In the middle of our current mess in the Catholic Church, and our country, corresponding perfectly to my own mini midlife crisis, accusations fly, ideological battle lines are drawn, and I try, desperately, to regain my footing on something solid.
I remember, in my 20s, seeing Thomas Cole’s collection of paintings The Voyage of Life on a visit to Washington, D.C. I loved “Youth” (pictured below).
That’s me, I had thought. I just have to make it to that castle in the sky. So I made plans, I got married, I sought graduate education, and I started building my dream life one step, one day, at a time.
Far from inspiring, the painting entitled “Manhood” was frightening. No castle? No state of perpetual career and life satisfaction achieved by, let’s say, 30?
Instead, we see some poor sap praying desperately to an absent angel as he careens toward certain doom. I was dumbfounded. How could anything be any scarier or more uncertain than my 20s?
Oh you sweet summer child.
I’m comforted, personally, by the emerging literature on “Middlescence,” a period of boredom, burnout, and frustration that occurs anywhere from 35 to 75. It’s a liminal time of transition when career, kids, and complicated questions of meaning can coalesce. Like all liminal spaces, it involves chaos, confusion, even dissolution, which allows something new, beautiful and unexpected to emerge.
Where is God in all this?
Frankly, I have no idea. The God Who walked by my side for so long, who sheltered me from the blows of life, seems a distant dream.
Being an American Catholic at this time is difficult enough. The terrible revelations of abuse and cover-up by my church, and the circus-style corruption of all three branches of our government (with our president as the ringleader) further muddy the terrible milieu we find ourselves in. I am nearing the point of losing faith in all the institutions that at one point seemed so solid and unwavering.
The temptation towards nihilism and cynicism is real, and young and old (and newly middle age!) alike are embracing it.
But maybe the liminal can become luminous. Maybe the fact that I keep praying to a God that seems terribly distant (or at least disinterested) is something to hope in. Maybe like John of the Cross we’ve been thrown in prison until we give up all ideas about God and finally surrender to the God Who Is, not the God we argue about or try to keep people from.
I hope so. I hope our Church and our country can reform, can come back from the brink of this awful, gut-wrenching mess.
I hope I can too.
In his poetic memoir My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman writes that “Christ is contingency.”
Meaning, I think, that Christ, the incarnation of God into the messy material reality of being human, is present in the chaos and in the apparently random, thoughtless contingency we inhabit. Our lives and dreams sometimes look like broken glass, but Christ is present even in that sharp and gritty brokenness.
Theologically, it might not work perfectly, but poetically, or more importantly, therapeutically, it’s spot on. We are not in a perfect puppet show directed by God. We are a small part in a contingent mess. And God, however hidden or silent, is here with us.
“Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul
Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,
Even in the eons Christ was not.
And still: some who cry the name of Christ
Live more remote from love
Than some who cry to a void they cannot name.
– after Dante.”
—Christian Wiman, “Into The Instant’s Bliss”