My Mild Stigmata: the Possibility of a Mystical Modern Life

Congratulations to Spencer Clark French, whose essay “My Mild Stigmata” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2021 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.


Stigmata (singular stigma) in Christian mysticism, bodily marks, scars, or pains corresponding to those of the crucified Jesus Christ…A stigmatic person may temporarily or permanently have one or more of these wound marks… the presence of stigmata is a sign of mystical union with the suffering of Christ.”

—Encyclopedia Britannica


Just a knob of skin. Just a small callous. Just a weird wart burrowed into my palm.

At a time when God’s absence was as obvious as it has ever been, I got a sliver in my right hand—from a shovel handle, if I remember correctly—that was too deep for pliers. I decided to let my body heal it over time. After a week, the surrounding flesh hardened; after two, the swelling and pain relented; after a month, it was inducted into the geography of my hand. But around that same time, I reevaluated and was struck—it occupied the exact center of my palm, the exact center. I tried picking it off, to no avail, so I clenched my hand into a fist for fear that people would see it and ask. In my less vigilant moments, I found myself rubbing the wart with my ring finger over and over—half pseudo-religious practice and half nervous tic.

After three months, I revealed it to my spiritual director (a title which has always seemed like an oversell). He looked at me, then at my hand, then back at me—grinning.


Of course, I had not the hubris to claim a stigma. The most reasonable explanation was that I had a strange growth in my hand—a fact qualifying me for dermatologist, maybe, but hardly anything more. And yet the callous remained, and yet my confusion about it. Questions haunted me, namely: in light of all our secular preoccupations, all our scientific developments, all the well-documented abuses of religious people and institutions, what is a (non-delusional) modern person to do with experiences like this, with the notion of the mystical?


It did not help that the word “mysticism” is a peach pit in the teeth of modern speech. It works well enough when describing historical (read: long-dead) figures, like Rumi or Teresa of Ávila, but the moment it starts referring to the contemporary world, things veer into the fantastical: theword conjures crystal-wearing, tree-talking LSD-gurus or esoteric ceremonies with velvet shawls and, surely, at some point, pig blood. Much like the term “martyr,” mild embarrassment arises when “mystical” is invoked to describe an experience—especially among those who fancy themselves intellectuals. Immediately the furrowed brows, immediately the incredulity. And yet under these reactions, one cannot help but sense a sincere desire for something more than fresh formulations of well-worn doubts—the suspicion of those who desperately want to be proved wrong. There is a reason why the most popular quote of academic theologian Karl Rahner is not about the Trinity or Soteriology, but rather, “the Christian of the future will be a mystic ornot exist at all” (The Practice of Faith).


But how would we speak about such a life? What words would we use? In every age, language—especially religious language—must be reimagined if it is to continue being meaningful. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed to when he wrote from a Nazi jail cell, “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today” (Letters and Papers from Prison). Our American context is saturated with a longing for precise, beneficial spiritual language—language which helps us speak of transcendent experiences while honoring the mystery therein; language which acknowledges the complicity of our words (and selves) in systems of oppression while providing a way for justice and peace; language which negotiates both the wide silence and occasional intrusion of God. What could such mysticism mean for us today?


I. A Catalogue of Strange Happenings


A five-minute walk from my childhood home lived an evangelist who also happened to be my grandfather. He was thin-framed with a belly, energetic and gregarious, and as conviction goes his love of the Detroit Tigers was surpassed only that for Christ. In the 70s he was a missionary in Brazil with his wife and two children; he loved Portuguese—Porrr-TOO-geyz. And, of course, he had stories—this was my favorite:

Because of his father’s new Navy placement, my ten-year-old grandpa, his siblings, and their few possessions were piled into the family’s old, two-door DeSoto. So began a long trek from Michigan to California. It was one of the colder months, December maybe, and they had made it all the way to the Rockies. His father decided to brave a precarious, uphill road despite nightfall and snow, which only grew heavier with altitude. They chugged and jolted up the slope, but the asphalt was slick—too slick—and the car lost traction, swerving into a snowbank on the ledge, which was the only barrier between the road and the darkness that went beyond it. The vehicle teetered. His father commanded all the kids to the safe side of the car, and then, without breaching equilibrium, started lifting them, one by one, out of the driver-side door. My grandpa was among the first evacuated. They were miles away from the nearest city. The snowstorm was blinding. The road had no shoulder—if someone drove through, they would be roadkill; if not, icicles. And that’s assuming that everyone made it out before the car plummeted into the abyss. The blizzard became a room with no doors.

Through the wall of white strode four men shoulder to shoulder. They were all the same height and wore matching leather vests. They walked up to the driver side window. One said, “sir, you need our help.” They picked up the rear of the car and dragged it back to the road, directing his father to turn it around. Pointing him to the nearest city in the valley, one of them drawled, “You need chains on your tires to make it over this mountain.” Everyone piled back into the car and said nothing, still in shock from the cold and the cliff. Those four men walked ahead of them, into the strobing white-black of headlights on a snowy night. When they started down the road a few minutes later, the men had disappeared.

My grandpa spoke nothing of this for years until one random day when he turned to his mother, bashful for having waited so long, and asked, “Mom, on the mountainthose menwere they—” She interrupted, “Those were no men

I believed him entirely. In fact, my young mind added to the leather vests: from then on, all angels wore spurs and wide-brimmed Stetsons. And I believed that they could be anywhere.


But life was more solitude than deus ex machina, more often the quiet sky than the four cowboys.

When I left my Podunk hometown to study ministry, I had been equipped with the certain logic of simple faith—if you come near to God, God will come near to you. Jesus wants a personal relationship with everyone, after all. A clear corollary followed: if God is not near, it is surely because you aren’t near to God. As I prepared to become a pastor, a shadow grew in step with my every attempt at deepening my belief. I went on antidepressants. I read voraciously, hoping to find the reason for my grief or, at least, something to distract me from it. One time, my father intimated that the depression was actually caused by all the books I was reading. There are crazier suggestions.


Poets helped most:


No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

No worst, there is none…, Gerard M. Hopkins


Your children, burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
of wisdom,
carom down this vale of
fear. We cry for you
although we have lost
your name.

Savior, Maya Angelou


Three years into an undergraduate degree in Christian Ministries, the possibility of faith collapsed. I assumed the bitter title, agnostic. I told those closest to me that I could no longer shoulder the weight of belief.

But that fledgling agnosticism did not last, or at least, did not progress unimpeded: peculiar, sporadic moments followed me around—a shooting star tearing across the night in reply to the petition reveal yourself!, the prolonged eye contact of a sparrow, my name appearing on road signs in the midst of a long debate with the sky. Of course, these could be rationalized—coincidence, want of birdseed, confirmation bias, respectively—but my dismissals could not annul the churning inside. They felt more like evasions than explanations. I blamed my grandpa for my fealty to grandest possible interpretation.

But the emptiness remained. I was caught between the darkness in which I lived and the few moments of light that perforated it—which, in most cases, just made the darkness darker. I was a semi-believer on psychotropics who argued with the ether and occasionally talked to birds. Is befuddled a religious category?


The encounters continued:

The day before Yale Divinity School’s application results were published, I went for a run to steady my nerves. It was March in South Bend, Indiana and not warm. After finishing, I crouched down in front of my apartment building to stretch. A couple, who I had never seen before or since, walked by with their pet—a bulldog. My eyes perked, but I steadied myself against any hasty spiritualization. In that same moment, the bulldog turned and stared directly in my eyes. I was admitted the next day. While I’m at it, the rural farm town that I grew up in? Its name is Yale, Michigan. All my life I attended Yale Public Schools. The colors are navy and white; our mascot is a bulldog.

While working at a church—in the midst of my dark half-decade of the soul—a man who struggled with homelessness limped my way, told me that his kneehurt real bad and asked for healing. I tried to signal to one of the more spiritually-equipped staff members, but they were all busy and service was about to start. Wincing, I placed my hand on his knee, so as to not insult decorum, prayed the most generic, qualifier-laden prayer of my life, hurrying away afterwards to veil my shame. When service finished, I tried to slink out a back door unseen, but he found me and bounded over, tears streaming down his face. “It’s better, yes! It’s all better! Thank you, Yes! Thank you, Jesus!”I still see him sometimes. He does not limp.


II. A Faith from the Fragments


In conversations about faith, silence, and the mystical, it’s hard to go too long without Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel showing up. Here he is at his most lucid:

“In every [person’s] life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal… But such experiences or inspirations are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response.”

—Man is Not Alone

Heschel’s conception of faith is dynamic—it maintains traditional content, while removing any expectation of regular access to God; it preserves the notion that God is active in the world, while making space for God’s felt absence. But I find this quote most helpful in how it quietly sketches the mechanics of mystical experience. Heschel distinguishes between a revelatory event and our response to it. In any encounter of transcendence there is something beyond our control (e.g. man with a hurt knee, bulldog) and something in us that responds (e.g. awe, recognition of a coincidence beyond coincidence).


In the rare case that a modern person ventures mystical significance on an encounter, there is a tendency to fixate on the abnormality of events. Think of the careful grammar of the sentence, “the strangest thing happened to me today.” Events are exterior to us and therefore—the subtle logic goes—not marred by our subjective perceptions and desires. For that is what subjectivity does: mars.

One of the clearest examples of this contemporary mistrust of the self comes, ironically, from the 17thcentury clergy-poet, John Donne. In his most famous of the Holy Sonnets, Donne laments his own waywardness so much so that he pleads for an outside force—in this case God—to come and violently save him from himself:

Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

Holy Sonnet X, John Donne

But any attempt to remove the subjective from an experience misses the point. Unless you mutilate a moment into mere facts and dates, events are not objective. And even if you decided to strip them to bare data, what is there left to say of a serendipitous star or a conspicuous callous besides the trivializing— “How bizarre?” The fact of an event does nothing to make meaning of it. We have no testable, scientific meta-framework for determining whether a happening was random or from beyond. How many transcendent moments are interred in the graveyard of coincidence?


This parallels a larger truth: there is enough evidence in this world for anyone to be a rosy-eyed believer or sour-faced atheist. In a very real way, agnosticism is the only rational religious posture, but “rational” in that case surrenders everything up front—assuming that the only way you can have a reasonable religious belief is to acknowledge you cannot. At the end, evidence has never been the issue; interpretation makes apostles or apostates.


 (As cowardly as I’ve called it, I still deem myself agnostic three days a week. It’s like an existential part-time job, but with no benefits and really bad pay.)


In the way of faith, our responses to extraordinary moments are more important than the events that originated them—responses involve agency, and we can choose aspects of our responses. But then there’s that pesky question of extent. It would be gross overstatement to claim that we have absolute jurisdiction over our reactions. Imagine your favorite meal: did you choose to like it? My hunch is that, in most cases, your appreciation for a dish had little to do with your conscious will and almost everything to do with the desires of some unseen aspect of yourself. But what about acquired tastes? That’s exactly my point—the existence of acquired tastes proves that we do have some agency alongside these subterranean parts of our self, but the very fact that the adjective ‘acquired’ has to modify the more common noun ‘tastes’ proves that consciously cultivating one’s palate is not the norm.

Think about all the other areas to which this mechanism applies: do you choose to be struck by a work of art? How many of your tears are chosen? Sure, through study one can procure a deeper love for a painting; yes, people can be socially conditioned to hide emotional responses, even from themselves; but at the end of it all, there is still an other-energy which moves in and through these rare moments, beyond the limits of our will. If there is any evidence for God’s specific action in our lives, I’d bet it’s found there. The Gospel of Mark argues that this doubleness doesn’t just apply to food and art, but also to faith: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24, KJV). Or consider an excerpt from Scott Cairns’ poem in defense of heretics:

Does one always make one’s choices? From what
universal view of utter clarity
might one proceed? Let me know when you have it.”

Adventures in N.T. Greek: Hairésis


I’ve spent a lot of sentences emphasizing transcendent moments and our strange passivity to them, but here I need to turn again to Heschel, lest I outline a faith only for those who converse with small mammals and levitate regularly. When Heschel talks about moments from Beyond, he does not describe them as routine, “[E]vents happen, intermittently, occasionally. The term ‘continuous revelation’ is as logical as the term ‘a round square’” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity).

Faced with the capriciousness of mystical events and with the fact that we cannot regulate a sizable part of our response, it’s important to probe into what we can control. How would someone act if they were to claim that they lived a life open to the mystical?


The mystic, philosopher, social-activist and existential odd-bird, Simone Weil provides a helpful investigation of one answer: attentiveness. In a short essay about, among other things, the studies of school children, Weil contends that the highest motive for schooling should not the acquisition of knowledge but instead to “[increase] the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer” (Waiting on God). She believes that central to the faithful life is the absolute attention on God. She treats it as a rudimentary spiritual skill, like breathing is to basketball—rarely the focus but unthinkable without it.

To live a life open to the mystical, we must train our eyes to look for “intrusions of grace” (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners). We must prime our imaginations for the mysterious, staying ourselves against the safety of skepticism. If there are such things as mystical encounters, which I believe there are, then humans are not the exclusive originators of them, and therefore cannot manifest them readily. (An anti-example: while I was desperately trying to save a sinking relationship, I buoyed my confidence by searching out license plates for my then partner’s initials—for, surely, these were mystical messages from the Lord. I was not well.) Attentiveness requires openness and then patience.


From Weil’s same essay:

“An [Inuit] story explains the origin of light as follows: ‘In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illuminated.’ If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention… Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.”

While this quote nears a formulaic, work-centric shadow of the faithful life, I share it because of what it illuminates: attention, while passive to the object it attends to, is also an active posture in the world. We can choose what we focus on or what we avoid. We can choose to be inattentive, and our world is happy to aid and abet that self-diversion—commodifying our gaze so they can be sold to the highest big-tech capitalist bidder. In this cultural situation, there must be a great “effort of attention.” A life that is open to the possibility of mystical encounter must also have eyes that are open for those few times it arrives. Furthermore, Weil’s conception refuses to unilaterally blame humans for not experiencing God. She thinks that the spiritually attentive life requires long periods of little fruit, which relieves us of culpability when mystical encounter does not follow prolonged attentiveness. Instead, our focus silently grows our capacity for God or Whatever, even if we do not recognize it at first. But one day the numinous will break through with a flash of realization, like Jacob: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Genesis 28:16).


To be open to the mystical, you must attend to your life, and I do not mean indiscriminately foisting meaning upon every cardinal and traffic cone. You must choose to listen to what is speaking, from within and without, and be patient when silence abounds. And you must find remedies for the distractedness of our marketing-driven culture. One such antidote is poetry—writing and reading. Poetry forces us to listen with focused ears, to look with thorough eyes, which is why poetry is a perennial avenue of spiritual clarity in the world.


The poet Lucille Clifton captures open attentiveness masterfully in her poem when I stand around among the poets. After lamenting the literary establishment’s overwhelming whiteness, maleness, and, worse of all, certainty, she pivots:

i don’t know how to do
what i do in the way
that i do it. it happens
despite me and i pretend

to deserve it.

but i don’t know how to do it.
only sometimes when
something is singing
and so far

i hear.


Heschel helps locate a second arena in which the mystical life works itself out—memory: in his short, scintillating essay The Moment at Sinai, Heschel argues that the Bible is a book of events, not just ideas. He continues, “The root of Jewish faith is, therefore, not a comprehension of abstract principles but an inner attachment to those events; to believe is to remember, not merely to accept the truth of a set of dogmas.” And these memories make claims on the rememberer: “The event must be fulfilled, not only believed in.”

This is a rigorous picture of the faithful life, one that requires more than I have to offer, but as I was preparing to harangue the overstatement of such a conception, a dove landed three feet away and stared at me for half a minute. Stared. It felt like rebuke from Heschel himself. I will have to leave my qualms about biblical historicity and organized religion to the side.


What I can say is this: I believe spiritual events from the past, whether last week or last millennium, can make claims on our present lives; they can change our posture toward the world, if we let them.

This changed posture comes within the dialectic of memory and interpretation: our past experiences inform our perceptions of the present, and our present lives influence our interpretations of the past. One is not lord over the other. Think of the memories that had a fundamental meaning to your life—a childhood conversion, let’s say—only to be excused as folly amid the scrutiny of age. Consider those times that were as quotidian as clouds—a short conversation, a glance—which, later, took their position among the most important moments of your life. This is as good a reason as there is to keep a journal. The first step of deep engagement with spiritual memories is actually remembering.


We are always interpreting and reinterpreting events. But there is a temptation to privilege recent spiritual malaise over a previous divine encounter, at least in my own life. This privileging of the present makes sense: how many months of silence from God must one endure before they begin rethinking the nature of that Being? If the faithful life is nothing more than clinging to a past ecstatic moment while you founder in the spiritual abyss, then mystical instants become nothing more than the religious equivalent of a one-night stand, God being the one who doesn’t call back.


How can we remain loyal to a past mystical event without reducing our lives to a handful of moments? How can we let those moments make claims on us without shunning our present experience? I’ve reached the boundary of what I can answer. I do believe that a person open to the mystical must be faithful to their memories, must allow past moments of transcendence to make claims on their lives. But discerning what kinds of obligations, if any, those experiences require must be made by individuals within their specific spiritual community.

For example, while angels qua cowboys may not have survived the onslaught of my liberal theological education, I still believe my grandpa’s story, which means I believe there are times where goodness does dramatically intervene, which means I must make myself open to endless examples where this doesn’t seem to be the case and all the impossible questions that spawn from them.


If I were to point in the direction of a third aspect of the mystical life, it would undoubtably be a good sense of humor:

Once, during a cheesy Christian meditation, I was asked to invite Jesus into “the living room of my imagination.” Before the deflector shields of cynicism could be deployed, in walked the poet Ross Gay. He sat across from me on a corduroy couch. I offered him imaginary tea, which he graciously accepted.


Any time some shmuck attempts to identify the characteristics of spiritual experience, something in me bares its teeth like a cornered badger; schemas rarely respect the mystery of the thing they try to define. Especially in spiritual matters, the way one chooses to describe something says just as much as what they describe. At my very conservative undergraduate college, there was a formally trained New Testament scholar who had to regularly field inquiries about how to best “apply” the New Testament stories to real life. His response, which I heard on multiple, exasperated occasions: “Asking the question of, ‘How do I apply this narrative to my life?’ is like asking the question ‘How do I bake my grandmother?’ I can give an answer, but it will involve a lot of violence.”

Having listed two (and a half) features of a life open to the mystical could be understood as a brand of this indelicacy, I need to reemphasize the mystery woven into both attention and memory: what made your eye attend to the random person in the crowded room who became your partner? What brought forth the memory of a past joy which imputed the lightness of that time into a current despair? What makes the word on the page stand out, the right word, the word which frees you from a present pain? Even though these situations can be dismissed à la psychological conjecture, I cannot bend to such explanations—I simply love my grandmothers too much.


The only mystical life that I could accept would be one that holds space for fidelity to both the memory of a past divine encounter and the keen godlessness of the rest of life, without diluting either. They must dance together.

To live a life open to the mystical in our modern world, you must be open to the absurd possibility that Whatever is out there loves us—all of us—and wants to interact with us, even “though you have considered all the facts” (Wendell Berry). Even in the face of the massive mistrust and learned hatred of the self, you must accept that you have the potential for contact with the divine, even in the face of the God’s present absence—“God would have us know that we must live as [people] who manage our lives without him” (Bonhoeffer, again). To orient a life with such beliefs would require an open attentiveness to the world around and inside you, as well as a careful loyalty to the memory of the few miraculous experiences that arrive. Such a posture would require a healthy dose of humor for when you are wrong, which would be often, and a community of people with whom you can learn and grow and struggle through our bizarre world. To claim such a life would surely beget the rolled eyes of academics and the worried denunciations of those who are only comfortable with a God who speaks from a page. Let them be. To claim such a life makes you endlessly vulnerable before others, so, because you’ve caught me on a faithful day, I’ll go first:

My name is Spencer and I am a stigmatic.



Spencer Clark French is a poet and essayist hailing from the Midwest. He received his M.A.R. in Religion and Literature from Yale Divinity School and will begin his Ph.D. on the same topic at Notre Dame University in the fall. He currently resides in South Bend, Indiana. You can reach him here at his email:


What I Might Otherwise Call Joy

Congratulations to Christian Detisch, whose essay “What I Might Otherwise Call Joy” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2020 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.


Being born, in the sense of constantly experiencing change, does not come about as the result of external initiative, as is the case with the birth of the body, which takes place by chance. Such a birth occurs by choice. We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, moulding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.

—Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses


I was adopted from South Korea when I was three months old.

Notice, as I am, the passive voice of the sentence. In any creative writing workshop, like the ones in which three years of my Monday evenings from 7 to 9:40 pm were spent, the instructor and other interlocutors will offer commonplaces like, “Watch your ‘to be’ verbs,” and, “Be wary of the passive voice.” We are captivated by action, the thinking goes, in both our verbs and our characters. We don’t want to read about characters without agency, who are merely acted upon. Write in the active voice, you are taught, and you’ll have a story/poem/essay that moves, that makes things happen, that sells.

Revision. Active voice, snappier verbs: “My parents adopted me from South Korea after I had aged three months, like a mild cheddar cheese.”

Notice now, as I am, how my parents have been inserted as the agents of the sentence in my life’s first paragraph. My position in the grammar has shifted from subject to object, which is in a disturbingly true sense the exact dynamic of adoption reified in writing. No matter how the scene is rendered, active or passive, I’ve not yet learned to take ownership of it.


In the enormous three-ringed white binder my mother has kept and compiled for thirty years—named simply The Book of My Life—the second page contains the tourist brochures my parents received at the Long Beach Naval Station. It maps the tour route of the ship, the sixteen inch guns, the close-in weapons system, the vessel’s famed “Surrender Deck,” and also provides a timeline of the ship’s life. On the next page is taped a photograph, my father in his Navy dress whites grinning with a thin, unflattering mustache he no longer carries above his lip, standing next to my mother in a white blouse, her eyes obscured by her turtle frame sunglasses. She holds me in my lacy baptismal gown, handsewn, she told me later, by her grandmother. Her mother behind her darkly clad in a green velvety dress provides the only note of color, aside from the gray deck of the ship, the cerulean California sky in the background. This is the scene at my baptism: everyone smiling as I am initiated into the Roman Catholic Church on the forecastle of BB-63, the USS Missouri.


That I was baptized on a battleship did not appear to me strange until I was twenty-four, when I tried to write about it. I had determined at nineteen without any understanding of what it might require to become a poet, and for five years wrote increasingly abstract poems in a high Latinate register intended, I realize now, to affect the auspices of Catholicism’s formal clarities, the shape of its liturgical sentences, the strictness of its theological systems.

The problem was the life, my life, that remained unfelt behind the language, no warmth and little light emanating from the kindling. In short, I was making bad poems. In the final year of my MFA my teacher David reminded me that even Thomas Merton on occasion snuck out of his monastery, put on a beret to hide his tonsure, and drank in the local Kentucky bars. “Perhaps what would be helpful,” he drawled, leaning back in his office chair as his interlocked fingers rested on his belly, “is a sense of how personal and world history are not so different.”


I could never finish the poem.


I’ve felt for much of my life a connection with Moses as both adoptee and writer. And yet the relatively recent understanding that Moses himself did not write all of the Pentateuch— his biography—seems to me a basic if not intuitive fact. Adoption elides language. Perhaps for Moses too this was the case.


A brief timeline of the Missouri’s life:

6 Jan 1941, USS Missouri’s keel is laid at the New York Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn

11 Jun 1944, commissioned at the New York Naval Shipyard

14 Dec 1944, departs San Francisco for the Pacific theater

2 Sep 1945, Supreme Allied Commander General Douglas MacArthur receives the formal instrument of Surrender signed by the Japanese aboard Missouri, effectively ending hostilities in the war

15 Sep 1950, bombards Samchok in present-day South Korea, the first time Missouri fired her guns in anger since World War II

19 Jan 1988, Mighty Mo’s first western Pacific/Indian Ocean deployment where she operated 102 days continuously at sea

30 Jun 1989, Cher films the music video for “If I Could Turn Back Time” on the forecastle, featuring two hundred of the ship’s crew, scandalizing the Navy with the appearance of too much (or too little) black leather, a butterfly tattoo apparent on her posterior

13 Nov 1990, the Missouri sets out to fight in the Gulf War

Sometime between those two latter moments in her history, my family poses for a photo


“Think not of the machinery,” writes my friend Florian. “Allow yourself this liberty.” He’s speaking of and to the incorrigible knot I cannot unravel each time I try to work out a sentence or thought about adoption. My adoption. I’m surprised by how deeply and accurately he’s diagnosed the problem: always how my mind turns to the machinery, a machinery so immense in scale and significance—World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, capitalism, communism, imperialism, and the well-intentioned but perhaps naive aim of an entire infrastructure of social workers and lawmakers and the other mechanisms that made international adoption not just a possibility but a global phenomenon in the second half of the twentieth century—that my imagination out of necessity abstracts it all, far enough that I can dimly see; too far to touch.

But vision is not freedom. Moses understood. As he ascended Mount Nebo for his first and final look into Canaan, the meaning of all those forty years in the desert like glass from sand sharpened into clarity. The loneliness of the climb, the distance that grew between himself and his people, the unspoken, unsolvable, but undeniable awareness that he was destined never to enter, not fully, into the promised home of his family—none of this was new. Moses, in those last moments when God graced the man an instant to see into the life he could never feel was his own, died as he lived.


Before us, God has set both life and death.
The wilderness he wandered in, the knife
that slit the lamb’s pink throat—he assented life’s
demands, a slave to it, who he loved less
as he grew old. His one-time mother drew him, bare,
from the river’s arm. Egyptian, Hebrew:
who could he claim as his own? Red and blue,
the blood’s allegiance changes with the air.
An alien, he once took refuge in
the desert’s austere, miraged horizons
where shrouded in the sun’s exposure he could hide.
Mt. Nebo’s heights afford him no asylum.
His life: this gap between his and God’s own vision,
his promised home a specter in his eye.


Always the story begins, “Putting you up for adoption was an act of love,” as my parents tell it. In this way they testify more to their experience, or perhaps to their faith, than what I think of as the truth.

Revision: the story begins with an anonymous thirty-eight-year-old woman who works in a cafeteria in a seaport city in South Korea. She is divorced. She meets a man with whom she has a short relationship, more physical in character than anything, and not long after parting the first and perhaps last time from him discovers she is pregnant. The social and legal pressures of the country at the time make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for a single mother to raise a child, and so she explores, not without growing anxiety, her options until she finds an adoption agency created to place Korean children with families in the United States. The people are kind. They promise the child will be taken care of. They will protect the rights and the privacy of the woman. They are doing this, they say, because they believe as their motto states that every child deserves his own home. And so the woman is assured enough that she agrees to surrender the child immediately after birth at the hospital, where a social worker assigns him a first name that translates in English to “success.” The name given as his family name, the only shred of language he has to tie him to the woman, translates to “chapter,” as in a book. He often wonders (as he does now, writing these words) if the synchronicity of his name and his vocation as a writer was meant as a joke, a smirk, or a gift from God. Other times he wonders if the name he believes is his Korean family name is just a fabrication, a placeholder to get the paperwork done. Perhaps, like so much else, he never had a choice other than to be a writer. Or perhaps, like so much else, it’s something he stumbled on. The paperwork provides few answers, except for the woman’s recorded reason she gave the child up: “So that he might have a better life.”


As I looked at the well-dressed people nodding here and there and chatting with one another, I could not help but thank God for His mercy in having spared our land the horrors of war. Korea is another world from the one in which we live. Ours consisted of plush surroundings. Korea was a world of gutted buildings, shabby dwellings, starving children, lepers and amputees.

So writes Bertha Holt who with her husband Harry established Holt International Services, credited with starting international adoptions in South Korea. The two of them have just watched a documentary on the Korean War and its ensuing humanitarian crisis. “I feel ashamed,” says Harry, leaving the auditorium, whose feelings mirror Bertha’s own.

What’s not clear is the source of their shame.

Harry soon flies abroad to adopt eight Korean orphans. Meanwhile Bertha lobbies Congress to pass a law allowing Harry to return to the United States with the children. The bill and agency that bear their name created the structures necessary for the placement of thousands of children in new countries, in new homes, in new families who chose them.


Not shown in the documentary, twenty miles off the coast of Korea, out of the frame of the cameras focused on the starving children, the Missouri conjuring a man-made storm fires her cannons, obscured behind the white flash of gunpowder, shrouded in black smoke. Explosions from an unseen source gut the buildings.


I once thought providence for my parents was wholly uncomplicated. Should you ask my mother what my adoption meant to her she would say, “It was a gift from God.” Should you ask my father why he arranged to celebrate my baptism—my adoption into his faith—in the shadow of a famous battleship’s silent three-pronged cannons that enraged could shake the water with a wrath Poseidon’s trident itself could never summon, he would say, “I thought you’d appreciate the history.”

Perhaps closer to the truth is that like true spiritual descendants of the Holts, my parents—despite the first years of their marriage spent in India, my father’s twenty years in the Navy deployed variously to Japan, Guam, Korea, Singapore, etc.—are at ease in their lives and their imaginations as a result are trained on the world directly in front of them. Korea, they might say, is another world from the one in which we live.


Some time not long after I entered the United States via the San Francisco Airport, my grandmother mailed my mother a book, The Primal Wound, as both context and guide for my parents as much as for me. Feelings have memories, it read, even if a child can’t recall the events evoking them. And separation from the birth mother is a fundamental loss despite the child’s inability to access or express it. I once asked my mother if she had read the book when I found it some otherwise forgettable afternoon on one of the bookshelves at home. “No,” she said. “I was too busy living it,” in her own way endorsing exactly what the book proposed, even as she dismissed it.

This is perhaps the starkest difference between my mother and I. Despite the bags and bags and shelves and shelves of books, her books, puzzled and crannied into all the spare spots of the house—Dean Koontz, Stephen King, David Baldacci—what they signify  remain somehow outside of life. Though there were few limits on what I could read, and fewer still on how much my mother volunteered to read aloud to me, and no matter how much I was encouraged to oblige myself in the habit, reading as the moral act it became for me remained for my mother inert, an escape. “Life is hard enough,” she once said. “Why make it worse by reading something sad?”

Nearly everything I’ve discerned about my adoption has come second- or third-hand: via facsimiles of social work reports, via birth certificates and naturalization forms, via history books, photographs and brochures, the memory of my parents. As with most other forms of knowing, adoption is mediated. Literature as a result is life, or so it often feels; a feeling inaccessible to my mother. A blessing, perhaps: should she feel resistance to the narrative, she shuts the book. I translate my resistance as sadness disguised as gall.

I admit: I too am tired of thinking of and representing the content of my life through analogy, allegory, metaphor, anecdote. But how else to address any of this but obliquely?


Love is not always enough. Though I was deeply loved my whole life, it is not sufficient, for instance, to explain the vagaries of Fate or Grace, the machinery or hand who brought us—me—to where I am. And as a child, in my stormy, inarticulate rages inaugurated by God-knows-what, that’s what I believed I always wanted: understanding. What better tonic to a boy who felt at once unknowable and unknown, to his classmates let alone his family? Let alone himself?

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; and yet, when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Rather, I began to see as the adults I had aimed my anger at—which is to say, I learned the motivations for their actions and decisions were as inscrutable to them as to me. We see each other as we see ourselves, through a glass darkly. I imagine the impulse to start a family and raise a child is as powerful and incomprehensible as the desire to feel you’ve touched the scales toward justice even if it’s just one six pound, seven ounce baby at a time against the forty-thousand ton berth of guilt and shame displacing all the body-warm comfort from your soul, confronted for the first time with the suffering of an entire nation. And the wordless, inchoate recognition that somehow you played a part in this too.

If such insight does not induce in me the understanding I hoped for, it at least warrants compassion. For my parents, the pharaoh’s daughter, my birth mother, the Holts. And too for myself, who similarly knows not his own mind.


The first page in The Book of My Life holds a large photo of an elderly white-haired, gently smiling Bertha Holt accompanied by a letter she wrote, meant for me. Dear child, she says,

Welcome to your new family. I invite you to think of me as a member of your family too. I’m known as “Grandma Holt,” and I hope more than anything that one day you’ll come to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior.


Encountering the letter as I did years ago engendered in me all the old resentments: at the paternalism masquerading as kindly grandma talk, the imperialism masquerading as evangelism. But who would have believed? The name my parents gave me—my name—is Christian. Here I am, I thought, exactly who and what Bertha had hoped I would be, awake to and agitated by the strangeness of my own life’s narration. In response I adopted something of the USS Missouri’s own dormant anger, perhaps as soon as the aspersions of holy water dribbled onto my forehead.

Now berthed as a museum ship at Pearl Harbor while history as I imagine it sneers on, perhaps it’s too much to assume Missouri’s anger has diffused entirely into equanimity. Feelings have memories after all. But having sat for a long time unburdened from all the ammunition of her guns in the warm topaz waters of the Pacific, removed in both time and space from her bellicose youth with scores and scores of visitors each day reciting the facts and events of her life, in essence asserting on her behalf, this is what she did, this is who she is, this is what she meant to the world—one hopes that such distance provided her the perspective to make meaning, her meaning, on her own.

Vision is not freedom. And yet. I wonder if during that one miraculous pulse when he viewed the world through the totality of God’s perspective from the top of Mt. Nebo, Moses saw history finally as a blessing rather than a curse. Finally, if not a joke at his expense, then one God let him in on. I once thought my father’s decision to arrange my baptism on the USS Missouri was some dark uncanny joke worthy of Kafka or Camus, his simple justification for it some depthless, flip dismissal of history. But as I draw nearer the age my parents were when they first became parents, I wonder if time has deepened the remark, or me.

I decided to become a writer, insofar as I chose, because it demanded and made present  a certain attention to experience that seems uninhabitable to me elsewhere. So much of my life has felt veiled by a whole mess of feelings and presentiments, anger, sadness, loss, confusion, frustrations I thought I could never unstitch; writing hasn’t taught me how. “I thought you’d appreciate the history,” said my father, meaning, yes, the ship’s more fraught resonances with the past, my past; but also, perhaps, whatever it will come to mean, whatever it has come to mean in this wrestling with syntax and suggestion, word choice and thought as I’ve attempted to emend everything unreal in me into closer contact with honesty.

“Here I am,” says Moses at the beginning of his second life seeing for the first time the God he never recognized till then. I once thought everything Moses must have felt in that moment amounted to fear, freed for the first time from all defenses and illusions, left alone with himself, the memory of the past. But perhaps as the man encountered a reality so unbelievable that neither he nor any of his parents could have imagined it and he chose to speak at last exactly as he was, his “Here I am” out of trepidation bloomed into a feeling he carried and appealed to for the rest of his life: the abiding, surprising sense that what had been inflicted had now at last been chosen. A feeling that I might otherwise call joy.


Since Plants Are Asleep

Congratulations to Holly Huff, whose essay “Since Plants Are Asleep” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2019 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.

From a conversation I’ve forgotten with a friend whose face has blurred, I remember a single line. It was a warrant, the handrail from one point to the next. The steps have dissolved, but I have kept hold of that rail:

“Since plants are asleep—”

A bewildering assertion, but illuminating. Since plants are asleep, they must be alive, and in more than the biology class sense. I see the pothos vine on the sill, squared by morning windowlight. Though the eyes of its knowing are closed to me, its marbled green leaves and their waxy finish contain a knower, who sleeps. And dreams?

Since plants are asleep, the world is their dream. Or they live in this world only as they dream in another, like a collie who sleeps sprawled on hardwood with twitching feet, chasing wisps of rabbits.

How awake are the blue jays that root through the fading November grass? Saturday I saw four. Are fish awake? Do ants sleep? If wakefulness is consciousness, but plants are asleep, where do the rest of us fall? Have I ever yet said good morning?

I live and work in a church down the hill from my school, and each night I walk through that complex of buildings: a faded mansion joined by a cinder brick nursery school wing to the 1950s Swedish Lutheran sanctuary, whose bowed wooden ceiling looks like Noah’s ark hung out to dry. It leaks badly in the rain. In the fall, the wind from Whitney Avenue herds each passing leaf through the parking lot up to the entrance of the church. Invisible feet track them into the building and press them crumbling into the carpet. As caretaker I watch over the ‘leaf ministry,’ as Richard, head of facilities, calls it. Each night I rake the door clear again.

On my rounds I check lights and locks, check for trash. On Tuesdays I find plant clippings in the bins. Sue trims the houseplants that populate the Sunday school wing: viper’s bowstring, devil’s ivy, and dracaena crouching in drafty windows, and long ferns trailing from wicker stands. When certain vines spark fancy or pity, I pluck them from the trash and deposit them in glasses of water in my kitchen where they drift and dream and grow roots.

At the end of the night, I pause in the chapel to pray compline on my way out. “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”

Simone Weil said, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” Prayer is a training of perception and so any action can take on prayer. Ultimately prayer is to be not action itself but the quality of all action. “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” This side of Eden, prayerfulness is wakefulness.

Weil made it her practice to pray the Lord’s Prayer once each day with perfect attention. She began the discipline while working in a vineyard. “If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention.” Gathering her mind tightly to the form of those words, she entered into a silence that was “not an absence of sound” but a positive presence. “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

A priest I know told me about his yearly prayer retreat. Ten days of silence. This is how he keeps sane. Ten, because the first three days are spent sleeping. This is necessary, he told me. After this repose, he is ready to make the exercises.

I have been weary lately. During fall break I spent a day at Mercy by the Sea, the former novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy. This small complex of painted brick buildings grounded on Long Island Sound is now open to the public as a retreat center. I came with a spirit flattened under its own weight. My mind was the leaf bin: overflowing, pressed down too many times.

So I walked on sand and renounced all usefulness. I picked up stones that pleased me. I added shells and grasses to the shrines arranged by others who have passed there. The froth came in to salt my boots and I tripped and laughed on the water’s edge.

Back in the main hall, there is a room with rocking chairs and a view of the sea where no one may speak. In that relieving silence I stretched out my shoulder and read the Gospel of John. “I am the true vine. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

All that day there was no effort but the cessation of effort. Quite apart from my doing, an electric wakefulness started to flow through me. The wash of the waves rooted me back to the ground. This vitality was not dammed against pain but conductive. I closed the circuit with my body—better to keep both hands crackling on the main than let one slip. I laid in the grass by the labyrinth. I ate a fig sandwich and took a nap. And then it was easy to pray.

Paying attention is staying awake, but staying awake is no act of self-will. Attention doesn’t correspond to effort. We cannot keep watch even one hour.

I am grown weary of those who demand more effort for God. Try harder, be better, pray more! A delusional project of self-creation. We can’t save ourselves—we can hardly get up in the morning. “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer,” Henri Nouwen said.

Paul says prayer is what the Spirit does in all creation. Not we who pray, but the Spirit of God who prays in us. Every tree and stone groan and sway in the wind of prayer inarticulable. And since plants are asleep, they are always praying.

In Salt Lake, a neighbor I’d never met who was about to move gave me three spider plants. She entreated me to take good care of them: she had nursed them for four years and grown fond. Two lived in bottles of water. I took them and have since moved myself. In the new apartment, a large and happy spider plant, five times its original size, sits perched on a blue bookshelf. I had been there about a month when I looked up from my corner chair to see six tiny white teardrop blossoms extended from a plant I had only ever known to be green.

Nouwen again: “The paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift.”

For a time I lived under the California sun as a missionary. On the sidewalk, most people determinedly ignored us, but Maria had flagged us down from her motorized chair, brought us in, sat us on her grimy couch to hear about her back pain and asked us to walk her pit bull. One day as we approached her door we heard an awful moaning through the window screen. Maria’s spinal injury sent electric pain snaking through her legs and feet, and this morning she wailed and screamed, really, rocking back and forth in her chair. “Just leave,” she groaned—“It’s bad today.”

Her pain was too searing to abide. We left, our hair standing up. But before we had passed the laundromat, a pain in my side towed me to a halt. In the center of this affordable housing complex, there stood a small gritty cement fountain—a birdbath—brimming over with rare rainwater. The wind had blown dogwood blossoms into the basin, where they floated, bruised.

Hermana Howell and I lingered here a few minutes, and I prodded the petals suspended in the water. The flowers were striped by discolored veins; they wouldn’t last much longer. Behind us, through a chain-link fence, children shouted as they splashed in the pool. “We have to go back.”

Maria was weeping now. We let ourselves in. Obeying an instinctual gravity, I knelt at her feet. She talked a little, and we cried with her. Despite the impulse to be useful—we brought water, cleaned out the vacuum she couldn’t reach—we had no real offering but silence, and our witness to her pain. So passed the morning.

In Catholic devotion, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is revered as Our Lady of Sorrows, the Mater Dolorosa. She is often depicted with seven daggers piercing her heart, one for each of her seven great sorrows. It is said that she still weeps for the sins of the world and for the pain of her son. Though Christ be risen, Mary is in a sense not yet comforted.

Mary is the one whose flesh can bear the voltage of divinity. When the disciples fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, when Peter ran—Mary stayed, and kept awake. Rooted at the foot of the cross, she is the faithful witness, the model of Christian prayer. Mary tends pain, attends to pain, pays attention with tenacity and tenderness. Can she hold it? There is too much. With piercing focus Mary keeps vigil over the sufferings of the world, seeing always the suffering of Christ.

“Where is wisdom to be found?” Job cried. Humans have tried to find wisdom on our own, apart from God. There was once a tree whose fruit was desired to make one wise, and when they had eaten, their eyes were opened, they woke up, and they left the garden. The sin is in coming to consciousness outside the awareness of God. We want to will our own being. We know ourselves as separate. We fancy we are awake.

God’s wisdom contains sorrow, and we separated ourselves from that pain. But our separateness brings us pain, too. Severed from the energy that makes us, clipped from the vine, we are fading. Our faces have blurred.

St. Irenaeus wrote about the restoration of the image of God. Incarnation reimpresses the imago Dei into creation, rooting our wakefulness in God. Scott Cairns renders Irenaeus this way:

The tender flesh itself
will be found one day
—quite surprisingly—
to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full
capable of embracing
the searing energies of God.
Go figure. Fear not.

Christ stamps the face of God afresh. And so, wide awake, we can bear the pain we thought we could not bear, letting God lead our vision as though we were dreaming.

And at last I have remembered that I share a name with a plant. This isn’t the first time I’ve forgotten. Several summers ago I walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Under delicious dry heat I slowly stretched out my Spanish, remembering distant flashcards and learning to lisp my ‘z’s. The Camino winds through innumerable small villages whose proper names blended together. I walked through El Acebo and wondered idly what ‘acebo’ meant. I wasn’t paying attention. (Denise Levertov: “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.”) 50 km and three days later, as I passed through O Acebo, I remembered with a jolt that I knew that word. ‘Acebo’: holly tree.

A holly bush keeps watch just down the front steps from my second-floor apartment. It holds vigil over a large cross made of stones laid into the grass. A small fountain bubbles praises at irregular intervals. This is the “healing waters garden” at a church named for the pool of Bethesda, where angels troubled the water and the wounded lay waiting. The path to the preschool arcs through this small garden swatch. In the morning, children traipse through yawning; in the afternoon, they follow their parents home, ready to nap.

Martin Laird says, “Union with God is not something that needs to be acquired, but realized.” We are already in God. We need only remember.

Though the garden still sleeps in the peace of God, we cannot go back to sleep, nor should we. We must live in sharpest memory, as if we were dreaming. Awake the way plants are asleep, with total attention and no effort. Assenting to witness the shock of all things, we watch with Christ. We mourn, but we don’t fade. We rake away the leaves. We slip clippings back into their jars. And “whether we wake or whether we sleep, we are the Lord’s.” Even as we lie forgetful, absent, asleep on the hardwood, we remain always and already held, rooted in water.


Holly Huff is a writer by night, professional church lady by day. She enjoys hiking, doing puzzles, and improvising in the kitchen. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her dog Macrina, who is going through a teenage phase.

Searching for God in the ESC

Congratulations to Heather Burtman, whose essay “Searching for God in the ESC” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2018 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.

It was October and there were stars in the concrete jungle. You could kick a chip bag up with your shoe and scuff through plastic wrappers like fallen leaves, and it was almost like a perfect fall. Though we could not see them, the milkweed pods were spooning each other in the pastures and the seeds of silver dollar plants were sneaking into translucency. My roommates and I were all twenty-something and we believed things stubbornly one moment and doubted them the next. Everything was on the verge of nothingness or love. The apples were apocalyptic or else they were just apples.

The just apples I packed for lunch with a quarter cup of peanut butter in a lunch bag that smelled of leaked tomato soup. It was Thursday maybe, and running late per usual, I half-jogged the twenty minute stretch between the church where I lived and the homeless shelter where I worked. I passed by lemon and violet and gray houses, some peeling, others pristine. My focus blurred in and out: a bright blue slice of sky, a broken TV, a cracked flower pot spilling daisies, a cat with steel-colored eyes. I would sit in on my first depression screening at the shelter that day.

As I jogged, I thought about milk. Our fights back at the house seemed to start and end with milk these days. People drank too much milk – our grocery budget was exhausted. The women wanted to buy Greek yogurt, but that was a luxury item. Feta, on the other hand…

Our other pet argument was theology. Wasn’t open communion an abomination? Did the prayer really count if it didn’t come from the BCP? Or did the BCP actually invalidate prayer, make it rote and insincere? My roommates would discuss these things heatedly at community dinner over cheap cuts of chicken from Stop N Shop. As the night went on, knives would saw harder and voices would rise.

When the conversation promised to drag long into the night, I would clear my dishes and retreat to the attic. A pair of nuns used to live in that attic and there were still little wooden crosses hung on the wall keeping watch over our empty suitcases. One of the nuns’ names had been Ruby. She reportedly had had a drinking habit and definitely had a fierce stare which now looked out from us from a framed snapshot on our living room coffee table. “Welcome to the Episcopal Service Corps,” that scowl said. To Sister Ruby’s perpetual dismay, I was always late for Morning Prayer.

Our goals, as members of the ESC, were innocuous enough; most of us just trying to save the world in one way or another. Or else just trying to figure out what to do with another year of our lives and have a place to eat and sleep and grow up a little more slowly. Yet, the fact was that we often did not get along, and even the attic didn’t provide total escape. You could hear everything in that house, and the words would continue to drift up the stairs: liturgy, sacristy, thurifer, high church. Words that I couldn’t have argued about if I had tried. I had been baptized in a swimming pool at a Day’s Inn, for God’s Sake. I still didn’t know how to take communion properly, mostly because I wasn’t quite sure what the word, “intinct” meant. At the moment the most sacred word I knew was “alone.”


My first depression screening at the shelter felt voyeuristic at best, given that, as an intern, I had little to offer. The woman staying there with her four children wore her hair in a tight bun. She apologized for the mess and offered us glasses of water which we declined. We sat down, carefully arranging ourselves in a half circle around the woman, trying to make it look less like three on one.

The curtains were closed, and the light filtered in warm yellow. There was a jaundiced sadness to the stack of dishes that sat by the sink, especially the overturned sippy cup. Though very possibly I was just superimposing. “Do you have a support system?” The case manager began. “Are there people you can talk to? Do you feel alone?” The woman began to sob. I tried not to stare and also not to look like I was looking away. We should have agreed to the water, I thought. Though I quickly learned that this was a ritual: the client always offers water; the case manager always declines.

Afterwards I went home and a roommate, who was both very into the liturgy and experimental baking, had made a pie whose main ingredient was oranges. He offered me a piece; everything was the color of sunshine that day. I ate it and, though it was terrible, I thought then that I did not care about the milk, that maybe we should, in fact, buy more milk.

“What does a high church liturgy possibly have to say to a woman living in a homeless shelter?” I wanted to ask him.

“What does a low church liturgy possibly have to say to a woman living in a homeless shelter?” He might have asked me. But I didn’t start the conversation in the first place.

I choked down my pie and looked out the window. The leaves were falling, tarnished gold. Next month our church would spend a small fortune on wreaths and candles. Like the oil poured out on Jesus feet, they would say, there’s beauty in lavish waste. Maybe.

I had to laugh at myself a little. Just another day in the life of an ESC member; even the leaves prompted theological reflection.


Growing up my family attended a non-denominational church in Ontario called Shallow Lake. My memories of it are disjointed and fleeting: losing my Sunday school dues – a single quarter – down the sides of church pews; spitting watermelon seeds in the grass outside; the red glow of an oil lamp at a Christmas party. The day I picked a scab and showed up to Sunday School with dried blood on my shirt. My Sunday school teacher asked me if I had been eating chocolate ice cream, and I swallowed hard and said yes. That is, I agreed to the most comfortable deception. Is that all religion is? But even then I didn’t really think so. I remember also a woman at church who wore flowy pants and danced with a tambourine like she really meant it. And yet I might have been a happier child if I thought God hadn’t existed.

They say that our image of our father affects our image of God, but the fact is that my father left when I was two, and I never really knew him. I saw God as an opposite; as a hyper-presence, aware of my every action and thought, who knew, for example, that I loved my mother more than God. God, I also knew, was disappointed in my mother because she was getting divorced. God did not sanction divorces, even when they weren’t your fault.

But always remember, even when God is disappointed, God still loves you. I was often reminded of this. But I had nightmares that said otherwise: sharks grabbing at the edge of my red dress, wolves lurking along forest paths, the Jungle Book gone gray scale and filled with snakes and sharp-toothed monkeys. The worst one was my mother being crucified. I had that dream once. I would wake her in the middle of the night and she would draw me a bath and try to coax my nightmares out of me, but I never would tell her that one because it involved religion and God, and I thought it might scare her.

We lived near Georgian Bay and I can remember looking out at night over the bay as the lights of distant cottages winked out one by one. In the dregs of the last light, I felt terror for what became of people when they died. Lord Jesus, come into my heart. Those were the words of salvation I was taught and I whispered them to myself each night before I went to bed in hopes that one of the times it would take.

Even now I can’t fully explain why I was such an anxious child. Perhaps the simple fact of it is that when there is one parent and not two, life becomes harder to hide from your children. You see your mother having a panic attack on the stairs. You see her crying over receipts, kneeling to put frozen pot pies in the oven after a sledding accident and a busted ankle that will not heal. She has been crawling around on the floor for awhile now, but it doesn’t seem like a game anymore. You are small and you do not really understand, and there is nothing you can do to make her feel better.

More than that, there is no promise that life will ever be good really. God, the God your mother prays to, did not make it good for her. Why will God, the God you pray to, make it good for you? Your worship doesn’t change anything; you owe it to God, that’s all.

Like many, I became suspicious of the God of my childhood in college. I thought I had left the faith of my childhood completely behind by the end of my junior year. But still there was something I missed about looking at a cherry blossom tree and thinking it might have something to do with the way the world was brought forth in love.

Towards the end of college I became increasingly conscious of my continued search for God. I didn’t know what I believed. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to believe. I just wanted something. I might have gone on a cross-country road trip or a really long hike or a retreat at a monastery, but I didn’t. Instead, I started attending a Lutheran church, I worked at a Lutheran summer camp, and then joined the Episcopal Service Corps.


As the weather got warmer, my roommates and I started laying out on the section of tar paper roof outside my bedroom window. The roof was clearly visible from the rectory where the priest lived, but the lights were off which meant we were alright. It was just spring and the air wasn’t too sticky. We were looking up at the pine tree and above that the church steeple. Even above the church steeple was a sky, a hierarchy which I found increasingly important. A pollution of light streamed out of J.Crew and the Apple Store, and the stars wrinkled in the sky.

The church steeple was beautiful really, burnt, red brick. I didn’t care so much what happened inside it, but here from the outside it was beautiful. The pine tree was beautiful too and the smoky, polluted sky and the moonglow eyes of a cat slipping in and out of the courtyard gates. That night my mom called to tell me that our neighbor in Ontario had been diagnosed with cancer. His wife had passed away from cancer years before.

During dinner my roommates discussed the merits of Rite I versus Rite II Eucharist. I ate quickly, rinsed off my dish and retreated to the attic. I forced myself into conversation with God. “This is bullshit,” I began. That’s all I really had to say, but God didn’t respond and that made me angry.

“If You can’t provide answers, You should really just leave me alone,” I called after God, “You should have let me stay an atheist that one year in college. Your leading me on, it’s irresponsible. I’m tired of moral objectivity and holding onto hope for the redemption of humanity.” I began to cry.

In college, when I first stopped believing in God, I found the news increasingly oppressive, not because it had grown any worse but because there would be no one there to fix it all in the end. Because it would not have mattered that anyone had suffered. All suffering was in vain, and birth, life, and death cycled on endlessly, meaninglessly. Believing in God, however, does not necessarily produce more comforting answers. If human suffering exists, then God must allow it to. That fact is inescapable and troubling.

Trying to believe in God, it turns out, means a lot of time spent raging against God in attics. “Explain Yourself,” I said finally through my tears, but God never did. I began to sob, and when I finally stopped I found myself once again alone with my silence. That night in the shower I tried my best to wipe away the tar paper smudges on my thighs. The roof and the beautiful sky overhead from earlier that night felt like some sort of betrayal.


That year in the ESC, I found that there were certain parts of the liturgy that touched me deeply, and I thought they might have something to do with the somethingI was looking for. “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep, this night…” the choir sang during Compline. The single red candle we had placed on the pulpit flickered red. Smoke eddied along the dark ribs of the church ceiling. The smell of incense would cling to the clothes of the congregants long afterwards. It was a smell that was neither sour nor sweet, equal parts must and mystery. Vetiver, I thought. I had never smelled vetiver before, but the word seemed right. I would sit in a comforting haze of smoke and darkness and cry for the single mothers at the shelter.  Not just for them, but for my own mother too, and ultimately myself.

Compline I found beautiful at least, the way in which it created space for reflection, for grief or rejoicing or awe. But at morning mass a priest would be standing wearing green and gold-stitched vestments. “Pity the afflicted,” he would say as the stain-glass filtered the light through lemon and orange and rose-colored, and I wondered at what happened out in the real world, who sat weeping in their stairwell while we sat unblinking in church.

There was a special liturgy for the last Compline service of the year. A roommate and I were asked to be torches. I had no idea what that meant, but I agreed. What it meant was that we would be part of the procession, carrying torches at the sides of the bearer of the heavy, metal cross. There was a certain amount of sweating and nervous laughter whenever I was asked to take part in the actual liturgy; I didn’t know where to turn, when to bow. This time the church, except the candles and torches, was completely dark, and I imagined the congregation might have missed the slight delay in our bowing, the extra shuffle of our feet to compensate for a missed turn. But as it so happened, after we had finished processing, we couldn’t get the torches back in their stands properly. Whoever was holding the cross dropped it on the stone floor. The clang reverberated throughout the church.

I looked out at the dark church; how did they remain so silent? I looked up at the choir on the balcony, their faces illuminated by clip lights on their music stands. They were paid musicians I knew, many of them not religious. They were laughing, I could tell. I began to think about the fact that I was wearing a cassock. I had the sudden urge to stand up and proclaim to everyone in the church that I had been baptized in a hotel swimming pool on a college ministry retreat. “This is absurd!” I wanted to yell. “Don’t you see how absurd this all is?”


I want to be able to say that all of the years’ questionings finally folded themselves into something as graceful as a stiff lemon meringue. That after everything, I met God again in the ESC.

I think, quite possibly, that I did meet God once after a party. Maybe that seems strange, but my roommates and I did, in fact, go to parties. We would walk home from these parties in the middle of the night and someone would still be smoking hookah outside of Mamoun’s. It didn’t matter what sort of thing we had fought about that day; we would link arms. The sky would shimmer with cold and someone would murmur something about the stars.

I remember that on one of these long, cold walks home, a roommate who had perhaps earlier been expounding on the virtues of Lenten disciplines, turned to me very wistfully and said, “Some days, I’m not sure I believe in God at all.”

I am not sure what I replied then, but I can hear the whispered response I would give now in my head, “Me neither, but I want to.” I wonder sometimes if it’s like Harry Potter and the sorting hat, if it’s what we want that really matters the most in the end, if God factors that in. If hope might in the end stand in very neatly for faith. That night I truly think I met God in my roommate’s disbelief. Maybe disbelief is exactly where God meets us.

I think now about haggling theology over dinner, about a woman at the homeless shelter who applied for jobs over and over only to be rejected, about my mother crying in our stairwell, about myself crying in our attic. The way in which even baking a pie or taking a snapshot of the stars requires a level of belief, and therefore questioning of belief, that is ultimately exhausting. In the end we fall to our knees; we have tried so bitterly for so long. The only comfort I can think of lies in the slightest possibility that in the end nothing else is asked of us.


When we lived in Ontario by Georgian Bay, we also lived by a dam. The trout would come to jump it and swim back to their birthplace to spawn. They would grate themselves to pieces on the rocks, and we would find them dead and eyeless among the lower rocks. I remember the one time, just another bright, unplaceable summer day, that we found one alive. It was floundering in the small pools at the bottom of the falls, fins torn, chunks of flesh missing, gills shivering in the sunlight.

I watched, not old enough yet to be surprised by such an action, as my mother picked the fish up. It regarded her with eyes bulging and glittery with panic, and its fins flicked water across her chest. She carried that trout up and over the rocks and set it down in the calm, golden afternoon water at the top of the damn. The water stirred for a brief moment and the trout swam away home.

Be Thou My Vision Therapist

by Mary Barnett

Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the
eye of the heart whereby God may be

                                                                  Augustine, Sermon 88.5.5


I have glasses for seeing far, glasses for seeing close, glasses for seeing far and close at the same time as long as I look through the right place, contacts for looking good as long as I am absolutely positive I will not need to read anything, reading glasses to wear over the contacts for seeing close up which I can’t ever find because they are usually right here.

I take my glasses on and off constantly. For a while this summer, I had both a pair of reading glasses and sunglasses perched on my head. It sort of worked. I have a big head. This makes life complicated and reduces to separate categories things that should go together. I have developed the habit of shutting my eyes whenever I have a serious decision to make or something important to say to someone. It helps things merge. To see my children, I take my glasses off.

Disturbances in vision while disorienting, prod us to stop taking what we see for granted. When at age 40 I finally realized I wasn’t seeing what everyone else was seeing, I called the doctor. Then, being an Enlightenment creature, I began wondering how vision works in the first place.

We see what we expect to see, until we don’t. We can call the eye doctor (we aren’t seeing things) set up a consult with a psychiatrist (we are seeing things) or try to convince a religious professional, a time-travelling medieval saint or maybe that wild-eyed guy on the street corner, that we’ve had an actual vision. They will all agree at least on this: nobody is seeing exactly what everyone else is seeing.

Since our eyes are not the open windows on the outside world that we experience them to be: if I adjust the clarity and thickness of the panes that I am looking through; if I go out and buy a better pair of glasses, will I finally see what’s really going on out there?

Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan monk illuminates the alternative orthodoxy of the mystic tradition. “Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) wrote that humanity was given three different sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first eye was the eye of flesh (the senses), the second was the eye of reason (meditation or intellectual reflection), and the third eye was the eye of true understanding (contemplation). Third-eye seeing is the way mystics see. They do not reject the first eye; the senses matter to them. Nor do they reject the second eye; but they know not to confuse knowledge with depth or mere correct information with the transformation of consciousness itself.”

I eat this stuff up. The italics are mine. But wait a minute, I have two eyes and it turns out even they don’t agree with each other.

Many of my visual frailties are age-related. If you don’t have them, you will. But like my mother and several cousins, I was also born with a mild strabismus. My eyes were slightly crossed. One floated up while the other wandered in. Occasionally they met above my nose and then swam lazily back to their proper posts, facing front. My parents waited for things to straighten themselves out and when they didn’t, they took me, at age 3, to the best eye surgeon in Boston.

Dr. Gunderson wasn’t like Dr. Allen, the pediatrician I saw yearly, who understood the general purpose of doctors appointments: reassuring parents, getting measurements, giving shots. Dr. Gunderson talked to my mother politely but only really warmed up when he asked her about me and they’d speak quietly for a few moments, as if I were an important and serious and somewhat delicate subject and then he’d turn and smile at me so broadly and look so deeply into my eyes that I knew they and I were miraculous and beautiful. My perspective was essential even though my eyes didn’t work right. The way he looked at me, I knew I was really there. The surgery was successful although like much in the late 50’s, the specifics were under-discussed. I launched into life post-surgery with a lingering suspicion that they had messed with other parts of me while they were in there, under the hood so to speak. I appreciated Freud when I got around to him in college.

Nonetheless, I was fine. I merely started nursery school half a year late and wore a black eye patch for a while to strengthen the eye whose muscles had been shortened or tightened or lengthened or whatever it was they did to them. But it wasn’t until I was an adult, and I read “Stereo Sue” by Oliver Sacks in the June 2006 issue of The New Yorker, that I realized that I actually see differently, out of only one eye at a time and they switch back and forth. So I was over 40 years old when I found out that I don’t see depth, I just think I do. Up until then, my illusions had worked just fine.

I’ve had clues. I remember the stereoscopic glasses we put on in fourth grade to look at a wavy photo of a giant millipede. Everyone screamed and in the excitement, I did too. All those little legs! But I finally realized why their screams had that…edge. To me, the bug looked
exactly the same with the glasses off.

It’s a minor disability. Depth perception apparently varies a lot, even within normal ranges. What can this possibly mean? If you experience the millipede projecting up from the page 1.7 inches and someone else perceives the height as a mere .75 inches, what is in the space in between? Is awareness of dimensionality a complex aspect of personality, like intelligence or verve? (Of course, I think, remembering the blockhead who cut me off this morning.) But wait a minute. I’ve got depth. Why can’t I see it?

Our two eyes have slightly different vantage points on the world, strategically located 2.5 inches apart, in most adults. We see to the far left with our left eye and up to 90 degrees to the right with our right. Our eye placement is adaptive, giving us a wide horizontal visual field. We can scan the plains. Watch for tigers in the trees. Merge into traffic. If one eye is impaled by a tree branch or dislodged by a 120 mph tennis serve at Wimbledon, we have a handy spare. Having two slightly different angles on the world has another surprising advantage. Try this and see. Line your fingers up one in front of the other. Now imagine you are a tiger and the front finger is a tree with a rabbit hiding behind it. Shut one eye and the back finger pops into view. (Dinner!)

The triangular area directly in front of our eyes however is shared territory. Our brain receives the images from each eye and fuses them, relying on their similarity and their disparity to generate the sensation of depth. This is the miracle of convergence and I know it’s a miracle because I can’t do it. Depth perception in the sagittal plane separates foreground from background, tree from forest, chameleon from camouflage. It is for catching prey and threading needles or looking (deeply) into someone else’s eyes. Most salient however is the fact that depth perception is embodied. It’s a sensation. It confirms not just what we see but where we feel we are.

When the disparity between the two images from our two eyes is too great however (e.g. when the eyes don’t line up properly or one eye sees better than another) the brain can’t deal with the discrepancy and suppresses one of the images. The eyes alternate, turning on and off in succession although this all happens below the level of consciousness. As a result, depth is deduced following secondary clues (shading, position, motion parallax) instead of perceived. This unconscious maneuvering reminds me of the Clapper, that gadget (for turning lights on and off without getting up from your chair) that used to be only available only on TV. Clap on. Clap off. No need to engage with the switch. No way to see how awareness operates. How unconscious decisions are being made. In a case like this, the first step toward perceiving depth is disorientation. It’s seeing double.

Frustrating and demoralizing as this sometimes is, I’m beginning to see my slight handicap as an unexpected gift. I’ve become aware of what I can’t see and am looking for it. Twice. But effort is only half the battle. To see depth I need to practice religiously the eye stretching exercises my vision therapist has given me. I also need to let go of what I’ve seen before.

Our eyes are not windows. Our vision is not instantaneous or “natural” but unconsciously
processed and projected. An image of the world is developed in our head. And then we walk into it.

Born in 1955 and raised Unitarian in an upper middle class family in Providence RI, I learned that being smart mattered. Your brain was your angle. Your genes were your foundation. In the great grey First Unitarian Church on Benefit Street we learned that Jesus was a great guy, a really great guy in fact, on a par with the Buddha or Krishna or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, all equally Holiday worthy, but not the Son of God. Believing Jesus was the Son of God would mean that you believed you possessed a truth that was not culture bound and relative. This was dumb. No one was chosen except maybe by history or the membership committee of the golf club. My parents fought for causes, eventually left the country club and protected the environment before it was fashionable. There is a brook on our family property in Massachusetts that is one of the few places left in New England where sea brown trout, the salters John Adams fished for, still swim upstream to spawn. In the early 1970’s, my parents convinced the surrounding landowners to protect the land with stringent conservation restrictions. They didn’t see Jesus but they saw trout. They believed in the importance of a future they weren’t in and they didn’t need a resurrection to feel connected to it.

My brother once asked my Boston-centric Brahmin maiden aunt if Unitarians were in fact actually Christian. Aunt Hopie lay propped up in the chaise lounge from which she lived her mysteriously handicapped life on a powerful horizontal. At my brother Jamie’s question, however she sat up. Her eyes glowed a coastal blue. “Of course we’re Christian,” she said. “The real kind.”

Christian mystic, Richard Rohr refers to all brands of religious certainty as dual-consciousness thinking (on/off, either/or instead of both/and), regardless of its theological complexity, political correctness or inclusive values. It doesn’t matter how right our opinions are. “Either-or thinking gives one a false sense of control.” “The small mind works by comparison and judgment; the great mind works by synthesizing and suffering with alternative truths. The ego cannot stand this suffering, and that is exactly why it is so hard for many religious people to grow up.”

Clap on. Clap off. I know I have depth but can I really believe that you do too?

St. Julian of Norwich (c.1342-c.1416), a medieval mystic, had a radical experience of depth within the confines of her anchoress’s cell, in spite of severely restricted vision. The book she wrote Revelations of Divine Love is a classic text of Christian spirituality, the first text in English written by a woman. What she “saw” however still makes many religiously secure people nervous. Can her radical perceptions really be orthodox? It’s a good question. Julian reported seeing beyond the small reality of hell into the greater mystery of God’s merciful love. She saw that sin was necessary or “behovely” rather than merely a limitation. She saw that “all would be well and all manner of things will be well.” She saw Christ as a mother. She saw God as a womb in which we are endlessly being born and out of whom we will never come.

My transformative experience of depth happened in a Friendly’s.

I stopped transfixed in the doorway. Something was different. The waitresses and the booths had receded. A great gulf had opened up. Even my shoes seemed farther away. White block letters launched themselves from the back of the sign above the counter. VANILLA CHOCOLATE PISTACHIO. The expanse of space between me and the ice cream counter was not a nothing, not a lack of something; not a spiritual placeholder for a more material reality, like my address or a desk. It was the actual room I inhabited which also inhabited me. I was marinating in this glorious viscous substance which, now that I became aware of it, took an effort to cross. I had a choice.

True stereopsis, writes researcher Dhanraj Vishwanath in a current issue of “Psychological Review” is the vivid impression of tangible form, immersive space and the compelling sensation of being able to act upon it.

The slim necklace of trim on the back of leatherette banquette. The waitress’s apparent sadness. My feet inside my shoes. The child in the next booth kicking the back of my seat. Everyone matters. We aren’t in a movie.

In other words, depth isn’t just something that happens out there but is also the internal space that opens inside us, creating a visceral sense of the really real.

“The perceptual quality that we hold so dearly as giving us a grasp on reality” continues Vishwanath “is an entirely phenomenal construct-with no external referent.”

Woops, I guess I was wrong. We are in a movie. But we are simultaneously shooting it.

I panic. (Clap on.) Since our vision is manufactured and processed, since our experience of reality is hopelessly tainted with ourselves does this mean that what we see out there is not objectively and verifiably real?

Argh, says my husband, are you just figuring this out? That other people have other points of view? (Clap off.)

I persist. I believe in God and posit something that is not relative; that doesn’t depend on my seeing Him clearly. God as Trinity renders God in three dimensions: height, width, depth; a space I go into rather than an opinion I have. I take my glasses off.

“Theology, says theologian Karl Barth “knows the light which is intrinsically perfect and reveals everything in a flash. Yet, it knows it only in the prism of this act, which however radically it may be understood, is still a human act.”

I open my eyes and go in search of another imperfect pair of glasses.

My new vision therapist has recently added prisms to my prescription to train my eye muscles to relax, to make them let go of how they are used to working so my brain can let go of how it is used to seeing. Augustine recommends something similar in Psalmos 99.5: you must “prepare the means of seeing what you love before you try to see it.” It occurs to me then that to experience God I need a pair of glasses big enough for my whole body. What I really want is a prism suit! I shut my eyes and realize that is exactly what I already have.

For years, anatomists trying to understand the secrets of the body have cut away at the connective tissue that holds our organs in a sticky white web. They scrape away at the fascia to get at what they think is the meat. Meanwhile, a teacher of mine coaches people with spinal cord injuries to apprehend with a different perceptual system. They are learning to try to curl and uncurl their toes. The results though small are not imperceptible. Apparently what was considered useless, what was cut away and discarded, is intelligent beyond our current capacity to understand it. There’s a milky way of intelligence imbedded beneath our skins. When we narrow our bodies, we narrow our world.

“The spiritual wisdom of divine union is first beautifully expressed in Sanskrit in the Vedas (the oldest Hindu text, around three thousand years old) as a ‘grand pronouncement’: Tat Tvam Asi” writes Richard Rohr. “This phrase contains condensed wisdom that could likely be translated in the following ways:

YOU are That!
You ARE what you seek!
THOU art That!
THAT you are!
You are IT!”

Or as Plotinus said, “We are what we desire and what we look at.”

“My body is pin-hole camera, taking snap shots of God which I can’t develop by myself,” I say, scrambling an egg.

Wow, that’s deep, says my husband, unimpressed.

The worm thinks it strange and foolish that man does not eat his books, says Tagore.

Practicing my religion makes me more aware of the all the prisms I look through: my culture, my faith tradition, my assumptions, my numerous pairs of glasses, my naked eyes. I am full of blind spots. Ultimate reality remains hidden behind a veil. Christianity is just another pair of glasses; the kind with prisms in them like my new vision therapist has given me; but that might actually work. Somehow these new potentially cheesy, glory-hallelujah, bargain-rate, Christian glasses bring my body into focus, not just my little eyes or my little pea brain. I see the enormity of the space between me and other people. I’m immersed in it. The world doesn’t impinge on me anymore. It is miles away. We are miles away from each other.

Calvin, that quintessential reformed theologian, quotes the medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux in one of his famous Institutes, reminding me that contrary to the popular imagination, the Protestant tradition is not devoid of mystical imaginings.

“Bernard neatly compares to faithless servants the proud who claim even the slightest thing for their own merits because they wrongly retain the credit for grace that passes through them, as if a wall should say that it gave birth to a sunbeam that it received through a window.”

That’s it, I think, that’s it. I’m here to catch the light. Otherwise it would just keep going. I am the wall!

I am the walrus, says my husband.

This universe dwarfs me way beyond my capacity to imagine it. This makes me feel oddly necessary. It is so much more likely I would never have been here at all.

Meister Eckhart (1290-1327) put it this way in one of his Sermons, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

In the Oliver Sack’s New Yorker article, Susan Barry describes an instance of binocular vision that is revelatory. Stepping out into a snowfall, she experiences being within the world instead of observing it. “Before the snow would have appeared in a flat sheet, on a plane slightly in front of me. But now I felt myself within the snowfall, among the snowflakes. I was overcome with a deep sense of joy. A snowfall can be beautiful, especially when you see it for the first time.”

Several months ago, I was walking by my church in downtown New Haven. I passed a man 20 feet away, lying on the ground. He was badly rumpled. He looked like he might smell. Often men lie on the ground around our church, sleeping off a bender. It was a busy street in the shopping district near Yale, mid-winter, the middle of the day. Many people were passing him by, confirming my assessment of what I was seeing. Now, this isn’t a Christian or a Christmas story about how I suddenly became a good Samaritan. I am not. If I knew for sure what I was seeing I probably would have kept going. But for a split second my mind stopped. I thought: maybe this is not what I think it is. Maybe this is not someone who wants to be left alone. As I was straining to pull him up off the ice, his daughter came running out of Lord and Taylor and took his other arm.




Mary Barnett is a choreographer and dancer who gradually became more interested in moving words around on a page than in telling dancers what to do.  Her choreography has been performed at Jacob’s Pillow Inside Out Festival, the DIA Art Center, the Cunningham Studio, DTW and the Vineyard Theater in NYC and throughout New England. She established In Good Company and curated a quarterly performance series called Dancing Out Loud in New Haven for 15 years. Currently, she is a student at Yale Divinity School and in the ordination process for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in CT. Her different interests are inspired by the same impulse: to make space, what is invisible, come alive and give testimony. Her work has been published in Tin HouseCommonwealChristian Century and now Letters. She lives in Branford, CT with her husband, three perfect children and two difficult cats.