve, and Ron writing about the topic of isolation/otherness. Gay Catholics seem to be the only ones talking about this subject, which is not a “gay Catholic issue” but rather cuts across all segments of society manifesting in various forms if only we have eyes to see it. It is hardly ever discussed in my experience. Of great help to me over the years are the letters of Flannery O’Connor, who because of her degenerative neurological illness knew a great deal about isolation.

  2. really am enjoying your blog – linked to it from Eve Tushnet a few months’ back. The responses of both Hopkins and Newman to their experiences of living in Ireland is quite a fascinating topic to me (as an expat living in Ireland with a deep affection for English Catholicism). Of particularly interest is the question of what drew each to Catholicism, and whether (and if so, how) the Catholicism they found in Ireland surprised them, comforted them, haunted them, and/or troubled them.
    I am very happy to see Catholics like you, Eve, and Ron writing about the topic of isolation/otherness. Gay Catholics seem to be the only ones talking about this subject, which is not a “gay Catholic issue” but rather cuts across all segments of society manifesting in various forms if only we have eyes to see it. Of great help to me over the years are the letters of Flannery O’Connor, who because of her degenerative neurological illness knew a great deal about isolation.

    • Glad that you’re enjoying the blog, K. I think you’re right about O’Connor having great insight into this issue. I’ve just been reading her prayer journal (written, of course, before her diagnosis), but I do want to write something about it at some point.

      • I haven’t read the Prayer Journal yet. The book of collected letters is called “The Habit of Being.” It came out in the 1980s and was edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald (the wife of writer Robert Fitzgerald – they had several children together but I learned a few years ago that, sadly, they eventually divorced). At the time of publication, the identity of “A,” Flannery’s closest correspondent, was not revealed. A few years back, after A’s death, it was revealed that she was named Betty Hester, a woman of little literary or social significance (in the conventional sense of the word). What has always struck me about these letters, and the reason Flannery haunts me still after all these years, is her absolute devotion to her various correspondents. It is clear from the letters that Flannery O’Connor loved, and needed, people. I haven’t read the biographies that have come out of her in the last few years and suspect some deconstruction has gone on in this regard. What I really need to do is go back and re-read the letters that captured my heart and imagination so many years ago.

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