Sunday, April 24, 2011

Quo Vadis?

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1601-02In honor of the Easter holiday, I thought I would share some thoughts from the poet and classics scholar Anne Carson on Catholicism, spirituality, and God, which she gave in an interview with The Paris Review in 2002. As is the case with all such thoughts, hers are deeply personal, but I find them thought-provoking and interesting, as I do all of Ms Carson's work. I have rarely encountered someone treating the subject of spiritual doubt quite so faithfully.

Read it and judge for yourself:
INTERVIEWER

Is Catholicism a way out of self for you?

CARSON

No, quite the reverse. I don’t think I’m ever so resigned to myself as when I’m in church trying to understand why I’m in church. Sitting there thinking about my mother and all the times we sat together in church. The only good memory I have of it is leaning up against her fake fur coat during Mass. I remember the smell of that coat, how comforting that was on a cold winter day. But, no, it’s not a way out of self at all, it’s a way back into some self that I’m not sure is a good version, but which seems to be embedded or necessary.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as being particularly devout?

CARSON

No. I think of myself as being particularly baffled on the one hand, by the whole question of God and the relation of humans to God, but also, possibly because of lots of empty spaces in my life, open to exploring what that might mean. I have open spaces where I put that question and just see what happens. Going to church is one such space, though I don’t go with any expectation of fulfillment or illumination. I just go because I have gone, and my mother went and her mother went and there’s something there that happens to all of us. A kind of thinking takes place there that doesn’t take place anywhere else. No matter how unattractive the service—and nowadays the mass is rather unattractive in its modern translation—no matter how brainless the sermon, there is a space in which nothing else is happening so that thinking about God or about the question of God can happen. So I go there and let it happen. Nothing changes, I don’t become wise about this, I don’t become ethically better or more interesting. I’m just the same person, I’m that person with this space open and I do think that for me, in this life, that’s as far as I’m going to get with spirituality.

INTERVIEWER

So there’s not really a doctrinaire side to it.

CARSON

I wouldn’t say the doctrinaire side of Catholicism, for example, makes much sense to me in its details or its history. So, no, I don’t look to Catholic thinking as a guide to my life, how to live my life, but I do think it’s some aspect of being human to engage the question of gods and that engagement requires space and time. It’s a historical accident that I was brought up Catholic by my mother and that she was by her mother. So this tradition that carries us is just an accidental vessel. I could have been a Muslim and been equally confused, I’m sure.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as having a relationship with God?

CARSON

No. But that’s not bad. I think in the last few years since I’ve been working on this opera and reading a lot of mystics, especially Simone Weil, I’ve come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t. So, sad fact, but get used to it, because nothing else is going to happen.

INTERVIEWER

He’s not available because he chooses to remove himself or he’s not available because he doesn’t exist?

CARSON

Neither. He’s not available because he’s not a being of a kind that would fit into our availability. “Not knowable” as the mystics would say. And knowing is what a worshipper wants to get from God, the sense of being in an exchange of knowledge, knowing and being known. It’s what anybody wants from any relationship of love and the relationship with God is supposed to be one of love. But I don’t think any kind of knowing is ever going to materialize between humans and gods.

INTERVIEWER

Is it stymied because of the nature of the beast?

CARSON

Yes, because of the difference of the two orders. If God were knowable, why would we believe in him?

— Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88


Peace be with you.


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